Archive for December, 1999
Are you like me? Very well-protected against God. It’s not that I don’t want God to be close to me … it all happens beneath the threshold of want or desire. My body seems to have a frozen memory of some hurt or other that it won’t willingly repeat. So that though I say I long for God, long for his touch, long for her whisper—and I think I really do yearn for it—just let God get too close and God gets a black eye.
Are you like me? Oh usually my defense is far more civilised than fisticuffs. My preferred approach is to keep busy. It doesn’t actually have to be productive activity—in fact it works much better if it is useless—busy-work or even TV—and you don’t even have to enjoy it. There’s a certain kick to be gotten out of bearing an unpleasant task nobly while secretly congratulating yourself at keeping God so successfully at arms length.
Maybe you are not like me at all. But at least I have David on my side. David has perfected the art of keeping God in his place. David even hopes to build a special place to put God, a safe place, a beautiful cage of a place—a church.
David has been busy with war and politics—perfect narcotics for the soul—but now peace has fallen upon him, peace and prosperity. All that distracting rape and pillage is done with … David is in a fine new palace with time on his hands. And God is getting close. The empty chambers echo with her whispers. And every now and again … his fleeting touch. But the big problem is the tent—the tabernacle—out in the back where God has wandered for centuries with the people. God has pitched his tent among the people but David lives in a fine new palace, with fine new walls, and a fine new roof.
How can you live in comfort when your God lives out in the cold? How can you be settled when your God has no place to lay his head? How can you rest easy when God is only at home with a homeless people? David is in serious danger of letting God get to him. So he decides to bring God indoors, wants to give God a palace, wants to make God into a king in his own image.
But God is not a king. God is the wandering heart of a wandering people. Only at home with those who have no home. God has pitched tent with the people. David may settle easily but God can’t. God can’t live in a palace until all the people do. God is going to be out in the cold as long as the least of God’s people are out in the cold. God is under canvas because some of God’s people are under newspapers.
Who knows what David has been so afraid to keep God at bay. But even his best efforts fail. God sneaks in under his guard. And speaks the words that David must have longed to hear even as he was braced against them: “David, I have been with you wherever you went. You don’t need to take care of me. I am taking care of you. I have taken care of you and I will.” David is moved to tears, drops his guard and drops his plans.
I’ve found that God is very good at getting in under my guard too. Especially here in this place. I sit, on guard against rumours of angels, but while I’m looking one way—there! it’s done. Jesus is by my side, inside my reach, standing against me. My arm around his waist. Warm. And before I can stop myself my head is against his side. And as the tears well up his hand is in my hair and he whispers, “Hush!” … “Hush…”
I wonder if Gabriel ever got tired of his spiel. “Hail X, full of grace, the Lord is with you!” This is probably heresy of the highest water but I can’t resist it. How many times in the history of the human race did that poor archangel draw close to some candidate for annunciation never to get beneath their guard? Hundreds? Thousands? My guess is millions upon millions. God says to the angel, “find me a place.” And I have a hunch that Gabriel approached every single person to have lived with that strange offer of presence before Mary finally accepted it. 999,999 times out of a million it went like this: “Hail …” Black Eye! Maybe sometimes Gabe got as far as “Hail Charlie” or “Hail Sallie” before the defenses kicked in. For a very, very few the angel maybe finished the sentence. But in my imagination Mary was the only one undefended enough to hear the proposal and, before she can stop herself, say yes. I imagine Gabriel surprised as hell! Offering each new word gingerly expecting yet another fist in the face—which does not come. Far from the palaces, far from the temples, here in a tiny village where nothing ever happens, something happens for the first time in the history of our race. God finds a place, a place outside the palace walls to pitch his tent. To be at last and again the wandering heart of a wandering people.
