Citizenship

I once listened to a friend give a short spiritual auto-biography. He was the proverbial “man in full” – The Southern Edition. Good looking.  Charming.  Good company and fun for both men and women.  Beautiful wife and two lovely children.  From a family line whose name you would recognize if you lived in the environs of three states East of here.  He ended up with his picture on the front page of the Wall Street Journal eventually.

There was success, there was fun, there were cars and motorcycles and trips to the beach; there was laughter and drinks on the golf course, laughter and drinks on the fishing boat, laughter and drinks at the ball game; and sometimes there was just laughter and drinks; and sometimes there were just drinks, and drinking.

“Weightlessness.  Weightless,” is how he described himself.  And then he leaned forward and put his head in his hands, and shook his head.  “You know, that’s the hardest thing about it.  When it was good, it was really good . . . and when it was bad, it was really bad; and not just for me.  But for everyone around me.”

“I was just taking one step forward . . . and a heck of a lot more than two steps back.”

Though the balls of the good life were all up in the air, he still felt stuck in something.  He talked about waking up every few weeks feeling lost, exhausted, and a little sick.  “It was easier for me to stay on the roller coaster, than face life on the ground.” he said. 

There was too much momentum, too many balls in the air, too much make-up and pretending to simply stop and have a glance at real nakedness, in the clear light of day.  “I knew I should change, I wanted to change . . . or to be changed, but I was pinned beneath this weight,” he said.

He paused in telling his story, and I felt the heavens had opened a bit, he sat up, and said to us, “I finally just got sick and tired of being sick and tired.  I got tired  . . . of being sick and tired, and so I gave that weight to God.”

This friend made the journey that others have made.  He went to rehab.  He joined AA.  Slowly his erratic behavior and thoughts found their place on a map larger than himself, and God placed a compass in his hand.

His first great outing as a disciple was to join a prison ministry team; it hurt his business, he began to lose his previous largess, but found a community of real friendship.  With time he has become one of the most joyful and helpful people that I know in the real lives that others live.

Over the years the telescope turned around, and today he is known first as a Christian, a friend, a fellow traveler and sufferer, someone who comes calling in the name of Christ, and someone who is called upon because of the name of Christ.  I believe that he would say that only now he is truly weightless.

He once said to me, “Alston, I have learned something . . . I found with Jesus that I have a lot more coming out than I had going in.”

John the Baptist is out in the Wilderness, out from Jerusalem, helping the people who are sick and tired of being sick and tired.  John the Baptist is not so much returning to his family roots, the priesthood of Zechariah and the collegium; rather John is going farther back, to the wilderness voices of Israel’s deep past. 

Going back to Elijah, Elisha, those who wander the land, eat the fruit of the land, dressed not in the finer and processed fiber of sheep’s wool, but rather the more common and coarse camel’s hair, fastened with leather belts.  It’s the life of the spiritually pure, dressed in the sturdy clothing of those who work the land and day-labor.  John will not wear the wool of a sheep, “the lamb’s tunic,” in order to proclaim the coming of the lamb of God.  It is a sign of his humility.

As said by Cyril of Jerusalem, “John fed on locusts to make his soul grow wings.”

John lives a simple life, and he brings a simple message: repentance, turning around, changing direction in life, because God is nearer now than ever before.  John brings a simple and powerful offering of reorientation, of personal/individual and collective transformation. 

Clearly, there must be some resonance to John’s message, because many folks from the Capital, from the Jerusalem area, are coming out to hear him.

And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

I like to think that John has a medicine for their weariness, their own frustration with being sick and tired; a medicine for their lack of honesty about themselves and one another that only God can give. 

I am reminded of something Fred Rogers, Mr. Rogers, once said, “Life is deep and simple, and what our society gives us is shallow and complicated.” The medicine for things shallow and complicated that John brings is “Metanoia.”  Repentance. 

That change in life’s direction, sometimes great, sometimes small, a reorientation that creates the shift in the flywheel of our actions, intentions, and affirmations – perhaps our self-understanding/identity, that will eventually send the entire vehicle of our lives in a new direction.  Occasionally, when enough of these adjustments are made in enough lives, even whole peoples and cultures might see a new direction as well.

That walk with Jesus where we find we have a lot more coming out that we had going in . . .Metamorphosis – transformation. 

