The church has waited long
Her absent Lord to see.

Absence is the issue. You’ve been absent for a long time, and we’ve been waiting and waiting. I know we’re supposed to see you in the beauty of the lilies and in the stranger’s face and all that. The statues, the paintings, they give a little comfort. But it’s not the same. Lately I’ve been feeling a lot of emptiness. Deus absconditus. This darkness is evidently nothing new, seeing as there’s a Latin name for it. Where are you?  

Age after age has gone
Sun after sun has set.

We pray to you, we hear stories about you, we read and read your puzzling words. Sometimes we feel “a presence.” This is the time of year when we’re all supposed to pretend that you’ve arrived and wish each other peace and joy, comfort and hope. I’m sorry, but I can’t seem to manufacture any cheer. The tinsel and the rituals do nothing for me. I think of the days and ages passing, all our yesterdays and tomorrows creeping in this petty pace, signifying nothing.  

The serpent’s brood increase,
The powers of hell grow bold.

The problem is, it seems to be getting worse down here. Have you noticed? Are you even paying attention? The wrong seems oft so strong, and you’re supposed to be our ruler yet. We exclaim your lordship in church to the accompaniment of organs and trumpets. We reassure each other in hushed tones that you are still in control—especially when some senseless tragedy happens. But what difference does it make? Looks to me as if the devil is winning. The devil has people calling right wrong and wrong right, and no one can convince them otherwise.    

The conflict thickens, faith is low,
And love is waxing cold.

And you know who’s the worst? The people who claim your name, that’s who. I show up in church, but in my heart, I’m fleeing to the arms of the pagans. You know why? Because they’re the ones calling a spade a spade these days. They’re the ones who long for justice, do the work of repair, fight for what’s right, care for those on the margins. Your people are supposed to model humility and bear the cross, but instead they’re obsessed with power, licking it up, bowing down to it. I’m embarrassed and ashamed. Of course, we’ve seen this in other places and times. Why do you let this keep happening?

We long to hear thy voice,
To see thee face to face.

Why don’t you just come and fix things? Prince of peace, the government shall be upon your shoulders, risen with healing in your wings, king this and sovereign that. Let’s see it, shall we? All this slow and small behind the scenes stuff: it’s not enough! What we need right now is a recognizable superhero, the kind who sweeps in and actually gets the job done in a few hours of screen time. We are never going to rescue ourselves, even equipped with faith, hope, and love or whatever. Even guided and comforted by some mysterious and unseen Spirit. We need decisive action. How about it?   

The whole creation groans
And waits to hear that voice
That shall restore her comeliness
And make her wastes rejoice.

You realize we’re wrecking the earth. This beautiful earth, in all its resilience and variety, this wonder you created with your divine wisdom, your cosmic voice—we’re blasting and blighting it. We greedy little dirt-beasts, we fools who arrogantly imagine ourselves to be gods. Even the ones who see what’s happening, even when they all join together in mighty protest, can barely budge the forces of destruction, or at least it seems so. Where are you?  

Come Lord and wipe away
The curse, the sin, the stain,
And make this blighted world of ours
Thine own fair world again.

I don’t know what to do. No matter how hard I ache and strain toward peace and healing, no matter how I long for you to come and judge with righteousness and equity, I can’t get any traction. I pray and sing and go through the motions, many of us do. We devise our little programs and projects. We plod on day to day, nourished by “glimpses.” But until you come, we dwell helplessly in the curse. We’re all of us so tired.

I know you like to work with nothing, against the odds, by surprise. I bet Mary expected her life to pass in unremarkable obscurity right up until the very moment you sent an angel and announced the tide was turning. I bet the shepherds figured the great machinations of history would pass on by, far above their unwashed heads, until the very second the heavenly hosts appeared—suddenly, as we like to say.

Well, then. That’s just the place I’m in: a weary lack of expectation.

Come, then, Lord Jesus, come.
Come, then, Lord Jesus.
Come, then, Lord Jesus, come.
Come, come, come.

“The Church Has Waited Long.” Words by Horatius Bonar (1808-1889). First published in 1845. Tune by Kenny Hutson and Katy Bowser. Arranged by Steven Rodriguez with harmonies by Philip Rienstra. Sung by Lauren Figueroa and Philip Rienstra, accompanied by Rachel Klompmaker on piano and Kristen Zoetewey on flute, along with the congregation of Church of the Servant CRC, Grand Rapids, Michigan (2018).

Debra Rienstra

I am a writer, professor, amateur musician, science fiction fan, and lifelong member of the Reformed Christian tribe. For my day job, I teach early British literature and creative writing at Calvin University, where I have been on the faculty for over twenty years and still need to pedal fast to keep (mostly) ahead of smart, feisty undergraduates. I have published three books, over two hundred essays for The Twelve, and numerous articles, poems, and reviews in popular and scholarly contexts. I have a B.A. from the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Rutgers. My husband and I have three grown children.

21 Comments

  • Lynn Setsma says:

    How wonderfully you capture what so many of us are feeling. Thank you, Debra.

  • Thank you, Debra. This was an early Christmas gift.

  • Jean Scott says:

    You have written what I am feeling. It’s hard o know what to do in this world today with evil coming right and right becoming evil. Thank you for your words.

  • Henry Ottens says:

    Thanks for bravely going on record with holiday feelings most of are reluctant to admit to. You make a strong case. Regarding the paragraph beginning with “And you know who’s the worst?,” I feel you might have selected a narrower brush. The picture you paint is not pretty, but neither is it dismal. There are plenty of “your people” who are doing precisely what you accuse them of not doing.

