Many years ago, for several months of my life, the following routine was part of my life.
Every morning, I would encounter a young man in his mid-twenties. Let's call him Joey. He was 5' 6", with a ready smile and quick wit. At breakfast, I would see him down the table and he'd look at me and say:
"Hello. My name is Joey and I want what I want when I want it. Please help me." Then, after a brief pause he'd ask, "Can you please the biscuits?"
While being a student chaplain by day, by night I kept watch over a flock of young men on the night shift in a drug and alcohol residential rehab.
This was a program where the residents stayed six months or more and earned their way to leadership and graduation through group and individual treatment, daily 12-step programs, and successfully living in community while learning to live life clean and sober. Many (most) of the young men were at the end of their sentences in the state corrections system and success meant either probation or a half-way house but failure could mean return to jail and possibly, should the infraction be severe enough, re-arrest and an extended sentence.
The young man I spoke about who was a client. He had, shall we say, impulse control issues. Not only was he recovering from addictions, but he was a semi-incompetent petty thief, not-so-accomplished (but very creative) liar. And yet for all that he had lots of intelligence and heart of gold. He was well liked and everybody in the program wanted him to succeed.
But Joey was impatient. Whenever he'd interrupt, cut in line, take some food before it was his turn he'd look at you and grin "Carpe diem, man! Carpe diem!"
Well, what he called seizing the day was just plain annoying, rude and got old real fast. His impatience, his inability to wait, no matter how charming was at the root of his drug habit and nearly everything else that had gone wrong in his life.
His therapy group kept demoting him to most junior status for his persistence in doing petty, stupid stuff. Once they gave him the task of trimming the hedge outside the house--with fingernail scissors.
Nothing got through. So finally, his peer group gave up and only required of him one thing. Whenever he wanted something—no matter how trivial--he had to ask for it. For the roll on the table, the TV Guide during free time, for permission to use the bathroom, he had to ask for all of it. But before he could ask he had to preface every request with this:
"Hello, my name is Joey. I want what I want when I want it! Please help me!"
Do you want to know why Joey wanted what he wanted when he wanted it? It was not because of his addiction—although his addiction certainly embodied that. It wasn't even his impatience. It wasn't his cleverness (and his stupidity) in trying to get what he wanted when he wanted it.
Joey wanted what he wanted when he wanted it because he was scared.
For him, to do without whatever he wanted at that very moment meant dealing with his fear that he had nothing. That fear came out in all kinds of unhelpful ways. Frustration is a secondary emotion that usually points to something else. For Joey, there was never a craving that could be suppressed without great frustration—and beneath that, fear! Fear of loss. Fear of emptiness. Fear of loneliness. Fear of being nobody. So there was no reward for discipline. There was no peace in restraint. For him, there was never, ever a tomorrow. There was never ever a second chance. There was nothing to aspire to. And without any of these things, there was never any hope.
"I want what I want when I want it! Please help me!"
I don't know if this litany worked with Joey, but I can tell you after a several weeks of living with this every night and every breakfast, it made an impression on me!
Joey was not alone. All of us have a problem waiting. We live in a world that teaches us that waiting is bad, and where restraint is all but immoral—maybe it is?—and where money can't sit around for too long without buying something we think we want. We live in a culture that teaches us to want what we want when we want it, and how to get it, grab it, keep it, and run away with it and tell everyone that we have it!
Sometimes the push to get us to want meets our inability to wait, with deadly results. Like what happened Friday at the Wal-Mart in Valley Stream, NY. A man died and why? He died because he found himself caught in the middle between a place that offered everything a heart could desire (at great discount!) and a crowd that wanted what they wanted when they wanted it.
We have moved from "carpe diem" to "I want what I want when I want it." Is there any help for us?
We begin a new Church year in the heart of Mark's Gospel. Mark wrote his Gospel some thirty five years after the cross and resurrection and he wrote in the middle of some very rough times.
