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There is Nothing Ordinary About This

Advent is not about arrival.
Advent is about waiting in hope.
Advent is about prayer for the coming Kingdom.
Advent is about saying,
often with trembling lip,
wavering voice,
and with tear-filled eyes,
Come soon, Lord Jesus, come soon. 

Brian Walsh, Advent Pain, Aching Hope


I sit in a sterile hospital room with a dear old saint who will be spending this Christmas where nobody wants to spend Christmas. Outside is a gloriously clear, crisp, winter day full of snow and lights and pre-Christmas goodness. Inside, there are bare, yellowing walls, cracked ceilings, cheap, generic pictures on the wall. We speak of what the doctors say, of what the next steps will be, about what is going on at church, about who has visited and who will be coming. We speak of what her kids are doing for Christmas.

And then, the pastoral turn. The homestretch. “Can I pray for you?” “Yes, of course.  Please.” We hold hands. I pray. Because that’s what pastors do when the “pastoral visit” is winding down. That’s the routine. I don’t remember what I prayed. I don’t often know what to pray. I imagine I tried to speak something of peace, of hope, of truth into a bleak context where these things so often seem absent. I imagine my words were fairly predictable. There are only so many ways that you can say, “God, a little goodness, please? If you don’t mind?”

I start to release her hand but she won’t let go (Doesn’t she know the drill? This is the part where I leave!). Her eyes remain closed. And then, in a trembling voice, she begins to pray. “God, I don’t want this pain, and I don’t know why I have to suffer. But if I must bear this burden, please give me the strength. I know that you are with me. I know that you won’t leave me.”

As I listen to her words soaked in sadness and longing, as I look at her tear-stained face, I repent of approaching this visit as “routine”—as something to check off my to-do list, after checking the mail, before heading to the dentist. There is nothing routine about human suffering, nothing ordinary or predictable about standing and straining together in this cavernous gap between what is and what should be.

Christ have mercy…

And, yes, come soon. We say these old words that so many have said before us, and we will keep on saying them, pleading them, demanding them. With trembling lips and wavering voices, with eyes full of tears.

Come soon.

19 Comments Post a comment
  1. Thank you for reminding us of the other side of Christmas – the side that isn’t full of gifts and good smells and sparkly newness. And thank you for being willing to stand in that gap.

    December 20, 2013
  2. mike #

    “…standing and straining together in this cavernous gap between what is and what should be.”
    Beautifully penned words, Ryan. I think the awkwardness of this situation is that we know her condition isn’t going to change no matter what we say or pray, it’s simply “the circle of Life” and there is no Heavenly intervention to be had, there is only the awareness of Divine Presence. A sure way to facilitate this awareness would be to simply hold her hand and remain silent, which in effect, moves you both beyond the flowery words/prayers and ushers you straightaway before the Throne of Almighty God…where there can only be Praise.

    December 21, 2013
    • mike #

      With your approval, I offer thisnot as dogma but for interesting contemplation:
      “When we are able to rise above the realm of thought, to that high place where we have no opinion whether anything or anybody is good or ebil, but are willing to be a perfect transparency for the instruction of God, then Gos speaks in our ear and shows us the spiritual reality which exists right where that “man of flesh” who “cannot please God” appears to be; but in that instant when God speaks, the man of flesh is transformed into the Son of God and is immediately returned to the Garden of Eden where he is now the Son of God living under God’s government.
      The belief in two powers is what traps us into vacillating between the pairs of opposites-harmony and discord, poverty and abundance, life and death, sickness and health; whereas the ability to abide in our inner being, realizing that there is only one power-that there is no good and there is no evil in any form-frees us and brings the peace that passes understanding.
      The only devil is the knowledge of good and evil. We decide that this is good and it is so unto us, or this is evil and so it is; whereas the truth is that “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” then to be rid of the pairs of opposites, we must stop the merry-go-round of the human mind, and that is not as difficult or as impractical as it sounds.
      I have been asked many times, ” How do you stop thinking?” And I have found one way. The minute I can look at any person or condition and know that it is neither good nor evil, my thought stops, and my mind becomes quiet. That is the end of it because then there are no thoughts left for mr to think abou it: I do not think good of it and I do not think evil of it. All I know is that it is, and then I am back at the center of my being where all power is. Our mind is restless only when we are thinking about things or persons either in terms of good or evil, but the mind is at rest when we surrender all such concepts.

      December 21, 2013
      • I don’t know, Mike. I’m trying to think of how “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” would sound to the mother whose young son was just afflicted with cancer… or to Syrian children getting bombed on the streets… or to the woman who is raped and brutalized… or to _____. Pick your horror from the daily news.

