For a People Mourning Anticipating Advent

by Rob Hammock

As I thought about ways to wrap up my contribution to this blogging series, it seemed ironic to me that the liturgical calendar would bring us back again to a season of anticipation. My first blog post was anticipating the spirit’s coming at Pentecost, and now we enter the season of Advent and the anticipation of the coming Christ child. Six months ago, I desired to share stories of encounter with Jesus that told of my own experiences of growth, understanding, and humility. With Advent as a bookend to my blogs, the liturgical calendar seemed to be setting up serendipitously as we moved into the season of lighted candles representing the anticipation of hope, faith, joy, and peace. The opportunity to place a nice bow on my series of blogs would make for a neat Christmas present into what is often a season of pageantry. And, as wonderful as it would be to have a nice “Hallmark” moment in this year that feels like a decade, I can’t wrap that bow. I can’t enter into a season of false sentimentality of easy hope, faith, joy, and peace. 2020 just won’t let me.

Here in the United States, with the seeming end of the presidential election season and the promise of multiple vaccines, I was more than ready to be a drum major for hope into 2021 amidst the COVID-19 pandemic we have all been enduring. But another unexpected moment in the life of my home congregation in 2020 makes easy sentimentality impossible. As I write today, we lost another one of our own. He was an elder, a choir member, a faithful follower, and my brother in Christ. And we do not yet know why. Under any circumstances, this would be a blow and a terrible loss. But, for our congregation of nearly 300, which intentionally desires to be a diverse body of faithful believers, this one was especially hard. This marked the third African American member of our community we have lost this year. All have been thoroughly beloved and important parts of our congregation that have helped us understand who we are and who we yet need to be as the people of God. We lost one to cancer, one to a senseless murder, and one to as of yet unknown causes. My grief is heavy and angry.

The words of Psalm 13:1-2 are on my heart and mind, and I imagine on those of my fellow church members:

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?

With every ounce of my being I want to jump to the end of the Psalm and share the hope and promise of God’s goodness (verses 5-6):

But I trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.

But I’m just not there. The anger, the bitterness, the frustration – they are all too palpable. How can I look forward to Advent?

For the moment I take solace in the words of a young Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who would later come to know what faithfulness meant in the face of great evil when killed by Hitler’s regime:

The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come. (Preached on 12/2/1928 and found in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christmas Sermons.)

In the face of uncertainty of COVID-19, fears of job loss, fears of eviction, and now another untimely and tragic death, “troubled in soul” fits quite well right now for me and my fellow congregants. We long, plead, and cry for “something greater to come”. Knowing the suffering and challenges that have been with us all this year surrounding COVID-19 and racial injustice, I know we are not alone.

So, as I enter into this anticipatory season of Advent, I am yearning once again for encounter with Jesus. I am longing not for false sentimentality. I am desiring of an intentional living into hope, faith, joy, and peace amidst a world that seems to fight against them. And I take some strength from what may come in the words of the African American theologian Howard Thurman as I long for Jesus:

Where refugees seek deliverance that never comes
And the heart consumes itself as if it would live,
Where children age before their time
And life wears down the edges of the mind,
Where the old man sits with mind grown cold,
While bones and sinew, blood and cell, go slowly down to death,
Where fear companions each day’s life,
And Perfect Love seems long delayed.
In you, in me, in all [human]kind.
(Christmas is Waiting to be Born, The Mood of Christmas &
Other Celebrations, 1985)

Robert Hammock recently rolled off of the Session after a 3-year term at Caldwell Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC. Although trained at Princeton Theological Seminary (MDIV), the last 20 years of his career have been focused on affordable housing and community development efforts, primarily in urban contexts. He remains active in a leadership role through his church’s development of affordable housing through the re-purposing of part of its campus.

Rob is also a part of the NEXT Church blogging cohort, and his writing focuses on faith, ministry, and community development.