Advent Vigil

232_Barrick_Advent_Purple_72_dpiFor Jack, Annie, Tom, and Grace

This is not the Advent I anticipated,
The one with three purple candles and one pink
The one with meditating on the birth of the Christ child
and pondering the meaning of the Incarnation
It isn’t that Advent

It is an Advent
with picturing my mother holding Baby Jesus
the way she holds any baby she can
And delighting in Him
And having a moment of joy

It is an Advent with a flurry of bushtits landing in the small tree in the courtyard
Angels in disguise
Chirping some song I assume to be good news though I cannot understand it
But they seem to happy in their trilling, and good news is in short supply
They’re gone when the hummingbird finds the Mexican Sage,
the one thing around here observing the purple of the season

It is an Advent with stars leading the way to places unknown
To people who have Gone On
With wondering if he’ll join the meteor shower and fly through the night sky
Or catch the tail of the too-close comet
And leave us

It is a season of waiting
For a death and not a birth –
But not an Eliot death.*
No one is clutching the old dispensation here
No one is really clutching anything

We are, rather, letting go of someone we have loved
Of someone who has loved us in return

It is a holy season
But not the one I expected

mexican sage

* T. S. Eliot, Journey of the Magi, excerpted:

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down

This:
Were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

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About that hope thing

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.
Those who dwelled in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined.
For a child has been born for us, a son given to us,
Authority rests upon his shoulders, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Almighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

I was looking at these words earlier this week in preparing for one of the Christmas Eve services, and it stuck with me, the way Handel’s music does, the way a reading you’ve heard for forty-something years does.  I read it after a colleague commented in staff meeting that there seems to be an epidemic of hopelessness right now.  And then Isaiah’s words offered something I couldn’t name.

Today I heard an amazing person who works for the county in the Department of Human Services thank a bunch of us religious people because we offer hope.  She said that without hope, there can never be change.  And I realized that in the many trees of grief and pain and shock and despair, I had forgotten to take a step back and see the whole forest, whose canopy looks a bit like hope.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a story Jim Collins tells in Good to Great, a story about Admiral Stockdale, who was a prisoner of war in Viet Nam for three years and survived.  Collins does better service to the story than this blog, but I wanted to share Stockdale’s words:  “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

Hope.  Hope that brutality will not last forever.  Hope that grief will feel more like a dull ache than an icy, rough piercing.  Hope that things will get better, whatever those things might be.  And for me, as a Christian who really does believe all this Jesus stuff, and the miracles, and the promises, hope that God has not abandoned us to our worst selves, that God is moving in the midst of all that seems turbulent and immoral and wrong.

I also have hope in the resurrection but it’s sort of the wrong season for that.

So I’ll be seasonally correct.  I think Christmas is, more than anything else, about hope.  It’s the hope that God is still at work.  It’s the hope that the life of a baby will change the world.  It’s the hope that God makes promises and fulfills them and we are better for that.

So what do I hope for?  That we’ll figure out a way to prevent cancer and treat it more effectively.  That we’ll learn how to be there for each other, and that we’ll get better at all the mental illness stuff.  That we will never forget those who live in poverty, and that we will work tirelessly to make the deep changes necessary for poverty to be alleviated.  That humane and thoughtful people will make the rules, with a real sense of liberty and justice for all.

Where I live in the Pacific Northwest, it’s weird to talk about God and say you believe in Jesus.  The assumption is that you don’t go to church.  But I have this hope, at least for those of us who are hanging in there with church (or temple or mosque) that God will poke us this season, and remind us of the Great Love that is not letting this world go to hell in a handbasket.

Hope makes things bearable and beautiful.

I hope….

winter-solstice

 

 

Putting the “vent” back in “Advent”

Advent is upon us, and I’m just not feeling it this year.  Granted, it is only the second day of Advent, it’s only December 1, but I’m not sure I can muster up all the mystery and purple and candles again this year.

Yesterday I heard myself say in my sermon something about making our hearts ready to receive the Christ Child this season.  I said it yesterday as I have said it every Advent for the last twenty-one years.  And tonight while I was doing the dishes I realized that I haven’t the foggiest idea what I mean by that.

Every liturgical season has its church-speak.  Some of my favorites: Transfiguration, when He was “changed from glory into glory.”  Easter as we leave the cross and face the beauty of the empty tomb.  Pentecost, when God set our hearts on fire.  Lent, as we make our way to Calvary/Golgotha/the cross.  And Advent, when we prepare our hearts to receive the Little Lord Jesus.

LittleLordSuit“Little Lord Jesus” makes me think of Little Lord Fauntleroy which I’m pretty sure is not an incarnation of anything divine; Jesus in satin knickers, a ruffly pirate blouse, and pilgrim shoes with buckles.  I do not want to make my heart ready for that.

