Ow! I woke up the other day with an unexpected pain in my foot. I’d been to see a podiatrist and received a cortisone shot the day before to deal with some minor-but-persistent chronic pain. I’d been thrilled that the cortisone shot was a good option for me. I’d had a cortisone shot once before, 10 years ago, when I had a bad case of plantar fasciitis, and I remember it worked like magic. After months of pain and struggling, I had felt instantly better and the problem never returned. And so, this time around, I was expecting total and instant relief. Instead, the pain in my foot got worse, not better! And worse than the physical pain was the anxiety I felt at this confounding of my expectations. What was wrong?! Had I just made a terrible mistake? Would it ever get better?
Anxious Googler that I am, I looked up my symptoms and discovered that, indeed, some people do experience a temporary intensification of pain after a cortisone shot. I called my podiatrist and he confirmed that this reaction was not unexpected. So, OK. My foot still hurt, but I could recalibrate my expectations about what I was experiencing. And that made me feel better.
Friends, this month our congregational theme is Expectation. When we first chose this theme, my imagination went immediately to the Christian tradition of Advent – a time of expectation and joyful, patient waiting for Christmas Day. At least, that’s the idea! The expectations of Advent are different from the expectations we bring to our own lives. Celebrating Advent invites us into a kind of expectation that is fundamentally joyful, because the wonderful outcome is already known. There is no doubt. We can count down the days to Jesus’s birth without fear, because what we celebrate on Christmas Day is not a hoped-for future event, but a mythical recurrence, a story that has woven itself into our collective consciousness over millennia, deeply connected to the seasons and cycles of the year.
I had looked forward, this year, to savoring the sweet, fearless expectations of Advent. But the world has gotten in the way, more than usual. We have been so deeply challenged by events in the world – a flood of violence and prejudice in our own country … so many desperate refugees fleeing violence in their own homelands … so many needs crying out for our help and care. So much to do, so much that feels uncertain, so much at stake. It does not feel like a season of peaceful waiting. But still, I wonder – can this time of Advent still be an invitation to nurture our basic trust in the future? To do our best, and trust that that will be enough? To let go of our expectations about what is right and what should happen?
I need that lesson too. In my own family, I have been deeply thrown by my mother’s recent cancer diagnosis. After my dad died last December, I hoped and expected that our family would have a break from struggle and grief. I literally did expect that. In my mind, I absolutely expected a few years of peace and well-being. It was an expectation that, in retrospect, was not logical or driven by anything but my own craving. And so, when my mom told us last month that she had cancer, I was shocked to my core. What had happened to those years off from struggle? Hadn’t I decided that nothing like this would happen for a while? But the universe did not consult my will. Again I was forced into a painful recalibration of my expectations for what the future would hold.
And yet, I find that this season of Advent expectations has not abandoned me completely. Night after night I have lit candles and sat in silence for a few minutes. Remembering my Buddhist teachings around accepting what is. Remembering Christmases past, both joyful and poignant. Adjusting my expectations, looking for the beauty in this present moment. Asking myself, “How can I trust the darkness and embody light, right now?” And I know, not so much with my mind as with my heart, that love is present. Hope is here.
Holiday blessings to you all, dear ones. May you dwell in the joy that comes your way, and move with grace through all that is difficult. And may the light and life of this season be with you always.