Monday, December 24, 2012

My unexpected pilgrimage to Newtown, CT

My family is in Connecticut this week, spending Christmas with relatives. In addition to those we are staying with, a certain beloved great-aunt lives nearby. We decided to have lunch with her at her retirement community.

In this age of digital helps, we did not consult a map to find her. We merely plugged her address into our GPS app and said, “Go.” It told us the journey was a mere 45 minutes, so we allotted the proper amount of time, and off we went. I didn’t know in particular in what direction we were driving. I knew that Newtown was somewhere east of Danbury, but not being used to a state as tiny as Connecticut, I figured it must be some distance.

So I was surprised when the GPS directed us to exit at Newtown Road. Next thing I knew, we were driving right through Newtown, Connecticut, site of the school shooting that has shocked our entire nation. It has only been a week and a half since it happened, and the final funeral was two days ago.

A feeling of foreboding came over me as we began driving through Newtown. Occasionally we saw collections of little U.S. flags stuck in the ground. We saw green ribbons on mailboxes, and banners, both hand-painted and professionally made, that read, “Pray for Newtown.” Little stenciled signs read, “Trust in God … no matter what.” Businesses had hung out signs saying, “Our prayers are with you.” Another said, “We are Newtown strong.” A large sign with a green ribbon announced a Newtown grief recovery project. And we drove right past the Episcopal church where at least two of the slain children were members. Church of the Ascension in Silver Spring, MD, the church where I'm doing my seminary internship, has just raised and sent $9,000 to this church for the rector’s discretionary fund.

On the journey we were listening to an episode of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. It wasn’t appropriate to the scene, but it did act like a sort of a buffer. Maybe by listening to something kind of fluffy, we could keep the reality of the town from touching us directly. Plus, our 7-year-old was reading in the backseat, and we didn’t want to call attention to our surroundings. She knows about the shootings in general, but she hasn’t asked us further questions, and we didn’t want to frighten her unexpectedly.

For it occurred to me that we were probably passing some of the very homes these children lived in, homes that on this Christmas Eve contain no joy whatsoever—nothing but bleak loss and numb disbelief. Some of the people inside, well trained by our Christmas-loving culture, may be rehearsing the trite phrases, spoken by well-meaning neighbors and family: “It’ll all be OK in time.” “Your child is with God in heaven.” Or worst of all, “God just decided it’s time.” Some people speak truth, and others speak nonsense. But in a time like this, everything hurts, and that makes all of it nonsense—all of the words, that is. The presence of loving people is not nonsense—people who listen without judgment to any and every feeling that surfaces. They are God’s presence in the situation. They are the only way to go on.

The last thing we saw as we left town was a giant construction sign that read, “Thank you to our heroes … God bless our angels.” Crossing outside city limits raised my spirits a bit, and we went back to focusing exclusively on our podcast. I wanted to forget, but of course, I knew that wasn’t possible. I felt that I’d been on an unexpected pilgrimage, and I hadn’t engaged it as fully as I could have. In a way, I am writing this now as a kind of penance, because I did nothing to help. Ridiculous, I know. But maybe it’s not so ridiculous: I want to take some of the grief from Newtown and spread it among as many people as possible, to dilute it as much as I can.

Later in the evening, we attended a Christmas Eve Eucharist at St. Stephen’s in Ridgefield, CT. We were blessed by the music of the children’s choir, and we got to sing all the old familiar favorites. I was taken aback by how much I appreciated, perhaps for the first time, the later stanzas of “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear”:

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And warring humankind hears not
The tidings which they bring
O hush the noise and cease your strife
And hear the angels sing.

For lo!, the days are hastening on,
By prophets seen of old
When with the ever-circling years
Shall come the time foretold
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.

Amidst all the feelgood Christmas cheer, I noticed that this is not a feelgood song. If anything, it feels more like an Advent song: it’s about waiting. It is a realistic assessment of what the world is really like, and it engages it on its own terms. The hymn does not expect us to fool ourselves into believing that all is well with the world. In fact, it just won’t let us. But it is, as are all good hymns, hopeful. It looks forward to a time when things will be different than they are now … no matter how long it takes.

And again I think of those little stenciled signs: “Trust God … no matter what.” Yes, I will. I will do that. Not because I am able to, but because I must. In the wake of the past couple weeks, God is all we have left. “O hush the noise and cease your strife, and hear the angels sing.”

