Advent 4: Hope vs. Obliviousness

“Hopefully Observant,” Bob Ryder


Thesaurus –
Oblivious – unaware of what’s happening around you
Observant – aware, insightful, engaged

Luke 2 (selected verses)
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for behold—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people: unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and singing, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they hurried and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned to the fields, praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them.

Matthew 2 (selected verses)
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was upset, and all Jerusalem with him. Calling together the chief priests and scribes, he inquired where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea.”

Herod summoned the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I too may go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star had stopped, they rejoiced.

On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is searching for the child to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod.

I have a decent pain threshold, I think – good enough at least to push through an injury if something needs doing.  I’ve rehabbed after surgery to get back to work, persevered through low back pain when someone’s needed me, like that.  Not that I’m trying to sound heroic – I certainly prefer not to experience pain if I can help it.  But I can tolerate pain as well as the next person, and muddle through when there’s a reason.

It does affect me, though, to see others suffering.  It doesn’t disable me, if I can summon some intention, but it’s much more aversive than the typical level of physical pain I’m likely to experience.  I once passed out in a physician’s office while Susan was having a treatment on her knee.  I’d gladly have traded places with her to spare her the discomfort.  But being unable to do anything for her, I watched the procedure and suddenly found myself wobbly as my vision went foggy-grey and the physician’s assistant guided me to a chair where she put my head between my knees.  (I’m not sure what that was supposed to do for me, but it didn’t help.)

Anyway, as I get older I find I’m more and more prone to this vicarious suffering.  Is there such a thing as an empathy threshold?  Mine’s getting lower.  Which is to say it bothers me more when I see almost anyonesuffering.  I’ve always been moved by the pain of loved ones, but now it bothers me to see even random strangers going through something traumatic.  I don’t know why it should be that way – increasing as the years pass.   I’d expect to become more calloused to the suffering of others as I grow old, if only due to exposure.  It doesn’t necessarily have to be a character thing.  We see so much suffering in the digital age in movies and television crime dramas and tragedy porn in the 24-hour news cycle on our devices.  You’d think I’d become inured to seeing others in pain. But for whatever reason the effect grows more acute with time instead of less.  Watching a video online recently of a boy from middle-eastern descent enduring brutal bullying at the hands of his white classmates, I had an instant and unwelcome visceral sense of his burning humiliation and fear – the fight or flight shock that poor kid was certainly experiencing.  It made my own face flush and my chest feel as though it was being squeezed in a vice.  It was hard to sort out whether I felt more sad or angry – I felt both emotions very strongly.

I’ve known people who have an easy ability to detach from that sort of perception, and presumably from any sense of connection that might come with it.  Years ago, a friend reflected on a lesson he’d learned at his mother’s knee of all places, which he drew upon whenever he witnessed episodes of oppression or other kinds of social injustice.  “When I see things like that,” my friend told me, “I say to myself what my mother once told me when I was a boy, ‘Well there’s nothing I can do about that.’”  Will you understand what I mean as I say that while I certainly don’t admire that kind of response, part of me envies it a little?  Part of me wants to be left alone to live my comfortable existence oblivious to the ubiquitous injustice and suffering in the world.

Last Sunday Marybeth and Pam offered a fine and imporatnat appeal for contributions to our Christmas offering.  One of the charitable organizations we’ll be supporting is the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR).  In her portion of the presentation, Mary Beth noted that there are 68.5 million refugees in the world at present.  As I looked up the website, I noted that over 10% of the world’s refugees have fled from Afghanistan and Syria, nations targeted by the current administration just this week for substantial troop withdrawal in the coming months.  I don’t pretend to know the strategic geopolitical wisdom of the decision, yet I couldn’t help but feel a connection to myriad people in the world whose lives have been affected in some way for better or worse by a mission funded with my tax dollars.  I thought of the words Rev. King wrote in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

“In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men (sic) are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be… This is the inter-related structure of reality.” (Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail)

With that in mind, earlier this week I began making myself look up details every time I heard a reference to refugees.  Try it yourself if you’re so inclined – you’ll be busy.  I didn’t feel like it, because it’s agonizing to see the conditions multitudes of our fellow human beings have to endure on a Tuesday morning as I’m walking my dog in a very pleasant neighborhood park.  It made me want to put my head between my knees.  Yet I felt compelled to look because if I don’t, who will?  If I’m not willing to feel some modicum of their plight, who else should have to? In the process, the question occurred to me, “If Christmas happened today, how likely is it that we’d notice?” The gospel stories are written to help us experience Christmas as insiders, looking at scenes cast in a beatific light.  Luke gives us the advantage of looking on with the shepherds as a choir of angels appears.  In Matthew we get to journey with the Magi, following a strange star through the countryside to find the baby Jesus for ourselves.  But do we have the heart to see Christmas when it’s not cast in such a pretty light?  Do we have the heart to look absent the charming veneer of bathrobe shepherds and Vince Guaraldi music?

We need to see Christmas – at least for a moment or two now and then – free from nostalgic romance, and understand the manger from Luke’s story as an episode of human desperation. We need to regard Christmas as a young couple expecting a baby enduring a forced migration with no one to take them in. If it happened in our time, I imagine the angels might have appeared to coal miners, or to a shift of restaurant wait-staff as they finished cleaning up after a corporate holiday party over at the Marriott.  They’d go and find a young Honduran family with their newborn sheltering in an equipment shed on a farm outside of town.  They bring prime rib and mashed potatoes and cake leftover from the party.  They’d bring some blankets from the hotel laundry.

Or if we’re thinking of Matthew’s story, we need to see a young family just recently visited by the Magi suddenly forced to flee for their lives – involuntary refugees seeking safe haven in a neighboring country.  This is happening in our time – at this very moment – as a couple who’s walked for a month with their toddler searches for a safe place to settle away from the dangers of their village in Guatemala.  They’re roughing right now it in a tent city near Tijuana.  That’s the Christmas story and it doesn’t require imagination to see it so as much as the courage to look at the desperate corners of human vulnerability where it has always emerged into our world.  Below are a couple of links to stories about immigrants and refugees seeking asylum in different nations around the world, including the United States.


Yemen’s famine

Tijuana refugees


If it’s too painful to look them up, that’s understandable.  I decided not to show them during worship as they’re hard to see and I don’t want for anyone to have to put their head between their knees. But this Christmas, just as two thousand years ago, Mary and Joseph and Jesus are out there in the shelters and the refugee camps.  And if you can find the gumption to look, you’ll find not only glimpses into the depths of human desperation but also into the seeds of redemption.  For now, just as then, Jesus grows up to save the world if we give her or him a chance.


High School Principle Bertine Bahige

Pihcintu choir


These are the families to whom the star might lead us as we bring gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh through our Christmas offering.  This is the heavenly host, praising God and singing, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’  May we find the courage to be hopefully observant.  May we find the heart to go and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.  Amen.