In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.
What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
I would like to speak to you tonight about courage.
From the moment we take our first breath until we breathe our last, we need courage: the capacity to keep going in the face of fear or danger, to get back up when we fall or fail, to keep our eyes firmly fixed on the light shining in darkness.
“It takes courage,” writes the poet e.e. cummings, “to grow up and become who you really are.”
“Without courage,” said Maya Angelou, “we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We cannot be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest.”
“Success is not final, failure is not fatal, it is the courage to continue that counts,” Winston Churchill said.
Consider this: every person in the Christmas story was compelled to take a dangerous journey, and Mary and Joseph more than one. Each one carried on, with courage.
Mary is young, perhaps as young as 14, when she is summoned by an angel to the task of bringing God’s child into the world. The angel tells her not to be afraid of this frightening request. Seriously? Still, she says yes. At 14. What courage.
Joseph, her betrothed, presumably devastated by the news that Mary is pregnant with a child that is not his, plans to break off their engagement quietly. But then an angel appears to him in a dream, telling him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife. For the child to be born will be of God, the angel tells him, and you are to raise this child as you own. You, Joseph, in the words of W.H. Auden, “are to do what is difficult as if it were easy.” Was he afraid? Yet he did as the angel said. Courage.
Just as Mary was about to give birth, Caesar Augustus declared that all men under the authority of the Roman occupation must return to the villages of their birth to be registered. There was one overriding purpose of such a registration: to instill fear in the entire populace. Joseph was from Bethlehem, a long way from where they were living in Nazareth, Mary’s home town. But he had no choice but to go. Curiously, he decides to take his pregnant wife with him rather than leave her with her family–perhaps fearing for her life? Or did she insist on going with him? We don’t know, but imagine traveling nearly 100 miles on foot, or maybe a donkey, at the end of a pregnancy. What kind of courage does such a trail of tears require?
When they arrive in Bethlehem, there is no spare guest room for them among Joseph’s family, no place inside when Mary’s labor begins. She labors outside, probably in the cave where domesticated animals spend the night. Picture this young girl, far from her family, with only her husband and perhaps a stranger to help her through labor and delivery.
The shepherds in the field were met by angels that night, who terrified them with news of the child’s birth. When the angels depart as dramatically as they appeared, the shepherds resolve to go and see for themselves what they had been told. Courage led them on.
Much later– perhaps as long as a year–magi, members of the priestly class of another land and faith, arrive in Jerusalem asking for the child born King of the Jews. They had seen his star rising in the East and had come to pay him homage. They are immediately summoned before Herod, the proxy king, a ruthless and power-obsessed ruler, who knew nothing of this child. You may remember he instructed the magi that when they find the child they should return and tell him, which they did not do.
After Herod realizes the magi had not complied with his command, he sends his soldiers to harm the child. Joseph, warned in a dream, packs up his young family and journeys yet again, fleeing to Egypt, where they live as refugees until Herod dies and it’s safe to go home.
What a cast of characters.
If the story of Jesus birth tells us anything at all, surely it us that God is willing–eager, in fact–to take up residence in the complex, messy imperfection of human existence, yours and mine, and ours together. Sometimes God invites us to embark on extraordinary journey with divine purpose on rather short notice. On that journey, God draws upon the gifts and contributions of the whole motley crew of us to fulfill purposes far beyond our understanding.
There is no doubt that what God does in Jesus is, in fact, the great miracle of this night. But right behind that great miracle is another one: the courageous response from those caught up in the audacious hope of it all; those who said yes, and carried on with perseverance and grit.
So take courage from this, courage to live your lives fully, wholeheartedly, on whatever journey you are on. Dare to believe that God is right there with you. And remember “It’s not the critic who counts,” as Theodore Roosevelt famously said over 100 years ago. No, life belongs to those in the arena, on the journey, who strive valiantly; “who come short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming.” “Better to fail at the things that matter,” Marian Wright Edelman exhorts us all, as she works tirelessly to defend the most vulnerable children of our land, “Better to fail at the things that matter than to succeed at mediocrity.” Better to fail, Brené Brown would would tell us if she were here, daring greatly.