However, this transformation is not a magic trick; it’s not even a new idea among ideas.  It is more like a death and a rebirth.  It is more like a deep cleansing that might come with the sting of cold water splashed in the face of our self-delusions; something like the way I braced for the vaccine earlier this week – bracing ourselves in the face of our mortality.

It is something like being pushed under the water, holding our breath, and coming up breathing again; yet in a new way with a new purpose. We are immersed as our old, familiar, well-tended and curated, selves . . . we arise as a child of God who now walks by another road.

 The fact that Jesus goes out from Jerusalem and offers himself to John the Baptist is confirmation that Jesus believes in John.  It is confirmation that Jesus recognizes and honors the medicine, the deliverance, the transformation – the repentance that John is offering to individuals and the people; a life of transformation – perhaps finding that we have more coming out that going in . . .

During the events of the past week in our country, I find myself asking the question and meditating upon this notion: why would I expect a nation, a population, a segment of a population, to spiritually awaken beyond a point that I have not embraced, or arrived at, myself?  It reminds me of the bumper sticker: Be the change you want to see in others. Or on this Feast of our Lord’s Baptism – Be the Repentance that you expect to see in others. 

The events of the past week are tragic for our shared citizenry; what occurred was wrong. 

The definitive explanation and interpretation of these events will become a new battleground; with various outposts of temporal and otherworldly righteousness established on any number of available high places.  Thus is the nature of human events; thus the nature of our shared humanity.  Hurt, bruised, offended, the various parties retreat to various corners of self-determination; either preparing for another battle, or perhaps finding that they too are sick and tired of being sick and tired.

One of the old Christians, Cyril of Jerusalem, used to liken repentance to a snake shedding its skin, “For every snake puts off its signs of age by pushing through some narrow place, and gets rid of its old apparel by squeezing it off” . . . and he was speaking of all who would deign walk in the name of Christ; we are the snakes shedding our skins. We must break with our old nature and put on the new.

However, we will not walk the path of Metanoia without remembering that we do not get to “have” God without also “having” our neighbor.  We are shedding our skins together.

We will not find a pathway, we will not go home by another road, until each citizen, Christian or otherwise, discovers the truth that our desires for the highest and best use of our liberties depends upon the integrity and safety of those with whom we disagree, giving voice to their own vision of what is highest and best.  If we cannot grow sick and tired of being sick and tired, together, we must be prepared to live in a long, never-ending version of what we witnessed on The Feast of Epiphany, 2021, when our fragile experiment in American liberty was briefly put in the balance of fate.  A visible and sad experience of shared humanity in need of John The Baptist’s transformational medicine.

 In our fallen world that is yet to be fully redeemed, Cain is killing Abel somewhere, every day, all of the time.  Without external intervention, so it may remain. 

However in a world in which the “bat quol,” the “daughter voice” of God is breaking through the heavens and alighting like a dove, there is a medicine from another time, another place, a medicine from the world that is to be, that is breaking through the clouds and saying, “Shuv, Metanoia, Repent, let’s go home by another road together.”  Even on Wednesday afternoon this past week, the voice of John the Baptist is crying out in the Wilderness, “Prepare the Way of the Lord, Make His paths straight.”

The voice of God is forever offering a path of redirection:

         “God opened the gates of heaven and sent down his Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, lighting upon the head of Jesus, pointing him out right there as the new Noah, even the maker of Noah, and the good pilot of the nature which is shipwrecked.”  – Gregory Thaumaturgus. 

In lives that are shipwrecked God sends Jesus as the good pilot.

 While our shared citizenship may feel like a beautiful piece of fabric that has been torn, or that is unable to cover all those who would seek shelter beneath her, our citizenship in heaven is intact; it will never be adjusted or abrogated by those whose who, for a season, manage the temporal affairs of state. 

Jesus’ baptism, our baptism, is a mark made in eternity; regardless of how the heathen doth rage.  Heaven speaks on behalf of our leader, our advocate, our guide; regardless of what is shouted in the streets by those protesting that they are sole arbiters of the national vision.

In times of national uncertainty, I find it necessary to recall the certainty of my citizenship in heaven; and our Lord’s command that we walk in that citizenship in such a way as not to become stumbling blocks to those who do not yet believe.  I believe that our Baptisms become our compass.

