Saturday, December 8, 2012

Peaceful Steps

The first reading we heard this morning from Luke’s Gospel contains words coming from the mouth of a father, about the birth of his son, who grows up to be John the Baptist. Like Jesus, John is a Biblical character with an interesting birth story.

John’s parents were Elizabeth, a cousin to Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Zechariah, a temple priest in the Jewish religion. The story says that Zechariah and Elizabeth were quite old- at least old enough to be past the child-bearing years.

Like Joseph, Zechariah learned the news of Elizabeth’s pregnancy from an angel. But Zechariah’s reaction seems more realistic that Joseph. While Joseph seems to easily accept the odd news, Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”

The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.”

            Zechariah was struck mute. He did not speak again until the day of John’s bris, or circumcision ceremony. The people gathered for this occasion, which was also a naming ceremony, assumed that the baby would be named after his father, “but his mother spoke up and said, “No! He is to be called John.”

 They said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who has that name.”

Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child. 63 He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, “His name is John.”

At that moment Zechariah is said to have regained his power of speech, and Luke’s Gospel then records a lengthy monologue. It seems like Zechariah the preacher had many months of sermonizing stored up. When the tap was opened, a lot flowed out, all at once. Zechariah praised God, and went on to offer a prophecy, spirit-filled words about the hope, and the promise that he saw in his new-born son. The essence was that this special child John, born to an elderly couple not expected to ever have children, would grow up to be a special man, with holy work to do. He would be a leader and a prophet like Elijah, and be part of God’s ongoing plan for Israel, the chosen people of God. Near the end of Zechariah’s speech, he says this about his son:

“And you, my child, "Prophet of the Highest," will go ahead of the Master to prepare his ways,
Present the offer of salvation to his people, the forgiveness of their sins.
Through the heartfelt mercies of our God, God's Sunrise will break in upon us,
Shining on those in the darkness, those sitting in the shadow of death,
Then showing us the way, one foot at a time, down the path of peace. “

My attention was caught by that last line. “showing us the way, one foot at a time,
down the path of peace.”
That was the inspiration for the spiritual practice I offered for this week of Advent, in the Trinity Branches newsletter. I made the suggestion that you make
an appointment with yourself (and perhaps with a friend) to go for an early morning prayer walk. Think about this line of scripture as you walk. (Although I offered the scripture in a slightly different translation)

“By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet in the way of peace.” (Luke 1:78-79)

            Whichever translation I turn to, I get a sense of God’s peace being something that happens in a kind of simple, plodding way, one step, one person at a time. I also get the sense that peace is something is for each of us to do. It is not a big thing that will be done to us, with the press of a cosmic button, or the explosion of bombs, or the building of walls.  Peace is something grows slowly, and takes the needed time before it is born.

I have a true story for you, that I heard this week. I have changed the names, and some details. Lorenzo and Maria moved into a modest, older neighbourhood 23 years ago. The neighbourhood is changing now, but it used to be the kind of place where you were thought of as the new people until you’d been there at least 10 years, or the next new people moved in after you.

           Lorenzo and Maria mostly kept to themselves, which was good, because most of the time, if they spoke to you, they only had nasty things to say. They were particularly hard on the people in the house to the right of theirs, Norma and Thelma, a retired woman and her aging mother.

Lorenzo and Maria hated the old garage behind Norma and Thelma’s house. They said it was unsafe and falling down. They said it was an eyesore. They said that it was too close to their property line.  They threatened to tear it down. When repairs needed to be done, they refused to allow the workers to step in their yard, to fix the eavestroughing on that side of the garage. They threatened to bring in a surveyor to mark the property line, and document the violation, even though the garage had been there for decades before they moved in.

One day, Norma looked out her back window and saw Lorenzo piling garbage in front of her garage door. When she went out to talk to him about it, he actually took a swing at her, and his punch left a bruise, and a red welt on her shoulder that was there for days.

Through all of this, Norma and her aging mother Thelma did their best to hold their tongues, and be civil. They also prayed for Lorenzo and Maria, convinced that if they could be that irritated and bitter about a garage, there must be other issues in their lives. They tried to rise above the provocations, and not let themselves be bothered by the angry stares they experienced if they ventured out the door at the same time as Lorenzo or Maria.

A few years ago Maria became very sick. Talk in the neighbourhood was that she had cancer. Lorenzo, long ago retired, spent his days at the hospital, and stayed until visiting hours were over.  He brought food each day, because he knew his wife did not like the meals she was served.

People on the street organized themselves to help. When they went shopping, they’d pick up a few groceries for Lorenzo. If it snowed while he was at the hospital, they would have his walk cleared before he came home.

Norma went over one day after Lorenzo got home from the hospital, and brought a covered dish containing a small roast, and potatoes and carrots. She figured with his focus on feeding his wife, Lorenzo might not be feeding himself. Lorenzo refused to accept the meal, but did invite Norma into his front hallway, which was a first. He talked at length about his wife’s condition, and his worries for her. Norma told Lorenzo she understood about caring for a sick loved one, because she was living  it with her mother Thelma.

