When Advent Fails

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Now when Job’s three friends heard of all this adversity that had come upon him, they came each one from his own place, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite; and they made an appointment together to come to sympathize with him and comfort him. When they lifted up their eyes at a distance and did not recognize him, they raised their voices and wept. And each of them tore his robe and they threw dust over their heads toward the sky. Then they sat down on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights with no one speaking a word to him, for they saw that his pain was very great. (Job 2:11-13)

Back in the 90s, my church decided to produce a book of Advent devotions. The lady putting it together thought I was “artsy,” so she asked me to design the cover. I came up with something I thought was pretty cool. I submitted a simple black and white picture of a pregnant woman’s torso in profile. This sparked all kinds of hand-wringing at the church which culminated in my pastor/boss telling me the design was in poor taste (the woman was clothed, by the way). The publisher lady replaced my sort-of artsy design with a clip-art drawing of the Three Wisemen, who of course have nothing to do with Advent.

Pregnancy is a wonderful image of Advent. It works on so many levels. Mary was obviously pregnant with Jesus. Moreover, time itself was, in a sense, pregnant with the Son of God (Galatians 4:4-5). Today we might say that the cosmos is again pregnant, waiting eagerly for the children of God to come forth (Romans 8:19) when Christ returns. Advent, like pregnancy, is a waiting for something marvelous.

There is a young couple whom I love; they live in another city. A few years ago, I guided them through their premarital counseling and officiated at their wedding. Just last week the woman gave birth to twin sons. They were quite premature and both passed away not long after being delivered. Their parents got to hold them for just a few precious minutes before they were gone—gone until the Resurrection at the Last Day.

According to the American Pregnancy Association, there are six million pregnancies every year in the United States. Of these, approximately one-third end in pregnancy loss. More than half of those are due to abortion, but 800,000 are the result of miscarriage and similar issues. Everyone knows someone who has lost a child in pregnancy, and you might well be one of them.

What happens when excitement and expectation ends in disappointment and calamity? What do you do when your Advent ends not in Christmas but in Good Friday? Expectations are not always fulfilled, hope is sometimes dashed. Sometimes this results in loss of life, as happened to my friends. Sometimes the loss is not as tragic, but no less real. Relationships end poorly, jobs fall through, dreams are not realized.

When someone is in the middle of their suffering, it is easy for an outsider to say “God is still with them.” That is true, and it is the message of Advent. Christ is with the suffering, the broken, the mourning. He knows what it means to endure horrific evil, and so he is the ultimate source of comfort and healing to the hurting.

At the same time, suffering does not always move quickly to hope. Sometimes hope is put on hold and mourning drags on. For those who are in the middle of their pain, God must be mediated in the silent affection of other human beings. Christ is incarnate in the tender compassion of the friend who says “I don’t understand it either” as he bursts into tears. The Christian who can set aside her need to control, her desire to “make it better,” and can sit in the awful pain of her friend becomes Jesus to that friend.

For those of you who are suffering right now, let me say a couple of things. Your pain is real and it has meaning. I encourage you to feel what you feel, to be as angry and sad and overwhelmed as you are. In the middle of your pain, please know that there is still hope for you because of Christ. I pray you will reveal your suffering to other people who can sit with you in the midst of it. I hope you will find some hope in this Advent, and in the Christ who has not given up on you.

Thomas McKenzie is the author of The Anglican Way, a book he describes as a traveler’s guide to the Anglican tradition, as well as The Harpooner, an Advent reader featuring harpoons—how awesome is that. He graduated from the University of Texas and attended seminary at the Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. He was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1998 and planted the Church of the Redeemer in Nashville in 2004, where he is the still pastor. He’s also keeps samurai swords in his office, and wears a skull ring.


11 Comments

  1. dan taylor

    Beautiful. sad. true and very wise counsel. Its easy to open our mouths and say what we think is right. But often better to do just as Job’s friends did. Thanks so much.

  2. Thomas McKenzie

    Hey all,

    I actually wrote this a few days before the horrible massacre in Connecticut. Since I wrote this piece, another dear couple I know lost their pregnancy. Loss piled on top of loss. And still Jesus is Lord.

    Thomas+

  3. Ashley

    Yes. Yes. Yes.

    The best reaction that I received when sharing that we’d lost our pregnancy was a resounding expletive (no one’s name was taken in vain). I may be in the minority on this but I needed in that moment for someone to agree with me that this wasn’t the ending we were hoping for, it sucks, and if there’s ever a time for cursing here it is. Feeling sadness isn’t a loss of hope and a the well-intentioned quick jump to “the bright side” hasn’t comforted me yet.

    My reaction to Connecticut’s horror also involved expletives and while I also know there is hope for a brighter tomorrow, I’ll get there when I get there.

    Thank you for giving voice and permission to these natural reactions.

  4. Debra Henderson

    Thank you Thomas! We lost twins to miscarriage and a seven year old to cancer. Others often wish us to be “better”…to focus always on eternal hope and never live in the temporal pain but both are true. Love must acknowledge the whole truth.

    “…suffering does not always move quickly to hope. Sometimes hope is put on hold and mourning drags on. For those who are in the middle of their pain, God must be mediated in the silent affection of other human beings. Christ is incarnate in the tender compassion of the friend who says “I don’t understand it either” as he bursts into tears. The Christian who can set aside her need to control, her desire to “make it better,” and can sit in the awful pain of her friend becomes Jesus to that friend.”

    Yes!

  5. April Pickle

    Love the photo. Love the post. Thank you, God, for those who have sat with me in the dark places, for that is where I’ve found you to be true and good.
    “Oh, lay me down in a field of gold and green” (to quote The Last Frontier by Andrew Peterson, aka Mr. Proprietor).

  6. Nancy Rach

    Wonderful reflection. Saturday morning, I wrote a Psalm of lament for the parents of the Sandy Hook victims. It was my heart-felt cry of their pain. Sometimes you don’t have answers for the moment because their pain is too deep and they need the time of crying out their pain to the Lord.

    “Blackness…darkness…Oh God, the silence…the searing pain that drives me to silent screams as I suffocate in my pain, rocking back and forth in the night…Why God? Why my baby? The pain and anger overwhelm me…How can I breathe again?…Ring around my rosie, ashes, ashes…my life is in ashes. Where are you God? Where were you when a madman killed my baby? Will I ever be able to live again? To feel again? To trust again? Do I even want to? It hurts too much…if this is love, it hurts too much! There is no consolation for me..God rescue me from this nightmare…Prince of Peace, don’t hide your face from me, help me to want to live again.”

  7. Kristen P

    Thomas – Thank you for these words. My Advent has been filled with sitting in the sorrow of one of my high school students who just lost her father to early onset Alzheimer at the age of 47. My resounding chorus this season has been: Come, Lord Jesus. Which is, after all, what Advent is all about. To be told “to feel what you feel, to be as angry and sad and overwhelmed as you are” does not diminish God’s sovereignty or the hope that we have. Thank you for the reminder of this freedom.

    To this community – Thank you for being a place where the broken can gather. Where together, we remind each other to “hold on…whatever you do, to the hope that’s taken a hold of you.” Where together, we can mourn with those who mourn, and rejoice with those who rejoice. It is a gift, and this Advent, it has been food to my soul.

  8. Molly Bertles

    After over a year of consistently reading this blog, this is my first comment. My husband and I have been struggling for over a year to get pregnant and this speaks so well to my thoughts about the process.

    I love the line “At the same time, suffering does not always move quickly to hope”. So true.

    Thank you for these much needed, and comforting reminders of what is true.

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