This morning when George, the ELCSL guard, came to the porch for our morning chat, he was wearing a denim jacket and winter gloves. We agreed that it was cool this morning, and that the harmattan season has arrived. This time of year is marked by noticeably lower temperatures in the morning and dust everywhere.
Earlier this week I was visited by the young woman who formerly helped around my house cleaning and doing laundry. She gave birth to twins a month ago, and brought one of her sons for a visit. The twins received their names last week: Alusine and Alasene, which I am told are the typical names given to twins in various traditions. This week in Advent, as we remember Mary’s story, and rejoice “for the Lord is near,” it was good to rejoice with this new mother.
The season of Advent seems to get lost amidst other issues and events in the worship life of many of the Lutheran churches I visit. The tradition of holding thanksgiving services dominates this time of year and overshadows liturgical themes. In late 2009 (my first year in Sierra Leone), I preached with reference to the church calendar at Incarnation Lutheran Church in Kenema, and made note that Advent is the start of a new year for Christians. On the first Sunday of Advent ever since 2009, I have received a phone call from one of the members of Incarnation, wishing me a happy new year and a blessed Advent. Every year I rejoice and give thanks for the grace of relationships developed and sustained in surprising times and places.
Near the end of my first year in west Africa, I wrote an advent reflection which continues to speak to my experience here. These were my thoughts, originally sent to various church newsletters in 2009:
“This Advent season, I have been thinking a lot about waiting. The truth is I seem to spend a lot of my time in Africa waiting. I often find myself waiting for meetings to begin, for events to take place, and for the right people to arrive…. Looking at the bigger picture of life in Freetown, I see young people waiting for employment, teachers waiting for their salaries, and the hungry waiting for food. Entire communities are waiting for political promises to be fulfilled and for change to come.
There really is a sense of “African time” in all of this – a certain fluidity to the flow of hours, days, weeks and years in which we never really know what will happen, or when. After all this time in Sierra Leone, I feel that I’m still learning how to live in African time. And some days I’m better at waiting than other days.
There is a certain irony in all of this when I consider the ELCA approach to mission described as “accompaniment.” Accompaniment implies movement but quite often I don’t feel like we’re going anywhere. It’s somewhat difficult to feel like I am accompanying anyone when I spend so much time waiting. I share this experience with most Americans and Europeans who have crossed cultures and entered the African context. What often ends up happening is that we grow impatient or frustrated, and end up charging ahead and proposing our own solutions to African problems. But in this context, “waiting with” our African brothers and sisters is essential. Only by accompanying our partners and waiting with them will African ideas and solutions emerge in African time.
These lessons I am learning of African time seem right for the season of Advent. We prefer to be in control and to shape the future according to our own terms. In Advent, however, we are called to step back, and to wait with expectant hope. In Advent this year, I give thanks that I don’t need to be in control because God is. I give thanks for the African community of faith teaching me daily to wait with tenacious faith for the working out of God’s gracious purposes…. God is indeed at work: wait and see!”