Monday, November 29, 2010

Ants on the First Sunday of Advent

Traveling to Ecuador recently with my 25 year old daughter woke me up to many things – the first of which is that she is her own person – that she conducts herself in the world with amazing grace – and that she really, truly knows Spanish, the street kind as well as the more cultured variety. She knows a lot of things that I did not have a hand in teaching her. And she is brilliant and beautiful – well those traits I knew as soon as she was born!

She is at ease among foreigners. But in this respect, she is not unique among her peers. For younger generations, the world is really and truly small. Children of the Information Age do not focus on just on their own personal world – their focus extends well beyond their personal lives; they are 365/24/7 connected to the rest of the world through the Internet and this informs these generations in anything toward which they might turn their gaze— well, more precisely, their browsers.

The truth is, if you talk to most any young American, 25 years or younger, you will likely hear an emphasis on volunteerism, teamwork and good citizenship. And it turns out that this acute social awareness correlates with demanding a sense of purpose in their careers. According to a recent Harris Poll, 97% of college seniors seek work that will allow them to have an impact for good on the world.

My daughter, for instance, started a nonprofit two years ago to advance education and health care among the very poor in a barrio outside Quito, Ecuador. As amazing as this is to me, she is, again, not unique among her peers. While we were visiting the families who benefit from her nonprofit, we met two other young women, one from Germany, the other from Australia, who, independently of each other, were studying the efficacy of international aid. All three of these young women – from three different continents – had come to the same conclusion - that large scale aid often does more damage than good, whereas smaller projects, built on actual and mutual relationships between the people involved, are able to leverage small amounts of money and know-how into positive and lasting change.

On one of those nights I was trying to sleep in a room not my own, I asked Ella what made her so desirous of doing international work. I would never have predicted her answer – but it was this. “Because when I’m in the United States for too long at a time, I kind of go to sleep. I work better under the stress of the moment.” I asked what the stress of the moment meant; she said it means that when she works with children who have rotting teeth because of not having enough of the right kind of food to eat, time is of the essence – each day counts, slacking is not an option. She meant that an abundance of energy is released when you combine your soul force with others to save lives and make change happen – not ethereal, spiritualized change – but real, on the ground, difference. Loving others, especially those who suffer hardship, by being in real relationship with them is energizing, she was saying, and living too easy of a life is enervating, it dissipates energy and a lethargy of spirit is the result.

Though this waking up kind of energy could happen here as well – for now, she finds it easier to wake up when she spends time outside the country. And she has a point. After all, there are more obese, medicated and addicted Americans than ever before.

It is a good Advent question to wonder what we are numbing ourselves to? What makes it so difficult to really and truly wake up – to be alive and energized?

My guess is that pain is what we numb ourselves to – and it’s also what makes waking up hard. We’ve all had the experience of having an arm or leg go to sleep. And we all know what it feels like when the blood starts to circulate again. It hurts! It’s painful! Still – it’s better than having your arm or leg hang there like a dead weight. Usually you don’t notice when your arm is going to sleep – it’s only when you try to move your arm and you can’t that you’re aware of your condition. So you do something about it – you shake your arm a bit, rub it, pinch it – anything to start the circulation flowing again. And the more you wake your arm up – the more it feels like there are ants biting you everywhere – but you keep doing it until you’ve got your arm working again. That’s a bit what it is like to be in another country where you can’t drink the water without boiling it – even in rich homes – and there is no heat – even in upper middle class homes – and real hunger and want is right outside your door. It’s also a bit what Advent is like – this strange waking up time before the celebration of Christ’s birth.

The truth is, of all the countercultural things the church does – I think Advent is the most countercultural. You come to church after Thanksgiving and family and food and good feelings, and maybe you’ve hung your Christmas lights and been to some early sales and you’re starting to enjoy the jingle bells of this good and lovely season - and you come here with cozy holiday festive feelings and then you hear these biblical texts about thieves in the night and people being snatched away and the clang of the hammer on the anvil as swords are pounded into ploughshares – Bang! Bang! And it’s hardly the sweet Bang of Bethlehem either but the clanging Bang of the Cosmic Christ coming in judgment, to judge the nations and put wrongs to right.

Cyril, the Bishop of Jerusalem in 386 wrote a catechetical instruction for those about to be baptized. “We do not preach only one coming of Christ,” Cyril wrote, “but a second as well….His first coming was to fulfill his plan of love, to teach us by gentle persuasion. This time, whether we like it or not, we will be subjects of his kingdom by necessity. Malachi the prophet speaks of the two comings. “And the Lord whom you seek will come suddenly to his temple”, that is one coming – (the one we celebrate at Christmas.) Again Malachi says of another coming: “Look, the Lord almighty will come, and who will endure the day of his entry, or who will stand in his sight. Because he comes like a refiner’s fire, a fuller’s herb, and he will sit refining and cleansing.” That is why the faith we profess has been handed on to you in these words: “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” Our Lord Jesus Christ will come at the end of the world, in glory, at the last day. For there will be an end to this world, and the created world will be made new.” Catechesis 15, 1 – 3

That was written in 386. It’s now 2010. A lot of time has passed – and it’s kind of hard to get excited about this Second Coming. But it is the church’s witness that this age will pass suddenly – and a new age will arise – suddenly. There will be a reversal – and what was right side up, will be down, and what was down will be up. Perhaps the child whose belly was bloated with hunger will be sitting on Christ’s lap as the nations and communities of the world stand before his throne, their deeds and non-deeds writ plain for all to see.

And perhaps the second coming will not be all that dramatic – perhaps it will happen for each of us in a second, in the flash of an eye. Maybe it will happen in a conversation or travel with someone much younger – or much older than yourself – and suddenly, you will see the world differently, and yourself differently, and the possibilities of being the church in God’s beloved world differently.

However it happens for you, may you have the joy of feeling ants biting all over as the blood of the Body of Christ begins to circulate again wherever you have been numbed to sleep – and you begin to rouse from slumber and dead weight and wake up – more fully than ever before. May your Advent be a happy one – a joyful waking up in the first light of the appearance of the Son of God,