Does Gabriel smile? Can angels do that? A long retirement to look forward to, feathered feet up, a job well done? Maybe it crosses the angelic mind but not for long. God’s voice speaks, “find me another place.” And Gabriel begins again. Searching for a place now for Mary’s son. Every moment making the greeting, “Hail Josephine,” “Hail Rob.” Full of grace. Highly favoured. Turned down mostly. Angelic eyes black and blue. But looking for any opening. Any gap in the defenses. Any way under the guard. Every day. But in Advent especially. Seeking a home for Mary’s son. On this day, maybe, above all days. Hoping one story will kindle another. The guard will drop. A word be spoken. A nod. A smile. Tears maybe.
Once again a wandering heart un-alone. And who knows what might be accomplished.
December 22nd, 1999
Do I have to be honest? … I don’t want to rejoice heartily. Let alone rejoice always. I’m in no mood for it. Until yesterday there was the possibility—albeit only a slim possibility—that I might be in line for a job which would have kept me here in the Bay Area for the foreseeable future. But my boss back in Britain let me know yesterday that I couldn’t apply for it. … See, I knew it was a mistake to renew my vows last week! Poverty, chastity, … and obedience—and not even multiple choice! Anyway, right now I’m practising obedience with gritted teeth and I have no intention of doing it joyfully. Harumph! Humbug!
I doubt it was any easier for Isaiah’s people to hear his command to rejoice. They are probably the returning remnant straggling home from their deportation to Babylon back to a homeland that no one remembered but all had longed for. That land flowing with milk and honey; where the soil is your own to crumble in your hand; where you prune your own vines and live to taste the fruit. Longings! Dreams! But imagine the reality: arriving un-welcomed with nothing to war-torn walls and drought-cracked fields; overgrown vineyards and hostile villages. These are the people who hear the prophet cry “rejoice heartily!” Listen with them to Isaiah’s words:
“God has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to captives, release to prisoners. God has sent me to announce a year of favour and a day of vindication.”
Beautiful words … but how exactly are you going to do this Isaiah? We, the poor, would really like those glad tidings. We, the broken-hearted, would really like that healing. We, the captive, would really like that liberty. When is it coming Isaiah? Hmm? Well… when it does we’ll rejoice—oh there’ll be food and dancing, song and laughter—but pardon us for waiting Isaiah, pardon us for not getting our hopes up quite yet. Tell you what … you bring us the Year of Favour, you bring us the Jubilee, and then we’ll rejoice!
Ah jubilee! Have you made your pledge? Got it with you? Are you ready to change the world? Because it certainly needs changing! … Have you read the paper this week? Seattle? Chechnya? What’s caught your heart? A barrack room and a baseball bat? Or maybe you don’t need to read the paper to know the longing for things to be different. Maybe you know that first-hand.
The poor we have always with us. The broken-hearted, the captive, wait for us. Maybe we too wait for Jubilee. But who are we?
Who are you John the Baptist? “I am not the Messiah.” Who are you? “I am not Elijah.” Well who? “I am not the prophet.” Well, John, who the hell are you? “I am a voice, crying, a voice in the desert.”
John’s great gift is to know who he is not. He is not God. He is not the one to bring glad tidings, healing, liberty. He is not. Yet he is … something. He is the glass half-empty. He is the broken reed. He is one who longs. He is one who weeps in the wasteland. He is a voice, begging. He is one who makes room for another. And because he is not, he can rejoice in one who will be!
Six hundred years after Isaiah promised otherwise the poor, the broken-hearted, and the captive were unsatisfied still. And Jesus chose to make his own those very same words, to pledge himself to the task. But he couldn’t deliver either. Now, two thousand years on, we are pledging ourselves to the same longing, the same heartbreak, the same hole in the heart. And being invited to rejoice heartily, rejoice always. What fools we are! But that may be our great gift too. To know with John who we are not. Not God. Not the one. But something. Glasses half empty, broken reeds, people who long, who weep in the wasteland. And maybe there is joy there. Half-empty there is space to be filled. The absence in our hearts has room for a presence. The lack in our lives keeps us awake to desire. And the silence of the wasteland might be the only place to hear the voice we long to hear.
