Wednesday, December 28, 2011

What the Magi Found

Journey of the Magi, Francesco Pesellino, 1446, Italy
This is written as part of a post-Christmas synchroblog: "So Jesus came . . . did you get what you expected?"  Other synchroblogs on this topic are linked at the end of this post. 

During this Advent season, I’ve been thinking about expectation, waiting, what we look toward, what we regret. Along the way, I’ve been reminded of T. S. Eliot’s "The Journey of the Magi", printed in 1927 just weeks after his baptism into the Anglican church at the age of 38. 
"'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The was deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires gong out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty, and charging high prices.
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly."
The Journey of the Magi
James Jacques Joseph Tissot, France, 1894
In the weeks leading up to Christmas, I found myself repeating “A hard time we had of it.” I had committed to a variety of adventures, and all had jolts and detours along the way.

I drove a friend home from her first semester of college, had great conversation along the way, then found myself driving in unfamiliar urban neighborhoods, trapped by one-way streets, wondering how I got there, wondering how I'd get home.

I went to drop off clothes for a friend in a half-way house and found myself driving in circles in an industrial wasteland, then standing toe-to-toe with a hostile security guard convinced I was attempting to defy contradictory instructions.

A morning I had set aside for Christmas baking vanished as I went to the second funeral in a matter of weeks. A trip to pick up a relative turned into a wrestling match with a defective refrigerator. Attempts to answer the call of welcome, hospitality, and sharing of others’ burdens seemed to take strange directions, until, like Eliot and his magi, I found voices singing in my ears, “saying that this was all folly.”

But the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight, and what seems folly can be wise in ways we can’t explain. There were moments I regretted, and days I knew it would have been easier to stay home, but as Eliot's poem reminded me, the journey toward knowing Christ always has a cost.  
"Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory."
Adoration of the Magi,
Edward Burne-Jones, 1887, tapestry, England
Eliot’s poem captures a vision of almost surreal significance, a place of unexpected beauty, of flowing water, and three trees that suggest the three crosses ahead. The vine-leaves call to mind Christ’s insistence that he is the vine, but spread over the lintel, they also call to mind the story of Pentecost: the death of a sacrifice that protected God’s people from the death of their firstborn sons. The silver echoes the exchange of silver at Christ’s betrayal, the wine-skins hint at the new wine Jesus promised. The white horse in the meadow: is that a promise of something still to come, Christ on a white horse? Yet the horse, free as it is, is old. It doesn't line up neatly, but neither did the prophecies. 

The magi, looking back, remembers that sense of seeking ("there was no information"), of arrival ("not a moment too soon"), of certainty – a certainty that can only be hinted at, not explained: “it was (you may say) satisfactory.”

The description of the magi’s arrival brings to mind other passages from Eliot: the moments when time seems to stand still, the sudden bursts of clarity that defy words, yet illuminate all that went before and after.

Eliot’s biographers describe a moment from his own faith journey that seems to echo the magi’s experience. The year before his baptism, Eliot and his wife Vivienne traveled through Rome with her brother and his wife. In St. Peter’s Cathedral, they encountered Michelangelo’s Pieta, and Eliot, to the surprise and embarrassment of his companions, sank to his knees in apparent adoration.

I find myself wondering – what did Eliot see in Michelangelo's work that cut through his skepticism? And what did the magi find when they came to the end of their journey? How did they know they had found the one their ancient prophecies promised? Artists like to put halos around the heads of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. I’m sure there were no halos. Instead, my guess is they found an ordinary-looking child, a simple mother, a non-descript dad, piecing together life like the rest of us, washing dishes, sweeping the floor, wondering what to do next.

Sarcophagus, 3rd century, Rome
That’s how my Christmas came and went: lots of cooking, cleaning, quick conversations, wondering how the floor could be covered in crumbs when I just put the broom away. And in the middle of the mundane, the luminous moments: lovely little girls dancing to “Mary Did You Know?” Our delightful smallest family member, belting out “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Thoughtful cards to every family member, with a first-grader’s carefully printed “I love you.” Unexpected laughter. Inexplicable tears. 

