Christmas always begins with anticipation. As a child, what I anticipated first was not Christmas but the big annual Sears-Roebuck catalog. When it arrived, my sister and I would turn straight to the toy section and start circling all the things we wished Santa would bring us. During the weeks leading up to the Big Day, we’d revisit that catalog, refining our wishes and dreaming of the day when at least some of what we wished for would be waiting under the tree.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent, when the church starts doing what the commercial world has been doing for weeks: getting ready for Christmas. For many people who pay faithful homage to the consumer Christmas tradition, this is the time of preparation for disappointment and depression. For many, Christmas never quite measures up to the promise. The bright fantasies of the season quickly disappear under winter’s descending darkness, and news that “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Isa. 9:2a) can seem like a cruel mockery.
For all of my life that I can remember, I’ve celebrated Christmas, and for a third of a century as a pastor I’ve led the parade. Every year the plot is the same, and the script varies only a little. “For a child has been born for us,” the story begins, “a son given to us; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. He will establish and uphold [the throne of David] with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore” (Isa. 9:6-7 sel.).
And every year there are wars and rumors of wars, so many during my years that I can’t count them. Every year our buying supports an economic system in which the wealthy ignore the poor at their door; the powerful continue their institutional injustice against the powerless; minorities in our midst have to strain against an oppressive culture of racism and white privilege. The list goes on, perpetually renewed in each day’s news.
In the movie The Natural, Robert Redford plays Roy Hobbs, a promising young baseball player who leaves his small Midwestern town for the big leagues. On his way, he is shot by a psychotic killer and drops out of baseball for sixteen years before making another try. Eventually he meets up with his hometown fiancée, played by Glenn Close. Over dinner she asks him, “What happened to you, Roy?” Redford fidgets, glances out the window, and after an uncomfortable silence says, “Life just didn’t turn out like I expected.”
Sometimes – most of the time – life doesn’t turn out like we expected. I look at a childhood photo taken when I was ten, and I try in vain to imagine what expectations of life that young boy had. Where were those expectations met? Where were they disappointed? Where they were left along the way, will they ever be recovered? It’s idle speculation, of course, and of little importance today. What count are my expectations of life today. Will they be met or disappointed, or transformed by the life I’m living?
What count today, according to the gospel of Christ, are the expectations of people like Michael Brown, the black teenager who was fatally shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, last August in an incident precipitated by a simple jaywalking violation. What did Michael expect out of life? What dreams – his or those of others – ended during ninety seconds on that August afternoon?
What really count, if we can imagine them, are God’s expectations, or life’s expectations – of me, of Michael Brown and Officer Darren Wilson, of you or anyone who wrestles with something, we know not what, in the darkness of this life.
Consider Mary and Elizabeth, both unexpectedly pregnant (Luke 1:5-45): young Mary, whose expectations of life surely took a sudden detour when she became pregnant before her marriage, and old Elizabeth, whose expectations of life were disappointed when advancing age left her childless. Were they toys of a fickle God or simply and deeply out-of-touch with God’s expectations for their lives?
Perhaps God’s expectations of us are not the haloed things we imagine; perhaps they are closer to the earth and truer to our hearts. In her book Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor writes about the Incarnation, “While I am looking for something large, bright, and unmistakably holy, God slips something small, dark, and apparently negligible in my pocket. How many other treasures have I walked right by because they did not meet my standards?”
Expectations are tricky and distracting, and maybe that’s why our expectations of Christmas can elude us in a life that is often dark and disappointing. Maybe God’s expectations and ours are fulfilled precisely in “small, dark, and apparently negligible” ways. Maybe those expectations are open to fulfillment in situations we think couldn’t possibly be filled with God’s grace.
Two weeks after Michael Brown died, a writer on Bill Moyers & Company (billmoyers.com) identified some important, transforming discussions that are emerging as we take a step back and take stock of what’s happening there. Here is part of his list of discussions we need to continue.
“1. Ferguson is part of a long history of racial discrimination. The shooting of Michael Brown may have been the spark that ignited a powder keg, but the protests were in response to a legacy of racial injustice in St. Louis’s segregated suburbs, and, more broadly, in America on the whole.” This may be a difficult and divine opportunity to move close to our best expectations of life.
“2. A militarized police force is a scary thing. [Among the police blunders that day] was the over-the-top and ham-handed show of military might by the mostly white officers in a majority black town.” According to one veteran, Ferguson police were reportedly better armed than were soldiers in the Iraq War, and they “used confrontational tactics that the military is trained to avoid when attempting to de-escalate a protest.” The Ferguson incident may be a divine opportunity to move toward an equitable redistribution of power in peacefully addressing society’s problems.
“3. Do we talk about race or do we talk about class? Race is a key factor, but the unrest in Ferguson is also a window into America’s class conflict, argues Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the retired basketball legend, in Time Magazine. He writes that framing Brown’s death and the protests that followed as a racial struggle will start a series of debates that are less relevant than the one we should be having: How the majority can reclaim democracy from the rich who hold the reins.” Perhaps this is another divine opportunity to usher in the year of the Lord’s favor.
Other discussions also grow out of Michael Brown’s death, discussions rooted in experiences that seem to us to disappoint God’s expectations but may in fact be opportunities to welcome the fulfillment of God’s expectations. They are similar to smaller opportunities we can experience in our own lives. “A power failure makes us aware of what a gift electricity is; a sprained ankle lets us appreciate walking as a gift; a sleepless night [can help us appreciate the blessing of] sleep. How much we are missing in life by noticing gifts only when we are suddenly deprived of them.”*
Everything God gives us is filled with God’s expectation, pregnant with divine possibilities. The hard and blessed work of realizing those expectations and bringing those divine possibilities to birth is ours. In what ways might God be surprising us in difficult circumstances today? And how might I, how might you, be God’s response to someone else’s highest and best expectations in life?
* Brother David Steindl-Rast, quoted by whiskeyriver.blogspot.ca, 27 November 2014.