I don’t know the nature of your journey, the challenges of your life, the place where you may be stumbling now, or where your heart is breaking as you watch a loved stumble or suffer. But God knows. God knows and is with you in that very place. That space inside, where you hold all you would give anything not to have be true, is your manger, where Jesus is pleased to dwell. He knows better than anyone how much it costs you to have courage in that place.
Revealing something of her own struggle, the science fiction writer Veronica Roth gives voice to many: “Sometimes bravery is nothing more than gritting your teeth through pain and the work of every day, the slow walk toward a better life.”
If that is your journey, hear this: Jesus’ birth into your world and mine brings light to that particular, specific darkness, and it is a light that the darkness cannot overcome. The light may seem dim now, for any and all of us, but Jesus is here with us and for us. We can believe in him when all else fails, when we fail and those we counted on fail. I invite you to take a conscious step toward him and his light tonight. Take a deep breath, and ask him for what you need to keep going.
There’s one more thing I’d like to say, that many in this Cathedral and beyond know far better than I: to receive Jesus is also to be summoned by him, in ways large and small, to serve God’s purposes for good in this world. The summons almost always takes the form of a journey, as it did for those present at Jesus’ birth. The journey often takes us where we’d rather not go, to places where there is chaos, confusion, injustice; where there is need of warmth, compassion, and forgiveness, both in human society and the human heart. It can be a thrilling journey; it can be terrifying. It can be the fulfillment of your heart’s desire; it may also be the realization of your deepest fear. But the summons is real. Those who receive him are asked to follow him.
You know who you are. You alone know the cost of living so that some of the goodness and love God longs to manifest in this world is lived out through you.
I pray that tonight affords you a bit of rest, that you feel God’s gratitude for for all you are and offer. And that, even in the hardest times, you can trust in the goodness of this life, this path of following him. Once you’ve said yes to him, you know there is not other path you’d rather walk.
We need not be perfect to say yes. We will never feel ready, any more than those present at the birth of Jesus felt ready. We will never fully understand the mystery at the heart of our existence. All we need to remember tonight is that God is with us, Jesus is for us; that you and I have been given one miraculous life, one opportunity to live fully, wholeheartedly in this world.
It takes courage to become who you really are. Courage to receive him. Courage to follow where he leads. Travel well, my friends. Carry on. Trust that the light will shine in the darkness and be there to illumine your path.
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
Some of you may remember a film that came out 20 years ago, Jerry Maguire. Tom Cruise played the title character, a selfish, driven man. There’s a scene at end when Jerry Maguire comes to his senses and goes to his estranged wife’s house on Christmas Eve and begs her to take him back. He walks into the house as his wife, played by Renée Zellweger, is hosting several of her women friends. They’re all drinking wine, some commenting on how Christmas Eve can be so depressing and trying to convince Zellweger’s character that men are all losers. Jerry Maguire walks in, says hello. No one hears him. He says again, “Hello. I’m looking for my wife.” His wife stands up and he proceed with an obviously rehearsed speech, saying how much he loves, needs her, how she completes him, on and on, until finally she says, “Shut up!” Do you remember what she said after that? “You had me at hello.”
A Jesuit priest named Gregory Boyle has worked for 30 years in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Los Angeles helping gang members and young people returning from prison to create new lives. He tells of a time, early in his ministry, when the parish he served wanted to start an alternative school for middle school–aged gang members.
They were wreaking havoc in the projects, and no other school would have them,” he writes. “Our parish convent occupied the entire third floor above our parochial school. I gather the six Belgian nuns in their living room. Their accents were thick and their hearts brilliant. “Hey,” I ask, “Would you mind. . . you know . . . moving out . . . and we could turn the convent into a school for gang members?” They looked at me, then at each other, and said simply, “Sure.” That was the entirety of their discernment process. (Gregory Boyle, Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018))
Let it be with me according to your word.
