Advent: The Waiting and the Arrival

Here we are, almost in the fourth week of Advent already, and Christmas is just around the corner. Does it feel like you’ve been waiting a long time or does it seem to have gone by too quickly, left with little time to prepare? As I think about what the Advent season means to me, a season I never paid all that much attention to, I’ve been delving into the idea of holy waiting. This is a concept that my country coordinator, Rev. Tessa Moon Leiseth, brought up to all ten of the South Africa YAGMs scattered around the country when the season began. We wait for so many things in our daily lives as well as over long periods of time. We wait in line to get coffee at a café; we wait for our friends and family members to be ready to go; we wait for test results; we wait for the baby to come; we wait. Sometimes this makes us impatient where we just want it to happen already. Other times it makes us anxious, the closer the ‘happening’ is the more nervous we get. In this Advent season, there is certainly a mix of feelings along these lines. We just want Christmas to come already or we don’t feel ready for it.

In the Advent season, we are waiting for the birth of Jesus, the coming of God to live as flesh among us. We are urged to prepare our minds, our hearts, our spirits for the coming of God with us, Emmanuel (Nkosi nathi). This is holy waiting, the period of preparation before something happens. But really, what can we actually do to prepare ourselves for this momentous occasion or for any occasion for that matter? Can we prepare ourselves for the coming of a baby: the embodiment of God or simply the birth of a first-born? Can we prepare our hearts and minds for the way we will be fed both bodily and spiritually by strangers who welcome us in? The answer is, truly, no. We can prepare and prepare but we can never be ready. This is holy waiting.

We wait for the unknown. We make plans and build up expectations for something we cannot prepare for or predict. Our expectations are often shattered, leaving us in a place we didn’t prepare for and we don’t understand. At orientation in Chicago for all of the Young Adults in Global Mission, we were told to have as little expectations as possible, allowing ourselves room to absorb and wonder. Again, once the ten of us got to Johannesburg and in-country orientation, still waiting to live in our communities, it was emphasized to shed our expectations. We all tried in vain to do this, but of course many expectations still remained. So many of the expectations that I didn’t even realize that I had about coming here have been totally broken, some of which seemed like disappointments at first, some a pleasant surprise, and some perplexing realities. However, during that period of waiting we all had before going into our communities, we all built up expectations and made plans. We all engaged in active waiting because we couldn’t just count down the days passively, checking our watches as we went. We had to prepare our hearts and minds for the journey to come, we couldn’t just idle until the main event. It was our Advent, our period of holy waiting.

 Some days in South Africa I feel as though I am in a perpetual state of waiting. I wait at the office at the Centre for something to do, some task to take on; I wait to catch a glimpse of understanding about a conversation I don’t have the language skills to follow; I wait for someone to pick me up to go to a church event, not quite sure when they’ll arrive; I wait for a kombi (a shared taxi van, meant for 15 passengers, often filled with more than 15) to fill up so we can head out on our way; I wait for enough people to get to church so the service can start; I wait. As I’ve now been here for almost 4 months, I’ve mostly gotten used to how time works here. Some days I still feel very American when it comes to time, but I’ve grown accustomed to waiting and the fluidity of time and have learned how to use the time to read or chat with the people around me.

In these 4 months I’ve begun to figure out that some truly beautiful things can happen while waiting for something else to happen. Several months ago, for instance, I waited in a taxi for several hours and had a fascinating conversation with a man who asked me all kinds of wild questions about America. Last weekend, I attended a youth conference  (like a regional youth gathering) in Eshowe, five hours from where I’m staying in Estcourt. A group of us were waiting in our shared room for lunch to be ready. One girl I was spending time with, Sindi, suggested we go outside and wait because then we could sing songs instead of just sitting in the room. We went out to where a line was forming, and sure enough there was enthusiastic singing and dancing; not an unlikely scene in South Africa it seems, but it struck me that day: the waiting can be the best part.