 Divine citizenship, collective transformation, personal repentance, standing with Jesus on the banks of the river Jordan, listening to John The Baptist, is something the vicissitudes of this world will never breach.  The truth that we read and pray today is a doorway from temporal realities into eternal verities. 

And the one who opens that door for us, Jesus who becomes the Messiah, is the one who stands at that door for every human being, every citizen; Jesus is the only leader of a world whose destiny is true freedom and liberty.

Borrowing the words of an old Christian, Hippolytus, “Listen to the Father’s voice: . . . “This is my Beloved Son,” yes, none other that the One who himself becomes hungry, yet feeds countless numbers. 

He is my Son who himself becomes weary, yet gives rest to the weary.  He has no place to lay his head, yet bears up all things in his hand. 

He suffers, yet heals sufferings.  He is beaten, yet confers liberty upon the world.  He is pierced in his side, yet repairs the side of Adam.”

If it is “freedom” that we seek for ourselves and others, there is a leader, a “cause,” by which to find it; and He is standing on the banks of the Jordan River listening to John the Baptist offer the words of repentance and transformation in Baptism.

There is a story about the funeral of Leonid Brezhnev, the General Secretary of Communist Party from 1964 until his death in 1982.  The Cold War. Vice President, George Bush represented the U.S. at the funeral of Brezhnev. Bush was deeply moved by something he saw there. 

We must remember that Communist Russia during that time was very clearly atheist, secular, utterly convinced that religious realities were not simply foolish, but that they were dangerous – opiates of the people.  Being religious meant being a self-declared enemy of the State.  After a few generations of party rule, any form of religious expression, either collectively or individually, had become anathema and the invitation to suffering at the hands of “those who knew best.”

Brezhnev’s widow stood motionless by the coffin until seconds before it was closed.  Then, just as the soldiers touched the lid, Brezhnev’s wife reached down and made the sign of the cross on her husband’s chest.

She took a risk and offered her silent prayer in the last moment that she would be able to touch her husband.  She made the sign that we will make on the bodies of our own children; the sign that has been made upon us.  It is the sign of the promise.  It is the sign of the everlasting covenant. 

It is the sign I make on the forehead of baby before saying the old and true words:  “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism, and you are marked as Christ’s own forever.”

Please stand with me as we reaffirm our own Baptismal Covenant.

The Baptismal Covenant: Page 304

The Baptismal Covenant

CelebrantDo you believe in God the Father?
PeopleI believe in God, the Father almighty,
    creator of heaven and earth.
 
CelebrantDo you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?
PeopleI believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
    He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
        and born of the Virgin Mary.
    He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
        was crucified, died, and was buried.
    He descended to the dead.
    On the third day he rose again.
    He ascended into heaven,
        and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
    He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
 
CelebrantDo you believe in God the Holy Spirit?
PeopleI believe in the Holy Spirit,
    the holy catholic Church,
    the communion of saints,
    the forgiveness of sins,
    the resurrection of the body,
    and the life everlasting.
 
CelebrantWill you continue in the apostles’ teaching and
fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the
prayers?
PeopleI will, with God’s help.
 
CelebrantWill you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever
you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
PeopleI will, with God’s help.
CelebrantWill you proclaim by word and example the Good
News of God in Christ?
PeopleI will, with God’s help.
 
CelebrantWill you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving
your neighbor as yourself?
PeopleI will, with God’s help.
 
CelebrantWill you strive for justice and peace among all
people, and respect the dignity of every human
being?
PeopleI will, with God’s help.

Emmanuel – Takes One to know one

The Story of the Nativity: Christmas Paintings by Illustrator Michael Dudash

Fifty years ago on this very night, John McCain was a prisoner of war in Viet Nam.  During the 2008 presidential race, John McCain was asked by Time magazine to share his “personal journey of faith.” In his article McCain shared a powerful story of something that occurred while he was a prisoner of war in Vietnam:

“When I was a prisoner of war in Vietnam…my captors would tie my arms behind my back and then loop the rope around my neck and ankles so that my head was pulled down between my knees. I was often left like that throughout the night. One night a guard came into my cell. He put his finger to his lips signaling for me to be quiet and then loosened my ropes to relieve my pain. The next morning, when his shift ended, the guard returned and retightened the ropes, never saying a word to me.

