I am a planner. I enjoy anticipating the future. I’m an Enneagram 7, and my Enneathought often reminds me that I get so focused on the future that I cause myself and others pain with my lack of presence in the present.
I have been aware of this about myself for a long time. I remember when I was first discovering Star Wars, in my early teens, I heard Yoda say of Luke, “All his life has he looked away, towards the future, towards the horizon. Never his mind on where he was, what he was doing.” I knew, profoundly, that those words described me. And I never knew what I could do about it.
Advent is all about the anticipation. Both in the Christian and secular worlds, we are looking forward with joy. As you might imagine, I usually enjoy this mightily! Or, at least, I enjoy anticipating it, sometime in November- my actual practice peters out. How’s that for case-in-point irony? Still, I enjoy the spirit of the season. I love the making and planning that goes into getting ready for Christmas.
But this year, I discovered, there are two kinds of anticipation. The kind I like is anticipating a future you know, or think you know. When you can hold a picture of the future in your mind, you can plan for it, strategize for it, and generally use your own agency to mold that picture of the future to your desire.
But what about when the future is a blank? What about when you don’t know what is coming? Or when you don’t know what it will be like? Or when you know it will be different, and have very little control over how? Anticipating a future that is unknown can be exciting, but it can also be terrifying. I can only imagine what it’s like when your future is unknown because of unreliable family members, or an ominous medical diagnosis or event. When your present involves a lot of hard work and discomfort, and the future promises even more and unknown hard work and discomfort, this may carry a certain dread.
That is where I found myself at the beginning of Advent. A lot of changes are in my future, and the specifics about most of them are unknown. This is true long term, but also short term, in the planning of Christmas services, the drama of dealing with unknowns was a recurring cycle. Even in daily life with kids, both at an age of transition and boundary-pushing, my planning and routine can only go so far in leading to mutual enjoyment.
It all came to a head for me when I as helping plan an ecumenical Christmas service early in Advent. Communicating and collaborating across cultures, churches, and languages is always a bit of work, but a few extra challenges were thrown in at the last minute. My repeated attempts to plan were thwarted and sometimes did more harm than good. After a couple of years my expectations have come a long way in adjusting to my context, but I was left frankly not knowing if I’d even be able to do my bit.
Then, it was fine. It was all fine. Yeah, some bits got lost in the shuffle, but people are used to these things up here and were gracious. I found out three hours before the service how my bit was going to go, but everyone that I solely was responsible for communicating with uses texting. It was enjoyable. It was a bit haphazard, but the overall effect was feeling relaxed. It was fine.
The lesson I carried away from that night was, you don’t need to know. There are lots of things I feel I need to know in order to carry out my various responsibilities well. I assume that control is an important part of leadership. But, well, it’s not.
The really surprising thing was, by the time Christmas Eve services rolled around, I had actually internalized this lesson. There were some major wrenches thrown into our planning process that we thought would make it all even harder than usual. But they didn’t. More work with less stress, Jared and I discovered, is easier. As the weekend approached, we were nose to the grindstone, but we were sleeping. We were okay.
It all came to a head again at the family service, which was my main bag this year, and involved coordinating and directing a Nativity Play, which is way outside my experience. I had a solid team with me and had observed the process before, but I was still nervous. And you know Nativity Plays… they’re fun, but do not go well with a type-A personality. I was determined to go in well-armed with support, preparation, and a good attitude, but there was just no way for me to picture how it would go.
And you know what’s coming next: it was fine. More than fine; it was fun. Everyone involved seemed to have a blast, or at least said so afterwards and seemed to mean it. I even enjoyed it. The usual quota of things went wrong, some adorably and some less so. But they were all just my people being themselves. And I loved that.
Maybe it was because I was the director who couldn’t give any direction. I was also leading the service, so I spent the play visibly on the stage. Aside from a couple of significant looks, I just had to let folks do their thing, and I knew that the best way I could help was to smile, have an encouraging look on my face, and appear as genuinely as possible to be enjoying myself. It turns out that this wasn’t that hard, because I love my people, and I delight in watching them be themselves. In fact, having no other control over them was a gift.
Responsibility without influence is impossible. It’s a recipe for burnout. But responsibility without control is normal. The actual line between those two, and where my psyche thinks it is, are not the same, but by the grace of God are getting closer.
Now the services are over, the gifts are opened, the pressure is off for a little bit. My imagination is free to explore the future with less weight on my explorations. I wonder again about what is coming, and I wonder if my wondering has changed.
I tried to plan this Advent. Heck, I tried to plan this year. But I couldn’t. The Holy Spirit was not forthcoming, except to say, “something will come up.” I couldn’t pick themes for study or planning, except in my own invention, and I knew that was pointless, so I didn’t bother. In so doing, the year’s theme found me: not knowing. By means of a whole lot of safe, gracious discomfort, I am encouraged to realize I have been made to learn something.
I don’t know the future, but I know God is in it. And it will be okay.
All is well.
From the ordination service in the Canadian Book of Common Prayer 196, before the laundry list of responsibilities of a priest (which I find applies to the analogously overwhelming demands of parenting, or general adulting):
“However, being that ye cannot have a mind and will in yourself to do all these things; for that will and ability is given of God alone. Therefore ye ought, and have need, to pray earnestly for his Holy Spirit.” (Slightly paraphrased, emphasis mine)