Sunday, December 21, 2014

Are We Ready For This Visitation at Advent Four

Four candles are burning on the Advent wreath now. In our interfaith household, we are also lighting not one, but two, menorrahs on either side of the mantlepiece in our living room. And as I stare into the flames dancing on these candles, I think about the nature of fire as a blazing energy and a purifying force.  

We warn children not to play with fire. There's danger involved with burning things up, and we can see where it can be a destructive force when it is wild fire in a forest, or a house that has gone up in flames. Habitat is destroyed, animals and people can be displaced. Objects that are of value can be reduced to ash. Brings a new meaning to the liturgical phrase, "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust." This would be the destructive energy of fire. 

But there is also the fire energy that comes from a hearth or a wood stove, providing heat and warmth or even light to a room. We use fire to sterilize the end of a needle if we are using it to help do something like take a splinter out of a finger. A blacksmith forges metal in the fire. And we have the expresssion about having "a fire in the belly" as a way of saying that we have a passion to act on something or make things happen. In other words, fire, like so many things, have the potential to be both destructive and purifying. Even when things get burned away, there is always the possibility for new growth.

I'm in the midst of reading the Rev. Eric Law's book, "The Bush Was Burning But Not Consumed." Law discusses the factors that can lead to what he calls "unholy fire" of either/or and win/lose type of thinking where we set ourselves up as the judge over another as opposed to recognizing God as the ultimate judge and authority. He brought up an example of a conversation he had with a woman who was his chauffer and liason to a conference workshop. The day he had arrived was the day of the verdict in the OJ Simpson case. Before that had gotten very far in their initial contact at the airport, this woman wanted to know from him if he believed OJ Simpson was guilty or not. Rev. Law felt the crackling of the unholy fire coming for if he answered that he thought OJ Simpson was guilty, then this woman was loaded for bear and ready to tell him all the reasons why Simpson was innocent. If he said he thought he was not guilty, he was going to be lying about his own feelings. He made her promise to stay in dialogue with him, which she did. So, he told her that his initial response to the verdict was that he thought he was guilty...

The woman interrupted and wanted to argue. But he implored her to please listen and keep to the bargain they'd made about staying in dialogue. She quited down enough to hear out his reaction and they continued their dialogue over dinner, calmy and listening to one another. And the big reveal was that Law's reason for believing OJ Simpson was guilty was based in his own gut repulsion to men commiting violence against women. He goes on to say that the workshop went very well because the Simpson case became the centerpoint for discussion. Rather than get into the unholy finger-pointing and name-calling that can result in brokenness, the fire fueling the discussions came in the grace to open the ears and listen to one another and be willing to experience the discomfort of hearing things that may not fit in with one's worldview and be OK with that.

With that in mind, imagine what kind of fire it must have been for a young Jewish girl named Mary to have the Archangel Gabriel appear to her and announce that she will be having a baby, and not just any baby, but the Son of God?! The way Luke tells the story, Mary seemed pretty calm about something that for many of us, I think, would have sent us running and screaming from the room. Her life was about to take a radical turn into an off-road adventure. Somehow, I think she might have been a little more than "perplexed" by this message. 

But Mary, the Theotokos, may have been actually more evolved in her way of responding than most others, which is, perhaps, why she became the God bearer. Luke doesn't let us go inside her head to know what all the little voices were saying. But the one clear voice she heard through that Archangel was the voice of God reminding her that she can have her doubts and still be "the most highly favored lady." Because not only with God is everything possible; with God the unholy fire that leads one to want to run from the difficult path is made holy by turning that fear into faith.

How does that relate to our world today? I think we, as a nation, are facing many situations that call us to walk into the fire, all of us, in the trust that we will be put to the test and we will emerge in a better place. The raising of the consciousness of white America to the inequities experienced by people of color at the hands of law enforcement and the judicial system presents an opportunity for us to enter into the flames of purification and come out of that fire to refine those things that need to change to bring about justice. This work isn't easy.  It will be an off-road adventure. And it is necessary, and I believe it can be accomplished if we allow God to be at work in us as the One who will take our unholy fires and make them holy.  

And so we pray...

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation,
that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a
mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

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