Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Long Wait

I don't expect the semester to lighten for a bit, so rather than leave my blog untouched I thought I would post an article I had written for my church's Advent devotional two years ago, which is itself an adaptation of a post I had written here the previous summer. Long-term readers may receive my apologies for the partial repeat, and I hope to return to the land of the musing soon.

* * *
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought.
-T. S. Eliot
This past summer, I went with some friends kayaking and camping on an island off the coast of North Carolina. It sounded like a great idea.

Among the many well-conceived, ill-executed adventures, the camping escapade is the primary reason we classify the trip as a great experience we would never repeat again, nor wish upon our worst enemies. We all drifted off to sleep sometime around 10 or 11, the four of us in sleeping bags lying side-by-side on a tarp we placed over the cacti and other prickly brush that carpeted the island. The stars were brilliant, satellites and meteors moved, and the Milky Way shone in its full splendor.

I don’t know how long I slept, but eventually I woke to stings of pain piercing my face. I rubbed my skin with my sandy hands, but whatever manner of carnivorous insect inhabited the island remained. I tried to suffocate myself inside my sleeping bag to find refuge, but to no avail. I told myself that perhaps if I didn’t think about the pain it would prove only a minor annoyance, but my skin kept twitching with startling stings. There was no going back to sleep.

I finally got on my tired feet (blistered from a previous ill-executed adventure) and walked along the shore. I found that if I kept moving quickly enough, the bugs would not bite me. Through the long night we wandered the beach for an ambiguous number of dark hours, waiting for the sun to bring relief, feeling like we were in purgatory.

And though we expected the waiting to end with the dawn, the knight faded into a murky glow from a thick shield of fog. By the time the longed-for sunrise would have come, we could only guess its existence from the dim light that finally allowed us to see the red welts that covered our skin as the tiny gnats continued to torture us. The sun had risen, but we were still waiting.

The entire Christian journey is a long narrative of waiting. Job waits for a hearing. Abraham waits for a son. The Hebrew slaves wait for deliverance from slavery. Suicidal prophets wait for God’s presence. And by the time Advent rolls around, we stand with captive Israel waiting for a Messiah.

But the waiting is not exceptionally Christian. Even pagan mythology bears themes of the Fall in the decline from the golden to the silver to the bronze ages, and nearly every tale is infused with grief, sorrow and loss. David’s cries of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” are not unique to the Christian story, even if they are fundamental to it. We stand among the company of all creation “groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.”

Beyond that, we as Christians tend to forget that the story of waiting is still our story. When the Messiah comes, after all, he is only a baby, and we are left waiting. When he begins his ministry, he does not bring the deliverance we have been longing for, and we are left waiting. When he reaches the climax of his ministry he dies, and we are left waiting. After he trumps death and rises again as the first fruit of the New Creation, he ascends to heaven and tells us he will return, and we are still left here waiting.

Let us take heart as we wander the shore; the sun has risen, and the fog is not forever. Sometimes faith is not a glorious adventure; it is a long walk that we wouldn’t have the option of quitting if we tried. Let us remember that the posture of waiting, through often excruciating difficult, is also fundamentally Christian. We would do well to practice it.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Rejoice the Lord is King!

As I’ve had the chance in recent years to participate in the Church calendar, I’ve appreciated the profundity of living into the Gospel story year after year, experiencing the same traditions that Christians have been practicing for century upon century.

Christ the King Sunday, incidentally, is not one of those. On the contrary, it only began in 1925, the period l’entre deux guerres, between World War I and II, when Pope Pius XI was concerned about the growing threats of nationalism and secularism that Christians were swept up in.

And so here at the end of Ordinary Time, we remember that it is Christ who is King, not our party politics of choice, and that he reigns now over our oblivion. And unlike the forces that tore through Europe during the 20th century, Christ enters his glory as he is lifted up on a cross; and though James and John had campaigned to be on his right and left as he entered his kingdom, those places were reserved for two criminals. The Kingdom has come as the King is lifted up, and we are welcome to follow.

Your kingdom come, Lord, on Earth as it is in Heaven.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Come to the waters

I ate a lot of popcorn before bed last night and woke up quite parched in the middle of the night. I got up to get a drink of water, watching eagerly as the cup filled and gulping the water down with great fervor.

However, I realized with every gulp that my thirst was strangely untouched by the water, and as soon as the glass was empty I began filling it up again, hoping a second glass would do the trick.

This process was repeated several times before I began to put the pieces together and figured out that I must be dreaming. Annoyed that I was spending my few precious hours of sleep so miserably, I tried to wake myself up to no avail. Quite a bit miffed, I filled up another glass of water.

And as Christ told the woman at the well “Whoever drinks the water I give him shall never thirst” and cried out within the temple in Jerusalem “If anyone is thirsty let him come to me and drink” just as God said through the prophet Isaiah “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters,” there is quite a lot of room for a Christian analogy here. Indeed, Christ did promise that “Whoever believes of me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Streams of living water will flow from within him.’” We have passed through the waters, we have entered into that rest, and he has met our thirst.

But there is another way that I am still guzzling water like I was in my dream, still carrying a thirst that water is meant to fill, still drinking the memories of water or the hope of water, still waiting for the fullness of the ultimate water. To whatever extent I can say that, it seems dangerous to me to emphasize the thirst-quenching nature of Christianity without an acknowledgment that we are still waiting for the eschatological fulfillment of our longings, still waiting for the full quenching of the thirst that has already been met in a preliminary way.

As we approach Advent, we remember that we are lonely, longing, wandering, expectant people. How could we not be? We have tasted the beginning of a fulfillment that is still in progress.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

All Souls

Beloved, I would grasp you like your weight
In water, or as many grains of sand,
But you would let me go;
For my own liquid fingers, as of late,
Have slipped like Time around your fleeting hand
And yielded to its flow.

So fall then like these precious autumn leaves
And dance around in winds I cannot chase—
For we’re not solids yet.
Yea, fall like tears along the heart that grieves,
For even tears will not maintain their place
But always leave it wet.

Ephemeral, we have found that Love alone,
Whose fixity we’d seek to imitate,
Is solid—like a soul—
Extending farther than the winds have blown
To gather grains that crumbled through Time’s grate
Into her greater bowl.