Thanks be to God, in 3D (First Advent)

What did your family do for Thanksgiving this year? If your family is anything like mine, you may have celebrated in a way quite different than just a couple of years ago, if you celebrated at all. The Thanksgiving traditions our family long took for granted were radically altered during the pandemic.

For years, I had been the turkey guy (or occasionally, the pork guy), responsible for the roast that would anchor the meal. We were not a large family to begin with, but little by little and for a variety of reasons, family members began moving out of California. Last year, COVID first put the kibosh on family gatherings, then took my mother’s life at Christmas. Only my wife, my daughter, and I are left now, and frankly, roasting a 15 to 20 pound bird just seemed like a terrible idea.

But today, right on the heels of Thanksgiving, marks the beginning of the Advent season, a time of expectation, a time of looking forward to the way a gracious God breaks into our fragmented histories and uncertain lives. For what, in this long and trying season of pandemic, are we grateful?

. . .

Speaking personally, I am nearing the end of my first quarter back on campus, after a year and a half of teaching entirely online. On the one hand, I have to admit that even with the chaos and stress of the sudden shift to online courses, there were some benefits. It forced me out of my ignorance and arrogance, my former stance of, “Who me, teach online? Never.” I had the privilege of interacting with students from around the country and the world, who were all exploring the next steps of their God-given vocation, and were able to do that without relocating to Southern California. I wouldn’t want to do everything this way, but my eyes have been opened to the potential. We just have to do it well and thoughtfully.

And, of course, I was really happy to ditch the long commute. Because I had such large classes, some of my colleagues would ask how I had time to grade and respond to all those weekly assignments. I told them truthfully: “The number of hours I spend grading each week is still less than the number of hours I used to spend on the freeway.”

On the other hand, sitting in front of a computer for hours on end, day after day, was bad for my health. At the beginning of the pandemic, people joked about the “Quarantine 15,” a play on the “Freshman 15” in which students are expected to gain 15 pounds in their first year of college (perhaps the consequence of a diet that’s 90% instant ramen). The Quarantine 15, it turns out, is no joke. I call it the “COVID-20” — the 20 or so pounds I gained during COVID-19. The weight gain and relative inactivity wreaked havoc with my blood lipids too, putting me at high risk for a number of nasty health problems. That woke me up. (I’m happy to report that I’ve shed all the excess weight, and intend to keep it off.)

Now that the campus has reopened, our classes are back in person. The downside: I’m back to the commute. And masks can be a real pain. I’m hard of hearing, so rely upon being able to see people’s mouths as they speak; without this, it’s much harder for me to understand them, even with my hearing aids cranked up to maximum. I also hate lecturing in a mask. Sometimes, it’s hard to catch my breath, and my face feels so steamy that I half expect to find mushrooms growing in my mustache.

But there’s an upside: I no longer take for granted the privilege of physically being in the room with my students. Please note: I am quite a strong introvert, so I don’t say this lightly. I have enjoyed not only the structured conversations of the classroom but the informal ones that come from unstructured time just chatting and eating together. Being together, occupying the same space as walking, talking embodied humans, is different than occupying the same screen as disembodied images. It’s easier for me to remember: this flesh-and-blood being is a person, someone in whom God is working for his good purposes.

. . .

Advent, again, is a time of expectant waiting, and it seems fitting to link this to thanksgiving. The pandemic has created its own season of waiting: waiting for things to settle down, waiting for restrictions to be lifted, waiting for the pandemic to end. The wait has been fraught with uncertainty and anxiety, with good news and bad; the disease retreats in one area while surging in another.

But the nature of Christian hope is such that we can always choose to pay attention to the ways in which God is present and moving. When sisters and brothers keep in faithful and mutually encouraging contact with each other, even in the two-dimensional world of Zoom and video apps, it’s a sign of hope. When who they are as people comes through in conversation, even through masks, it’s a sign of hope.

And when we are able to occupy the same three-dimensional space as believers who live and love, celebrate and mourn, worry and pray, we can lean into the vision of a fully redeemed, resurrection community that lives together without masks of any kind.

Thanks be to God.