The refrain, behind, around every interaction: "This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life.” “The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.”
"All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death."
Literary analysts have had a field day with Eliot’s poem, the unexpected regret, the description of difficulty, and wonder if the poem suggests ambivalence on Eliot’s part regarding his conversion and baptism. What’s all this about birth and death? About being ill at ease? About looking toward another death?

Did the magi find what he expected? Did Eliot?

Did we?

I find the magi's sense of displacement strangely familiar. Those who think Christianity is simplistic or straightforward have somehow missed the journey. It starts in simple expectation, travels through doubt and difficulty to death, then leaves us strangers where once we felt at home. We set aside one set of gods, only to see ourselves clutching others. Free of one kingdom, we camp out in another, not yet to the place we were hoping to find, not yet the people we were hoping to be.

The deeper my faith goes, the greater the questions. Why did God allow the slaughter of the innocents, triggered by the magis’ search? Were those infant deaths part of the plan, “Rachel crying for her children, because they were no more?” How could the prince of peace also bring a sword?
The Magi, He Qi, 2001, Nanjing

And the longer the journey, the more need I see for death of the kind the magi discovered: death to the old gods, the old self, the old dispensation. Death to wanting it my way. Craving my own peace, that has nothing to do with love.

But that death is a birth. 

If you need it wrapped neatly with a bow, forget poetry. Forget mystery. I'm tempted to say - and will - forget faith.

As the old year dies, as the new year emerges, I wait to see what God has in store. I wait to see what will need to die next, what expectations will be set aside.

“The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.” “In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Blog posts by others asking "Jesus came: did you get what you expected":

     Glenn Hager – Underwear For Christmas
     Jeremy Myers – The Unexpected Gift From Jesus
     Tammy Carter  - Unstuck
     Christine Sine – The Wait Is Over – What Did I Get?
     Maria Kettleson Anderson – Following The Baby We Just Celebrated 

Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Christmas Miracle

Christmas, Helen Siegl 1990, Philadelphia 
We who must die demand a miracle.
How could the Eternal do a temporal act,
The Infinite become a finite fact?
Nothing can save us that is possible:
We who must die demand a miracle.
       (from “For The Time Being” 
                 W. H. Auden)

In last week’s post, I asked: “in a world suffused with miracle and mystery, what do we make of the incarnation, the assertion that God came to earth in the form of a baby?”   There are plenty of people who accept the ample evidence the Jesus was a real person, a man of surprising insight and influence, but stop short of the idea that he was more than that: the son of God, born of a virgin, “God with us,” as the prophets predicted hundreds of years earlier.

Really, no matter how many times we hear the story, no matter how committed we are to the truth of the gospel reports, who could ever claim to understand the idea of God becoming human? The idea of life itself, breath filling us, then suddenly gone, is a mystery no one can fully understand. God in that breath? The power of God in helpless human form?

C. S. Lewis called the incarnation “the grand miracle”: 
“One is very often asked at present whether we could not have a Christianity stripped, or, as people who ask it say, ‘freed’ from its miraculous elements, a Christianity with the miraculous elements suppressed. Now, it seems to me that precisely the one religion in the world, or at least the only one I know, with which you could not do that is Christianity . .  the Christian story is precisely the story of one grand miracle, the Christian assertion being that what is beyond all space and time, which is uncreated, eternal, came into Nature, into human nature, descended into His own universe, and rose again, bringing Nature up with Him. It is precisely one great miracle. If you take that away there is nothing specifically Christian left. . . . 
The Nativity, Jean Charlot, 1943 Mexico
“Just as every natural event exhibits the total character of the natural universe at a particular point and space of time, so every miracle exhibits the character of the Incarnation. Now, if one asks whether that central grand miracle in Christianity is itself probable or improbable, of course, quite clearly you cannot be applying Hume's kind of probability. You cannot mean a probability based on statistics according to which the more often a thing has happened, the more likely it is to happen again . . . Certainly the Incarnation cannot be probable in that sense. It is of its very nature to have happened only once. But then it is of the very nature of the history of this world to have happened only once; and if the Incarnation happened at all, it is the central chapter of that history. It is improbable in the same way in which the whole of nature is improbable, because it is only there once, and will happen only once." 
The mystery of the incarnation, to me, is not so much that of the virgin birth, the dozens of prophecies fulfilled, the angel announcements to Mary, Joseph, shepherds. I know there are many who insist that what we see is what we get. Nature, science, provable fact, that’s all there is, and all there’s going to be.

