Once upon a time, there was a black Friday shopper. She was glad to get out of the house late on thanksgiving evening. “Where’s the turkey, dad? I want mashed potatoes and gravy!” Her kids pouted and she sighed that afternoon when her husband put the hamburger casserole on the table. Now she headed out to the store to find some bargains on Christmas gifts. It wasn’t hard to know what to get for the kids – after all, they had spent the last month polishing up their lists for Santa. Her 4 year old son coveted not just any bike with training wheels, but a bike splashed with “Cars 2” decals. Her teenage daughter “only” wanted an iphone. but said she’d settle for some new art supplies. The shopper pulled into the one open parking spot in the back of the lot and glanced at her watch. Still another hour to wait, and look at that line already!
As she got out of the car, the shopper realized that in front of the locked doors of the store, about a dozen protesters stood in quiet vigil. They carried signs with slogans like “no more corporate greed” and “we are the 99%”. One sign, in particular, caught her eye. White with blue letters. It read: “Occupy Advent!” Curious, she approached the man with the sign. “Hi there, I’m Elizabeth. What’s your name?”
“Isaiah” he replied, sticking out his hand for her to shake.
“OK, Isaiah, I know what Advent is – at church it’s what we call the weeks before Christmas. But what does that have to do with the “Occupy” movement?”
“Well,” Isaiah replied, “the Occupy movement is trying to reclaim the wealth of this country for the good of all, right? I’m representing the biblical prophet’s union. We’ve decided join this movement by reclaiming the real meaning of Advent.
“Watching and waiting. It’s that simple”
“Waiting?” scoffed Elizabeth, “I’m with Dr. Suess! ‘The waiting place is a most useless place…for people just waiting!” Waiting for the fish to bite or waiting for wind to fly a kite or waiting around for Friday night or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake or a pot to boil, or a Better Break or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants or a wig with curls or Another Chance. Everyone is just waiting.’” (from Oh the Places You’ll Go)
“Wow,” Isaiah laughed. You’ve got that down!”
“Yup, my four year old has requested Oh the Places You’ll Go every night for the last 2 weeks! But seriously, Isaiah, what’s the use of waiting? My husband lost his job. We’re living on our credit cards. Today we had hamburger casserole for Thanksgiving dinner. Waiting for him to find another job just makes me feel helpless and out of control. And here I am getting out the plastic again—we have to have Christmas gifts this year!”
“That sounds like a tough place to be, I’m sorry.”
“What about you, Mr. Isaiah?” “What are you waiting for?” Isaiah closed his eyes and winced.
“What’s wrong? Are you OK?”
“I’m OK, it’s just very painful, this waiting. Sometimes I look up at the sky and it is such a bold, awesome blue. I can’t get over its beauty. Then I remember global warming and the thinning of the atmosphere and my whole body aches at the thought of what we are doing to the earth and to each other. I’m waiting for our ways to change. Waiting for a time when there are no more famines and wars and deficits, no and cuts to the safety net, no people going hungry and without healthcare. I’m waiting for God to get busy, too, and do something about this mess. I’ve had this wild dream the last few nights. The sky actually tears open and I can see all the way to space. Something dark and cold rushes down toward me. It shakes the mountains and sets the trees on fire. That’s about the time I wake up, really scared, but full of this longing, too.”
“That’s quite a dream,” replied Elizabeth. It sounds a little crazy, but who am I to judge? I’ve been having bad dreams, too. I dream that I’m pounding on the door of my own house. The locks have been changed – we’ve been evicted. I go around the whole house, pounding on windows and doors, getting more and more panicky until I wake up in a sweat. Sometimes I just feel like I’m running out of hope.”
Again, a spasm of pain crossed Isaiah’s face. “I have this condition” he explained “I kind of take on the pain of others too much. I feel it like it’s my own. All the sorrow of the people I meet, all the struggles I hear about in the news, it piles up right here.”
“Have you seen a doctor?”
“I did. She suggested I take some time off work. The stress comes with the job.”
“What is your job, exactly?”
“How to describe it? As I mentioned before, I’m what’s called a prophet. (Hah! Not p-r-o-f-i-t, Not profitable at all!). Truth telling is my main duty. I do a lot of traveling and studying and listening. Some public speaking, some picketing. Some weeping and wailing. But I also laugh a lot.”
“So you mean prophet, like in the Bible? I didn’t know we had those today. Who do you work for?”
“That’s hard to say. Is it God? I think so, but I never quite know.”
“What do you mean, you don’t know?”
“Well…it sometimes feels as if God is hiding from me, from all of us. You know as well as I do that God doesn’t intervene in the world anymore in big dramatic ways– God doesn’t go around ripping open the sky these days. The exodus of Israel from slavery was a great moment in history. It proved that God is on the side of freedom and justice. But what about the holocaust, or now, the famine in the horn of Africa? Why does God let that stuff happen? Of course, we humans have to take responsibility for what we’ve done. We have sinned big. Even our good deeds are filthy. Businesses, for instance, take advantage of their workers, refuse to pay them a living wage. Then they turn around give lots of money away to charity. I’m not picking on any one company or person, we’re all a part of this. It’s rare for anyone to take the ways of God seriously. Even so, we can’t blame humans for this whole mess. I am beginning to suspect that God has abandoned us.”
“I guess I’m not the only one who is out of hope.”
“No, I would say it’s an epidemic. The problems are so big and the pain so great that many of us fall into despair. We go numb or go into denial.”
“Well, this has been a very interesting conversation – a lot for me to think about. But you know what, my prophet friend, you still haven’t answered my question—what’s so great about waiting?”
“Elizabeth, did you ever wait for your parents to pick you up as a child?”
“Oh, did I ever! I remember waiting for my dad for hours after school. Every few minutes, I would get up and pace to the corner. I would peer down the street as far I as could to see if he might be coming. By the time his blue van finally made its way to the curb, I’d be furious.”
“Yes!” Isaiah exclaimed, “The waiting of Advent is just like that. It’s about opening ourselves up to our real feelings. Rather than forge ahead as if everything is OK, during Advent, we are supposed to lament – to let out our sadness, to admit that things haven’t turned out the way we had hoped. It is a time when we long with every bit of our strength for God to come and be with us. We walk to the corner and back a thousand times, straining our eyes to see even the faintest outline of that divine hope – hope that appears when we are out of hope.”
Just then the employees unlocked the doors of the store and the crowds began to push their way inside. Elizabeth stood still. “Hey,” said Isaiah, “aren’t you going to go in?”
Tears welled up in her eyes. “Who am I fooling? I don’t even have money for groceries.”
“I wish I had some cash to lend you. All I have is this small crèche scene.”
Elizabeth smiled through her tears. She studied the delicate carving. “It’s such a humble, quiet, ancient story— how can it compete with Cars 2 and the next generation of the iphone? What help is it with unpaid bills and empty cupboards? What hope does it bring amid famine or global warming or war?”
Isaiah nodded. “Yes, it’s a mystery to me as well. Still, if you decide to give Advent a try this year, you know where to find me.” Amen.