Jesus said, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with… the worries of this life, and that the day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.”
Today is the first Sunday of the year in the church calendar. Happy new year! Advent 1. Advent. Of all the seasons in the Church year, it most has been bulldozed and buried by contemporary culture, its wisdom and value lost in the marketing rush to get to Christmas. That other new year celebration, the one in Times Square, has its descending ball and sixty second countdown. For most, Advent has morphed into a countdown to Christmas: only X number of shopping days left, only three more candles on the wreath to light, only so much time left to trim the tree, send out cards, and bake cookies.
Is this all there is to Advent? Is this what it is supposed to be? Can Advent be something more? Can it be something else?
I have been reading a book by the writer Rinker Buck about an adventure he set out on a few years ago with his brother. They decided to retrace by mule-drawn covered wagon the original route of the Oregon Trail – a feat which, to the best of their ability to figure, hadn’t been attempted in over 100 years. Inspiration (or what some might call “insanity”) for the journey came from several sources. One was the memory of a similar, shorter trip with their father on a family “vacation” in the 1950’s when they travelled and camped by covered wagon through parts of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Their dad hung a sign on the back of the wagon for passing motorists to read: “We apologize for holding up your drive.” And then in huge print it said, “See America Slowly.”
Rinker Buck’s book, titled The Oregon Trail, is all about what happens when you see America slowly. As I flew to California last week I was keenly aware I was retracing sections of the Trail myself, albeit at 450 miles per hour from an altitude of 40,000 feet. My United flight and Buck’s covered wagon both got from point A to point B, but as you can imagine, they were completely different experiences. I was transported from one coast to another in a couple of hours. Rinker and his brother were transformed by their journey, which lasted the better part of a summer.
I am confident you recognize what it is like to go through Advent (and life, for that matter) at 450 MPH from 40,000 feet. What might it look like to “Take Advent Slowly”? What might it look like to live slowly and intentionally with Advent’s themes of longing, peace, hope, and love?
If I asked you what you longed for, could you give me an answer? If not, do you think your life would be richer if you made some time to sit with yourself until you understood the deepest longings of your heart? That, I think, would be Advent time well spent. What if I asked where you find peace in your life? Can you identify a place, an experience, or a time when peace envelops you on a consistent basis? If you can’t point to anything, wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could? What about hope? What would you say if I asked how hope sustains and encourages you in your life? Could you give me an answer? And what if I asked how you experience deep, unconditional, healing love? Our faith tells us this is how God is in relationship with us. When, where, and how do you experience it in your life?
If you struggle to answer any or all of these, don’t feel bad. You are not a failing as a Christian. My guess is you simply have not taken time to live with yourself in a way that fosters spiritual and personal awareness. You have been living a 450/40,000 life. You are not alone, in fact you are part of the majority. Advent comes not to remind us to get ready for Christmas, but to speak to the value of waiting; of the necessity we have for space to be still, to live with God and ourselves in a slow, quiet way.
Those of you in the Women’s Study Group will recognize how what I am saying connects with the book you are studying by Sue Monk Kidd. In it she writes of being on a retreat and trying to sit for a period of meditation, only she can’t. She has lost the capacity to be still and even has come to believe doing nothing is a waste of time. Then she sees a monk sitting perfectly still under a tree. He remains motionless for a long, long time. When his mediation is complete she engages him in conversation, confessing she has trouble getting used to the idea of doing nothing. Listen to what he says in response:
“When you’re waiting, you’re not doing nothing. You are doing the most important something there is. You’re allowing your soul to grow up. If you can’t be still and wait, you can’t become what God created you to be.”
Kidd goes on to make this observation,
“When it comes to religion today, we tend to be long on butterflies and short on cocoons.”
So we have two different, but related images for Advent: the covered wagon and the cocoon. The covered wagon eventually gets you where you need to go while changing you by the experience. The cocoon is a slow and necessary process leading to transformation and new life.
God’s promise to us is always new life. Throughout the Church year we retrace how God’s promise is fulfilled in the person of Jesus. As it tells the Jesus story, the Church calendar has us waiting four weeks for the promise to be incarnated in a stable in Bethlehem. In our lives, the waiting can and does take much longer. In fact, waiting is an indispensible spiritual skill we must draw on regularly if we hope to stay in touch with God and with ourselves.
Kidd points out that the Greek word for soul is psyche, which often is symbolized as a butterfly. She writes,
“The fullness of one’s soul evolves slowly. We are asked to go within to gestate the newness God is trying to form; we’re asked to collaborate with grace.”
Hers is an Advent insight; one challenged by what she calls our “quickaholic” spirituality and lifestyle. “Be on guard,” Jesus told his followers in today’s gospel reading, “so that your hearts are not weighed down with… the worries of this life, and that the day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.” I hear him encouraging us to take Advent slowly!