Archive | 1:14 pm

The Gift of Anticipation:   An Advent Reflection, Dr. Robert Zuber

25 Nov

rembrandt-van-rijn-adoration-of-the-shepherds-1339152516_b

For Jim Torrens

If you come at four in the afternoon, I’ll begin to be happy by three.  Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

This present hour of joy should run at half the speed of those long hours of waiting. Albert Camus

It is desire that can live with deferral, an embrace of the God-shaped vacuum in us and a commitment to stop trying to make it full, a healthy hunger that is content to wait for the feast.  Amy Simpson

It is no exaggeration to say that the suffering we most frequently encounter is the suffering of memories.  Henri Nouwen

I was like a child leaving a gift unwrapped, the anticipation more exciting than the reality.  Karen White

We in the West have an odd relationship to anticipation.  Our current worldview is based so much on control – of circumstances, of our own brand and the narratives that define it – that anticipation for us mostly drives our anxiety.  And anxiety tends to push the envelope of self-referential aggressiveness, burying envelopes labeled “kindness” and “self-reflection” deep within our shelves.  Anxiety also tends to distort vision for both our challenging present and a more promising future, a bit like the dark lenses some of us choose to wear around town on an already gloomy day.

I have reflected a bit this week on the scene around the manger where, in Christian lore, the shepherds gathered to witness the coming of the Christ child.   Some of the greatest painters in western history have tried to capture this scene – but for me none quite like Rembrandt and his studio.  In London, in Munich and elsewhere, this precious scene and its affects are given the care and attention they deserve.  The results are neither sentimental nor quizzical.  The look in the eyes of the shepherds suggests that this dusty manger is where they belonged. The setting in which their anticipation became incarnate was surely not entirely what they expected.  But somewhere deep inside they expected the arrival of this energy, this hope, this message emanating from both beyond and within, a signal that life now stood a fundamentally better chance than was the case only one cold evening before.

Through the brush-strokes of Rembrandt, it seems clear (to me at least) that the shepherds had prepared to experience such a moment. They were not mere passers-by, indulging a curiosity, taking the antiquities-version of a selfie in case what they were seeing turned out to be “likeable.”  They were there because somehow or other they had prepared to be there.  They were in deeply moved by what they were witnessing, as well they might have been.  But they who spent much of their lives working their flocks had somehow anticipated this moment, anticipated that life could not go on as it had, that the hope represented by the manger child was one that had to be embraced and lived before it could be directly (and fully) experienced.

Were it otherwise, this scene might never have had the impact it did, an impact that a great painter and his best students could capture anew many centuries on.  Instead the effect would have been closer to “just one more baby born in a barn,” one more baby facing a life on the run, under occupation, with meager provisions and opportunities, a baby whose only option would be to line up alongside the legions already consumed by the demands of the present, including the “suffering of memories,” not the anticipation and wonder associated with a potentially renewed creation.

As most of you recognize, I spend a lot of time at the United Nations, perhaps more than my psychological and spiritual resources can manage.   And we who are focused mostly  on security threats and arrangements have also been preoccupied with the Sustainable Development Goals,  perhaps the most comprehensive and far-reaching promise that we human creatures can make to ourselves and our children — that by 2030 the world will be cleaner, cooler, safer, healthier, more just and more peaceful.

The 2030 Development Agenda has engendered many important discussions at and beyond the UN on key elements that will determine whether this promise becomes incarnate on a planet that might not be able for much longer to continue indulging our foolishness if we fail: securing real-time data and concessional funding, promoting good governance and development cooperation, ensuring inclusiveness and biodiversity.

It’s all good but, as many are whispering in the corridors outside UN conference rooms, it doesn’t yet seem to be enough.   We’re not making progress in many key areas and in some we are actually losing ground.   We’re not hitting our climate targets.  Hunger is on the rise as is nationalism-fueled discrimination.  Our appetite for weapons and fossil fuels seems at times insatiable, while our appetite for justice is easily appeased and our collective priorities seem mired – at least for the time being — in predatory economics and cynical politics.

What is the matter here?  Why are even our best efforts not resulting in better metrics?  The message of Advent seems clear on this point:  We have adjusted our policies, but so far failed to adjust our expectations, our commitments, even our appetites.  We have made our noble promises but so far largely failed to embrace —-in our energies and values — the peaceful and balanced world to which these promises point.  Too often, we are waiting for change without living the change.

Many certainly acknowledge the challenges, but too-often conclude that they have nothing to do with us or, more frequently, that we will adjust as little as possible about ourselves and our priorities, simply hoping to ride out this storm.  Ironically, perhaps, the very governments and international institutions that many now say they don’t trust are nevertheless being entrusted with the responsibility to turn this world around – largely, still, without our involvement let alone our practical commitment.

Something is clearly missing. We have this glorious blueprint for sustainable change, but few of us (and certainly few in power) have put their personal adjustments on the table.  What have those of us who work with these issues on a daily basis, who witness the current decline and the limits of our capacity to reverse it, what have we pledged to change in our own lives?  How are we living in anticipation of the world that can sustain the life which is currently under such severe threat?  How have dimensions of our participation in the current culture of predation evolved into a “healthier hunger?”

These are not snarky questions.  Indeed, the answers are more than instructive and could even be inspirational.  If the world we inhabit is not substantially different by 2030, it will be in large part because we have not prepared sufficiently for the hope that the Sustainable Development Goals represent.  As a species, we are not yet resolved to live out the promise of a healthier, fairer more peaceful world in anticipation of its eventual fulfillment.  What will the world look like if we get what we say we want?  Will it convey all (or most) of the benefits that we have promised?  And how can those benefits possibly convey in the absence of the best of ourselves–our willingness to live in anticipation of a world that, in several key ways, must look little like the current order, to recognize that this is more about us than about policy and technique, that 2030 is not the starting line for our planetary hope, though it may become its terminus?

If one searches “living in the power of the future,” one of the very first items you get back is an article about living off the grid.  Indeed, the current “grid” which holds us in its grasp is technologically sophisticated but often morally barren and mostly uninspiring.  It is a grid that demands as little from us as possible, that discourages us from thinking hard about the world to come, what that world will look like, and what it will require of us; indeed what it requires of us now.  Getting distance from such a grid, renouncing some of its uninvited power over our lives, might well be our own “manger moment.”

The baby in the hay is, for this unworthy servant at least, the place where anticipation meets incarnation, where the recognition that we simply “cannot go on this way” meets the energy and grace that can get us through to a better place. But there is no magic moment here, no point at which a world capable of sustaining our lives going forward simply appears.  The manger may represent a divine promise, but it’s one which we who pretend to hear it have never done enough to keep.  Despite our past malfunctions and sometimes anguished memories, we must do our part and do it with greater resolve.

If the world we seek is promised to arrive at 4PM then we must commit, in aspiration and in practice, to being happier and better-prepared by 3.