And this is what holy waiting is all about. Really, the waiting is what happens, the main event. That’s where the good stuff is. We are constantly in a state of waiting, preparing for what is to come in the future. There is no end to this, never a destination we reach where we will wait no more. But the waiting and the arrival are one in the same. As we practice holy waiting, we are building our relationships and ourselves, and preparing for the future of more building, preparing, and of course, waiting; it is the fulfillment of life before the future and it is the future itself. In this year, I will look for the beauty in the waiting, knowing that what I’m waiting for is what is already happening all around me.

As this Advent season is almost at a close, I am thinking a lot about Christmas and I feel as though in the past maybe I’ve missed what the season is all about; it is about holy waiting. The word Advent comes from the Latin word Adventus, which translates as arrival and comes from the roots: “ad” meaning “to” and “venire” meaning “come.” This period of time in the Church calendar meant for preparation and waiting for Christmas to come really is the arrival itself. We wait and we arrive, all in the same moment. Advent itself is the arrival, the coming, and the becoming that we all participate in every moment of our lives. Right now is our Advent, and it always will be.

 

 

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Naming and Belonging

Less than a month into my time here, my friend Musa (meaning Grace) decided to give me a Zulu name. We were walking in town toward the KFC where she was going to buy us a couple of ice cream cones (my first ice cream since the end of orientation, might I add) and she felt that it was time. She named me Zethu; and as all Zulu names mean something, Zethu means “She is ours.” Just like that, I belonged to someone: to my friend Musa, and to my community. I am theirs, and I belong. From that day on, I have been mostly referred to as Zethu; when I hear my name, my head turns and I am sometimes even taken aback when someone calls me Hannah here. This sense of belonging that this naming has given me is something that I don’t always feel, especially when I generally stick out like a sore thumb, but it is something that is always there, under the surface. All it takes is to hear my name being called by a woman who works in the sewing department or the wafer bakery or in the kitchen to feel that belonging that my new name evokes. As Gregory Boyle writes in Tattoos on the Heart, “’I have called you by name. You are mine,’ is how Isaiah gets God to articulate this truth. Who doesn’t want to be called by name, known?” I am called by name, and I am known. Zethu: she is ours. God calls us by name and says “You belong to me.” Here I am, Lord. 

Thinking about the sense of belonging that my name gives me made me think about all the different times in our lives that we are named and renamed. This happens many times as a rite of passage into different life stages, or when a person is accepted or welcomed into a community. When we are born, we are given names, some of which are names that mean something to our parents or caretakers, other names are family names, passed down through generations. In Judaism, there is a rite of passage eight days into a child’s life where the child is named and, if a boy, circumcised, marking a passage into the world and into religious life. When we get older, we might choose a confirmation name as a sign of our passage into another level of Christian life. When we get married we might add a family and their history into our lives in the form of a surname, or we could choose to take an entirely different name with our spouse to signify the union. We get accepted and welcomed into communities with new names: a person receives their doctorate and adds Dr. onto their name, signifying their place in a community. And, of course, there are names that could be given to a person who is being welcomed into a community entirely foreign to them, a name that brings her into the community and says “you belong to us.” Isn’t that really what a name is? With each name you are given or even choose, you gain a belonging into a community and the walls that separate us are further broken down.

Again, as Gregory Boyle writes in Tattoos on the Heart, “Mother Theresa diagnosed the world’s ills in this way: we’ve just ‘forgotten that we belong to each other.’ Kinship is what happens when we refuse to let that happen.” According to Islam, this is what sin consists of: forgetfulness. I would have to agree; we forget about our brothers and sisters, we forget about God, we forget about the earth, and we forget our collective belonging. This is what causes the systemic sin that separates us from one another and allows us to build walls. If we refuse to forget that we belong to each other and that God says, “You are mine,” we get closer to achieving what we have in mind when we think of a world free of the barriers that separate us and the chains that bind us. When we do this, we have kinship and we have community, and most of all belonging. We belong to each other, and when I hear my name called, Zethu, I am known and I belong.