Followers of Jesus were being persecuted (even by family members) and arrested (vv. 9-13). Many of the original disciples of Jesus were being martyred and the loss of these eyewitness to what Jesus said and did created the need for another, reliable "authority," which became the written account we call a Gospel.
It appears that someone decided to set up an image of the emperor in the temple. This was called a "desolating sacrilege" but while the Temple in Jerusalem was not yet destroyed by the Romans, this action certainly ruined it in the hearts of the first century Jews.
And there were people coming in Jesus' name, claiming to be the Messiah and there were false prophets who were leading believers astray (vv. 6, 21-22) by claiming that the end had arrived or knowing when it would arrive.
As I said, these were very rough times.
But Jesus said that the believers are living not in the end times, but in the birth pangs (v. 8) of a new age. In the middle of all this change and uncertainty, these early Christians needed a reminder that no one -- not even Jesus -- knows when the end will come (v. 32).
So were told to wait. Be alert. Stay awake and stay faithful. They were taught to keep doing the things faithful people do everyday no matter how squirrely things seemed to be: live, grow, pray, stay in community, be merciful, care for the poor and the sick and the outcast. They were warned of the temptation to look for a quick fix to all that worried them. To not jump on some political, messianic, or even material band wagon that promised to take away all their pain.
Instead they are warned not to give into the temptation of "I want what I want when I want it."
I heard this story once:
A young girl asked her Sunday school teacher, "What's a lert?"
"A what?" the teacher asked.
"A lert?" she said again.
"Why do you want to know?" asked the bewildered teacher.
"Because the pastor said that we should 'be alert,' so I want to know what a lert is, so I can be one?"
When Jesus says "Beware" or "Watch out for", I don't think that he is telling us to watch for his return. I think that he is telling us to "watch out" for the things that deceive us into not following God's way.
"Everybody else is doing it," children often tell their parents. Even parents can feel the pressure to keep up with the Joneses -- whoever the Joneses are. "Everybody else may be wrong," is Jesus' message in Mark 13. "Watch out for them!"
Watch out for those students who think cheating is the normal way to get good grades and get into good schools. Watch out for those teenagers who think that drinking and drugs and sex are the only ways to have a good time and to enjoy life. Watch out for those adults whose jokes and language betray disrespect for other people and God. Watch out for the worldly attitude being concerned only about me and what is mine.
This is the tension for us in Advent. The culture tells us to meet our every need right now. But Jesus says "wait." We are told to "watch."
You know, unless we check into a monastery or fly to a dessert island for the next month, we are not going to avoid the mad rush towards Christmas in the middle of a recession—with all the contradictions that that truth poses. And even monks have to go to the store. Jesus never told us to hide from the world, but to look past it.
Think of this time of doing good, of giving presents, or getting ready as practice. Just as in Lent where we tithe the year to practice holiness, think of Advent as a tithe of the year to practice readiness.
We are given the tools to stay awake. We just need to practice. In sacramental living we are shown that God transforms ordinary things—including time—into holy things that changes lives. In Christian community, we are given the companions and support to stay faithful and strong. In choosing to act mercifully, we find that what feeds the heart is not so much what we get as what we give.
All of the good we will be asked to do in our schools and workplaces "in the spirit of the holidays" has a double meaning for us Christians, because we have the chance to do now what we need to do all the time. Watch. Be ready. Keep doing the thing that faithful people do.
Take a moment to step out of the noise and listen for God and you will be rewarded with a glimpse that waiting is rewarded. You will see that hope is faith that looks forward. Remember that God is present now and so we know there is a tomorrow. We have been given second chances over and over again. Jesus is "God is with us" (aka Emmanuel), so we know that God has come, God is with us and God will come again. We are not alone. We have a living hope that gives us life.
We can give into wanting what we want when we want it. Or we can watch, be alert and rest in Christ who is with us right here, right now, and still yet to come.
(First Sunday of Advent-Year B (RCL), November 30, 2008 - Mark 13:24-27)