"We Used to Wait": A Very Special Arcade Fire Advent Reflection (Part 1)

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God...For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Romans 8:18-19,22-25 (ESV)

  I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the LORD
  in the land of the living!
 Wait for the LORD;
  be strong, and let your heart take courage;
  wait for the LORD!
+++Psalm 27:13-14 (ESV)

Advent is a season of waiting. And waiting for anything can be tough.
As a people were are becoming increasingly less used to waiting. These days, if we want something we almost expect to receive it immediately, because, you know, Amazon Prime's two-day shipping just isn't quick enough.

But in an age where waiting is seen as a kind of curse, what place is there for the longsuffering required to achieve something truly important? If no one is in it for the long haul (whatever the "it" happens to be) will we even be able to accomplish anything anymore as a people?

This is the everpresent challenge set before the Church, which is why consciously entering into the season of Advent is so vital to its health, for there is truly nothing more important than waiting for the Kingdom to come, waiting for God to bring about his justice, peace, and redemption to the world. As Christians, Advent is a time when we remember the anticipation of a world in need of a savior, a world into which Christ had not yet come, a world that did not expect its deliverer to come in the form of a peasant baby. It is also a time when we too (those of us in the present) anticipate his next coming, the time at the end of all things and the beginning of the new world he will create for us. But this waiting is wrought with difficulty, for how much can one's hope endure when that hope is continually deferred? 

This confliction is certainly the state described in the Arcade Fire song "We Used to Wait" off of 2010's The Suburbs. The context of the song's dystopian and/or post-apocalyptic underpinnings are difficult to place within the album as a whole.* Even so, it comes off as a lament for the passing of a bygone era when letter writing to a friend or loved one through the post was actually a thing and you had to wait for it to get there, had to wait for it to arrive:

I used to write
I used to write letters
I used to sign my name
I used to sleep at night
Before the flashing lights settled deep in my brain
But by the time we met
By the time we met
The times had already changed

Now our lives are changing fast
Now our lives are changing fast
Hope that something pure can last
Hope that something pure can last

It seems strange
How we used to wait for letters to arrive
But what's stranger still
Is how something so small can keep you alive
We used to wait
We used to waste hours just walkin' around
We used to wait

All those wasted lives in the wilderness downtown...

...Ooooo we used to wait
Sometimes it never came (we used to wait)
Sometimes it never came (we used to wait)
Still moving through the pain...

...We used to wait for it
We used to wait for it
Now we're screaming
Sing the chorus again...

Wait for it!

Throughout the song Arcade Fire actually build waiting and impatience into the music, first by throwing the listener off in the second verse with the jumpy echoes of "we used to wait", lines thrown in almost too soon, impatient for something to happen, showing us how impatient we all are. But then, right afterwards, right before the first real chorus**, after that burst of impatience, they make you wait and wait and wait, right there in the music itself, during an almost 30 second buildup on the same droned chord. And then follows the chorus, the bittersweet lament "ooh we used to wait..." They put it right there in our faces, "See...see how hard it is to wait. You don't like it do you?" Finally, they jab at us one more time at the end of the song with another lament "We used to wait for it/we used to wait for it/now we're screaming sing the chorus again," which is then followed by the barked out command "Wait for it!" Only our waiting leaves us with nothing. They tell us to wait for the chorus but the song cuts out, with the same droned chord from before fading off into the distance. We're just left waiting...

These lines very much remind me of a section from the book of Hebrews in the Bible. In chapter 11 we are given a long list of faithful people, who died and never saw a promise fulfilled. They were people that loved God and who God had made a promise to—Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, the judges, Samuel, David, and the prophets—but as the chapter says:

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth... 

But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city

...Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.
+++Hebrews 11:13,16, 35-40  (ESV)

The "promise" or the "something better" that God had prepared for them was Christ, this coming messiah, but they all died without that promise ever having been fulfilled. "oooh, we used to wait" and "sometimes it never came..." For all the people mentioned in Hebrews 11 "it" never came. God was still faithful. God was still with them. God did amazing things through them, but they didn't get to see the fullness of the promise.

