The Counter-Attraction of Advent

Readings: Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; I Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37

“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. [Mark 13:24-27, NRSV]

I am drawn to Advent like a moth to the flame.

As the endless, tedious Sundays after Pentecost grind to an end I cannot wait to turn purple. But why? Why do I long for gospels of darkened suns and blotted moons? Why pine for prophecies of doom-cum-dawn? Why raise my hand for a helping of judgment?

My family says it’s my Nordic noir, the shadowed world of Ingmar Bergman, August Strindberg, even Henry Mankell. Maybe, but there are legions of non-Scandinavians who love this season’s art of darkness. It’s because we need to know that the whole of our lives, the whole of the world, is good—and not just the best, well-lit bits.

In the first creation story of Genesis, God separates the Light and the Darkness, naming them Day and Night (1:4-5). This is the eternal cycle of light and dark that is the backdrop of all creation. Every day passes into night. Every year is equally split between the two. And every human heart holds both its light and (how could it be otherwise?) its shadow—if we dare to meet it. Unless we can understand the Night, even befriend it, we are missing exactly half the action—and, as it turns out, the most powerful half! For, like Jacob at the river Jabbok, it is what we meet and wrestle in the darkness that holds the power to bless us.

That or something like it, bigger even than I know, is why I am so attracted to the days and nights of Advent. As the earth makes its final December descent, Advent pulls us into the great big shadow, the planet’s and our own. There we meet an apocalyptic Jesus—as in the gospel for today—warning of a time when the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light. I’ve studied those words, preached on those words, and I still have no earthly idea what they mean. Doesn’t matter. Advent bypasses the brain and simply wallops the heart. I know what that kind of black-out feels like, and the eschatological preacher is painting this chiaroscuro canvas, calling me to repentance. You must change your life. Now, while you yet have time.

I don’t believe in some Hieronymus Bosch vision of judgment, but this stabs my heart. I know about regret, remorse, lost time. Whatever I “believe” or don’t, I feel the urgency of this moment, and the hope hidden in all true judgment, the promise that change is still possible and love has not given up on me yet.

When he first came to live with us, an exile from Manhattan at the beginning of the plague, my five year-old grandson was afraid to go down into the basement at night. His room, his parents’ room was down there so it was often necessary, but he wouldn’t go without a hand to hold. If someone had turned on the light at the bottom of the stairs it was all right, and the hall just beyond was well lit. It was just that fearful descent and the well of darkness at the bottom. It gave me such deep joy to take Dashiell’s hand and accompany him on such an important journey. Now that he is no longer afraid I am a little wistful.

Advent is the hand I hold to make that same descent. It is primitive exposure therapy, like the bronze serpent raised on a pole. When I fear darkness, I am to turn into it, flee into the stories of apocalypse and warning and judgment, because, paradoxically, they are the only source of actual hope.

If you take those awesome downward steps, one day you will come to know the sweetness of the light because you are, in Robert Frost’s words, “one acquainted with the night.”

Offered by David R. Anderson, priest, preacher, grandfather bound for Bethlehem. [www.findingyoursoul.com]

Fire and Ice

Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.

From what I’ve tasted of desire,

I hold with those who favor fire.

But if it had to perish twice,

I think I know enough of hate

To say that for destruction ice

Is also great

And would suffice.

[Robert Frost, Fire and Ice, New Enlarged Anthology of Robert Frost’s Poems (Louis Untermeyer, intro and commentary); New York: Washington Square Press, 1971, p. 242]

Heat-of-the-moment or premeditated? A destructive act is world-ending, either way. A cursory glance at the news, with the violence of one against another encouraged or supported by those whose words and ideologies are spewed from a safe distance, remind me that fire and ice are not mutually exclusive in destruction.

In Biblical terms, hardness of heart brings about such things. Raising a hand against another in anger and the cold calculations designed to gain and maintain personal advantage at another’s expense spring from the same place: a heart without compassion.

God, help me this day to live with compassion in my heart. I’m not strong enough or wise enough to do it on my own. Please. Amen.

A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from you body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. Ezekiel 36:26, NRSV

 

Neruda’s Flowers

Ode to some yellow flowers

Rolling its blues against another blue,

the sea, and against the sky

some yellow flowers.

October is on its way.

And although 

the sea may well be important, with its unfolding

myths, its purpose and its risings,

when the gold of a single

yellow plant

explodes

in the sand

your eyes

are bound

to the soil.

They flee the wide sea and its heavings.

