Awake, Awake, O Sleeper!
December 6, 2012 § 5 Comments
If I could assign a theme to the last couple of months, this is what I would name. I have felt God pursuing me, pushing me, prodding me out of slumber. I have been to Sri Lanka, to Israel, to California, Detroit, Phoenix, New York City, Georgia and Nebraska. I have met and journeyed with incredible people. I have learned so much. I have experienced some of the most joyful and some of the most heartbreaking moments of my life. And I have seen God—beautifully, mysteriously, inexplicably—in all of it (or, well, almost all of it … some of it I’m still trying to figure out).
And if I could assign a theme to Advent, this is also what I would name.
For Advent is a time of vigilance, a time of recognizing how much all of life matters, a time (as Virginia Woolf might have put it) of recognizing that “behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern.”
Advent is not a time to sleep unaware.
The Nature of Our Days
“How are you doing?”
“Oh, good. How are you?”
“Good, good. What’s new?”
“Oh, not much. Just keeping busy.”
The human proclivity is neutral. You can see if it even in our interactions—a cultural refusal to admit to anything of purport. Busyness is the best we can come up with—an acceptable (even admirable) state of being. And all the while the world goes by and life goes on under a haze of numbing productivity.
“Life is short. It goes fast. One day you’ll wake up and be 65 and wonder where all the time went.” While this may sound familiar, it isn’t inevitable. Years don’t have to fly by without us noticing. We don’t have to be asleep to the significance of every day. Because it’s there. The days do matter—our actions, interactions, relationships, decisions and observations matter, and they matter a lot.
“Be careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:15-16).
But Christianity isn’t the only place you’ll find this theme. Most of the religions—particularly among the mystic traditions—cry out for people to wake up and be conscious. Even the shadows in Plato’s cave are a call to turn and see reality as it is— not to settle for spectral imitations.
“There’s No Falling Back to Sleep, Once You’ve Waken From the Dream”
These are lyrics from the Avett Brother’s song “February Seven” (from The Carpenter album, which has been on repeat in my car for the last month. So good … though so devastating). We’ve all been there before, waking up from a dream and wanting to go back to it. Of course we can’t, we’re awake … but the bed is comfortable and the dream was pleasant. And that’s the thing about being asleep and dreaming—sometimes it’s more comfortable than real life. Waking up isn’t fun, real life is often painful. But it’s real. And that’s the point.
So what does it even mean to be awake to real life? It means being vigilant:
“At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.
“At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’
“Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’
“ ‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’
“But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.
“Later the others also came. ‘Sir! Sir!’ they said. ‘Open the door for us!’
“But he replied, ‘I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.’
“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour” (Matthew 25:1-13).
Being awake means being vigilant to the significance of our time. We are waiting for Christ’s return—we are preparing the way for him—and that anticipation should color our days and frame our actions and interactions. Our time is limited and there is much to do: in our own souls and in the world around us.
The days truly are evil and the steady march of time has a numbing effect. We have work to go to, bills to pay, parties to plan, housework to attend to, TV shows to watch. Being vigilant doesn’t mean not doing those things—but it does mean being intentional about which of those things to do and when. To make a choice with each minute and hour, knowing that time is precious and once past, is past forever.
For me, one of the first signs I remember that I wasn’t being purposeful in my life was that I’d stopped journaling. It happened in my early twenties and it happened slowly. But I knew even as it was happening that I was losing something important. Journaling helped me remember my life, to take stock of a day, to look back and see where God had been and what he’d done, to place the day within the greater narrative of my life and of the Kingdom. I have never been able to fully get back to the regular journaling practice I had ten years ago, but I’ve slowly started writing more and the fruits of that have been sweet.
Journaling is one way to practice vigilance. My friend, Christianne Squires, writes on the daily examen. This is another way of infusing the day with meaning—of intentionally taking time to see and experience God’s presence in ordinary life. Such practices not only help you look back, they also help you look forward. To wake up knowing you will reflect in the evening gives you a sense of purpose and awareness throughout the day. Over time, such disciplines change the way you live, the way you see people, the way you approach even the most mundane of tasks.
This past weekend, I attended Chris and Phileena Huertz’s first annual contemplative activism retreat—through their organization Gravity. The retreat centered on waking up and living in true awareness. Through the contemplatives (people like Richard Rohr, Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating) and their traditions, we explored various practices for spiritual awareness. You can find out so much more about this at their website and Phileena’s blog—including more spiritual practices and resources to read. While at the retreat, we observed the first Sunday of Advent. The retreat was at a Benedictine monastery and during the Sunday eucharist, the monk’s homily exhorted us to be mindful of the battles we fight. Because we do, all of us, wage battles everyday: in our relationships, in our workplaces, in our fights against injustice, and always, in our souls. To engage those battles well, to be mindful of their importance, to seek God’s strength and purpose in them, is to live fully awake.
(True story: the monks had all gone together to see the new James Bond movie Skyfall. It was from this experience that his sermon came … and he did indeed at one point say the phrase “My name is Christ. Jesus Christ.”)
In the past few years, zombies have once again become all the rage. Generally speaking, zombies are often used as a metaphor for a particular cultural zeitgeist—the fear that modern life is turning us into soulless corpses.
All that busyness, all that productivity, all those television channels, all the infinite entertainment and information and choices just one click away … we have the opportunity to do more than we’ve ever done before and also the temptation to simply and constantly distract ourselves.
The thing about zombies is, the transformation takes time. A healthy human gets bit, the virus slowly spreads, infecting more and more of the body until, hours or days later, the victim has become the zombie. And so it goes with us: small decisions here and there—moments that feel innocuous in and of themselves, a choice to watch TV instead of pray, to shop instead of call a friend, to surf the Internet instead of going for a walk, to go to bed without reflecting on the day—become patterns. They become a way of life and we are slowly but surely transformed into the walking dead.
This is not God’s promise for us—his promise for us is abundant life. And Advent is our annual wake up call to that promise. This is not something we can do on our own—we can’t simply force ourselves to wake up. Part of the reminder of Advent is that we, in our brokenness, need a savior to come. The practices and disciplines that wake us up—prayer, meditation, gratitude, worship, friendship, time in nature—are all meant to turn us back to God and our need for him.
This is why, in Ephesians, after telling us the days are evil, Paul offers prescriptions for living well—for being fully awake—and why (aside from drunkenness, which is, in essence, an intentional numbing), his suggestions are not about behaviors or rules, they are much more centered on our posture toward God:
“Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead be filled with the Spirit. Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Advent reminds us paradoxically that this life isn’t all that matters—it will come to pass and there is an age to come—but that this life does matter a great deal. This is our time to prepare the way for the coming King.
So stand tall. Be ever mindful. He is coming!
Gratitude to Christopher Bulle for making his image available for use under creative commons attribution.