“You have a lot of shame in your heart,” she said to me in a whispered voice, leaning in close like she was telling me a secret. We were gathered in a high school media center on a Saturday morning, surrounded by women mingling and grabbing the remnants of what had once been a pile of decadent donuts. The air was alive with rumors of fall and the transforming leaves outside the window and array of cardigans and boots in the room confirmed the suspicion. I nodded knowingly. Shame is not a new concept for me. Over the years it has become my most painful and reliable companion. It whispers in my ear around every turn. It is never late to the party, especially when it is not invited. “God wants to heal you from it completely,” she said confidently before she turned to walk away.
And there it was. Another promise.
It started in August. Promises began showing up at my front door like packages that I never ordered. It may be that I have become more sensitive to the ways God is moving and speaking these days, but I found myself keenly aware of the vows he has made and is making with the world and me personally. Freedom from addiction. Restoration of things lost. Reconciliation in broken relationships. Healing of past trauma. These are not small, easily believable promises; these are big lofty ones. And this isn’t even a comprehensive list including the things I believe he has spoken very personally over my life.
So I began collecting promises like coins in my back pocket. I moved from a season of asking God for all the things I desired to a season of listening. He seemed to say, “Shh, you have told me what you want to do, now let me tell you what I’m already doing.” And I was all about it. For about 5 minutes. But it quickly, and I mean quickly, became annoying. My genuine, “your will be done,” prayers shifted to me pointing an impatient finger and saying, “Ok, but when?”
You say you will bring freedom from addiction, but when?
You say you will restore lost things, but when?
You say you will reconcile broken relationships, but when?
You say you will heal my toxic shame, but when?
Because I look around the world and my community and not much actually embodies the promises of God. Not much seems to say, “Look here! Here is where a promise has not only been planted but has grown and bloomed into something beautiful.”
The hope of summer only sustains for so long until autumn comes and the leaves litter the ground with a quiet, calm kind of death, and then there is winter. And we feel a grand mix of hope and joy and impatience because there, sandwiched right between naked tree arms and prematurely dark afternoons and face-biting wind, is the promise of Christmas. There in the darkest month of the year is a flicker of light--the whisper that something better is waiting for us if we just dare to believe it.
And there it is. Another promise.
Christmas is my very favorite time of year. I love the lights and the cold and the peppermint mochas in Starbucks red cups. I love that everything is 100% cozier and more magical. Yesterday I literally cried when I saw a lot of small Christmas trees at Whole Foods. And then I went home and cried while I told my roommate about it (she will testify that this is not an exaggeration). But what I really, really love is that it is a time where we intentionally prepare room for the promises of God to take root in our hearts. We buy devotionals and sing hymns and attend services that remind us to remember the promise fulfilled in Christmas--God has not abandoned us.
Every year I think about what it would have been like to be alive right before Jesus was born. Christmas is often a confusing mix of joy and pain, and I think it serves us well to remember that the people of God almost assuredly felt completely drained of hope right before the son of God appeared. There were no carolers or ugly sweater parties or city trees to frolic around--their reality was that God had not spoken for 400 years. Four. Hundred. Years. And right before he peaced out he made a ton of lofty promises, including the one to provide a savior for the world. I get impatient with God after five minutes of waiting on him, imagine being in it for the 400-year-long-haul. My hope would have been long dead and buried in the ground, decayed and irretrievable.
I woke up this morning, on the first day of Advent, and I asked God for some hope. Because I am a little exhausted. This year, the idea of another promise feels painful. Because hope is hard. Believing that things can be different and healed and restored is hard. Looking at a broken world and engaging with it enough to put stock in its betterment is hard. The longer we wait on a promise without it being fulfilled the more our lives start to feel like Mr. Tumnus once said about Narnia: “always winter, but never Christmas”.
Lean into the longing. I felt these words stir in my chest as I watched my Charlie Brown Christmas tree sparkle in the corner of my living room this morning. Lean into the longing. We wait and we wait and we wait and we long for things to look different. We wait for marriage and kids and better careers and the political climate to not be so polarizing. We wait for our communities to be less violent and our marginalized neighbors to feel safer and our families to be healed. We wait for relational reconciliation and for Jesus to mend our deepest wounds. Sometimes we wait hoping and sometimes we wait hopeless, and it all makes us so very human. While the longing is hard, it is not bad. It is the truest reminder that we are all made for Christmas even in the midst of our coldest winters.
The hope I cling to as Advent begins is that the fulfillment of God’s promises are not dependent on the belief that we can manage to muster up. When God promised a savior, the unbelief of his people did not stop him from moving, nor did it speed up his timing. Even if his people packed up all their hope and put it on the top shelf of their closet, left to collect dust for four hundred years, God did not forget. This season we are invited to slow down in an effort to anticipate the coming promises and remember the ones he has already fulfilled. We decorate trees and sip hot chocolate by the fire and remind our people how loved they are because hope is springing up in every heart. Even when hope is hard, it is here. Even when it seems impossible to find it is always finding us. So as we wait for Christmas in the midst of winter let us remember that God never forgets his promises. He never forgets to be faithful. And we wait with anticipation until the day we can say:
And there it is. Another promise fulfilled.