    • You have a point Henry. Yet, it was reformed Christians in rural Iowa that reelected Steve King, one of the most racist representatives in our US Congress. It is reformed Christians who support Betsy DeVos & her attempted dismantling of public education that is accessible for our poor. It is reformed Christians who refuse to let our professors send their children to schools outside of our tribe (aka – the public schools). We are guilty of so very much, and we have largely refused to have ears to hear what the Spirit has been saying to us for decades — all while our people accumulate wealth at an astounding rate… come quickly Lord Jesus. Come quickly.

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    Oh, that you would rend the heavens. Amen and amen.

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    “I’m fleeing to the arms of pagans”

    -That sounds like the title of a old-school style hymn/dirge to which someone around here should write music and lyrics. It would be very popular, maybe even a theme song…

    I’m fleeing to the arms of Pagans
    There just isn’t anything else to do
    My whole world is crumbling
    And these other Christians don’t have a clue.

    The end is near for Mother Earth
    Everything is aflamed
    The church lot is full of SUV’s
    I’m embarrassed and ashamed

    Our churches and schools are dwindling
    I’m feeling like a loner
    Perhaps the reason is
    We’re still singing Horatius Bonar

  • Jane Vroon says:

    Thank you, Deb for this blog. I too felt it was a gift. It opened the door for a time of lament and worship for me this morning as I read and listened. Isn’t this what we all are really looking for this Advent season?

  • As one who was nurtured by the CRC, who spent every school grade in Christian schools, who found my way to Calvin & eventually the seminary, I am still at a loss. I feel betrayed by the tribe that raised me and led me to seek righteousness for my life and my family.

    Yet, the voices of wealth and power largely remain the public voices of the tradition that breastfed me. Somewhere, we got lost. The money and power of our wealthiest went unchecked. The naming of buildings on college campuses went from missionaries who spent their lives declaring the kingdom of God to wealthy donors. We should have seen that something had gone astray. And yet, there was always a cause that needed funding…

    Come quickly Lord Jesus. I fear that I will soon lose my way.

  • Jim Payton says:

    This touched me deeply — a cry of vigorously faithful lament, calling on the Lord to show himself, to act, to return as he promised … to fulfill all the advent promises and hopes. You’ve expressed what so many of us feel, deep in our bones and weary hearts. Thank you for this stunning advent gift.

  • John R Sr Kleinheksel says:

    Nice goin’ Deb!
    and Bonar!? I’d like to hear it.
    read this in the Times today: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/13/opinion/sunday/christianity-inequality.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage
    Good directions for young, new, evangelicals. John

  • Judie Zoerhof says:

    This is so good! I’ve felt this and I’m so happy you have the strength, wisdom and talent to put it in words so succinctly.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Deb, for the Christmas dirge. Sounds like something I might write but get criticized for. You’ve already had several applauds.

    Maybe Christians are trusting a Christian legend that is more exaggeration than truth. Christians believe in Christ’s resurrection and soon return. That’s part of the Christian hope. But the Jews (who also were present) discount any such resurrection, as well as those of Muslim belief. The Muslims give high praise to Jesus, but not as God, nor as having been raised from the dead. And of course the Bible teaches that Jesus was raised from the dead and into heaven where he reigns in God’s power and strength over the world and the church. But there is little or no evidence of such reign other than the world continuing on the same trajectory as it always has. And a soon return of Jesus? Of course, Christians have their own explanation of soon. So where’s the evidence of a resurrection? As I said, perhaps Christians are buying into a legend that is more exaggeration than truth. And that has to bring the kind of disappointment, despair, and false hope that you speak of in your article. Perhaps a more realistic expectation will lead to a more genuine joy for the season. Thanks, Deb, for sharing your thoughts.

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    If you are lamenting the relenting to wealth and power in the church, a worthy lament, you may also lament that the church is no different than the world.
    https://flip.it/J-z_mF
    An article about Yale, the wealthy, powerful, naming rights, and young people who protest the grasp of the powerful.
    There is hope, if cloaked in the secular intermingled with the gospel.

  • Tim Van Deelen says:

    Thank you Debra. These are the sorts of things I suppress for fear of confronting the anger and sadness.

  • KevinW says:

    “…We’re all of us so tired…”

    A modern day Psalm?

    Thank you

  • Henry Baron says:

    I, too, Debra, join your chorus of lament in this Advent season. My Faith is fraying. Yet I Hope that the Father who sent his Son is listening, and understands. And that our Love will not flag nor cease.

  • Nate Johnson says:

    Thanks as always Debra for the timely lament

  • Dan Winiarski says:

    Debra, what actions are you wanting Christians to take, in order to bring about the results you want to see in the world?

  • Marchiene Rienstra says:

    Deb, I am lamenting with you! I have often thought just what you so eloquently articulated. Maybe the Second Coming is not to be taken as a literal historical event, but a metaphor for inner transformation or ?????? Something I am pondering this Advent.
    Maybe the too many Christians who have seemingly sold out to “The Powers that Be” and betrayed the Gospel do so because deep down, they too despair, and so choose to follow the path of worldly riches and political power, because nothing else seems to work for them. Those of us who choose not to go that route have the difficult task of trying to figure out what would be a better one that would give us the hope and faith and strength and wisdom we need to face all you described, and more. Thank you for your prophetic words and honest words.

  • Claudia says:

    Thank you, Deb – I can still hear the song echoing in my memory. I have the same lament, the same impatience.

    I can’t put my hands on my copy of her book (I’m Still Here) as I write this, but I have been both moved and chastened by the writing of Austen Channing Brown, who wrote about hope – both giving it up, and finding remnants. In one chapter she wrote about enslaved folks in the early-1800’s – generations before them were enslaved, generations after them would be enslaved. They were ones who saw no progress – no movement toward liberation, generation after generation after generation. I think about them SO often – they have a lot to teach us.

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