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SOCIETY IS ALERT, BUT EASILY DISTRACTED

The Rev. Ann Markle graduated in 1999 from Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, and is currently the assistant rector at Calvary Episcopal Church in Williamsville. Before her ordination to the Episcopal priesthood she worked as a social worker and psychotherapist. In December, she will move to the Diocese of East Tennessee, to become rector of St. Raphael's Episcopal Church, Crossville, Tenn.

And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake." (Mark 13:37)

Keep awake. On the one hand, that doesn't seem such a tall order; in fact, from what I read, Americans are keeping awake more than ever, some of us to the point of serious sleep deprivation. Jesus wasn't, however, advocating literal sleeplessness.

Though the images he used were of late nights, freshly filled lamps, night watchmen and bed chambers, we know these were simply metaphors for a different kind of "awake": for alertness, watchfulness, and a heightened sense of anticipation. Something brand new and unexpected was about to happen; God could break forth into our lives in a new way.

Besides literal sleeplessness, our culture seems more alert than ever in that metaphorical sense, as well. We watch more news. The television and radio blare headlines at us throughout our waking, and even our sleeping hours. Wars, disasters, death and destruction come home to our living rooms and ride with us in our cars to a degree never known before in the world.

We watch bombs being dropped halfway around the world, and see weeping family members digging through the rubble of disaster within minutes of an earthquake or explosion. Reporting is nearly instantaneous. And the media are happy to bring the hype and the hyperbole to us with blazing print, audio or video headlines, grabbing sound or video bites, imposing music and logo.

Christians and people from other religious traditions scout the horizon carefully for signs of the end times, and novels about the final days sell by the trainloads. Yes, we're awake, all right; do we really have a choice?

And yet we also know that in some ways, we're more asleep than ever. That which is designed to be attention-grabbing now becomes numbing. We step over homeless people sleeping in doorways, and feel more repulsion than compassion - when we bother to feel anything at all. Panhandlers barely rate a sideways glance. Our eyes glaze in front of our televisions and computer screens, and our kids would rather talk to invisible strangers on the Internet than to go outside and play with face-to-face, live and in-person friends.

We enclose ourselves in the little steel cocoons that we call "cars," and traverse the aisles of the grocery stores, not smiling at fellow shoppers, but with ears glued to tiny cell phones. In this time of more information and "awakeness" than ever, we are more numb and asleep than ever.

How much we miss! We miss the beauty of the natural world, the changing of the seasons, the diamond-like glint of sunshine on snow. We miss the look on our child's face when we speak kindly, or when we speak harshly. We miss the dance of pleasure that our dog does when she sees us walk through the door at the end of the day.

Most important we miss the opportunity, as our Episcopalian baptismal vows encourage us, to "seek and serve Christ in all people." When our eyes and ears and hearts are asleep, we don't seek Christ anywhere.

Perhaps one reason that humans love holidays is that they are times when we most often encounter "thin places," those times and places where the veil between the physical and spiritual worlds becomes very thin, and we can pass through both ways. Though holiday times can be times of stress and depression, they are also a time of celebration and rejoicing, of happiness, of stepping into the "thin places" where God can be almost palpably seen and felt to be at work.

They are a time when we experience what Jesus called "the Kingdom of Heaven," or "eternal life." But busyness and numbness aren't the way to these "thin-place" experiences. It's only through true awakeness and watchfulness, which includes allowing the time and space to be silent and listen for subtle sounds, for still, small voices, for the glimpse of Christ's face in the eyes of a homeless person, or in the face of an awestruck child at a candlelight worship service.

This first Sunday in Advent, this time of anticipation that God will do a new thing in the world, is an excellent time to remember to keep awake. This is our time to open ears and eyes, to seek the hand of the potter in the world and our lives, to ask in our hearts, "Where are you, God? What new thing are you doing in the world, in my life, in the lives of those I love?"

And, so I issue this challenge for the four weeks of Advent: keep awake. Make time in your life for silence and stillness. Ponder the presence, or the seeming absence, of God in your life, and in the world. Ask where God is, and then watch and listen for the answer. I promise you this: God really is, even now, after all this time, doing something new in the world, and in your life. It's up to you to figure out what that new thing is. Keep awake.

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