Sometimes we don’t even know what we long for until we hear the voice. Another voice has been after my attention this morning. Quiet but insistent. It spoke four hundred and sixty eight years ago today on a hill in Mexico and made a pledge and sealed it with roses in wintertime. Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared to an impoverished people, broken by sickness, held captive by their conquerors.
She didn’t speak to the conquerors but to the conquered. To one who knew what he was not. She spoke in his own language and she made him, like John, a messenger. That message speaks to us too as we pledge ourselves to Jubilee: build a church. Not just four walls and a roof to keep God in, but a church without walls to keep anyone in or out. Make a place for God in this world. Go where God already is make it known. The voice of Isaiah echoed in Jesus ears and drove him to pledge Jubilee even though he couldn’t deliver it. Fool that he was, he took his stand with the poor, the broken-hearted, and the captive. Two thousand years on are we foolish enough to take our stand with Jesus even if we can’t deliver either?
It may be winter but even in winter time there are roses. Build the church.
December 12th, 1999
I would not be a happy sheep. No matter how comforting and homely that shepherds voice, no matter the promise of protection from wolves, no matter the assurance of food in the belly and warmth at night. No matter—because I would know that in the end I would be the one on the block, on the spit, and on the table. So, good luck to that one sensible sheep who listens to the herder’s voice and still hightails it out of the flock and off on her own.
Voices can be confusing. They can be deceptive. They can be prophetic. Ambrose, as military governor goes to the church to quell a riot between rival factions fighting over who is to be the next bishop of Milan and words of such soothing eloquence issue from his lips that the voice of a child pipes up “Ambrose for Bishop!” Well, every voice there joins in … and Ambrose, Ambrose runs like hell. And to show the people how wrong they are, he indulges in a spot of impromptu torturing and whoring but to no avail—he cannot run from the people’s call.
Voices can be very confusing. If the first Isaiah was called by a vision, today we hear second Isaiah called by audition. All those voices surrounding him. And it’s hard to tell whose they are. In one sense, of course, they are all his own. He writes them, his lips utter them, and his hand shapes the ink on the page. But who is speaking? Who are the voices crying out? Only one is clear and that’s Isaiah’s own, and it’s fighting the call. “Speak tenderly, give comfort,” says the voice and Isaiah snarls back, “all flesh is grass, it withers it wilts.”
And he’s got a point. Do you believe the words given us each day of Advent? The desert will bloom, the lion will lie down with the lamb, there will be no more poverty, no more hunger, no more dying and crying, the mountains will lie down and the valleys rise up to make a Holy Way for the coming together of all nations. Yeah, Yeah, Yeah!
Stirs the heart while we are here but go and read the newspaper. Never has the earth been more troubled by the presence of humanity. Never has humanity been so troubled by itself.
“Comfort, oh comfort my people,” says the voice of God. “Like a shepherd he feeds his flock,” says another. But isn’t there always the haunting voice whispering that when the banquet is prepared we will be the ones on the menu.
What amazes me is that though the prophet resists the voice of his calling, though he knows only too well the tragedy of a broken people in exile from their land and their God, even so he produces some of the finest poetry of hope and consolation the world has ever heard. Poetry of such promise and eloquence, such confidence in God. And such a God! A God who not only gathers home from exile the lost tribes of Israel but makes the whole earth a home for all. Transforming the very ground under our feet and the heavens above us. Doing away with death and enmity, violence and decay, predator and prey. No more disasters. No more fear.
