Archive for December, 2000

Sunday Week 3 of Advent Year C

“What should we be doing?” I’ll say one thing for George W. Bush … he’s not afflicted by overwork. … A friend of mine, a teacher, was telling me how busy school kids are, going non-stop from dawn to dusk—from class to class, 2 or 3 meetings in the lunch break, then after school stuff, excessive homework… “What kind of message is that to be giving them?” he asked me, “What kind of training?” Well, certainly not training for the Bush style of government. Dubya is famed for knocking off at 5pm yet still managing to fit in an hour or two for napping, playing video games, or getting that all-important massage. And, best of all, he does it all with a smile (well a smirk anyway) and not a trace of guilt. Can you imagine Earnest Al playing solitaire and doing it without shame?
What about ourselves? Isn’t Advent a great time for shame? All those things on the to-do list to shame you? And those are only the sins of omission. Wait till we get to the stuff we’ve done!
Shame came late to our family tree but once it arrived it coloured everything. According to some scientists there are just nine basic affects, the physical responses that underlie our feelings. There’s interest and enjoyment. There’s surprise. There’s fear and distress and anger. There’s disgust and there’s dis-smell. And there’s shame. Shame came late. Every human infant knows it. The primates do. Dogs too. But not cats, not snakes, or any of our older ancestors. Because you have to be pretty clever to feel shame. You have to be bright enough to think something good is coming to be able to feel the shame of having it denied you.
Here’s the classic description of shame. You are walking down the street and you make out the shape of someone you know up ahead. You are excited and find yourself rushing up behind them and, just as you get their attention, you realise they are not who you think they are. But even before you consciously have that thought your body does something: your eyes drop; you avert your head; and you blush.
When was the last time you felt shame or embarrassment? … Shame happens whenever desire outruns fulfilment. I feel shame whenever anyone asks how my dissertation is going, or notices I’ve put on weight. I have shame dreams: Here I am on a Sunday morning, standing right here … only I can’t find my homily … or can’t read the words … or turn out to be vested in the altogether.
We all know shame. Babies show it. But it is a complex experience. And as grown ups we have made it even more complex than the basic physical response. We knit shame into fantastic shapes of embarrassment, mortification, humiliation. We know what it’s like to be looked at with pity. To be laughed at. To be caught in the act.
Shame gets tangled up in all that is most important to us. How we look. What we are worth. Money. Sex. Power. And, of course, religion. Shame was born in the garden of Eden. Suddenly Adam and Eve know that they are naked. Watch them blush, eye’s averted, as they hide themselves. Eden ends where shame begins. Morality begins there too … and religion. Before shame we walked arm-in-arm with God in the garden and thought nothing of it. Our desire never outran its fulfilment. But since then we have been hiding from God, averting our eyes. And one of the ways we avert our eyes is … religion. We pray our prayers at least in part to keep God at arms length. We do our good deeds lest God should draw near and we be shamed. Our whole liturgy is a conflicted attempt to bring God close while keeping God at a symbolic distance. What if God were not just here today in symbol—not just in bread and wine and word and worship—but here naked and near and irresistible? Wouldn’t we feel such a desire?! And such shame.
All our readings today speak of the nearness of God. But watch God get more distant with each of them. Zephaniah’s God is right in our midst. Paul’s is “near” but the Baptist’s God only manages to be “coming.”
And look at who it is coming in John’s mind: a monstrous messiah with winnowing fan in hand, eager to clear the threshing floor, to harvest the wheat, to burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. Yikes! No wonder John finds himself shameful, not even worthy to tie his shoelaces. And no wonder John is busy shaming everyone else onto their best behaviour. Don’t get me wrong: he is shaming them into something good—sharing food and shelter; giving up unjust profits; setting aside violence and exploitation. If only we had a society that was half that good! But even if we did it wouldn’t be the kingdom. Because the kingdom is the place where shame ends and justice begins again purely for love’s sake. And religion … religion is no longer needed because we have God, and we have our neighbour, and we have our own selves. The God who comes in Advent is not John’s avenging God of sharp sickle and burning brand but the sickly son of refugees. Jesus has lived with us. We’ve watched him grow, inch by inch, into someone who shamelessly gathers the shameful chaff. The only unquenchable fire the one in his eyes. The only winnowing the one we do ourselves.
Jesus is Zephaniah’s God. He has lifted the judgement against us. He is here among us. And he is happy. He is so glad to be here with us. It moves him to tears to be sitting next to you. To tears and to laughter. And when we sing in joy he sings too. Can you hear God sing joyfully because of you? The way someone sings at a celebration?
How could shame survive that?! With Jesus among us desire can never outrun fulfilment.