                    We are dust and to dust return.

                     In the end we’re

                   neither air, nor fire, nor water,

                   just

dirt.

neither more nor less, just dirt,

and maybe

some yellow flowers.

[Neruda, Odes to common things; New York: Bulfinch Press, 1994, p. 57]

Neither more nor less than dirt – an Ash Wednesday sentiment. It’s true, too, in its own way. We are no more nor are we any less than ashes and dirt. Except we are also God’s beloved. Neruda never states that, at least not explicitly. Still, there are the yellow flowers. Perhaps, just perhaps, they are a glimpse of divine love.

Contemporary Announcement (1983)

Contemporary Announcement 

Ring the big bells,

cook the cow, 

put on your silver locket.

The landlord is knocking on the door

and I’ve got the rent in my pocket.

Douse the lights,

Hold your breath,

take my heart in your hand.

I lost my job two weeks ago

and rent day’s here again.

[Maya Angelou, Contemporary Announcement; Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing?; New York: Random House, 1983]

That wonderful feeling when there’s enough money to cover the basics: food, clothing, shelter. The dread and shame when there’s not enough money to cover the basics: food clothing, shelter. In just two paragraphs and a word short of a full deck’s count, Maya Angelou puts us in that rented apartment.

These words are being lived out by millions today, thirty plus years after Angelou published them. Will we ever learn that poverty is not a moral shortcoming or a character flaw?

Jesus, Saint Francis, and Gandhi all figured that out. I have hope the rest of us can, too.

 

What are you listening to?

Listen To The Mustn’ts

Listen to the MUSTN’TS, child

Listen to the DONT’S

Listen to the SHOULDN’TS

The IMPOSSIBLES, the WON’TS

Listen to the NEVER HAVES

Then listen close to me – 

Anything can happen, child,

ANYTHING can be.

Shel Silverstein, Where the Sidewalk Ends; New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1974

Children aren’t old enough to know what can and cannot happen. Anything is possible because immutable laws, probability, and rigidity of thinking haven’t arrived quite yet.

On one level, Silverstein is wrong. No matter how hard I flap my arms, I won’t achieve lift-off.

On the deepest level, Silverstein is spot on: miracles happen every day, and nothing can be taken for granted. It’s amazing that I forget this, considering I claim these words as gospel truth:

But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. (John 21:25, NRSV)

Upper Case, lower case

VIII

There are four doors which open on the skies.

The first is truth, by which the living word

Goes forth to seek the spirit and be heard;

Lost in the universe, the spirit lies.

Then justice with her veiled and quiet eyes

Stands at the second portal; at the third,

Faith and her sparrow, the immortal bird;

And the last gate is love’s, to paradise.

These are the doors by which the mighty pass.

Yet in the wall there is one wicket more,

With rusty hinges and a splintered floor,

A shattered sill half hidden in the grass.

Small is the gateway as the Scriptures tell;

Its name is pity, and God loves it well.

Truth, Justice, Faith, and Love: often, their importance is conveyed by capitalizing their first letters. Yet Nathan keeps them lower case – except for Faith, and that only because it is the first word of the line.

Pity is something different. Just about anyone can show pity, although we might call it by its fancier name: compassion.

I wonder. With the four big ones in lower case, just like pity, perhaps Nathan is trying to tell me something about who God is, and how I expect to be drawn into God’s holiness. Jesus, God-With-Us, embodies all of them. Maybe Nathan’s point is that while I won’t discount the value of Truth, Justice, Faith, and Love, I just might overlook pity.  That would be a shame, because Jesus certainly did not.

Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. (Mt. 9:35-36)

Then Jesus mad a circuit of all the towns and villages. He taught in their meeting places, reported kingdom news, and healed their diseased bodies, healed their bruised and hurt lives. When he looked out over the crowds, his heart broke. So confused and aimless they were, like sheep with no shepherd. (Mt. 9:35-36, The Message)

Lord Have Mercy, Christ Have Mercy. Lord Have Mercy.

[Robert Nathan, A Winter Tide, VIII; New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1940, p. 10]

A Disturbed Perspective

[I’ll move on to humor, the third pillar, in a few days. Today calls for perspective and humility. With heavily armed people patrolling the streets, peaceful protesters willing to risk gathering in large groups in this time of Covid-19, and opportunists taking advantage of it all to rob and destroy, it’s time for a wider, Biblical perspective. ]

But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” John 11:49-53, NRSV

Taking a wider view, a longer look, can be a very good thing. It helps us put the troubles of today into a larger context, and it can move us from knee-jerk reacting to measured response. But that’s only if we are willing to see our own shortcomings in the process. Otherwise, taking a wider view is really just seeking wider justification for whatever it is we want to do.

