When I first started writing novels, I did not plan for writing fiction to become one of my primary spiritual disciplines. I had no idea my novels would help me better envision God’s relationship to all of creation. And I definitely did not expect my hours and hours and hours of fantasy world-building would grant me a deeper understanding of what we celebrate today, the Reign of Christ.
This week I helped my friend, the Rev. Adam Yates, and a group of other clergy in Connecticut craft a response to the Nashville Statement. Our first attempt was little more than a reactionary rebuttal of the Nashville Statement’s affirmations and denials. It turns out we needed to write that first draft in order for it to evolve into what we really wanted to say. The second draft is an expansive vision of God’s creation and the rich diversity of people who belong to that creation. Because it is still a response to the Nashville Statement, ours still focuses on sexual orientation and gender identity. But it goes further than that, because as we wrote it, we reveled in the rediscovery of just how wondrous and creative is our God. Continue reading “The Connecticut Statement”→
Sermon for Sunday, November 27, 2016 || Advent 1A || Matthew 24:36-44; Romans 13:11-14
At the end of this sermon, remind me to tell you why “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” is a funny thing to say. I’ll get to that in a few minutes, but first I want to tell you about my parents’ Nativity scene.
During the season of Advent when I was growing up, my family placed a beautiful Nativity scene on the shelf above the TV. The wooden stable had a bark and moss covered roof, above which we suspended angels on fishing line. Inside the stable, a bearded Joseph leaned on a staff and a kneeling Mary pondered things in her heart, while a donkey and a cow looked on. Outside the stable, a pair of shepherds, a woman balancing a jug of water, and assorted townsfolk queued up like bridesmaids and groomsmen in a wedding photo. Each character was transfixed by something going on at the center of the stable, something that was obviously important if the painted expressions on their faces could be believed. The trouble was that nothing was going on at the center of the stable. An unassuming manger stood in between Mary and Joseph, who stared lovingly down into the empty box.
(Sermon for Sunday, October 16, 2011 || Proper 24A || 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 )
Did your parents ever tell you about the first word you ever spoke? More than likely, your first word was “Da,” which is short for, “Daddy, go get Mommy so I can have lunch.” Perhaps, your first word was “Ma,” though this is unlikely, considering the “M” sound is much more difficult to make than the “D” sound. Perhaps, your first word was “No,” which you probably heard your parents say many, many times when they asked each other if the other had slept last night. My first word was “ball.” And thus began a lifetime of me kicking, catching, and throwing any spherical object I could get my hands on.
Christianity has some first words, as well; at least, they’re the first words that we still have a record of today. They aren’t as hesitant or half-formed as are the first words of infants. Rather, they spring from the pages of the New Testament with remarkable (even uncanny) clarity, vitality, and comprehensiveness. We heard these words a few minutes ago when we listened to the first ten verses of Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians.
Now, before we get to some of Christianity’s first words, we need to clear up one spot of potential confusion and talk for just a minute about the similarities between Thessalonica in 50 AD and the United States in 2011. First, the potential confusion.
If you pull up the Bible on your smartphone, you will notice two things: number 1, the New Testament begins with the Gospel according to Matthew; and number 2, Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians is actually eighth on Paul’s depth chart, not first. So how could these ten verses from First Thessalonians possibly be the oldest recorded words in Christian history?
For starters, the folks who put together the New Testament put the four accounts of the Gospel up front because the rest of the pieces didn’t make a lot of sense without first hearing the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. But the people who wrote the Gospel didn’t start doing so until probably 15 to 20 years after Paul wrote to the Thessalonians. As for Paul’s depth chart (and this is a little strange) – his letters are actually in order by length, from longest to shortest, and First Thessalonians is one of the shorter letters. But if the New Testament were ordered chronologically by when the texts were written, our reading from Paul today would be on Page 1. Okay, confusion averted? Great. Let’s keep going.
