by Rev. Sara Ann Swenson
Happy first Sunday of Advent! While it often gets wrapped up in one long celebration of Christmas, Advent in the Christian calendar is actually an extended season of waiting. The lectionary scriptures for Advent are all about patience, coming, promises, pending glory, and anticipation... but I have to admit a personal weakness. I am not a very patient person.
I don’t about you, but I really don’t like waiting for things. I don’t like waiting for answers. I don’t like waiting for change. I don’t even really like waiting for the bus! I suppose all of us are waiting for something. Waiting for jobs, waiting for love, waiting for people to come around, waiting to let go, waiting for the strength to quit an addiction – maybe for a second or third time – waiting for healing, waiting for an answer to prayer, waiting a chance to see someone we miss, waiting for a sense that we are doing the right thing... I know as United Methodists, some of us have been waiting a very long time to see our church answer the Biblical call for full inclusion. Advent is a season for people like us – Advent is a season for people who are waiting and preparing.
I like stories. I think they help us to relate to one another, to understand ourselves differently. To help us think about this season of Advent – this season of waiting and all the seasons of waiting in our lives – I’d like to share a story. This story comes from China, I’ve retold it in my own words.
There once was a fisherman named Wei. He was an intelligent, hardworking man of great loyalty. No one else in his village was as dedicated to the life of a fisherman as Wei. From the first day he could walk and follow his fisherman father around the house, Wei had lived the daily life of a fisherman. He had woken every morning, hours before dawn, to prepare the breakfast fire and sort his nets. He had gone out on the water every day, taken his lunch on the boat every day, caught fish, didn’t catch fish, prepared the fish when he did catch them, and took them to market.
He never took a day to rest, but also never overworked himself. He lived a moderate, simple, constant life of daily repetition. But Wei also loved to read. Reading was part of his routine. Every night before he went to bed, Wei read a travel story about some place distant and different from anything he had ever know. Some nights he dreamed of all the places his little fishing boat could take him – there were many places Wei wanted to see in the world, many new people, plants, and animals he hoped to meet...
But after a long life of daily patterns, Wei didn’t know when he could possibly go. There was always something to do around the docks; always more he could save up before his journeys. The timing was never quite right.
One afternoon in his boat, Wei wasn’t catching any fish. This day wasn’t particularly different than other days without a catch, except today, as Wei was looking down in the water, he caught his reflection. He realized that in all the patterns and routines of his life, he had somehow gotten old. His beard was white. His face was thin. He had never fallen in love, never traveled, never followed his dreams... and now he wondered if he still had time. For the first time in his life, Wei broke the routine of his day and rowed back to the village.
His neighbors working along the shore were astonished. Even when he had been deathly ill, Wei had stuck to his routine! They rushed to his aid.
“What has happened to you?” someone shouted as they neared the boat.
Wei shrugged. “I realize that I have gotten old,” he said. “There are many other things I hoped to do in my life. Now, I think I have waited too long.”
Many people turned and walked back to work right away, “This is life!” they said. “Don’t be foolish.”
One woman stayed back with a thought. “Have you been to talk to the wise man up the mountain?” she asked. “He may have a suggestion for you.”
“I have never even left the village,” Wei responded. “Where do I find him?” The woman gave him directions and Wei started to walk. He was nervous and frightened. He was worried he might get lost – he didn’t exactly know where he was going! But his desire for change was greater than his fear of the unknown. So Wei kept walking.
After several days’ journey and a few wrong turns, Wei finally found the mountain and climbed until he came to the wise man’s home. When he knocked, the wise man graciously invited him in and poured a cup of tea while Wei explained his dilemma. He had grown old, time had passed – here he had worked and saved and made travel plans, but had never even left the village before this week!
Instead of answering him directly, the wise man smiled. “Do you know how long it takes for the timber bamboo to grow as tall as a nine-story building?” he asked. Wei didn’t know. He could barely imagine a nine-story building.
The wise man continued. “The first year when the bamboo farmer plants, she must water and tend the seed every day, but nothing grows. The second year, the bamboo farmer must water and tend the seed every day... but nothing grows. The third year, the bamboo farmer must water and tend the seed every day... but nothing grows. The fourth year, the bamboo farmer must water and tend the seed every day... but nothing grows. Finally, in the fifth year – the bamboo suddenly shoots up out of the ground, growing up to three feet a day! In only six weeks, the bamboo can grow 90 feet. So,” asked the wise man. “How long does it take for the timber bamboo to grow as tall as a nine-story building?”
“Six weeks,” Wei replied.
“Five years,” the wise man corrected. “The first four years, even though nothing is visible above ground, the bamboo is developing a thick and complex root system to support its wildly rapid growth. Finally, in the fifth year – the bamboo suddenly shoots up out of the ground, growing three feet a day! In only six weeks, the bamboo grows 90 feet. If the farmer ceased tending the seed in those five years, she would have no timber plant. While it may seem as if nothing is happening and the farmer is wasting her life away, she knows she must be patient and keep tending, awaiting the day that the roots are strong enough to burst forth with the racing growth of the timber bamboo.”
What do you think Wei did after that day? I’ll let you finish the story.
This season of Advent, we are watching, waiting, tending the Earth, reading the gospels, waiting for the promise of God’s transformation and open, inclusive love to be fulfilled in our lives – and in our churches. We are waiting for Christ to be born on Earth, waiting for Christ to be born in our lives, waiting for hope, waiting for peace, waiting for change – but in our waiting, we are also preparing. We, like the timber bamboo, have been preparing a vast and complex root system of prayer, community organizing, and constant service, for the day when our Methodist Church will shoot up in rapid growth with a meaningful response to Christ’s persistent call for compassion, inclusion, and open doors in all our churches.
This Advent season is like timber bamboo. We wait, Sunday by Sunday, as the days grow shorter and the nights grow darker around us, knowing that sudden growth is coming, knowing that Jesus is coming, knowing that change is coming in our lives and in our churches.
It takes time. It takes process. It takes years of preparation, creativity, disappointment, and persistence. But change is coming. The roots are thickening. God’s promise of support and transformation are with us, and the time is near. Soon, we too, will burst open in a rapid growth of transformation that has been years in the making.
. . .
Rev. Sara Ann Swenson is a rural Minnesotan by birth and upbringing. She recently graduated from Iliff School of Theology with a M.A. degree in Comparative Religious Studies. She is currently honored to serve as the pastor of Warren United Methodist Church in downtown Denver -- an amazing Reconciling community that really takes inclusion of ALL to heart.