When Doubts Assail: Some Advent Musings
For those following the Advent texts of the Common Lectionary, this is the second week of a focus on John the Baptist.
That said, this week, from Matthew 11, couldn’t be more different than last week. Last week, John had taken up his post in the wilderness, called all people to a baptism of repentance to which they responded in droves, and directed bold challenges at the entitled and complacent.
If last week John roared, this week, he whispers. We find him in prison, on account of having continued his practice of calling out corrupt leaders. In prison the once mighty prophet seems now to be assailed by doubts. He sends his own disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
One of the Old Testament stories that has been especially significant to me is that of the prophet Elijah. And particularly the sequence in I Kings 18 and 19. In chapter 18, Elijah is on fire, challenging the false prophets and exposing them and their royal patrons as bogus. But in the very next chapter Elijah is overcome by crippling fear. He flees into the wilderness and prays that God will take his life. It’s a remarkable contrast, but it a contrast that rings true to life, at least for me.
We are capable of acts of courage that astonish everyone, not least ourselves. But the very same person who is filled with a spirit of power and boldness, can in a very short time be but a shadow of their former selves. They go from a mighty sail, filled to straining with the wind, driving a boat on the water, to a sail that hangs limp and listless on a becalmed craft. At least I have experienced such ups and downs in my own life.
So during Advent we we ponder these two contrasting pictures of John herald of God’s intrusion, I thought of his forerunner, Elijah. It is interesting to note that Jesus spoke later in Matthew 11 of John as “the Elijah who is to come.” Sometimes in Scripture it is as if one figure is painted lightly over another earlier antecedent, whom we see just hidden.
There are probably many points to be drawn from this second story of John (Matthew 11: 2 -11), but I take this one. There will be times when doubts assail us. There will be times when all the wind has gone out of our sails. And these may come, ironically, just on the heels of times of great courage and boldness.
There are a couple of things I’ve learned about such times and getting through them.
First, is that you will, get through. Such times of doubt and sadness do not last forever. They do come to an end. Advent, which means “coming,” is a reminder of this. Something’s coming.
Second, when Elijah was struggling, he felt utterly alone, and in more ways than one. Repeatedly he protested to God that he, alone, was the last faithful person left in all Israel. When you feel it is all on you, that’s a flashing red light. Pay attention. Ask for help. Likely, you aren’t as alone as you think. If you feel like you’re carrying the world on your shoulders, call time, and put it down. Ask God to take over.
Third, attend to basics. As Elijah fled into the wilderness in terror, angels attended him, bringing food and water and urging him to eat and drink even if he didn’t feel like it. At the Ballard Health Club, where I work out, the staff have offered some simple holiday health challenges. Among them, last week, was, “Go to bed an hour early.” Be sure to get eight hours of sleep. This week included add an 8 oz glass of water to your morning routine. It’s easy to neglect these ADL’s (activities of daily life) and particularly in the holidays to go off the other end with over-eating, over-drinking (not water). So don’t neglect these basics of rest, nutrition and exercise.
Fourth, let God be God for you. The brave, the bold and the busy are often hard at doing God’s work in the world and doing for others. But these too need to let God be God for them. Sometimes we who would bring grace to others need to ask for and receive it ourselves.
You are precious, known, accepted. Breathe deeply and trust this.
Advent is such a paradoxical time. The darkest days of the year. A season of hope and anticipation. Seems to sum up much of life these days.