Longing for family, groaning for home

It seems only fitting to end this year thinking about longing. Advent season is dedicated to intentional longing, cultivating disciplines that bend our hearts toward the longing we feel for the world to be made right rather than trying to ignore it. I have longed for many things this year, but as Christmas approaches, I find myself longing for family and longing for home. 

For my two-year-old daughters, family and home are the center of their universe. This year has afforded us more family time than we ever imagined, but because of this I have been able to hear them articulate their beliefs about home again and again. We have a small room that serves as our work from home office, and my husband and I take turns working while the other watches the girls. Without fail, when my husband or I open the door to come out of the office the excitedly say, “Daddy’s home!” as if Daddy had been away for hours. The same goes for when I get up in the morning after Andrew has been up with them for an hour, “Mommy’s home!”, or when Andrew joins us at the park after we have been playing for a while, “Daddy’s home!” For them, home is not our house; home is where we are all together. It doesn’t matter if it is the park or the brewery where we ride scooters or just in our living room when someone has been in the bedroom. Home happens when the four of us are together. 

But they also exist in their world creating family systems. When we see a woman and a child, they immediately say “Mommy! And baby!” While this might not seem unusual, they also designate parent-child relationships to people walking their dogs, “Doggie! And Daddy!” Anyone with a noticeable age-gap is designated the parent and child, any man and woman together are Daddy and Mommy. They make sense of the world by assigning family relationships, even more than that, they understand that family relationships create a baseline of identity. Family is central to who we are and they see that only a couple years into life. 

For them, and for most of us, home and family will always be connected in ways we love and probably in some ways that are difficult. But this year, as we approach Christmas, a holiday season that exalts being home with family, these foundations of identity feel shaky. Even those who are able to be with some of their family members, probably have many others who will be particularly lonely and isolated after an already brutal year. But for the Christian, family and home extend beyond our earthly nuclear family and our home is not found in a place, but in a person. 

Groaning for our eternal home

Our girls envision home as any place that they are. And theologically this isn’t untrue. As people in Christ, our home is not a place, a building or house, it is in Christ—wherever we are. But at the same time, here, wherever we are today, is not our forever home; we have an eternal home with Christ. Scripture teaches us that as we wait and live in a world that is marred by sin, we should both pray for the in-breaking kingdom of God to come, but we are also invited to simply groan. In Romans 8 Paul says, 

For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. -Romans 8:22-26

We are not told that we must simply be joyful or pretend to enjoy this hard time, we are invited to groan.

The year after I graduated from college, I moved in with a girl I didn’t know who quickly became a close friend. One Friday night we found ourselves lying in the hallway of our apartment crying because our life was so hard. It was, at the time, but remembering that night always makes me smile. I had no idea what the Lord was doing while I was groaning on the floor with Maggie. We were lonely and wondering how to navigate life post-grad, but the Lord was at work. Groaning sounds a bit pitiable, but sometimes words fail, and all we can do is sigh loudly. And scripture teaches us that this is okay, good even. Paul says that all of creation groans as if it were in the pains of childbirth. There is the hope and signs of new life coming, and yet our present experience is painful. All of creation has been groaning until now, so as we lament sin and suffering, we find ourselves in good company, groaning with the very fibers of creations, every saint that had come before us, longing for earth to be renewed. We are not told that we must simply be joyful or pretend to enjoy this hard time, we are invited to groan. 

But more than that, the Spirit joins us in our groaning, a godly affirmation that it is ok to feel overwhelmed, distraught, sorrowful. When we don’t know how to pray or what to even ask for, God himself intercedes for us. God joins us in our pain, hearing our sighs and knowing our hearts and minds perfectly. In our groaning we have this promise; God meets us in our pain and prays for us, groaning with us in ways that we can’t even comprehend, bringing our requests to the Father who delights to provide for his children. He doesn’t leave us alone to fend for ourselves, he comes to commune with us, to dwell with us, to know our sorrow and suffering, and to promise in the pits of dispair that he will one day make all things new. 

The family of God

Though my daughters already understand the centrality of family, they have yet to understand the power of the family of God. Almost two years ago, they were baptized at our church, adopted into a covenant family. Though they could not take vows, everyone else did; Andrew and I promised to raise them to know and experience the love of God, and our church family promised to support us, to teach and encourage them, and to become their mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters in Christ. My daughters see family everywhere, but they do not yet understand the power of the family to which the belong. 

Jesus, when told his mother and brothers were nearby, replied “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Then he pointed to his disciples and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Mt 12:48-50). Jesus was telling us that the ones who believe in and follow Him are his brothers and sisters, co-heirs with Him and adopted sons and daughters of God. Nuclear family typically refers to parents and their children, the core of each family unit. But if we are in Christ, he becomes our nucleus, the center of our lives, the core of our beings, and the building block of our new family. But even more than that, we become members of his very body. He is our head, and all who believe in him are his body, all members of a single unit, closer even than our natural born family. 