A month or so later, on Christmas Day, I was standing in the dirt courtyard when I saw that same guard approach me. He walked up and stood silently next to me, not looking or smiling at me. Then he used his sandaled foot to draw a cross in the dirt. We stood wordlessly looking at the cross, remembering the true light of Christmas, even in the darkness of a Vietnamese prison camp.”  {Found on Christianity Today website}

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light . . . Those who lived in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined.” – Isaiah.

Perhaps you find yourself wondering why you are here tonight.  Perhaps  you are moving beneath a cloud tonight.  Perhaps you wonder about yourself and God.  Be comforted; God’s story also begins with shadows and questions and fear and uncertainty.

I suppose there were many questions on this journey from Nazareth.

The makers of history are on the move; Emperor Augustus has placed himself at the center of the world issuing decrees.  Augustus is a Caesar, a master of all that he surveys.  He pulls the great levers of power.

In the ancient world some men were considered gods.  And some men considered themselves God.  In fact, today in Rome, there is an old crumbling stone.  It reads, “The birthday of the god has marked the beginning of the good news of the world.”

This stone does not celebrate the birth we celebrate tonight; rather this stone was raised by Roman senators celebrating the Pax Augustus, the great peace and prosperity brought about during the reign of Emperor Augustus.

The irony is that we don’t remember this Emperor because we are grateful for the peace that he secured for a political season.  The irony is that the living God is about to draw back the curtain on the imposters.  The irony is that we remember the Emperor because we celebrate a homeless child born on the edge of his empire. 

The would-be makers of history actually become the footnotes in the history written by God.  A sliver of light and beauty peeking through the empire’s armor.

At the feet of the winner, on the corner of his empire, where the great and powerful might feed their horses, in the forgotten place, a small corner of hay, grain, and dung, the unseen hand of heaven is very gently nudging the world. 

It is there that the unseen Mover – moves . . . and no one is really paying attention; no one is living with the appropriate situational awareness.

God delivers a Messiah who is not of the world’s own choosing; God comes to us as a child, so that we might learn how to become his children.  Out of the Father’s heart, this gift – while one man, an Emperor, is trying to wrap his arms around the world, and the other is coming to rule the world by being placed helplessly in its arms.

This baby is a “feather on the breath of God” in the words of Hildegard de Bingen.  He is a light and song at the feet of the world’s darkness and the decrees of the mighty.  For any who cannot or will not see God’s love, He will be the face of love;  he is the hand and feet for those who falling down through the cracks; he is the heart that breaks when our hearts grow cold; he shares tears with those who find that their tears are too heavy and too costly to give.

Being born and lying in the tiniest corner of the world, He is the gift that we cannot give to ourselves.  God has come for me, and for you, with the tiniest sliver of hope, light, beauty, and truth into a world covered in shadows.

Our Lord came down from life to suffer death;
the Bread came down, to hunger;
the Way came down, on the way to weariness;
the Fount came down, to thirst.
—Augustine, Sermon 78

At Christmas time there is a story that Paul Harvey used to share:

The man to whom I’m going to introduce you was not a scrooge, he was a kind decent, mostly good man. Generous to his family, upright in his dealings with other men. But he just didn’t believe all that incarnation stuff which the churches proclaim at Christmas Time. It just didn’t make sense and he was too honest to pretend otherwise. He just couldn’t swallow the Jesus Story, about God coming to Earth as a man.

“I’m truly sorry to distress you,” he told his wife, “but I’m not going with you to church this Christmas Eve.” He said he’d feel like a hypocrite. That he’d much rather just stay at home, but that he would wait up for them. And so he stayed and they went to the midnight service.

Shortly after the family drove away in the car, snow began to fall. He went to the window to watch the flurries getting heavier and heavier and then went back to his fireside chair and began to read his newspaper. Minutes later he was startled by a thudding sound…Then another, and then another. Sort of a thump or a thud…At first he thought someone must be throwing snowballs against his living room window. But when he went to the front door to investigate he found a flock of birds huddled miserably in the snow. They’d been caught in the storm and, in a desperate search for shelter, had tried to fly through his large landscape window.

