I lamented my lack of preparation for the season. I longed for answers. I wished for a different experience of waiting. I hoped for 2011 to be wrapped and ribboned and placed under my spiritual tree with an explanatory card from God.
(There is still time, God! Gifts accepted through Epiphany.)
On the fourth Sunday of Advent, I did the Old Testament reading in our church’s service. The passage was Isaiah 40:1-11, familiar to me to me as a lifelong Christian and habitual listener of Handel’s Messiah. Yet as I read it over the night before, I managed to escape familiarity and habit and the formality of Biblical language and slip into a different hearing.
The beginning of the passage’s message was nothing new to me (and I’m paraphrasing here):
Everything is going to be okay; it already is.
God’s power is immense. Make way for that.
It’s what comes next that I never paid much attention or took in as my own—you know, the bit about people being like grass, withering and fading, etc.
I mean, who wants to think about that? Not me. Not as a modern American, who has been ingrained with the importance of the self, whose life’s work is all about making meaning out of the complex connections between people and exploring why ordinary life matters.
And especially not since I embarked on this little phase of life I’ve been thinking of as my “midlife quandary,” the clock of my life ticking loudly in my head to remind me that time will run out well before I Do It All and Perfectly.
A voice said, “Shout!”
I asked, “What should I shout?”
Shout that people are like the grass.
Their beauty fades as quickly as the flowers in the field.
Personally, I never really got where that fit into a chapter that starts with the word “comfort.” It actually sounded a lot like what I used to see on bumper stickers and t-shirts in the eighties: “Life’s a bitch, and then you die.”
This year, maybe because of that ticking clock, and because of my questions and unknowns and struggling with a chronic disease and being tired of striving so hard to figure it all out, those verses sounded a lot less like a doomy kind of warning or a dismissal of human lives, and a lot more like an extraordinary proclamation of good news.
There is God, and then there is me. I’m not God. And God’s not me. And thank God for that.
(Maybe you all are way ahead of me on this.)
Me? Briefly occupying the earth. With a life full of all kinds of beauty, yes—yes—but that beauty is fleeting, and that’s how it’s meant to be.
God? Permanent. Sovereign. Large and in charge. And, verse 11 says, also a tender shepherd, carrying his little, transient lambs close to his everlasting heart.
As a recovering perfectionist and anxiety-prone person with co-dependent leanings who once (like, last week) believed she had to do it all, these differences between me and God are sounding better and better.
Shout, and do not be afraid.
Tell the towns of Judah, “Your God is coming!”
And it’s not you.
In fact, the whole rest of Isaiah 40 could be read as a list of Ways You Are Not God, In Case You’re Still Unclear on That.
Joy to the world, the pressure is off.
This God, who has measured off the heavens with his fingers and held the oceans in his hands, has given us these messy and confusing lives. And also likens these messy, confusing lives to beautiful flowers. He came into the mess in a messy, confusing way, and left a confusing mess behind, and that was all exactly as he planned it.
Believing that, I can live my messy, confusing, fleeting life in total freedom. I can look back at this last year and let it be the imperfect mess that it was. I can look into next year and have no clue about what will happen next, and not try to make myself into God by writing up a thousand-item to-do list for 2012.
Because God is God, and he is with me, who is only me.
That is my comfort. That is the light I’ve been waiting for this Advent, and it brightens a little more every day.
Image above is by Susanne Nilsson, licensed by Creative Commons.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.