VIEW VIDEO I was at the dentist’s this past week, bound to the chair with thick leather straps, the dental hygienist was cleaning between my teeth with a jackhammer, and Justin Bieber came on the radio singing All I Want for Christmas Is You. And there I was, stuck, unable to escape. I began to pray for the hygienist to lose her grip on the jackhammer so it would slip and punch through my palate and into my brain, instantly killing me. Then I thought, “No, I don’t want a Justin Bieber song to be the last thing I hear.” Can you imagine that? Justin Bieber looping in your mind for eternity. Oh, the humanity.
Our granddaughter Madeline is all excited. Not about Justin Bieber, but about Christmas, as are all the children at Joan’s school, who are now bouncing off the walls in sweet anticipation of the holidays. They don’t yet realize the anticipation of Christmas is often superior to the event itself, that the event rarely lives up to the expectations surrounding it.
For the next several Sundays, I want to reflect on the things I’ve learned from Christmas, the first one being that the anticipation of something is often sweeter than the event itself. This doesn’t mean the event is bad, just that anticipation is so powerful, because anticipation enlivens us, it invigorates us. In fact, I don’t know how we could live without anticipation, without the expectation that something lovely and wonderful awaits us.
Last winter, in the depths of cold and gloom, I had the idea to take a summer motorcycle trip to Virginia with the Quaker Oatlaws Motorcycle Club and ride The Crooked Trail, 300 twisting scenic miles through the heart of Appalachia, tracing the roots of country and bluegrass music. I read all I could about it, spent my days off readying my motorcycle for the journey, pored over maps, emailed country inns, and researched the best restaurants for fried chicken. At night, I would fall asleep imagining the trip, dreaming of the small towns we would ride through, the overlooks from which we would gaze, the music we would enjoy. Then summer came and the Covid rate for Virginia went through the roof, so the Quaker Oatlaws went to southern Indiana instead. I was speaking about it with someone, and they said, “Oh, that was terrible. After all that work and all that planning, you didn’t get to go. How disappointing.” But I realized I wasn’t disappointed, because in my mind I had ridden all 300 miles of The Crooked Trail, and discovered the anticipation was every bit as wonderful as the event itself.
The Bible is all about anticipation. People anticipating a promised land, a Messiah, a shining city, a healing, a time of justice, a season of plenty. Anticipation is the blood and marrow of our Jewish-Christian tribe. The Bible begins with anticipation, Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth, and ends with anticipation, God will wipe every tear from their eyes and death will be no more. In fact, if we stripped anticipation out of the Bible, the only things we’d have left are a few genealogies and some questionable theology.
But anticipation has an evil twin, anxiety. While both look to the future, anxiety reveals our deepest fears, while anticipation reveals our deepest hopes, our most fervent aspirations. Anxiety cripples, but anticipation equips and empowers us, it prepares us. Anticipation is identifying the destination, planning the route, packing for the trip. and expecting something wonderful is about to unfold. Anxiety is worrying you’ll have a flat tire.
As wonderful as anticipation is, we know that sometimes blessings carry within themselves the seed of a burden, and this is true of anticipation. Sometimes our expectations are so high, it blinds us to reality. When I first became a pastor, and couples would come to me asking me to marry them, I would bombard them with a torrent of tests to gauge their suitability for marriage, hoping to lessen the chances of divorce. Interestingly, it was discovered that pre-marital counseling didn’t affect the rate of divorce all that much, because the anticipation of the wedding and marriage made the couple’s objectivity about their relationship nearly impossible. They were simply unable to see any potential problems or challenges. They were still in that stage of “We love one another and that’s all that matters.” But give them a year or two, when the reality of living with someone had caused the relationship to lose a bit of its shine, and people were ready to think more deeply and realistically about their relationship.
I know a couple who fell in love while attending college. They decided to buy a used van, turn it into living quarters, and travel the United States. They created a Facebook page so they could share their journey with their family and friends. When the trip began, they posted pictures and updates every day, sometimes several times a day. But then I noticed their Facebook posts became further apart and not quite as enthusiastic. Eventually, they broke up, sold the van, and went their separate ways.
I asked the young man what had happened and he said, “Have you ever tried living with someone in a van 24 hours a day for an entire year?”
I said I hadn’t, and he said, “Don’t.”
Anticipation is wonderful. At its best, anticipation equips and empowers us. But if we’re not careful, anticipation can also blind us to reality, setting us up for pain and disappointment when the reality of our dreams don’t live up to our aspirations.
The day after Thanksgiving, our granddaughter Madeline came to our house to help us decorate our Christmas tree. She was so excited. For her, Christmas had arrived, full and resplendent. I am confident her Christmas will be a good one, but I am also confident it will not, cannot, measure up to the Christmas she has in mind, unless we find a way to buy her the dolphin she’s been asking for. Dream big, aim high, but face life as it is, not as you wish it to be.