December 4, 2016
Second Sunday of Advent
This has been a turbulent month. The elections, with outcomes that surprised many of us, seem to have set the stage for changes that lots of us don’t understand. It took us by surprise, seeming to lop off hopes for quick changes that would transform us into a society and culture on the way to becoming more “creative, inclusive, working for peace and justice” as the front window downstairs says, the one that introduces us to folks on the street.
Then, as we transitioned from Thanksgiving to our annual American season of Conspicuous Consumption, the intense focus shifted from choosing who will be in charge, to incessant invitations to buy stuff just to help us feel better no matter who is in charge. This annual shift toward consumption encourages me to turn down the volume on everything, even my inner journey, making it harder for me to wait with awareness for the incarnation, the coming – once again – of God into the world in a form I can relate to.
Diana Butler Bass had an article in the Metro section of yesterday’s Washington Post, confessing that this year she’s decided that she’s having a “Blue Advent.” That sounded familiar: I’ve heard about a blue Advent around here recently.
As if that isn’t enough, last Wednesday evening as I sat at our kitchen table here at Carroll Street with Celebration Circle, beginning to focus on our liturgy for Christmas Eve, I had a call from the Chair of our board at the Watkins Condominium, with frightening news that a “microburst,” a miniature tornado, had ripped the roof off the back porches and fire escape of the old building at the Watkins, where we will be moving soon. Water from the intense rain was pouring into the third floor apartments! I left Celebration Circle immediately, and by the time I got to the Watkins, a block away, there was a steady stream of water from the ceiling of our first-floor kitchen down into the basement.
What am I waiting for? This year it’s a challenge to feel like I’m waiting for the joy of Christmas. There’s too much of “here and now” clouding my wait for the “long-expected Jesus.” I’ve been in the dark of a Blue Advent, not quite ready yet to draw water from the living well we sang about just now.
The lessons for this week, though, did offer me something deeper to think about.
A SHOOT FROM THE STUMP OF JESSE
Let me begin with the Hebrew Scripture passage from Isaiah 11:
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
That sounds like the kind of Saviour I can get excited about watching for: Someone who stands ready to do what’s right, no matter how things look right now!
Here’s an image of that hope I’m waiting for. Even though the old, beloved tree has been producing no fruit and was cut down, a new sprout is pushing out from that still-living stump. That sprout has the DNA of the old tree, and is rooted in the same core values. Hope is alive in its small, but swelling buds.
So what do these swelling buds look like? And how might they offer hope in this season of Advent waiting. Here are a couple of glimpses from this past week or so.
Our SCL class “Where do we go from here,” has been a surprise. We expected to be nurturing a vibrant, old fruit-bearing tree, but many of us feel that it’s been cut down, or blown over in a windstorm. But as I look round, I’m reminded that the stump is still alive, and the roots are still anchored in fertile ground. There’s hope. We just need to keep doing the next right thing, with love, even when it’s a struggle.
Another glimpse of a swelling bud was offered here last Sunday, when Reverend Gayle Fisher-Stewart brought us a stirring Word of hope. Ken has already posted her on our website. I was delighted when I met her t the Festival Center and learned that she’s now a member of the Festival Center Board. And, I was impressed that she is such a living well of hope, after spending her first career as an officer in the DC Police Department. Fertile roots offering new shoots of hope.
So, what IS the nourishing ground that sustains our faith in God, the “dirt” of our faith as individuals and as a family of faith? Isaiah offers some ideas.
ROOTS OF JESSE CHARACTERISTICS: The “dirt” of our faith
- The Spirit of the Lord rests with, in and around us.
We are connected by the Spirit, able to reach out to each other to fear comfort and support – and accountability – when times are tough. This Blue Advent is giving us opportunities to be alongside each other when the path grows dark.
Yesterday the Seekers who gathered for Martha’s Mob, were working shoulder to shoulder to help us get ready as we wait. There was a palpable energy among us as we helped each other clean, and repair, and refresh our place here on Carroll Street.
- The Spirit of wisdom, and understanding: We’re in this together.
