Advent obligations and indulgences

A version of this piece was first posted at the Episcopal Cafe under the title “Speaking to the Soul: Look up and raise your heads”

On the first Sunday of Advent, my church distributed calendars with suggested activities for each day between now and Christmas. They included things like:

“Support a charity”
“Look for something positive to say to everyone you meet today”
“Invite someone over who would otherwise be alone”
“Turn off digital devices and really listen to people”

I didn’t take a copy of the calendar, not because I don’t think that its suggestions are good, nor that kindness shouldn’t be scheduled (why not?), but because these daily things feed my anxiety and fear of failure. What if I miss a day? What if I’m having an incurable introvert day when I’m supposed to invite someone over? What if I am just not a very good person?

So I didn’t take the calendar, but kindness followed me home anyway. It happened this way:

That Monday morning I woke up grumpy (reading the above, you might not be surprised). It had been a beautiful weekend, with temperatures in the 60s, and everyone else on the street had raked their leaves while I was at church sunrise till sunset. I had just finished Morning Prayer with the cat when we heard the leaf-sucky-truck turn onto our cul de sac. I wondered if there was any chance I could at least clear a few leaves off the driveway before they got to our house.

Outside, the weather had turned its switchback bend and an icy rain was struggling to fall. I battled the wind for control of the leaves while the sucky-truck driver and I eyed one another across the circle. Halfway through my neighbour’s mammoth pile, they had filled the truck, and had to go and unload. In a rash rush of enthusiasm, I not only cleared the driveway but decided, as long as they were gone, that I might as well get started on the lawn.

About halfway through, they came back. About three-quarters way through, they started on my own leaf pile, began to suck it up – then stopped. Apparently, they decided that they’d better go and empty the truck again. Now, no way was that truck full.

I finished the leaves in time to shower and change for work, but I would need to wait until the leaf people came back and cleared a pathway off my drive, which was now blocked by a trench of leaves a couple of feet high all the way across. From behind my blinds I soon saw them return, pick up a “thank you” card from the top of the leaf pile, and carry on with their sucky work.

On Sunday morning, before the calendars and the climbing temperatures, I had preached on Jesus’ words to his disciples in the Gospel of Luke:

“Now when these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

It occurred to me that the leaf collectors had given me a demonstration of exactly that: looking up, raising their heads, noticing the stressed-out, slightly frantic woman with the flying leaves, they decided that it was in their power to make her task a little bit easier, to give her a small break, to redeem her day, by emptying their truck a pile or two early. Looking up, taking notice, seeing where help could be extended, without even a word; just kindness.

I did feel better after my encounter with the leaf collectors. The physical exercise no doubt helped, and the fresh air, but also it reminded me that it is almost impossible to calculate or to know what the smallest notice, the most minor kindness, done deliberately and without ceremony, can do to lift the spirits of one who might need it more than we imagine.

I am still eschewing the calendar, in case it’s a guilt-trap; but I grateful for the example of the good people on the sucky truck, of how to look up, raise my head, and try to notice where redemption may be within my reach.

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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