Do we believe it? No! But could we? Maybe …
For centuries we’ve been pursuing our own salvation at the expense of the earth’s. Hell, at the expense of the other guys! Isaiah’s voices promise us more than we want, more than we can believe—there is hope, there is consolation, there is good news—but it doesn’t come to us alone. It comes to all things or to none because our fate is tied to the planets not just in the simple sense that if we mess it up we mess up our own home but in the difficult sense that God’s dream is so much larger than our own. It’s for every created thing that creeps and crawls upon this earth and all the things that don’t even manage that. And maybe the earth knows the dream before we do, maybe it hears the promise better than we do. Maybe the earth feels the need more.
According to legend, long before that voice spoke up in the church and sealed Ambrose’s fate, when he was still a child, a swarm of bees settled on his lips, sign of the sweet words he was to live by. Sometimes the earth knows these things before we do. And if that is even a tiny bit true then this Advent we could do much worse than listen to the voices of creation yearning all around us. Listen to the silent voices of bee and grass, the long rumble of mountains, the sharp longing of the salmon heading home, the aching of Antarctic ice throwing itself into the sea. And, if we hear, when we hear, speak what we hear, speak challenge, speak comfort, speak hope, speak truth.
Ambrose said told his people that God created the universe so that all might find their life within it, the earth as common inheritance. “When you give to the poor,” he said, “you are giving them back what is their own, you are paying back a debt.” We are in debt to all things no matter how small, and somehow our fate will be theirs. But “comfort, oh comfort my people—it is God’s desire that not a single one of these little ones shall ever come to grief.”
December 7th, 1999
Jesus is up in the hills of the Galilee, sitting there, and crowds flock to him with their needy, the lame, the crippled, the blind, the sick. They are placed at his feet and he heals them and the crowd erupts in praise of God. But not only are the people crippled and sick—he sees their hunger and he feeds them, feeds them all when there isn’t enough to go round.
According to the New York Times this morning the crowd that gathered in Seattle yesterday was “a Noah’s’ Ark of flat-earth advocates, protectionist trade unions, and yuppies looking for their 1960s fix.” Well the crowd was definitely an astonishing mix of people bringing the needs of those they represent—ecological advocates and labour unions, anarchists and lobbyists. But one way or another they were—are—looking for their needs to be met and—ultimately—looking for food.
“On this mountain the Lord of Hosts will prepare for all peoples a banquet of rich food, and fine wine. On this mountain god will remove the mourning veil covering all peoples, the shroud enwrapping all nations—God will destroy death forever.”
It’s those three images that stand together in my mind and confuse me. Jesus, once upon a time, drawing to him a crowd of the sick and needy and satisfying them. The restored Israel of the end-times, drawing all the world to it for feeding, for healing, for life. And the world trade organisation besieged by protesters. Are they parallels or not?
I’ve spent the afternoon reading news reports from around the world about the Seattle riots and I can’t for the life of me unravel who wants what and why and who wants the very opposite. I can’t adjudicate the claims. There doesn’t seem to be enough to go round. I’m sure it’s not as simple as Free Trade vs. Fair Trade but it does seem to me that end-time vision of jubilee is at stake. Are we heading towards food and life for all people or towards greater profit for those who have the economic clout? I know they shouldn’t be opposites. I know that trade brings food, brings life. But why are all these different groups drawn here to beg that the face of those dear to them not be forgotten?
And where are we? Why did the people once stream to Jesus and promise again to flock to Zion but here and now riot around the WTO? Why does God seem irrelevant? It can’t be that food and life no longer matter to God. Maybe it’s because they no longer matter to us. Isn’t it a relief that the crowds riot in Seattle and not Rome, and not at our front door? Isn’t it a relief that we are not responsible for feeding the hungry and healing the sick? Thank God it’s out of our hands!
But it can’t be. It can’t be as long as we celebrate Eucharist. We are in the business of feeding. Jesus took the loaves and gave thanks and broke them and handed them to the disciples who handed them to the crowds. Taken, blessed, broken, given.
Whatever is going on in Seattle—tear gas and all—is wound up in what we do here. Or what we do here isn’t Eucharist at all.
December 1st, 1999