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God's Gift of Love
An Advent Study Based on the Revised Common Lectionary
By Donna Schaper
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2013 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Move Beyond the Time Famine
Scriptures for Advent: The First Sunday
In my family, we celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, the Jewish New Year, Passover, and Easter. My husband is Jewish, and I am Christian. We've been this way together for thirty years. Some people rest on the minor holidays, but I usually have to work because parish pastors work opposite of the regular workweek. "Can you see me on Columbus Day? It's the only day off I have until President's Day." Couple requests like this with "Mom, why can't you go to the beach with us? You are always working."
If clergy were the only people living in time famine, especially around the holidays, maybe I wouldn't complain. But I don't know anyone who doesn't say, "I don't have enough time." This is a universal lament, which is as much about death and dying as it is about living. The poor join the rich, Jews join Christians, men join women, and adolescents join octogenarians in this great sign of our time and times. We are the richest people in the world in many ways, and yet we live in a time famine.
Indeed, we don't have enough time. Our days are numbered. Advent is the cessation of the numbing numbering and the beginning of a different kind of counting. Advent shows us the way of peace, of sword changing into iron plow, of pointing to the unexpected in each hour, of understanding Jesus, who told us that the time for the Son of Man to come is unknown. Best we wake up, as Advent admonishes. Best we wake from our sleep, which keeps us in the dark, and get lit. This chapter is about how to get lit. It is for the person who doesn't want to say, "I am burnt out." It is for the people who know we aren't machines and aren't burnt out. Instead, more truthfully, we are not even lit. How could we be burnt out?
Advent people put on the armor of light against the time famine of darkness. We have a spirit of joy that edges out the spirit of anxiety. We are the people who choose, digest, and chew. We are people who get nourishment from a way of being in time. Instead of acid reflux from too much fast food, we maintain a diet of peace, quiet, calm, and joy. Advent can show us a way to move out of a time famine into a time feast. In this chapter, we see how to get from having a time famine to a time feast by turning the sword we now use on ourselves into a plow that aerates our spiritual soil, by waking up, and by learning to expect the unexpected.
ABOUT THOSE PLOWS ISAIAH 2:1-5
Isaiah 2:1-5 offers a hopeful and peaceful vision to Judah and Jerusalem during a time of political turmoil and attacks from other nations. The vision is sharpened with the images of the swords and the plows in verse 4:
God will judge between the nations,
and settle disputes
of mighty nations.
Then they will beat
their swords into iron plows
and their spears into pruning tools.
Nation will not take up sword
they will no longer learn
how to make war.
A sword is a weapon that finishes things off or threatens to finish things off. Many of us don't have real swords, but we do have weapons we use against each other and ourselves. We close down, close off, or live with the great anxiety that today will be the same as yesterday. We say unchristian things like, "It will always be this way," "Nothing can change," or "That's just the way it is." We do violence equal to that of the sword to ourselves. We become infected with anxiety. We abuse the days we do have. We inoculate them with a persistent pessimism. Because we have no hope of peace or sense of satisfaction, we live through the time famine of never being good enough or having enough as though it was a permanent condition. We actually consent to the bad news about human beings and create more bad news.
An iron plow is a different kind of tool. It plows. It aerates. When we pick up an iron plow, we act out our hope that we will be fed, not famished. This tool grows things. The promise of the Old Testament lesson for Advent is that we can and will grow. We will be fed. We will stop the great sword of war as well as the small sword of self-flagellation. We will get out of the great stagnation into a beautiful economy. We will plant seed in soil, and that seed will flourish because of the hope we plowed in with it. With every second we give to the sword, we are hurting ourselves; but with every second we give to the plow, we are helping ourselves.
Advent is not simply a 40-day holiday or season. It is more like a process. The sword finishes things off quickly; but the plow slowly, steadily creates and opens space for new possibilities. I love Advent and don't particularly like holidays. Holidays have sword-like tendencies. They imagine all the joy, peace, and hope will be on a certain day. They offend the gardener in me. They have a tendency to become a time famine themselves, especially when we try to do too much.
To switch the metaphor from an agricultural one to a culinary one, Advent is a process of marinating and preparing. The holidays yell peace and joy at us, but Advent prepares us for peace and joy. During the preparation, we become the ones marveling at a God about to be born. In the shouting, we are frequently disappointed by all that the holidays promise but don't deliver. The time famine is the takeaway of the holidays much too often for many people. Advent promises a time feast.
