Against my better judgment, I was out last Saturday afternoon, three weeks before Christmas, looking for a pair of black shoes. I was scheduled for my first Sunday as a chalice bearer the next day and, as I am wont to do, I had waited until the last minute to look for the black shoes I needed to blend in with the black cassock that would be hovering just above them.
I didn’t want anything too expensive because 1) I’m sort of a cheapskate 2) I wouldn’t wear these shoes any other time since black isn’t really a color I prefer. As those were my only two guidelines for my shopping expedition, I visited those receptacles of all that our department stores have deemed disposable: Marshall’s and Ross.
I have mixed feelings about these sorts of stores. I enjoy that occasionally I can find a good deal on something I need (one time, it was a belt, another, socks). But while this may be the case on occasion, I generally stroll the aisles at these stores with a sense of gloom. While you may be able to find some good deals from time to time, these stores, to me at least, are a reminder of our society’s addiction to consumption and waste. As you search for the thing you’re looking for, you’re surrounded by items nobody wanted or could use – not only shirts and pants and size 14 shoes, but also things like electronic gadgets, cologne, and housewares. A veritable Island of Misfit Toys here in the real world, and to me, all a bit depressing.
Last Saturday, as I moved out of the shoe section at Marshall’s, I ended up in the area with gadgets and cologne. I wasn’t too interested in looking at the goods displayed there but something caught my eye as I glanced around. Down low on a display case was this:
Not a great photo but I think you can get the idea. There on the low shelf was some kind of cologne and perfume combo with the Khloe and Lamar brand on it. What made this piece arrest my attention was the image of Lamar Odom, and while I’m not a celebrity news follower and don’t really know anything about the Kardashians, I do follow the NBA, and if you’ve done so in recent years, you may know the sad story of Lamar Odom. This isn’t the place to recount it but suffice it to say Lamar Odom almost died just over a year ago when he was found unresponsive in a Las Vegas area brothel. An overdose of cocaine had caused him to have a stroke. One of the sweetest persons to every play the game, some say, had players from all over the league, in the days following his collapse, rallying to wish him a quick recovery, which for a while seemed like it might not happen at all.
All I could think of as I glanced at this emblem of our disposal culture is how things seem to be produced in our society almost so they can be tossed aside to make room from something else – including people and in this case, athletes. The liturgy, if you will, of consuming and throwing away influences our imaginations on a deep level – so much so that we often see this time of year as the time of malls, shopping bags, wrapped presents under the tree, sales at department stores or online. James K.A. Smith’s “liturgy of the mall,” of course, has shaped many an evangelical’s imagination in recent years as he describes that whole consumeristic enterprise as a formational practice that steers our hearts toward one thing and not another – toward impure desires on the one hand and away from pure desires on the other.
In his book The Truce of God, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, writes about pure and impure desire. Impure desire, according to Williams, “desires to stop having to desire,” to stop needing and to be self-sufficient. Pure desire, on the other hand, can live with an “unlimited horizon;” it’s at home with longing and anticipation. Williams writes:
“The ‘impure heart’ is a heart which never wants anything enough to be intolerant of substitutes. Beneath its readiness to make do with less than reality is the fear of real desire. For real desire means the candid acknowledgment that I am incomplete and need something in order to be real myself. Impure desire, on the other hand, assumes that I am solid and important: I take things to myself as my fancies suggest…I consume things – to stop myself from being consumed by real desire.”
Dismissing a moralistic/simplistic understanding of purity, Williams reveals that what’s really wrong with the impure heart and what it desires is its spiritual sloth, or as the monastic tradition calls it, acedia. It’s the noonday demon of making do with what is less than real by bouncing from one distraction to the next. Because the impure heart cannot acknowledge that it is “incomplete and need[s] something in order to be real” itself, it fails to integrate the negative in itself, in others, or in the world. To do so is too costly: it means to surrender to one’s frailty and spiritual lack. As Williams is later quoted as saying, “Unreal desire stumbles from moment to moment trying to gratify an immediate hunger, without accepting that ‘hunger’ is part of being human and so cannot be dealt with or understood by an endless succession of leakplugging operations.”
For me, this is where Advent comes in. Advent is a kind of resistance movement against the barrage of “unreal desire” being piped through the various devices we find ourselves staring at or plugged into on a daily basis. The marketing that surrounds us and that is the air we breathe is trying to get us to forget that “hunger is part of being human.” All the disposable, throwaway “stuff” being pushed on us from all directions is seeking to persuade us to that the I is important and solid and complete in of itself. You need nothing else (except what they’re trying to sell you, of course).
Advent, on the other hand, is about pure desire. It’s about acknowledging and being mindful of our hunger, our incompleteness and our need, and any disposable thing that leads you to skip over the surface of those needs that make up the hunger of living is a lie. Advent, as a season of repentance and expectation, reminds you it’s OK to be hungry and to feel the need you bump into in your daily life. Advent reminds you to embrace your full humanity and to be “intolerant of substitutes” that keep you from living wholeheartedly.
But it’s easy to forget we’re in need on a daily basis. Not only do we live longer and (perhaps) suffer less due to advances in modern medicine but we live in a throwaway society where the temptation never to sit still long enough to feel ones need is always with us. We can easily move from one consumable distraction to the next without even tapping into our own spiritual poverty. Because of our smart phones, our music is always with us as well as instant TV and movie access. And while there certainly have been movements in our society to buy less “stuff” and rid ourselves of waste or even to “unplug,” there has to be a more abiding reason to do these things than simply to have a cleaner home or no credit card debt or better sleep (even those are all important). While those things are good, as Christians we should simplify our lives out of a desire to identify with the Other, especially the poor, the refugee, and the excluded. There should be no greater motivation to pursue such discipline than God’s identification with us in the person of Jesus.
And that’s exactly what Advent is about: identification. God identified with us in our neediness and we, in turn, should seek to identify with those in need who are all around us. Meditating on the mystery of the Incarnation and our own spiritual poverty and then letting that meditation move us toward action is what Advent is for. To do so is to engage in a counter-cultural movement that moves us away from consumption and greed and toward mercy and kindness. And when that happens, then maybe we will be a church shaped not by the desires of the market economy and our throwaway society but by the expectations and vision of God’s economy.