When Advent began, the brilliant colors of autumn had long since faded to dull brown. Everything was gray-tinged … the old leaves … the bare trunks and branches … the dormant grass. The world looked ready to be tucked into bed for the winter-long nap with a blanket of snowy white. A few days into Advent, that blanket arrived in the form of several inches of snow … which improved appearances considerably (even if it made for difficult driving and cancelled the first of the mid-week Advent services). However, the coming of the longed-for snow was followed immediately by a swift plunge into sub-zero temperatures … which did NOT help. It felt as though we had skipped all the way through December and gone straight into January. But with the bitter cold, we do get clear skies and sun (mostly because all the moisture has completely frozen out of the air). The increased sunlight helps because there is so little daylight this time of year.
When there’s scarcely eight hours of any sort of daylight, it’s easy to see why so many ancient winter festivals about light have held such enduring popularity. In the midst of cold and dark, in landscapes that look more dead than dormant, we need some sort of hopeful sign … something to keep us pressing on toward a brighter time. Whether the eventual association of the Christian celebration of Jesus’ birth was an attempt to sanctify unstoppable pagan practices or an effort to subvert the cultural practice for a different religious purpose hardly matters. The symbolism works. In the midst of darkness, dormancy, and death, we long for signs of light and life. Even if we get something of what we’re longing for (like the snow earlier this month), we’re still not fully satisfied for the results. Partial fulfillment leaves us longing for more … just as our Advent season of preparing for the coming of Christ holds both the remembrance of Jesus’ birth so long ago and the longing for the coming of the Reign and Realm of God toward which that birth still points.
Christ has come … and the Reign of God is still yet to be. So we wait with longing, with expectation, and sometimes even with hope. But that hope can be so fragile and tenuous and easily crushed. With the beginning of a new year in the church and the closing of the year on the calendar, some reflection seems in order. What has been? What do we still long for to be?
Last weekend marked the anniversary of the tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown Connecticut. The deaths of those twenty children – just five or six years old – shattered the peace we cling to in the Christmas season. However we may celebrate, in society or in church, Christmas has a child at its center. As we heard the news, how could we not imagine the stockings that would not be emptied on Christmas morning … the presents already purchased, perhaps even wrapped, never to be opened by the children whom those gifts were to delight? How could we not think about the Christmases of our own childhoods, of our own children (or grandchildren or nieces and nephews) and not be stabbed in the heart? Christmas, it’s often said, is for children … and these twenty children were no more.
It was too much – one too many of these sorts of tragedies, too many victims at such a young age. Many of us vowed it would be the last of these events. This time, things would have to change. From the President on down the ladder of public offices, leaders stepped up to make some changes … even if the proposed changes were rather small things, if it could make a difference, it would be worth doing. Something had to be done.
But in the end, for the most part, nothing was done. In a few places, here and there, some laws were changed. But in most places efforts for any sensible changes to gun regulations were quickly shouted down by the well-funded, well-oiled machine that is the NRA. So much hope … so little has come of it … and here we are a year later … still longing for things to be better. A year later, 200 more children and teens have been lost in episodes of gun violence. The most recent victim of a school shooting died yesterday. It’s almost as though we have a Sandy Hook incident a month … except that it takes a lot longer than five minutes when it happens one or two at a time … and most of the time, the children are not picture-perfect white angel babies. (And what does it say to mothers of color, grieving their slain children, that little white children shot to death in an elementary school matter so very much but theirs do not?)
Back at the beginning of the year, I sat among the people gathered for the Martin Luther King Day Breakfast at Progressive Baptist Church in Saint Paul. In an unusual, but highly significant, alignment of events, President Obama would be inaugurated for his second term a few hours after the breakfast. The explosion of excitement in that room at any mention of the inauguration was contagious. What had for so long seemed impossible to many in the crowd gathered that morning – that someone who looked like most of them could be elected President of the United States – had not only happened once, it had happened again. Was anything still impossible?
Later, as Richard Blanco read his poem “One” during the inauguration ceremony, it seemed that we could indeed be one people in one land under one sky sharing at least as many commonalities as we have differences. Blanco’s soaring, sweeping work that ranged over the landscape and homes of the country, the daily routines of individuals and everyone, concludes with the words “…hope – a new constellation waiting for us to map it, waiting for us to name it – together.” Perhaps this time the talk of working together, of putting differences aside to serve the interests of the people would finally be more than just talk. On that day, for a few shining hours, it seemed possible. (Even if you don’t think much of the President or the poet or the whole idea of inaugural poets or poems in general, the whole poem is worth a read.)
But it has proved impossible again. Hope, that new constellation Blanco envisioned, remained unmapped and unnamed as things went on in the same old, same old ways. If anything, the divisiveness and inflexibility were as dominant as ever. Each side continued to vent to its own supporters, vilifying those who might see things differently. Problems drag on and brokenness persists as solutions remain elusive … or perhaps even unsought.
We watch the craziness of the weather – the superstorms and mudslides, the wildfires and the droughts. Backyard weather watchers can tell you things are changing. They see different birds, different plants, and different wildlife. Scientists know things are changing and they know human activity is a part of it. It may be too late to reverse these changes. The best we might be able to hope for is to find ways to mitigate the changes and slow the process of change and the extreme it could reach by changing our behaviors now. But few want to listen. Many deep pockets are heavily invested in keeping things just the way they are. Until there is a financial incentive to make some changes, they see no point in even considering the possibility. The wellbeing of their future customers and employees means nothing compared to the profits to be had today. So creation continues to groan around us.