“In this together” is another place where we take root. Last night almost half of us gathered at the Lawrence home in Falls Church to celebrate the season with our December Seekers’ Sin-Along. It was a welcoming and festive occasion, part of a tradition here at Seekers Church. The readiness of those of you from far away to venture into Virginia is a tangible sign of support for those of us who come a long way to be part of this family of faith. Thank God we’re in this together.
- The Spirit of counsel and might: We share our strength far and wide.
Bokamoso will be coming again – soon! In January we will be hosting a group from Winterveldt, South Africa for their annual visit, helping them prepare for more productive futures back home. In addition to this annual effort, different Seekers are supporting good work in places many of us have never visited. Working together to support the Bokamoso visit next month is like Martha’s Mob. It’s important that we do it, but it only takes some of us to be present for any particular thing. “Do the next right thing” may not always mean “All Seekers all the time.” We can count on each other to be a creative, inclusive presence, working for peace and justice … as long as we’re convinced that we’re in this together.
- The Spirit of knowledge, or trusting each other at the point of our affirmed gift.
Here’s an example from up the street, at the Watkins. After that micro-tornado blew the roof off the back of our building, the owners and residents pitched in. We have no resident staff and our management company is in Chantilly, Virginia, so we’ve needed to pick up a lot of coordination. Since I’m the one with the most flexible schedule, I’ve been filling in where needed. But because Marjory and I don’t live there yet, there’s been a lot of last-minute coordination. As we’ve worked together, I’ve felt a deepening sense of connection. We’re going through a mess, but I think we’ll emerge from it as a stronger community. Even when the soil is pretty muddy, it can help build stronger roots.
For me, this speaks to our readiness to grant authority at the point of affirmed gifts. When the HVAC unit on the roof over the sanctuary failed, Seekers gave Time & Space Mission Group the authority to get it fixed. When T&S decided to trust a new contractor in order to save half the price quoted by our long-standing maintenance firm, the affirmation of T&S held firm. And yesterday, whether you all know it or not, you trusted me to replace the big fan belt that our new contractor couldn’t locate in time to fix the heat before Thanksgiving. It seems to be working! There’s a certain Spirit of Knowledge in the air, and I’ve learned a thing or two about air conditioning.
- Fear of the Lord (respect & reverence) leads to revelation.
For me, the idea of “fear of the Lord” is often easier to understand as fear of punishment rather than respect and reverence. But that’s what it meant initially. These days, one way I’m thinking about this kind of respect and reverence for the Creator, is to acknowledge that there are things I don’t understand, situations where I need to live into that unknowing. It’s a challenge to stand aside when I know I don’t know.
With the damage to our apartment at the Watkins last Wednesday, I’ve been staying awake a lot, trying to understand what’s going on. I thought I understood the extent of the damage after the rain stopped. But then I learned that we couldn’t just pain the ceiling to cover the stain – we’d need to have it removed and replaced. And as I left at noon yesterday there it was, bare boards overhead and light fixtures hanging by their wires. But through it all I’m learning to trust that others know more than I feared. Thanks be to God!
Given this rich soil, where do we GROW from here? Scripture offers some guidelines – even this week’s readings.
- Delight in respect for God
- Judge with deeper righteousness
- Work for equity for the meek.
Some are called to step out in prophetic confrontation, others in pastoral compassion. And sometimes we have the opportunity to do one, then the other, or both. Prophets and pastors live together in harmony, hopefully, but not necessarily glorifying God with one harmonious voice. Can we live together with those we’ve learned to doubt … or not trust?
DO THE NEXT RIGHT THING
How many of you are aware that each Sunday Kenny Shaw stays at the front door until about the time when the kids go downstairs for class so visitors will encounter a welcoming presence at the door: someone to hold the door open for them.