Well, he couldn’t let the poor creatures lie there and freeze, so he remembered the barn where his children stabled their pony. That would provide a warm shelter, if he could direct the birds to it.

Quickly he put on a coat, galoshes, tramped through the deepening snow to the barn. He opened the doors wide and turned on a light, but the birds did not come in. He figured food would entice them in. So he hurried back to the house, fetched bread crumbs, sprinkled them on the snow, making a trail to the yellow-lighted wide open doorway of the stable. But to his dismay, the birds ignored the bread crumbs, and continued to flap around helplessly in the snow. He tried catching them…He tried shooing them into the barn by walking around them waving his arms…Instead, they scattered in every direction, except into the warm, lighted barn.

And then, he realized that they were afraid of him. To them, he reasoned, I am a strange and terrifying creature. If only I could think of some way to let them know that they can trust me…That I am not trying to hurt them, but to help them. But how? Because any move he made tended to frighten them, confuse them. They just would not follow. They would not be led or shooed because they feared him.

If only I could be a bird,” he thought to himself, “and mingle with them and speak their language. Then I could tell them not to be afraid. Then I could show them the way to safe, warm…to the safe warm barn. But I would have to be one of them so they could see, and hear and understand.”

At that moment the church bells began to ring. The sound reached his ears above the sounds of the wind. And he stood there listening to the bells – Adeste Fidelis – O Come all Ye Faithful – listening to the bells pealing the glad tidings of Christmas.

And he sank to his knees in the snow and opened his heart.

Emmanuel.  God is with us . . . forever.

William Faulkner and Holy Living and Holy Dying

Since we stay not here, being people but of a day’s abode, and our age is like that of a fly and contemporary with a gourd, we must look somewhere else for an abiding city, a place in another country to fix our house in, whose walls and foundation is God, where we must find rest, or else be restless for ever . . . we must carry up our affections to the mansions prepared for us above, where eternity is the measure, felicity is the state, angels are the company, the Lamb is the light, and God is the portion and inheritance.

  • Jeremy Taylor, Holy Dying {1651}

I cannot recall the time or the place, but I remember either being told or reading that William Faulkner kept two books by his bedside through most of his life – “The Book of Common Prayer,” and “Holy Living” and “Holy Dying,” by Jeremy Taylor.  Faulkner has been a companion in The Way for most of my life.  I remember sitting in my apartment in Burlington, Vermont while in college and reading “Absalom! Absolom!” in one sitting; beginning early in the morning and finishing late in the night.  The story of Shreve McCaslin and his family, told in the freezing Harvard dorm room of a New England Winter, in some mysterious way haunting my own apartment at the University of Vermont.  My grandmother told me stories of the young Bill Faulkner coming to Memphis from Oxford, his sitting barefoot on the porch of my great-great uncle, Clarence Ogilvie, having drinks on long summer evenings.  Generally I find a theological yearning in Faulkner’s characters; especially white Southerners haunted by a slippery, and mildly odiferous, Confederate mythos that was something like dreaming the dream of a dream. 

I remember seeing a photograph of one of my most beloved Bishops, the Right Reverend Duncan M. Gray, as a young man, standing as a priest over Faulkner’s grave giving the words of the Committal from the Book of Common Prayer.  Bishop Gray had been the Rector of St. Peter’s Oxford prior to become Bishop of Mississippi.

These days I read Jeremy Taylor far more than I read Faulkner.  The Anglican Divines are worthy guides from one world to another; and I sense the drawing near of a shore that was once distant.  Every day we come closer to the “something” for which we all search in this life.  While William Faulkner kept Jeremy Taylor beside his bed at night, during the day he wrote, he drank, he kept up a kind of “run-down” Virginia-Mississippi operation as a country gentlemen at Rowan Oak, in between the hours he was writing extraordinary literature that may have been as much serendipity as effort.  I am trying to be like the man in the photograph, who is standing over Faulkner’s grave reading from the other book that Faulkner kept by his bedside.  Both of us need good and boon companions like Jeremy Taylor, a guide from cradle to grave, until we are reunited on the other shore; where there will be a porch swing, a man named Clarence, and ice in glasses on a long summer afternoon in Memphis. 

Just thoughts and asides.

Blessings and Godspeed.

