I expect this will be obvious to anyone who knows me well, but in terms of how I approach the world, my leaning is more toward ‘doing’ rather than to simply ‘being.’ Oh, this is not so when something goes radically wrong with my website, as it did this week. Then I call on the one who knows so much more than I. And it does not apply when the gutters need to be cleaned out as winter approaches. I quit climbing on the roof years ago and am so very grateful for the one who does this in my behalf season after season. But with a whole lot of other things, it is not my first instinct to just only ‘raise my head’ as today’s Gospel words from Jesus would have us do. It is not my first inclination to do anything quite so passive as just ‘being on guard’ as Jesus urges near the end of this piece of Luke’s Gospel. No indeed, if there is ‘distress among nations’ and the ‘seas and the waves are roaring’ and people are ‘fainting from fear and forboding,’ my first thought is to show up and ‘do something.’
Only that is simply not the call today, is it? For while the call to ‘pay attention’ rings clear and that is ‘doing something,’ really this first week in Advent we are reminded that God is the one doing the doing, even if and when we cannot quite discern what that looks like or even entirely what that means.
And so it is I learned a valuable lesson in just this while I was on vacation a few weeks ago in terms of what it means to ‘be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life…’ (Luke 21:25-36) And yes, it meant doing less and not more. It meant turning way from one thing (or multiple things) so as to be able to see more clearly another.
I was gone just a week this time — only a quick getaway before the pressures of Advent and Christmas came bearing down.
Our faithful staff knew not to bother me if at all possible and they were good about this.
The congregation was informed that I was away and normally they are very good about respecting these boundaries.
But this is so. There are always some who are connected but not enough to have heard that I am away.
And so the texts do still come sometimes. The phone calls ring through. And while I do my best to ignore for the time being what can be ignored, to set aside that which can wait, once the phone pings or the ring tone sounds, I am pulled right back in.
Now I have been in ministry long enough to remember a time when such constant availability was not a thing, when I surely could find myself distracted by other ‘dissipations,’ but at least they were not aided by the constant presence of a cell phone. Indeed, I can remember long drives to meetings or out of town hospital calls when no one would be able to reach me for hours on end. In recent decades though, the only time that is normally the case is when the wheels go up on an airplane and the phone is in airplane mode. That phone is certainly welcome gift much of the time. But it is also a distraction, sometimes as we know, a deadly one. And maybe not only in the ways we are inclined to first think.
And so it was that several days into my vacation when I found I couldn’t get the distance I needed, much of it of my own doing to be honest, I turned off the phone.
For twelve hours one day I literally put it away. I did the same for most of the next day as well.
Now this was no easy thing to do. I found myself reaching for it more than once, yearning for the distraction of scrolling through social media, considering a question I knew I could easily find an answer to there, and yes, wondering if someone was reaching out whose need was urgent. In and of themselves, perhaps none of these are bad, but they can and do contribute to ‘dissipation’ as Jesus names it now.
Indeed, dissipation, as I understand it, is that which distracts. Which wastes time. Which fritters away what matters most. Which takes our attention off what matters most of all. While that phone can be a powerful gift as it connects us to one another and to the world, it can also draw us away from what we most need as it makes it easy to look away from what God is doing in us and in the world.
These are small things, yes, but in those hours when the phone was off a little something changed in me.
For you see, for a time I found I could hear the nearby waves more clearly. That the song of a bird resting on the branch of a tree just off the back deck rang caught my attention more quickly. And yes, this as well. I stepped out into the darkness that night and I looked back to see the moon casting its shadow in that place where other light was not there to interfere. (I have heard of this, of course. I mean there are whole songs written about moon shadows, right? But I caught my breath to realize I could not ever remember seeing it for myself before.)
And yes, there was this in those more quiet hours. The voice of God somehow rang more clearly as well… once or twice taking advantage of the quiet to somehow urgently remind me to rest as needed… and that time is precious.
Oh, it is so that there is so much to be done in the world today:
- As we see nations embattled with one another, faction against faction right in our own country;
- As we recognize signs of our neglect or our over-activity exacting a price in terms of rising and roaring sea and waves;
- As people do more than ‘faint’ in fear and forboding and sometimes, too often, take up arms in our very streets seeking to protect or defend or to attack first, all the while aided by the ready accessibility of weapons which are only meant to take human life.
There is much, so very much to be done.
But that is not the call today. Indeed, the urging we hear right now is to simply lift up our heads, to be on guard, to keep our eyes, our ears, our very hearts peeled to see what God is doing next.
For me it helped last week to turn off the cell phone for a while, a practice I have every intention of doing again and often.
And so maybe this is enough this first week in Advent. The time will come again, and no doubt very soon, to ‘do’ again. But as those who have long been a part of a people who follow the One who speaks with such urgency to us today, how can we possibly ‘do,’ without first standing with our heads raised high, looking to see and hear what God is already doing? And why wouldn’t we, if our ‘redemption is, in fact, drawing near?’
Indeed, why wouldn’t we?
- ‘Your redemption is drawing near.’ What does it mean to you to raise your head to see it, to greet it, to receive it?
- This time through I find myself contrasting my inclination to ‘do’ with the call to simply only ‘raise my head’ to see what God is doing. In a world where so much needs ‘doing,’ how do you, how do we as people of faith justify the latter? Does this week’s Gospel lead you where it led me?
- I offer the example of my cell phone as a source of ‘dissipation.’ Is this so for you as well? If so, what would it mean for you to simply ‘put it away?’ If you have done so, what have you experienced?