Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Someone you do not know

Six years ago this week I put in my first official day on the job at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Carmel.   The rector of 18 years had just left, and the vestry was still trying to line up an interim pastor to lead them through searching for his replacement.   My title was “Assisting Priest,” although it was not exactly clear who I was assisting, since I was the only priest on the staff—everybody, I guess.  We got through Christmas somehow, which was followed by the beginning of a string of big funerals, as all the old pillars of the community had seemingly conspired to die at once.   And when February came, it brought with it the interim pastor, a fine old Texas warhorse of the Episcopal Church named John, who agreed to come out of retirement and drive down from San Jose every Sunday morning, staying until Tuesday afternoon.   
On Mondays John and I would sit down together for an hour or so and compare notes.   He hadn’t been there long, maybe a month, when I came to him with a problem.    Some folks in the parish had been talking, apparently, about the trouble and expense of the search for a new rector:  the formation of a Search Committee, the congregational self-study and creation of a parish profile, the interviews and more interviews.    They observed that they might go through this lengthy, laborious process and still end up with someone that it turned out they really didn’t like.  And they already knew someone they did  like, someone of (relative) youthfulness, with a charming, attractive wife and  an  adorable little girl, someone  who was already there, and available at a bargain  price.    They already had me.   Why not just make me the new rector and be done with it?
I’d caught wind of this, but hadn’t taken it very seriously, until the Senior Warden of the parish came into my office and proposed it as the new plan.    I knew it was a bad idea, so I wasn’t tempted—not much anyway—but I needed to talk to John.  As I’d expected, he thought it was a really bad idea, and walked me through all the reasons why.  I won’t go through the litany, but there was one paramount reason that is relevant to this season of Advent and the scriptures we read this morning, and that is this:
One of the great benefits of the interim period between pastors is precisely the uncertainty, the not-knowing about the future that the people of All Saints’ were trying to avoid.  For eighteen years their sense of themselves as a Christian community had been formed around the personality of their rector.  With him gone, they had to rediscover who they were.   Without anyone to tell them what they wanted, what was important, what was their part in God’s mission in the world, they had to wonder about it for themselves, and not just for a minute, but for a good while.   They had to remember how to wonder, and wait, and hope.
John and I agreed that I had to say no to the Senior Warden’s offer clearly and emphatically, and to explain why.   I suggested that it might be best to follow up on that by communicating something to the parish as a whole.  John agreed, and then said, “It would be best if it came from you.”    So I published an open letter in the next church newsletter thanking the people of All Saints’ for the complement,  but  explaining why I was not going  to be their next  rector,  and encouraging  them to  use the time of waiting that lay before us to good use.
That’s kind of what John the Baptist is doing in the passage we heard from John’s Gospel today.   People keep coming to him asking him who is he is, and he keeps telling them to forget about him—that he is not the point.  His purpose is to get them ready for the one who is coming after him, to set them to the work of wondering, and waiting, and hoping.   Looking for evidence, pressing to draw conclusions, making bets on this person or that person--all these kinds of activities will only confirm them in their opinions, which is to say their ignorance.   Someone is coming, is in fact already among them, but he is someone they do not know. 
We are now in the heart of Advent, the season of the church year dedicated to complaining about what our popular culture has done to Christmas.   I have to admit to being sympathetic to the “what’s wrong with Christmas” party, but not for the reasons that are usually given.    Many people grouse about how it starts too early, with seasonal decorations and musk appearing in the stores and the advertising media on Thanksgiving Day, if not before.  The reason they usually give for why that’s bad is simply that it makes everyone fed up with Christmas before it ever arrives.  And I understand that criticism—I want people to come to church on Christmas Eve and sing “O come, all ye faithful” with joy and triumph, not an   inward groan of “not this again.”
But there’s a bigger price we pay than just “Christmas burnout.”  By jumping immediately into Christmas, we lose Advent.    And I don’t think Advent is something we can afford to lose.   I say that not as a traditionalist, like “The church calendar says there are four weeks of Advent.  It’s a tradition, by God, and it must be preserved.”   And I don’t say it as a moralist, like “people these days are all about instant gratification—can’t they restrain themselves?”  No, I say we need Advent because I care deeply about Christmas.  And if we don’t understand waiting, wondering, watching and hoping, we don’t understand Christmas at all.        
Now at this point my fellow Christmas grumps are going to jump in and start agreeing with me all over the place.  “You’re right!” they’ll say, “the  true meaning of Christmas is forgotten— it’s not about Santa  Claus, and presents under a tree, and vestiges of pagan winter solstice celebrations—Jesus is the reason  for the  season”.   They have a point, of  course, but that’s not quite what  I’m trying to say, and in a way it’s just another form of the problem that Advent is meant to address, which is that we  think we  already know what we’re waiting for.    As if once the big day comes the drama is over.   As if Christmas erases every trace of Advent.  As if the waiting and hoping and wondering were just a game to test our patience, and not an ongoing aspect of the Christian mystery.  As if the coming of the Christ child was the end of the story and not the beginning of it.
“Among you stands one whom you do not know”, says John the Baptist, and those are words we need to remember.  If we think we know who it is that is coming to be among us, we’ve forgotten what it is like to look into the face of a newborn child.  If we think that we don’t have time to wait, or need to wonder, or anything more to hope for, we’ve forgotten how to dream.  The church year is a Mandela in time, a circular image of the whole of reality— the whole is present in each part, and each part is in the whole.  Advent is the place on the circle when take the coming of Christ out of the past and put it in our future.   It is the season when we remember that we are always wondering, always waiting, always hoping.  If we can’t manage that, even for four weeks, can we still say we know what we hope for?   If we think we already know who it is that stands among us, can we be sure that it is Jesus Christ?   I encourage us to find a little time, in what remains to us of this Advent, for waiting on God, for wondering who is coming, for hoping for his justice, liberation, mercy, and grace.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

