Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Wild Promise of Advent

Each year, the sixth graders from my elementary school went on a “graduation trip “ of sorts. For two nights and three days the older, wiser ones of Clovernook Elementary went to a magical and mystical place called Camp Knickerbock.

My sixth grade year was filled with anticipation for this trip. From the first day of school we were already planning who would sit next to whom on the bus, which cabins we would stay in and what things we would do late at night. And while our imaginations ran wild with possibilities, one thing remained certain. The social hierarchy would follow us to camp.

The cool kids called the back of the bus and filled their cabin with the social elite from our elementary ranks. Those who did not meet the standards, myself included, quickly formed alternative bands to secure a cabin of our own. And then, of course, there were those who year after year found themselves isolated and alone at the bottom of the playground pyramid, those who simply did not dare make plans. For an overnight trip with bullies seemed like nothing but sheer torture.

When we finally left the confines of our urban elementary school for the wilds of Camp Knickerbock, we found that indeed our plans unfolded as we imagined. The lines of cool were drawn just as tightly at camp as they were on the playground every single day. That is except for one night.

Camp Knickerbock had a tradition of nighttime hikes reserved for the last night at camp. That evening, long after the supposed lights out curfew, the counselors came to our cabins and fetched us for an evening adventure in the dark. Although we started off with flashlights, the goal was to darken our lights as we traveled so that we might experience the wilderness as it is…dark, foreboding, promising, exciting. The counselors had split our cabins up so that we were now walking single file cool kids intermingled with nerds, mixed with jocks, and interspersed with preps. We were simultaneously thrilled and anxious. What would it be like in the pitch dark blackness of the forest?

As the lights went out one by one, we had to rely on the person in front and behind us to make our way. Increasingly we became more dependent on one another as we walked farther and farther into the wilderness. And as we journeyed, something magical and mystical did happen. Step by step, we found the social hierarchy began to crumble as our terror and excitement of being in the wilderness rendered us one. If we were to make it out safely, we had to rely on one another…hold each other’s hands, talk to one another: where to step, where to duck.

At long last the final light was extinguished as we circled up in a small clearing surrounded by tall, slender trees pointing us toward the starry sky. As we stood there, each of us in the circle realized something profound had happened. Each of us were a little different for the hike. Somehow, the wilderness had managed to break down our prejudices and preconceptions and allowed us for one brief hour to experience a community bound by common purpose and perhaps even a little admiration for one another. The walls of division had been rendered useless in our common quest to find our way.

The wilderness has a way of doing that, doesn’t it?

There is something about the wild that challenges and confronts all of our preconceptions and prejudices. Out in the vastness of the wild, we find our social conventions useless as we struggle to find our way. It is precisely for this reason that the wilderness has become a potent symbol and site for religious reflection for many different cultures and faith traditions. From the time of the prophets to the time of John through the age of the mystics and right up to our own modern era, the wilderness has always symbolized a place of miracle and divine revelation, of pain and complaint, of hope and visions. To those steeped in the Judeo-Christian tradition, wilderness evokes stories of Exodus, of Sinai, of moving through the exile into hope. The wilderness is that place in our faith tradition where we are allowed to dream new possibilities that have been forbidden to us in our former city dwellings. In the wilderness we seek hope and find it.

You see, the wilderness presents us with a liminality…an in-between place of neither here nor there that offers us space to un-make and re-make our communities, norms and lives. The wilderness strips us of social pretense and confronts us with the challenge of being in a place without predetermined boundaries. The wildness of it all, allows us to dream and imagine things thought not possible within the confines of the tightly regulated social hierarchies of civilized space. It is as if the power of nature itself unlocks and unleashes our imaginations, summons different values, evokes new visions, and inspires creative solutions never dreamed before.

It is no coincidence that this week’s reading places John the Baptist in the remote Judean desert. The wilderness is the perfect space to find a prophet pointing to a new way of being, a new way of living and loving. In fact, the wilderness may be the only place where such prophecy becomes plausible. The liminality of the desert offers both John and the followers an opportunity to shed the cynical realism of daily life in exchange for the power of possibility.

Finding wild prophets like John in the wilderness was was nothing new to the ancient Israelites. Popular movements excited by the prospect of change throughout history moved to desert places, gathered armies, conducted retreats, readied themselves for revolution – all kinds of groups, military, religious, prophetic, visionary. The historian Josephus lists many such groups and individuals in the first century of the common era, including John who we read about today.

John’s movement for change though is not a military movement as many of the people expected, but rather is a revolution of the imagination.

