I’ve spent the weeks since returning to the U.S. acclimating and preparing for the Christmas holiday with family. With our holiday drawing to a close, Diane and I attended the Trinity United Methodist Church in Wilmette for what would be the last of the Advent and Christmas observances earlier today. The message was provided by an intern from China who contrasted Asian cultural perspectives based on Budism with those of the West. The point he made was that Budism views life as a constant unfolding circle of experiences while Western culture, significantly shaped by Christianity, is more linear – birth, life, death and the promise of a life after death that varies according to the theological view of the Christian. He advised that Christian faith calls believers to reflect carefully on the “C” between “B” and “D,” “C” being the choices one makes between “B” (birth) and “D” (death).
It struck me that the message of paying careful attention to our choices is central to the idea of advent - a time of preparation. Islam has an equivalent concept in the month of Ramadan that culminates in the Hajj pilgrimage to Medina and Mecca for those who can make the trip. A wonderful PBS documentary captured the journey of a group of Muslim pilgrims from Boston, reflecting the struggles of spiritual reflection that are such an important part of the Hajj journey. Advent and Hajj provide the opportunity for a very profound experience if the time is used to prepare, to reflect, to grow in patience and self-understanding, and to ultimately connect with God.
The close of the holiday season and the return to life’s routine is in some ways a sad time. However, the most important loss is perhaps ceasing the intentional preparation for what we intend to do. Paying attention to what I intend to do takes on greater importance tomorrow more than perhaps any time thus far in my life. Because all my time has been focused on Advent and the preparation for Christmas over the last six weeks, I hadn’t really thought about how important the choices I will make in the coming days will be. For the first time since starting my career in 1973, I have broader choices to make about how to use my time. Sure, we have choices in our work and careers but in some ways the choices we make outside of our work are the most important decisions we face.
Qatar taught me many things about the worth and dignity of all people, about sacrifice, and about hope in the face of challenging odds. There were so many people I encountered who were in Qatar because they had no other choice in order to feed their families. More often than not, these friends made a choice for hope and constantly had a positive outlook that was humbling. I cherish these memories and look forward to making choices to contribute to those around me here in Chicago and for those who are scattered across so many other nations who are striving for opportunity.
I will strive to live by the lesson of Advent this year, of my return to the U.S., and of the message we heard at church today – intentional preparation for spiritual encounter, for career, and for service to others requires being aware of the constant choices we have to make.