For whom do we wait?

Advent is a time that refocuses us spiritually on the thorny experience of hope. While hope is a universal trait of the human spirit, its thorniness lies in the way hope raises both expectation and fear of disappointment.

I cannot reflect on hope and the nature of expectation without hearing the voice of my fatalistic grandmother saying don’t hope- never be disappointed. I think we all instinctively know what she means. To hope is to risk wanting – and wanting raises the possibility of disappointment. But my grandmother’s expression, while it captures our fear of risk, nonetheless misses the essential point about hope. Hope is not primarily – a picture of a longed-for future – realizable or not. Hope is the compass setting that establishes a direction of travel in the present.

Hope is the compass setting that establishes a direction of travel in the present.

You see, hope is not a future dream – although we often think of hope in this way. Hope is a vision for a desired future but the purpose of hoping is to reorient ourselves in the present through future expectation. Don’t hope -never be disappointed is not simply a protection against future disappointment. It’s a severe limitation on present time action and future possibility.

We are the ones we have been waiting for is a saying the origin of which has multiple attributions. We are the ones we have been waiting for is however the title of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize winning book in which she comments that:

We are the ones we have been waiting for because we live in an age in which we are able to see and understand our own predicament. With so much greater awareness than our ancestors – and with such capacity for insight, knowledge, and empathy – we are uniquely prepared to create positive change within ourselves and our world.

We are the ones we’ve been waiting for was a phrase that Barack Obama borrowed – not to indicate that he or his administration were necessarily the ones desperately awaited – but that present generations of our society have the potential to really change American society’s direction of travel towards an – as yet – unrealized future. At the everyday level of experience we know the truth of this as we live through the chaos and upheaval of a period of momentous change – the kind of change that beckons us towards a future that will be so much more than a repetition of our past.

The shape of our future hope is important but too much dreaming or foreboding about the the future is a distraction. The purpose of hope is not to inhabit the future before it emerges but to focus our attention on the quality of our present time actions – both those we boldly embrace and those we fail to take.

Don’t hope -never be disappointed is not simply a protection against future disappointment it’s a severe limitation on present time possibility. Hope is a lifetime’s work. Advent reminds us that hope also requires courage in a world that often – like my grandmother’s saying – plays up the risk of hope’s disappointment.

The book of Isaiah begins around 740 BCE with the figure known as 1st Isaiah (chapters 1-40). The book concludes with the prophecies of the 3rd Isaiah (chapters 56-66) over two centuries later after the ending of the Babylonian Exile in 515. The combined prophecies of 1st, 2nd (chapters 40-56), and 3rd Isaiah form the mainstay of Advent’s O.T. lessons. In chapter 25, appointed for the 3rd Sunday in Advent we hear 1st Isaiah’s words: Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.

Where is our God? Our God is here! How do we know God is here? We know because the eyes of the blind shall be opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped; the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. Isaiah’s hope is ambiguous with regard to time. His use of –shall– is suggestive of future events – but events determined by actions in present time.

If our Advent hope causes us to raise our eyes heavenwards waiting for future divine rescue from the mess we are making of the world – we will miss Advent hope as a present time statement that God is already here – among us – journeying alongside us through the turbulence of the present time.

The Gospels ascribe a prophetic quality of premonition to John the Baptist because we prefer to view prophets as visionaries of future time. But the prophet speaks first and foremost into present time – no matter how future oriented his words. As we all know, the present time fear of disappointment plays havoc with our expectations. And so we see in Matthew 11 that even the legendary John the Baptist is subject to the fear of disappointed expectation. John – languishing in Herod’s prison – has become anxious because Jesus seems not to be fulfilling his expectations. The doubt arises in his mind – maybe he’d got it wrong and Jesus is not the promised one – afterall. So he sends his disciples to enquire of Jesus – are you the one or are we to wait for another?