December 17th, 2000

Sunday Week 1 of Advent Year C

As a kid something always happened to me once the autumn clocks changed. Something to do with my own personal checklist of fall: the smell of burning leaves; frost on the corpses of tall grass; headlights yellow in the early dark on the way home from school; the ache in the air as my nose turned blue going from door to door collecting for Guy Fawkes Night; and the promise in the bare woods and sharp sky of coming things. I hardly knew what things … Christmas, certainly, but more than that, something un-nameable, needed and unknown. Being outside to catch the fall of night was intoxicating. So essential to be alone, chilled and braced for who-knows-what wonders and dangers; frozen to the bone and loving it, indulging shivers and putting off, and putting off, the moment when “inside” was unavoidable with its face-tingling warmth and disappointing domesticity. Never quite what I was waiting for, never quite the promise, but maybe if I stayed out just a minute more and strayed just a little longer under the moons intent gaze—maybe it would be. Maybe my hearts silent call might find its echo. Maybe then I’d be able to know what it was I waited for. Or even know I was waiting at all.
There were other times of course when I did know I was waiting. Sick and sleepless and waiting for the light of day to make it all right again. Waiting luxuriously for the first strawberries of the summer. Waiting each day for school to let out and let me out to run wild. Oh and Fridays! Oh and summer coming and weeks of … freedom!
Or Christmas morning—middle of the night really—the agony of waiting, waiting, waiting … for the first barely acceptable moment to rush in and wake my Mum and Dad.
Or the time, trying to get my proud new fountain pen to work, I splashed ink all over, ALL OVER, the fresh new wallpaper … and waited for them to come home from town and all my life to end.
All my childhood seems to have been about waiting. The standard response in our family to the can-I-have questions—Can I have a bike? Can I have a chemistry set?—was always “sure, when you’re twenty one.” And I believed it! I even kept a secret list for a while, a list of all the spoils coming my eventual way. I wonder when I cottoned-on and put aside the list? I wonder when I stopped waiting for those Christmas dawns? I wonder when I grew up and out of waiting?
Maybe the things I waited for I wanted less or less wholeheartedly than I had. Maybe I learned to defer gratification, as they say. But I remember even back then waiting was bittersweet. Some things just are worth the wait. And some things are dreaded beyond the waiting. Even as you can’t wait for waiting to be over you can’t bear to bring on it’s end. Waiting for someone to die—a father, a friend. Waiting for someone to be born—a brother, a fellow child.
Maybe the power of waiting lies in being powerless. These days I know I wait less because I can do more. The gap between desire and doing has shrunk. I do what I want and while I wait for things to work out I work on other wants. I don’t spend very much time under childhood’s waiting stars any more, none in that bare wood. There isn’t the time! But that’s a lie! It’s not time that’s lacking but that kid’s courage. I’ve lost the art of waiting. And learned instead to fear.
This year as the autumn clocks changed something happened to me. In the middle of another little roadblock on the way to writing my dissertation I was talking about my prayer with a friend. I could describe to a tee the nature of my frustration and my ambivalence towards both God and myself. But she asked me, instead, what Jesus was doing in the middle of all my angst. And right away I knew the answer. He is waiting. Sitting there. Waiting. How is he waiting? Calmly. Waiting calmly. What’s he waiting for? He’s waiting for me? He’s waiting for me to wait. Waiting for me to wait with him. What for? Well he hasn’t let on yet… I suspect he doesn’t know either. But, for sure, it involves me letting the gap grow again between desire and hope, wide and wider like it used to be as a kid. And not filling the gap with getting done and plans of getting done and fears of not getting done. Not appeasing the household dissertation gods but waiting, with him, for words.
He tells me he’s never quite lost the art of waiting, the art of wonder, the art of awe. Under a cold sharp sky. Waiting in winter for promises to be kept. Waiting to know what he’s waiting for.
He says he gets it from his Dad: Waiting and promising both. Waiting for a chosen people to choose. Waiting for love to be returned. Waiting for promises to be kept. Waiting for gifts to be received. Waiting and hoping to be believed. God never really grew up.

December 3rd, 2000


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