Our modern moment shares several things in common with mid-first century Thessalonica, the community to which Paul writes the first words of Christianity. Like the modern United States, Thessalonica was a diverse, cosmopolitan place, with a plurality of religions and cultures all rubbing shoulders. As the capital of the region of Macedonia, there were plenty of things to do, not unlike the glut of stimulation that assaults us at every turn. And the Thessalonians had not received the good news of Jesus Christ before Paul arrived, just as people in modern America have lost contact with this great story of the Gospel.
To these people in Thessalonica and to us here on the Interwebs, Paul sends these first words. He, of course, had no idea we would consider them the first words of Christianity, which lends a special kind of authenticity to his message. These are words written to people who hadn’t read Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. These are words written to people who lived in a society that knew very little about this faith that Paul brought with him. As such, these are words that can serve us as we practice sharing our faith, as the Thessalonians did, with people outside the walls of this church.
In these first ten verses of the first text of Christianity, there are six words in particular that shimmer for me: grace, peace, faith, love, hope, and joy. Notice how Paul uses each of these special words: “Grace to you and peace,” he writes. “We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ…You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit.”
These words are special because each has a meaning outside the church and a greater meaning inside the church. The secular understanding of these words can give followers of Christ like you and me a place to establish common ground as we share with others how God is present in our lives.
Let’s quickly look at each of these words to see how we can expand the secular definition to fit into the greater reality of following Jesus Christ.
“Grace” is a perfectly lovely word. We use this word to describe ballet dancers because they move with poise and precision. They throw their bodies into the air trusting that they will land on their feet, and if they don’t they get back up quickly and keep dancing. How easily can we take this understanding of grace and elevate the grace of the dancer to the Grace of God, this grace that picks us up when we fall and teaches us to find beauty in everything.*
We hear the word “peace” when conflict ends and “peacekeepers” enter the recently warring region to monitor the new situation. We use this word to describe a calm ocean after a storm or an infant who has finally dropped off to sleep. We can expand this to the Peace of God, which takes situations of conflict and infuses them with possibilities for unity, justice, and new beginnings.
“Faith” is the trickiest word on this list because all human attempts at “faithfulness” fall short. We put our trust in banks, in governments, in products, in each other, and sooner or later we are always let down. But when we expand the definition of faith to include the Faith of God, we find the one example in all of creation that will never fail. How wonderful to tell someone about this kind of faith!
“Love” is tricky, too, because we use the word in so many different circumstances, from our shoes to our spouses. But when we find that most authentic use of the word, when the word “love” springs unbidden from our lips and doesn’t describe an emotion but a state of being, a state that we entered unwittingly and never want to leave – then we begin to see the edge of the extraordinary Love of God. And we can celebrate that love with each other.
“Hope” is about the future. All people have used this word to talk about what they dream for the days and years ahead. I hope to have children and to teach them to play soccer. These human hopes are safe hopes, the kind that we can see in our mind’s eye five or ten years down the road. This understanding of hope elevates to the Hope of God when God releases us from the boundaries of the merely possible and shows us the realms of glory that exist far beyond our sight. And then we have a greater hope in which our everyday hopes can dwell.
Finally, we talk about “joy” most often when we have “enjoyed” a dinner party or a new film or a ballgame. We mean that we had a good time and might want to come over again. What we don’t realize is that this “joy” we feel is more than happiness. The Joy of God is a feeling of wholeness, of completion that comes when we discover that we are exactly the people who God created us to be.
Each of these words, these first words that Paul used when he wrote to the Thessalonians makes sense outside the context of the Christian faith. But within the greater reality of following Jesus Christ, these words shimmer with new facets of meaning.
I invite you this week to take these first words of Paul and try them out for yourself. Pray with this question in your heart: how has God encountered you when you have had an experience of grace, peace, faith, love, hope, or joy? Then find someone from within your own faith community and try out these words. Practice sharing with one another before you go out and share your Christian life with those outside your church.