Jesus quotes Isaiah 25 back to John telling John’s disciples to go tell him what you hear and see! The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear – and just to up the ante he adds – the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. Here the point not to be missed is that Jesus takes Isaiah’s words – couched as future hope – and renders them a description of present time reality.

The point of future hope lies in the beginning of its realization in the present.

We are the ones we have been waiting for focuses our attention firmly on the present time in which hope is not a future dream but a present-time activity. Of course, there is a hidden irony here. Our usual Advent question: what are we waiting for and why are we still waiting? – is not perhaps the question after all.

The great 20th-century theologian Paul Tillich wrote:

The power of that for which we wait is already effective within us. Those who wait in an ultimate sense are not that far from that for which they wait.

On the 3rd Sunday in Advent – what are we waiting for becomes who are we waiting for? Allowing for an appropriate sense of humility, if we are not to be the ones we have been waiting for – then who will be?

Faith is a ‘doing word’, silly

London Bridge is down – the code that acknowledges to the British Nation, the Commonwealth, and the world the death of Elizabeth II, Queen of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand and her other realms and territories; head of the British Commonwealth of Nations, an organization of 56 sovereign states with a population of 2.4 billion people, among which 16 continue to acknowledge her as head of state.

The Queen is dead, long live the king! Elizabeth of gracious memory – her death sets in motion the constitutional processes ensuring the peaceful transition to her successor, now King Charles III. His is destined to be a significant reign – during which the style and appearance of the Monarchy will continue to evolve. The emotionally charged late Queen’s legacy must now be carried forward. We pray for King Charles III and Camilla, his Queen Consort, as they assume the burden of the monarchy at a point of significant uncertainty for the United Kingdom in an increasingly unstable world.

I have the good fortune to hold three passports – two of which request and require in the name of Her Majesty all whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance, and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary. I have been surprised by a sense of deep sadness following the death of the late Queen. Surprised in that sense of awakening to a loss akin to the loss of a grandparent – someone I may not have paid that much personal attention to while alive, somehow taking for granted they would always be there.

The death of Elizabeth II is an event of global significance because for so many around the world she embodied the values that have passed from most people’s experience of public life. The global coverage of her death and the colorful rituals of the accession of Charles III, remind us of our longing for stability and continuity, color and dignity. The medieval rituals proclaiming the new king by Garter Knights dressed in costumes that could have jumped from a deck of playing cards has not been seen for 70 years and now is for the first time seen by millions around the world. Yet, behind all the pomp the new king’s commitment to diligent service in public life commends itself to us all.

Today is also Homecoming Sunday at St Martin’s. When I first arrived in the parish Homecoming was marked by the production of a ministry prospectus and the excitement of a new cycle in the parish’s life. It’s interesting to reflect on how much has changed in 7 years. Yet, although clearly different now, Homecoming in 2022, marks what I hope will signify a full return to in person interactional parish life – though as a learning from the pandemic period I will continue to plug for as many Vestry meetings as possible to continue via Zoom (joke).

It’s always surprising to me how the three-year lectionary cycle uncannily reflects the themes and needs of the day. This year on Homecoming we read from Luke 15:1-10 with its linked parables of finding the lost. Fortunately, the gospel passage ends at v 15 thus excluding the parable of the prodigal son. This is a parable that deserves a separate occasion of its own.

Seeking the lost is for me a significant theme in contemporary church life. It reminds me that so much of our efforts now focus on preventing what remains from being further lost that we have little energy for searching out and restoring the lost. But having said that – there arises a question: what exactly do we think of as being lost? As we face a general demographic decline of institutional church going – no less so here at St Martin’s than more generally across the board, it’s tempting to envisage the loss of a remembered golden age of post war church going. The thing about memory however is the past is always selectively recalled –skewed and filtered through the anxieties of the present moment.

