When I entered college in 1974, having graduated a year early, I was 17 years old and had no idea what I wanted do with the rest of my life. I did know that I wanted a college degree and a job. I briefly considered anthropology but changed my mind when my counselor told me that there were no jobs for women in that field. I had no interest in being a trailblazer, I just wanted to live a comfortable life. However, if I had majored in anthropology I would have known the term, “redemptive media.”
Redemptive media is a term used by anthropologists to describe that which makes a person good, successful, and respectable.
In the days of John the Baptist, what made one respectable and successful were who the parents were. Since everyone in his community descended from Abraham, that meant, by tradition, that they were God’s chosen people.
There’s a comfort in knowing who one is. Life is easier if one fits into the categories that one’s culture defines as good, respectable, and successful. For the United States that traditionally means white, heterosexual, married with children, educated and employed. For centuries these criteria have been held up as normal. If one did not fit these criteria, for example if were gay, one might suppress who one was or one live on the fringes of society, ostracized and marginalized. People of color and women have been viewed as less than human. Centuries of holding these beliefs created an assumption of order and with that order a veneer of calm.
Calmness can be a two edged sword. For many years now I have worked at being calm. I’m not always successful at this but it is one of my goals. And by calm I mean having an interior sense of peace, enabling me to function as a more thoughtful person. However in these last few weeks I’ve noticed a drastic change in me. I no longer feel calm. Instead I feel like I am “thrumming.” I’m not sure if that is a real word, but it does describe how I feel, like inside I am idling at a faster pace than normal, not totally out of balance, reactive or jumpy, but a steady kind of quiet revved up-ness. Unlike the past, I don’t want to return to that previous state of “calm” because for me everything has changed. I think that if I return to that former state of calmness I run the risk of feeling like everything is okay and then I run the risk of normalizing this new reality. I don’t want to normalize racism, misogyny, xenophobia, or homophobia. I don't want to normalize bullying or abuse by being passive or thinking that somehow it will all work out. The increased rates of abuse since the election, including anonymous letters threatening local mosques, abusive words directed at people of color, women, and the LGBTQ community are unacceptable to me. I can’t watch the news, I can barely read a newspaper, - no doubt the media could use some redemption and a restoration of journalistic integrity.
No, I don’t want the thrumming to go away. I want to access it and use it to make a difference. I’ve become even more convinced that random acts of kindness and every act that seeks to bend the arc toward justice is worthwhile, no matter how small the act might seem. A smile. A friendly gesture. Being polite. Taking action to work for justice. I intend to do this, not from anger and reactivity, but from this place of thrumming, which is calming in itself, like a white noise that is always present, urging me on.
Repentance is a theme on the second Sunday of Advent. In Matthew, John the Baptist says that the nature of one’s repentance will determine whether one become chaff which means bad, or become wheat, which means good. John is certain that Jesus will take a shovel - the word fork is better translated as shovel - and dig into the pile, scooping out large portions of the bad chaff to be burned and large portions of good wheat to be saved.
The thrumming began, I am sure, from fear. It could live on in me, driven by fear, if I allowed it too. John the Baptist reminds us that there are many different kinds of vipers that poison our lives and our world. Fear is one of the most potent. Fear causes one to freeze up and become stuck. Another one is anger. Anger can be useful but often anger is reactive and lacking in insight. Reactive anger is usually a fear of annihilation, a loss of self that comes from fear and manifests as anger. There’s a lot of reactive anger and fear in the world today and it’s causing whole societies to be stuck, or move backwards into less healthy behaviors that reinforce old stereotypes. Stereotypes that feel safe for some, but definitely are not safe for everyone, because they convey the idea that some are chaff and some are wheat, some are bad and some are good.
But Jesus doesn’t act as John expects. Instead Jesus shovels out loads of love to all - sinners, the outcast, the marginalized, the poor and the rich, the white and people of color, straight, gay, bi, transgender, women and men. All are equally loved - by the shovel full.
And that’s a really big deal, being loved for being who one is.
I’m beginning to think that the thrumming might actually be something else, not fear, but grace.
God seeking to fill me with energy from the Holy Spirit, giving me the courage and stamina to do all that I can to make a difference. There’s hope in that idea. Augustine of Hippo once said that, “Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are." This anger, unlike reactive anger, is an anger based in the desire that all that I do and all that I am works toward justice for all people. It’s an anger, a thrumming, that invites me to be thoughtful and aware and attentive, to learn and grow, and be involved.
Maybe it’s a paradox that I began my adult life choosing to not be a trailblazer, seeking only a comfortable life, and to find as I prepare to turn 60, that I have spent all of my life working in predominately and traditionally male vocations, and rarely have I lived a comfortable life. What I’ve learned though is that I am made for these times because once I started down this path there was been no turning back. Perhaps the chaff that Jesus shovels is not people but our ignorance and all that limits us. Perhaps the wheat that Jesus shovels is that which brings out the best in us, love and compassion.
This thrumming, my new normal, had its birth in fear but its been transformed into a calmness that embraces anger and directs it with courage to change the world, one little act of good at a time, building one on top of the other. This thrumming might just be the grace of God telling me that now is not the time to seek comfort, but instead handing me a spiritual shovel because there’s work to be done.
Out with the chaff, those vipers of fear, and in with the wheat, the love of God.
a reflection on the readings for Advent 2A: Matthew 3:1-12