Like the first words of an infant, our first attempts in sharing the first words of our faith will be halting. They will be hesitant. They will be half-formed. But they will be ours. And God will take them, shape them, and elevate them into God’s own words.
*I wrote “Grace…teaches us to find beauty in everything” and then realized that I stole those words from U2. Thanks, fellas.
(Sermon for Sunday, October 2, 2011 || Proper 22A || Philippians 3:4b-14)
My grandfather, Roy Thomas, went into hospice twelve days ago, after several difficult weeks in the hospital. Less than twenty-four hours later, he passed away due to complications from being alive for more than nine decades. I awoke to the phone ringing at quarter to six in the morning, and I knew before answering what the news would be. Now, my grandfather and I were never close. There are no pictures of him teaching me how to fly fish or taking me to the ballgame or riding a tractor with me perched on his lap. There was never a Norman Rockwell moment in our relationship. He sent me a card each birthday, and I saw him every other year, give or take.
So, when I broke down weeping in my office a few hours after I received the call from my father, I was taken completely by surprise. Where were those tears coming from? How could the loss of someone, with whom I had but a passing relationship, hit me so hard in my gut? These were the questions I was asking myself as I wiped the tears away. I felt a bit silly, crying so uncontrollably when I was sure I was just fine, thank you very much. But perhaps, more fitting questions ask exactly the opposite. How could I be surprised that I felt such tear-stained grief over the loss of my own grandfather, no matter the state of our connection? How could I possibly think that the loss of a member of my own family wouldn’t hit me so hard in my gut?
The concept of “loss” is tricky thing. The overriding fact of earthly life is that one day – perhaps not today or tomorrow, but one day – we will lose our earthly lives. Everyone dies. There are no exceptions. We have thousands upon thousands of years of data backing up this reality. And yet, we train ourselves to ignore this overriding fact. We assume that death is something that happens to other people – fuzzy, nebulous people on the news and in the obituaries. Not the people we love. Not the people close to us.
But then a relative develops an aggressive cancer. Or a friend flips his SUV. Or a grandparent goes into hospice. And the illusion that loss only happens to other people shatters. The overriding fact that earthly life always ends sneaks up and surprises us, even though this fact is enmeshed in the very fabric of existence.
And death isn’t the only kind of loss we encounter. We confront loss on a daily basis, and still we have tremendous difficulty dealing. There is the loss of autonomy when others make decisions for us. There is the loss of relationships when we part ways with those who have made impacts on our lives. There is the loss of material possessions, the loss of health, the loss of trust, the loss of baseball games (sorry, fellow Sox fans). There is even the loss of loss, which is the grief that happens in response to you realizing that you are no longer grieving.
With loss surrounding us all the time, you’d think we’d have developed ways to deal that didn’t include various forms of denial and willful ignorance. But more often than not, we ignore the potential for loss until the loss is right in front of us hitting us in the gut.
And this willful ignorance is what made me read today’s lesson from Paul’s letter to the Philippians over and over again. Paul writes: “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For [Christ’s] sake I have suffered the loss of all things.”
Somehow, Paul’s relationship with Jesus Christ has allowed Paul to confront the reality of loss head on, well before any sort of loss has a chance to sneak up and surprise him. How does Paul do this? Let’s take a look. Can we do the same? Yes, I think we can.
According to Philippians, Paul values knowing Christ Jesus above all else. Nothing even comes close. The value of being in relationship with Jesus surpasses everything. And because knowing Jesus is so incalculably valuable, everything else in Paul’s life seems utterly insignificant. The gulf between what was important before meeting Christ and what is important now that he has met Christ is so wide that Paul can barely see the stuff of his old life shrinking in the distance.
And, therefore, he regards everything as loss. Based on Paul’s own words and my interpretation of them a moment ago, we might come away with the impression that nothing besides being in relationship with Christ should matter, that we should ignore everything that isn’t Jesus. This is the interpretation favored by hermits and ascetics that got away from everything to focus on God. However, I’m not convinced that that’s what Paul had in mind. We must keep going, because so far we’ve only gotten through the first half of Paul’s discussion.
