One evening last week I went home all wound up about something that happened at work. I couldn’t get it out of my mind. It was so important and had such an impact on me that I cannot now remember what happened but I was pretty upset at the time. As soon as I got home I told my wife about it and I said, “You know, that’s not how it was when we were kids. We didn’t do it that way. That just would’t have happened.” As I listened to myself talk I started thinking, “O my gosh. Did you really just say that? Are you really living in a time and place that’s more than fifty years old? Is this the way you’ve begun to think?” If you are laughing at this it’s because you know what I’m talking about. You’ve done this too. We probably all have.
I’m not the first or only one to make that kind of comment. I hear those comments over and over. “We didn’t do it that way when we were kids.” “This isn’t the America I remember. It’s not like it used to be.” “The world is a different place these days. It’s changed.” “This isn’t the church I grew up in. I don’t know what happened to that church.” “Back in my day….” “This isn’t the life I planned and worked for.” You could add your own version. There’s a thousand variations on this theme. They all seem to me to have a common thread or question running through them. Here’s the question: What is going on in our world today? What’s happening?
It’s a question about vulnerability and loss. It’s a question about our anxiety and fear. It’s a question about the uncertainty of our future and the unpredictable nature of life. It’s a question of loss and sorrow. Those are not just about the circumstances around us. They are spiritual conditions that live within us.
Those questions and conditions I’ve just listed are not new. They are not unique to us, this time, or this place. They were just as real and present in Jesus’ time as our own. Jesus describes it differently than we do. He says,
“In those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken” (Mark 13:24).
Now don’t take that as literal. He’s not predicting the future or giving us signs to look for so that we can predict the future. He’s describing a present reality. He’s describing what it feels like when the whole world has changed, when things are no longer as they used to be, when there’s been a cosmic shift in your life. He’s describing what it’s like when what used to give light and illumine your life no longer does, when the stars by which you once navigated no longer point the way, when the powers on which you depended are no longer stable or dependable.
Every one of you could describe a time in your life when you experienced this. Maybe you are today. What I’ve just described are Advent experiences, descriptions, and questions. Every year on the First Sunday of Advent the lectionary holds this before us because it’s a truth about our life and world. It’s what we face and live with. It is also the life and world into which the Son of Man comes. This truth is always our entrance into Advent.
In those dark threshold moments when our world is shaken we mostly want someone to do something about it – fix it, turn back the clock, undo what has happened, make it like it used to be, get me out of here. Just do something. That’s what we hear Isaiah saying to God. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down” (Isaiah 64:1). “God, get down here and do something about this.” Who among us here today hasn’t said something like that?
I sometimes call it the “Be Present Prayer.” “O God be present with…” and then we fill in the blank with the names of all the people we think God needs to be present with and do something for. “O God be present in…” and then we fill in the blank with this meeting or that place or those circumstances so that God can show up and do what needs to be done.
I am all in favor of God’s presence. And I do not doubt the sincerity of these prayers. I’ve said them too. But do we really begin our prayers with the assumption that God is absent? As if God needs to be told what is going on in the world, where to be, and what to do?
Maybe, instead of being concerned with where God is and what God is doing, we ought to first be concerned about where we are and what we are doing, about our presence in the situation. Maybe, instead of starting with what’s going on in the world, we ought to begin with the question, What’s going on in me? Because more often than not we do not see other people and the world as they are, but as we are.
If I am all wound up and anxious, the world is a difficult place to be and I’ll want to run away. If I am living in the past and the way it used to be, I’ll miss this present moment. If I am scared and frightened, other people can easily become threats and enemies. If my life is full of problems I’ll be quick to judge others. If I am filled with guilt, I’ll look for someone to blame. And the list goes on.
If I am not awake to and aware of these things they will overtake my life. Maybe that’s what Jesus is getting at in today’s gospel (Mark 13:24-37) when he says you’ve got to be awake, alert, aware. You’ve got to be on the watch. And he’s not talking so much about being watchful and alert to what is going on around us. He’s talking about waking up and becoming aware of what is going on inside of us.
We can be pretty sure that if we do not tend to what is going on inside of us we will project it out onto the world and other people. If we do not remain awake and alert we will sleepwalk our way through this world and our life. Somehow this awakening and awareness within ourselves changes the way we see the world, other people, and ourselves. We see with a clarity and objectivity we did not have before. We are always waking up to the truth. We need to be reminded over and over. That’s what this season of Advent is about.
Last Wednesday I was in San Antonio for work. After I finished my morning obligations I went to a little sandwich shop for lunch before going on to the diocesan offices for my afternoon meetings. I was wearing my clergy shirt and collar. I finished my lunch and went to refill my tea. There was a man in front of me. He seemed a bit frazzled and harried. I said hello but he didn’t say anything. He walked past me toward the door. I refilled my tea and when I got to the door he was there holding it for me. I thanked him. As we walked together toward the parking lot he turned to me, held out his hand, and said,
“I really needed to see you today. I just needed to be reminded. Thank you.”
I don’t know why he said that, what he meant, or of what he was reminded. I hadn’t said or done anything in particular or of significance. I don’t know his name or what was going on in his life. I can, however, easily imagine and understand that something was awakened within him, something reconnected in him. And I’m pretty sure that if I had said, “I’ve got some time. Let’s sit down and talk about what’s going on,” I would have ruined the moment. That’s not what he needed. He already had what he needed. He just needed to be reminded and to wake up. Don’t we all?
As he was getting in his car I called to him. “Thanks so much for telling me that because I also needed to be reminded.” We all do.
We need to be reminded, to wake up, to reconnect to the beauty of life, the mystery of love, the wonder of creation. We need to be connected to that original goodness and beauty that resides in each of us, that has always been there and has never been lost; maybe forgotten, but never lost. We need to be reminded and connected to each other in a deeper way. We need to awaken to hope. We need to be alert to the presence of God in unexpected places and surprising ways. We need to awaken to and be reminded that simple presence often says more than our word and does more than our actions.
So let me ask you this. What is the thing you most need to be reminded of today? I’m not asking about your to-do list or next week’s schedule. I am talking about that one thing that would make a difference in your life today, that would change the way you see yourself, that would change the way you engage the world, that would change the way you see another, that would change the way you live your relationships. I am asking about that one thing you need to be reminded of that would awaken and reconnect you in a way that is life giving for you, another, and the world.
What is that one thing for your today? And what if you took that one thing and carried it ever so lightly through this Season of Advent? I don’t mean you go on a quest or make this just another task to be accomplished. I mean you take that one thing you need to be reminded of, that one thing you need to awaken to, and you let it guide your decisions, help choose the words you speak, be the lens through which you see life, others, yourself. Can you image the possibilities that might create for you on Christmas Day?
You got it? You know what it is? Take it with you today, wherever you go, whatever you are doing, whoever you are with. Let it be your doorway into Advent.
“And what I say to you I say to all: ‘Keep awake.’”