I just finished reading West Virginian writer Ann Pancake’s 2007 novel Strange as This Weather Has Been. I cannot recommend it enough—especially for the season of Advent. The novel tells the story of a modern-day family in a West Virginia Appalachian coal-mining community, struggling to stay together as the latest coal extraction effort blows off the top of their beloved Yellowroot Mountain, flooding their home with poisonous black-sludge run-off. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think Pancake set out to write an apocalyptic science fiction novel. Apocalyptic maybe, but science fiction it is not. The destruction she describes is all too real. Using the various voices of family members, Pancake bravely wrestles with the harsh realities of human-made environmental catastrophes and the way they destroy the earth and human beings both from the inside out as well as the outside in. She takes the reader into the emotional and spiritual chaos that seeps into every crack and cranny of the family’s home.
Early on in the novel one of the characters, Lace, recalls her struggle of coming to terms with an unexpected pregnancy and she prophetically describes the impending environmental destruction that awaits her home, her family, and her community’s way of life. She reflects, “I learned what it is to grieve your life lost while you’re still living, and I learned there are few losses harsher than that.”
“I learned what it is to grieve your life lost while you’re still living.”
Let the phrase roll around on your tongue and let it echo in your ears for a bit. “I learned what it is to grieve your life lost while you’re still living.” How many people all over the world can relate to this reality? Life lost in the midst of living. Death surrounds. Chaos looms. The world is filled with violence and hatred that destroys and interrupts countless lives. We are experiencing catastrophic environmental destruction that is flooding people out of their homes or poisoning their wells. Mountains falling; hills turning to dust; rising water levels juxtaposed with devastating droughts. And all of this is taking a toll on our sanity. Poisonous fear grips the human heart, hardening it with xenophobic thoughts and actions. Tolkien’s Shadowlands seems to be creeping closer and closer. For so many human beings, the end has come and they are forced to grieve their lives lost while still living, trying to finds scraps of hope, to forge something new out of the wreckage.
Welcome to Advent 2015.
Every year on the first Sunday of Advent, the first day of the new liturgical year, the Gospel reading is one of the synoptic evangelists’ versions of Jesus’ apocalyptic promise that the end is near, and the time of the Son of God has come. This year, Year C, it comes from Luke 21:
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on earth nations will be in dismay, perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves….And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. But when these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.”
I’ll be honest, I usually don’t pay too much attention to these passages. I tend to downplay Jesus’ description of this impending end as figurative, metaphorical, a clever literary device used by the Gospel evangelist to make a theological point. But the more my eyes are opened to the realities of climate change, these passages make me that much more nervous and uncomfortable. What must these words sound like to the victims of the typhoon in the Philippines? A farmer in southern California? A family in Appalachia? And then comes the harsh question: what am I doing about it?
Snuggled in my little apartment in western Montana, a gentle Advent is settling in—cold, yes. But still, deep, peaceful. Here, I feel removed from the chaos and impending end so many of our brothers and sisters face everyday. And so removed, it is easy to become fixated on the “anxieties of my daily life.” Today’s Gospel reminds me I want to be vigilant—not drowsy. I want to be a voice crying out mercy in the wilderness, not cowering in the corner of my daily anxieties. I want to be a light, not another source of darkness or destruction. And, I’ll be honest, I don’t know exactly what that looks like. All I know is that in order to truly embody Advent, I must follow Jesus into the chaos, the destruction, the pain, and the grief of others. As I prepare to enter this holy season of expectation and hope, Pancake’s prophetic words break open my heart and there an Advent prayer waits: “What do I need to learn to lose in my life so others might live in joyful hope rather than grieve in despair?”
“What do I need to learn to lose in my life so others might live in joyful hope rather than grieve in despair?”
The readings of Advent turn our gaze both towards Bethlehem and Jerusalem. We wait in the tension between incarnation and crucifixion, life and death, new creation and chaos. And I’m slowly beginning to see that it’s somewhere in that tension, if we dare to let go of our insatiable need for our own security, we can begin to find the strength to sing our Alleluia song anew.
Maranatha. Come, Jesus, Come.
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