Because Paul values his relationship with Christ above all else, he no longer attempts to cling to the rest of his life. He lets go of everything – his relationships, his possessions, his fears, his illusions. But all of this that Paul regards as loss is not lost. Paul does not cast everything into the void. Rather, he gives everything away to Christ. He gives everything to Jesus, and in doing so, Paul finds that everything he has regarded as loss was always God’s in the first place. Even Paul himself.
Paul relates this comforting reality to the Philippians: “Not that I have already obtained [the resurrection] or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” Christ Jesus has made me his own. These words are the crux of Paul’s ability to deal with loss. The surpassing value of knowing Christ compels Paul to give everything up to Jesus and thus find himself at a loss. But in the act of giving away everything to Jesus, Paul discovers that Jesus has taken even more. Jesus has taken Paul. Jesus has made Paul his own, along with all that stuff that Paul gave him.
And Christ has made us his own, as well. When we enter into relationship with Christ, the surpassing value of that relationship makes everything else seem entirely insignificant. This seeming insignificance allows us to release our stranglehold on everything that we have been putting in place of a relationship with Christ. And when we release our grip and give away everything to Christ, we will find that Christ has already obtained us in the bargain.
Because Christ Jesus has made us his own, he has empowered us to give to him everything and everyone that we possibly could lose before the loss sneaks up and surprises us. Does this make grieving un-Christian? Of course not. Rather, our grief is one of the things that Christ invites us to give over, so that God might enfold us in our hour of need.
When my grandfather passed away eleven days ago, I was not prepared for the sense of loss that would hit me. Perhaps, this profound loss of someone I didn’t even realize I was clinging to has opened my eyes to truth that I still have plenty to give away to Christ. I would hazard to bet that we all continue to cling to things that have never really been ours to cling to. The good news is this: Any loss, any gain, any grief, any joy, any challenge, any victory is ours to share with Jesus Christ because Christ has made us his own.
(Sermon for Sunday, January 30, 2011 || Epiphany 4, Year A || Matthew 5:1-12)
I preached this sermon on a Sunday in which the church had Morning Prayer for the first half of the service. We timed the service a little long, so my rector encouraged me to shorten the sermon, hence this 900 word piece rather than my normal 1200-1400 word ones.)
Four hundred and sixty-two years ago, the first edition of a certain book went to the printing press. The year was 1549, the author was Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, and the book was the Book of Common Prayer. In this original Book of Common Prayer (or BCP for short), Cranmer compiled, crafted, codified, and composed the prayers that became the central structure of a new expression of Christianity known as Anglicanism. A decade and a half before this publication, the King of England, Henry VIII, had officially broken away from the Roman Catholic Church. However, in the years immediately following the split, very little changed about the English church besides the pope no longer being the supreme earthly authority. Two years after Henry’s death, Archbishop Cranmer published the first BCP and ushered in the unique expression of Christianity that we at this church continue to practice today.
This unique expression of following the way of Jesus Christ creates a structure, a framework of prayer, around which we organize our lives. Cranmer borrowed from the monastic example when he created this framework. Benedictine monks framed their days around an eightfold worship cycle; they prayed formally in church with one another about once every three hours. Cranmer wanted all people, not just monks, to frame their days with prayer, so he took the monastic practice and synthesized the eightfold structure into a twofold one. In his new structure, people prayed formally in the morning, then they went to work, and then they prayed formally again in the evening. Thus, the uniquely Anglican worship experience of Morning and Evening Prayer was born.
