Third Sunday in Advent
Sunday, December 11th
This testimony was offered in worship by Mark Wilhelm as part of a four-week testimony series during the season of Advent. The theme of the series comes from Romans 13:11, which reads, “It is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.”
My doctoral advisor was named James Washington. I don’t remember the context of the conversation with him that I am about to relate, but I vividly remember an exchange with Jim that caused me wake up. We were discussing a topic I’ve long forgotten, but in the course of the conversation, I referred to some group of people as a sub-culture, as was customary in the late 1980s when doing social analysis. Jim quietly responded, “What’s ‘sub’ about that group and what people and practices constitute the real culture? Jim was an African-American and—unlike me—more fully attuned to habits (academic or otherwise) and terms like subculture that subtly demean groups. I immediately knew he was right and that I once again found myself not fully awake.
Over my lifetime, I have come to realize that I need to assume I am normally not “awake” and that I must always be prepared to “wake up,” to adjust and modify my perspective. Time and again, I have experienced moments that brought this truth home to me.
Perhaps the most startling of these moments occurred 15 years ago. It was the heyday of NASCAR, something I never paid any attention to, but in the early 2000s that stock-car racing organization was exceedingly popular and rivaling the NBA and NFL for TV time slots. Its premier star was a guy named Dale Earnhardt, who was a Lutheran from North Carolina. He was killed unexpectedly in a violent collision during a race, and his death triggered a period of national mourning akin to the assassin of Martin King or John Kennedy. We’re talking lead story on the evening news, cover of Time Magazine, article above the fold on the front page of the New York Times national mourning. And I had never heard of him. The dissonance blew me away. I thought I was tuned into life, and in fact held positions that included responsibility for commenting on American life, and yet—in a moment—I learned that I was oblivious to a major aspect of our society around which many Americans ordered their time, gave their energy and framed their existence.
So, despite the admonition to be awake as disciples of Jesus, I have come to take it as a law that I am asleep and that whenever I feel I am most fully tuned-in, observant and awake, I am likely sleep walking at best.
You might think that coming to this realization is depressing, but it is actually freeing. In this presidential election year, we have all experienced what we call living in our bubbles, but it is realizing this fact that enables us to more fully and wisely address the things that should be changed. We can do so because we are more fully aware of the realities we face. Knowing that I am in a bubble and (to switch metaphors) not fully awake releases me from living an illusion that my viewpoint is comprehensive and frees me from the traps that accompany this illusion. Even with this awareness, I can still doze off and again be startled awake by some experience. But perhaps being aware that I am not fully awake is the way to be authentically awake. Sustaining—as best as possible—the awareness that I am not fully awake, allows me to try more vigorously on a daily basis to wake up, step out of the darkness and into the light of Christ.