In this season of being far from parents and siblings who we might typically spend Christmas with, we must remember that our family is much larger than we think—we belong to the family of God. When Paul is imprisoned in Rome, he writes a letter to his friends of the Philippian church. In the first sentences he exclaims that he thanks God with joy every time he remembers them because of their partnership with him in the gospel. Everytime Paul thinks about his family in Christ, he is filled with joy. But Paul isn’t spending time with his church family each week, he is isolated, alone in a prison cell awaiting potential execution. And yet, he rejoices. His letter is all about rejoicing and contentment because of the fellowship he enjoys—fellowship with other believers and fellowship with Christ. 

This year, if you find yourself missing family and home, remember Paul and press into the truths that your family in Christ rejoices in and remembers you, an important member of the body. You are not forgotten. Your home in Christ and your eternal home is in heaven, towards which we groan. This year, if you find yourself longing for family and longing for home, remember that the family of God is praying with you and for you, groaning with you as you groan, and that our God draws near to the broken-hearted, feels our pain with us, bears our burdens for us, and gives us the most important thing we can have in challenging times: his promise. This year, hold fast to the promises of God. 

Waiting and Hastening

Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept.  But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. – Matthew 25:1-13

Karl Barth uses the language of waiting and hastening to describe advent; in this time between advents, we are caught in this tension of waiting patiently for the day that our God will return, and hastening, actively preparing for the day to come. Waiting and hastening. One of many seeming paradoxes of faith. They feel like opposites—waiting is quiet, sedate. But hastening is waiting in action, eager preparation when there is much to do, much to be done before that for which we wait arrives. 

Being pregnant with twins made for a rather abnormal pregnancy. Besides there being two humans fighting for space under my lungs, I had dozens of ultrasounds, spent hours each week at the doctor’s office, and most importantly was told from day one that they could come at any time. After the initial shock, my husband and I settled into 8 months of waiting and hastening. They could come any day, but there was much to do, much to get ready, much life to enjoy before our family doubled. Just before my birthday in June my doctor said that she didn’t think I would make it much longer, and we entered into an even higher pitch of anticipation that would end up lasting almost two months. The trill of expectation was almost too much, a high-wire of emotion that we could not stay on very long. But that was our reality, waiting for the girls to arrive, hastening with our time. 

Jesus tells the parable of the ten virgins just before his death, in a series of parables about the final judgment. The parable is about the time that we live in today between comings, and the parable is about waiting and hastening. The virgins, who symbolize the Church, the Bride of Christ, are waiting for their groom to arrive. They are all waiting, but only five of them have been hastening: preparing, planning, readying themselves for whatever may come. The groom is delayed, at least, he hasn’t arrived when they expected him. The virgins grow tired and fall asleep, but are awoken by the cry that the Bridegroom has come! The wise virgins trim their wicks and go to meet him, the foolish ones have run out of oil and must go find more. When they return it is too late. It seems that the waiting isn’t enough in this parable, we must be hasteners. We must be people who are preparing, readying ourselves, waiting with action day by day. 

But what does it look like to have your oil ready? Second Peter is a book mostly about the return of Christ and in it Peter says that in light of Christ’s imminent return we must live lives of holiness and godliness, waiting and hastening for the coming of the day of God (3:11-12). To hasten then is to be actively pursuing the things of God, growing in love for Christ, walking by his Spirit and bearing its fruit. Hastening means growing day by day in our devotion to Jesus, that is how we prepare, that is how we wait. 

But the obvious problem is that waiting is hard, especially when our world seems to deteriorate more and more into sin. This is the advent question—how do we do this? How do we wait in brokenness and darkness and suffering? Why won’t you simply make all things right? This is the advent question, and the only answer is the advent promise; as sure as Christ came into the world once, he will come again. In the meantime, we find comfort in the words he has given to us.

Reflect: How has it been hard to wait for God to fulfill his promises?

Pray: Out of the depths I have cried to You, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice! Let Your ears be attentive To the voice of my supplications… I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, And in His word I do hope. My soul waits for the Lord More than those who watch for the morning— Yes, more than those who watch for the morning. O Israel, hope in the Lord; For with the Lord there is mercy, And with Him is abundant redemption. And He shall redeem Israel From all his iniquities (Psalm 130). Amen.