Anyone who has ever read the gospel story of Mary’s encounter with the angel Gabriel is rightly struck by how quickly she says yes. He invites her to bear the Son of God. She ponders for a moment, asks a question for clarification, ponders a bit more, and then responds, “Let it me with me according to your word.”
The exchange between Gabriel and Mary may not have transpired as quickly as Luke reports, but then again, it might have. Have you ever been invited to be part of something that spoke to you so deeply you knew immediately your answer was yes?
For Joseph, Mary’s fiánce, things unfold a bit differently. To learn Joseph’s side of the story, we need to read the first chapters of the Gospel of Matthew. Mary is the one who first tells Joseph the news, as all women must when a baby is involved. He doesn’t believe her story about the angel’s visitation, and he sets out to break off their engagement quietly, as any righteous man of his time would have at the news that his betrothed was pregnant with another man’s child.
But then Joseph has a dream, and in the dream a voice speaks: “Don’t be afraid, Joseph, to take Mary as your wife. The child is, indeed, holy. You are to raise him as your son.” It’s the first of several dreams that will guide Joseph on his path of parenthood, dreams that speak to him at decisive moments, telling him exactly what to do. And for reasons known to Joseph alone, he, too, says yes, every time, as soon as he wakes up from his dreams.
Angels and dreams: the stuff of fairytales, perhaps. But what Joseph and Mary share with every other human being is the experience of being faced with something far bigger than they could possibly have anticipated. Their task was to make sense of what was before them, incredible as it was, and respond, rather quickly, as it turns out. There wasn’t a lot of time.The place they went to do that work of sense-making was inside themselves. Mary pondered in her heart; Joseph listened to his dreams to guide him. They both trusted their intuition, and said yes.
I’d like to simply hover over that inner experience for a moment and consider with you the mystery of our inner life, the place inside where we go to process new ideas, unforeseen possibilities, extravagant invitations and determine our response. And to consider the daring proposition in that space, wherever it is inside us, God sometimes speaks to us with astonishing clarity.
There’s a story in the Jewish Bible about a prophet named Elijah who was fleeing for his life. He found himself standing alone on a mountain, desperate to hear a word from God. “Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord,” the text tells us, “but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind, there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.” (I Kings 9:4-13) It was in the silence that God spoke, in what another translation describes as a “still small voice.”
Mark Batterson, pastor of National Community Church here in Washington, has recently written a book on the ways God speaks to us, entitled, Whisper. He points out that the natural phenomena Elijah experienced were impressive. “God has an outside voice and isn’t afraid to use it,” he observes,” but more often than not God prefers to speak to us in a whisper.” And why is that?
When someone speaks in a whisper, you have to get very close to hear. In fact, you have to put your ear near the person’s mouth. We lean toward a whisper, and that’s what God wants. The goal of hearing the heavenly Father’s voice isn’t just hearing His voice; it’s intimacy with Him. That’s why He speaks in a whisper. He wants to be as close to us as is divinely possible. (Mark Batterson, Whisper: How to Hear the Voice of God. (New York: Random House, 2018))
As with all practices, the one of inner listening is not uniquely Christian. What distinguishes this inner work for Christians is the intentional invitation to God and expectation that God will address us internally if we make space to listen. It’s not as easy as it may sound, but it’s also not as difficult as we make it to be. What God needs and what we need is a bit of time and space for pondering; what God needs and what we need is our openness to the unexpected insight that comes seemingly from nowhere and a willingness to trust that insight may be of God.
