Advent Reflections: Feeling God’s Presence
[Editor's note: This Advent season, Bread Blog will be running a series of reflections written by lay members of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. This post is reprinted, with permission, from the church's 2013 Advent Meditations booklet.]
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
By Rachel Browning
Each year, during Advent season, I reflect on the previous year and contemplate where I’ve been and what the next year might bring. This year, I must confess, I feel overwhelmed as I try to put into perspective the challenges I faced personally over the past six months, as well as the countless crises occurring every day both in our country and abroad. This time last year, my partner and I had just begun the adoption process. As I write this, we are still in the midst of a crazy, emotional roller coaster of waiting and seeing, wondering when the moment will finally arrive that will change the rest of our lives. In addition, the whole process was brought to a screeching halt this summer when I suffered an unexpected grand mal seizure while on a run, and later found out that I had a brain tumor. While, thankfully, it was benign, it nevertheless required immediate surgery. Six weeks of recovery and five months of no driving later, I was back to “normal” life, but I definitely felt like I had been tested and had emerged a reformed soul.
But really, in spite of all that, I recognize that I’m one of the lucky ones. Others in our world – victims of such calamities as the Boston Marathon bombing, the ongoing violence in Syria, the civil unrest in Egypt, and the recent typhoon in the Philippines, and other natural disasters – have experienced far more trauma and uncertainty than I can even imagine. I watch events unfold in the news and try to conceptualize how I would respond in the face of such terror. Observing the state of our world, it can be hard to envision Immanuel – "God with us" – when so many obstacles obscure our view. Isaiah’s prophesy of the birth of a child yet to be conceived and his call for us to “be set apart for him” reminds us that God is with us always. Yet Isaiah’s vision of Immanuel as not just a “sanctuary,” but also a “stumbling stone”—a warning that, in the face of challenges and threats, there will be those who turn away and reject God. This notion is echoed in the text from Matthew, which recounts how both John the Baptist and Jesus were disregarded for being different, their messages rejected. Like children, we are often unsatisfied with the messages we receive, disappointed with what the world has to offer us. We reject God precisely at those times when we feel most vulnerable, naively thinking that we alone can control the chaos around us.
This year it has been hard for me not to be that person who, when facing the unknown, chooses doubt and cynicism and embraces unbelief as somehow more secure than the alternative. But I have to believe that it was Immanuel in the three individuals (still unknown to me) who found me unconscious on the trail after I collapsed, called 911, and waited by my side for help to arrive. He was there in the nurses, physicians assistants, and surgeons who took control of my care. And he was with me in the numerous individuals from my family, work, and, of course, my church community, who prayed with and for me. I know God was with me not because the surgery was successful, but because, through the love and support I received, I was reminded that I was not alone. Through God’s grace, I was lifted up out of the darkness and into the light.
My prayer for everyone this Advent season, and throughout the coming year, is that you feel God’s presence in those periods of pain and suffering, in the feelings of uncertainty about the future, and in those moments of rejection and loneliness.
Rachel Browning is a member of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, in Washington, D.C.
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