When I was in college I volunteered to help tutor in a structured after school program for young children. I was terrible at it. I could never maintain discipline. So that I would improve my classroom, they had me shadow an experienced teacher to observe her techniques. What impressed me was how different her approach was from mine when the classroom got loud. My tendency would be to get louder – something like “sit down and be quiet.” This master teacher operated much more effectively. When things got loud she would hold up one finger and say in a small voice, “You’re going to miss it.” This would catch the attention of a few of the children and they would stop what they were doing and stare. “You’re going to miss it,” she would repeat in a normal tone. Other children would notice and they too would turn toward the teacher. By the time she repeated for a third time, “You’re going to miss it” she had the complete focus of all of the children on her.
Jesus is doing something similar when he tells his disciples to “be watchful, be alert.” If we get too wrapped up in ourselves we’re going to miss the really important things that are going on. The church begins its liturgical year on this, the first Sunday of Advent, tell us to keep our eyes open or we’re going to miss it. The word of the season is provided by Jesus in St. Mark’s Gospel (the text we will be using most Sundays this coming year) – “watch.” “What I say to you I say to all, ‘watch.’” For the next four weeks, as we make our spiritual preparation for Christmas – as distinct from decking the halls and roasting chestnuts on an open fire – we are to be on the watch. Watch for the signs of God’s presence in our lives, watch for the signposts which will show us how to conduct ourselves in a harsh and hostile world, watch for the potholes or the detours which can cause us to lose our way, watch for the blessed goal of God’s future to which we have been called.
The idea of watching, of being alert, is necessary because the action and presence of God is not always obvious. Oh, there are times when God is obvious, when God bonks over the head. Maybe it is at the birth of a child, or a diagnosis of cancer, or the loss of a loved one. Those kinds of dramatic events cause us to sit up and take notice. Where is God in this? How am I supposed to respond? What should I do? But outside of these traumatic moments we blithely go about our business and keep God at a comfortable arms’ length. The challenge of the Advent season, therefore, is to get out of that accustomed rut and wake up to the presence of God hidden in plain sight. Where should we look? One possibility: the Bible finds the presence of God in the historical forces involving Israel. Shall we look for God in the current political environment? Good luck with that. Some people find God in nature. Look at the lilies of the field, look at the fig tree, look at birds in the sky. Certainly the signs of God’s presence can be found in creation. But when Jesus told his parables he suggested that we find God in the ordinary stuff of human living: in a woman baking bread, in a farmer sowing seed, in a father welcoming back a wayward son. Let us be watchful and alert to God in our lives. In particular, let’s look for God in our thoughts, in our words, in what we have done and in what we have failed to do.
What do we watch for in our thoughts? One thing to be aware of is the danger of stinkin’ thinkin’. You know about stinkin’ thinkin’, right? Stinkin’ thinkin’ happens when we imagine something like, “I’m fat and I’m ugly and my momma dresses me funny.” Too often in life we have this negative perspective which is not based in reality. The reality is that I am a child of God, I’m made in God’s image and likeness and God is just crazy about me. Those are the kinds of thoughts we have to be on the watch for; they will point us in the right direction.
Which of our words should put us on alert? St. Ignatius says that the devil lives where there are secrets and lies. If you find you do not speak truthfully about where you have been or what you have been doing you can be sure that the devil is lurking there. Secrets and lies create those murky places where temptation does its insidious work. Obviously not everyone needs to know all your business but if you keep secrets and speak lies to those who are close to you, danger Will Robinson. So be on the watch for those open and clear places where you can share yourself with others.
What about the things we have done? What should we be on the watch for there? Be on the lookout for too much ME. We should be wary about how often what I am doing becomes the focus of attention. One of the Bette Midler characters was going on and on about herself. She turned to her companion and said, “But enough about me. What do you think about me?” We want to be on the watch to make sure that our attention is directed toward others and not at that all-important character, that super special creature, that extra special feature – ME.
How can we be watching for what we have failed to do? I’m reminded of the story of some kids out playing when saw Jesus coming. They ran into the church office and excitedly told the secretary. She looked out the window and then ran to the DRE. The staff members burst into the pastor’s office and said, “Jesus is on the playground and he’s headed for the office! What shall we do?” Seeing everyone’s anxiety, the startled pastor turned his chair to look out the window. Suddenly he stood up and shouted, “Look busy!” Notice in the parable as Jesus tells it the servants aren’t sitting around staring out the window while they are watching for the lord of the house to return. They were busy with their own work. That is how Jesus expects us to watch as well – going to work and school, washing the dishes, ironing the clothes, taking out the garbage, living each day with courage and fidelity. If we watch while we take care of the small things, we will be there to welcome our Lord when he comes in glory. If we don’t, we’re going to miss it.