Cross-posted from Rougher Places …
The life of the spirit is like an old pair of blue jeans, I’m finding. What used to fit perfectly may not fit so well now. Even when the numbers on the scale read the same, things do tend to move around over time. Same with the words we are offered through the lectionary cycle for weekly worship or daily prayer: they may be the same ones I read a year or three ago, but I am not the same, and so their meaning is not, either. I celebrate some of the changes, grieve others.
I want to celebrate this Advent season; and yet I grieve the absence of the community I dream of. Maybe I am holding on too tight to the community of my desiring; maybe that tight grip is preventing me from receiving a community of possibility. While I await the sorting of that question, I don’t want to miss Advent … these weeks leading up to Christmas are my favorite season in the liturgical year.
Historically, Advent was a lot like Lent, a time of penitence and fasting in recognition of Jesus’ own suffering; it was a way to hold together God’s choice of human incarnation as well as God’s choice to enter fully into humanity’s suffering through that incarnation, leading to the life lived and the death and resurrection.
Over time, Advent has come to be more about anticipation: a time to re-enter mindfully into what it meant (and means) for Jesus to be born, and a time to anticipate Christ’s eventual return. And during that time of anticipation, there is accountability: we are to live into God’s hopes for what will produce abundance of life for all, that love that cares for the neighbor as self, as a sign of love for God.
So, there is a holding together, in the tension of these between times, the in-between of having begun and being not-yet fulfilled. This is life seen as a journey, whose ending is promised and yet unseen, and whose road is not often easy and not always clear. We are walking in expectation — ours and God’s — and grace — from God and for each other.
Advent offers a route-map for that road, the signs of which vary by tradition. At the very least, the four Sundays of Advent give us four principles to hold onto: hope, peace, joy and love. Even when we don’t know where the road is leading … even when we are not sure of the route … seeking ways to live into hope, peace, joy and love along the way will increase the likelihood of both meaning and companionship on the journey.
I think this is why Advent resonates so for me, because my life has seemed for years to be an experience of liminality, of in-betweenness, of readiness and waiting. If my only joy came from completion and outward signs of success, I’d be in trouble. But I have hope — oh, I have huge hopes. I sometimes am open to the receipt of peace. I have experienced and will experience again shout-sized joy. And love … yes, I’m blessed beyond measure to love and be loved.
Maybe one of my challenges is to remember and be encouraged by what the Advent texts remind me of, even as I try to find new ways to fit into the jeans of my faith. This is a particularly poignant challenge with the Isaiah reading for this first Sunday of Advent.
Isaiah the prophet speaks of the days when “many peoples shall come” to the presence of God … in that day, God Godself will arbitrate for the peoples, and “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
This was the text a small group of people in Dallas, Texas, organized itself around and by which it named itself: The Church of Many Peoples was a multicultural community seeking to live into an anti-racist identity as a core element of its witness. I was profoundly shaped by that dream and that community, honored to be one of its founding co-pastors, and deeply instructed both by the formation and dissolution of that community. I will never again be able to read that Isaiah text without thinking of the the Church of Many Peoples; but those jeans don’t fit anymore.
If I am to be faithful to the miracle of waking up this morning, I have to let this text speak to me again, here and now.
Two things come to me, with this text in my hands.
One is that the holy mountain of God’s presence is ever before me: another path to and up that mountain will become plain, if I keep looking.
Second is the notion of turning spears into pruning hooks. A spear is, of course, a weapon. It is thrown from a distance, intended to wound if not kill. I have never intended to act in a way that wounds, and yet I know I have, often in the most unintentional of ways: with my passions themselves.
I heard an interview Krista Tippett did with Shane Claiborne some months ago in which he quoted Dietrich Bonhoeffer, words to this effect: “The person who’s in love with their vision of community will destroy community. But the person who loves the people around them will create community everywhere they go.”
I have been deeply in love with particular ideas of Christian community; and yet it has not formed. Perhaps my very love for this idea has kept me from loving the people around me. Well, to be truthful, there’s no “perhaps” about it. I confess, this has happened. My struggle now — and how hard can it be? — is simply to love the people around me.
To do that, I will need to let God turn my spears — my visions and passions — into pruning hooks: tools for changing the shape of how my gifts turn into fruitfulness for others. This relates to Psalm 122, another text for this day: what will we do instead of warring with each other? We will give thanks to the name of God. Among our prayers will be these words: “For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say ‘Peace be within you.'”
I have to grin when I read this line, and pay attention to the words. “For the sake of the people I love, I will say ‘peace be within you.'” In other words, if you’d be at peace, the rest of us could be, too. How true that is, on so many levels. At the micro level, my first task is to be at peace within myself (as Thich Nhat Hanh says in so many beautiful ways) so that I can be at peace with you; at the macro level, if we as a nation want peace, we have to choose peace ourselves, and not think we can fight our way to peace. (Period.)
These texts paint visions that arose out of anticipation, passionate hope, and sureness about one thing: Change will come, and in fact, is coming.
That leads to the accountability piece. With changes coming in the world, changes are expected in us. As Paul put it, speaking of the times as he understood them: “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.”
He believed as Jesus believed, that a transformation of the world was imminent. In Matthew, Jesus says, “As the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man … Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”
We don’t have to have a millenialist’s doomsday mindset to hear and benefit from these words. I gave up those jeans a long time ago, the ones that used threat and fear to keep me in church and quiet.
But even without that mindset, most of us know the one constant in the world is change, and that in most cases the nature of that change is not what we expect, in terms of occurence or outcome. That uncertainty often makes us anxious … when it could teach us to dance.
The spirit of these words reminds me of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” … here is one of my favorite renditions, by Eva Cassidy.
Advent. I’m thankful for this season, and want to be awake to it, to see the nature of Love reborn in me, and in the world around me. Even when we feel stuck between preparation and opportunity, beginning and fulfillment, even when we can’t see what’s coming, if we listen carefully we can feel the hum of love’s engine, at work bringing a new world to us, and carrying us deeper into the world we are called to love, create, and re-create.
Keep me awake, Beloved, able to see and able to love. Don’t let me miss the train because it doesn’t look or sound like I thought it would.