        I cannot reduce good and evil to the misguided machinations of the human mind. I would go crazy, I think, if I were to try to convince myself that the things that most inspire and repulse me about our world were merely projections of my own mind. And, I don’t think the biblical narrative allows it, either. Whatever else we might say about the story the Bible tells, it treats good and evil as real things—things worth pursuing and resisting with all of who we are. That’s how I read it, at least.

        December 22, 2013
      • Joyce #

        Mike, at some level I understand what you are saying, but I do not have the words to articulate it.

        December 22, 2013
      • mike #

        The above comment I submitted was a long quote from the book “The Thunder of Silence” by Joel Goldsmith. I apologize for neglecting to properly attribute it as such.

        December 22, 2013
      • Larry S #

        If Goldsmith’s car was jacked, home was invaded, daughter was raped; or if he himself got cancer … I wonder if he would hold these views.

        And he seems to have quite a high view of his inner core “the center of my being where all power is”. The One Who sits enthroned on high laughs at such utter nonsense.

        That being said interesting quote Mike. Merry Christmas and blessings.
        Ditto for you and yours Ryan. Come New Years don’t eat too many New Years cookies. Are u in the kind of menno circles that still make those deep fried delicacies. Eat one of those and u know that pure goodness exists, eat too many and u acquire the knowledge of evil.


        December 23, 2013
      • Yes, I am in such Menno circles, Larry. Although the circles are getting smaller…

        I will enjoy this new lens through which to contemplate the mysteries of good and evil over New Years :).

        December 23, 2013
  3. mike #

    “The Thunder of Silence” by Joel S.Goldsmith

    December 21, 2013
    • Thanks for the recommendation. Looks very interesting.

      December 22, 2013
  4. mike #

    I place a high value on your analysis, Ryan. ..Thank You!

    December 22, 2013
    • Thank you, Mike. I appreciate the perspective you bring to conversations here.

      December 22, 2013
  5. Vern Neufeld #

    Thanks for your honesty and your integrity by sharing such a touching personal situation.I appreciate so much how you bring the Devine into ordinary situations around us all in daily life. It strengthens my faith for my daily life!! Vern N

    Sent from my iPhone

    December 23, 2013
  6. Joyce #

    Having reread the quote from the book by Goldsmith, I found it reminiscent of two books which I read during my Philosophy studies and which you, Ryan, have also probably read–Nietzche’s: Beyond Good and Evil and also Sartre’s: Being and Nothingness. I have not read the Goldsmith book and would not, my days of heavy reading are over and done with, but I hope you make a comment/review on it some time in the future.

    December 26, 2013
    • mike #


      I was simply proffering an interesting and not-conventional point of view that some others outside of traditional Christianity expound regarding suffering and death while here in this world. If we look at the “Bigger Picture” of our existence, we might come to the realization, on a personal level, that God is ultimately always in control of our lives, working in detail in every situation we find ourselves in, to our good/benefit. In this wise, there is no “good or “evil” in the overall scheme of things, ALL is ultimately of God.

      “Either God is everything, or (else) He is nothing” The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous: pg 53

      December 27, 2013
      • @ Mike

        I well understand the impulse to understand our individual stories and the bigger story of which we are a part in terms of a “Bigger Picture.” Sometimes the belief that God is in ultimate control of everything, no matter how horrific the experience of it is in the present, is the only thing that keeps us sane.

        I guess I would just be a bit slower to link a belief in a God who is guiding the story to a good conclusion and the further claim that “God is everything or nothing.” I would want to ask the question, “How does God exercise control in our world and in our lives?” It seems to me that, at least from a biblical perspective, God exercises control, paradoxically, by lowering himself and entering the evil and suffering of our world and defeating it from the bottom up. In Jesus, I think we see that God’s exercise of control looks very different from anything else we could imagine.

        God’s approach to evil is not to collapse it into good or attempt to redefine it as something that it is not. The Bible gives us permission (even the obligation, I think) to name good and evil for what they are, and to trust that one day our intuitions about these realities will be validated in God’s ultimate defeat of evil and embrace of good.

        It’s not easy to conceptualize God’s sovereignty in relation to evil. I know that there are holes in what I have briefly laid out here. I guess I just can’t reconcile “God is everything” with my own experience and with what I see in the story of Scripture.

        December 27, 2013
    • mike #

      P.S. Thanks for the book leads, Joyce.

      December 27, 2013
    • Thank you, Joyce. I can’t promise that I will be able to review the Goldsmith book, but it’s on my list of “books that I might want to have a look at some time in the indeterminate future when I magically find myself with a whole bunch unexpected time on my hands.” 🙂

      December 27, 2013

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