The other day on my computer opening screen appeared this pop-up: “Tap here to ask when winter ends.”
I usually ignore this kind of uninvited detritus that shows up on computer screens. But this question gave me pause. If it’s December 3 and I’m asking when winter ends, I am focused on some point in the future…skipping over the next few months in my mind and heart, rushing to get somewhere where I’m not now: somewhere else.
Maybe that’s indicative of the world we live in – always pushing us to focus on something that’s not where we are – something new to achieve, to desire, to try to get, to own – something we don’t have now. That’s what drives a consumer economy (golly, I hate being defined as a consumer). Whatever it is you have, you want something else.
As Advent begins, we take up the Gospel of Mark this year. But we don’t start at the beginning; we start towards the end, in Mark 13. That’s the chapter where Jesus speaks of strange things that will happen in the end times, when “heaven and earth will pass away” as we know them. But that’s not really Mark’s focus – he only gives it a few sentences. I believe Jesus is saying – Yes there will be a future, and it will be God’s future. Beyond that, it’s pretty mysterious. Don’t try to figure it all out in advance, and definitely don’t stop living today as you pine for something out there!
Jesus gives us an image – almost a parable – to illustrate. “See this fig tree? Learn its lesson: its branch becomes tender – tender – it puts forth leaves, and then you know that summer is near. You’ll know when you need to know, when the signs tell you.”
But if, like my computer pop-up, we are asking about the end of winter now, when winter is still coming, we’re going to miss the next few months, with all their possibilities, their times of activity, times of quiet, the feel of a cold wind, the precious moments with a friend in front of a crackling fire. Don’t give away what is ours here and now for what may be in the future.
We often say Advent is about waiting, about being expectant, and there is truth in that. But that doesn’t mean we stop living in the moment we have right now. I remember over the years, when any of us say we can’t wait until x or y or z, my wise mother-in-law would say: don’t wish away your life.
Instead, focus – truly focus – on the here and now: this day, this hour, this place, this room, this body I inhabit, these people I live with and love, these leaves on the front walk, this dog I am walking, this page of this book, this dish I am washing…. What’s hardest for me about this is when the present moment is difficult or anxious or downright painful. While we certainly don’t want to prolong the hard times, the sad times, we do need to acknowledge them and experience them. Be awake! Be alert! Jesus says. Don’t wish away your life!
William Martin is a Christian who uses the Eastern wisdom of Tao Te Ching. He speaks plainly to this issue of dwelling in the present:
St. Paul in First Corinthians points to this same spiritual wisdom: “In every way you have been enriched in [Christ], …so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Again, the emphasis is on the present moment – now. Imagine, we are not lacking in any spiritual gift! Now, just as I am, I am not lacking. I don’t know about you, but I spend a lot of energy focusing on what I lack: patience, serenity, stamina, charisma, wisdom – on how I’m just not enough, not sufficient, lacking. But St. Paul says “No! You really have all that you need. God has made you whole, complete, enough, right now. And Paul goes on to say that God will sustain us for as long as it takes, and we need not worry about those strange “end times,” the final judgment that can sound so scary: “He will strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
So, what is Advent about – this strange season the church says is quiet and contemplative, while the world is going bonkers getting ready for Christmas? It’s not a time to beat ourselves up for running around, for not managing to be all quiet and spiritual. It’s an invitation to live in the now – neither obsessing about the past nor agonizing about the future. So try this: be where you are. If you are driving in the car, be there: look around, observe the trees, your own thoughts. If you are Christmas shopping, reflect on what you are doing, whom you are shopping for, on your relationship with that person. Give thanks for that person in your life.
And try monitoring your anxiety (without compounding it). Am I worrying about something right now? What is it, really? What am I afraid of? Is it a rational fear? Can I act on my concerns? What’s the worst that could happen? Could I live with that?
I’ve often wished to rush through the present, to get to some future I’ve identified as “better.” When our kids were teenagers, there were times I thought, “Oh, if we could just get past this stage!” But if we had, we would have missed so many beautiful moments with them – their discovery of their passions, their heartaches, their growth into young adults. No, I would not have wanted to miss those things. And likewise, I do not want to miss what this day, Sunday, December 3, 2017, has to offer – what God offers me today.
So I’m going to try to stay awake, aware, and alert this day, neither dwelling on the past nor fretting about the future. I’m not going to “tap and ask when winter ends,” because I want to live fully through this winter, and every season I’m given thereafter. I truly believe that is what Jesus calls us to do. When we read of Jesus’ life in the Gospels, we see how present he was in each moment, whether he was in a small group, or in a crowd, or off by himself to pray. This Advent, let us follow his example.