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

I could observe here the traditional Christian pastime of complaining how we tend to skip over Advent and move straight from turkey feasts to tinsel and shopping and cookies with sprinkles. But you know what? Go right ahead. You go on and hang your wreaths and be ye merry. I’ll just settle into a gloomy Advent mood and be sad by myself.

Is lonely melancholy a fitting mood for Advent? Part of the genius of the church year is the way the seasonal cycle gathers our various spiritual moods, distributing them across a structure of story, reflection, and song. We are supposed to feel triumphant at Easter, on fire for the Lord at Pentecost, repentant during Lent. In this way, the liturgical year wisely validates and even forms the faithful in a range of feeling—we learn orthopathy as well as orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

I propose that Advent is the time when we are allowed—even encouraged—to be honest about our disappointment, our sadness, our cynicism. We soberly mark the vast distance between God’s redemptive purposes, the promises and visions held out for us to cherish, and the state of the world as it is. And we ask why. What are you waiting for, God? How long?

For me, it’s the waste of it all. That’s what irks me. People do stupid, wicked things, like invade Ukraine. What a waste of lives, what a waste of resources! Think of all the effort expended on hand-wringing and diplomacy and all-out fighting trying to respond to this wickedness—all that energy that could have been spent moving the world toward peace and justice. Or people do ignorant things, like tossing baseless accusations at teachers and arguing about banning books. Or people who are both foolish and insanely powerful leave wreckage wherever they go, like a certain billionaire who has decided to break Twitter and unleash the snarling hyenas of misinformation. Or people whose hearts are so clouded with power and wealth they endanger us all by protecting fossil fuel interests when we could be making desperately needed shifts to a more sustainable way of life. Which means that many millions of people are compelled to spend their time and energy and love fighting against what people should have the decency not to do in the first place. It’s all such a waste.

And then there’s religious infighting. People turning the zeal of their righteousness into scapegoating, petty coups, campaigns to control others. Go ahead and add up all the hours spent on attending hastily called meetings and drawing up documents and holding listening sessions and lying awake and anxious in the middle of the night. What a waste.

Or bring it close to home. The way siblings spend the few precious hours when the whole family is gathered bickering and reheating stale conflicts. Or those inexplicable griefs: young people spending their twenties battling depression rather than fulfilling their many potentials, grandparents who die too early of cancer and leave their grandchildren bereft, enormously gifted people stymied by poverty or racism or family dysfunction. So much waste.

All the conflicts and troubles and miseries of history. Sometimes it seems as if it’s all waste, wall to wall and beginning to end. I don’t know how God puts up with it. Why do you let it go on and on and on, God? Poignance? Free will? Some kind of vast, cosmic aesthetic that only you can perceive?

So here in Advent, we take a moment to wake up, look around, and grieve that we live in the wasteland.

We are about to hear again the stories of angels and shepherds, a pondering young woman and a miraculous baby. The inbreaking of the Word of God into this weary cosmos. And we are supposed to be reassured. “We bring good news of great joy,” the angels declare, but of course it’s hard to trust good news. We’ve been around long enough to know that good news always comes with footnotes, asterisks, expiration dates. Wouldn’t it be amazing to receive good news that actually sticks the landing and won’t be compromised or reversed or eroded by the next bad thing?

As if in response to that objection, Advent offers a preventive assurance: God has come, and yes, OK, fair enough, we are still in the wasteland. But Emmanuel will come again, and then it will all be over. No more crying, no more tears, no more battles petty or sweeping, no more waste. Be ready.

Christmas will come, and Epiphany, and the rest, and back to Advent again. And again. The older I get and the more these liturgical cycles unspool through my life with their repeated stories and intoned promises and familiar songs, the more abstract that end-time vision becomes. Thank you for that vision of Christ’s triumphant return, truly, but chances are good I will live out my life in the waiting. So that’s what feels tangible to me now, that in-between.   

I suppose, then, I have to settle in. I suppose I have to say that God is present in the waste, that God works through the waste. That maybe the waste is not all waste to God, but compost. God the recycler, God the salvager. Maybe my lonely melancholy brews, after all, from a holy longing. But that longing need not be lonely; it can become clarifying, revealing, binding—a communion.  

Advent has a way of clearing out the sentiment and nonsense and easy answers so that we can perceive a more severe truth. That expert on wastelands, T.S. Eliot, understood what it felt like to persevere amid mysteries and sorrows none of us can ever fully understand. This line—not from “The Wasteland” but from his Four Quartets—sums up Eliot’s conclusion: “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”

Here in this Advent wasteland, all I can do is keep trying. Keep looking for signs of God’s continued inbreaking that flare all around me, for those pillars of fire and smoke. I can find the voices crying out in the wilderness, the people who are far more patient with never-ending battles than I am, and I can persevere alongside them, sharing our gifts both of strength and weariness. I can look to the resilience of life itself, to the patience of trees dormant for winter but preparing their spring buds. I can receive the daily bread, just enough, and try to trust that more will come tomorrow.