Every morning and every evening to this very day, Anglicans around the world have gathered to observe these two rituals. During them, we sing psalms and songs of praise to God. We read scripture. We pray and confess our sins. I would be willing to bet that, thanks to time zones, there is a service of Morning or Evening Prayer happening at every hour of every day all year long. When Cranmer developed this dual service, he did so in order to give his flock a method by which to order their lives around prayer and praise to God. This morning, we are participating in a cycle of worship that envelopes the whole world in constant prayer, a prayer that runs all the way back 462 years.
Whether or not we personally practice Morning and Evening prayer ourselves, the example, which Cranmer set, still guides us. Episcopalians prize the order behind our worship because the structure gives us a way to organize our lives around the things that are most important. The framework of prayer allows us to participate in God’s movement not just when we remember to or when we need to, but at all times.
When we adopt this structure and begin to practice our awareness of God’s presence, we can also begin to access another structure, a framework that lies beneath the one we normally witness with our eyes. This deeper structure is the one that Jesus speaks about to his disciples in this morning’s Gospel reading. The beatitudes, or statements of blessing, give us a glimpse of the deeper framework of reality that exists beneath the misplaced priorities and distorted vision of the world at large. This deeper reality is the one that God infused into creation from the beginning, a reality in which communion overrides isolation, peace quells domination, and love bests fear. Of course, humanity has ignored this deeper reality from the word go, preferring instead to set ourselves up as petty lords of our own destinies, oblivious to the fact that we have never really been in control of anything. Humanity’s greatest sin throughout history has always been setting up structures and systems that bury the deeper reality of God’s presence in all and through all. The ordered life of prayer gives us access to this reality.
Jesus’ beatitudes show us how the deeper structure of creation works. The poor in spirit, the grieving, and the persecuted are blessed. The meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, and those passionate about peace and righteousness are blessed. These are not mere moral platitudes spoken to console a downtrodden people. They are not future promises that will be fulfilled someday in heaven if you can just endure long enough to get there. They are not hopes for what could be coming down the road. These statements of blessing are ways in which the deeper reality of God’s presence breaks through the distortions of the world – then and there on the mountainside with Jesus and here and now in our midst.
When we participate in an ordered life of prayer like the one that Archbishop Cranmer developed, we practice the presence of God every day, not just when we remember to or need to, but every day. This practice is a spiritual workout, which strengthens not our muscles, but our vision and our ability to respond to God’s call to serve. When we take on the framework of daily prayer, we train ourselves to see the deeper reality of God’s movement, to which the beatitudes point us. And then we leave this room, our spiritual gym, and we go out into the world to begin uncovering that reality and showing that God’s presence is, indeed, here.
The following post appeared Sunday, September 19th on Episcopalcafe.com, a website to which I am a monthly contributor. Check it out here or read it below.
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As the church in which I am blessed to serve God prepares for a new adult Christian formation program, I have found myself thinking about baptism quite a bit lately. And I have also found myself jotting down notes about several pieces of the baptismal services. A few of these notes, I share with you below.
If you were baptized in an Episcopal Church after 1979, either you or your parents and godparents answered a series of six questions. The last of which reads, “Do you promise to follow and obey [Jesus Christ] as your Lord?” Whether or not you were baptized under this particular liturgy, this is the fundamental question at the heart of the Christian faith. The answer, “I do,” is simply two little words, but these two words really aren’t the answer at all. The true answer to this question is the manner in which we choose to lead our lives in the wake of such a powerful promise. Let’s take a moment to break down this question to see what we are really getting ourselves into.
Do you promise…
Girls link pinkies. Guys spit on their hands and shake. Car dealers sell extended warranties. Banks make you sign the mortgage paperwork a dozen times. Each of these signals a promise: the secret is safe, the ex-girlfriend is off-limits, the car will be repaired free of charge, and the loan will be repaid. The act of making the promise itself means little compared to the continuous act of fulfilling the promise. Ex-friendships, fine print wielding salesmen, and foreclosures point to the fact that many promises do not last.
