María le preguntó al ángel: ¿Cómo va a suceder esto, puesto que soy virgen?
La nuestra no es la primera generación que se hace preguntas sobre la fe. Toda la vida cristiana se basa en el testimonio de nuestros antepasados espirituales, que se atrevieron a proponer sus preguntas en momentos cruciales, cuando se enfrentaban a decisiones trascendentales.
Entre las preguntas de fe que he recibido en respuesta a mi invitación de principios de noviembre, una resuena con las que encontramos en los relatos bíblicos del nacimiento de Jesús, formuladas por quienes se sentían convocados a una narración más amplia:
¿Cómo escuchas al Señor?
¿Cómo sabes lo que Él quiere que hagas y no lo que tu voz interior quiere que hagas?
Como en todas las preguntas relacionadas con la presencia y el poder de Dios, se requiere humildad. Rara vez deberíamos decir con autoridad definitiva que conocemos la mente de Dios por nosotros mismos o por cualquier otra persona. Escuchar la voz de Dios es una experiencia tentativa, incluso en nuestros encuentros espirituales más poderosos. Siempre existe la posibilidad real de que estemos equivocados en nuestra interpretación de lo que oímos o sentimos como un llamado de Dios.
Al mismo tiempo, cuando nos abrimos al misterio de la comunicación divina, que está en el corazón de la oración, hay ciertos puntos de referencia y percepciones de nuestros antepasados espirituales que nos guían.
El primer punto de referencia que puedo mencionar por experiencia es que la “voz” de Dios, si esa es la palabra adecuada, es decididamente distinta de la mía. A veces, el mensaje llega internamente: una intuición, un pensamiento o un empujón para avanzar en una dirección determinada. Con la misma frecuencia, oigo lo que parece ser la voz de Dios hablada a través de otra persona, o en los acontecimientos de la vida.
Así ocurre también en los relatos de Navidad de las Escrituras. Por ejemplo, el Señor habla a la joven María en la forma de un ángel – un mensajero exterior– con el que María se siente perfectamente libre para inciar una conversación real. Le pregunta sin miedo. ¿Cómo es posible? Lo que es imposible para María, responde el ángel, no es imposible para Dios. Un buen recordatorio para todos nosotros.
Y como oiremos en la iglesia este domingo, la voz de Dios habla a José a través de un sueño, sugiriéndole que haga exactamente lo contrario de lo que había planeado. Las Escrituras no nos dicen cómo se sintió José ante el mensaje de su sueño; sólo que cambió de rumbo como resultado de lo que oyó.
También está la historia de los sabios de Oriente que se sintieron convocados por una estrella.
En cada relato, el mensaje procedía de una fuente que los que lo recibieron experimentaron como algo que iba más allá de ellos mismos: no su propia voz, sino otra.
Una vez más, la humildad es esencial en este caso. A menudo nos equivocamos y nos dejamos influir fácilmente por fuerzas externas, o por ilusiones internas, que no proceden en absoluto de Dios. Sin embargo, seríamos igualmente insensatos si ignoráramos las formas en que sentimos la presencia de Dios guiándonos y animándonos a lo largo de la vida. Al igual que nuestros antepasados espirituales, que fueron lo suficientemente valientes como para dar pasos fieles en respuesta al llamado que recibieron, estamos más vivos cuando caminamos por fe y vemos adónde nos lleva el viaje.
Tuve la suerte de estar entre el clero de EDOW que se reunió esta semana para un Día de Silencio de Adviento. Nuestro líder, el Rvdo. Martin Smith, nos pidió que reflexionáramos sobre la pregunta: “¿Qué quiere ser Cristo para mí en este momento?”. Sugirió que reflexionáramos sobre el himno celta que nos recuerda las diversas direcciones de las que puede venir la ayuda de Cristo:
Cristo conmigo, Cristo dentro de mí,
Cristo detrás de mí, Cristo delante de mí,
Cristo a mi lado, Cristo para ganarme,
Cristo para consolarme y restaurarme.
Cristo debajo de mí, Cristo encima de mí,
Cristo en la tranquilidad, Cristo en el peligro,
Cristo en los corazones de todos los que me aman,
Cristo en boca de amigo y forastero.1
Los modos en que escuchamos y experimentamos a Cristo varían según nuestros temperamentos y circunstancias. Estos días santos de Adviento y Navidad pueden ayudarnos a estar abiertos a recibir lo que Cristo quiere que recibamos, y a confiar en que lo que Cristo nos pide nunca está lejos de lo que Cristo quiere que experimentemos como aquellos con quienes se complace en habitar.
1Palabras atribuidas a San Patricio.
Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’
Ours is not the first generation to ask questions of faith. Indeed, the entire Christian enterprise is built upon the witness of our spiritual forebears who dared to ask their questions in crucible moments when faced with consequential decisions.
Among the questions of faith I’ve received in response to my invitation in early November, two resonate with those we find in the biblical accounts of Jesus’ birth, asked by those who felted summoned into a larger narrative:
How do you hear the Lord?
How do you know what He wants you to do rather than what your inner voice wants you to do?
As with all questions relating to the presence and power of God, we do well to be humble when contemplating how God speaks to us. Even in our most powerful spiritual encounters, hearing God’s voice is a subjective experience, prone to error.
At the same time, when we open ourselves to the mystery of divine communication, which is at the heart of prayer, there are certain or seemingly universal insights to guide us.
The first of these insights that I can speak of from personal experience is that the “voice” of God, if that’s the right word for it, is decidedly different from my own. Sometimes the message comes internally–an insight or thought or nudge to move in a certain direction. Just as often, I hear what seems to be the voice of God spoken through another person, or in the events of life.
That is clearly the case in the biblical accounts of Jesus’ birth. The Lord speaks to the young girl Mary in the form of an angel–an outside messenger–with whom Mary feels perfectly free to engage in real conversation. She asks her question without fear. How can this be? What is impossible for Mary, the angel responds, is not impossible for God. A good reminder for us all.
And as we will hear in church this Sunday, the voice of God speaks to Joseph through a dream, suggesting that he do the exact opposite of what he had planned. Scripture doesn’t tell us how Joseph felt about the message from his dream; only that he changed course as a result of what he heard.
Then there is the story of the wise ones from the East who felt summoned by a star.
In each account, the message came from a source that those who received it experienced as beyond themselves–not their own voice, but another.
Again, humility is essential whenever we speak about God’s call. Yet we would be remiss to ignore or downplay the ways we sense the presence of God guiding and encouraging us through life. Like our spiritual ancestors who were brave enough to take faithful steps in response to the summons they received, we are our most alive when we walk by faith and see where the journey leads.
I was blessed to be among the EDOW clergy who gathered for an Advent Quiet Day this week. Our leader, the Rev. Martin Smith, asked us to ponder the question, “What does Christ want to be for me just now?” He suggested that we reflect on the Celtic hymn which reminds of us the various directions from which Christ’s help might come:
Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.1
The ways we hear and experience Christ vary according to our temperaments and circumstances. These holy days of Advent and Christmas help us be open to however Christ comes and whatever it is that Christ wants us to receive.
And while there may be something that Christ wants us to do, he comes first wanting us to receive the gift of his presence within, behind, before and beside us. We are the ones in whom He is pleased to dwell, to stand behind us as our strength, and walk beside us as our friend.
1Words attributed to St. Patrick.
A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see,or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. The wolf shall live with the lamb,the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:“Prepare the way of the Lord,make his paths straight.” ’Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
Good morning, All Souls. I’m very glad to be in worship with you after so long. Thanks to Rev. Julianne for her warm welcome. I believe that congratulations and blessings are on her 13th anniversary of her ordination as a priest. Thank you, Rev. Julianne, for coming to serve as interim rector in this tender and important time in All Soul’s life. Special thanks as well to All Souls vestry, and notably your wardens Kevin Legrand and Daniel Callis, for your leadership and love. I’m especially honored to preside today as Ms. Gretchen McKnew stands to confirm her faith, allowing us all to reaffirm our faith in Jesus and rededicate our lives to His way of love.
Inspired by the rather dramatic juxtapositions of themes in the Scripture passages we’ve heard this morning, both wonderfully reassuring and deeply challenging, I’d like to speak to you about the distinction between what we might call the comfort zone of faith and the challenge zone.
The comfort zone of faith assures us of God’s unconditional love; of Jesus’ promise to be with us, always, no matter what; of Jesus and his complete forgiveness of our sins and desire to help us grow in the fullness of who God created us to be.
The comfort zone of faith is the Holy Spirit working in us and through us, accomplishing more, as the Apostle Paul writes, than we can ask or imagine.
There is nothing we need to do in the comfort zone of faith, nothing we must prove. All that’s necessary is for us is to be open and receive grace upon grace; to hear Jesus’ words: “Come unto me, all that are heavy laden and I will give you rest;” to take in the words of God spoken in the psalms, “Be still, and know that I am God.”
Whenever I’m blessed with a comfort zone experience of faith, I feel loved, and seen, and held by grace. This is, as we heard in the passage of Romans, “the God of hope filling us with joy and peace in believing so that we may abound in hope by the Holy Spirit.”