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Shedding Our Dragon Skin

sermon preached at Church of the Ascension, Silver Spring, MD
by Josh Hosler, Seminarian
The Second Sunday in Advent/ December 9, 2012

Last week our deacon, Terri, talked about the seasons of the church year, and especially about Advent. She set the stage very well for this season, as Christmas starts to break in from all corners, and as we sometimes try to hold it back just a little longer. I remember once, as a kid, my brother Seth coming up to me and saying, “It’s ten days until Christmas.” And I said, “I know. It’s ten days until Christmas.” And a sort of quiver ran through him, and suddenly he shouted, “Christmas attack! AAAAAHHHHH!” And he started running all over the living room, letting off his spare energy. I think this is the first feeling of Advent for a lot of us: what gifts will be under the tree? Will I get that Millennium Falcon that I can put my Han Solo and Chewbacca action figured into? It’s so soon … not yet. It’s almost here, not yet, but almost. And this is Advent language. It’s not just about Christmas, but it is in relation to Christmas.

And deep within that longing for Christmas, as a child, for me, there was this lingering suspicion that maybe the longing is even better than the having. Just to stay in the longing, because it’s such a luscious place to be. Advent is about the excitement of preparing our hearts for God’s arrival. The prophet Malachi demands that we make offerings to the Lord in righteousness. I think the assumption is that he didn’t see a lot of that going on, but that this was what God demanded: “offerings in righteousness.” What does that mean? “Righteousness” is one of those holy words, isn’t it? that maybe we don’t try to define very often. I learned what righteousness means in relation to Abraham: that Abraham was made righteous because he trusted God. Righteousness means trusting God. So when we make offerings in righteousness, we are making offerings with complete trust.

Advent is also about judgment, and that rings through loud and clear in Malachi’s passage as well. We don’t like to think about being judged. I think most of us tend to be the breed of Christians who say, “Well, God isn’t really like that. God isn’t that judgmental God that’s the stereotype.” And yet … and yet, we doubt. We wonder: What am I going to be judged for? I know that I have guilt over things I’ve done. What will the judgment be, and what will the consequences of that judgment be?

But at the same time, the idea of God approaching—the Advent idea of God coming to be with us—oh, to meet God face to face! Thy kingdom come! And then – oooh. To meet God face to face … Who can stand when he appears? How can I stand there without my knees knocking? What will my fate be? John the Baptist, in today’s Gospel, comes with that Advent judgment. But he also brings a baptism of repentance, a way to restore righteousness, a symbolic, sacramental act for those who are ready to turn away from their sins and begin anew.

In his book The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C. S. Lewis illustrates Malachi’s perspective very well. (Now, if you saw the movie but haven’t read the book, it doesn’t count, because Hollywood sucked the theology right out of it.) The main character is a little boy whose name is Eustace Clarence Scrubb … and he almost deserves it. This little boy is petty and rude and self-centered and tiresome … and the worst crime of all, he has no imagination whatsoever. And then, on a Narnian sea voyage (that he would rather not be on), Eustace’s own greedy thoughts change him into a dragon. Finally he understands the monster that he has been to everyone around him. He fears that his companions will desert him on the island where he has been transformed, and who could blame them?

Then, one night, the great Lion Aslan comes to Eustace, leads him to a pool of water, and invites him to bathe. But he orders Eustace to undress first. Well, Eustace, being a dragon, first objects that he hasn’t got any clothes on. And then he remembers that lizards shed their skins. And so he starts to pick at his skin, and it starts to flake, and then it starts to peel. And then he makes a tear, and the whole skin comes off. He leaves it there to get down into the water. But as he goes to step into the water, he realizes the skin is still on. Oh! There was another skin underneath the first dragon skin. So he steps back and starts to peel at that one. And that one eventually comes off. But he has yet another dragon skin underneath that one! For Eustace, it starts to feel like a hopeless situation.

That’s when Aslan says, “Come here. You must let me undress you.” Eustace recounts the story:

The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. You know—if you’ve ever picked the scab of a sore place. It hurts like billy-oh but it is such fun to see it coming away.

This is what God’s judgment feels like. It hurts! And it helps us. When Eustace is finally without his skin, Aslan throws him into the water. And he comes out a boy again. In this way, according to the prophet Malachi, God refines us and scrubs us and peels away our reptilian skins. We can’t do it by ourselves.

To be judged, to be found wanting, and then to undergo the treatment … what better way to deal with sin than this? We are afraid of when God comes, because we will be judged. But the things to remember about judgment are these. First of all, God will never destroy us, no matter what. This is not a destroying fire. This is a refining fire, to purify and to make more valuable. The second is that “the one who began a good within us,” as we heard in our epistle, “will bring it to completion” by the last day.

So what will we do when God arrives? And will we be able to stand when he appears? This is what we must trust: that no matter how God judges us, and no matter what the consequences of that judgment may be, we will be in the presence of the one in whom we delight, the one whom we have sought all our lives, whether we knew it or not, and that even in the presence of God’s fiery, loving, refining judgment, we will be able to stand. Amen.