Light in the Darkness/Greenness in the midst of Barrenness. That is what we seek right now. That is who we have been created to be: Light in the Darkness/Greenness in the midst of Barrenness.
And the Darkness seems so very dark. The Barrenness seems so bare. Christina Rossetti said it and expressed it when she wrote, “In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone …”
Not only the Earth, but our hearts and souls stand hard as iron, frozen like water as we collectively seek comfort and understanding against the backdrop of yet another tragedy that thrusts us into the deep darkness and barrenness more bleak than midwinter itself.
I have been touched by similar tragedy as a lone gunman walked into the office of my parish home and shot my two closest colleagues in ministry and subsequently took his own life. And we lived for five years just a few miles from Sandy Hook/Newtown, CT. How often I exited I-84 at the Sandy Hook exit on my way home from meetings in Hartford. For several years Harper and Kirk Alan attended Fawn Hollow Elementary School in nearby Monroe, CT, just minutes down the road from Sandy Hook. How is it that it was not Fawn Hollow then rather than Sandy Hook now?
People ask me, “How do you keep your faith amidst such terrible and senseless tragedy?” Or, they say to me, “This is why I don’t believe in God – to have created such a world of endless tragedy and darkness is just a cruel joke.”
There are days, and there are days. I spend time several days a week asking myself just those kinds of questions, expressing just those kinds of doubts and abject frustrations as I journal about May 2nd, 2012. I run across poems like this one from Jane Kenyon and know just how it is:
The cicadas dry monotony breaks
over me. The days are bright
and free, bright and free.
Then why did I cry today
for an hour, with my whole
body, the way babies cry?
- - From Jane Kenyon, Three Songs
It is Advent – a season of longing, waiting and hoping during the darkest, coldest, most barren time of year. We read passages such as Luke 3:7-18 where we hear John the Baptist addressing the gathering crowds in words that seem hauntingly appropriate for a weekend such as this, “You brood of vipers!” A lone voice in the wilderness, railing against the system! Railing against the ongoing tragedy of military occupation and religious collaboration with it. Railing against a world gone mad with Sin, capital “S”! Sin simply being all those ways in which we separate ourselves from the love of God – most often by what we say, think and do about others. All others. You know, those not like ourselves. We may as well face it – at the end of the day we are all narcissists – why can’t everyone be like me, think like me, and believe like me?. Then, and only then we convince ourselves, the world would be a better place. As one wag put it long ago, “Sin, n. An act one is sure he or she will never commit. v. The act of reaching that assurance.”
And so it is Advent. And what do we do? Each week we light another candle on the Advent Wreath – an ancient, pagan and pre-Christian symbol of increasing light just as the world is literally getting darker and darker with each successive day. Rarely do we consider the lighting of each candle as an act of defiance, but it is. Week by week, day by day it is our way of saying, “The darkness will not overcome us.” And we are those people who believe that – that the Word was with God, that the Word is God, that all things are created through the Word, and that the Word is life and light, and that the Light shines in the darkness, and that the darkness cannot, has not, and will not overcome the Light that is the eternal, everlasting Word.
These defiant candles we light sit in a wreath of evergreens. The Cherokee nation tells a tale. When the plants and trees were first created the Great Creator Spirit gave a gift to each species. But first she set up a contest to determine which gift would be most useful to which plant, bush and tree. “I want you to stay awake and keep watch over the Earth for seven nights,” said the Great Creator Spirit. The young trees and plants were so excited! A contest! And even more so, a responsibility given to them by the Great Creator Spirit herself! The first night it was simply impossible to fall asleep, the young plants and trees were so excited! The next night, however, was not so easy, and one by one a few fell asleep. On the third night the trees whispered among themselves in the wind to keep awake, but for some it was just too much work and a few more fell asleep. So it went, one night after another until by the Seventh Night the only trees still awake were the cedar, the pine, the spruce, the fir, the holly and the laurel.
“What wonderful endurance you have!” exclaimed the Great Creator Spirit. “You shall be given the gift of remaining green forever. You will be the guardians of the forest. Even in the seeming dead of winter your brother and sister creatures will find life protected in your branches.” Ever since that Seventh Night, all the other plants and trees lose their leaves and sleep all winter, while the evergreens stay awake, stand guard, and provide refuge from the cold, the darkness and the barrenness of winter.
John the Baptizer has a rough and peculiar pedagogical method. After calling us all a Brood of Vipers, reminding us that we have all fallen short of our God given gifts and responsibilities, he outlines just how we are meant to live lives of being Light in the Darkness/Evergreen amidst the Barrenness. If you have two coats, give one away. Don’t be greedy, don’t take advantage of others. Share whatever food you have, rob no one by violence or false accusation, be content with what you have. This is what it means to Stay Awake. This is what it means to be a defiant presence as the days grow darker and darker.
How do I remain faithful? I have been fortunate. Every day, as many as five times a day, I sit at a conference table with a dozen or so young women who are seeking answers to the same questions we are all asking right now. We wrestle with the questions, we shed light on things for one another, we find ways to laugh amidst the tears and fears. One young woman is from Afghanistan – she blogs about the rights of women in a dangerous and politically barren land. Yet, every morning she arrives with a smile on her face as bright as the brightest of lights in the heavens. And despite being a Muslim, she cannot wait to open the next “window” on the Advent Calendar on our bulletin board.
Or, there is last night. As I spent a week in New Hampshire last August attempting to make sense out of the tragedies of May 2nd at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Ellicott City, MD, I was asked if I would fill in on the drums with a group of musicians who devote themselves to continuing a musical tradition that itself attempts to make sense out of living in a dark and barren land. Filling in has become a steady weekly time spent rehearsing, playing, and keeping a defiant music alive for yet another generation of fellow travelers. As a drummer I get to pound out defiant rhythms, or delicately outline sensitive passages while reflecting on the horrors of waking up to a nuclear winter in a song like Morning Dew. I don’t know why, but the exercise of my musical gifts somehow is a healing balm for the still raw and gaping wounds of that day in May when for an interminable number of hours the music stopped and it all seemed nothing more than a senseless world of violence, tragedy and sadness.
But suddenly I found myself surrounded by Evergreen people on all sides, holding one another up, and holding me in their midst. People who had heard about the Word – the Word that is Light in the Darkness – the Word that is life and light – the Word that is Light - Light that is not, has not, and will not be overcome by any Darkness.
This is who we are: Evergreen guardians of the Earth, one another, and all creatures great and small. I thank God every day for those people who know this, believe this, and make it possible to be Light in the Darkness, to be Evergreen in the midst of Barrenness. We all need to know this. We all need to embody these simple truths. Every moment of every day. The World needs us. Newtown/Sandy Hook needs us. God needs us. God needs us as much if not more than we need God. God believes in us enough to make us guardians of this Earth and Guardians of one another. I am convinced that God does not much care if we believe in God. All God cares about is if we will Stay Awake and be Light and Life and Evergreen Hope for one another. And that will be enough – enough to get us through this weekend together. Amen.