Grace and Expectation
Rev. Douglas Taylor
December 6, 2015
I built a small door this week. Delightfully, it is not what you would expect from a door – it is too small to walk through. But it is exactly the size I need for the show. My wife and I are doing a radio play with our homeschool theater group. Usually we do Shakespeare but for a break, we decided to do radio plays. We’re doing A Christmas Carol right now. It is a lot of fun and very different from our normal teaching with the kids. I mention this because Advent is a season of expectations and of expectations overturned, and all radio plays have an element of that.
Because a live radio play is heard rather than seen, the key to a good show is a good sound effects table. If the script says someone is walking down the street, my job as the director is not to teach the actor to walk across the stage in a way that helps the audience believe it is actually a street – the real magic is in the sound. So the actor says his or her lines but the sound effects person uses a pair of hard-sole shoes on plywood to make the sound of someone walking down the street. Watching a live radio play is an interesting ‘behind-the-scenes’ experience where you see all the sound effects being created – that’s part of the show.
I agreed to make one of those radio-play doors for the sound-effects. The door doesn’t need to look like a door; it only needs to sound like a door. Thus, a radio-play door is traditionally smaller than a normal door for efficiency’s sake. The hinges and the latch set are the most important part, not the wood or the frame or the size.
Part of what we experience as the audience of a radio play is our expectations and the overturning of our expectations. We hear the door open and close, and we can close our eyes imagining the door. But then we open our eyes and look at this 36 inch tall door … it is not what we expected.
Advent is a season of expectation, but also of expectations overturned. Children make wish-lists for Christmas, they line up to sit on Santa’s lap to tell him they have been good children and what they would like to have for a present this year. Then they wait in expectation all month for the festive morning. All those presents are stacked under the Christmas tree – like Schrödinger’s boxes, they could contain anything and in the child’s imagination they do! But then we open our presents and perhaps receive something we never imagined – those are really the best. It is a disappointing holiday to only receive exactly what you asked for, to only receive what you expected.
Advent is a season of expectation, but also of expectations overturned. The Messiah was expected. That’s where this all started. People were looking for the Messiah to be born, looking with an eager expectation. But baby Jesus was not what they expected. They were looking for a powerful leader, someone with a sword and an army to break the shackle of the invading Roman forces.
In his book Zealot, Reza Aslan outlines the Messianic minutia at play in first-century Palestine, with numerous prophets rising up to claim the mantle of Messiah in an effort to rid the land of the occupying oppressors from Rome. The people expected something great to happen soon to save them.
Instead they got a baby. They got a baby who needed protecting! The young family had to flee into Egypt just after the wise men depart, according to the Matthew’s Gospel. Not much of a Messiah and savior by traditional expectations. Even if you do not believe in Jesus as the Messiah, this turn of events is still something we can marvel at and consider. And if you do believe in Jesus in this way, is this not the quintessential aspect of it all? It is a season of expectations and of expectations overturned. Ann Weems says it like this in her poem, Unexpected
Even now we simply do not expect
to find a deity in a stable.
Somehow the setting is all wrong:
the swaddling clothes too plain,
the manger too common for the likes of a Savior,
the straw inelegant,
the animals, reeking and noisy,
the whole scene too ordinary for our taste.
And the cast of characters is no better.
With the possible exception of the kings,
who among them is fit for this night?
The shepherds? Certainly to crude,
the carpenter too rough,
the girl too young.
And the baby!
Whoever expected a baby?
Whoever expected the advent of God in a helpless child?
Had the Messiah arrived in the blazing light of the glory
of a legion of angels wielding golden swords,
the whole world could have been conquered for Christ
right then and there
and we in the church—to say nothing of the world!—
wouldn’t have so much trouble today.
Even now we simply do not expect
to face the world armed with love.
There it is. Not what we expected but it’s what we have. Love. We heard the sound, turned to see – in expectation – something grand. Instead, like finding only a 36 inch prop-door, we turn and see only a baby born in a stable. Perhaps it is enough.
The story of Jesus has grown and matured and even mutated into the various version of Christianity we know today. And we have many cultural and personal expectations of the season as well – all jangling for attention and priority. And some of these new modern expectations are also regularly overturned – so that part still happens. And the experience is not just for Christmas; Hanukkah celebrates the story of the light lasting longer than expected. This is the season of expectation and of expectations overturned.
Do you have holiday traditions that include a significant amount of expectations? That seems to be how it is for many of us. We are expected to experience the holiday with joy and generosity of spirit. We are expected to reenact happy family memories, to follow the script of whatever traditions we have in our circles. Perhaps it would be simple to just walk away from all the expectations we do not want to deal with, but we love our friends and our family so we go through the steps and act the part.
One of the happy little traditions my family has developed is that after we have cut down our Christmas tree and set it up inside, we sort through the box of favorite ornaments exclaiming over them, arguing about where they fit best on the tree, and finally we settle into a calm silence as we regard this year’s tree. Eggnog is required at this point in the ritual. Sometimes a fire is in the fireplace and suitable Christmas carols are playing. Actually, all that is just filler.
