I've lived in a number of states, traveled throughout the world, and met more people than I can count. My wife has been engaged in mission work in Haiti and other countries; one of our daughters lived for a few years China and studied in Japan. I've done language study by immersion in Costa Rica, and I've preached in Liberia and Zimbabwe. The call to ministry has taken me, in ways I could never have imagined, to the ends of the earth.
A couple of years ago my mind was wandering through social media--have you ever found yourself there?--and I took one of those tests---embarrassing, I know---and the question was, "Where are you most suited to live?"
So I filled out the questionnaire, and in the end can you guess where all my responses led?
To the very place where I was born! Columbus, Georgia! And I had the sense: I really have not come such a long way in this journey--in fact, I am back where I started!
The spiritual classics often describe the Christian life as a journey--Dante and Bunyan, for example; but farther back the missionary travels of Paul the Apostle and the passage of Israel from slavery in Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land. So perhaps you have found yourself in a moment of self-awareness, and you wondered, "Am I really back at the beginning?" Most of us wish we were farther along on the road to character, to borrow a phrase from David Brooks.
Advent gives us the occasion to start over. It is a fresh beginning. It's not quite like the cultural pressure to make resolutions in the new year, to lose weight or learn a new language or to worry less. Not that any of this is such a bad thing. But that is more about individual self-improvement, personal re-invention, human effort.
Advent is something quite different. It is a way of marking time, and knowing that where we begin is with God and the gifts of God--the God who was planting a tree, long before our ancestors were born, a tree that would produce a righteous branch of justice and righteousness, the God who would make promises and keep them, the God who never lost connection with his people, the God who gave them a vision of living in safety and peace.
On the first Sunday of Advent we are oriented to the journey, as a way of getting started, and the church in her wisdom asks us to read a sliver of Paul's earliest letter to the community at Thessalonica.
Three themes are prominent in the letter, and they recur like topics that come up in conversation again and again.
The first is the desire for reunion. Timothy had visited the church and had reported to Paul, his spiritual father, who writes:
He has told us also that you always remember us kindly and long to see us--just as we long to see you.
The separation, he notes, has made them "Spiritual orphans." It is obvious that there are deep connections here and a strong desire to be reunited.
In the weeks leading to Christmas, we want to be together with family; we want reunion and even reconciliation. This is a theme of many of the popular holiday movies, and here you can recall your favorite one! Or we think of the classic, "I'll Be Home for Christmas," sung by Bing Crosby in the 1940s, from the perspective of the soldier separated from family. This music and these movies tap into a deep human desire for reunion and homecoming.
Paul is writing to a people who have endured great suffering, and he knows the power of the Body of Christ to strengthen and uphold them. The suffering was about persecution, and indeed in many nations today the body of Christ endures martyrdom, what Pope Francis has described as the "ecumenism of blood." The suffering was also about being ostracized from the civil religion of the Roman Empire, and many followers of Jesus today find themselves at odds with the laws of the countries in which they live. We make our way through suffering, not as isolated individuals but as members of the One Body, where Paul would write to the Romans, "When one suffers, all suffer, when one rejoices, all rejoice."
In my own tradition, United Methodism, there is a hymn of reunion that is sung by the clergy at the beginning of our annual conferences. It was written by Charles Wesley and is entitled, "And Are We Yet Alive?" It has been sung in these gatherings by Methodists since the 1780s. It begins by naming the power of reunion:
And are we yet alive,
and see each other's face?
Glory and thanks to Jesus give
for his almighty grace!
And then it moves to the struggle that makes reunion so profoundly meaningful and necessary:
What troubles have we seen,
what mighty conflicts past,
fightings without, and fears within,
since we assembled last!
Charles Wesley knew the scriptures, and there is almost an echo in the hymn of I Thessalonians 3:10:
"Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face".
Can you think of a brother or sister in Christ whom you long to see, face to face?
