Mark 13:32-37, II Corinthians 6:1-2
The Reverend Tom Herbek
November 29, 2015
Jesus said: “Beware, keep awake.” Even when we feel exhausted, sometimes it is crucial that we stay awake. Perhaps it is because it is only when we no longer have the energy to keep our guard up that God is really able to get through to us. Perhaps it is because fatigue has a way of numbing our minds so our hearts can take over.
We all decry the fatigue and the tasks of this season. Yet, I wonder if they can also become catalysts for us that can help us to see and feel God’s presence in ways we might not otherwise be able to comprehend.
As Anne Lamott writes in her book, Plan B, “Moses led his people in circles for forty years – so they could get ready for the Promised Land, because they had too many ideas and preconceptions about what a promised land should look like. During Advent, we have to sit in our own anxiety and funkiness long enough to know what a promised land would be like.”
Maybe we should embrace the fatigue we feel so that we can lose our ideas and preconceptions of what God’s coming into our lives should be like. During Advent, we all have before us the possibility of entering the Promised Land. During Advent, if we stay awake, we might just be surprised by God. During Advent, we might just find ourselves experiencing the birth of this child in a new way.
We can’t make it happen, but we can pay attention to the possibilities and we can stay awake long enough when it happens. Sometimes the presence of God in a new way happens when we are overwhelmed and not sure of how to respond, finding ourselves in unknown territory without a guidebook.
Wendell Berry says:
It may be that when we no longer know what to do,
We have come to our real work;
And that when we no longer know which way to go,
We have begun our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
When we stay awake, when we are baffled, it may be that we will then experience something that we have never experienced before. Parker Palmer, in his book, The Promise of Paradox, describes the possibilities within such times:
For years, I’ve wanted a bumper sticker that says “Born Baffled!” I’ve come to believe that the willingness to be baffled and stay baffled is part of my identity and one of my birthright gifts. I mean “gift” seriously: bafflement has energized my life, including my work as a writer. Writers are sometimes regarded as experts on the subjects they write about. But I’ve never written on a topic that I’ve mastered or figured out.
Once I arrive at what some might call expertise, I get bored, and writing is hard enough without working on something I find boring.
I write about things that baffle me even after I’ve written about them, which is to say that I write about things whose mystery seems bottomless to me.
Early on, my bafflement was focused on the world and how it does or does not work. Then it came to rest on other people: Why are they the way they are? Finally, I realized that the root of all bafflement is about oneself and that unless I was willing to become more transparent to myself, other people and the world would remain opaque.
When we stay awake beyond the time when we feel we must go to sleep, we may gain insight. It may happen in the fatigue of overwork, of stress, of feeling we don’t know what to do, in those places where others baffle us, or we are baffled by our world. And of course, there are times when we baffle ourselves.
In order to learn, to grow, we must find ways to step out even when we have no idea how to help or what to do. But sometimes, in the middle of the night, when we are awake and feeling baffled, we might experience insight that is quite surprising. When someone we care about is hurting and we don’t know how to help, sometimes we may get a clue when we stay awake.
The presence of God may surprise us in the midst of grief, when what we most need is some sense that life can go on. A college student named Glenn and his 14-year-old sister, Lori, found out how to go on with life one Christmas, even when they thought that life had ended for them and their mother. It came in the midst of their grief and their fatigue on the Christmas Eve three weeks after their father died in a tragic plane crash.
Glenn tells the story about coming home for Christmas from college that year:
Three weeks after my dad’s funeral, I returned home for Christmas break. Grief hung heavy on my mom. Lori and I wished we could ease her burden.
In our family, tradition called for us children to hang stockings on the fireplace. My parents never had stockings for themselves. But earlier in the week, Mother had said she was going to skip the stockings that year. Lori was fourteen, and I was twenty. It wasn’t like our belief in Santa Claus was going to be crushed, and it was one less duty for her.
After supper on Christmas Eve, Mother went to her room. Lori and I stared at the television.
Rather than going to sleep themselves, Glenn and his sister stayed awake, unsure what to do to help their mom. Glenn goes on to say:
Lori turned to me and said, “Why don’t we go ahead and fill the stockings? At least there would be something more to do in the morning.”
