Sunday, December 16, 2012

Advent Three: Questions. Fruit.

Here we are again, in the dark time of the year. 

And once again, I've turned off my radio, rather than hear the minute-by-minute replay of the story of young lives lost, of misguided hands grabbing publicly sanctioned weapons to assuage the pain of damaged heart and mind.

Death is always near and children are never exempt. Ask the parents in Syria, weeping over the collateral damage of the al-Assad regime's death struggle. Ask the grieving siblings of Pakistani and Yemeni children caught in the precision strikes of US drones.  Or ask the children scooping water from dirty waterways. More than a million will die this year of waterborne diseases, 5,500 a day; which would you choose, to die of thirst, or diarrhea?

Sitting on the couch in my comfortable living room, I hear the jarring sirens of our local fire engine, weaving along the roads not far from my house. This is the day that Santa rides through town, Santa and his firemen assistants, throwing candy to children who run out to greet them, spreading cheer, confusion, and sugar, setting off every dog in the township until the day becomes a cacophony of sirens, honking horns, and dog song. 
O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive IsraelThat mourns in lonely exile here . . .
I had meant to write this week about the fruit of metanoia. I came across the Greek term last December, a rich, intriguing word too often flattened into “repentence,” when what it points us toward is a new mind, a new way of seeing, “the mind of Christ” -  a mind no longer conformed to the tame, tired patterns of this world.

But the unsettling disaster at Sandy Hook Elementary School set my thoughts spinning in new directions. I graduated from high school just half an hour from Newtown. My heart jumps up in grief for the twenty children dead, for the committed principal, the other school staff, the families torn and trust destroyed. But my heart jumps up in grief as well for the young man who thought a gun might solve his pain. He’s the guy I sat next to in my junior math class, the troubled loner who showed up at my church uninvited, the socially awkward misfit who didn’t get the hint when I told him twenty times I was too busy to go out.

John the Baptist, from Isenheim Altarpiece,
Matthias Grünewald, Alsace c 1515

I had thought of writing about John the Baptist's exhortation to “produce fruit in keeping with metanoia.” Last week’s Synchroblog held some wonderful examples of fruitful, generous exploration of the mind of Christ. A mom, still working her way through a cross-country move, puts together gift bags for the homeless, and is working hard to provide Christmas joy to a woman and child starting over after escaping an abusive household. Another woman found her friendship with a homeless mom became the impetus to start a furniture ministry to families moving from shelters into homes, then launched a neighborhood support center, and is starting yet another. Their stories challenge and excite me: fruit in keeping with metanoia.

But I find myself spiraling back to questions that haunt me:

Why am I so much more troubled by the death of twenty children, in a school I can picture, in a community like my own, than the deaths of thousands upon thousands in countries I've never seen?

Why am I spending money on eggnog and ornaments when I could pay for clean water for children who walk miles a day for water, knowing the water they collect will most likely make them sick?

Why do we allow our gun control discussions to be dictated by gun manufacturers and the organizations they fund, instead of insisting on real conversation about what’s best for our communities and homes?

How would I comfort a grieving family? 

What does my faith have to say in the face of tragedy? 
 O come, O come,
Thine own from Satan's tyranny
From depths of Hell Thy people save
And give them victory o'er the grave
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
Hours before I heard of the deaths in Connecticut, I met with friends for our monthly time of prayer for Emily, a woman struck by lighting. When we meet, we bring food to share, and spiritual food as well. Often we’re amazed at how clearly God speaks to us. Sometimes we have the same passage to share. Sometimes a common theme appears.

This week I was feeling discouraged. As I told the group, the passage I had to share, from Psalm 86, reflected my own sorry state:
Hear me, Lord, and answer me,    for I am poor and needy. Teach me your way, Lord,    that I may rely on your faithfulness;give me an undivided heart,    that I may fear your name. 
I’m the leader of this little prayer band, the one who organizes it, and I was feeling conflicted: what’s the point? What if God really doesnt hear us? Do I even know how to pray? 

One of the others in the group pulled out her journal and read what she had planned to share from  1 Corinthians 12:
There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.

She was insistent: God has called us to gather and pray, and each time he gives what we need. He speaks through us all, for the common good.

Christ in Gethsemane, Michael O'Brien, Canada
While I puzzled over what that might have to say to my own discouraged state, another of the group shared ways God has been at work, dramatically, with precise timing, with visible grace. Her words brought tears to my eyes: God does hear us. But then she went on to read a passage I blogged about last fall, a passage I shared with her at a time when she was struggling:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).
She went on, sharing her own heart, her own experience of grief and comfort, as she read: 
We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself.  Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many (2 Corinthians 1:8-11).
Her conviction comforted me, as I know mine has comforted her at other times in the past. This path isn't easy, doesn't unfold in straight lines, no matter how hard we try to make the crooked road straight, the rough ways smooth. The story is still unfolding.

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheerOur spirits by Thine advent hereDisperse the gloomy clouds of nightAnd death's dark shadows put to flight.Rejoice! Rejoice! EmmanuelShall come to thee, O Israel. 
A friend asked me recently: “What are we supposed to do with what you write?”

I wasn’t sure what she meant, so she tried to elaborate: “I read your blog, but I don’t know what to do with it.”


Like a checklist? An easy application?

I'm reminded of the question to John the Baptist: 

"What should we do?"

His answer: "Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same."

I"m not sure what it means, today, here, to share my shirt with the one who has none. I do know I can buy a bag of groceries when I visit a friend with too many hungry mouths to feed

Here’s my prayer, for myself, my friends, those who read my blog:

Set aside easy answers.

Question voices motivated by power and profit.

Work out together what it means to follow Christ, what it means to share our gifts, our experiences, our burdens and joys, today, every day, for the common good.




Ask God to teach us his way, to give us undivided hearts, to reshape our minds so we see beyond the boundaries of the visible to the mysteries of the real.

Pray for fruit in keeping with metanoia –  for the grace to grow in generous friendship, sacrificial worship, transparent, humble, respectful witness. 

Wait together, with expectation, for that kingdom we long for, the place where death has lost its sting: 
O come, Thou Key of David, come,And open wide our heavenly home;Make safe the way that leads on high,And close the path to misery.Rejoice! Rejoice! EmmanuelShall come to thee, O Israel.