The world watched as Pope Benedict XVI broke with all precedent and tradition by resigning this spring. Then, as Pope Francis, a heretofore obscure Argentine archbishop named Jorge Mario Bergogilo, charmed the world with his aversion to the trappings of wealth and power, empowering his call for a return to the basics of Christian practice: love and acceptance of all comers, care for the poor. Many of my non-Catholic friends and ministry colleagues were hoping for some serious policy reforms around ordination, homosexuality, even human reproduction. They’re likely to be disappointed. My hopes for Pope Francis are more modest: honestly and fully address the plague of sexual abuse by the clergy and reform the highly insular and apparently corrupt Vatican governance. That might happen … and I hope it does.
What happens in Rome impacts all of us who name the name of Christ, whether we feel any particular connection to the Roman Catholic Church or not. Just as denominational affiliations don’t matter much to people “shopping” for churches to join, those same labels don’t matter to people on the outside of our congregations looking in. One church is no better than another. If one church is unsafe, none are safe. It may not be fair, but that is what’s happening. So it’s going to take a better witness to the gospel from all of us to change that public perception. One thing that has not changed is the aching need in the world to see the love of God lived out, acted out, demonstrated in ways that people can perceive, observe, and understand. The way people have reacted and responded to Pope Francis is proof enough the need is there.
But in my own church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), we struggle as much as the next to venture into the unknowable future. What used to be called “mainline” is anything but anymore. We built for an era that has passed and seems unlikely to return. Sunday school rooms are largely empty … worship attendance continues to drop as youth wander away and elders become homebound … membership continues to decline as people pass away (or are finally dropped from membership rolls when it becomes clear no one knows where these people have gone). The trends are frightening and troubling. Clearly things must change. But more of our attention and energy is directed toward shoring up and preserving what is in the hope that the good times of a past era will return again. We know that past; we don’t know the future … and because the unknown is so very frightening we balk at venturing forth to find the new ways we must.
In my own house, we also chose a new leader this summer – although it was not nearly the news magnet that the election of a Pope can be. However, the choice of Elizabeth Eaton as the first woman to serve as Presiding Bishop in the ELCA did catch some attention from the news media and much rejoicing from my peers. I wish her all the best. But her election scarcely marks the shattering of the “stained glass ceiling,” the opening of a new era in which the ministry of our female clergy is valued equally with that of male clergy. Much as I long for it, that day can wait. The more pressing problem is the need for massive changes in our structures throughout the church. Whatever the future holds for our congregations, it will not be just like the past. Letting go of such dreams is a loss requiring attention to the work of grieving. Turning towards an unknowable future is a work of faith and courage.
Another year is passing, and still I am waiting for a new call to ministry. In the meantime, I hear the cries of the people who call where I work. The lack of affordable housing is staggering … rent assistance is limited … shelters are often full. Many nights I must tell a mother (just like me) that there is no place where she and her children can go for shelter that she has not already tried or that shelter will not be available to her until the next day. There are people asking for food shelves that are open in the evening or on the weekends, places they can go to that will be open at times when they are not working at their jobs. Working people are not bringing home enough to pay for their housing and feed their families. But any talk of raising wages is squashed by doomsday prediction of $10 for a hamburger at McDonalds … never mind how many economists demonstrate that it’s the gaping inequality in wealth that’s keeping the economy stagnant for all of us.
None of this is to say that I’m untouched by the delights of this season. My Christmas tree is up and decorated. Holiday baking is in full swish. I still sing along with the songs of Christmas on the radio and in the stores. I’ve appreciated the beautiful holiday decorations as I’ve shopped in the stores and the malls this season. I light the candles on my Advent wreath and pray with hopeful expectations.
I just hope we’re getting more than a baby this year, because it’s going to take something a lot bigger than a baby to change us, to change the world, to turn things around. When we pray “Stir up your power, O Lord, and come …”, I really hope God does come with power to stir us up and move things around. Something has to change – and change soon. Maybe it’s us … all of us who are striving in this holy season to keep our focus on the birth of our savior. But we’ll need to lift our eyes beyond the baby in the manger to see that what we celebrate then is still what we long for now – God actually breaking into this weary world … to change us … to change things … to move the world a little closer to what God longs for it to be.
Here’s the best prayer I’ve seen this season …by Andrew Foster Connors in Journal for Preachers, Advent 2013:
Dear God, we are in the deep muddy. We have messed up this world in a terrible way. Our lives are not what we hoped they would be. Our relationships are not what we hoped they would be. Our faith is not what we hoped it would be. We are out of hope and we know it. But we’re tired of living in this kind of brokenness. And you are the only one who can mend it. You are the only one who can give us our future.
Amen! Even so, come, Lord Jesus. Stir up your power, O Lord, and come! Come with the power to make all things new. Come to us with the power to make us new. Stir up your power in us and send us to make things new. You were sent into our world; now send us into the world in your name to do the work you have come to do: making all things new.
A virgin mother will bear Emmanuel
Almost here! God is nearing in beauty and grace!
All clear every gateway, in haste, come out in haste!
“All Earth is Hopeful” Alberto Taulé