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I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord; “plans for good and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”

the CULTIVATING

journal

The Weight of Expectations

December 8, 2018



 

While away on a personal retreat recently, I woke up deliberately to see the sunrise. The night before, I’d checked the weather app on my phone for the precise time of its rising, setting my alarm before going to bed. The next morning, I woke in anticipation before it ever went off. I started a small pot of coffee to be waiting for me when I came back, and stuffed my warm pajama pants into my boots and bundled and braced myself for the November wind.

The retreat center that I visited is one as familiar to me as a second home. I facilitate a yearly retreat there myself, and have walked the halls and grounds on numerous occasions. A friend, who is also well acquainted with this space, had herself, been there a week before me, and reminded me that the sun crests just behind the thicket of trees in the back of the prayer labyrinth.  Camera and journal in hand, this was to be my viewing point for the sunrise. Upon returning home, my friend had shared a small, square image of her sunrise, so bright you almost felt the need to squint looking at the photo. I’d marveled, and looked forward to seeing it myself. Before I left, as we chatted about her weekend there, she described the Japanese maple that stands at the back-center of the labyrinth, how it had been aflame with leaves, how it glowed when the sun came up behind it. A burning bush.

I couldn’t wait to seeing this magical sunrise. The whole week prior to leaving, I envisioned myself bundled up, with coffee in hand, sitting on the large stone in the middle of the labyrinth, squinting towards the horizon. In my mind I could hear the rustle of the autumn leaves, as I sat among the company of the wildlife that frequent this space. With each day leading up to my retreat, my expectations swelled.

The morning I woke up at the retreat center, I made my way in the hushed dawn, beneath the pines, down the sidewalk from my hermitage to the labyrinth and began to walk it as I waited for the sun to appear. In his book, Finding My Way Home, Henri Nouwen says that for many of us, waiting is a dry desert between where we are and where we want to be.[1] I know this has often been true in my own waiting seasons. I awoke hungry for an experience. I wanted a tangible encounter, and a week had felt like long enough to wait for it. My heart was restless. Anxious. Eager and impatient. In my Advent book, Come Lord Jesus, I wrote that, we are a people uncomfortable with waiting.[2]

As I rounded the first curve of the labyrinth, I checked my watch. Five more minutes until the anticipated sunrise. The path of the labyrinth is narrow, and this time of year, so covered with leaves, that it’s a challenge to stay within the path without looking down. Head bowed, I proceeded, glancing up every few seconds, watching for the light. The sky looked like a thick blanket of gray down. Cloud cover so heavy and monotone, the reality set in that my sunrise experience would not be like my friend’s. Looking to the back of the labyrinth, I noticed that the tree, aflame just a week ago, now stood naked, having dropped all of its fire to the ground. As I wound my way through, I stepped on the soggy remnants of that burning bush and felt only cold.

Glancing up once more, I saw two faint pink ribbons cut through the white sky. Seconds later, the ribbons disappeared just as shyly as they had appeared. The whole thing lasted less than a moment. I stood in the center of the labyrinth, eyes fixed on where the pink had been—is that it?—I wondered. Was that the whole thing? I checked my watch. Two minutes had passed since the forecasted sunrise. That was it. I’d seen it. Two pink ribbons. No burning bush.

The sky, still white, gradually lightened but never changed color.

I worked my way out of the labyrinth, praying my disappointment towards the white sky. It had been a non-event. “Move along, nothing to see here”, I muttered to the squirrel watching me from the ashen maple.  Every expectation I’d had for that morning disappeared into the morning fog.

I waited for the sunrise, that did in fact occur, even though two faint ribbons of pink light were the only evidence I beheld. I stood before a once-burning tree, and shook my head at the elusiveness of God, but before I could fully form my accusations about His unwillingness to show up (and let’s be honest, show off,) I heard it in my Spirit, the gentle conviction that God is not a showman to be summoned to perform for me at my pleading.

Expectations are not always a bad thing, but when they become the object of our hope they can become a hindrance to seeing what God is actually doing. They can be blinders to the reality of God’s active presence, and mufflers in our ears blocking out His sacred whispers. Too often our expectation becomes the only acceptable outcome. In our fixation we fail to imagine that any other scenario might have a worthwhile purpose. When our expectations become the point of our fixation, they make waiting unbearable. And when our expectations are unmet, we are tempted to believe that, while we were waiting, nothing was happening. But this is not true.  Invisible events are being strung together every moment, like pearls—a thousand things aligning as parts of a story bigger than our short-sighted, impatient vision can imagine.

We ask God to show up, and sometimes instead of making His presence obvious, He invites us to wait. All day, as I reflected on my disappointment in my morning walk, it occurred to me that the weather that day was not random. For reasons I will not know (and don’t need to) God allowed the sun to stay hidden. As I ruminated on my propensity towards misplaced expectations, and impatience in waiting, the word, invitation came to mind. Perhaps God’s patience with us is an invitation.

Advent is a season splitting at the seams with expectation.

We will spend these days awaiting the coming Christ, and in cacophony of the season, we will grow weary, face inevitable disappointments, and small frustrations that will make the waiting tiresome. But what if, instead of lamenting the slowness of God, we received even the difficult, bitter waiting, as an invitation? What if, as Nouwen wrote, we recognized that in our waiting, this moment is the moment?[3]  What if the waiting is sometimes at least, an intentional invitation to be present where we are, instead of looking for what is next?

God is coming, and He is visiting us now, He has spoken and is speaking still—just not always in a fantastic sunrise, or through a burning bush.

Maybe He’s not late, as we assume Him to be, but is instead working all terrible and beautiful things together, for His glory, and for our salvation.

If we are fixated on an expectation, if we are hoping in an outcome rather than remaining open to God’s ways, we are libel to say, God was not present. God did not speak. God did not move.

God’s ways are not our ways.

My disappointed heart understood in those moments of sadness over the non-event sunrise, that the only reason I felt cheated was because I’d placed my hopes in a specific expectation that had nothing to do with seeing God, and everything to do with meeting my demand for a spectacular vision.

Later that afternoon, just before I got in my car to head home, I turned the corner near the chapel and stumbled into the light I’d been hoping all day to see. A near-miss moment, in a dark corner behind a stairwell became a breathtaking, humbling reminder of the surprising and perfectly-timed presence of God.

Come, Lord Jesus, we pray.

Help us to wait with hope not fixed on expectations but on Emmanuel,

who has come, is here now, and will come again.



Image courtesy of the author, Kris Camealy.



[1] Nouwen, Henri J. M. Finding My Way Home: Pathways to Life and the Spirit. Quezon City, Philippines: Claretian, 2004.

[2] Camealy, Kris. Come, Lord Jesus: The Weight OF Waiting. Columbus, Ohio, 2016

[3] Nouwen, Henri J. M. Finding My Way Home: Pathways to Life and the Spirit. Quezon City, Philippines: Claretian, 2004. Pg. 95.



 

Kris Camealy

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