6th December 2014
I had never really given much thought to why Christians celebrate the four weeks leading up to Christmas, much less give them a name. But after my recent retreat and some reflecting with my fellow YAGM and our country coordinator Pastor Kate, I think Advent is pretty cool. Dare I say it, I might like the concept of Advent more than Christmas itself, because it highlights and celebrates one of the most common and challenging experiences of life: waiting.
My experiences in Rwanda (and the act of processing those experiences over the retreat) are helping me to re-conceive of what “waiting” in the Advent sense really means. For most of my life in America, the only kind of waiting I did during Advent was what led up to tearing paper off a box and savoring five seconds of surprise over some gift. Imagine a person at a fast-food drive-through: running late, totally impatient, snatching a grease-stained sack of cheap unhealthy food and hastily devouring it as s/he races down the road, thinking ‘I’m late, it’s the end of the world!!!!’ My sense of waiting was like that. In short, my waiting was rooted in and pressured by the anxiety which comes from fearing the worst (i.e. “bad things will happen if I’m late,” “what if I mess up?”)
But I think that the original sense of Advent waiting— the waiting for a Messiah— was totally different. Because despite their desperate struggles with injustice (read: actual reasons to feel anxious or fearful), the Messiah-waiters did not feel the same sense of impatient urgency as the fast-food American. Certainly, I think they longed deeply and expectantly, but with a profound sense of peace or trust— not the fundamental fear or anger rooted in impatience and urgency.
This brings me to the first of two big things that Rwandans have been teaching me about Advent-waiting: the need to let go of my tendency towards fear- or anxiety- fueled urgency. I’m learning this by living on so-called “African time”: if I’m thirty minutes late for something because it rained and the road is muddy, no worries! Everyone else is probably running behind for the same reason. If I’m thirty minutes late for no good reason at all— still!— no worries. In the way that God says “My grace is enough for you,” people in the village seem to say, “Time is our most abundant resource. There’s no need to hurry: we’ll have time enough.” This has taken getting used to, mostly because I’ve been taught that “time is money” or that “time is of the essence,” and that therefore the pastor is disrespecting me and everyone else if he preaches for an hour or more without stopping. But slowly I’m realizing that everyone else in the church doesn’t seem offended: their sense of time is such that they have the time to listen to someone for an hour without stopping. Time is seen as abundant, and people are generous with it. They are patient, and they are not urgent or anxious.
There is another important sense in which Rwandans are teaching me to give up urgency: they are teaching me to give up my long-term urgency, even in the face of profound struggles. I started thinking about this when a friend reflected with me that “spending a long time on the ground in a developing country makes you lose your sense of urgency about ‘fixing it.’” I’ve found that to be true, and I’ve even begun to notice that every time I have an idea about how to ‘fix’ something in Rwanda (“If I teach like this then they’ll be proficient in English very quickly!” “I must design such-and-such resources for teaching music, then the choir will sing in the same key as the keyboard is playing before I leave in July!”) is rooted in a sense of urgency and a desire for a conclusive solution. No matter how well I can recite the script “in order for development to be sustainable and beneficial, it must take place over many years and with deep community participation and leadership,” I always underestimate exactly what that means. It means totally giving up the sense of urgency— the idea that the clock is ticking, and that (game over!) everyone dies when it stops.
Because despite the real poverty that many Rwandan villagers feel so acutely every day, they’re okay. I don’t mean to diminish the hunger and hardship and instability that some of these people regularly experience. But I know them, and I see them smile and laugh and sing and walk slowly and stop to chat, and find help from their neighbors and friends. Yes, if someone asked them if they wanted more financial security or easier access to medicine or the ability to get three gallons of water without walking four kilometers down and back up a mountain, they’d say yes. But their lives are not utterly miserable. And (my main point) they do not live with a sense of urgency about their struggles. Instead, they wait. They wait like the Israelites waited for a Messiah. They are not complacent; they toil and sweat and pursue better lives as they wait. But they do not hurry urgently or fearfully, as though life will end. They have the courage to live suspended in the irresolution of pain and suffering, emboldened by the hopeful promise of a better future— just like the promise of God coming to be among us emboldens Christians during Advent.
These reflections have been making me re-think my notions about international development (I’ll keep this as short as possible; but if it interests you, check out this excellent article which articulates better than I ever could.) Simply put, having any sense of urgency in the action of helping a community (or “saving the world,” to use the hyperbole) gets in the way of actually doing so. If, however, international development workers are able to relinquish their urgency— to live without fear of the problems facing the communities where they work— they can recognize that“there’s no need to hurry; we’ll have time enough.” Having this attitude is essential, because 1. it celebrates the resilience of the people who are not debilitated by their hardship, and 2. it makes it possible to take time for the practices which lead to successful development projects: going slow, listening deeply and creating strategies with all the stakeholders in a community, and rigorously collecting data and hypothesizing why the program worked/failed in a very particular time and place. Counterintuitive though it may be, one might say that ceasing to worry and hurry to reach the most ideal solution is exactly the way to reach that solution (although expecting a perfect solution in our naturally imperfect world.) Or one might say that, one the other hand, doing projects with a sense of urgency usually ends up harming the community more than it helps.
So, this Advent, I’m learning (trying) to wait in a new way, and to forgo my urgency. Not to wait fearfully, but to wait hopefully— in a way that enables people to live with a peaceful mind amidst the chronic uncertainty and irresolution and instability and pain and brokenness of our world. I’m trying to imagine how, if I pursue a career in international development, I might learn to work without urgency like the people I’d be helping, and in so doing make a lasting difference. And I’m excited for the sudden moments when “the Messiah will appear”— when in little ways every day, the pains and uncertainties and afflictions of life begin to fall away.