Planning can help. People say they don't have time to plan because they are so overwhelmed by the things they were supposed to do yesterday and didn't do. Planning to put the sword down and pick up an iron plow—or planning to marinate in the moments you do have—can help. It just takes a second to hope. I often describe that second of hope as a turning. People talk to me about how defeated they feel, how they don't dare believe that anything good could still be possible for them. I often ask them to simply turn around. Just turn around. Look back at something good that happened. How did it happen? Why do we waste our time beating ourselves with swords? Could we expect just a small thing, just a look up or around or back or over?
The word for this kind of turning is reflection. Lives that are all action and no reflection yield a time famine. Lives that balance action with reflection yield a time feast. Can we give a second per minute to reflect? a minute per hour? an hour a day? Why not? I know the e-mails are waiting. I know the house is a mess. I even know that you think if you were just more efficient then you'd have a better job, a better resume, or a better report for the boss. I also know that you will get each of these by reflecting on your next action and strategizing your next move, rather than just doing, doing, doing. The biggest proof of the value of reflection is the mess many of us feel our lives are already in. Why continue doing what we have been doing? The same inputs will yield the same outputs. A slightly different input may yield a slightly different output. People who know how to use plows understand. We remember what happened in that part of the yard or garden last year. We pause to remember. We turn our behavior. We make a "not-to-do" list.
You do have time to plan. You do have time to move out of the time famine into the time feast. You even have time for an Advent process even while managing the stress of the holidays. You can do both, especially if you add an Advent process to a holiday moment.
Advent practice consists of plowing and marinating. Things taste better when prepared in advance and especially when marinated before cooked. I think of eggplant resting overnight in Tahini sauce, fish soaking in soy sauce, or meat rubbed in spices. I think of applesauce made from those apples I found on an August day. Maybe it is time to open the jar and have some.
Likewise, pregnancy is a process that prepares us for the awe of birth. Part of the process includes childbirth education class and training in breathing exercises. For me, it is no accident that God came as a child, through a pregnancy, which is one of the most awesome processes of all. God was strategic in sending the Messiah as a baby. In spiritual marination, we come slowly to the birth. There we marvel about how God could dare come as a child, send heaven to earth and spirit to flesh, or drench humanity with divinity. We taste the results before, during, after, and always.
When has the season of Advent seemed like wielding a sword? like using a plow? How can you move from the sense of famine into the feast of the season? What daily practice might help your "spiritual marination" for the birth of Christ?
A SPIRITUAL ALARM CLOCK ROMANS 13:11-14
The time to wake up from sleep is now. This second Scripture of the first week acts as an alarm clock. It is not the unpleasant kind that wakes you up for another day of time famine, when you feel inadequate, overwhelmed, lost, or meaningless. It is instead an alarm clock that wakes you up for a day of adequacy, preparedness, and meaning. If you want to argue that the only day you like an alarm clock is when you are on vacation, about to take a hike, or get to hit the snooze button, I want to focus on you. I want to ask the question, What you are doing with your one fantastic life? Why give it away to obligation? Why give yourself meaning, capacity, and joy for only part of the time? Ouch. I know my questions hurt. Not all days can be rich with hope and expectation but more should be than not. Now we are really talking about Advent and its process of reflection. I am not using a sword on you. I am asking a question that goes to the alarm clock of this passage. It says now is the time to wake up from sleep. So let's imagine that this first week of Advent you will consent to a process, a planning process, and a strategic plan not for your company or your congregation but for you. Do you really have time to waste in sleepwalking your way through a dark life?
The year was 1973. The place was Tucson. I was the (slightly paid) youth minister. The youth group initiated a composting project to raise money to go to San Francisco for an urban-immersion trip. They raised their money by using the Arizona sun to decompose lettuce leaves plus an eggshell or two that elderly ladies demurely brought to church on Sundays. I'll never forget seeing those white-haired ladies, wearing hats, carrying garbage to church on Sundays. They were barely touching what they couldn't quite imagine touching. We mixed in every kind of other waste we could find and earned six thousand dollars the first year. We sold the bags of compost for one dollar each. The trustees were originally appalled by what was happening in the parking lot, convinced it would stink; but it did not. As they watched that youth group wake up, they changed their tune. They even funded the youth minister for another year. The dozen kids who went to San Francisco were changed by their visits to soup kitchens, shelters, the morgue, and more. They woke up, as do many people when they turn or when they move out of their safety zone.
In San Francisco at that time, the police were just beginning to hire female officers. The sergeant leading our tour of the police station told us that the new hiring won't work because women can't carry the 100-pound bag of sand in a straight line for thirty feet. "They are just not strong enough," he argued. That's when a member of the youth group, Carol, age 17, picked up the bag and carried it back and forth twice. Turns out, she worked with horses. She hadn't talked much during the trip, but she woke up to that challenge.