In this past week’s E-News, I endeavored, limited by space and reader’s attention span to articulate what can seem a rather complex connection between faith – as a present time action, and hope – as future expectation. Both impact upon each other, but what is often missed is the impact of the expectations of our future hope upon our current practice of faith – faith defined not as assent to propositions of belief, but as present time action. Alice Miller, the 20th-century psychoanalyst, and pioneer in the area of child abuse commented that we already are who we have been waiting for. Future hope is already here, present and embedded in our practice of faith as present time action.

Is our St Martin’s community growing or declining in numbers? I personally see evidence that St Martin’s numbers are holding steady. We evoke increasing curiosity among those whose first contact with church is now online. For many we may for the time being remain an online presence in their lives, yet new people are now showing up on Sunday mornings. Worship – once the barometer for a sense of numbers is no longer a reliable reflection due to changing social patterns of Sunday attendance among the membership. For me its less a matter of actual numbers and more one of inconsistent participation that remains an issue – but this is an issue better left to next week on Ministry Sunday.

On Homecoming I would like to suggest to us all that what has been lost is our confidence in faith as present time action. We’ve come to misperceive faith as about assent to statements about God. Thus faith becomes something we possess or don’t, something we accept of reject. By contrast faith is actually action, its what compels us to act. What we’ve lost is the confidence of faith as present time action – capable of actually making a difference in the world. This is faith as lived commitment as collaborators in the coming of the kingdom into a world so sorely in need of a reordering of priorities. The gospel message of seeking the lost is for me in this instance about the confidence to embody our faith at the everyday level of life – through the power of present time action.

As Episcopalians we often rebuke ourselves for our comfortable complacency. We are very happy with God, and we don’t expect God to make too many demands of us. This is an attitude that dilutes the energy of faith in us. The energy of faith lies in the belief that what we do here and now can and is building a future world for our children and their children that will be better than the one we inherited. The expectation of hope empowers our present practice of faith, while our crisis of confidence or lack of courage to hope weakens our belief in ourselves as the instruments of the change we long to see.

Faith as present time action involves cultivating a much-overlooked human quality – diligence. The parable of the lost coin is a story about the diligence of the woman who turns her house upside down in what amounts to the spring-clean of spring-cleans in search for her lost coin. She never doubted she would find it and on finding it shares the joy of its recovery with all her family and neighbors. The practice of faith may be personal but it is never private. The practice of faith is always social.

Diligence is the quality of focus on the task at hand. It requires of us confidence and consistency of effort. Diligence requires a persistent attention of body, mind, and heart – and in my experience, is a key quality often most displayed by women. In the masculine sphere of heroic action, diligence is easily eclipsed. Diligence has a quiet quality – its practice goes largely unnoticed. Diligence involves an attention to the details of relationship. It is a taking care in ordinary everyday circumstances. Diligence is a gentle competence in ordinary things. It’s an unsung characteristic of discipleship.

None of us needs reminding that in our media-driven world where news is now entertainment, diligence is not sexy, it is not sound bite-friendly. It mostly goes unappreciated in the clashing and discordant cacophony of the politics of bread and circuses. Diligence in public service and private life is no longer a quality our politicians aspire to – preferring instead the peacock display of self-serving egotism. Success is no longer measured by what is achieved but on the size of one’s twitter following.

I think so many of us mourn the late Queen’s death because although we may not have been able to put a name on it -for 70 years she has consistently embodied the quality of diligence. For her diligence was an essential attribute of her Christian discipleship – expressed through an unstinting devotion in the service of her people. Over 70 years of service it’s been estimated that The late Queen met and shook hands with the equivalent of a third of the UK population.

Through faith as present time action we set the direction of travel towards the future. The expectations of hope in turn strengthen our confidence in faith as present time action. The energy of longing expressed in our hope as future expectation flows backwards through the channel of faith -shifting and reshaping our perspectives and actions in the present. The future is still to come and yet the future does not wait. If we already are who we have been waiting for then the future is already here in the confidence of our faith and the quality of our diligence. Whatever we long for the future to bring, the future always begins now!

