This Advent season feels different. I could have expected this, I guess, since I am thousands of miles from the US and living in a predominantly Buddhist culture. But the odd feeling of the season has really struck me. I find I have time to think quite a bit here – when I plan lessons, walk to school, sit in meetings and trainings, weekends. As I think back to this season during the past few years I am struck by the busy, stressed, and hectic way I walked through the weeks leading to Christmas. It’s natural, right? With classes ending, graduation looming, and general anxiety about the year ending so abruptly, as it always seems to end. The days pass quickly. Christmas is when I feel I can finally slow down and not before because there is just too much to complete and too much to think about besides Advent or Christmas. Admittedly, Christmas hasn’t been my favorite season in recent years. I can’t stand the materialism, to-do lists, stress, and ‘perfectness’ of the celebration of our modern culture around the holiday. I hate the busyness, although I am very guilty of falling into the trap.
The holiday season is quiet here in Cambodia. After Pchum Ben in October and Water Festival in November, the next major holiday is in April. So, as the US and many parts of the world are excitedly anticipating the Christmas holiday, life here continues as normal, without much fuss about Christmas. The days are slower and leave space for consideration about what this whole Advent season is all about. If it weren’t for my Advent devotions or some of the staff asking about plans for Christmas the season could pass unnoticed. For most individuals here, Christmas is just another day.
Some may know about our YAGM CambodiAdvent picture devotional. Each day we read a Bible passage and reflect on a word associated with the passage. We then take a photo of how we see the word in our daily life. This has prompted reflection about the purpose, meaning of Advent and Christmas. Expectant waiting, hope, joy, justice, prepare, peace… these words take on a new meaning here as I walk through my YAGM year. As I listen, see, learn, and try to understand life here I am also trying to make sense of the greater world we live in as I read the daily headlines. A world where some lives are considered more sacred than others. Where fear drives hatred and prejudice. Where violence is a solution to conflict. Where unjust economic systems benefit the wealthy at the expense of the poor. It all weighs heavy and creates a polarization of thought. Where do we even begin?
Our world and our own selves are broken, messy, sinful. How radical of a story that a God of love and justice and hope sent His own Son to redeem. Advent prepares the way for the beginning of this story. A story of trust, fulfillment, suffering, redemption. A story of a Savior coming to shine light in this broken world. Mary’s conception and Jesus’ birth did not happen in a perfect, sinless world. It happened in a world similar to today – a society full of corruption, greed, violence, fear. God meets us in this place. I am again reminded of Mary’s commitment and faith in the gospel of Luke. When approached by the angel Gabriel, Mary is understandably confused. How could she possibly bring into the world a child who would become the Son of God? But she responses saying, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). We can all learn something from Mary in this response.
I find myself waiting and confused here often, in some sort of middle place. Sometimes I wait physically – for school to start, for transportation, for work. Sometimes I am waiting to understand my call here. Sometimes I question how to take action. Will I offend someone? Is it culturally appropriate? Am I doing good? Navigating the uncertainties and adjustments has been difficult. However, one lesson I have learned four months into this journey is simple and something I had forgotten in this new space: be bold. Be bold in the waiting. Be bold in hope. Be bold in joy and justice and peace and love. I am confident we are called to be more than silent and passive in this life.
So, where do we even begin to contemplate the current events around the world and in our communities when it all seems like too much to carry? I think the answer is simple. Start where you find your feet planted. Rejoice in the promise of the Savior and redemption of the world. But remember to live in this world now. God does not wait to show up until the world is redeemed. God shows up now and tomorrow and in our ordinary, messy, beautiful daily lives. We must be bold like Mary. I think we can overcome the initial polarization of thought with a servant’s heart and bold actions. Obviously this is not even close to an overarching solution and is not meant to simplify the complexities of our communities, governments, and states, but it can set our thoughts and actions in a guided, meaningful way.
This year I will spend Advent and Christmas without a physical church body. In previous years, I have either worshiped with my Roanoke family, WHLC family, or a community somewhere in between. This year I will spend Christmas teaching at the local school and hopefully having my own candlelight service. Although I will not be surrounded by others or have familiar traditions, God comes before and God is present here. I am looking to this season to revitalize and nourish. I will recommit to acting boldly and simply to be a servant of the Lord, as we are all called, praying “here am I.”
With bold peace and love,