Christians the world over are in a time of waiting and anticipation that we call Advent. Advent is four-weeks of staying awake for the possibilities that lie ahead, and staying alert to the present things that God is doing. Advent symbolizes the numerous period of waiting that God’s people went through. The hundreds of years of slavery, waiting for emancipation. The 40 years of wilderness wandering after their freedom. The long period between the promises made of a coming savior and the coming of that savior after Israel was conquered and sent into exile and the temple, God’s home, was destroyed. Each time, God sent prophets to bring a healing balm of hope to a people who were deep in existential angst and despair for their future. “Do we have a future?” the people lamented in psalms and songs. Against their despair, the prophets spoke words of hope that Israel’s pain and suffering would come to an end.
The congregation that I am blessed to serve, Plymouth United Church of Christ, is in a time of waiting for an additional reason: fire destroyed our building in September. Like the Israelites of old, we are in exile. Our place of exile at Grace ELCA church, however, is very welcoming, comfortable, homey, and has allowed us a space in which to heal and consider our future as God’s ministers in the Chippewa Valley.
As I write this, the burnt shell of our building remains, with no roof, its windows blown out, completely missing desks and books and paraments and artwork because it all burned up. While we wait for demolition day it sits there, a taunting Christmas angel announcing not a miraculous birth but a wordless physical manifestation of the abstraction of time reminding us we, too, are impermanent and that the universe runs at its own pace.
There has been a lot of waiting in this process. Insurance is slow, permits are slow, the fire inspections were slow. But that slowness is a teacher. We first-worlders have made unholy idols out of productivity and speed, and we must learn to slow down. We who demand grieving family members be back at work a few days after a funeral need to stop fearing the healing power of grief and mourning. “Take a sabbath,” God says. Our busy-ness, our rush for resolution, is so often an attempt to claim God’s power, but in its constricting claws we have no space to breathe God in and connect with the holy.
Our slow in-between time gives us space for mourning, grief, sharing stories, for holding one another in love, and allowing ourselves to be held in love. Many congregations here and around the world have sent messages and prayed for us. We received lovely support from Temple Shalom and the Islamic Society Of Northern Wisconsin Altoona Masjid, our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters reaching out in love to their neighbors to offer us space for worship and gathering. Those invitations are very special blessings, especially in this time of anti-Muslim rhetoric by the fear-mongers who say we should not live together or cooperate.
Our quilters have received copious donations. Sister churches have sent us replacement hymnals. Local organizations, churches, and individuals have donated money. Local media, like WEAU, WQOW, and the Leader-Telegram have been incredibly supportive. Good Shepherd Lutheran Church stepped up right away to offer space for “Stand in the Light”, the choir for people with dementia. The outpouring of support has been truly uplifting and healing.
The tremendous ecumenical and interfaith reaching out to neighbors in need shows the best of the Chippewa Valley,and is a prophetic witness against those who preach a gospel of fear and enemy-making. What the Christmas story is all about is to end our fear and start loving one another. “Fear not!” the angels constantly say. That’s what Christmas is all about. It’s not about how Starbucks designs its holiday cups, or if clerks say “happy holidays,” or if cities display nativities downtown. Who cares? These poutrages are irrelevant to Jesus’ message and a distraction from the vocation of love to which we are called. We have seen such love in the support we have received from a number of churches, the temple, and the mosque, and from secular organizations.
So we are in the in-between time, and that’s okay. We know that it will end, that we will have a new building (it will be our fifth in our 132 year history!), and our ministry continues in the present and will do so in the future, so long as there are people who need to experience the Good News of healing, being fed, being clothed, who need to lifted up, who demand justice, and who need to know that they are loved.