on advent hope

[This article was originally published in the Et Cetera, the weekly newsletter of Regent College.]

My Christian faith received a dramatic call to arms a few years ago, when I picked up Shane Claiborne’s book The Irresistible Revolution. I packed away the feel-good devotionals and [apparently] nominal church and youth group attendance of my youth to become what Claiborne calls a “Christian radical.” I was set to be a “true” Christian, committed to [what I thought were] all the things that Jesus himself was committed to: feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, clothing the naked. And so I began a three-year venture in a non-profit serving at-risk teens in an attempt to see God’s kingdom realized on earth.

Now, a few months into my Regent life-battical (the name I gave to the one-year term I was taking “off” from ministry involvement), I am reflecting on some of the elements of the Christian faith which I had neglected in my quest to change the world. Namely, that Jesus’ call to serve others is not given in a world that is just damaged, but a world that is under the curse of death. And so, I’d like to offer some reflections around the timely theme of Advent and specifically, on true hope as hope formed in Advent.

My rosy childhood was quickly challenged by the situations I came across in that non-profit setting: kids who have reached the end of high school and lack proper reading skills, kids being parents to their younger siblings, kids who refuse to meet up with their volunteer mentors because they can’t bear being let down by one more adult. In these situations, I quickly began to see my every effort as a way of providing hope: making numerous crowd-pleasing casseroles, planning a One Direction-themed birthday party, spending countless hours washing dishes, helping with homework and paper-editing, driving kids to appointments and job interviews, writing letters seeking support for donors and foundations. There are certainly important elements of hope located in Christian actions to work for change and to bless and serve others. However, I am now recognizing that true hope is unavailable to the world except as witnessed through a people informed by an authentic experience of Advent.

In my experience with the non-profit, hope pretty much ended in the same way that lighting the first candle on the Advent wreath in the church of my childhood did: a recurrent few minutes of focusing on the idea that Christ brought hope to the world. The idea of hope did not impact me, except perhaps as stimulus to continue working hard for the kingdom.

But what if hope is approached instead in conversation with a candid assessment of the fact that the world still exists in the midst of death? Because if we’re honest, we still feel it – as family members disappoint, as disease spreads, as earthquakes devastate, as friends leave. As at-risk teens graduate and get their first jobs and show signs of promise … and then spiral back down into self-doubt, confusion and defeat. “Hope,” notes Henry Stringfellow, “is known only in the midst of coping with death. Any so called hope is delusory and false without or apart from the confrontation with the power of death.” Christ has come to bring hope, but Advent can’t only about that; it must also be about his coming again, because death is still here. This is the context that I forgotten as I attempted to “bring hope” to the least of these.

And so, I long to be a person properly formed by Advent hope: hope which works fervently to bless and bring life and sustain, but which accurately assesses death’s powerful ability to dampen, obscure and destroy. I want to prayerfully point beyond every human effort to “offer” or “bring” hope, to the Lord whose kingdom we pray to come. I want to cry with the disappointed and mourn with the weary alongside the important actions of offering a comforting plate of casserole or a warm bed or homework help. As I now live in darkness, I want to be alive with the energies of Advent hope of Christ’s return to set all things right, not the “hope” I was confusedly trying to offer as I attempted to establish God’s kingdom on my own.

As a Christian season, Advent may only four weeks long. However, it should be a time for extra focus of what should be a year- and life-long posture which characterizes our lives as the people of God. I’d like to encourage you to think on this Advent hope: a powerful grounds for groaning and sighing for new creation, which demands both refusal to sit back and refusal to burn out. May you and I continue towards the truly irresistible revolution rightly centered in this full, Advent hope.

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