Draw Near … to Longing
by Louise Westfall
What a week it was, right on the heels of Thanksgiving. Besides the usual noise on the political front, here’s an update: A satellite powered with state-of-the-art technology engineered right here in Colorado landed on Mars. Normally nerdy engineers were seen exuberantly fist bumping as the first grainy photographs appeared. Then there was the decommissioning of a unit of measure that has been standard for almost 130 years. Le Grand K, a sleek cylinder of platinum-iridium metal, stored under tight security in an underground vault in Paris, was the very definition of one kilogram of mass. No more. Now the standard is a mathematical calculation of the Planck and Avogadro constants within seven decimal places. But even that is iffy. “What we call ‘measurement,” one physicist noted, “is an estimate. Basically you can estimate what the true value is. The true true value, only the universe knows. [NY Times, 11/27/18 p.D4]
Also in the news this week was a report about robotic caregivers for elderly people suffering from dementia. A model known as “Zora” is being used in nursing facilities to lead exercises, play games, and have simple conversations. Photos accompanying the story showed patients holding and cuddling the 2- foot tall robot with human facial features. “We need to help with loneliness,” said one company executive.
In a conversation with the Executive Director of Denver’s Health and Human Services, I learned that one in 3 residents uses those resources. Colorado has contributed significantly to alarming national statistics: a 3.7% increase in suicide rates, and an unimaginable 70,000 drug overdose deaths in 2017.
Human suffering, uncertainty, expanding horizons and shifting foundations … I can’t think of a better way to enter the season of Advent than to face these realities. It is certainly counter-cultural to preparing for “the most wonderful time of the year” but that’s the thing about Christian faith. It doesn’t ask you to deny reality in order to achieve an impossible ideal. It doesn’t require you to stuff your emotions or rely on nostalgic feelings to get you through. The goal of Advent is not to have yourself a merry little Christmas. The goal of Advent is to celebrate the coming of One who recalibrates reality, One whose arrival changes the way we regard personal relationships, human community, and the common good. Advent invites us to face our longing, the anxious hum accompanying our days, the fears we bury and the truth we ignore … to encounter the One who is there, healing and restoring and making whole what is broken.
The gospel text for the first Sunday of Advent always speaks to this paradox by portraying the chaos, confusion, violence and instability of life as a sign of the end times, when the curtains mercifully fall on human history only to rise again to reveal God’s glorious Realm of light and peace. Though these words are put in the mouth of Jesus, most biblical scholars believe they reflect the perspective of the first-century church, severely persecuted, widely scorned and still figuring out the implications of Jesus’ life and message for his followers. No matter how you interpret the text, we can resonate with its picture of a world in chaos. A reading from the 21st chapter of Luke, at the twenty-fifth verse. Draw near to your own longing, and hear the Word of God. [Luke 21:25-36]
Whew! No wonder this text has been the basis for books and movies designed to scare the devil out of you. The sense of urgency is unmistakable. Be on guard! Be alert! The time is near! Part of me gets it, and part of me rolls my eyes. I mean, these words were written over two thousand years ago. Why should we expect them to have any more impact now than then?
The season of Advent calls us to mindfulness about what God has placed in our hands. The ability to relieve human suffering … to keep hope alive and visible … to expand our priorities beyond self- interest … to build community on the eternal rock of God’s unshakable love.
But what if timing isn’t the point? Rather than correlate this earthquake or that tsunami as the event heralding Christ’s arrival, what if we are called instead to seek the presence of God throughout human history? God, patiently, graciously sorting through the mess we’ve made of things. Using Divine power exercised in love, through the raw material of rulers and kingdoms, wars and rumors of war, humanity’s compassion and brilliance and evil and degradation, and all of it, to redeem and repair the whole creation. God, inviting men and women of every age and time, to join this work. Jesus showed us how: love one another, including our enemies; do justice with special regard for the most vulnerable ones; forgive without calculation; build a beloved community where no one is forgotten, no one is excluded. It’s enough to make you agree with Calvin and Hobbes’ cartoonist Bill Watterson who said “God put me on this earth to accomplish a certain number of things. I’m so far behind, I’ll never die.”
Well, yes. Except no matter what we accomplish or not, we are going to die.
So perhaps the urgency of the text is not meant to scare, but to remind us that our time to do good, to do right, to make peace, to love, to be kind, is now. Today.
The timing of the end of the world is in God’s hands. Leave it there. The season of Advent calls us to mindfulness about what God has placed in our hands. The ability to relieve human suffering … to keep hope alive and visible … to expand our priorities beyond self- interest … to build community on the eternal rock of God’s unshakeable love.
Friends, let Advent call you and me to mindfulness, above the din and distractions of the season. I propose a little exercise that might help us. Get a family member or friend to set your cell phone alarm for some random time in the day. (If you don’t use a phone with this capability, ask a friend to call you at a random time during the day). Then when you get the call, or the alarm goes off, let it be a moment of awakening, becoming alert to where you are, what you’re doing and thinking about, what’s going on in your world. Notice what choices are there before you. Maybe you’ll get back to what you were doing, or maybe something else will come to mind. Mindfulness doesn’t fix anything, but it does open a space … for conscious reflection, for intentional rather than reactive responses to the swirl of activity around you. And most of all for awareness of God’s presence in that moment. [this exercise was suggested by Tim Stead, in Horizons magazine, September /October 2018, p. 5]
The time of silence following the sermon is a perfect opportunity to practice. Simply pay attention. Following the silence we’re going to sing a verse of an Advent hymn. Just one verse and the refrain. Normally, our music director does not like this, because of what we miss in the omitted verses. It’s as if you stopped reading a book after chapter one. Questions, wonder, puzzlement remain. We’ll have to wait to see how it all works out.
Just like Advent. Draw near to the One who makes it worth the wait.