The real event is when we gather around the tree to sing Silent Night together. Slowly, with feeling. It was spontaneous the first time. The second year, someone started it and everyone smiled, remembering, and joined in. By the third year, it was expected. Some years it has been a little forced. This year, I realized that over the years this moment singing Silent Night with my family either brings tears to my eyes, or laughter. It is hard to know which when we begin, but I’ve learned to expect something.
But it’s the part in the middle there, after it was organic and natural but before it became a point of grace, in which the tradition felt forced. That’s the hard part of this season of expectation. We are expected to be joyful and happy and cozy with our loved ones when the reality of our emotional lives and of our relationships and of life in general is full of unpredictable ups and downs. The season of Advent in particular is in the darkest time of the year, days are getting shorter and colder, the earth around us is shutting down and it is natural for us to feel a little tug in that direction as well. Then Advent comes along with Christmas and other festive holidays waiting just in the wings for their scene and we feel the expectation to buck the natural shut-down that is happening in nature. We feel the expectation to rouse our cold spirits to make merry and bring cheer to the house.
Advent is the season of expectations. But it is also the season of expectations overturned. In this month’s Soul Matters packet in the topic of Expectation, Artist Michael Leunig highlights this point in this prayer:
God give us rain when we expect sun.
Give us music when we expect trouble.
Give us tears when we expect breakfast.
Give us dreams when we expect a storm.
Give us a stray dog when we expect congratulations.
God play with us, turn us sideways and around.
This is a frightening prayer. Think about what you expect for this season, or any season for that matter. Consider what you hope for, what you long for, and how would it be for you to receive the unexpected instead? I think Leunig’s prayer is really a prayer for grace. When we let go of the expectations that are not being met, we can experience what is actually happening instead.
This point is actually illustrated beautifully by the analogy of skydiving. (I’ll bet you didn’t expect skydiving to come up today.) No, I’ve never been skydiving and I have no wish to ever go skydiving. But I like analogies. Doug Powell is a Unitarian Universalist who does skydiving and wrote a great article about what it is like. I found it posted on one of my colleague’s website (also discovered through the Soul Matters packet this month.) Doug Powell wrote about the experience of being a veteran jumper with rookie jumpers along for the ride, about the buzz and excitement as the plane gets into position, about the door sliding open and look people get on their faces at that point. But the key piece of the article, for us today, is how he describes what happens next.
Then the person in front of you ‘vanishes’, and it’s suddenly your turn. You enter the doorway, looking out into the incomprehensible vastness of the open sky, the wind buffeting you, and the ground looking less “high up”, and more simply unreal. “One!”, “Two!”, ”Three!”… and you are in freefall. Irrevocably committed.
There are a lot of things you could do at this point: Scream, howl, claw at the air, flap your arms, maybe turn to cast a longing glance back to the airplane. Sadly, none of them will really change your situation. Scream all you want. The wind will only dry out your mouth.
As it turns out, the most aerodynamically stable body position in freefall is achieved through… relaxing. When you truly relax in freefall, your body naturally assumes the shape of an arch. Until you arch, you are unstable, control is difficult. After arching, it becomes stable, even graceful.
So, first, I have some expectations that are not going to be satisfied by relaxing. In the skydiving scenario, I expect to have a functional parachute. I expect to have jumped from the plane rather than to have been pushed. This level of expectation being overturned is not an opportunity for grace or an exercise in letting go. But once those big ones are in place then we can look at this analogy and learn much from it.
When your expectations are overturned, you can “scream, howl, claw at the air, and flap your arms.” In some situations, these are perfectly valid options. But you can also learn to relax. Your plans got you this far before they fell apart. Your hopes for the day or for the week are thwarted by life (or God, or random chance, or whatever) and now what!?! Or maybe you decided to leave the scripted expectations other had of you! But the point is we are now in the realm of overturned expectations.
We have “music when we expect trouble … tears when we expect breakfast.” We have ruined meals, strained relationships, and long rides home at night. We have broken dishes, broken traditions, and broken hearts. We have a baby when we expected a king. We have lights and tinsel when we were expecting long cold nights. We have kindness, compassion, and generosity left unused because we can’t figure out how to offer these gifts in the place we find ourselves sometimes. We have all kinds of things that push us to the edge and beyond. And we can “scream, howl, claw at the air, and flap [our] arms.” Or we can relax and arch, regain stability and perhaps even gracefulness.
In relaxing, you will perhaps discover a way through the unexpected territory you could not see before. Your expectations got you this far, to this point, but they are of no use. Relax and take in the experience. Because the beautiful secret of Advent is that even though the door is far smaller than you expected, it is still amazing what can fit through. Part of the beauty of Advent is that it is a season of expectation and one of the expectations is that your expectations will be overturned. For in so doing, there is room for music and tears you did not even know you needed.
In a world without end
May it be so.