Unlocked Only From The Outside

One of the old saints of the Church – St. John of the Cross – once said of Advent, “The Heavens are Rumbling during Advent . . . but not for us.”  That can be a bit of shock during this season, hearing the words, “Its not about you.  It really never was about you.”

Coincidentally it is John of the Cross’ Feast Day tomorrow.  In some of his writing, John of the Cross describes a kind of  “dark contemplation,” something called the via negative, the ray of contemplative darkness; it is a path of moving more deeply into knowledge of God.  This dark contemplation, via negative, stands in contrast to the sunny, chipper, more extroverted styles of affect that we associate with popular Christianity.  It is reminiscent of proverb used in Stephen Ministry – “Don’t sing happy songs to the broken-hearted.”

         Advent is about something different than forcing happiness into the empty spaces in our hearts and souls; especially this Advent.  In its deepest recesses and mystery, Advent is about waiting.

         John of the Cross points out that darkness, emptiness, silence, are sometimes a sure footed, path to God – rather than a forced happiness, or manufactured cheerfulness.  I might add that confusion, anger, and fear, although seemingly barriers to God, they can actually provide a shorter path if they are honestly how we feel about our life.  God is generally no closer than our honesty with ourselves.

There is a holiness in waiting; holiness in waiting for God to fill a space that we sometimes naively try to fill with light and music and tinsel and a posture of good cheer.

John mostly began to write his vision of prayer and waiting for God while he was in jail; imprisoned for disagreeing with the wrong people in Spain.  There is something of a genre of spiritual classics written from jail; obviously we have the apostle Paul, we have John of the Cross, John Bunyan, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr., and others.  It has to do with being freed from distractions, surrendering to God.  It has to do with being reduced waiting, waiting, and waiting.

Advent is about waiting with a girl who is pregnant; a girl who really has not a clue as to who, or what, exactly is going to be born from her womb.  No notion; other than the dreams and conversation that she has been having with angels and God.  In the words of John of the Cross, Mary’s heavens are rumbling, as she waits to discover what favor will befall a lowly servant.

Being an early believer in Christ meant living with this sense of the Heavens Rumbling.  Early Christians mostly lived in a perpetual kind of Advent, at least for a few generations; wondering when Jesus might return to them, embrace them, finish one story of the earth and history, beginning another story of heaven and eternity.

The Eschatological Hope of the Church.  Eschaton simply means last – the final event in the divine plan.  And we are people who live with that sense of hope in the last things – that the best days of life are ahead of us.  First Thessalonians is the oldest identifiable Christian document that we have – 52 AD.  Paul is writing to an infant church in Thessalonica.  They are on the pathway toward an unknown maturity.  Being an early believer often meant taking a stand that would look foolish and unwise in the eyes of others.  Being an early believer meant that you had some inclination that God was bringing a new light into the world, as we hear in John’s Gospel.  Being an early believer meant that you were willing to suspend the certainty of all that you might have known, for the uncertainty and mystery of what might be.

These early Christians sometimes lived within hard situations, and they too faced difficult questions from within.  One of the hardest questions with which to live was resolving to live within the uncertainty of knowing when the Lord might return.

“Could it be this week?  This year?  Could it be today . . . that my life will change?  Lord we are praying for a change in this world, when is it you are going to break through the clouds?”

In our own lives we have mostly outlived this sense of urgency.  And living on the cusp of such a hope, such an expectation, is actually very difficult.  Having a mountaintop experience, and then struggling to stay on that mountaintop; dragging that mountaintop around with us through life.  It is one reason why folks are sometimes on edge during the holidays; the greatest of all expectations is in the air, yet there is also the ray of darkness.

I believe this is why Paul is having to write these letters to the early Church – they are all wound up, ready, living on the edge of expectation, and yet they do not quite know where to go.  The difficulty of waiting is causing them to unravel.  Inviting them to fill a space with their own expectations as they wait for God to act again in their lives.

Their expectations have not been met.  And so, as we are oft to do when we do not get what we are wanting deeply in our hearts, these Thessalonians are falling into the habits of spite, jealousy, blame – things that crop up when we are angry and disappointed.

Our season of Advent is a time for us to resist investing our waiting with too many of our own expectations; a time for us to wait and discover how God will surprise us with joy.