So how do we go about this discerning, interpretive task? What do we do when we’re pondering? We can do many things. For some, the work is quiet and still, a daily practice of sitting and paying attention to all that comes into consciousness. Others, like Joseph, pay attention to their dreams. For others, to ponder means requires movement—a walk or a run, anything that engages both body and mind. During his 8 years in office President Obama spent a lot of time playing basketball, pondering as he took shots. As my husband will tell you, I am one who putters around the house as I ponder. It doesn’t really matter what I do, but I need to be active and quiet at the same time, to allow my brain to sort things out and be open to the voice of God. I don’t mean to imply that other people aren’t helpful in the discerning process. Hearing ourselves speak the issues we’re carrying can be clarifying, as can hearing the perspectives of others. In the end, though, there’s something solitary about this process, as we hear the voice speak, or feel the nudge, and decide how we will respond.
Sometimes, as with Mary, Joseph, and Renée Zellweger’s character in Jerry Maguire or the nuns deciding the fate of a middle school, the answer comes to us right away. Other times, the sorting and listening happens in a much slower way, over time. Pull the lens back from anyone who seems to have made a quick decision, and we often see months, if not years of preparation. There’s a practice of pondering, a discipline of inner listening that has preceded the moment when the angel appears, or someone knocks on your door, or asks if they can take over a floor of your house.
The other thing to say about that incredible moment of clarity is that you can’t fake it. If you don’t feel it, it doesn’t help to pretend that you do. It’s better to wait until the clarity comes. If you read the Bible often enough, it dawns on you that most of the stories are about people waiting for clarity and direction, preparing for the moments when God speaks. The moments themselves are relatively rare but then they are remembered as the guiding lights that they were, and are again food for pondering as a new generation waits its word from God.
One of the more helpful practices of pondering and preparation that I have been taught is best described in a small book entitled, Sleeping With Bread. The title comes from a true story told about children left orphaned and starving during the Second World War. When at last they were given food in refugee camps, they couldn’t trust that there would be more later on, so they ate themselves sick at every meal. Their caregivers’ solution was to give the children a loaf of bread as they went to bed, so that the children could sleep with confidence that there would be food for them in the morning. Inspired by this image of children holding their loaves of bread as they sleep, the authors describe a simple practice of holding onto what gives us life, especially in times of uncertainty and transition.
The practice is this: at the end of each day take a few moments to reflect, asking two questions: For what moment today am I most grateful? For what moment am I least grateful? There are many ways to ask the same questions: When did I feel the most alive today? When did I feel life draining out of me? When did I give and receive the most love? When did I give and receive the least? This practice, exercised over time, heightens our awareness of moments we might have otherwise passed by as insignificant, moments that can ultimately give direction for our lives. It helps to write our reflections down, a few sentences each day, so that we might watch for patterns at they emerge over time.
When at a particular crossroad, or when striving to discern a particular path, when the ground beneath us shifts, a simple practice of reflection of what gives us life and what takes life away from us, can serve as a source of guidance and consolation. For the spiritual assumption behind this practice is that God’s desire for us is greater life, not less. And should we discern that a costly, difficult road is ours to take, we can do so equipped with a greater reservoir of what sustains us in lean times.
I don’t want to leave you with the impression that I believe it’s possible through these practices to receive complete clarity about how we are to make our way in this life. I don’t believe that, and I have never myself attained it. But I tell you, a little bit of clarity goes a long way. A little bit goes a long way in helping us sift through the endless demands and focus on what matters most; a little bit goes a long way in helping us say no to the many worthwhile tasks in order to say yes to the few tasks we are called to; a little bit of clarity helps us to let go of what is no longer compatible with our lives and reach for what our heart desires, because at last we know something about it. And if by grace, we are invited, as Mary and Joseph were, to do something truly amazing for the world, we will have the capacity and spiritual strength to say yes.
Years ago I met an Episcopal priest who served as the director of a camp and retreat center. At the time we met, he was leaving his position to work in a residential program for troubled teenagers. What he said to me about that move I’ve never forgotten. He said, “I have been preparing all my life for this job.”
I had the sense that he was telling a lot about himself in that one sentence—about his own childhood, perhaps, and his own acquaintance with trouble; about times of vocational uncertainty, no doubt a failure here and there. He was telling me about his passion and repertoire of gifts, and that he felt himself to be moving to a place of great potential to exercise those gifts. This was clearly not a set up on any ladder of vocational advancement. But it was, for him, what his entire life had been preparing him to do. And he was ready. When the invitation came, he said yes.