Note what Hebrews 11 does NOT say: "And so they all died bitter and cynical and questioning God, wondering and demanding 'God you totally didn't keep your word. I just sat around waiting for you to fulfill your promise all my life. This is completely not fair God! How could you do that to me?'" No, instead they acted in maturity; they saw their place within the larger picture of God's plan and died with the faith to believe that even though they didn't receive the things promised to them they saw the promise fulfilled from a distance "and greeted them from afar." They died resting in the promise of God. 

Sometimes the "chorus" does not come back—at least not for us.

Also note, nowhere does Hebrews say this waiting, this dying in faith was easy for these people, as if they were faith-filled superheros. Waiting for something is strangely fulfilling but it is also incredibly difficult: "...we used to wait/still moving through the pain." There is pain in having to wait. Each moment is filled with a longing, an ache for what we do not yet have, for what is not yet a reality. 

We wait in desperation both for the trivial and the profound: to have something sweet after a period of fasting, for a child to arrive, for our favorite TV shows to return to air, to graduate from school or purchase a home.  And always we're waiting for the most important thing of all, for our Savior to come save us, take away our sins, and put the world right, as Paul says in his letter to the Romans:

For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved...But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
+++Romans 8:22-23,25

This waiting causes the biggest ache of all, for we cannot simply "move through the pain" when we look around and see the world suffering and in chaos.

There is by default humility in waiting on God, for in it we are simultaneously acknowledging our smallness and limitations along with God's wisdom and power. We rest in God, knowing the world is his. We trust in his love and mercy and judgment. We wait and allow him to move. This stepping back, allowing God to do his will in his own timing, even as we still wait, is the embodiment of Advent. "Come Lord Jesus, come!" we cry, even as we are waiting...

But we would be remiss to think the waiting of Advent means to do nothing, to just sit around, waiting for the Kingdom to come... Instead both the Scriptures and the work of Arcade Fire challenge us to another kind of waiting, a waiting of active preparation.

And to that we now turn:
"Sleeping is giving in": A Very Special Arcade Fire Advent Reflection (Part 2)

For a list of all of Arcade Fire's Advent themed songs, including lyrics, please see here:
An Index: Arcade Fire Songs For Advent (on the themes of waiting, preparing, arriving, and light)

For an Arcade Fire ANTI-Advent Refection, please see here:
"I need the darkness, someone please cut the lights!": A Very Special Arcade Fire ANTI-Advent Reflection

For a list of all of Arcade Fire's ANTI-Advent themed songs (with negative depictions of light) please see here:
An Index: Arcade Fire Songs Mentioning Light, Darkness, Mirrors, and Reflections
*There seems to be a overarching narrative present on The Suburbs, but, as far as I'm concerned all the pieces of that narrative don't fit together into a cohesive story. Instead, we get snapshots of a disjointed story. Apparently there was some kind of "suburban war" and apparently there was a time when civilization as we know ceased and things became a "wilderness" as "We Used to Wait" mentions (thus the dystopia and the post-apocalypse). At the same time, it's not entirely evident if the narrative acts as a metaphor to heighten the mundane reality of typical suburban life, a culture songwriter Win Butler hopes to paint in a critical light by speaking of it as if it contained crumbling edifices, wastelands, oppressive regimes, and warring factions. In this way The Suburbs acts as a kind of grown up fairytale wherein one examines one's own culture by making it seems more extraordinary than it actually was. Butler simultaneously sentimentalizes and deconstructs his childhood by making it a complete fiction altogether.

**Before the first real chorus there was a kind of pre-chorus after the first verse that didn't turn in to the chorus, it being the "Now our lives are changing fast/Hope that something pure can last" section. Curiously, that pre-chorus does not show up before the first chorus but appears again after verse 3 and before chorus 2.  

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