Throughout the history of the Church Advent has been considered a kind of little Lent.  A time for self-examination, a return to centeredness in Christ, a time to reclaim the gravity of God in our lives.  Advent is preparing us to receive the True gift from God, rather than simply live with the gifts that we might choose for ourselves.

Paul is giving this advice to the Thessalonians – wait patiently and with holiness for the gif that God means to give you:  God is faithful.

May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.

God is carrying during Advent the gift that we cannot give to ourselves – the gift of His love, and that can make all the difference in lives that are sometimes filled with shadow, fear, and noise.

Although it may not be the gift that we have wanted or expected, it is the gift that we need.  This is how our holidays become our Holy Days.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and theologian who actively plotted against the Nazis regime.  He had moved to the United States in order to find safety and security, only to discover that his heart was not at peace; that his heart still ached for the Church he had known and for his home country.  Rather than live in safety in America, Bonhoeffer returned to Germany to join in a plot to bring down Hitler.

He was arrested and put in prison, where even his guards were humbled by his holiness and his kindness.  Bonhoeffer was engaged to be married at the time, and his letters to his young fiancée have joined that canon of Christian literature written from prison.  In one of his letters he wrote,

“Life in a prison cell reminds me a great deal of Advent.  One waits and hopes and putters around . . . but in the end, what we do is of little consequence.  The door is shut, and it can only be opened from the outside.”

That my friends is the truth of Advent, the eschatological hope of the Church, the pregnant girl, and the deep recesses of our hearts during this season.  We want or need something so badly that we will try to fill it with substitutes, our own version of music and lights, but in the end, “The doors of our hearts are shut, and they can only be opened from the other side.”

Paul reminds the infant Church, we are being reminded, to be patient and wait, wait with Mary, because God is faithful.  The door that is shut in our lives, that one door that makes all the difference and leads to another country, is destined to be opened.  He is coming.  He will turn the lock.

“The one who calls you is faithful and he will do this.”

Come Lord Jesus.  Come Lord Jesus 

Turn our rays of darkness and our waiting, our holidays, into our Holy Days with you.

Living History

John the Baptist, Robert Campin, 1415

In one of her early books, Annie Dillard shares how she once learned a lesson, the hard way, about the importance of waiting. She had been watching a butterfly slowly emerge from its cocoon.  The oh-so-slow process of transformation was fascinating, but, at a point, she grew impatient. She took a candle and heated the cocoon, though only slightly, in order to speed the process.  It worked. The butterfly emerged a bit more quickly, but, because the process had been unnaturally rushed, it was born with wings that were not properly formed and it was not able to fly.  In this case, impatience had her price.

Learning patience, learning to wait for the things of God, is not something that is second nature to most of us.  Is it really any wonder that Christmas begins for most, in our towns and cities, around the time the Thanksgiving leftovers are finally gone – what more transparent window into our nature than our desire to have our Lord born premature, so that we might “have the season,” have the moment, regardless of the reason?

Bernard of Clairvaux used to encourage the monks in his monasteries to wait upon God in prayer, and when they grew frustrated with the waiting, he would remind them, ““Waiting upon God is not idleness, but work which beats all other work to one unskilled in it.” – Bernard of Clairvaux.

Hope can be born, in the midst of patience; even in the midst of a pandemic.

We always have God’s promise that we will not be forgotten.  It’s the message from Isaiah carried through the centuries.  God does not forsake Israel in the Babylonian Captivity and Exile of the 6th Century BC.  At that time of suffering, at that time of tragedy and frustration, at that time of hopelessness in Israel, Isaiah writes to Israel of a homecoming, a return to blessedness, in Jerusalem; a second Exodus from captivity to freedom.

Isaiah writes, A voice cries:

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;

The uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.”

And Mark is set apart from the other Gospels in that this missive does not begin with tales of a journey, a stable, shepherds, and tyrannical leaders.  This missive begins with a saying quarried from the storehouse of the prophets – from the quarry of Israel’s greats – Isaiah – ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight . . .” 

God is about to move in upon you.

The message being communicated here, “there is no way to Jesus that does not lead through the Torah and the Prophets of Israel.” {David Bartlett, Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1999}

The promise holds through the ages.  God is not absent.  God does not forget.  God will move, God will act, so that his children can find the path that leads back to Him and to their homeland.