You can't go home again

This is a time of year when people think about going home.   “Home for the holidays” is a catchphrase that speaks of the universal human longing to return to the place we came from, to go back to the people and places that color our earliest memories, to connect us with the innocence of childhood, when the world was full of wonder and we did not know what we know now.   This longing is the stuff of the nostalgic images that make up the secular myth of Christmas, those Norman Rockwell, Currier & Ives images of the ancestral home, the extended family, the pastoral landscape, the old ways of work and pastime, the traditional foods and crafts and songs, the sights, sounds and smells of a simpler time.
But of course, for many of us, there is no home to go back to—parents have died, property has been sold, the family is scattered to the four directions.   Maybe there never was a home like that to begin with.   When I was twelve or thirteen I left my family in Vermont and went back to visit a friend in my old town in Indiana.  While I was there I walked a mile or so over to my old house, just to look at it.  I remember standing behind one of the trees that lined the driveway, looking up at the place where I had lived with my brothers and parents for five years.  It didn’t  look much different, but I was struck  by the  fact that I  could not go in, that  it  was  now  occupied  by  people I didn’t  know, people to whom I was a stranger.   I thought of the times that we had in that house, some of them happy, many of them painful, but all of them gone beyond recapture, and I burst into tears...
“You Can’t Go Home Again” is the title of a 20th Century novel that is also a catchphrase of our culture.  I read these words as a child in a classic Peanuts comic strip, and they came to me as I stood grieving that day by the driveway.  But as much as “you can’t go home again” is a motto for our times it is not a new idea.   It was central to the experience of the people who wrote what we now call the Old Testament.    Modern critical scholars believe that the Hebrew Scriptures began to be compiled and edited in the form we have them now by Jews who could not go home, who were in exile in Babylon.
This exile was exactly what the prophets of Israel had been warning might happen.   For close to 200 years prophets like Amos, Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah had been calling on the Israelites to come home.   But the returning they spoke about was not a physical homecoming.   The prophets called the people back to their covenant with God.  They called them to leave off idol-worship, to put an end to unjust dealings with their neighbors, to return to the way of holiness laid out for them in their law.
The prophets pleaded and cajoled, but they also threatened.  They threatened the people that if they did not return to God and his covenant they would be torn apart by internal divisions and swallowed up by the more powerful nations around them.   And these warnings came true—first the Assyrian army came and took the northern kingdom of Israel; later the Babylonian empire broke down the walls of Jerusalem and destroyed the temple, and carried the king of Judah and all the leading people of the nation away to Babylon.   For prophets like Jeremiah there was no consolation in being right, for they went with the rest into exile.
But in that foreign land, many years later, came a new prophet and a new word from God:  
“Comfort, O comfort my people,
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid…”
The time of exile is coming to an end.   It is time to come home.   
But it will not be a nostalgic return to an idealized past.  The prophet does not skip over the bitter lessons of loss, of human frailty, of the inevitability of change—“the people are grass,” he says, “The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand forever.”  