But there happens to be a significant difference between these promises and the one we make at baptism. In most promises, the other entity entering the trust is another human being—another fallible, flawed human being. When we promise to follow and obey Jesus Christ as our Lord, we make our promise to God. And God never breaks trust with us. So our promise to God follows God’s eternal promise to us to be faithful always, to be with us always, just to be…always.
Thus, our fulfillment of the promise always happens in response to God’s steadfastness. When we break the promise, it does not cease to hold sway because God continues to fulfill it. And God invites us to renew the promise again and again and again.
In the Gospel according to Matthew, the first words that Jesus says to Peter and Andrew, his prospective disciples, are “Follow me” (Matt. 4:18). In the Gospel according to John, the last words that Jesus says to Peter are (you guessed it) “Follow me” (John 21:22). Therefore, considering how the compilers of the New Testament chose to lay out the Gospel, the first and last words out of Jesus’ mouth are “Follow me.” What does it mean to follow Jesus? Like the main promise we are discussing, this question takes a lifetime to answer; but here are a few quick observations.
To follow means to come after or travel behind. You do this most often when you don’t know the way to, say, the movie theater, and the friends in the car ahead of you lead you there. Our Christian faith tells us that Jesus walks with us, leading us on right paths through our lives. He is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). In Greek, the “way” is literally the “road” on which we walk down. So not only is Jesus the guide for our feet; he paved the road on which our feet tread. The Letter to the Hebrews calls Jesus the “pioneer” of our faith: he is the trailblazer. He invites us to walk the difficult path he first walked, a path full of both pain and joy (Hebrew 12:2).
To follow also means to learn by example. To quote a learned man at my parish, we are “apprentices” of Jesus Christ. During the Renaissance, master painters directed their students to copy their works of art in order to learn the craft. More often than not, these apprentice copies couldn’t compare to the master’s, but they still learned how to apply paint to canvas, and they learned well. Likewise, we will never be able to reach the full example of Jesus Christ, but this shouldn’t stop us from following him just the same.
Obedience is a tricky thing because it involves something that many folks aren’t all that good at: listening. To obey means to listen carefully and then to act. Obedience to God begins with our intentional effort to discern God’s will in our lives and continues with our reliance on God to live out that will. The good news is that when we choose to obey God, God has already given us the gifts we need to accomplish that will. (Of course, this doesn’t mean the act of obeying will be easy.)
When Jesus commands the paralyzed man to stand up, take his mat, and walk, the man gets up immediately (John 5:8-9). Jesus speaks no word of healing at all. Rather, the act of healing is subsumed in the command. Jesus gives the man the gift of healing in order that the man can obey his command. Likewise, we discover new gifts when we listen for and obey God’s will in our lives.
…[Jesus Christ] as your Lord…
In our Christian parlance, we call Jesus many things: friend, brother, teacher, savior. But in this question, we call Jesus “Lord.” We promise to follow Jesus as our “Lord.” How does “Lord” differ from other titles for Jesus? Leaving aside the masculine nature of the title, a lord is someone in a position of authority and respect. In the Gospel, the Greek word for “lord” (kyrie) can also be translated as “sir.” In the military, a person you call “sir” is someone who has the authority to command you to do something.
Likewise, when we promise to follow and obey Jesus as our Lord, we acknowledge that Jesus has the authority to direct our lives. This authority comes from the fact that God is the author of each of us. God pens each day in the books of our lives; sometimes we are the protagonists and sometimes we are antagonists of our own stories. When we follow Jesus as our author, as our Lord, we consciously take on the protagonist role. To change the metaphor, we resonate with God’s directing creativity in our lives. We are in tune with God.
Of course, these few notes simply scratch the surface of this immense question. I wonder how we each live out this promise in our everyday lives? I wonder how the promises we make with other people reflect the promises we make to God? I wonder how readily we allow God to fulfill God’s promises, which, in the end, allow us to fulfill ours?
The following post appeared Wednesday, December 9th on Episcopalcafe.com, a website to which I am a monthly contributor. Check it out here or read it below.