For me, there’s too much that explanation can’t explain. Science is great, but only goes so far. Reason is a good thing, but I’ve seen how far short reason often lands. Explain the color of a sunset as much as you want – why does the beauty of those colors speak so deeply to our hearts? Show me the math that explains musical theory: why do certain sounds make me homesick for someplace I’ve never been?

Of all the mysteries I wonder over, here’s the big one, as Lewis said, “the grand miracle”: the son of God, himself part of God in a way we can’t explain, chose to come to earth as a baby, helpless, tiny, powerless, and aligned himself with the poorest of the poor, an occupied people, pressed down by the brutality of the Roman military engine. The Word that spoke the universe into being – whatever that means, however it happened – that Word agree to be born as an outcast, a displaced person, in a time of great hardship, in a land with little freedom.
The Nativity, Frank Allen Humphrey, England

Writing to the Philippians, Paul said: “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing, by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.”

There’s the grand miracle: he used his power to divest himself of it, made himself nothing, the poorest of the poor, to show us another avenue to peace, to freedom, to joy, and to take on our age-old enemy, death, in a way that only God himself could do.

And invites us into that reality. Imagine Paul saying this: “Have the same mindset as Christ Jesus . . .”

I can understand rules: do this, don’t do that.

I can understand liturgy, prayers to say on what occasion.

But God with us? God a baby, hunted by Herod, passed from hand to hand?

Nativity, Sadoa Watanabe, 1965, Japan 
God divested of power, influence, comfort, reputation? 

And for what – for pompous Pharisees, who spat in his face?

For scurvy lepers, who begged to be healed, then ran for home, forgetting to say thank-you?

For a conscience-less thief, ridiculing him from the cross beside him?

For all the generations of defamers, accusers, angry agnostics, cynical skeptics?

I think of my own paltry attempts at love, and how I respond when my efforts are rejected.

I think of my own small investments in peace, kindness, justice, healing, and how discouraged I get when the investments don’t yield immediate rewards.

I think of my own small sacrifices. Hours spent reading a picture book for the millionth time. Weekends spent sharing a bathroom with a dozen middle school girls. Summer evenings singing crazy songs with a bunch of kids in a hot urban neighborhood.

And for what?

Was it sacrifice at all? Or was it a chance to be with people I loved, to share life with people I cared about?

Was Christ’s birth, life, time on earth, a sacrifice? Or was it an explosive, humbling expression of love on a level we’ll never understand?

As I surround myself with Christmas, I’m mindful of the words of the friend who seemed to understand Jesus best:

Nativity, Yo Iwashita, Japan
"This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth." (I John 3).

I pray Christ’s grand miracle be seen in the miracle of our own love for each other, a love pressed down, overflowing, generous, merciful, kind beyond reason.

May Christ’s miraculous love be yours this Christmas season!

Feel free to share your Christmas thoughts and greetings. Look for the "__ comments" link below.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Common Miracles

Orthodox icons
The commonplace miracle:
that so many common miracles take place.
The usual miracles:
invisible dogs barking
in the dead of night.
One of many miracles:
a small and airy cloud
is able to upstage the massive moon.
Several miracles in one:
an alder is reflected in the water
and is reversed from left to right
and grows from crown to root
and never hits bottom
though the water isn't deep.
A run-of-the-mill miracle:
winds mild to moderate
turning gusty in storms.
A miracle in the first place:
cows will be cows.
Next but not least:
just this cherry orchard
from just this cherry pit.
A miracle minus top hat and tails:
fluttering white doves.
A miracle (what else can you call it):
the sun rose today at three fourteen a.m.
and will set tonight at one past eight.
A miracle that's lost on us:
the hand actually has fewer than six fingers
but still it's got more than four.
A miracle, just take a look around:
the inescapable earth.
An extra miracle, extra and ordinary:
the unthinkable
can be thought.
      "Miracle Fair,"Wislawa Szymborska

The world is suffused with miracles. Some can be explained – almost - by discussion of dna, bacteria, electrons, gravity. But look behind those and there’s the miraculous again: what holds atoms together? What determines how they operate? Each question opens new avenues of mystery. The deeper you go, the more perplexing.