Holding the door open for another can be an important call. On Friday, while I was wrapped up in my worries about the flooding at the Watkins, I stopped at the post office to mail some bills. I wasn’t really thinking about anything but having the right stamps and return addresses on each envelope. As I walked in through the door I glimpsed the reflection of the person behind me, a diminutive woman of color carrying a big load of packages. As I held the door for her, a memory jumped into my awareness from the distant past, the image of Marjory and her Dad mailing 90 Christmas gifts to the children in the orphanage next door to my advisor’s office in Duc Pho, Vietnam just after Thanksgiving in 1966 – 50 years ago. I wondered if this woman was mailing gifts to her son in Afghanistan.
As she walked through the door, the focus in her eyes suggested that I might be right. Her “Thank you” was firm and sincere. Holding the door was the next right thing to do. It didn’t change the water at the Watkins, or the results of the election, but it helped both of us touch something deeper than conspicuous consumption.
In that moment, I served as her doorstop. I was that little bit of dark rubber we keep to prop the door to the memorial wall, the one that often gets used to help folks keep the back door open.
Kenny’s welcome reminded me of a poem by Sam Shoemaker, a poem that might be part of the dirt of our roots, where our Outreach Mission Group is growing. Here’s Sam, the founder of Faith @ Work, and pastor to Bill Wilson who called AA into being, talking about door stops:
I stand by the door.
I neither go too far in, nor stay too far out.
The door is the most important door in the world –
It is the door through which men walk when they find God.
There is no use my going way inside and staying there,
When so many are still outside and they, as much as I,
Crave to know where the door is.
And all that so many ever find
Is only the wall where the door ought to be.
They creep along the wall like blind men,
With outstretched, groping hands,
Feeling for a door, knowing there must be a door,
Yet they never find it.
So I stand by the door.
Sam Shoemaker, So I Stand by the Door and Other Verses. Pittsburgh: Calvary Rectory, 1958, p. 576.
As I might have expected, with the idea of respect and reverence for the unexpected floating in and around my worries, I had a late and unexpected insight – the call of the doorstop.
Consider the need to keep the back door open so you can bring in that load of groceries, or Sunday School supplies. Consider how challenging it can be to have people coming to your meeting at our place when they don’t have a code for the door: you’ll need to have a “greeter” who can welcome you in and tell you where to find the elevator. But then your greeter will miss out on the content of the meeting because they’re there to help late-comers join the party. I’ve heard some say “There ought to be a better way! Seekers should just unlock the door and let anyone come in and use our space!”
And, if we just leave the door open we’re doing a lot to help support global warming, not to mention raising our fuel bills.
It’s a challenge to be responsible energy users who offer a safe space to so many groups we don’t meet on a regular basis. Maybe some of us, particularly those of us like me who are older and less agile than we used to be, might consider what it means to be a door stop, holding open a welcoming space for those who have more energy for responding to particular needs, whether prophetic OR pastoral.
Having a welcoming presence is very important for any community that is committed to being inclusive and creative. And BEING a welcoming presence, while it might not feel very heroic, can make an important difference in the life of any group. Although I’ve been only a peripheral participant in the life of our Outreach Mission group, I’m convinced that they are taking very seriously their call to stand at the door and hold it open for others.
All this got me thinking of what it might mean to be a doorkeeper in the house of God, to be one who watched for those approaching the door burdened by heavy loads of life, lacking a spare hand to turn the knob and step nimbly over the threshold, people who are hurting, and might want to be healed if they could find a place where there were others around them who were on that same journey, turning toward the Good News but still slogging in the mud. For them, in addition to someone like Sam Shoemaker who is called to stand by the door in welcome, it might be helpful if there was someone else who could hold the door open long enough for them to enter into the warmth of community. The role of an interim chaplain comes to mind. In the moment, I have the sense that this is an important part of what we meant when we put “inclusive,” and “working for peace and justice” on our front window.
If we want to live in a world where the lion can lie down with the lamb, we need to risk welcoming lions into our family. And , when the lions and the lambs can BOTH accept that they are thankful to be in this life together, lying down in community might just be Good News.
What are you waiting for? Repent! Turn again … stand tall … do the next right thing to welcome the lion (or the lamb) who’s heading for the door. It’s Advent, and Jesus is coming … again! Thanks be to God!