John announces change, metanoia, traditionally, “repentance for the forgiveness of sins,”but also understood as a turning around and away from sin, a change of direction, a paradigm shift in mind and in action. Summoning the words of the Prophet Isaiah, John gives us a glimpse of the new vision towards which he demands we look, that vision of peace, justice, hope, love, a vision of shalom here on earth. By quoting Isaiah, which many of the people would have known well, John summons up for them this idea of God’s vision of Shalom on earth and brings new insight to old ideas.

Yet, what John was initiating was not just a new way to look at old ideas, but rather he was demanding new ideas for a new way. This was a drastic change, a paradigm shift. John invited us to see the world in a new way, turning the old order on its head, raising valleys and flattening mountains. It was not that John just wanted to create new paths, he wanted to evoke a new destination, a new hope, a new salvation.

Salvation for John was not otherworldly, remote or inaccessible, salvation was near, at hand, in the here and now as we envision and imagine new ways of being in the world that are governed by peace and justice and as we work toward their full realization on earth as it is in heaven.

John embodied this new way of being in concrete actions that communicated a new message of conversion, forgiveness, inclusivity and simplicity. By offering the people a moment of conversion…an opportunity for metanoia… John gave the people an opportunity to change the way they were living, right there, right then.. John also offered the people a new way of forgiving sins that was inclusive. Far from the ritual rites of the temple, this forgiveness of sins did not depend on one’s wealth, power or status…simply on one’s desire. It was this simplicity that also governed John’s way of being in the world. Donned in camel hair and a leather belt and subsisting on a diet of locusts and honey, John embodied for the people a new way of living that challenged and confronted the lifestyle of the rich and famous. John lived what according to Matthew and Luke Jesus later preached: live simply; consider the flowers, the birds, how they feed. John was pointing the people to a new way that was already incarnate in their midst.

Yet while John lived in the wilderness in which there was amble space and time to dream new visions such as these, we tend to find ourselves confined to the daily grind of our lives. Brimming with busy-ness we can lose sight of that vision to which Isaiah and John have called us. It seems too remote, too idealistic, too impractical, too impossible. Our lives are such that we can easily become worn down by trying to survive in the current order of things that we cannot see or even hope of a different way of being. What are things in your life that make it difficult for you to imagine a new way?

When we find ourselves so immersed and entangled in the busy-ness of our lives, we are called like John, to seek out the wildness of the wilderness where we might begin to imagine God’s new world order!

I would like to tell you that returning from Camp Knickerbocker the change we experienced on that dark night in the forest remained and a social shalom was ushered forth in our midst. But the reality is, that liminal space is hard to maintain amidst life’s pressures. Once back on the urban asphalt playground, the social lines of division appeared again. Yet, something was different. Although we could not bear to sit next to one another at lunch or dare to play together, the geeks and the cools kids, the jocks and the preps, we all looked differently at one another. Somehow, the magic and mystery of Camp Knickerbock remained, if only revealed in sly smiles and locked eyes across the classroom.

In order to keep the dream of new ways alive, we must practice at it, not just one isolated evening in elementary school, but regularly and ritually.

That is exactly why we come together every week here at CWM, as the Church. It is in the Church, in the community of faith, as part of the Body of Christ, that we are empowered to begin not only to imagine new ways of being, but also to begin practicing them, through the forgiveness of sin, commitment to non-violence, acts of mercy and compassion, radical sharing of leadership, power and resources, and unconditional love. This is where we begin to imagine and create change. Unrestrained by the limiting structures of our lives and the oppressive systems in which we live, we become able to begin to participate in God’s vision of peace and justice. We begin to make real the kin-dom on earth. We begin to take part in God’s plan for salvation.

The Church is not about being practical, feasible, or even possible, the Church is about dreaming new visions of how things should be, regardless of whether or not they ever can be. The Church is the place of radical hope and new vision. If we cannot dare to dream of a new world order in the Church, the locus of hope for us as Christians, then where and when will we ever be able to move beyond the tension and strife of the world in which we live to dare to dream of new ways of being, new ways of living and loving??

The time is now! This Advent season, a ritual time of liminality in our Christian calendar when we are called to move to the wilderness places of our lives, to the desert, to the margins, to the edges, to the places where we have the opportunity to begin to think and act differently, where we have the time to contemplate our lives, our values, our choices, where we have the freedom to dream new dreams, and where we have the possibility of making them come true.

The question is how will you take the liminal, wilderness experience of our Church community out into the world this Advent season? How will you embody who we are in here out there? In the next week, look for opportunities, spaces and places where the community we have within these walls might break forth into the community through your actions. What will you do to bring the wildness back to the world?

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