NowI can be as awestruck as the next person by a baby.  I love to think deeply about the theology of the incarnation, the foolishness of God who chose to take on human flesh.  But making my heart ready for baby Jesus?  Or really, making my heart ready for anything?  What the hell does that mean?  It probably means I shouldn’t use the word “hell.”

Does it mean I’m supposed to be nicer to people this season?  Does it mean I’m supposed to be very generous?  Does it mean I should confess all my sins?  (As if there were time for that in this busy season.)  Does it mean I rid myself of impure thoughts?  Does it mean I wake at 4 every morning to meditate on Christ?  Does it mean I look for ways to tell people about the Good News?

The problem is that my heart is unreachable.  It’s not that I don’t feel; it’s not that I don’t respond emotionally to the sorrows of the world.  It’s not some things don’t hit me in the gut because they do.  It’s that the heart as a metaphor isn’t working for me right now.  Maybe it’s cardiac overload.  Maybe it was the cheesy Christmas carols I heard while in the dentist chair today having my teeth cleaned.

I know how to get my house ready for Christmas: move the desk, put up the tree and lights, figure out where to put the Christmas and holiday cards that come in.  I know how to get the church ready for Advent: know who is leading worship when and figure out the logistics of the candles lighting and blanket brigade.  Write the candle liturgy.  Thank the volunteers.  Pick the right balance of Advent and Christmas hymns.  Be sensitive to those who are having a hard time because it’s Christmas.  Wear purple on Sunday, red for parties.

But I don’t know how to get my heart ready for Jesus.  So I’m not going to worry about it anymore.

olyhInstead, this year, I think I’ll make my hands ready for Incarnation.  They will be ready to type words that are as true as I can make them, about God and this weird life we’re called to.  They will be ready to hold the hand of the woman whose Christmas is her first as a widow.  They will be ready to wrap presents for the family whose name we pick in our giving program. They will be ready to chop and dice and stir the soup I’ll make for the volunteer thank-you lunch.  They will take up the green pen to address the Christmas cards, and they will wrap about my sweet girl on Christmas morning when she gets up early, excited because it’s Christmas, excited because it’s a day we have together as a family and no one has to be at work.

You get your hearts ready, and I’ll get my hands ready, and if we don’t, Jesus will come anyway.

Whatever that means….

 

Haunted

Door-AjarToday, after lunch after worship, I went to one of our senior living communities to preside over our monthly communion there.  I love doing that – extending the morning’s table to a group of our saints who can’t make it to the church in the morning.  For some, it’s too hard to physically get into the van that brings them to church, and then too hard to climb even a few stairs.  For others, one hour-ish is just too long to sit in a less than comfortable pew with restrooms too far away.

So we take church to them, gladly.  Two retired clergy who live in this place, and who worship with us regularly, organize the whole thing and I appreciate that.  These two guys could easily play Statler and Waldorf – the old Muppets commentating in the balcony. They love to make cranky observations about church, but I’ve learned as I watch them minister to the saints at communion that you only have to dust off that fine powder of curmudgeon to discover some sweet and compassionate men.

When I arrived at our communion place, which is also where people gather to watch movies and assemble jigsaw puzzles, one of the deacons told me that a regular wasn’t feeling well enough to join the group; could we take communion to her?  Of course.  As we went to her room, we passed one room where a church member recently died.  Farther down the hall, we passed the room where that woman’s husband died a year or so earlier.  Other people now live in those rooms.

It was odd passing those rooms where I spent a few very intense hours as they lay dying.  It’s odd that other people live there now.  It’s odd that those place which were so holy during those dying days are now rooms for another purpose.  Is the holinesss still there?  Or did it leave with the soul of the departed?

After communion I stopped by the hospital to visit another member who has been unconscious in the intensive care unit for ten days now.  She’s another saint of the church.  At 93, she’s been taking French lesson.  As I entered the ICU, I passed by the room where a member was recovering from a stroke.  She has since passed, but I remember the conversations she and I had in that room, and the prayers shared there with family and friends.

So I’m feeling a bit haunted today; haunted by the memory of people who have died, haunted in spaces they inhabited, haunted not so much by their death but by their absence.  It’s odd to feel haunted on the first day of Advent.  Of all the things this season is about, mourning loss or even just remembering it doesn’t quite fit the bill.  It’s a season of light and dark, of portents and hope, of God breaking into the world.  It’s not about our breaking out of the world, or about emptiness.

But maybe it is.  Maybe Advent is about loss, in a way – the loss of the old way of doing things, the loss of the old understanding of how God does things. And maybe it’s a little okay to be haunted by that.