In contrast, when we’re In a challenge zone of faith, the feeling is anything but comfortable, because that’s when, by definition, we’re stretched beyond our comfort. These are the times when God calls us by name to do something specific that we don’t want to do; or when we sense that God is asking us to show up, or keep going when we’re tired, for someone else’ sake.
These are the times when we can no longer hide or make excuses for our failings, but need to face them, ask for forgiveness, and start again.
We’re often thrust into a challenge zone of faith whenever something big happens that we weren’t expecting, and as a result, we lose our bearings for a time.
A challenge zone is when life asks for more than we can handle on our own and we have no choice but to ask for help.
What is so important for us to remember is that God is with us in both zones, in comfort and in challenge. God is with us, and for us, and on our side.
And we need both zones: we need to know God’s love for us, to feel Jesus’ presence as our friend, to experience the Holy Spirit moving as wind at our backs. The moments of comfort, of affirmation, of feeling loved and guided and sustained are among the best experiences of our lives. These are the experiences that fill us with hope, possibility, and joy.
And we also need, hard as they are, the challenge zones. They are our teachers. Some of our most painful experiences in life, if we let them, create in us a capacity for greater love. I’m not one to go so far as to say that God orchestrates the challenges we face, but I know from experience that God uses our challenges, as my spiritual director sometimes reminds me, “to stretch our hearts.”
Alone as we might feel, God is with us when we feel ourselves pushed into a challenge zone, or when we embrace a season of challenge ourselves, even though it’s hard.
God is with us when our hearts are broken, when we’re scared, disappointed, or challenged. God is with us when we’ve done something we regret and need to seek forgiveness and make amends; when someone does something to hurt us and we struggle to forgive. God is with us when we need to do something really hard and don’t want to, when we need to face the things we’d rather avoid. God is with us when we’re grieving, when we’re angry.
God is with us, and will see us through.
About a month ago, inspired by a conversation I had with a group of young adults from another congregation, I invited people from across the diocese to send me their questions of faith. The questions I’ve received cover a wide range of topics, all of them, as you might imagine, from the challenge zone of faith–questions about how to reconcile human suffering with faith in a loving God; how to forgive oneself or others for harms done; how to pray in such a way that feels like a real connection rather than a recitation of words.
I can’t promise definitive or satisfactory answers to any of them but I am honored to ponder them and offer what imperfect insights I can. They encapsulate those most important moments in our life of faith, when we are challenged, tested, and when we can learn first hand what it means to trust in God when, as the African American theologian Howard Thurman would say, “when our backs are against the wall.”
Today I’d like to share with you a question I received a few years ago at this time of year from my goddaughter, a sweet young woman in her mid 20s who was–and still is–struggling with alcohol and drug addiction, coupled with significant mental illness that requires constant vigilance.
We hadn’t spoken for a long time and I was happy to hear from her. “I’ve been praying all morning,” she said, “and reading in the ‘Big Book’ (the writings of Bill W. that underscore the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous known as the 12 steps.) I don’t think I’ve ever prayed as much as I’ve prayed today.” She went on. “God is a complete mystery to me, and I don’t really understand religious people who say that they know exactly what God is like. But then I thought of you.”
We talked a bit longer. I had the sense that there was something more she wanted to tell me, and eventually it came out. When I asked her if we might be able to see each other over the upcoming Christmas holidays, she said: “I think so, but all I know is that I am alive today.”
There was a pause. “I am practicing sobriety,” she said. “I have been sober for 9 days.” Another pause. “Before that, I was sober for over a year, but then I relapsed.” “It’s really hard,” she said. “It’s so hard. But I don’t want to die of alcoholism.”
Lord help me help her, I prayed.
“I don’t want you to die, either,” I said slowly. “God doesn’t want you to die. I am praying hard for you and am here for you, and I am so grateful that you are in my life.”
“We are all living one day at a time,” I told her. “God is a mystery to me, too, and beyond my understanding. But I believe that the mystery we call God wants to be in relationship with you, and will make Himself known to you in ways that you can lean on.”
My goddaughter’s name is Hope and she is still struggling to hold onto hope. Each day she begins again, as we all do. When she remembers, she tries to pray because her life depends on it. It depends on her ability to trust in what in AA they call her “higher power,” and that we, as Christians, call God.
I pray that Hope might know the love of God, a love that comforts and encourages her, assures her of Jesus’ presence, and helps her trust that nothing can separate her from the love of God. I long for things to be easier for her, that she might know goodness and joy and ease. I want those things for all my loved ones, for all of you, and for all God’s children.
But Hope is in a challenge zone now, big time. It isn’t easy, and there’s no turning back. And so I pray that my sweet goddaughter survives the gauntlet of challenge that is bigger than she is, and will one day know the grace, resilience, and blessing that awaits her on the other side.