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Living in Silence and Finding a Voice

I have now been at KwaZamokuhle in Kwa-Zulu Natal Province for a month and a half, and although my skills at speaking isiZulu have greatly improved since day one, I still struggle immensely at being able to communicate with the people around me. I can say “Hello, How are you?” (Sawubona! Unjani?) and tell whoever it is that I am speaking to that I am well (Ngiyaphila). I’ve learned quite a few other vocabulary words, how to tell children to “come here” (Woza la), and to say “I’m sorry” (Ngiyaxolisa). However, I remember feeling, and still do feel stifled by not being able to speak the language that the people in the community in which I am living speak. In a lot of ways I cannot be myself with the people with whom I don’t know how to communicate. There are many parts of me that have yet to come out of the woodwork because of this. I felt and still feel silenced by this language barrier. Ways of interacting with and relating to people are off-limits to me because all I can do is sit back, listen, and a lot of the time zone out to what sounds so new to my ears. Not only do I not understand what’s being said, I can’t be involved in what is being said. I simply have to sit on the sidelines, and that’s difficult for me as it would be for anyone trying to be a part of a community. Ways of relating and interacting that I consider myself good at, like something as simple as making conversation or asking children questions about themselves, are things I don’t know how to do in isiZulu. I simply cannot engage the way I would like to be able to engage. Of course, it gets easier every day, but thinking about the ways that I feel myself being silenced by this language barrier made me think on a broader level about the ways that people, individuals and different groups of people, have been silenced throughout history. I make absolutely no claim to have any idea what it’s like to be truly silenced in the ways that oppressed people have been silenced, but I would like to explore this a bit.

 There are thousands of languages being spoken throughout the world today and we’re familiar with many of them: English, Spanish, Zulu, Mandarin, Swahili, Hindi, etc. These are the languages that we learn in the classroom and study so that we can ace exams or travel to a foreign land and be able to communicate. But what about language that’s not necessarily only about the words we speak but about the way we interact? Within societies there are languages that define the way that women interact with women and men with men. There are languages that define how young people interact with old people. There are also languages that dictate how those in power interact with those who have little to no power in this world, those who are oppressed by the society in which they live. For instance, during Apartheid there were certain “languages” used for the interaction between racial groups. Sometimes this meant an actual spoken language, perhaps of Afrikaans, but it often meant so much more than that and included body language and other ways of interacting. Another, perhaps more subtle example might be the ways in which women throughout history were given the proper “language” to interact with men and vice versa. The use of one language and not another has ways of silencing people as we have seen countless times throughout history. Women have been silenced and forced into the background through the use of language that includes all ways of interacting, not simply spoken words. Immigrants are silenced by the use of cultural and spoken language that is not their own. The mother tongue of immigrants, refugees, and the colonized alike is often treated as inferior, second-class, and ignorant, and frequently gets lost. Just like the language of oppressed peoples, the people themselves can get lost. People are silenced by language and forced into the background. Re-developing a voice in the world can be a long and difficult process, one that so many are now striving to do.

 In this same way that throughout history there have been unspoken, non-verbal languages used to communicate between and among groups of people, there have been a lot of non-verbal ways that I have been able to communicate with people in my community, and a lot of ways that my new friends have helped me develop my language skills as well as simply guiding me on my journey. When a child sings a song with me, no matter if in English or Zulu, we are communicating. When we play a game of tag or something that resembles duck-duck-goose, we are communicating. A woman with whom it is difficult to verbally communicate at the Centre because of our language barrier will pantomime what she is trying to say or point out different items to me to get her point across. There is also the language of a handshake, particularly the South African handshake that is a bit more complicated and somewhat more fun than the American one I am used to, or the language of a hug at the passing of the peace during church or at then end of a long day speaks volumes. When there is so much unspoken it might be harder to hear what is being communicated, but this is where I need to open my eyes wider and look around me. This is the language of neighborly love and accompaniment. In this language we begin to see the love of Christ exemplified in the human condition and God walking with us here on Earth. Here at KwaZamokuhle, the Holy Spirit guides me and helps me to see the kind of love that comes from these languages and in many ways has given me a voice which will continue to grow as the year goes on.

 

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Another lovely view from my backyard, I don’t mind it at all!

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The bird’s nest that is being built out of mud at the corner of my porch, every day it has grown

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A lovely tree that stretches out wide to catch the sunlight

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The hill I can see from my porch, at the foothills of the Drakensburg mountains

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