On this Homecoming Sunday we give heartfelt thanks for our St Martin’s community, reminding ourselves that we are a community renewing our confidence in faith as something that can move mountains – but perhaps only one stone at a time – which requires the quiet ways of unsung diligence – the gentle competence in ordinary things. Nevertheless our task at hand is to continue to work tirelessly to build up our common life. To proclaim the causes of peace and universal justice – which in our present state of climate crisis begins with championing environmental justice at home and abroad. On Homecoming we remember that it is only together that we can achieve more than anyone of us alone . We rededicate to God anew, our time, our talents, and our treasure. God of renewal – Hear us.

Dreaming Good News is Hoping and Loving in the Waiting

Measuring time

The birth of Christ is for us, the pivotal point of history. Western Civilization calibrates time according to whether events happen before or after the birth of Christ. The centuries before Christ count forward or actually backward as it were, to the year 0. The centuries following Christ’s birth count forward from 0 onward.

The designations BC -before Christ and AD anno domini – after Christ have been replaced by the neutral designations BCE and CE referring to either before or during the common era. Yet, despite the attempt to decrease the prominence of a Christo-centric view of time, the neutral designations, nevertheless still paradoxically, affirm the significance of the birth of Christ. In ways most of us are hardly aware of anymore, the birth of Christ remains the defining moment that continues to shape our sense of the flow of history.

imagesLast week I introduced a concept I’ve named the trans-generational vision. This is the central vision that punctuates the passage of time. The trans-generational vision weaves in and out of the flow of history, surfacing before submerging only to resurface again centuries later. The Holy Scriptures are the textual record of this process – a process of tracking the movements of the Spirit of God weaving in and out of human history.

The book of the prophet Isaiah

The Book of the Prophet Isaiah operates like a fractal for the trans-generational vision. Wikipedia defines a fractal as a natural phenomenon or a mathematical set that exhibits a repeating pattern that displays at every scale. Snowflakes are a common example of fractals with every part of the crystal being a complete mirror image of the whole.images-1

The Book of Isaiah falls into three distinct historical epochs spanning around 350 years. The voice of the prophet we call Isaiah is, therefore, three distinct voices. We divide the book into that of First Isaiah – chapters 1 to 39, Second Isaiah – chapters 40 to 55, and Third Isaiah comprising chapters 56 to 66. Each of these three voices is the articulation of the trans-generational vision surfacing in the midst of three distinct periods of crisis in history of Israel, namely:

  1. The invasion of the Northern Kingdom and destruction of its capital Samaria with the permanent deportation of the king, nobles and priesthood in 722-21 by Assyrian King, Sennacherib. In this period the First Isaiah foretells of the birth of the messiah in the person of a child, born to a maiden, a child who will usher in a reign of unparalleled peace and prosperity for Israel.
  2. The destruction of the Southern Kingdom of Judah and Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon in 586 with the deportation of King, priests and nobles into a 50 year exile in Babylon.  Second Isaiah gives voice to this calamity in a messianic figure of the Suffering Servant, who announces the coming of the Kingdom of God through his taking upon himself the sin and suffering of the people.
  3. The freeing of the exiles by Cyrus, King of Persia in 515 and their return to rebuild Jerusalem in the period following 515 forms the period focus for chapter 61 appointed for Advent III. Here the figure of the messiah – promised one, announces himself as the one upon whom the Spirit of God rests in order to announce good news to the people.

The return of the exiles began as a period of hope and rejoicing after the 50 years in exile. The exhilaration of the returning exiles for whom God was forging a road through the desert, leveling the high places low and the terra-forming of the rough places into a plain, was an exhilaration at the prospect of rebuilding the Solomon’s Temple. Yet, the difficulty of the task, the scarcity of resources, the animosity of the surrounding peoples towards the returning exiles engendered a society where the rich diverted the scarce resources away from the reconstruction of the Temple in order to build fine houses for themselves. A culture of oppression of the poor and powerless by the rich and powerful quickly reestablished itself. We read of this situation painfully described by the prophets Zechariah, Nehemiah, and Esra. It is in judgment of this situation against which the Third Isaiah raises his prophetic voice.

