Advent reading adapted from chapter 1 of Kester Brewin’s The Complex Christ:
When it appears things are not working, we seek change. This is true in political systems, in educational approaches, in economic systems, true in our own lives, and even, perhaps in the church.
…But before the Church can change, before I can change, before anything changes, comes waiting.
A pause. A rest.
This is nature’s way, decreeing as she does that movement from one direction to another cannot happen instantaneously: a zero time-span to divide the period of change would compute an infinite acceleration, requiring an infinite Force through the product of our Masses. We would be broken by it.
So against our hasty judgment, and in God’s scientific wisdom, before we can experience the transformation that is going to be vital to our survival, we will be required to wait. To be acted on gently, gracefully and peacefully. Shaped, not crushed; guided, not dragged.
We would like change now, with immediate effect. A miracle solution. A new program that will sort everything out and make everything OK straightaway. A new meeting structure. A new building. A new method of contemplation. A course that will propel us from one place to the next in no time. We’d like to be there now, no fuss or hassle or journey or responsibility or pain.
Yet genuine change cannot be about haste. It must involve the depths of us, and must have something of us in it. We must realize that if we are going to see real, long-lasting change, then it is going to take time, going to be a lifelong quest.
Our history, both ancient and modern, has been transfixed by the idea of revolution, of radical change precipitated quickly, requiring an uprising, an insurgence, a head of pressure and a focusing of force: demonstrations, coups d’etat, armed struggles, wars and regime changes.
Chairman Mao wrote that ‘a revolution is not a dinner party. It cannot be so leisurely and gentle… It is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.”
Napoleon said that ‘the strength of a revolutionary army should be evaluated as in mechanics, by its mass multiplied by its speed.’
Through all their blood and violence many of our politicians even today seem still to believe that these revolutions bring genuine transformation.
We seek instant ‘change’ in our personal lives as well: instant diets, instant parental solutions, instant wealth through this or that investment strategy; whatever it is we seek we assume that there is ‘an app for that’.
Yet it is abundantly clear that materially, politically, psychologically and spiritually, violent, instant change tends to shear, to break the whole as one surface part moves and leaves the rest of the body behind unaltered.
There is evidence that intense change of this rapid and violent sort is actually not good for us: in other words, for our own health, we need change to occur not at revolutionary speeds or at the pace of a quick download, but at the evolutionary speeds of the empowered human body.
If we are to transform the whole, and truly alter the very nature of things for good, then the mode of change cannot be revolution, but evolution. A gradual development over a long period of time.
The slowness of evolution certainly has a divine beauty about it with its gentle, unseen transformation so hard to plot yet so undeniable in its force. We would like change with immediate effect – we want revolution – but God’s ways are not our ways, and God’s thoughts are higher than ours. We have projected our revolutionary tendencies onto God, yet perhaps ours is not a God of violent uprising, but of slow, slow evolution.
Since forever, and until whenever, those who have sought to change God’s way have had to endure a prefix of ….
As Sarah waited – 90 years for a son to fulfill God’s promise,
So we wait in hope for what has been spoken to us.
As Moses waited – 40 years in the desert
We wait for emptiness and humility
As the Prophets waited – 1000s of years of salvation promises
We wait for signs of presence
As Mary waited – 9 months of her 14 years for the child of God
We feel the birth-pains, yet fear for the child
As John the Baptist waited – scanning the crowds for knowing eyes
We long for an experience of the Divine
As Christ waited – an eternity, and then 30 years of creeping time,
40 days in the throes of temptation
3 years in the midst of misunderstanding
3 days in the depths of hell…
So now, we wait.
Our turn to toil on leveling mountains and straightening paths.
Our turn to watch time’s horizon.
Our turn to trust and hope that he who has promised is faithful, and will return.
Before the world can change, before the church can change, before I can change – before any change, we must wait.
In the midst of our busyness, our black Fridays, our over-booked schedules we must listen for the one who whispers, ‘Behold, I am doing a new thing. Do you not perceive it?’
Only if I am still. Only if I have stopped what I was doing to listen and hold my breath and enter some spiritual apnea and wait.
We fear that if we stopped for a week, a month, a service, a moment, we might be forgotten, or lose our momentum, weaken our profile, appear ill-thought-out and failing. So we feed the ecclesiastical furnaces our burnt-out wrecks: tired leaders, disillusioned ministers, fatigued congregations – marshalling them to dance longer, march faster, pray harder, cry louder in earnest for God to come, come, COME and batter our hearts into change.
We must be brave enough to stop if we are to see change.
So the truly free, the brave who truly seek God, will always have periods, commas, full stops, punctuation marks, pregnant pauses, breves and semi-breves of silence where those around them are given the freedom to walk; given space to deconstruct structures, to re-imagine and rethink. Blue-sky thinking cannot happen while we rush around under thunderclouds of busyness. ‘We must bear fruit’, Christ tells us. But outside our genetically modified, globalized supermarkets, fruit trees only bear fruit once a year, and then their branches are stripped of leaves in the cold winter of advent.
It is difficult to write about waiting; we turn from Malachi to Matthew without a thought. But perhaps between the testaments God symbolically stopped, brought down the curtain on another act as he had done with the Flood, with 40 years in the desert and with the exile in 587 BC.
We read from Matthew 1:24 (Joseph took Mary as his wife as the angel said) to Matthew 1:25 (she gave birth to a son) with no pause for breath, when perhaps we should also symbolically stop, hold our breath, and consider the unwritten wait – Mary’s nine months of pregnancy, skipped over. How did she feel? Excluded? Rejected? Shunned? Frightened? Excited? We simply do not know.
All we do know is that she descended the small peak of her simple girlhood into the valley and clouds of unknowing, the mystery of her faith apparent in her certainty of the higher peaks she could not yet see.
Perhaps we should insert blank pages between these unpaginated moments, pages we would have to turn so that our thoughts might turn too and consider these punctuation marks, where God stops and waits before birthing something new.
No matter how impatient we get as a society, with processing speeds rising and our whole cultural velocity increasing ever faster, we cannot speed up pregnancy. We still have to wait the same patient nine months that Mary did, not knowing, not seeing, not being able to hurry things along. In this advent that we find ourselves in, between the church that was and the church that will be, and the world that was and the world that will be, we must exercise patience. We must descend into the cloud of unknowing. We must stop and wait.
In a Church and society so enamored with power and action, the act of doing nothing and being forced to wait is anathema, but it is essential.
Somewhere between the freedom of being able to do nothing, and the pretence of having to do something, is the sort of mysterious waiting of the saints and the prophets – a combination of catharsis and contemplation, of clearing the decks for the new, while being content to exist in the unknowing.
As we wait for the kingdom to break through again now, we are not called to inaction, to do nothing but lie back and wait for glory.
But neither are we called to frenzied activity, which will leave no space for newness to be sown and grown.
We must have the courage to stop.
To prepare the ground for the new, and wait.
Kester Brewin is a teacher in the UK, and a writer on issues of theology, education, and various other issues. Follow his blog here: issues. in code.