And when she falters, stumbles, falls back, as she has done several times since that phone call, I pray for those who love her to surround her with as much comfort as they can give, because she needs that, too. We all do.
Perhaps some of you, or someone you love, are in a challenge zone now. Please be tender with yourselves and with them. I daresay that All Souls as a congregation is a challenge zone of faith, all of which to say is that things are hard now, you don’t know how things will turn out. I pray that God will give you hope in the midst of all that is being asked of you.
Sometimes I think we try to will ourselves into being hopeful people, to supply that hope for ourselves. But that’s not how it works with God. The kind of hope that sustains and gets us through comes from God.
When we don’t feel it, there’s nothing wrong with us.
Sometimes other people carry hope for us when we can’t. We don’t need to pretend, but rather ask for what we need to get us through.
Christmas, of all celebrations of the Christian year, is meant to help us lean heavily on the comforting side of faith, assuring us of God’s love coming to us as we are and the world as it is.
Yet it stands to reason that in the very season of “comfort and joy,” we are also most in touch where we need God the most, the God of hope who can fill us with all joy and peace in believing, through the power of the Holy Spirit. It isn’t our doing; this is the gift that comes from God.
I”d like to close with the final words that the political commentator and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, Michael Gerson, preached from the pulpit of Washington National Cathedral a few years ago. You may have read that Gerson died of complications from cancer recently, at the far too young age of 58. He also struggled with clinical depression, about which he spoke openly in his sermon. This is what he said:
Many, understandably, pray for a strength they do not possess. But God’s promise is somewhat different: That even when strength fails, there is perseverance. And even when perseverance fails, there is hope. And even when hope fails, there is love. And love never fails.1
May I pray for you?
Gracious and merciful God, I thank you for these your beloved children, for those for whom this a time of comfort and joy, happiness and peace. I pray that you will shield their joy and amplify it in this holy season.
For those for whom this is a time of challenge and struggle, Lord I pray as the Apostle Paul prayed, that your spirit of hope may fill them and sustain them through this difficult time. Lift them up, Lord. Hold them close. Help them know that they are not alone.
And for those of us for whom life is a mixture of both comfort and challenge, help us to receive the bits of goodness that are all around us, and face our difficulties and challenges with grace. Open our eyes to see your hand at work within and around us. And to trust that your love never fails.
by the Rev. Dr. Kate Heichler
On an Advent Sunday [in 2021], a chunk of the congregation at Christ Church in La Plata gathered for our first parish lunch since the pandemic. Over chili and cornbread, we welcomed first-time visitors and longtime members, all there to share and tell the “Story of Christ Church” as part of the Tending Our Soil thriving congregations initiative. Two longtime parishioners, who came to the church at the ages of 0 and 5, respectively, took us through a timeline of the past 25 years. Then we moved the tables, circled up the chairs – with room for the big screen showing Zoom participants – and began a Story Circle.
Starting with “Once upon a time, in 1683, in Port Tobacco, a group of settlers decided they wanted an Anglican Church…” each person in turn took up the story, adding their part, all prefaced by a time reference: “Roughly 350 years after that, my family and I saw the rainbow-colored wind sock in front of Christ and thought, ‘I’d like to try that church.’” And “About 14 years before that, my wife and I moved to La Plata and found Christ Church, and two years later I was confirmed as an Episcopalian,” and “Two years ago I attended a HeartSongs Open Mic night here and Rev. Kate asked me, “How do you bring light into the world.” (She did? Yikes!)
As we went around the circle, a story emerged of a church in which many have found a welcoming home, sometimes after painful times elsewhere; of a sanctuary and worship in which many feel the presence of the Holy Spirit; of active and creative outreach; and warm fellowship. This exercise is to help us craft a succinct “Story of Christ Church” that people can easily tell others. It is one of the ways Tending Our Soil invites us to turn over our soil and aerate it, letting in light and air, making room for planting seeds that will bear abundant fruit of transformation in our community. The next step will be to learn the “Story of Our Neighborhood” – to better know the fields in which we are called to plant those seeds of gospel life.
Tending Our Soil is a rich opportunity for Christ Church in La Plata and our sister church, Christ Church Wayside, to get our hands dirty in our missional gardens. Over the course of three years it will help us to focus our mission, strengthen our lay leadership and ministry teams, and make a transforming impact in our regions. We are poised for growth, ready to pivot to where the Spirit shows openings.
We are living a story God has been writing since the beginning of time and invites us to add our chapters; a story of sorrow and joy, stuckness and movement, despair and hope. Above all it is a story of Jesus and how we make him known. God has written the end to that story already. We just get to live it out.