A second theme is encouragement. Why do we need encouragement? The phrase "fightings without and fears within" helps to name it. Paul writes, "We pray most earnestly...that we may...restore whatever is lacking in your faith" (3.10) and then he calls the Thessalonians to "Encourage one another and build each other up, as indeed you are doing" (5.11).
One of my favorite spiritual guides is the writer Anne Lamott, a person of deep, irreverent and authentic faith. In her book on the craft of writing, she shares the following remembrance:
Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he'd had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, "Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.
Have you ever been there? This is encouragement!
And the third theme is imitation.
Paul writes at the beginning of the letter in the first chapter, "You became imitators of us and the Lord" (1.6).
Someone has noted that we learn through information; we learn through immersion; and we learn through imitation. This last is often sometimes described as apprenticeship. I was asked recently by the leader of a group process to identify three persons whom I would like to be more like in my spiritual life. I thought for a few minutes about two men who have been spiritual directors to me along the way, one a Presbyterian minister with strong intellectual and charismatic sensibilities who was not a part of my own denomination, and I found this helpful; the second a seminary professor with a deep grasp of the Christian tradition and an equally deep commitment to the practice of intercession. But then I thought about saints in my own life, and a couple of ordinary women in particular who are more compassionate and hospitable than I am.
And, of course, the growing edge is to imitate their lives, to move more deeply into convictions and practices that would lead me, ultimately, into a closer walk with Jesus. This is imitation. It is true that we need information, knowledge gained in sermons and study and reading. We also need immersion, being thrust into environments and contexts where we have a multi-sensory experience that changes us. I think of transformational writings that have shaped me intellectually, ideas that have opened windows through which the Holy Spirit blew. And I recall retreats and mission trips in which I was immersed in the grace of Jesus Christ and the missio Dei, the mission of God.
But the Advent and Christmas seasons have always been occasions of imitation. I remember learning the stories of faith by playing roles in church, and then by hearing the carols of the season and over time knowing the words by memory, and then later listening closely to the voices that read the scripture passages at the heart of the story, perhaps a deep bass voice reading the first chapter of John or an articulate woman embodying the Magnificat from the first chapter of Luke.
And even beyond, many of us witnessed our parents and grandparents extending generosity to the hungry and the homeless during this season, or seeking reconciliation or making peace. Beyond information and immersion, there is imitation. These fundamental gestures helped me to inhabit the Christian story at its origin.
In writing a letter of encouragement to the earliest Christians, Paul returns again and again to imitation. The end of I Thessalonians describes the practices Paul wants the community to imitate:
We urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.
In reunion, the early Christians experienced relationship with each other, a fellowship that encouraged them, and visible witnesses who helped them to learn the faith through imitation. And Paul writing to the Thessalonians was himself encouraged. Timothy had brought news that the new converts were staying on the path of faith and love. It was easy to become distracted, to fall away, to turn back to the old life.
We sometimes see this. A young woman is new to the faith and she makes a profession, and a fresh start. And then a few weeks pass, and a phone call and a card go unanswered, and a few months later we think of her and wonder how she is doing. Most pastors have met her along the way, although she could just as easily have been a middle-aged man struggling with an addiction, or a widow finding her way alone after the death of a spouse.
Many come to faith. We thank God for this. But we then know that God wants this new faith to flourish, like the seed planted not in the shallow soil of a cultural or civic spirituality, but in the deep soil of biblical faith, in authentic community. How does this faith flourish?
It is finally a gift of God. Paul writes:
May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
We grow, we flourish, when we know we are loved. Churches have integrity when they love not only one another but when that love overflows to all people. And we love because God first loved us. This love strengthens our hearts in holiness, which means, in a simple way, that we reflect the glory of our Creator, who is love, that we find ourselves, no matter how far flung our journey, back where we began, created in the image of a God who is love.
We do need a community to remember this. We do need a gospel that helps us step by step." And we do need visible examples to imitate. In the language of the benediction in the United Methodist hymnal, we bear witness to the love of God in this world so that those to who love is a stranger will find in us generous friends. We are yet alive and we see in each other's face the image of God, a sign of God's almighty grace.