Advent: Holding out our hands in the dark

by The Rev. Shelley D. McDade

First Sunday of AdventLet us pray:

In perfect roundness
In texture smooth as baby’s skin…
In black…carefully tended to bear the warmth
And not the scars of fire…
Clay remembers… Amen

Over the course of the last two months we have had so many parish topics to focus on that I have not had the time to speak to some of the issues that are going on around the world. I personally don’t believe politics belong in the pulpit. But world issues do, and often times, the lines don’t just cross, they don’t just blur, they intermix with each other and paint a living canvas of fear, rage and bloodshed. And in those times people can’t help but question the point of believing in God, or at the very least, God’s intention.

Whatever your opinion, or lack of one, is on the Michael Brown shooting and demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri, and other cities around our nation…the real truth is that people are in pain. Deep pain. And it isn’t just this one situation.

People are “reacting” strongly to the multitude of unprecedented situations playing out in and around our everyday lives. My personal mantra in life is “To respond. Not react.” Right now, people are reacting. And I don’t think we even realize how much minor transitions and developments of life are compromising and affecting our ability to think…to grow… to embrace, to respond… to activate….or rest…..in God.

Every generation can point to the critical tribulations of their times. Standing here in the middle of this generation there does seem to be rapidness to the circumstances we are living in today. Possibly, enriched if not encouraged, by present day social media. I’m sure those who lived through the Industrial Revolution felt the same way. But, this just feels rapid. And, it’s all very real.

Clergy, and those who serve most closely to the church, are not exempt from doubt and questioning. Often times the loudest cries come from those who mediate the Holies. As they should. Just as the people in the time of Isaiah put forth a communal lament begging God to come out of hiding. We, a community of Christ, put forth our laments in the opening of our service today. Asking God to have mercy on us, to hear us and to deliver us from all that is happening around us.

Please do not think for one moment that the Great Litany is only a musical gesture of liturgy at the opening of special seasons and feasts. Far from it. The Litany is our crying out to God to come out from hiding and not only hear, but respond, to our prayers. At the conclusion of each petition there is a raising up of the end of each oration. That slight, musical change signals all of you to raise up your hearts and voices of hope in prayer.

Canadian author George Iles wrote:

“Hope is faith holding out its hand in the dark.”

And I can’t think of any better perspective or definition of Advent than that: Holding out our hands in the dark.

Entering into a new church season may trick us into jumping ahead into a time of expectancy, welcoming and joy. All true. The definition of Advent itself is one of expecting joy, but only the kind of joy that is called to arise out of tribulation.

By Walter Brueggeman’s definition:

“The natural habitat of Advent is a ‘community of hurt.’  It is the voice of those who know profound grief…who articulate it…and do not cover over it.”

Now…here is where the situational turn comes…

“But this community of hurt knows where to speak its grief; toward whom to address their pain.”

Because the hurt is expressed to the One….the Other…whose place in this world is not in doubt. This community of hurt is profoundly a community of hope. It hopes passionately that the trouble will end.

The season of Advent moves between the two realities of hurt and hope. It lives into the context that one cannot live without the other.

Advent is a time to make contact with those deep places in our culture and in ourselves too much to continue to ignore.

Advent asserts that our current world definition of power and security is on its way out. And I am not referring to the “one percent.” I am speaking directly about those things in our lives in which we give power to and think give us security.

It puts the hard questions front and center and meets us precisely where our hurt and our hope converge.

  • It asks us if we are bold and sharp enough to speak the hurt that belongs to us.
  • It asks if we are ready and open enough for newness to be given.
  • It asks if we know who we belong to…to whom do we confess…for whom do we wait…and if we trust that One enough to relinquish our ways.

The shock of Advent is not just in destruction. The real challenge is in the liberation.

Advent means…the shattering of restrictive forms…the shattering of the shape of oppression and paralysis that keeps us from living half of what we are called to be. This shattering is both welcome and dreaded; avoided and necessary; painful, yet relief. Throughout the season keep check of which emotion is most difficult and most fulfilling for you.

Paul opens the door and helps us to find our strength and hope. He tells the people of Corinth, and us, that we are given the spiritual gifts necessary to lead us through and to the revealing. And God’s grace to receive them. Our only grounds for confidence can be through our faithfulness to God. There is no other way.

If you find yourself shaking your head, effected by and/or lamenting over our current day circumstances, be real about it. Don’t just gaze out and wonder how prejudice, oppression and illness can still be a part of our world. Gaze within — and ask yourself honestly how can prejudice, hatred and oppression all still be a part of you. Only through our own reflection and action can the world be changed.

The opening prayer I read for you this morning is one of many poem prayers I have read from a book titled Selu: Seeking the Corn Mother’s Wisdom, written and edited by Marilou Awiakta. It is a beautiful book on the lives, philosophies and beliefs of our Native Americans specifically in living out the balance of suffering and joy. I share it with you because today is the last day of what President Obama recently proclaimed National Native American Month. In the past presidents have proclaimed various days of remembrance for Native Americans but this is the first monthly proclamation. I imagine most of us did not know about it.

The most oppressed people throughout the entire history of all North America often go unnoticed, unappreciated, kept in exile.   And yet, they are so beautiful, so vibrant a people and so living out an Advent hope that most of us cannot even begin to understand.

Our Native American culture and kindness, completely lost in the festivities Thanksgiving, teaches us what it truly means to hope against hope. To hope without any basis of fulfillment but to know that the One we hope for is coming.

Let us close with another poem prayer from that very wisdom.

In blood and hope,
In pain and joy
A child will be born
A gift from our creator….Amen