Oh Come, All Ye Faithful

And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. – Luke 2:36-38

Anna finds herself among the overlooked saints of scripture. Her name appears among the ranks of the angels, magi, and shepherds as she rightly recognizes Jesus as the Christ. Like the women at the empty tomb, Anna is the bearer of incredible news, and yet, not many of us know of Anna, the prophetess. It’s easy to see why; an elderly widow from a forgotten tribe is forgettable enough. But these three verses of God’s word tell us a story about what our God values. These verses tell a brief and lovely story of a faithful worshipper, and we have much to learn from her.

The Prophetess Anna at the Temple, Rembrandt

Waiting with patience. As a battered Israel wondered when God’s promises for a messiah might be fulfilled, Anna remained faithful to her God, not departing from the temple. But the word for depart has political undertones, meaning she had not deserted the temple. She had not deserted her faith in Yahweh, but was patiently waiting for the redemption of Israel and for her God to fulfill his promises to his people. Today, our situation is not so different from Anna’s. We find ourselves in a similar time of in-between the first and second comings of Christ. While we don’t know much about how the rest of Israel waited, Anna shows us that faithful waiting is indeed possible and that must tune our hearts to desire the coming of his kingdom.

Waiting in worship. While Anna waited, she worshipped through fasting and prayer. As a widow who probably did not have children, Anna’s life would have been seen as deficient. And yet in Anna we see a robust, adoring heart that does not cease to seek the one she loves. Through prayer and fasting she petitions God to fulfill his promises and tunes her own heart to hunger after her God more than anything else. This is the same posture we ought to take in our own in-between time: a worshipful heart that pursues our God day and night, praying for his kingdom to come and his will to be done. 

Joyful and triumphant. Anna’s life was probably not marked by much joy or triumph. The song goes, Oh come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant, oh come ye, oh come ye to Bethlehem. Come and behold him, born the King of angels. Oh come let us adore him. Who are the ones that this song tells us about? The faithful, joyful, triumphant ones? Anna. This song is about Anna and those who are like her. Who do not desert the faith, who seek the Lord through prayer and fasting, who long to see his kingdom come, whose hearts are tuned towards adoration. After years of waiting, Anna sees the fulfillment of the promised Messiah and he is her joy and triumph. May we too be like Anna; those who wait expectantly for our coming King in humble adoration. 

Reflect: What does worship mean to you? How does worship lead you to adoration?

Pray: Heavenly Father, we thank you that you see each of us, no matter how unimportant or insignificant we feel. You hear each of our prayers, know our hearts, and delight in us as your children. Give us joy in our waiting and worship as we draw near to you this advent season. Open our hearts to long for you and desire your kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven.

Listen: Oh Come, All Ye Faithful

What are we waiting for?

Be patient therefore brothers until the coming of the Lord. James 5:7

Have you ever noticed how the New Testament writers write with a deep sense of urgency? Their words make it sound like Jesus has ascended and will be back any minute. But for our modern ears, this can feel silly—is waiting and living like Jesus is coming back really that important? Perhaps we have been taught that Jesus will return again and restore all things, but that feels so far off, so out of touch with what reality feels like today. And yet, as surely as he came into the world once, he will return (Acts 1:11). 

Advent comes every year to reawaken us to this seemingly forgotten reality. Like spiritual smelling salts, Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas, is a season of anticipation and longing intended to retune our hearts, minds, and imaginations to remember that we are indeed waiting for our King to come. 

Advent means literally to come. Leading up to Christmas, we are focused on the first coming of the Jesus, the inbreaking of God through the incarnation as he sets in motion what he promised through the prophets centuries before. To understand advent and what we are waiting for we must first remember the story of Israel where it leaves off. This time in history is called the intertestamental period, the years between the old and new testaments, which was about 400 years. Israel had been released from captivity to Babylon and begun, with many obstacles, to rebuild the temple in anticipation of the promised messiah. But mostly, this was a season of waiting. Israel was discouraged and worn down, once again finding themselves waiting and wondering what God was doing and if he would prove himself faithful.

Today, we find ourselves in a very similar place. Though we know how the story of Israel’s waiting ends, we too are waiting between advents, between the comings of Christ. Jesus has come, but he promises to come again. Through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension we are united to him, adopted as children of God, and walk by his Spirit. But one day he will return to make all things new, to wipe away every tear and end sin and death once and for all. 

So today, as we begin this season of Advent, let us rightly posture ourselves, joining with the saints who waited long before us, in hopeful anticipation of Jesus coming again. He has promised he will.

Reflect: How does thinking about the return of Christ shape your day to day life?

Pray: Lord, I am waiting for many things and you know each of them. Awaken my heart to your promise to return one day and make all things new. Give me hope and imagination to live today in a way that reflects your perfect word, and grant me by your spirit the grace and courage to follow you with joy in my circumstances today. Amen.