A few days later Lorenzo came over to Norma’s house, and said, “Let’s put the past behind us.”  From then on, things were different.

How does peace happen? Time, and patience, and grace, and prayer. God at work with us step by step. Compassion seeping through the cracks in our shells, and healing hard hearts, one at a time.

I read some great words this week from Jean Vanier, the Canadian known around the world as the founder of the L’Arche communities. In 1964, through Vanier's friendship with a priest named Father Thomas Philippe, he became aware of the plight of thousands of people institutionalized with developmental disabilities.  Vanier’s response to the situation was to prayerfully take the steps he was able to take. He invited two men who had lived their lives in institutions to come and live with him. Today, L’Arche is an international organization with active communities in 40 countries, and on every continent.

Decades of living in L’Arche communities has shaped and influenced the way that Vanier approaches the big questions, like what is life all about, and how do we help peace be born in our world. Here are two good quotes from Vanier’s book “Community and Growth”:

“ Today as never before, we need communities of welcome; communities that are a sign of peace in a world of war. There is no point in praying for peace in the Middle East, for example, if we are not peace-makers in our own community; if we are not forgiving those in our community who have hurt us or with whom we find it difficult to live.”

           “When we begin to discover and to drop the barriers and fears which prevent us from being ourselves and which prevent the life of the Holy Spirit from flowing through us, we become more simple. Simplicity is no more and no less than being ourselves, knowing that we are loved. It is knowing that we are accepted, with our qualities, our flaws and as we are in the depths of our being. Simplicity is letting the love and the light of God flow and shine through us.”

Amen

 


 

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Wishing and Hoping


We have begun the season of Advent. Advent is the English version of the latin word adventus, which means “coming”. If we know something is coming, we are in some sense waiting for it to arrive.  

Over the millennia, Advent developed as a time of waiting for a new coming of Christ in the world. On one level, it may mean that we are moving towards the celebration of the birth of Jesus. But that is not the original meaning of the season.

Originally, the season of Adventus, was a time to prepare for, and wait upon the second coming of Jesus. That is why some of the scripture readings at this time of year are so dark and scary. They are drawn from the apocalyptic parts of the Bible which discuss a time in the near future, when Christ would return, and it would be the end of human history. That is definitely the tone of the Gospel lesson we just heard:

"There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.  People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory.”

Not very Christmassy! But understandable, especially for us who live in the Northern Hemisphere. The December weeks leading up to the winter solstice are the darkest time of the year. The days are shorter, the nights are longer. It is as if the sun, the source of light and life in our world is withdrawing. What if it did not come back?

There are always stories and predictions about the end of the world. The latest doomsday scare involves the end of the Mayan Calendar. What all the end of the world stories have in common is that they connect very deeply to our human sense of frailty. We don’t like to dwell on it all the time, because we like to feel strong and independent- but we know in our hearts that our very lives depend upon factors and forces that we do not control. We are as vulnerable as a homeless new born babe on a cold dark night.

Speaking of newborns, no one actually knows Jesus’ real birthday. The bible offers no clues. Actually, for the first 3 centuries of Christianity, there was no celebration of Jesus’ birth. The big Christian days were Easter and Epiphany. The Easter story was celebrated every Sunday.  Epiphany was a big holiday, celebrated early in the new year, and marked not the birth of Jesus, but the visit of the Magi, or Wise Men to the infant Jesus. This was considered vitally important, because the Magi were not Jewish. This meant that the message of Jesus was not just for Jews, but for people of all nations.

Some scholars think the date, and the tradition of celebrating Christmas, was introduced as the church made its way into the more northerly climes of Europe. The missionaries encountered pre-Christian religions that had festivals of light in the last month of the year. These festivals in the cold of winter were about praying to the sun, pleading with it to not abandon the world, but to return, and bless us with another year of life. The missionaries failed miserably in their campaign to get the people to stop these so-called pagan festivals of light. An alternative was to baptize the ancient holiday and turn it into a Christian celebration. The scholarly term is syncretism, which is another way of saying, if you can’t beat it, absorb it.

Whether we call it the Winter Solstice, or Advent, the season still carries the sense of waiting for something big. We wait for a sign that God is still with us, and we hope will not be abandoned, and left in the dark.

Hope is our word for today. Each week in Advent we are offered a different theme. If you get the chance, take a look at the Trinity Branches newsletter. I wrote an article for you that suggests a different spiritual exercise for each week’s theme.

All of these words, Hope and Joy and Peace and Love get used so much, and in such a variety of ways, that their meaning and power can get lost, watered down, washed away.

When I listen for how the word hope gets used, I hear at least two basic trends. One goes like this, “I sure hope it’s not busy at the mall today! “ To me this sounds more like wishing for something, than actual hope. It is also probably not the end of the world, if the wish does not come true.

Here is another way I hear the word hope being used. “Life can be hard. But I know that God is  with us. I have hope that whatever happens, it will all somehow be okay.” That sounds like hope born of living through tough times, and coming out the other side. Hope that comes through living through enough dark Decembers to know the days do eventually get longer, the sun never really leaves us, and there will be brighter, warmer times ahead. Amen