Friday, November 20, 2015


A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For the journey and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
T. S. Eliot

Eliot’s famous poem The Journey of the Magi is about his own path from proud agnosticism to humble faith.  A brutally honest poem, it does not shy away from the hardness of the spiritual journey. A cold coming we had of it. Not a feel good weekend. Not a Praise Jesus exuberance. But a grappling with the threatening fact that the spiritual life is all about transformation – change. Do not be conformed to the ways of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Romans 12: 2. And change is hard. There is a grief in it. Eliot knew that Christianity would cost him something, maybe everything. It did not come easy.

               . . . Were we lead all this way for
        Birth or Death. There was a Birth certainly . . .
        I had seen Birth and Death
       But thought they were different. This Birth was
       Hard and bitter agony for us, like death, our death.
      We returned to our places, these kingdoms
      But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation . . ..

 And he knew it was not a do-it-once-and-get-it-over-with thing but a lifelong process of surrender in faith, a process leading into the unknown. Such a long journey.

The change we undertake is the birth of Christ. Christmas is always coming as Christ is always being born. He was not born just once long ago. He is eternally begotten of the Father. (Nicene Creed). So as we consider the spirituality of Advent, think of words like labor and transition. The coming birth of Christ is not bit of news that happens somewhere far off and we watch it on the news. It is far more intimate than that. It happens inside us. The 14th Century Dominican friar Meister Eckhart said, It does not matter that Christ was born in Bethlehem long ago unless he is born in you today.

Advent is not the birth. It is the pregnancy and the labor.  This is the time when we sense change coming and we live in that expectation. From where I sit, I am acutely aware of impending change in three arenas – individual lives, congregations, the diocese.

The place I see it most clearly is in congregations. An unusual number of our congregations have been engaged in major shifts the past couple of years.  For some that has involved clergy transitions. But other changes have been afoot as well. In some places those changes are coming to the final stage. They are in labor.  A lay leader in one congregation has been saying for the last few weeks “It is Advent at our church.” He means they feel a change a-comin’, and the feelings are complicated. There is hopeful expectation among some while others are lining up against a new clergy person they have not met yet. It reminds me of my Face Book friends who are in a frenzy of opposition to “the New Prayer Book” though not a word of it has been written; nor will a word of it be written for some year yet. It is perhaps unfair to poke fun at the irrationality of our resistances to change. We are all prone to it. I am kind of opposed to the non-existent new prayer book myself. We resist because though we may not know what change will bring, we do know what it won’t be – it won’t be the familiar past. We don’t know what is being born. We only know what is dying.

Being a congregation is a frustrating proposition because sooner or later all congregations become bulwarks against change – but change is the grass growing up through cracks in the sidewalk. We can’t stop it. It just keeps on a-coming. Birth happens. How shall we respond to it?

It matters how we cope with change in our congregations because that is part and parcel of how we cope with change in the rest of our lives. We may not have a priest, vestry, or bishop to blame for the shifting sand of our families, our health, our jobs, our homes, etc. But change will happen whether we can find someone to blame or not. Church is a training ground for life; so dealing with Church Change is our gymnasium for coping with Life Change. How then shall we go about the project of Advent?

Let’s start by being honest about how change feels.

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For the journey and such a long journey: . . ..
            This Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like death, our death.
We returned to our places, these kingdoms
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation . . ..

Change usually – at least often – feels more like this than Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly fa la la la la.

So I suggest it is helpful to do three things at once. First, it is important to acknowledge what we love in the present and to allow ourselves to grieve it. And yes grief consists of denial, bargaining, anger, sadness, and resignation. (To see that concisely fleshed out, check
We can’t skip the process. As the great Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich said, There is no truth without the way to truth. So all those feelings are necessary. I have only one word of caution about them. The feelings generate thoughts that may not strictly conform to reality. So remember this dictum: don’t believe everything you think.

Second, even though we are accustomed to the way things are, we are not satisfied with them. We feel something missing. It is the human condition to long for a better world in large and small ways. The lessons and the music of Advent express that longing. We are “captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here.”
We need not be slaves to consistency. The fact that we are accustomed to the familiar ways of “this present age” (Galatians 1: 4) does not mean we are not also hungry for something we are not yet being served. Ambivalence is the human condition. That’s why we are still watching Hamlet. It is far more workable to acknowledge and experience our conflicting feelings than to acknowledge one side and stuff the other into our unconscious.

Third, when we turn our thoughts to expectation – when we imagine what is about to be born – it helps to cultivate an attitude of openness. That basically means a wait-and-see attitude. A few folks have exaggeratedly optimistic views. More of us tend to be pessimistic. If we want to be realistic, we will not be overconfident of our ability to predict the future. God may know what lies ahead. But we don’t. I sometimes hear “I’ve seen it all before. This will be just like when . .  . “ It probably won’t. The future does repeat the past a bit but mostly it is new. Even when it echoes the past to some degree, there are always interesting variations on the theme.

Often new things happen, but people whose minds are stuck in the past are simply unable to see them. They keep seeing and hearing the same old thing, though something new is really happening. That is why God was shaking Israel by the shoulders and shouting:

                        Behold I am doing a new thing!
                        Even now it springs up!
                        Do you not perceive it?
                                                            Isaiah 43: 19

When something new is happening and we cannot see it because our minds are mired in the past, we become unhinged from reality and ineffective at dealing with it. The spiritual discipline here is to watch and wait.

                                    As for me I watch
                                    for the God of my salvation.
                                                            Micah 7: 7

Psalm 5: 3; Habakkuk 2: 1; Matthew 26: 38; Isaiah 40: 31. It is a practice of sitting still and keeping alert, waiting to see what comes instead of rushing in to fill the mysterious void with our own predictions.

In summary, I recommend a three part spiritual discipline for dealing with change (which is another way of saying “dealing with life.”)

1.    Acknowledge the grief.
2.    Acknowledge the longing
3.    Wait and see

If we practice these attitudes in the Church – what a place to practice a spiritual discipline! – that discipline can become a habit that permeates the rest of our life in a gracious wise way. Such an Advent spirituality will get us to the stable so that we show up for the birth of Christ in our lives and in our souls.

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