Subatomic physics reveals an invisible world where a nearby observer can bend outcomes, where energy loops in ways no one can explain, where everything is separate, yet everything connected – a world that easily fulfills the definition of miracle: “not explicable by natural or scientific laws . . . highly improbable or extraordinary.”

The more I read of quarks and string theory, the more I’m reminded of Colossians 1: 16-17: “For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible . . .he is before all things, and by him all things are held together.”

7th century icon from Sinai
Look from the small to the large: we can explain the miracle of sun, moon, seasons- almost. But who can explain the miracle of precision that holds it all in tension? What miracle, or series of miracles, produced the set of realities described as the anthropic principle, or  the “goldilocks enigma”?  The composition of earth’s atmosphere, strength of the earth’s magnetic field, earth’s place in the solar system, in the galaxy, the color of the sun, the speed of orbits . . . those are just some of the factors which must be exactly right in order for our life to exist on earth.

We live on a privileged planet in a privileged solar system in a privileged galaxy in a privileged universe – a level of privilege not explicable by natural or scientific law.
According to Stephen Hawking, the level of “coincidence” necessary to explain the fine-tuning of the universe for human life is like teaching a pack of monkeys to type then waiting for them to produce a Shakespearean sonnet.  “The remarkable fact is that the values of these numbers seem to have been very finely adjusted to make possible the development of life…”

A clock-work understanding of a deterministic, rationally-explained universe dissolves as scientists stare with wonder at the meticulous design embedded in everything from dna to gravitational pull to the workings of the human eye. On the deepest level, it’s all miracle: inexplicable, improbable, extraordinary. Einstein repeatedly marveled at just this:
“The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.”
“You find it strange that I consider the comprehensibility of the world as a miracle or as an eternal mystery. Well, a priori, one should expect a chaotic world, which cannot be grasped by the mind in any way…

“The scientists’ religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection.”
Ethiopian nativity, from The Road to Bethleham
The natural world, to many who know it best, is suffused with miracle. And beyond the natural world are miracles of another kind: What would compel people in one nation to extend kindness to people in another? What extraordinary motivation would prompt individuals to benefit those they don’t know, have never seen, at cost to their own tribe, own family, own comfort? Forgiveness, mercy, generosity, the idea of justice – who can explain them? Where do they come from?

Christopher Hitchens, author of God is Not Great, was much in the news this week as he lost his life to cancer. He was famous for insisting, over and over, that faith is irrational, atheism “the only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance.” Yet again and again, he stumbled over the inexplicable as he spoke of human dignity, beauty, love. “Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others. Don't be afraid to be thought arrogant or selfish. Picture all experts as if they were mammals. Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. . . . Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you.” 

If we are all mammals, even language is a miracle. The idea of fairness is a miracle as well. Where does it come from? What is it’s basis? The possibility of dignity, beauty, love . . . those, if we stop to think, are inexplicable mysteries we too often take for granted.

In a world suffused with miracle and mystery, what do we make of the incarnation, the assertion that God came to earth in the form of a baby? I’ve had friends, alarmed or amused at the Christian faith, who’ve found the idea of a virgin birth a particularly strange idea. But isn’t any birth, in its way, strange? Hard to imagine, mysterious, miraculous. If there’s an intelligence and power holding quarks in motion, fine-tuning the distance between planets in orbit, surely an unexplained pregnancy is a small thing to manage?

C. S. Lewis called the incarnation "the grand miracle," the miracle that explains all others. As I look toward Christmas, I give thanks for that miracle, but also for the daily miracles: the four bluebirds watching me from the feeders outside my window, the dusting of white on the ragged front lawn, the bright wide expanse of sky, and the unseen loving presence that tuned the universe and holds its quarks in motion.

Your thoughts and experience in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Voice in the Wilderness

St. John in the Wilderness,
Geertgen tot Sint Jans
If we really want to pray,
we must first learn to listen,
for in silence of the heart,
God speaks.
    Mother Teresa of Culcutta

Is wilderness a place of exile, or a period of preparation?

