Waiting in Darkness

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Over the next few weeks, mysustaininggrace.com will be posting reflections for the coming week of Advent. Each reflection will focus on the theme of the advent candle for the corresponding week. The first candle, which we will light on December 3rd, is the Prophet’s Candle or the Candle of Hope. 

“Once upon a time…”

Every child knows that a good story begins with, “Once upon a time” and ends with a  “happily ever after.” In between those two points, however, lies unknown dangers, struggles, sorrows and heartaches. Perhaps this story format is so appealing to us because it mirrors that of the Great Storyteller who began His tale “Once upon a time” in a perfect garden and will end it “happily ever after” in a flawless Heaven. Although the festive Christmas season may prevent us from seeing it, the season of Advent reminds of us of our existence between these two glorious endpoints in God’s story.

During Advent, we are asked to remember the long wait for a Messiah, the hope fostered by the prophets, and the thousands of years worth of prayers for deliverance that flooded the gates of Heaven. We are called to recall a time when hope was just a tiny flicker in the midst of darkness, when the people waiting in darkness had yet to see a great light. At the same time, we are challenged to reflect on our own sin-stained souls and to renew our deep longing for salvation. We are forced to acknowledge that the whole of creation “waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God…in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”(Romans 8:19-21) We are required to listen to our spirits as we “groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.” (Romans 8:23).

This spiritual longing for Christ’s coming and salvation is a deep, natural one that rises up from the core of our being and permeates every part of us. It is profound and powerful and all of creation echoes our soul’s groaning. It is like a bereaved mother whose longing for her child is so strong that her arms become painful, heavy and restless as they reach out into empty darkness, waiting to be filled and receiving only the reply of “not yet.”

Advent also reminds us, though, that in the midst of that darkness, there is a flicker of light. Through the spoken words of the prophets, the written words of the Bible, the gaze of Christ looking tenderly out from a portrait, the loving actions of a neighbor, we are reminded that Christ is coming. We feel a shimmer of excitement shiver through us as it whispers, “The arrival is coming!” We hear the swipe of a match and see the tiny blaze of a single candle burning in the black of night. We smell the smoke and feel its slight warmth. Though we can scarcely believe it, it is there. A candle of hope that reminds us that He is coming.

 

“The Good Life”

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Lately, I have been thinking about how to respond when my hopes and dreams are different from God’s will for me. For a long time, my desire has been to have a small, happy, healthy little family with a few children. I want to raise my children to know God, to have the opportunity to enjoy the little everyday blessings of helping children to grow and learn, and to build a strong family unit that will provide my children with refuge and support after my husband and I are gone. The selfish part of me also wants another opportunity to relish the moments that delighted me as a mother and to not take the other, less savory times for granted. I want a chance to be a better mom and to someday be a grandmother without the pressure of my living daughter being the only child who could fulfill that dream. I would like to be comfortable and to live responsibly and without anxieties, anger, or sorrow. I want my children to have a chance to grow and develop through the kind of protected childhood I had. Then, I reason, others can see the joy we have and the blessings that we have been given and see the handiwork of God.

My desire for me and for my family is a lot like the life that Chris Rice describes when he sings “Becky has a house on Abundant Live Boulevard. A good name, good family, and butterflies in her yard. Becky loves Jesus and really wants to make Him proud – she tears up in church and she sings her harmonies loud. She’s got a Bible by the bed, a prayer journal, and a fish on her car. She makes sure to bow her head and give thanks in every restaurant…” Since these things I want are all good things and none of them directly contradict God’s commands, it seems like they should logically be part of His will for me. Yet, over and over again, I feel like God brings me closer to having a small family with happy, Godly children, only to dash my hopes again. Or maybe He says, “Keep waiting,” but there’s no guarantee that what we are waiting for is what we hope for.  I find that I need to accept that God might not want “the good life” to be my life.

We are immersed in a culture that sees blessings when we are comfortable, peaceful, satisfied and happy. We feel blessed when we get a new job, a new house, or a healthy baby. But what happens when we lose our job, or our home is destroyed, or we look at the ultrasound monitor and realize that our baby no longer has a heartbeat and that we have yet another child waiting for us in Heaven instead of in our arms? What happens when we get sick and have to be subjected to painful medical procedures that we never wanted or when our good friends die too soon, leaving broken families behind them?What happens when we never get our rainbow at the end of a storm, when our problems are never resolved and when we have to learn to live with them? What happens if we never get a miracle?

What happens is that we are still blessed.

We are blessed because God continues to be intimately at work in our lives in the midst of our shattered dreams and sorrows. We are blessed because He knows what He is doing and His work is good. We are blessed because He is giving us exactly what we need to be the people He wants us to be. We are blessed because He is giving us the tools to fulfill our specific purpose in His world. We are blessed because He knows what lies ahead and He is preparing us and those around us for what will be.

We are also blessed because Jesus looked at our understanding of blessings and turned it on its head. He said:

You are not only blessed in prosperity and comfort, because “blessed are the poor in spirit.” You are not only blessed in happiness, because “blessed are those who mourn.” You are not only blessed in times of peace, because “blessed are the peacemakers.” In fact, he said that even those who are persecuted are blessed! (See Matthew 5:3-12 to see more of what Jesus said about blessings.)

Ultimately, we are blessed because we play a tiny role in His salvation story which will end in glorious redemption! All those tears we cry will be redeemed. All those losses we suffer will be redeemed. All those burdens we bear will be redeemed. All those disappointments that beat us down will be redeemed. And, most importantly, all of the world’s sufferings that, because of our human limitations we can not yet perceive, will be redeemed.