He was about 20 years ahead of me in life and ministry, and I remember envying him for his clarity and freedom to embrace a new life so completely. I also had the sense that the clarity he had attained requires time and work, a lot of listening and interpreting of life as we make our way. That’s what the inner life of a Christian is for—to help us live comfortably and joyfully in our own skin and ready to say yes should the angel appear or the voice speak.
Let me wrap this up by asking,is there an invitation before you now? Or is this a season to cultivate a practice of quietly listening so that when God speaks to you in a whisper, you will be able to hear? Don’t let the busyness and distractions of this life rob you of the richness of you inner world, that place inside you where God speaks, sometimes, when we’re paying attention, with astonishing clarity.
Will you pray with me?
Lord, we know how many voices clamor for our attention every day, how much noise we are surrounded by, and surround ourselves with, as a way of avoiding the sound of sheer silence. In these last days before Christmas, help us to find moments of quiet and to listen for your voice. Thank you for the examples of those who said yes to your invitation as soon as they heard it; help us to hear, and to respond, as they did. Let it be to us according to your word. Amen.
Christmas did not come after a great mass of people had completed something good, or because of the successful result of any human effort. No, it came as a miracle, as the child that comes when his time is fulfilled. . . In this way did Christmas come; in this way it always comes anew.
By mid-December many a conversation begins: “Are you ready for Christmas?” I used to dread that question, but now I hear in it an acknowledgement that the work of making Christmas celebrations happen, at church or home, is no small task. It’s complicated by the struggles of life and relationship, intensified by all that we cannot control, and compressed into a relatively short period of time. When we’re tired, we long for simpler ways to mark the season; when we’re rested, we wouldn’t have it any other way.
I’m not speaking of the superficialities of Christmas, which we all do well to keep in perspective, but rather its nobler aspects—preparing meaningful worship, caring for one another, gathering at tables, considering thoughtful gifts for those we love, and widening the circle of our concern to those in need. All this takes effort, and it’s well worth it.
Yet what this holy season celebrates isn’t what we make happen. At heart, Christmas is the gift of God coming to us in Jesus, God showing up where we least expect or are in greatest need. As one author writes of Jesus’ birth: “The infant Jesus was born in unimpressive circumstances. His parents were of no social significance, and his chosen welcome committee were dirt-poor shepherds. But in this weakness and poverty, those gathered at the stable would come to know the love of God.” We, too, can know that love, in the weakness and poverty of our lives.
So if you’re wondering where you might experience the grace of God this Christmas, don’t imagine that it depends upon completing your Christmas checklist. Look instead to the places that feel frazzled or empty. Dare to be honest with what you struggle with or long for most. Show up in the places where you feel the least hopeful. Then ask yourself, “Am I ready for Christmas?” Which is to say, “Am I ready to receive what God alone can give?”
Throughout the diocese, people are working hard to offer Christmas worship filled with good news of great joy. I’m so grateful for all you so freely give so that others might receive the true gifts of Christmas. I pray that you may receive that gift for yourself, which is the gift of Jesus coming to you where you least expect and need him most.
Join us for UpBeat, a joyful and musical gathering on the eve of Diocesan Convention, featuring Howard University’s premier vocal group Afro Blue and Atlanta-based priest and social activist, the Rev. Kim Jackson. In addition to music and our featured speaker, representatives from our parishes, campus ministries, and faith communities throughout the Metro-DC area will share uplifting faith stories alongside food and fellowship.
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Howard University’s premier vocal group Afro Blue will perform and also to lead us in joyful singing. This dynamic “vocal big band” has performed to wide critical acclaim. Afro Blue has been featured on NPR’s All Things Considered and reached the top four on The Sing-Off, NBC-TV’s a cappella group competition. Afro Blue performed at The White House for President and Mrs. Obama. Afro Blue has established a continuing relationship with The John F. Kennedy Center for The Performing Arts and performed with The National Symphony Orchestra (NSO).
