Monday, December 3, 2018

There will be Signs

Jesus said, “There will be signs…”

Chrissie Hynde, the musical genius leader of The Pretenders (and graduate of my high school), wrote and recorded a haunting song for the group’s 2002 album Loose Screws.  The lyrics begin…

If I’d known then
if only I had known
what, where or when
I would of kept you on the phone.
Hindsight is tough, it’s so obvious
never enough for the two of us.

I would have tried a little harder.
I would have cried a little louder.
I would have lied with more aplomb.
I, I, I, I, I, I, I should have known.

If you want to connect to life’s pain, do a Google search of phrases such as “I should have known”, “Why didn’t I see it coming?”, and “How did I miss the signs?”.  I did that earlier this week and encountered story after story of unexpected illness, sudden financial ruin, relationship-ending infidelity, hidden substance abuse, heartless employment termination, and (perhaps the most painful of all) struggling with the what, where, and when of why a loved one took his or her life. 

Looking backward.  Maybe you’ll identify with this poem by the English writer James Fenton titled The Mistake:

With the mistake your life goes in reverse.
Now you can see exactly what you did
Wrong yesterday and wrong the day before
And each mistake leads back to something worse
And every nuance of your hypocrisy
Towards yourself, and every excuse
Stands solidly on the perspective lines
And there is perfect visibility.

What an enlightenment.  The colonnade
Rolls past on either side.  You needn’t move.
The statues of your errors brush your sleeve.
You watch the tale turn back — and you’re dismayed.

And this dismay at this, this big mistake
Is made worse by the sight of all those who
Knew all along where these mistakes would lead —
Those frozen friends who watched the crisis break.

Why didn’t they say?  Oh, but they did indeed —
Said with a murmur when the time was wrong
Or by a mild refusal to assent
Or told you plainly but you would not heed.

Yes, you can hear them now.  It hurts.  It’s worse
Than any sneer from any enemy.
Take this dismay.  Lay claim to this mistake.
Look straight along the lines of this reverse.

“It’s so difficult, isn’t it?”, writes S. J. Watson in his book Before I Go to Sleep, “to see what’s going on when you’re in the absolute middle of something?  It’s only with hindsight we can see things for what they are.”  Edmund Burke famously said “those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.”  This, I think, is the work of the head... to learn from the past.  But R.J. Ellory is speaking of the pain of the heart when he writes hindsight is “ever the cruelest and most astute adviser.” 

The season of Advent always begins with a warning of what is to come.  “There will be signs,” Jesus says, “and when you see them know the worst thing imaginable is about to happen.”  This horrible thing will happen, Jesus says, before this generation passes away.  “This generation” does not refer to us.  Jesus speaks these words to people who live almost 2,000 years ago and it refers to an event in their lifetime, not ours. 

Each of the four gospels is written either just before or just after a siege by the Roman army leading to the fall of Jerusalem and subsequent destruction of the Temple.  This is the event to which the signs Jesus mention points.  Afterward, Jews are dispersed all over the known world, their society and religious practices forever altered.  For the most part, up until this moment Christians are a subset of the Jewish community. They worship in the synagogue and Temple and participate in local commerce.  After the calamity, separate identities between the two groups slowly emerge.  Christians begin to understand Jesus as the fulfillment of the Temple rituals and come to see themselves as a kind of new Jerusalem.

Mark’s gospel, being the earliest, foresees these events as immanent, much the same way we project the disastrous consequences of questionable government policies.  The other gospels are written after the fall of Jerusalem and so they speak with hindsight.  Except, by casting them as Jesus’ words, they locate his warning decades before the events come to pass.  As a result, they carry the heavy tone of “You should have known” and “All the signs were there.” 

While Jesus’ words speak to something not of our time, they touch on a timeless dynamic.  As humans it is imperative for us to learn from the past and to prepare for the future, but we have a tendency to take this too far.  Hindsight becomes an exercise riddled with remorse, regret, and self-recrimination.  We anticipate horrible scenarios in the future and live in anxiety, fear, and dread.  It seems to me both are expressions of our perceived omniscience.  When looking backward we expect of ourselves the ability to see all things.  When looking forward we believe we can know exactly how things will unfold.  Both are rooted in the subtle and false notion we can know everything as God knows everything.  The truth is we can’t and we don’t.  We will always miss some signs and be blind to some clues.  We will always fail to anticipate a potential outcome or development.

What are we to do, we who live with the statues of our errors?  Jesus offers us this: “Be on guard… be alert at all times, praying…”  It is sage advice.  Live attentively in present, the space between the past and future.  It is easier said than done. 

The biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer’s first book is titled Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses.  Surely the study of moss requires one to focus attention on the subtleties and nuances of life.  She makes this observation:

Infrared satellite imagery, optical telescopes, and the Hubbell space telescope bring vastness within our visual sphere.  Electron microscopes let us wander the remote universe of our own cells.  But at the middle scale, that of the unaided eye, our senses seem to be strangely dulled.  With sophisticated technology, we strive to see what is beyond us, but are often blind to the myriad of sparkling facets that lie so close at hand.  We think we’re seeing when we’ve only scratched the surface.  Our [awareness] at this middle scale seems diminished, not by any failing of the eyes, but by the willingness of the mind.  Has the power of our devices led us to distrust our unaided eyes?  Or have we become dismissive of what takes no technology but only time and patience to perceive?  Attentiveness alone can rival the most powerful magnifying lens.

The great mystics of our Christian tradition tell us attentiveness to the present moment and mystery is a kind of prayer.  “Be on guard” is not a military mandate, but rather a call to the spiritual discipline of setting aside all that distracts – all our pouring over the past and all our pondering about the future – in order to experience the blessing and wonder of now.  It is an invitation to quiet our minds in order to be truly present wherever we might be; to be truly present to whoever we might be with.

Advent is the season when the secular world bombards us with one advertisement after other.  Each one tells us exactly what to purchase to let the special people in our life know how much we love them – a diamond, a Lexus, a gift card.  Jesus reminds us the single most precious gift you have to give is your time and your attention.  Give this gift and you will see what is really happening in this world – how moss grows and how those close to you are really doing.  Advent begs us to give a gift to ourselves.  Be attentive to what is happening to you.  What is happening to you as you live and move and have your being in this one and only life you have?  Jesus said there will be signs.  Some will be foreboding.  Others will point to promise, hope, and possibility.  Do not let them pass by unnoticed.