We have much to be thankful for, whether God chooses for us to live “the good life” or “the hard life.”

Unbaptized Little Ones

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When I was a young teenager, I had a dream one night that continues to impact the way I understand life after death. In the dream, God put me in the vestry of my church and told me to stay there, no matter what happened. After a few minutes, I began to hear explosions outside and, when I looked out the window, I saw a dazzling fireworks display that was partially obstructed by the window. I went to the doorway so that I could see better and, eventually, I took a step outside so that I could see the fireworks that were bursting behind the steeple. Instantly, the church doors slammed shut and flashed with light as if they had been struck by lightning. In that moment, I knew that my dreaming self had been shut out of a relationship with God forever. I was overwhelmed with a gut wrenching, all consuming agony as I wrestled with the realization that I was fundamentally alone and eternally separated from God.  The pain that this knowledge caused me was greater than any physical pain that I could imagine. When I woke up, I concluded that whether or not Hell is full of flames, its greatest horror is separation from God.

This early understanding of what existence is like apart from God, is partly responsible for my desire that all of my children spend eternity with God in Heaven. Unlike the mother of James and John, I don’t ask for them to have any special places of honor in Heaven, but I do beg God that they will reach Heaven, even if they have the lowliest place in there (Matthew 21:20-21).

That is why one of the things that has continued to bother me about Noemi’s death is the fact that her unexpected death meant that she was not officially baptized and this means that we have to trust that God has some not-by-the-book way to take away the stain of sin that she inherited as a member of the human race.

I wasn’t raised Catholic so, until recently, I was not aware that the dominant opinion of the modern Church has been that unbaptized babies, due to the sin that they inherited from man’s fall in the Garden of Eden, go to limbo (In fairness, limbo is envisioned as a place where the unbaptized babies are believed to be completely happy while spending eternity separated from God. For me, this is problematic since, as I explained, I don’t understand how anyone can be completely happy while being eternally separated from God). Although the idea of limbo never became an official Church teaching, it resulted in many unbaptized Catholic infants being denied a mass of Christian burial and being barred from burial in consecrated ground. In fact, there are still people who fervently believe that baptism is so essential to salvation that little ones who die before baptism will never be able to see God. Fortunately for me, the whole time that I have been Catholic the Church has welcomed unbaptized babies into their cemeteries and allowed them to have a special burial mass that entrusts them into the arms of God. More importantly, the Church proclaims that there are “serious theological and liturgical grounds to hope that infants who die will be saved and brought into eternal happiness, even if there is not an explicit teaching on this question found in Revelation…the Church respects the hierarchy of truths and therefore begins by clearly reaffirming the primacy of Christ and his grace, which has priority over Adam and sin” (International Theological Commission, 2007)

This teaching is more in line with my own hopes for my daughter which began to form when I was a protestant, pre-adolescent listening to The 2nd Chapter of Acts sing “Killing Thousands” (a song about abortion). At the time, I was becoming increasingly aware of the importance of accepting Jesus into our lives and so I asked my mother how aborted babies could go to Heaven even though they had not asked Jesus for salvation. She replied that, while the Bible does not say anything about what happens to unbaptized little ones, God made them, loves them, and died for them so we can trust that He would not condemn them to an eternity without Him, nor would He condemn himself to an eternity without them.

The problem for me is, that while I know that I should be satisfied by both the Church’s recent teachings on Baptism and my mother’s response to my question about salvation for unbaptized babies, my need for certainty often rears its ugly head. It drives me crazy that we don’t have a Bible verse that specifically says, “an unbaptized infant, who died at the time that God chose and is deeply loved by God, will be welcomed into Heaven and bask in the presence of God.”

Without any such revelation, my “by-the-book” personality makes me want to be able to say, I baptized Noemi, so she is in Heaven. I so easily fall into the trap of thinking that if I can’t have a direct guarantee from God, then the next best thing is having an “if I do this, then God will do this” kind of formula to follow. However, this is a dangerous preference, for two reasons. First, if God always responded in a quid pro quo way, there would be no room for grace and where would any of us be without grace? Second, what I am desiring is absolutely not my faith – in fact, it is the antithesis of it. My faith is based on the fact that “Grace is totally free, because it is always a pure gift of God.” (International Theological Commission, 2007) I am saved because Jesus chose to save me, not because of anything that I did or did not do. Yes, He calls me to participate in my salvation through things that I do, but my salvation comes only from Him. This is also true for my children: their salvation is from Christ, not from anything that they do or do not do.

So when I think about Noemi’s salvation, it is no different from my own, nor is it different from my hope that my living daughter will be saved. Instead, my hope for all of our salvation rests on faith in the death and resurrection of Christ. It depends on the mercy of a gracious and forgiving God who created us and who loves us – a God who wants us to be with Him so much that He would sacrifice His own child to make that happen. My faith is full of “confidence that what we hope for will actually happen” (Hebrews 11:1), because of who God has revealed himself to be throughout time and Scripture, not because of anything that we do or do not do. My own salvation may be “by-the-book,” but it is no less dependent on the will and mercy of God than Noemi’s salvation that could not be “by-the-book.”

We believe in a loving and merciful God. We believe in an all-powerful God who is not bound by our understanding of things. We believe in a God who sacrificed His own son for the salvation of his created ones. It is belief in this God alone that offers us hope for our salvation and for the salvation of the little ones who died before baptism. We can be grateful that our own lives offer us the opportunity to respond to and to accept that salvation through the rituals that have been given to us, but we should also remember that the rituals, while incredibly important and powerful, are gifts for us, not gatekeepers to Heaven. We should never forget that God can work however He chooses, even if it is not at all “by-the-book.”