Our featured speaker is The Rev. Kim Jackson, Associate Rector for Adult Formation and Christian Social Action Ministry. She is a public theologian and a fierce community activist. Kim works to end the death penalty, advocates for women and children’s issues, and is passionate about sharing the liberating Gospel of Christ. When she’s not wearing a collar, you can find her on her small farm in Stone Mountain with her goats, ducks, and chickens.
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Good morning, friends. It’s good to be in my neighborhood parish! If you’re visiting today, as I am, let me say on behalf of all at St. Stephen’s how glad we are that you’re here. We’re all glad to be here. With all that’s swirling around and within us now, it’s such a relief to walk into this holy place an we enter into an alternative narrative: one of hope, grace, and good news.
You may have noticed that the Scripture text just read was taken from the opening chapter and verses of the Gospel of Mark, and it explicitly states that it is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.
In these days leading up to Christmas–the celebration of God coming into our world, breaking into our lives, taking up residence here, making startling pronouncements and offering visions for a better day–it’s an important question to consider: when does the good news of Jesus begin?
There are three other texts that tell the story Jesus’ life, and they’re all referred to as gospels, a word that which mean good news. You might read the opening chapters of each one to see how they answer that question: when does good news begin?
Your senior priest, Sam, told me of the Jesse Tree you’ve placed in your sanctuary. The Jesse Tree, as it is portrayed in Christian art and literature, traces the genealogy of Jesus. And two of the four gospels have genealogies as part of their answer as to when good news begins. Genealogies remind us that all of life is connected–past, present and future. Even Jesus wasn’t born in a spiritual or historical vacuum. Indeed no manifestation of goodness or love, compassion or justice, healing or grace simply drops of out the sky. There are always antecedents, cultivators, those who foreshadow and prepare the way.
The person who wrote the Gospel of Mark–presumably his name was Mark–answered the question, “Where does the good news of Jesus begin?” with stunning clarity: in the wilderness. Good news begins in wilderness.
The wilderness is both an actual place and a metaphor for a certain spiritual and emotional terrain. Places of wilderness are often harsh, lean, and lonely. They lie beyond the borders of human community. In the wilderness, both natural elements and spiritual forces are stronger than we are–we are decidedly not in control. And we don’t know, for certain, how long we’ll be there.
There’s danger in the wilderness, but also grace. We’re genuinely grateful for the grace when it comes, but we also know its cost, which is the context in which we receive it.
I, for one, am spending these weeks before Christmas actively seeking inspiration. For I am determined not to give up hope in the wilderness, no matter what. I want to be like a Rwandan peacekeeper who insisted on returning to his country at the height of the genocide there. When his friends and colleagues here in the United States tried to persuade him to stay, he responded. “I am a Christian. For Christians, hopelessness is not an option.”
So I have been on the hunt for Advent inspiration. And thus far, all the examples of good news in the wilderness that I have experienced have centered around a person, or persons, and their hopeful, gritty response to adversity, injustice, or pain.
Yesterday, as one example, my husband and I stopped in to say hello to a neighbor who is recovering from a bout of life threatening pneumonia. He had been living with it for over a month, without realizing what was slowly draining him of strength and breath. Then one morning he woke with excruciating pain and wound up in the hospital for over a week. He looked like he had been hit by a truck, and as he spoke of his ordeal, his voice shook. But then after a time, his countenance shifted and his tone of voice softened. He spoke with gratitude of all the blessings he had received throughout his illness. When we prayed together, he thanked God for all his mercies, the kindness from all who cared for him. He promised God that he would learn from their example and be a better person.
I’ve begun to notice a few common themes among my encounters with good news in the wilderness that I’m glad to share with you, in hopes they might be of help to you should you be in a wilderness one of your own, or if you are walking with another, or as we all struggle to discern how to respond to the wilderness of our time.