Some wake up because they see what is wasted become fertile. Others wake up when they discover that all people have some kind of strength. Most wake up by a slow, steady faith formation through participating in youth groups, questioning what they learned, and then going on to walk a strong, secure line for life without trembling, tumbling, or being afraid of their load. Many wake up because they engaged a process of dissatisfaction. They weren't happy with the way things were. They were discontent. They faced their discontent. They woke up.
I heard a story from an Australian pastor once that really affected me. The district in which he worked was getting poorer and poorer. People were growing more distressed, some even despairing in their distress. People started abandoning their cars in the church parking lot. They couldn't fix them, and they couldn't junk them. After the sixth car turned up, the church started a car repair business. Guess what happened? The parking lot cleared, junk became joy. The parking lot woke up, the church woke up, and workers woke the dead cars up.
Not everyone can work a job that they jump out of bed every day to do. Nor can everyone be in a family that is fully happy. But more of us can turn more discards and despair into dollars and days if we try. Waking up to human possibility is something everybody can do a little bit.
What is an important awakening experience in your life? How was God present in that experience? How does it inspire or challenge you today?
NOBODY KNOWS THE DAY OR THE HOUR MATTHEW 24:36-44
Matthew 24:36-44 talks about the coming of Christ, referred to as "Son of Man" in the New Revised Standard Version and "Human One" in the Common English Bible. In this passage, we see a comparison to the people swept away by the flood in the story of Noah (verse 39). They were oblivious to their imminent deaths. It seems like an odd image for Advent and for thoughts about the One who comes and who will come again. We must be alert and ready. We must live faithfully in the tension between life and death.
Throughout the Gospels, we see this ongoing brush with death in the stories about Jesus' birth, ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection. Jesus the baby becomes Jesus the man becomes Jesus the Savior. Jesus the living becomes Jesus the dead becomes Jesus the living. Even doing something as lovely as singing "Silent Night" on Christmas Eve will not last forever. The candles will be extinguished, the cover put back on the organ, the hymnbooks rearranged in the pews. The show that opened will also close. The way Jesus lived, always opening every gate, refusing every lockdown, became the pattern for a life that cannot die. Your best moments will evaporate and so will you. My best moments will evaporate and so will I. The approaching of the end is known because we know it is coming. The hour is unknown because we don't know when it is coming.
Do you have time to ponder death? Do you get shocked if you get a call about the death of the baby soon after the baby is born? It only shocks those who haven't had children. Those who wake in the night with an infant next to them in the bed and fear they might have crushed the child and those who know how vulnerable you can feel carrying a two-day-old newborn around understand and are not shocked. I have heard that fairy tales are good for children because they recognize children are already scared. Adults are also already frightened especially when they are young parents in charge of those who are so vulnerable.
The quick brush of death with birth only shocks those who missed the part about the Christ child being different. His death glorified God. The shepherds didn't get it. The disciples didn't get it. I don't know why we should make believe we do. We can try, but we don't have to succeed. Does a theology of the now/not yet and the always–coming help us? How about the mystery surrounding birth and death? It helps me. What echoes from Matthew is that the ending doesn't so much happen as threaten to happen. We must be ready.
How can all this big news about life and death become an Advent practice or process for us? I suggest some options. Spend today thinking about your own introversion or introverts you know. Note that the holidays demand an extrovert. Tend the inner, the quiet, and the inside. Make it safe to come out and play. Some of us are rare butterflies during the holidays. We are caught rather than engaged in conversation. Release someone from the obligation of engagement and be quiet together. Death is quiet in the way that life is loud. Practice quiet as a way of practicing the unknown that you know is coming.
Also, consider the possibility that Christmas is about what we have lost as well as what we have gained or will gain. The art of going home for the holidays involves remembering those gone as well as those present. Spend some time remembering your losses.
Perhaps you might spend more than you have budgeted on one gift to someone you especially love and who will be amazed to find out that you are less stingy than they thought you were. Or perhaps you could surprise someone with flowers as a pre-Christmas gift. Why? You don't want to have any regrets about your personal extravagance when you die.
Think about the side dishes. Think about the strays that will arrive at your table. Become someone who attends the sides and strays, like a good sheep dog keeps the whole flock together. Why? Because you don't want to miss any chances to be generous.
Hum Christmas carols. Memorize their verses. Sing them in such a way that people in the grocery store will hear you. Why? You need to make sure you experience peace, joy, and calm before you die. Actually, you need to experience these things much, much more before you die.
My friend told me he was called to his friend's house during the last months of his friend's sight. The doctor had said his sight would be gone in a few months and that there was nothing more he could do. Thus, my friend made a last-minute visit to his friend. He wanted to see him before he lost vision. Actually, both friends wanted to see the other during the time they had left.
Excerpted from God's Gift of Love by Donna Schaper. Copyright © 2013 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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