I was being a bad Christian on Wednesday. Texting, Tweeting, reading articles on my iPhone during an Advent service. But what began as a bored foray into digital distraction ended up becoming a pilgrimage through the heart of Advent itself.
As I scrolled through Twitter and clicked on articles on Facebook, these are the headlines that grabbed my attention:
- Somali Militants, Al-Shabaab Kill 36 in Kenya Border Attack
- Elephant ivory poaching 'out of control'
- Wave of Protests Slam Ferguson After Grand Jury Doesn't Indict Officer
- Ebola death toll rises to 6331 as Sierra Leone overtakes Liberia cases
- As fears rise in Myanmar, Rohingya Muslims exodus grows
- The gigantic disaster of the CIA’s torture program
- 2 Hostages Killed in Yemen as US Rescue Effort Fails
With my ears and body I heard, felt, and smelled Advent. Songs of expectation, the scent of a candle lit to remember the days and contemplate the coming King, and a sermon that spoke of a hope reverberating through the echo halls of the Old Testament narrative.
At the same time, with my fingers I scrolled through sad stories and my eyes read despairing diaries of pain, loss, oppression, disease, decay, disaster, and death.
In what I can only take as guidance from the Holy Spirit, the two realms of thought — that which was occurring in the physical space of my church and the digital sanctuary on my phone and in my mind — converged and suddenly the season of Advent, and its attendant spiritual posture and discipline, became crystal clear to me.
Advent is a season of celebrating the light that came into the darkness. A season of anticipating how divine life takes on death. A season of expecting love, hope, faith, and joy to win out in the face of hate, despair, fear, and apathy. It is a season that celebrates, meditates on, anticipates, and expects the movement, the action, the coming of Jesus Christ on our behalf. In these days we are invited to dwell on Jesus’ condescension to abide with us, to treasure these things in our heart along with Mary (Luke 2:19).
Yet, in my mixed meditation straddling the border between pew and social media, I became convicted that Advent cannot only be a season of retreat into ritual. My heart began to race as I felt trapped in my chair and imprisoned in digital detainment and detachment from the real world. My heart broke as I contemplated the pain that many went through as I sat here and did…nothing. My heart burst at the seams of my rib cage with the anticipation of action, with the idea of doing something, anything, to break the bonds of the oppressed and to give voice to, or at least get out of the way for the sake of, the voiceless.
In this moment of heart pounding meditation I became convicted that Advent must be more than a season of expectation, but one of engagement. More than a season of anticipation, but one of action. More than a season of meditation, but one of movement. More than a season of contemplation, but one of contending.
Much akin to Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his Letters and Papers from Prison, who said, “There remains an experience of incomparable value…to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcasts, the suspects, the maltreated — in short, from the perspective of those who suffer.”
Looking at Twitter, I saw "history from below" in hash-tags like #CrimingWhileWhite and #ICantBreathe. But my thoughts and empathy were not enough. As Bonhoeffer continued, “mere waiting and looking on is not Christian behavior. Christians are called to compassion and to action.”
Hence, I praise those pastors who put themselves in the places of protest to pray, and proclaim, peace amidst tension and violence. I cheer Kenyan Christians who shun xenophobia in favor of Christ-like compassion. I stand in humble awe of the many medical professionals, social workers, and missionaries who serve the sick and dying in West Africa. May I humbly tread in their footsteps.
Yet, any of us who have been involved in this work of restoration know full well that complete transformation cannot, will not, come by our own power. Injustice lingers, disease is not eradicated, and conflicts persist.
And so, we return to the sense in which Advent is a season of expectation, contemplation, and action centered around the incarnation of Christ and the consummation of all creation and the entire cosmos in his second coming.
This then is Advent. A circular motion betwixt and between ritual retreat and acts of restoration. Between contemplation and compassionate service. Between Christ’s incarnation and his church’s sacramental presence in the community.
In Advent, it is tradition to pray, “come Lord Jesus, come.” As I contemplate what is happening in places like Ferguson and New York City, Bhurma and Zambia, Kenya and Syria this prayer takes on on poignant purpose. Indeed, “come Lord Jesus, come.”
Even so, simultaneously my prayer is “go Christ’s church, go.” For if we consider this season rightly, we cannot only pray — we must act. Even as action invariably leads us back to prayer because of our inadequacies, we cannot simply sit in a pew and drift into a digital duldrum.
I invite you to join me in this circumambulation through the themes of Advent, between contemplation and action -- joining anticipation with the partial realization of the deep seeded desires of humanity for HOPE, LOVE, JOY and PEACE on Earth.
Come Lord Jesus, quickly come.