“We build on foundations we did not lay.
We warm ourselves at fires we did not light.
We sit in the shade of trees we did not plant.
We drink from wells we did not dig.
We profit from persons we did not know.
We are ever bound in community."

Rev. Peter Raible (paraphrased from Deuteronomy 6:10-12)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Trusting the Gift: Some Advent Reflections

(NOTE: This is a longish post...a modified version of the message I delivered on Dec 4, 2011. You can listen to the whole message here, if you'd prefer.)
The Suspicions of Joseph - by Rainer Maria Rilke
And the Angel spoke, not without carefully hearing
This man who stood there with his fists tightened.
“But isn’t it clear from the very fold of her dress
That she is as cool as the morning mist?” 
The man however looked at him with suspicion
And said, “I want to know how this happened.”
The Angel spoke louder:  “You woodworker,
Don’t you see any mark of God at all in this? 
“Just because you know how to make planks
Out of tree trunks, are you unable to imagine
One who can bring forth leaves
And pregnant buds out of the same wood?” 
He got it. And the instant he lifted
His deeply shocked eyes to the Angel,
The Angel was gone.  He took hold of his cap
And pulled it off slowly.  And what he sang was a hymn.
What happened to Joseph? What could Joseph have been thinking and feeling after this exchange with the angel? Whatever it was, his only response was to sing a hymn of praise.

Please don’t tune out just because I’m talking about angels! Don’t tune out, because this story doesn’t pass the logic test. Don’t tune out, because I promise there is a deeper truth here, one we all need to hear.

We’re in the middle of Advent.  As you know, Advent, in the Western Christian Tradition, is the four weeks before Christmas. It a time of anticipation, waiting, slowing down, getting clear about what really matters --- as people prepare their hearts for the birth of Jesus into the world, the promise of a hope coming back into a dark world.
“This Advent season,” as John Buchanan recently wrote in the Christian Century, “plays out against the backdrop of a materialist culture at its gaudiest, most materialistic, most vulgar…Advent responds by reminding us that a child will be born in the midst of a world and a time very much like our own, that the reconciliation and redemption his birth promises is not separate from the world, and that he will call us to follow him (or her) and be his (or her) people in this same sad, greedy, vulgar and beautiful world. His (her) birth, which dark Advent anticipates, will be a light in the darkness that darkness will not overcome.”

During this time, many turn to Mary and Joseph, as they wait with them for the arrival of their baby. Thus, the “The Suspicions of Joseph.”

This poem invites us to imagine what Joseph was going through when he got the news.  We’re invited to really land in that place of suspicion, doubt, and uncertainty.  And if you’ve long ago dismissed this story as “not real,” I invite you to look again, below the surface.

In the poem, it’s clear that Joseph has ran straight into a wall of unknowing. All of his worldly knowledge can’t explain what’s happening.  What he knows is that his wife is pregnant and he is pretty darn sure he’s not the father.  And he’s a little steamed, with a lot of questions.

And the angel carefully listens to this man who stands there with his fists tightened, asking, “I want to know how this happened,”  And this angel says to him:

“Just because you know how to make planks
Out of tree trunks, are you unable to imagine
One who can bring forth leaves
And pregnant buds out of the same wood?”

And Joseph gets it. Something beyond words happens to him. A mystery. His deeply shocked eyes look for the angel, but the angel is gone. And he begins to sing a hymn. 

So I think of Joseph and I wonder if maybe, somehow, in that moment with the Angel, Joseph gave up his illusion of control over life’s events. I wonder if in that moment, he was filled with holy wonder and fear, and understood on some deep level that the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Life, was with him and with Mary…was at work in the world…even if he couldn’t understand all the details?

I wonder.

And Mary, dear Mary. She’s not in this poem, but we know from the Biblical text, as author Kathleen Norris writes, that “Mary proceeds – as we all must do in life – making her commitment without knowing much about what it will entail or where it will lead.”  

Both Mary and Joseph “get it,” they trust that something greater than themselves moves with them, and they say yes, without knowing where it will lead.

And really, isn’t this what any committed partnership or marriage is like? We say, “I do, I promise, I will…,” but what do those promises really entail, and where will they lead? We do it; we trust that something beyond our knowing can emerge from such a partnership.

And isn’t this also what having children is like? Or seeking to adopt? We move forward in some sort of faith. We set off down a path, we make a commitment, say “yes,” not knowing where it will lead us. Perhaps there’s joy and wonder at the arrival of a new life, or heart break that things didn’t work out the way we thought they would. And yet, would we undo the original yes?

And isn’t this what moving a loved one into hospice care is all about, too? You face the reality of what is, not knowing exactly what it entails, but trusting that you can walk that path.

And then there’s the death of a loved one, and the questions. How will I move forward? How can I go on? And yet, we do, carried by something we can barely name.

In every case - marriage, birth, children, death - the illusion of control, of sure knowing, dissolves; our knowledge fails us…and we are swept up in awe and terror and wonder. And perhaps, out of that place, we sing like Joseph did.

Let me come at this from another direction. If you’ve ever been to one of First Universalist’s Solstice services, you know that the central part of the service is when all the lights in the Sanctuary go out, and we sit in the darkness together. For me, something happens in that darkness, as we sit together, something beyond knowledge, words, rational mind. As the drum in that service sounds out a human heart beat, I feel myself cast into a timeless space, a womb of darkness, a space of awe, terror, wonder.

My name loses its meaning, all the ways I maintain the illusion of control in my life, they collapse. And the darkness comes bearing gifts that cannot be explained. Emmanuel. God is with us. The Source of Life is with us. The Heartbeat of Life is with us, in the darkness – as we face the eternal mystery.

I think of these lines from a Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem:

“I had a vision of infinity I never told you about.
I was ten, on our trip to the farm – a sow was in labor.
You were all keeping vigil in the barn.
By myself I walked back to the house.
A television was on, no one watching it, just on.
  I sat on the couch. For a moment between programs
The screen swirled an outer-space landscape,
Stars and galaxies, dazzling miracles of light.
Suddenly something dropped –
It was the first moment I knew I would die.
I would not always be healthy, brown, breathing easy inside my skin.
And then I fell farther, I lost my name, the month,
I traveled deeper than I had ever gone,
Back behind the point where I began,
Before I became someone knowing herself as someone.
I became that endless black beyond the stars,
Knowing nothing, not knowing what it had not known,
And realized it was where I was going,
Just as it was where I had been.
 For seconds, Mother, or maybe minutes,
I was no longer your child or anything human.
And then the screen changed and Walt Disney took over and I switched it off and wandered out into the dark.”

We have such moments in our lives, moments that no textbook or curriculum can prepare us for, moments when it becomes clear that all we thought we knew is simply inadequate to explain the mystery at the heart of things.  These moments, terrifying, heart stopping, amazing as they may be, are like a gift, but not a gift we thought to ask for. Instead of suspicion, clenched fists, and anger, may we embrace the gift. May we trust that God/Love/Life is with us in those moments, in the darkness, in the mystery, and if we speak, may we speak only awe, singing, “Hallelujah.”

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