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I clicked on an email link this week, not expecting that it would contain video of a house being torn down. It was the house that my grandparents had lived in.
A huge excavator swatted its claw and made it into nothing — the shelf in the kitchen where Nana hid the treats in the black canister. The drawer where Pops kept his metal comb. The screen door that slammed shut on our heels. The light under which we’d join in a circle — aunts, baby cousins, sneaky hand-squeezers — around a table full of food, waiting patiently in silence while the tears choked my grandpa’s voice after only a few words. He was overcome by grace. Every time.
I had this sudden memory, watching the excavator take bites of out the kitchen roof, of a sign that my mom had made and framed for my grandma to hang on the wall. It said, “They also serve who only stand and wait,” a line from a John Milton poem, and she gave it to Nana during the months that my grandfather was dying. I was in my early teens at the time, which was not a time in my life when standing around and waiting felt like faithfulness. My life, then, was about achieving and pursuing and discovering. So I didn’t really get it. But it seemed to mean something to both my mom and to her mom.
But I’ve thought of that sign a few times as I’ve gotten a little older.
I thought of it as I sat snuggled with an old, smelly dog on the couch a week past the baby’s due date, my belly unthinkably huge, and all the energy I could muster was focused on sulking that the email subscription which had been sending me updates on the vegetable-size of the baby was now giving tips on the latching and diaper changing I was longing for, and I just want to know if it was a Napa Cabbage or just a really huge butternut squash. “They also serve who only stand and wait.”
I thought of it as I gazed absently at daytime TV next to strangers at the hospital, watching them knitting frantically and then removing rows and rows and rows and starting again, texting my brother meaningless updates. “Still waiting for the doctor, but I’m sure everything’s fine!” “They also serve who only stand and wait.”
As I’m picking the kids up from school and seeing my Principal husband’s purposeful stride across the parking lot, the “I mean business” one, walkie talkie to his mouth, and can tell something critical is happening — maybe even a crisis — but it will not be at all helped by my curiosity or assistance. “They also serve who only stand and wait.”
I’m past the part of my life that’s so replete with possibility, where every experience is a window into a possible future, where every choice is viable and meaningful and full of promise. I’m old enough now to understand that not everything is possible. That I’m not the main character in every story. That much of life, actually, is standing and watching while someone else does the work, saves the day, suffers the consequences, finds a solution, takes their time, or chokes up during their prayer. So much of life, actually, is waiting. It’s passive. It’s powerless. It’s small.
Advent is the part of the year when we learn this lesson — how holy it is to be small. How important it is to be without power. How powerful it is to stand and wait. Advent is where we train for that later part of life when we’re wise enough to understand that everything is not possible. That I am not always called to save and fix and help and change, but sometimes I’m called simply to wait, to watch, to see what unfolds apart from my will or strength or agency.
This is the deep, wise lesson of Advent that maybe the Nanas of the world are the ones who can teach. Maybe it’s a deep wisdom that the mothers of our faith know best — women who were never been permitted to cast themselves as the protagonists of the story, to whom it never occurred to seek the role of the saver, fixer, hero. There is, of course, so much sadness wrapped up in this lesson — the unrealized potential, the contributions never offered, the brilliant ideas never spoken, the fullness of life that wasn’t lived because of their femaleness.
And as with all things in God’s upside-down kingdom, something beautiful and important still emerges. There’s a wisdom that comes from this kind of life, one that we desperately need today. And one that perhaps can only be taught by the ones who have been forced to remain small. Who have not had to unlearn the arrogance of individualism, or struggle with the idol of isolationism, or chip away at the nagging sin of pride — because they’ve always been attending to someone other than themselves.
“They also serve who only stand and wait,” I remembered, as I watched pink insulation peek through the pile of rubble that had once been the wall that held that sign. That had once been the kitchen sink, the clothesline, the glowing-red light that warmed the bathroom during bubblebath time. That had once been a place of ordinary welcome, of patient waiting, of a everyday faithfulness. An Advent calling to smallness. The faithfulness of making room for someone else, for something else, to emerge.