As a Northern sun slowly descended in the darkening sky of the West, turning the tops of the oaks and the bottom curls of the clouds to flame, I remember Coach Riddle standing with a fungo bat beside home plate, ready to put the baseball into play.
We always ended baseball practices this way, running through the vast array of situations that could arise during the course of any game, and practicing on honing and quickening our response.
The baseball soars into left field, and the runner who was on second base is now rounding third and rapidly coming toward home plate to score.
What do I do as a second baseman in that situation?
What is my responsibility to the team, and how might I respond most correctly and decisively when one potential situation of many finally becomes reality?
I can not tell you how many hours of my life were spent running through baseball situations.
In fact, situations became so much a part of my understanding of baseball and how to play it well, that I would spend the moments during games between when Matt, our catcher, caught a strike and threw the ball back to our pitcher, Joe, running through various situations in my mind.
This was more than just a way to pass the time.
Envisioning all the possibilities that my mind could handle, and preparing for them mentally allowed my body to spring into action more quickly when one of those scenarios eventually played out on the diamond.
I didn’t have to think about how I would respond when something happened…and eliminating that hesitation was often the fine difference between success and failure in the sporting world.
Today is the first day of Advent…the first day in a new liturgical year and a new season that leads us toward the great mystery of the Incarnation…Christ’s birth into a world that was no less uncertain 2000 ago than it is today.
But the Gospel reading from Luke doesn’t give us a vision of the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and nestled snugly in a manger, but rather an apocalyptic vision of the end of the age where the Son of Man comes in a cloud and with power and great glory.
It is a jarring vision.
It is a vision that does not readily coincide with the aspects of Christmas that promote commerce and will be appearing throughout these weeks leading up to Christmas Day.
Distress among the nations?
People fainting from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world?
Sounds like a situation that most of us would want to avoid, and maybe a little too close for comfort to life as we know it today.
And yet, we who gather in this place and who aim to be faithful are instructed not to run from these signs of the powers of the heavens being shaken, but rather to stand up and raise our heads, “because our redemption is drawing near.”
Jesus tells us today that we are to “be alert at all times, praying that we may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place and be able to stand before the Son of Man.”
One look at the headlines or the global situation in which we live is enough to inspire dread, fear and despair in many people.
The planet is groaning under the burden of our human consumption, and the powers of the heavens are indeed being shaken by global warming and its effects.
Violence wracks the nations, and people are distressed about where the next terrorist attack might occur…what school, mall, or public space the next mad gunman may strike…what darkness may befall us as the drumbeats of war get louder and more deafening.
So many around the globe continually suffer the pangs of hunger, the brutal effects of crushing poverty, and the private apocalypses of personal and communal tragedy.
How in God’s name can we be a hopeful people in the face of such madness?
The answer lies in preparation and alertness.
Paul speaks in his 1st Letter to the Corinthians (9:27) that he has disciplined his body like an athlete in order to attend to weightier matters of faith.
And just in the way that we ran through those situations during baseball practice all those years ago, preparing for whatever reality might befall us as a team, Christians are called to prepare with a similar discipline in order to be responsive and ready for whatever this world may throw at us.
We cannot stop bad things from happening in our world, though we may indeed be able to prevent some through our influence, planning and actions.
What we can most certainly do is be ready…to be prepared…to respond to these situations with faith, rather than with fear, paralysis, or anger.
Those latter responses only serve to perpetuate the pain that we experience in this life, while faithful readiness allows us to move more quickly into action that heals and makes whole.
Being alert while we are surrounded by confusion and chatter, allows us to keep our focus on that which matters most…namely that both the birth of Christ and the second coming of the Son of Man and all the time in between is better filled with love, radical forgiveness, and acts of hopeful kindness than with despair and inaction.
So the big question on this Advent new year’s day is “How do we get prepared? How can we cultivate readiness?”
I don’t think the process is too different from the way we got better at situations in baseball, nor the way a musician or artist gets better at their craft, nor the way each of you gained greater competency in the professions that claim the bulk of your labor life.
For the expectant Christian, practicing means spending time getting saturated with Scripture…allowing the larger themes and narratives to gestate within us so that the words on the page begin to take form as we go about our daily lives and witness the world around us.
If you have not spent time this way with Scripture, I can not stress enough how important it is for you to begin doing so this Advent.
Not only will you see the current struggles of our age in the light of past struggles our ancestors in the faith also encountered, but you will also begin to see how the promises and hope they proclaimed will start shaping your own perception.
Get out a Bible and read through the Gospels, or the prophets…they are good places to start if you are unsure of how to begin.
Also, practicing means spending time in prayer, either the spoken kind in which you offer your unfiltered concerns and heart’s desires to God, or in the receptive kind called contemplation, in which you open yourself to God’s presence and to hearing where the Spirit may be leading you.
Not only will a prayer practice ground you in peace in the midst of calamity, but it will also reveal to you the connection between the source of all things and the people and events that populate your life.
Getting “better” at prayer leads to more compassion, more forbearance, and more fortitude to deal with life’s contradictions and uncertainty.
Lastly, good Christian practice has service…concrete acts of giving and grace…at its core.
If Scripture primarily feeds the mind and heart, and prayer the soul, service feeds our need for community and reminds us that we do not encounter this world alone.
Help a neighbor in need this Advent…come and fill Christmas bags that will go to help vulnerable refugees…maybe even try showering undeserving and difficult people with random kindness and grace.
Doing these things and any number of other acts of service not only connects us to our neighbors concretely, but it also gets us in the habit of action.
And when larger giving is called for, and God asks more of us…we will have the resources of a history of action from which to respond.
Scripture, Prayer, Service.
Practice these things this Advent, and when it comes time to welcome the Christ child into the world once more, or when the signs point to the Son of Man coming in clouds…you will be ready.
Be alert at all times.
Be on guard.
Stand up and raise your heads, forsake crippling and unhelpful worry and despair…and embrace the light and life that is coming into the world.
For it is not fear, but your redemption, that is drawing near.