There will be time later to dwell in the abundance of God, in the joy of feasting and goodness. For now I wait, and long, and try, and look for signs.

Epigraph from “Come, Then, Lord Jesus, Come” by Horatius Bonar.

Debra Rienstra

I am a writer and literature professor, teaching early British literature and creative writing at Calvin University, where I have been on the faculty since 1996. Born and bred in the Reformed tradition, I’ve been unable to resist writing four books about theological topics: beware the writer doing theology without a license. Besides the books, I’ve written well over two hundred essays for The Twelve as well as 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. I am married to Rev. Ron Rienstra, and together we have three grown children. Besides reading and writing, I love classical music, science fiction, fussing in the yard, hiking, and teaching myself useful skills like plant identification and—maybe someday—drywall repair.

17 Comments

  • RZ says:

    Quite brilliant Deb, especially the concept of God’s compost! All that injustice and wasted energy and misguided zeal can and WILL be recycled into something good. Thanks for this Romans 8:28 reframe! Patience may be God’s most under-appreciated attribute.
    RZ

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    You said it.

  • Nancy VandenBerg says:

    I echo RZ’s comment!
    Now we wait and trust a patient God.

  • Nancy says:

    “Let nothing be wasted.” John 6:12b
    This is the verse that came to mind as I read the post on waste, wasting. God, and Jesus, do not waste anything. We are the ones wasting as you so poignantly wrote. Lots to think about in this post. Compost did resonate with me, as I see it did with others.

  • Jim says:

    My sermon for the season. Many thanks.

  • Tom Boogaart says:

    I often struggle to express what faith means to me in this moment, to know what to say to others who are slip/sliding away. Your continuum: lonely melancholy…holy longing…communion resonates deeply and comforts me (and others like me, I hope) that I still belong.

  • Mark Stephenson says:

    Thank you, Deb. You articulated what I’m feeling.

  • Dave Koetje says:

    So well stated!

  • Claudia Beversluis says:

    Amen – and thanks for these fortifying words.

  • Daniel Robert Miller says:

    Amen.

  • Art Tuls says:

    Thanks for articulating my mood these days. Maybe it’s a stretch, but in your bio sketch
    you speak of (maybe) “drywall repair,” and I thought that fits in here, too. It even brings a
    small smile as I shake my head, where doubts live on.

  • Joanna says:

    I love your writing style. This is so powerful. And timely. And very, very poignant. I will be sharing it as an extraordinary insight into everything human. I’m grateful that the Word made flesh gives us the cyclical experience of transformation over and over, again and again.

  • These words go straight to my heart and feel like a balm for my soul. When there are others who share your sadness and world-weariness it decreases the pain. Thank you for writing against the grain; it is what we need to hear.

  • Jan Hoffman says:

    Amazing.
    Debra, I’m sorry we don’t live near one another, I’d like to listen to you explain this. This is so NOT what my Advent is nor has been. I don’t understand 13 comments that are so in agreement and appreciation. Just had to register my “What??”

  • Tony Diekema says:

    Thanks for this, Debra…………it’s powerful “stuff”, and perplexingly profound. I find your citing of Eliot’s counsel somewhat comforting, and cherish the relevance of his conclusion: “For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.” Maybe.

  • Karl VanDyke says:

    A minister friend of mine once described the waiting during Advent as barely controlled expectation. He used the image of a little boy, maybe 2, who is excited by trucks. He stands at the window and when he hears a truck he stands on tiptoes in excitement and says, “TUCK, TUCK!!

    That is the level of excitement we should have regarding Advent. I want this to be a time of excitement. We know Christ will return, and I yearn for that with the faith that comes from knowing Jesus came already,

    I read this essay and know why my kids don’t understand church this time of year. How can I bring my unbelieving neighbor to church when I hear: “Advent in the Wasteland”, “I’ll just settle into a gloomy advent mood and be sad by myself”, “Be honest about our disappointments, our sadness, our cynicism.”

    Is despair a gift of the spirit I missed? Look at the church year; 4 weeks before Christmas is sad advent, you just read a summary, 40 days of Lent are sad days, what did you give up?, and we celebrate one day of Christmas, and one day of Easter, Pentecost doesn’t fire anyone up I know. 68 sad days, 2 happy days, the math is easy. Where is the Joy of Jesus?

    I think I know why evangelism fails. I weep at the church’s wasteland of missed opportunities.

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