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The hobbits Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee arrive in a heather-strewn woodland between the River Anduin and the mountains that border the dreaded land of Mordor. After some walking around and griping about the knavish Gollum, who is their deranged hostage and guide, they sit down for a meal, as hobbits often do. They eat herbs and stewed rabbit and then…
…I have no idea what happens next.
I’m twelve years old, and I have made it nearly two-thirds of the way through The Lord of the Rings. But I can no longer bear it, and I shelve the book. It’s just so boring. All they do is walk! They start in one place, walk for a bit, meet someone and chat, and then walk some more! I just want them to get somewhere! I want to yell, “Get to your destination, Frodo – don’t stop to eat herbs and stewed rabbit, which the author has described in painstaking detail! Just get to the mountain and be done with the ring! Enough of this walking…”
A year later, I’m thirteen (a much wiser and more mature age), and once again I pick up The Lord of the Rings. Maybe this year, I’ll finish it. I begin at the beginning, and they walk and meet folks and chat and run away from enemies and Frodo and Samwise reach the heather-strewn woodland and eat herbs and stewed rabbit and then…
…I have no idea what happens next.
My wisdom and maturity are no match for the walking. Again, I stop reading. The quest is just too long and arduous and their destination is still on the other side of the mountains and several hundred pages away.
A year later, I’m fourteen, and I pick up The Lord of the Rings again. On page 641, Frodo and Samwise sit down for a dinner of herbs and stewed rabbit and then…
…I keep reading. They find themselves in the middle of an ambush, Sam sees an oliphaunt, the hobbits are captured by people who are supposed to be on their side, and the story goes on and on. A few days later, I finish it. And I’ve read it at least eight more times since.
Finally, at fourteen, I could appreciate the journey, and let the destination take care of itself. Tolkien understood that a destination is more than a physical place. A destination is the culmination of all the shaping events of the journey that brings you to that ultimate location.
Every year, after the tryptophan has worn off, we begin just such a journey in our walks with God. While secular Christmas disgorges itself out of shipping containers every year the day after Thanksgiving, we have the opportunity to let Christmas happen only after the four weeks of Advent have run their course. Christmas is the destination. And Advent is about not arriving at your destination before you are shaped by the journey.
Have you ever had the soup du jour at a restaurant? It’s not some fancy French dish. It’s just the soup made for that particular day. Likewise, my journey happens every day. Every encounter, every decision, every road taken or not shapes me. The season of Advent gives me a dedicated four weeks to notice the shaping influence each day has on my journey with God.
On the first Sunday of Advent, we heard the psalmist pray, “ Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths…All the paths of the Lord are love and faithfulness” (25:3, 9). This Advent, I’m adopting this prayer because I’ve always had trouble not skipping to the end of the story. Every year of my childhood, I wanted to open the windows of my Advent calendar all at once. I just couldn’t wait to open tomorrow’s window tomorrow. Now, at twenty-six (a much wiser and more mature age) I pray for God to give me the patience to notice each day’s impact on my life. When I ask God to “teach me your paths,” I’m not hoping for some inside knowledge about the destination. I’m simply asking for guidance along the road.
Some time ago, I heard this illustration (the origin of which no longer resides in my brain). Have you ever noticed that headlights only show you thirty or forty yards ahead of your car on a dark night? But they still get you to your destination. Likewise, God teaches me God’s path even as I am struggling to stay on it. As I walk towards Christmas on this particular Advent journey, Christ walks a few steps ahead of me, illumining the road to his own nativity, to his own unique and wonderful expression of love and faithfulness.
Despite my opening description, my love for Tolkien’s works of fiction is deep and abiding. They taught me the lesson of Advent: don’t arrive at your destination before being shaped by the journey. I pray that, during this season of Advent, God teaches us God’s paths, which are love and faithfulness. And I pray that we may meet someday on the road, about which Tolkien’s Bilbo Baggins rhymes:
The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with weary feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.
