By Rev. Joan Kessler
During my time away last week, quite by accident, I found a book that I have a hard time putting down. It is called In the Shelter, written by Irish theologian and poet, Padraig O’Tuama. Padraig is the former director of the Corrymeela community in Ireland, an organization founded back in 1965 to aid in the work of reconciliation during and following the Troubles of the Northern Ireland conflict. In the Shelter asks the profound question of how do we say hello to here? How do we accept the realities of our situations in a time when reality can feel very harsh indeed. In other words, how do we live in our own skins? How do we guard against indifference, numbness, and fear? And right in the opening chapter, Padraig describes this beautiful challenge. He writes,
Much of our desire to not name a place, because we fear that in naming it, we are giving it power, and by giving it power, we are saying we may not escape. It’s a valid fear. There are some suburbs of hell we wish we’d never visited….To name something can be to call it into being, ... and we do not wish to call certain things into any kind of being.
So I have been thinking about the places I call here...and I recall a particular moment in time the other week when I went to the grocery store and stood before emptied milk coolers and produce shelves...and I asked myself, what am I doing here? It was a very unyielding and almost surreal feeling….this is not right….maybe you know what I’m talking about. The experience of panic-buying was all around me. I had to make decisions. And all the questions that ran through me: what things are critical to me at this very moment; how much do I buy; what can I leave for others; how long before things return to normal and I can buy bananas again?
Advent, these four weeks that precede Christmas, are a time held in tension maybe just like what I’ve described of my trip to the grocery store...To draw on Padraig’s writing and imagery, we are in an Advent kind of Here....between the waiting and the celebration... the now and the not yet...the lengthening darkness and the dawn of new Light...between flooding and dry land. And we add to this theological understanding the coming towards us, the drawing near of the Incarnate One, the Holy to our mundane places, moving into our neighborhood, the "Here"s we call home.
This is how our Advent begins for 2021… our attention is focused on our natural world these past days since the arrival of heavy rains and high winds and soil instability began to turn what we knew upside down. We look to the skies, the ground beneath our feet and we wonder....this is perhaps the first Advent of my life that the little apocalypse we hear Jesus speak of somehow, doesn’t sound so crazy after all. And we are learning of the arrival of a new COVID variant that promises to be one of monumental concern. And these realities, the places we occupy, the Heres of our Beings...we take nothing for granted. We notice when highways are closed and travel plans cancelled, when deliveries are delayed and there is no milk in the cooler or bananas in the grocery store bins. These things, all together, make this day, this first time back in our sanctuary so very special and not one moment of it can we take for granted or be indifferent towards. But while we are confronted with the reality of our varied circumstances, we lean into Hope...we keep looking to the future and the time when we will be able to put more chairs out and gather more easily.
This week, I was introduced to the work of Alberta psychologist and hope-researcher, Ronna Jevne, a friend and former colleague of both Don and Bev Sawatzky. In an online interview about her book Finding Hope: Ways of Seeing Life in a Brighter Light, Ronna said a “day with (hope) guarantees nothing, and a day without is very difficult: it can’t be injected. It can’t be x-rayed and yet we know when our hope is down.” An under-researched phenomenon, Ronna has found that defining hope is not something we do. It is unique to each one of us, defined by our life’s circumstances and experiences. To have hope is to be able to “cohabitate with uncertainty.”
In this first week of Advent, Jesus challenges us to name and welcome the “here” we find ourselves occupying, even in the midst of all its uncertainty and impending change. Jesus describes a world reeling in pain. There will be signs, he says, in the skies above us, the ground below us...dismay among nations over many things….but don’t turn away, don’t hide. Rather, notice. Raise your worried heads and look to the natural world. Observe the fig trees and all the trees, Jesus says. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves that summer is near. How would the parable change if Jesus instead asked us to observe the Advent of a changing climate? All he is suggesting is that we notice what’s taking place around us and trust what we see. Think about it...what are the things we humans do when things get turned upside down. We might panic-buy, this is true...but we also might pitch in and share with others who have lost. We tap into our Hope and it sees us getting our creative energies working and we begin to dream of possibility...a good outcome….beyond our expectations...our yearnings coming toward the Goodness that is always coming toward us.
What is your hope right now….maybe you want to just close your eyes for just a imagine it, put a name to it...the picture is the start...let us Advent together….to come towards the future that is coming toward us...the holy that surrounds us in all our “heres”. May we hope together...Amen.