And that itself is the great sign of hope, that in the land of exile, amid strange people, without a temple or the material means to carry on their traditions, the God of Israel still speaks.   His word to the ruins of Jerusalem is that it is God who is coming home on that highway through the desert. God will re-tell the story of  a chosen  people’s return to the  land, God who  will send Jerusalem  up a high mountain as a herald  of good  news to shout in  a  loud voice “Here is your  God!”

The Gospel according to Mark begins with an echo of this cry.    We get a picture of John the Baptist that sums up the prophets and their message.  His characteristics of clothing and diet are those of Elijah, the prophet who did not die but ascended into heaven, and was expected to return again at the right time.   John’s symbolic actions re-enact the Exodus  and the Exile, leading the  people  of  Jerusalem  out into  the wilderness, to pass through the waters of  the river Jordan into  the promised  land.  And his word is a word of repentance, of turning back to God.

John’s baptism purifies the people so they can go back home and make a new start, but his message is also about preparing a way for the Lord, a path straight and level.  As the last prophet of Israel, John is not satisfied to send the people home renewed; his whole object is to get them ready for the coming of God.  God’s word of consolation in exile, the word of God that endures forever, is coming to make his home with them. 

 There are some who want to make Christianity a religion of nostalgia, a way to go back to a time of innocence, to a Norman Rockwell America, but I think that is a misplaced hope, and a misreading of the gospel.  There is no going back.  The grass withers, the flower fades, only the word of our God   will stand forever.   As Christians we have no sacred homeland to go back to, no temple in Jerusalem to rebuild.   But because we believe that the word became flesh and dwelt among us,  the  story of that event, the good news about that person,  gives us a way to go, a straight and level road through  the desert to  a destination  deeply familiar and yet at the same  time unimagined and unknown.     

So every year we go back to the beginning and start over, telling again the story of Jesus.  In it we hear the echoes of the prophets of Israel, who pointed the way to his coming, and gave him a path to follow when he came.   Every year we learn that it’s a story that was not finished at his death, but is always relearned and retold in the light of his resurrection.   And  through the spirit  that came  through  him to the  church, the spirit in which we were baptized, it is now our story,   continually  remembered and remade as it  is  retold  in our lives.    For Jesus cannot be our way to  God, unless he is first God’s way to us,  God’s word coming and abiding among  us, and in us, and through us taking  the whole creation  home.   

About Me

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Petaluma, California, United States
I am a priest in the Episcopal Church, and have been (among other things) an organic farmer and gardener, and a Zen monk. I have a lifelong interest in social and spiritual renewal on the basis of contemplative discipline, creative nonviolence, and ecological practice. In recent years my work has focused intensely on the responsibility of pastoral ministry in the humanistic, evangelical, and catholic branch of Christianity known as Anglicanism. I'm married with a daughter, and have three brothers and two parents.