Advent 1: A Dark November Night

Mark 13:24-37First Sunday of Advent – For Sunday, November 30, 2014

“Watch out! Stay alert! You don’t know when the time is coming.” (Mark 13:33)

advent2-300x225Watch out! Stay alert! You don’t know when the time is coming.

The first scriptures of Advent are unsettling. I don’t like them. I’d prefer to hurry to the next week’s readings, to arrive in Bethlehem as quickly as possible. Joseph and Mary and the shepherds and the magi and the angels are familiar. They are safe. After all, I put their ceramic figurines on my mantel.

The scripture that shouts at me to Watch out! never feels safe. I dread the questions these fierce apocalyptic verses cause me to ask.

*      *      *

Will I ever be healed?

I weary of waiting to be healed. First, I’m talking about my body. Once, as a youth, I felt immortal. I did. Embarrassing confession: in my twenties and thirties, I didn’t think I’d age like others. Even after a wrenching broken leg, even after a first and second knee surgery by my late forties, I thought I’d be . . . different. I’d never be the one with the cane or walker or the one whose doctor warned you have to count calories or reduce cholesterol. I would forever disdain the elevator and bound up the steps.

But aging gets the last laugh. Judgment wears clever disguises.

And yet, it’s not really my body that needs healing. How silly of me—how self-centered—to contemplate immortality. Look in the looking glass, kid! Can I count the gray hairs? Once, but no longer. Birthdays accumulate. Skin wrinkles. Steps slow. Eyes dim. Hearing falters.

It’s my heart that longs for healing. As time sprints past, I honestly say to people that I don’t have regrets about my now deceased parents. We had a loving relationship. We talked. We spent time together. But I lie when I say I don’t have regrets. My heart longs for one last conversation with Dad. My heart desires one more walk around the neighborhood with Mom. My heart also aches for Ray and Dorothy Hart, for Wil Behrend (the best father-in-law ever), for the countless funerals and graveside services I’ve done where I comforted parents and children and never felt like I said enough, or said the right thing. My heart aches for the friends I don’t live near and can’t touch on a daily basis. My heart aches when I admit I haven’t outgrown my childish ways of selfishness. I am a gray-haired boy, a man with an aching heart. Scripture claims soon—Watch out!—and judgment will come. But nothing yet. Waiting I am, burdened with a wounded, mortal heart. Please, before judgment, let me heal.

*      *      *

What can I do to ease your suffering?

Last night (as I first crafted these words on a dark November morning), I helped lead a “Hope for the Holidays” workshop. It was sponsored by the hospice where I work. About forty people attended. All were suffering because a child-parent-sister-brother-best friend-wife-husband-grandparent had died. Our goal—our hope—was to provide thoughts and ideas for those grieving the death of a loved one during this “festive” season. We cast out some words. We shared our expertise. We reminded each person that grief was unique, that grief was a rollercoaster of feelings, and that grief’s anguish would lessen. We weren’t lying. We told the truth.

A woman shook my hand as she left the workshop and headed for the parking lot. She told me her name. I didn’t recognize it. She told me I’d talked to her on the phone several times after her loved one had died. I couldn’t recall those calls. She was crying. She was sad. She thanked me for being helpful and hopeful to her during the calls. And yet I couldn’t remember her. I’ve made thousands of bereavement calls to people, and a few to her, and I can’t remember their names, or her name. She said I’d made a difference. Indeed, in the dark of a November night, her teary eyes glowed as she expressed gratitude.

I had helped her. I had helped her. I had helped her.

But in that dark night, I knew she was still so broken. Bereft. Her world had ended when a beloved died. She was living in apocalyptic times. And I couldn’t remember her name for the life of me.

We are forlorn wanderers, hurtling through the edges of the Milky Way, tears streaking our cheeks . . .
We are forlorn wanderers, hurtling through the edges of the Milky Way, tears streaking our cheeks . . .

The world groans with suffering. We are seven billion and more on this spinning, sapphire planet and all of us hurt. We are forlorn wanderers, hurtling through the edges of the Milky Way, tears streaking our cheeks, the voices of the dead echoing in our souls. We are God blessed and God burdened. Judgment seems already to have come.