Jesus is coming, Jesus is moving, Jesus is fulfilling a long-standing and percolating work given to the Jews and instituted by the God of Sinai.

John the Baptist is out in the Wilderness, dressed like Elijah with the words of Isaiah in his mouth, as the image of the Israel of old; the Word of God is coming near when human beings are separated from their own kingdoms and enterprises that are created to serve themselves.  The invitation is to “go out,” away, from such things so that we might encounter our truest selves; so that we might engage those forces both within and without that would draw us from the love of God.  It is a kind of clearing the mechanism.

Standing there, dressed like Elijah, with the words of Isaiah in his mouth, John the Baptist is like one of those characters at colonial Williamsburg wearing the woolen wig, eating mutton, and standing in the stockinged calves of colonial American.  He is a vision in the present of a shared past.  And his appearance, his diet, his home, his words, were meant to evoke the common allegiance that his hearers would have with that past; they are caught beneath the sway of a collective memory.

And The Baptist is bowing with that collective memory, and bending his knee to the ground, so that with it he might untie the thong of the sandal of the One for whom that collective memory is waiting.

In the presence of John the Baptist, the journey of the Old Testament prophets is ending; there is a new story for Israel, for humanity, and it is a story called Good News.

Advent is a time for self-inventory; a time to look within ourselves, and ask the question, “For what am I waiting?  For whom am I waiting in this life?”

The repentance of Advent is a time for us to make a personal inventory – not unlike the inventory that John the Baptist invites in the countryside outside the precincts of the political and religious machinery of ancient Israel.

Metanoia – a change of thinking, a change of direction, a change in the sense of urgency with which we are living our daily lives.

Most of us have a genius for distraction, because we might think that waiting for God is too difficult, or that waiting for God is a kind of idleness.  We have an opportunity during these days of the premature celebration, wandering through the lightshow and noise of a season that is mostly of our own manufacture, to sit with our questions, to sit with our hurts and our hopes, to sit with the promises of God. 

In the midst of this virus and quarantine we have an opportunity to sit with our questions, and the promises of God that lay on the other side of those questions.

===

A few years ago, Forbes magazine ran an issue on its seventy-fifth anniversary,  “Why We Feel so Bad When We Have It so Good.” It contained articles by some of the media luminaries of our time: Peggy Noonan, writer for Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and Dan Rather; the brilliant novelist John Updike.

The Nobel laureate Saul Bellow, wrote of the disillusionment that comes from our cultural fascination with affluence; the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, warned of the weary discontent haunting America, a nation surprised to discover that “economic and material goods are no compensation for social and moral ills.”

{Kavanagh SJ}

Evidently money and the things that money can buy for us do not bring us closer to meaning and joy in our lives.  For many of us, your Dean included, it is usually that old problem of mistaking feeling good and looking good for being good and doing good.  The message of Isaiah, John the Baptist, and Jesus is that we only stand to benefit and grow wiser in the ways of God if we make the choice to close this gap.  Our salvation lay in turning this corner in our lives.

Perhaps it is time that we move deeply into the promises of God, and seek the meaning and the joy that might discovered there.

Advent is a season in which to offer to God the particular burden that always seems be diminishing our lives with God.  The burden, the anxiety, the fear that draws us away from the path, away from the awareness, the heaven that Jesus is promising; we bring that burden to God.  The burden so obvious to us that we could name it within the space of a moment.

Bring that burden to God in Advent, so that God might exchange it for the gift that comes from heaven.

What gift, wrapped in flesh, might God bring to you this year?  What gift may be waiting for us in the Wilderness with John the Baptist this year?

Because the message from heaven, even in the midst of all of the noise and lightshow of a Christmas season born pre-mature, of a Christmas orgy of sugar, paper, and twinkling lights, is to be patient . . . I am coming for you; I am coming for you, and will give you the wings to fly home.  The message from heaven is the same during time of pestilence and violence – I am coming for you; I am coming for you, and will give you wings to fly home to be with me.

The heavens, the voice of God, declares, I will make the way when there seems to be no way.  I bring the gift that you cannot give to yourself.  These are the days to prepare, and the days for building our mangers.

There is in repentance, with God, this beautiful mystery– that we may fly fastest home on a broken wing.

William L. Sullivan {Unitarian minister and writer 1872-1935}