Advent and the City
We stared at the piece of plastic and sank into the futon. Positive. We were sure of it even as our minds struggled to grasp the enormity and totality of its meaning. Positive. Were we ready for this, for anything? Positive. We were going to be parents.
In some ways, the news felt like the least of our worries. We had hardly been married three months and yet had already been exposed to an extreme range of other emotions. Not only were we still adjusting to living together as newlyweds, we were doing so in an environment that felt more like a battlefield than anything else. We lived in a dysfunctional row home located in an epicenter of urban violence. One man was shot in the chest less than fifty feet away from our front door; the event was so close that I was applying first aid before most of the police had even arrived at the scene. I was regularly sending some neighbors to the hospital for general medical conditions even as I tried to refer others to drug rehab. Hardly a month earlier, someone had broken into our house. The next day, even as we tried to cope and secure the house, someone broke in again. Simple tasks of married life became draining and difficult; we had mold in the basement, no access to laundry, and little heat in our rooms to brace us for the coming winter. Many of our friends and allies in the neighborhood had either betrayed us, fallen ill, or moved. It mattered little that there were other like-minded Christians living only a few blocks away; to us, it might as well have been the other side of the city since we felt too unsafe to walk outdoors most days. In relocating, my wife had also moved away from her family, church, and many friends. It felt as if many of our supports were eroding swiftly.
And now we were expecting. I was headed towards eighty-hour workweeks as a resident even as we began to plan our next steps. Though we intended to stay and work in the state, little else was clear beyond that. Would we stay in the city? Which part of the city? If we felt so threatened by our neighborhood, how much more would our child? What was manageable or even safe for us and for a newborn? Was planning a move evidence of a lack of faith, or was it a wise decision in the face of many hardships?
As we struggled through these questions and everything from morning sickness to a spike in the neighborhood shooting tally, I felt an encroaching sense of desperation and futility. At every step in my journey into the inner city, I have been asked (often repeatedly), “Why? Why would you live there? What is worth it?” I didn’t realize how strongly and compulsively I felt the need to justify and defend the neighborhood until we were thinking of leaving. I had gotten used to saying things like, “There are good people here,” and “My patients live and raise their families here too,” and “People look after and care for each other here,” and “Jesus is present.” But our cumulative experiences with betrayal, break-ins, fires, moves, and desolation over the past few months called each of those points into question, often making me wonder if even the last point was still true.
It still amazes me that, through all this, my wife and I still have not had an argument. Though we have wept together many times and often faced physical isolation during the most taxing times due to work, we never felt apart as one flesh, and for that I am exceedingly thankful and humbled. At the end of many long discussions, my wife and I decided to move to a “quieter” section of the city for a variety of reasons, the primary of which has been stability. It is a temporary move, and a good one. Not a single person has questioned the “rightness” or integrity of the departure; if anything, others have only expressed great relief and joy.
But I have questioned it. Really, I have been questioning myself and have been ruminating for quite some time now, even as I write while staring at packing tape and stacks of moving boxes that sit under Christmas lights and a small, humble tree. I have been thinking a lot about Advent, a so-called “time of expectant waiting and preparation.” We just found out last week that we will be expecting a boy, and I marveled at what it must have been like for Mary and Elizabeth to have been the only women among their peers to have known with such certainty (in the absence of ultrasound!) what sex their children would be… or, already were. I thought about how Mary must have felt in Bethlehem, apart from all other family and friends and giving birth under a foreign roof in a city in which they were hardly welcome. I thought about what Joseph must have felt to be persecuted by Herod, guided by little else than an angelic vision to flee with his wife and a newborn child to a foreign country away from devouring and hostile eyes.
I wondered how they survived it all.
Advent is about the expectation of goodness that defies all injustice and the hope therein that endures all suffering: the worthiness and satisfaction of Jesus Christ. Even as we struggle to process our passage from one home to another, even as we mourn the devastation of our city of Wilmington, we are reminded of the prophecy of Zechariah, who at the birth of his son John the Baptist exclaimed:
“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David
(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us—
to show mercy to our ancestors
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
The promise of Jesus Christ is not one of prosperity or simplicity but of peace, mercy, and deliverance in the midst of chaos, war, and fear. We are redeemed! What have we to dread when the rising sun of the Living God dawns upon us?