On Sunday, I was driving home from a soccer tournament — a bit worse for wear and sore, but in the good way. We were losing light quickly as the game drew to a close, and by the time I was on the road, dusk had suddenly become full darkness. The darkness didn’t bother me, because I’ve driven back and forth on Route 9 dozens of times since I moved to West Virginia. Every time, I lament the fact that the the DOT hasn’t finished the bypass (and probably never will). On Sunday, my lamentation was justified.
A tenth of a second before the deer hit my car, I saw it flash in the headlights. I heard the impact before I felt it — the sound of someone beating the dust out of an oriental rug, except the rug was metal. The deer collided with the front, left edge of the car, and the force of the impact pushed me off the road. Pumping the brake, I drove through several lawns before coming to a halt. The deer skidded off in the other direction — a rag doll carcass — and came to rest on the shoulder on the far side of the road.
A sheriff’s deputy, who happened to be driving by a minute after the collision, stopped to help me. The driver’s door would not open, so I crawled out the passenger’s side. I was limping, but, I assured the deputy, the limp was a preexisting condition from the soccer tournament. He walked around the car, shining his flashlight and making official sounding grunts. Another officer unceremoniously dragged the deer fully off the road and left it there. I called Triple-A. An hour and fifteen minutes after the collision, a tow truck driver loaded up the car and took me home. Country music played on his radio.
The next day, I called the claims representative. He read through the online report I had filed when I got home the night before. “There’s a better than good chance that this will be a total loss,” he said. A total loss, he explained, happens when the cost of repair outstrips the value of the vehicle. If a total loss is filed, I’ll never see the car again. The insurance company will send me a check, less my deductible. “So take all your stuff out of the car and remove the license plate just in case,” he advised. Apparently, most deer strikes end in total losses. I’ll find out in the next few days.
The phrase “total loss” keeps ringing in my mind. I can’t help but think of Paul’s writing to the Philippians: “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (3:7-8). Paul is talking about his position before becoming a follower of Christ. He was a Pharisee, blameless under the law, a prime specimen of the people of Israel. And he gave it all up when the scales fell from his eyes after being struck blind on the road to Damascus.
I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. Notice the use of the word “regard.” The surpassing nature of Christ reorients Paul’s perception of himself and the world. Jesus changes Paul’s attitude and outlook, in order that Paul might not mistake the insignificant for the consequential. The world around Paul has not changed, but he no longer views it as he once did.
This reorientation is such a wonderful part of being a follower of Christ. If we keep our eyes and hearts open long enough, we might just notice Jesus pointing us towards the right path, the most effective service, the best attitude. On Sunday, as the car came to a rest and my heart kept right on beating down Route 9, I found myself unexpectedly overcome by my own reoriented spirit. I might have adopted a why me, God? attitude. I might have raised my fist and cursed God’s apparent punitive capriciousness. But, by the grace of God I didn’t. I closed my eyes and thanked God that I was not injured. I thanked God that no one else was involved in the collision. I thanked God for the presence of the deputy.
It is so difficult, in a world that stumbles over itself attempting to remind us of the scarcity that supposedly dominates our lives, to notice Jesus reorienting us towards the abundance that marks the truth of our existence. But the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ opens our eyes to the beauty of this abundance. Everything else is loss. Total loss.
Note: I’m still dealing with the fact that I killed a deer. I’ve never been hunting, never shot a gun, and I never want to. I am aware that, as part of humanity, I am responsible for the deaths of countless innocent animals. I’m not sure what to do with this greater context. But the immediate incident keeps replaying in my mind. It’s just different because there’s blood and fur on the mangled hood of my car It’s different because I saw the deer alive one split second and utterly dead the next. I keep seeing it out of the corner of my eye. I keep seeing it tumble away, limbs flailing without purpose, glinting in the glow of my smashed headlight.