Reflection for Advent 1, December 2, 2018
Psalm 25:1-10; Luke 21:25-36
It’s a Sunday afternoon and I’m walking up a rocky trail to the house of a family of Immanuel Church. As I get closer, I see a huge blackened pot sitting atop a cooking fire. Smoke from the fire wafts in the breeze and drifts off over the top of a barren hill. The mom comes out to tend the fire. She is likely boiling cassava or taro, both staple foods of Timorese. Meanwhile, about a half dozen scantily clad kids run around playing. Dad is down the hill digging up rocks. The soil here is full of them and before you can plant anything you have to extract them. And that only happens one way: with a crowbar and bare hands.
The family’s house is a one-room shack made of corrugated sheet metal. It’s dark inside with a dirt floor, two small beds and a pile of clothes in the corner. It sits next to the sturdy foundation of a more permanent house they will one day finish building. Inside the shack is a one-month old baby, the family’s fifth child. She is sleeping peacefully on the bed. Before I leave, the mom asks me to pray for the child. She calls in the dad, a small, muscular yet gentle-looking man wearing only a pair of shorts. The kids come in and we share a few minutes of prayer together. It feels like an act of rebellion against an absurd world.
This family is living with hard realities. Behind those realities stands the history of Timor-Leste: colonialism, occupation, a violent independence struggle and grinding poverty – a history filled with trauma. And yet, in this place on this day, with this family, there stands in our midst the foundation of their future home and a new baby. I see both as veiled signs of hope amidst a life of suffering.
Advent starts with veiled signs of hope as well. Luke talks of signs in the heavens, distress among nations and fear and foreboding. But then a paradox: these are signs that redemption is near. They will precede the coming of the ‘son of man,’ an angelic figure that will usher in a reign of peace. A parable about learning to see follows and imperatives to “be alert” goad our attention toward adopting a posture of discernment in daily life.
Most of us live life largely asleep. We go through the motions, do the tasks and tow the lines. Mostly, we miss the deep meaning of daily life amidst a barrage of anxieties and preoccupation with past or future. Faith however, invites us to adopt a style of discernment and engagement focused on the present.
One of my favorite theologians, William Stringfellow, says this about discernment:
“The gift of discernment is basic to the genius of the biblical lifestyle. Discerning signs has to do with comprehending the remarkable in common happenings…it has to do with the ability to interpret ordinary events…to see portents of death where others find progress or success but, simultaneously, to behold tokens of the reality of the Resurrection or hope where others are consigned to confusion or despair…discerning signs means sensitivity to the Word of God indwelling in all Creation and transfiguring common history, while remaining radically realistic about death’s vitality in all that happens.”
Psalm 25 is a prayer that fosters this kind of discernment. If we internalize its petition “Make me to know your ways, O Lord;…lead me in your truth…” we may, gradually, begin to discern the world’s realities and the people we encounter differently. One of Jesus’ common refrains has to do with leaning to “see” because faith is a different way of seeing and indeed of knowing. It’s neither naïve optimism, cynical pessimism nor dry empiricism. Faith looks boldly at reality but through the lens of hope. It’s a kind of knowing that sees truth in paradox, passion and pathos. Advent, it seems, is a good time to ponder this.
Tom and Monica Liddle serve with the Protestant Church of East Timor (IPTL). Their appointments are made possible by your gifts to Disciples Mission Fund, Our Church’s Wider Mission, and your special gifts.