Is it a time of punishment, or a season of promised rest?

Is it a barren burden to be suffered, or a beauty to be longed for?

Advent is always a puzzle. We wait for the lovely story of God’s light shining in the darkness, but read the unsettling texts of John the Baptist’s call in the wilderness. We dream back to a silent village and the inescapable angel song, while around us the pace is faster and faster, the noise and distraction louder, always louder.

As we struggle to keep up, as we make our lists and check them more than twice, somewhere inside we know there is something we’re missing. Something that has nothing to do with tinsel, or cookies, or the carefully decorated tree.

In Matthew 11 and Luke 7, Jesus, reminding the crowd of John’s time in the wilderness, asked “what did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear expensive clothes and indulge in luxury are in palaces.”

Walter Bruggemann, in Journey to the Common Good, as well as in sermons and essays, describes the wilderness as a place to experience God’s alternative kingdom. God invited his people out of Egypt, the pharoah’s kingdom, into the wilderness, where he showed them his provision and protection.

In the wilderness, God heard and cared for weeping Hagar, a slave woman with no status and no defender. In the wilderness he met and ministered to Elijah, the fearless prophet who faced down bloody King Ahab and the prophets of Ba’al, then collapsed in exhaustion beneath a broom bush and prayed that he would die.

Jesus prepared for ministry in the wilderness, faced temptation in the wilderness, and demonstrated God’s provision by feeding thousands in the wilderness.

Brueggemann points to text after text that call God’s people to step away from their dependence on armies, wealth, stockpiles of food, economic maneuvering:   
“Thus says the Lord: Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; but let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the Lord.” Jeremiah :23-24.
St. John in the Wilderness, Thomas Cole
The people who went out to see John the Baptist in the wilderness went to see if another way of life was possible. As Jesus pointed out, if it was the status quo of power and wealth they were seeking, they would have gone somewhere else.

But now, December 2011, here in the outer suburbs of Philadelphia, there is little wilderness nearby. And no voice that I can hear offering an alternative way.

I pause as I type that. The other night I sat in a Quaker meeting house with a small band of local Occupy Wall Street supporters. One young man spoke with great feeling about a desire for a culture based on something other than selfishness and hoarding. He had read about indigenous gift economies, in which surplus was dispersed through celebrations and lavish sharing of wealth. He was grieving a culture where money is the prime motivator, where value is assigned by net worth, where work is done for a meager paycheck rather than for the love of the task.

He was describing the kingdom Jesus came to offer. The kingdom of freedom, rather than enslavement. Of generosity, rather than scarcity. Or love and kindness and welcome, rather than fearful protection of boundaries and anxious exercise of power.

And yet – here is the great grief to me – the Christian church, as it presents itself in this place and time, stands firmly with the pharoic kingdom, the kingdom of scarcity, and power, and fear. So much so that those who stand outside consider any statement of faith an act of aggression, or exclusion.

Thomas Merton, a Jesuit monk, wrote “There must be a time of day when the man who has to speak falls very silent. .  . .There must be a time when the man of prayer goes to pray as if it were the first time in his life he had ever prayed; when the man of resolutions puts his resolutions aside as if they had all been broken, and he learns a different wisdom: distinguishing the sun from the moon, the stars from the darkness, the sea from the dry land, and the night sky from the shoulder of a hill.” - From No Man is an Island

My one little patch of wilderness is a overgrown margin around a small pond not far away. As I wander there, watching for blue heron, smiling at the marsh hawk that flies low above the grasses, I find myself praying, and wondering. What would the voice sound like, clear enough, and firm enough, to call a self-satisfied, self-righteous church back to the wilderness? Where is the voice kind enough, convincing enough, to speak to those who have written off the Christian faith because they’ve see so little compassion, so little mercy, so little wisdom?

Elijah in the Wilderness, Frederic Leighton
As I think, and grieve, and pray, I’m reminded that across generations, across continents, God has preserved a faithful witness. Elijah. John the Baptist. Tertullian. Perpetua. Jerome. Patrick. Monica. Aidan. Francis. Clare. Mother Theresa. The list could go on and on: faithful voices that stood outside their cultures and pointed the way to something very different. I’m thankful, beyond thankful, for those I’ve had the privilege of knowing, for the faithful voices that dared to call me toward the wilderness.