Here we are at Advent, as unprepared as usual. The first scriptures are always a Holy slap in the face, verbal mirrors of human failures, foolishness, and frailty.

Stay alert! I can’t. I’m mortal, not immortal. My heart aches and I’m easily distracted.

Stay alert! I don’t. I long to help others, but the names blur, my words are clichés, and the dark nights grow darker.

I despise this first Sunday of Advent. It exposes me for who I am.

(Candle from here; Milky Way from here.)

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    1. Thanks! Especially with the first Sunday of Advent Bible readings, discomfort seems one of the most honest responses.

  1. Thanks, Pastor Larry, for a lovely post and meditation. I don’t like Advent 1 much either–keeps reminding me of Hal Lindsay and all that “Rapture” stuff. But your thoughts are honest and cut to the heart of the relevant message of this day. Keep awake. Our lives and petty concerns mummify us at times. We need this “slap in the face.”

    1. Pr. Owen Griffiths . . . thanks for reading. On my best days of honest writing, I try to be a “slap in the face!” I’ve been through enough Advent/Christmas seasons were most folks only wanted the “happy” carols and “Hollywood ending” versions of the Biblical stories. Advent, start to finish, is a rugged, raggedy journey, as honest with its human heartaches as it is with its divine hopes.

  2. Advent is hard for most of us. I know it is for me. This year even more difficult as my brother is getting sicker and sicker from cancer spreading throughout his body, and I’m not sure he will even see Christmas. Let alone his first grandchild to be born next May. We all comfort in different ways, and I can’t help but think after I’ve read your blog for quite a while now, that you have given comfort to many people on many different levels. We get through Advent as we wade through to Christmas. Which makes Christmas so much better and more joyful. Thank you for making us think, and feel, and realize that we are after all human, and as humans we are not perfect. We can only try.

    1. Thanks, Nancy! Difficult to hear about your brother and his cancer. At any season of the year, it’s tough when our loved ones are dying . . . but a holiday time adds anguish. I’m grateful my words helped a little thinking, a little feeling for Advent. Take care . . .

  3. I read some pieces this week from Christian Century etc. They were by and large innocuous, but they made me want to stick my finger down my throat and jab the uvula. Read some articles from three or four journals. They were interesting…but…how dose a person write a scholarly article on mark that leaves me with the impression that they never read mark?
    An old and very dear friend died a week ago. She was a P K and (of course?) unchurched. I am the closest thing the family knows to clergy. A sad commentary indeed. She professed to be an atheist she wasn’t She was just angry , maybe about something or maybe that was just her. No atheist spends an entire life wrestling at Jabbok Ford. The funeral was hard.
    Every one I met this week talked about Ferguson. I wondered how they slept since I had the feeling that all their sheets must have eye holes.
    And then. Your authentic and sincere meditation on Advent I should be4 included in the Psalms. Thanks for your work.

    1. Mickey… good to read your comments. And also not so good as you mentioned the death of your “old and very dear friend.” Sorry to hear about her death.

      Take care. Thanks for your encouraging words about my musings.

  4. Funny, but I am up late and ran across this blog from November. Your ability to be honest astounds me. After the death of my first wife, Sue, by auto accident and then my son, Mark, by suicide I was often walking down that same lonely road. You never get over it you just move on and do your best. I can see the end of the runway and I like you used to think secretly that I was invincible.But now I know I am as mortal as any person.
    Life keeps moving on and we go with it looking for some hope. Fortunately I took an assignment to Alaska and found my hope in another person, Vicky my wife. I have come to believe that life is joyful/sorrow. And that is good enough for me, both are true realities. I am becoming a Buddhist or at least moving into a meditation religion. These few things I know: Kindness heal, Friends matter and life will take us home. Hey, you are worth reading, I will do more.

    1. Wow, John . . . thanks! I’m glad I was in your way when you were up late!!

      As I hope with other writers, my struggle is be as honest as possible with my words. Every once in a while, that effort brings in a gift like your response and your honesty.

      How I agree with your closing thoughts about kindness and friendship.

      Take care!

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