“Yeah, you’re right.”
We picked through the pile of gifts under the tree and found some small ones to put in our stockings. Then we took some candies out of the little Rudolph bowl and dropped them in. “Hey,” I said, “How about we make a stocking for Mom, too?”
Lori looked surprised. “A stocking for Mom? Mom and Dad don’t … I mean, they never …well…Sure. That would be a good idea!”
We looked at the two stockings hanging on the mantel. Glitter spelled “Lori” on one; embroidered stitching spelled “Glenn” on the other.
“Should we use one of these for Mom?” I asked. Lori thought about it. “She has socks.” I looked at my feet, then at the stockings, and back at Lori. “That would be awfully small.” “How about pantyhose?” Lori suggested. “Perfect!” We looked at each other and smiled.
Later, when Mom went to brush her teeth, Lori snuck into her room and grabbed a pair of pantyhose.
We tacked them to the mantle, putting the tacks right through the nylon.
Our parents had always put an orange in the bottom of our stocking. So, I got an orange from the refrigerator, and Lori plopped it into the pantyhose. We both jumped as the orange thumped on the floor. We stifled giggles behind our hands. One leg stretched to four feet with a round lump in the toe while leg hung tiny and wrinkled.
“What about that one?” I asked. Lori got another orange and put it in. Thump! We had to laugh at the elongated pantyhose with bulbous feet tethered to our fireplace. We scooped up the small gifts for Mom from under the tree and put them in the “stocking.” They disappeared into the extraordinarily large legs, leaving hardly a trace.
“What now?” Lori asked. I took some knickknacks off the end tables. “Here, wrap these.” Knickknacks, a hairbrush, a toothbrush, a kitchen towel, all were called into stocking-stuffer duty. The pantyhose drooped further and still had plenty of space left. We poured in the rest of the bag of the Christmas candy. “We need more,” Lori said.
“What about the dish of candy in the family room?” “I’ll get it,” she volunteered. In went the candy. … And the dish, both wrapped first, of course. Still, the stocking wasn’t full. We raided the pantry, adding a package of opened cookies (taped closed) and a can of cherries. Bulging at all angles, the sagging pantyhose begged for more.
“This is not going to hold,” she said. “I’ll get some nails.”
A bottle of hand cream, bars of soap, a letter opener. For an hour we wrapped items from all over the house. We had to cover our mouths to keep our laughter from waking Mom.
The next morning, the first Christmas in twenty-six years without her beloved by her side, Mom was reluctant. She delayed coming out of her room.
Lori and I waited in the living room. When we looked at the monstrosity bulging over the fireplace, we giggled. But we also worried that Mom might be too sad to take a joke.
Finally, she came in and sat down – walking right past the fireplace. She gave us one of the watery smiles we had seen too many of lately.
Then she glanced over at the fireplace. She did a double take and looked confused. We couldn’t help grinning.
She walked over to the light tan nylon covering nearly the entire fireplace. She looked inside the lumpy legs of the pantyhose, stretched to twice their normal size and holding half of our household goods…. And she began to chuckle.
We all laughed our way through opening all those gifts – each of which had to first be wiggled and jiggled out of four feet of stretchy, clingy material.
Lori and I missed our dad and Mom missed her husband that Christmas, but our love for each other had, um, “stretched” to cover the occasion.
-by Andria Anderson, as told by her husband, Glenn (A Cup of Comfort for Christmas)
If we stay awake, we might be surprised that there is hope even in the worst of circumstances. We might find strength to go on, a smile in the middle of our grief, people who care about us, even when we feel most alone.
We might find God is still with us even when we feel he is very far away. We might find a new birth, a new life in the midst of the night.
We might find out what Jesus meant: at “an acceptable time,” God has listened to us, and “on a day of salvation,” God has helped us. During this Advent season, if we stay awake, perhaps we can also say: “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation.”
During this Advent season, may the birth of this child, God’s son, help us to find new life.
May we give up our preconceptions and our ideas of what our lives should be so that we can experience a new birth ourselves, the birth of God’s spirit in us in a new way.
May we find a way to smile even in the presence of our sadness, to love even in the presence of our pain.
Let us help each other to stay awake, and to feel God’s presence during this Advent season.