I’m thinking of one voice that crossed my path when I was wandering in a particular season of wilderness. Gene Denham, a leader with Students Christian Fellowship and Scripture Union in Jamaica, came to stay in our creaking old house in West Philly for several weeks when I was a grad student and young mother. Gene was not much older than me, but stronger in every way. She had known deep poverty in Jamaica, had been shuttled from one meager household to another, had experienced great inequity and great injustice. Yet she had a personal knowledge of God as loving father so strong it propelled her work with children and youth all over Jamaica and motivated her to travel to share her work and vision.

I remember the insightful questions she asked, the penetrating observations, the energy she invested in everything she did, the buoyant laughter. I had begun to wonder if it was possible to live as a just, free, faithful follower of Christ. Yes, Gene said. And gave me just a glimpse as we shopped Philly porch sales together, gathering shoes and clothes she would take home to Kingston for her mother and sisters, and as we talked together over tea in the time she had between speaking engagements and visits to donors.

Gene died in her forties of an aneurysm on a much-planned trip to South Africa. At her funeral, over three thousand Jamaicans gathered to sing, dance, share stories of her influence and extravagant generosity of time, energy, and resources, and to pray for courage to be faithful voices in God’s service in the way that Gene had been. Traveling to Jamaica several years after her death, I was moved to meet many of her friends, and to be included in their circle of friendship just because I, too, had known and been shaped by Gene.

Not long before she died, reading the story of John the Baptist, Gene wrote in her journal: “A revolutionary messenger with a revolutionary message for revolutionary times. Lord let my life this year show  a 100% revolution towards holiness so I can be completely your messenger in every way.”

Yesterday was my birthday, a day of celebration and thanksgiving. Today, as I look toward the year ahead, I wonder what kind of revolution in me would allow me to be God’s messenger more fruitfully. And what kind of revolution, in all of us, would allow us to hear more faithfully the voice of God, calling us to, and through, the wilderness. 

Israelites Passing through the Wilderness,
William West
A voice of one calling: 
“In the wilderness prepare
   the way for the LORD;
make straight in the desert
   a highway for our God.
Every valley 
   shall be raised up,
   every mountain and hill 
   made low;
the rough ground 
   shall become level,
   the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord 
   will be revealed,
   and all people 
   will see it together. 
For the mouth of the Lord 
    has spoken.”   (Isaiah 40)

I wonder: Whose voices have called you to, and through, the wilderness? And how has wilderness, for you, been preparation, rest, a chance to see God's provision? Your thoughts and experience in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below.

Sunday, December 4, 2011


John the Baptist
Old Saint Mary's Cathedral
San Francisco
Advent is a time of preparation. In the liturgical church, John the Baptist is the voice of that challenge to get ready. The gospel texts describe him calling “Prepare the way." "Make straight the path." "Repent and be baptized.”

“Repent” is one of those words badly flattened in translation. The original word is “metanoia” – “meta” and “noia.” “Noia” is easy: “mind.”
Meta” is harder. It’s a prefix we see in “metanarrative” or “metaphysics.” It can be translated “beyond,” or “after.” But the meaning seems larger, more like “encompassing,” or “like this, only bigger.”

So “metanarrative” is the bigger story that contains, and explains, other narratives. “Metaphysics” is the bigger vision that contains, and explains, the physical world.

And “metanoia”? Literal attempts at translation read it as “a change of mind.” But it’s more like moving from a small mind, our own, to the “meta mind,” the larger mind that encompasses ours: God’s own.

So what John calls for is to let our small minds go, and find our place in God’s. Or to let our own agendas go, and find ourselves in God’s. To set aside our own blindered sight, and ask God to help us see his larger vision.

C. S. Lewis, struggling to explain this larger view of repentence, put it this way: 
“In other words, fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms.  Laying down your arms, surrendering, saying you are sorry, realising that you have been on the wrong track and getting ready to start life over again from the ground floor—that is the only way out of a "hole."  This process of surrender—this movement full speed astern—is what Christians call repentance. . . .  It means unlearning all the self-conceit and self-will that we have been training ourselves into for thousands of years.  It means undergoing a kind of death." (Mere Christianity) 
We like to think of repentance as something we can check off, a quick confession, a grudging acknowledgement of guilt, then on to other things. But metanoia is much bigger, more lasting. As Lewis says, it’s a kind of death, letting go of our own great ideas, our own fiercely held prejudice, our own self-importance. It’s a willingness to take on a less selfish way of living, a less self-absorbed way of seeing.