Caiaphas is a good example. He spoke the truth: The love Jesus gave to the world, and the death he received in return, had powerful, holy consequences. But Caiaphas wasn’t really looking at that: he was a practical man, doing his best to maintain some freedom of worship during Roman occupation. Killing Jesus would keep the peace, and keep his world in its current state. The point wasn’t spiritual growth or sacrificial love for the world. He was willing to kill to maintain what he had.

I’m not comparing anyone today to Jesus. But in the willingness of this country to deny or try to explain away the toxic and deadly presence of racism in order to keep things as they are, I see the face of Caiaphas. The question isn’t whether the death of someone can bring about a better world – or it shouldn’t be. The question is whether it’s at someone else’s expense, or my own willing sacrifice. The means do not justify the ends.

There are so many words on this in our holy scriptures, and so many people who have done their best to point out this truth. They even have a special name: prophets. May we listen to them with open hearts and minds – and be willing to speak and act accordingly.

Disturbed, The Sound of Silence, Immortalized, 2015, Reprise Records (original version, Simon and Garfunkel)

Breathing Room

I Can’t Breathe.

These aren’t words spoken in jest, they are a cry for help. They were the last words of George Floyd, but weren’t lost when his life was taken. I CAN’T BREATHE speaks to more than loss of oxygen: it is just as true when someone’s intrinsic worth is denied because of the shade of their skin, their gender, sexuality, abilities, or any number of other reasons. I can’t breathe too often is a communal truth,  still true a hundred plus years beyond emancipation, sixty some-odd years after Civil Rights legislation. Potential is smothered, talents choked, and the whole world is the lesser for it. This isn’t a problem for a specific group of people, it’s an infection that destroys the humanity of those who are held down and the ones hate-filled enough to do the holding.

There’s nothing in these words that is new, but perhaps there’s something new in the air we all breathe. It cost a man his life, it cost the world his gifts and his love. But just maybe such a loss opened up the space for real change. I hope so. After all, the Spirit is the Breath of God. When we asphyxiate those we consider outsiders, we close our lungs and souls to the Spirit.

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” John 20:21-22, NRSV

Kyrie, Mr Mister; RCA; December 21, 1985; Richard Page, Steve George, John Lang (writers)

How I Pray

in the name of the strong Deliverer, our only Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, Amen.

One of my favorite quotes about hope is from Jim Wallis, founder and editor of Sojourners magazine, who defined it as …believing in spite of the evidence and then watching the evidence change. This prayer of Brooks’, while full of requests, is full of hope. How I pray may be more important than the words. If I pray with little expectation, that will be granted; with little hope, I probably won’t be disappointed in the results. If I pray, hopeful of its coming into the reality of my life, I won’t be disappointed, either. Let me pray it and watch the evidence change, believing what the strong Deliverer said several times in several ways in the Gospels – ask for it in my name and it will be given.

Offered by Bill Albritton, teacher, writer, speaker, and seeker.

Some New Vision

Monotony. It’s waking up at the same time every day to do the same tasks in the same places in the company of the same people. Same old, same old; familiarity breeds contempt; blah, blah, blah. Even the Bible gives a nod to this truth – there is no new thing under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9b)

All of those things are true, but true in a very specific way. It isn’t the world that offers nothing new: it’s my perspective. If I look upon the world with jaundiced eye and paltry imagination, wonders and signs will be invisible. Phillips Brooks knew this. He didn’t ask God to produce new wonders: he asked God for corrective lenses for his myopia.

May I be as wise in my prayer requests.

O God: Give me strength to live another day; Let me not turn coward before its difficulties or prove recreant to its duties; Let me not lose faith in other people; Keep me sweet and sound of heart, in spite of ingratitude, treachery, or meanness; Preserve me from minding little stings or giving them; Help me keep my heart clean, and to live so honestly and fearlessly that no outward failure can dishearten me or take away the joy of conscious integrity; Open wide the eyes of my soul that I may see good in all things; Grant me this day some new vision of thy truth; Inspire me with the spirit of joy and gladness; and make me the cup of strength to suffering souls; in the name of the strong Deliverer, our only Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

For Today, found on the back inside cover of Forward Day by Day (Forward Movement, Cincinnati, OH; www.forwardmovement.org)