Saturday, November 27, 2010

Taking Care of Business (Advent 1.A)

Lee Kravitz was about my age when he was fired from his important job running an American magazine.

Although he saw it coming, his firing was a huge shock for the workaholic editor. He asked himself the question every unemployed middle-aged man asks: what do I do now?

He tells us how he answered the question in his book "Unfinished Business: One Man's Extraordinary Year of Trying to do the Right Things." Lee Kravitz decided to use his severance pay to spend a whole year doing things he'd always meant to do, but never managed to accomplish—important things that had been set aside in his frantic life.

He looked up a mentally ill aunt he had once loved but come to ignore. He called on an old friend whose daughter had been ambushed in Iraq—and to whom he'd never managed to write a sympathy note.

Kravitz reached out to a friend he'd ignored for thirty years, despite having serious worries about his safety in Pakistan. He got in touch with a professor whose lectures had changed his life, but whom he'd never got around to thanking. He looked up a wonderful friend from university who had become a monk, and he worked to promote healing in his family by finding the truth about an ancient feud.

Notice that none of these things were making amends for wrongdoing—he was simply doing the good that he'd failed to do. He does make amends for a couple of things—a broken promise, an unpaid debt—but basically his year was spent doing the right things he'd always wanted to do.

It was, in other words, more of an Advent journey than a Lenten one. He wasn't doing penance, he was catching up on the things that matter. In Lee Kravitz's own words "We consign most of our most essential business to the bottom of our to-do list because we lack the time and energy to do the things that matter most in our lives well." But when he tackled the things that matter, he found that "great rewards will follow."

If this is true, it is true for believer and non-believer, Christian and non-Christian alike; Kravitz himself is Jewish.

But we Christians have not only special reasons but special seasons for doing the things that matter most. Advent and Lent are not only times of penitential preparation—they're our annual wake-up calls. Our time is now; we strive to live in constant readiness for the Lord's return. Christians don't need a mid-life crisis to make us to act.

All of us have "unfinished business," but there's no reason for it to pile up like a stack of unpaid bills. "You know what time it is," St. Paul tells us: "it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep."

Jesus makes the point even more directly: "Keep awake… for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming."

Spiritual alertness is central to the Christian life. From the time of Jesus to the present day the Church has waited for his return. The manana approach—saying "there's always tomorrow"—will never lead us to the Kingdom. We live what is sometimes called "the sacrament of the present moment," the belief that God wants to be present to us now, in the immediate circumstances of our lives, and not tomorrow, or next week.

One way to live the sacrament of the present moment is to be aware that God is always with us—to stop and acknowledge his presence in and around us. But another is to take care of unfinished business, because Jesus taught us that doing good to his brother and sisters means doing good to him.

Advent is the perfect time for both. The nearness of Christmas translates easily into the nearness of Christ, if we stay clear of the season's excesses. And the nearness of Christ is a constant invitation to do the right things as the perfect preparation for his birth in our hearts.

Our call to action today is fundamental, and comes from the Word of God. But the extraordinary year of Lee Kravitz can at least inspire us to have an extraordinary Advent. We need to grab some paper and a pen before bed tonight, or together after supper, and write down three things we'd be sorry we forgot to do for others if the Lord came tomorrow.

Each of us will have a different list. For some it will be expressing overdue thanks, for others paying overdue debts. But for all of us the list can be a reminder that the only day we really have is today: we know that now is the time.

So let's respond to our Advent wakeup call by taking care of unfinished business… bringing peace to our family, our friends, and ourselves.

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