The difficulty, of course, is that we can’t do it ourselves. We see what we see. We are who we are. We hold tightly to our smallness. Conditioned by our experience, our upbringing, our temperament, the voices of our culture, our families, our favorite tv shows, we are locked into our own way of knowing, and trapped in our own ways of living.

The first step in “metanoia” is to recognize that, and to ask for help, to ask for the Holy Spirit to move in us, through us, around us, showing us as we really are, showing us what we were made to be.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his Letters and Papers from Prison, written not long before he was executed by the Nazis, puzzled over this: 

 "Christ Ready to Embrace the Penitent Soul" 
Isabel Piczek 1982, St. Norbert Catholic Church
Orange, California
“One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman (a so-called priestly type!), a righteous man or an unrighteous one, a sick man or a healthy one. . .  I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In doing so we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world – watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think, is faith; that is metanoia . . .”

So, on a bright December day, I find myself wondering what it would be like to live “unreservedly” in the perplexities and struggle of a concentration camp. I wonder what Bonhoeffer saw, as he trusted himself into the arms of God. And I consider my own ongoing metanoia, the continuing call to prepare the way.

Where do I need a change of heart, a change of mind, a larger vision?

Hesychius, one of the early church fathers, wrote, "We will travel the road of metanoia correctly if, as we begin to give attention to the spirit, we combine humility with watchfulness . . .”

There’s that word again: watchful.

My thoughts turn to the Ignatian prayer of examen, a discipline of looking back, to see where God has been at work, to see where my own pride, or selfishness, has gotten in the way.

Sitting in God’s presence, I sift back through my day, and ask:
“Was my motivation love, or pride?”
“Was I really listening, or just waiting for my turn to speak?”
“Did I use my time well, or wastefully?”
“Was that opinion of mine a reflection of your heart, God, or of my own preferred way of seeing things?” 
Venerable Matt Talbot
Maria Orr, 2010, Michigan
Chapel of the Penitent
The goal isn’t to correct myself, or to justify my behavior. It’s to see myself honestly, which is only possible when I’m reminded of God’s love: “do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance / metanoia?"(2Corinthians 7:10).

Here’s the examen (in the slightly strange language found in almost any explanation of it):

  • The first Point is to give thanks to God our Lord for the benefits received. 
  • The second, to ask grace to know our sins and cast them out. 
  • The third, to ask account of our soul from the hour that we rose up to the present Examen, hour by hour, or period by period: and first as to thoughts, and then as to words, and then as to acts. 
  • The fourth, to ask pardon of God our Lord for the faults. 
  • The fifth, to purpose amendment with His grace. 
I have friends who see repentance in any form as a very negative thing, who think that acknowledging wrong is bad for the psyche, that confession of any kind is negative and harmful.

I find it deeply comforting. I’m not perfect. My attitude, my thoughts, my words, my actions. None are perfect. Not even close. 

I do things badly. I mess up. I harm others. I let people down. I hold fiercely to my own ideas, and react with frustration when asked to explain them. I harbor resentments. I procrastinate when prompted to reach out in ways that might cost me time, or risk my emotional safety.

And God still loves me. Still surrounds me with his kindness. Still calls me to deeper wisdom, clearer vision, more consistent faithfulness. Forgives my failings, calls me to change, and gives me grace to take the next step forward.

So I ask for grace to move on toward wholeness and holiness, to be more like Christ, to inhabit the callings we are all called to: agents of reconciliation. Light in a dark world. People who love in the way we’ve been loved.

And I wait for metanoia: a change of heart, of mind, of life. I trust myself to the mercy greater than myself. 
Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent, for the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer)
The Holy Spirit and the Arms of God, Maria Orr, 2010,
Chapel of the Penitent, St. Mary Magdelene Church, Kentwood, Michigan

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