The first Christians, in the years that followed the death of Jesus and his resurrection as the Christ, looked back and perceived the trans-generational vision of Isaiah resurfacing again in the person of Jesus. For generations of Christians who followed the figures of the child Eman-uel, the Suffering Servant whose visage is so disfigured by his having taken our transgressions upon himself, and the figure of the anointed one who brings good news to the poor are consequently, very familiar. For most of us, we know them so well because they were so powerfully memorialized by Handel in his great oratorio: The Messiah. 

In the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke, Jesus is the child Eman-uel born to the maiden Mary. In his Passion and Crucifixion, Jesus becomes the embodiment of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant who dies as a sacrificial expression of God’s great love for the world. Jesus’ offers his first public self-definition when in the synagogue at Nazareth he proclaims his identification with the figure of the anointed one who brings good news to those oppressed, healing to those of us with broken hearts, liberty to we who are held captive, and the arrival for all of the year of the Lord’s favor – the year of Jubilee.

A word out of place

Another way of thinking about the trans-generational vision is to be reminded that it is the intrusion into temporal time of a word out of place. By this I mean that a word out of place is a dream not simply of the improbable, but of the seemingly impossible. This for me is the chief characteristic of the trans-generational vision. It is always a vision that seems to be fantastical within the context of its emergence.

As we move into the second decade of the 21st century, what do we as a culture dream about? We have become increasingly fearful of the future as we see the culture unraveling in the present. A trend I find disturbing is our addiction to short-term thinking and grasping at short-term solutions that satisfy needs today and simply reinforce that the future us something to be afraid of. Our capacity to dream seems now to be limited to the preservation of self-interest, both individual and community self-interest, in the present. In nearly every area of our public life, we are failing to invest today in a future that we won’t live to see. Have we become so self-preoccupied that we no longer care about the world our children and their children are likely to inherit?

Blame obfuscating shame

Republicans blame Democrats and vice versa. Independents blame both parties. Yet all of us keep returning politicians to office on the most spurious, fear mongering, and short term of visions. Surely, the aspirations behind our political allegiances stand for more than this? Is not our location on the political continuum an indication that we yearn for a deeper vision for the future than the one we see being fulfilled in our present?  We now prefer the blame game when acknowledging our shame might be a more healthy response.

At the moment, we seem to be capable only of dreaming of a future that is worse than the present. Yet, the message of the trans-generational spiritual vision reminds us that solutions to the problems of today lie in our courage to dream of a better tomorrow. Such dreaming defies our sense of the limitation that pervades our collective mood. Such dreaming should startle us by the extent to which it is a word out of place.

We recognize a faith-driven trans-generational vision by its fantastical nature. What seems fantastical is only the audacity to break away from the projections of a future limited by the present consideration of the sensible, probable or possible.

Proclaiming good news

In the vision in Isaiah 61 of the good news God is offering us more than a political manifesto for social action, although such is badly needed. God is inviting us to dream of moving beyond the poverty of only what can be imagined within imaginations limited by a lack of courage to dream. God is inviting us to bind-up one another’s wounds and cease from wounding one another further. God is longing for us to liberate ourselves from being captive to the short-termism of our current addiction to self-interest and self-protection.

The trans-generational vision resurfaces in times of deep despair and fear. We are living through such a time! Advent is the time to renew our commitment to furthering in the present the dream of the future. Advent is a time of waiting. Over the last two weeks, I have been reminding my hearers and readers that we become that which we long and hope for. We are already those for whom we wait.

To paraphrase T.S. Eliot’s words from his poem East Coker:

to hope is invariably to hope for the wrong thing; to love is to want to love the wrong thing, but there is faith, and faith is the hoping and the longing in the waiting!

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