First of all, to state the obvious: the wilderness is not pleasant. It’s a hard place most people do not choose, but rather find themselves. Remember that Jesus, after his baptism, was driven into the wilderness. Some, though, freely choose to enter wilderness in order to be present with those caught there and to help get them out. They are my heroes.
I’ve also noticed that those who embody Jesus’ good news in the wilderness have fully accepted the wilderness for what it is. There’s a matter-of-factness about them. They’ve let go of their rage against the universe, or God, or other human beings or themselves. It’s as if they’ve decided not to waste one more ounce of energy railing against the fact wilderness exists and they’re in it. With their acceptance, they then set themselves to ask the most amazing question of all: “What is God in this wilderness?” and another: “How am I going to live while I’m here?” I’m reminded of Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish woman who kept a diary throughout rise of Hitler and her captivity in concentration camp. She wrote: “There must be someone to live through it all and bear witness to the fact that God lived, in these times.” (Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life. The Diaries, 1941-43, and Letters from Westerbork)
Another characteristic I’ve noticed in the people who embody good news in the wilderness: they are able to speak the hardest of truths in ways that other people can hear. It’s an amazing gift. It’s not that difficult to speak hard truths in ways that solidify prejudices, entrench polarized positions, and make people angry. But to speak truths that other can hear–that has the power to transform the world.
Many of you, like me, are inspired by the work of Bryan Stevenson, the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. He is a tireless advocate for criminal justice reform, overturning the death penalty, and having hard conversations about race in this country. He speaks his truth in such a way that even those who disagree with him lean in to what he has to say, and find themselves captivated and transformed.
John the Baptist had a similar capacity, as evidenced by the crowds that flocked to the Jordan to be baptized. He wasn’t known for his smooth speech; he was as blunt a preacher as they come. But there was something about him that prompted others to respond, to want to be in his orbit.
Finally, to a person, those who embody good news in the wilderness have tapped into a source of goodness and a future hope from which to live, even if that hope is far in the future, and they are determined to do their part to get us there. “I may not get there with you,” Dr. King said in the final hours of his life, “but I’ve been to the mountain and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but one day, we as a people will get to the Promised Land.”
Future hope allows bearers of good news to be fully present in the moment, to do what they can, wherever they are. Moments of discouragement come to them, as they do for all of us, but they don’t let go of hope. They, too, are on the watch for inspiration and good news, and they cling to every bit they are given as they embrace where they find themselves now. Then they go about their lives doing whatever good they can.
Those who embody good news in the wilderness are all around us. Not only do they inspire us through their presence and example; unbeknownst to them God speaks. God breaks through to us through them, encouraging us to keep going, keep looking, keep believing that the way things are not the way they always will be, keep following whatever bits of light and goodness we are given.
Here is another truth, most astonishing of all: In your darkest hour and mine; in your most uncertain times and mine; in your emptiest and most dissatisfied moments and mine, someone may well experience through you and through you good news in their wilderness. It happens. When it happens to me, I feel the power of God in a life-altering way. Because it’s so clearly not about me, but about the power of God working in and among us all, coming and taking up residence within us all, often in our most despairing and insecure places. In the wilderness of my life, that may be the best news of all, that God still comes, Jesus abides, and light shines.
We simply don’t know what the future holds. We don’t know where we are in the long arcs of history any more than Etty Hillesum, or Dr. King, or John the Baptist knew in their time on this earth. Jesus comes so that we might live in ultimate hope: and in the meantime, while we wait for full realization of all that is good, bits of goodness will come to us, time and again, giving us just enough light to take our next faithful step in the wilderness.
Will you join me in prayer?
Lord, thank you for good news that comes to us in wilderness. We are especially grateful for those who embody that goodness in their lives. We open ourselves to carriers of that goodness as well whenever you might grace us with your presence. As we prepare to celebrate the good news of great joy that comes to us in Jesus, help us to remember that it is all around us, and in us, good news that begins now.