The week just ended would be hard to beat for inspiring messages that came with thought-provoking surprises. One part of it ended with a unique declaration of a national day of mourning for America’s 41stPresident. No less admirable because he was not a saint, but was a gentleman of the old school and one of a dwindling supply of veterans of “The Greatest Generation.” That series of events and remembrances turned out to be more hopeful than sad.
And speaking of hope, I should have been prepared for the surprising combination evoked in the memorials for GHW Bush that occurred the very day the world learned of his passing. Early the morning of December 1, a group of neighbors and fellow parishioners gathered to share a time of reflection about the coming season of Advent, the four weeks of anticipation leading up to Christmas, and how we might make ready by opening hearts and minds to the simply amazing miracle that plays itself out every year at this time. This “Advent retreat” was designed to arm us with the sense of direction and of balance as December dawned.
Like our neighbors who celebrate Hanukkah, we face the perennial challenge of how to prepare for the special balancing acts required by the need to put into perspective the shopping, entertaining and gift giving that compete with (and perhaps too often threaten to overwhelm) the realization that we are being invited to remember unique gifts of the spirit we have been given. It’s a time when we have to figure out how looking backward and forward can be brought together; how the wisdom of the past can help ignite a new light of gratitude for the past and of optimism about the future.
The message of a day of mourning on a national scale and a more local call to move toward the future in hope, had a common note. As a country and as a neighborhood parish we were invited to look back to remember and renew commitment to the inspirations that will help us be armed to move forward. For us, that Saturday morning our pastor had identified the message as “Longing and Worship.” Brief opening reflections challenged us to confront ‘Desires you cannot satisfy.” Using the letter of St. Paul to the Romans (8:14-25) he challenged us to consider many levels of meaning to be found in these words Paul of Tarsus wrote to friends in Rome. “ For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it [cin hope 21 that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now.”
That unlikely pairing of futility and hope turned out to be just the wake-up call I needed to hear. Especially when invited to hear it in relation to the daily challenges arising from limits in time, ability and communication: Memories of the many times when cherished hopes and dreams proved more ambitious than my ability to achieve them. Times, for instance, when I wished that my 22-year-old self would be resurrected to help achieve the wish lists and schedules of today’s version of myself. Times when I laughed somewhat ruefully at the family joke of my brother quoting Robert Browning’s insight “Ah but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp; or what’s a Heaven for?” And then adding with a sly smile, “Maybe my epitaph should read, “He died reaching. May he grasp in peace.” Times when it would be so consoling to have the words that could mend broken hearts or broken lines of communication or deliver the fulfillment of dreams that continue to be just that bit out of reach.
And just when those challenges looked their most insoluble, we were encouraged to take a break and range around our Father’s house as we asked in the silence or our hearts to identify the longings of the moment or confront the dreams classified as unachieved and the hopes unfulfilled. Take an honest look at how I had related to unmet desires. Was it fatalism? Was it anger? No answers, but honest questions, faced honestly.
And when we returned to dialogue and to being fellow pilgrims the one vital topic was “Advent Hope and the Power not to Escape.” In these we had a model of the leader of the small band of twelve who reached out to them in the ultimately challenging time between anticipation and apprehension and when seeking consolation found the friends were sleeping. Most of the little band who had walked the roads together with the Teacher ultimately woke from their dread or lethargy, all at their own personal paces. All the “might have beens” of all too mortal lives were finally replaced by heroism that comes from acting against the odds to achieve distinction for doing what was needed, even while not really believing you will or can.
Back to the national version of our day of reflection, it might be compared to having to weigh the good of choosing formally and on the record, to support legislation to help the sick and the disabled even when it would very likely make you a one-term President.
That’s the thing about truth. It sometimes is classified as unwelcome or inconvenient. When, as part of the compact of becoming like us and living among us, someone with access to unlimited power opts to follow the path of the less powerful it must surely be noted. And when that example is followed, it may enable the persons doing so to take it on board and run with it, further, faster, more fully than they might have believed possible.
For those who want to see, there is a message that when one lifts up his or her eyes there is promise. As a wise mentor of mine once said, “Not only is love not blind, it is frequently more clairvoyant than indifference.” That was one of the messages that ended a morning of reflection for neighbors. There’s a reason we refer to facing “up” to life’s challenges. There are chances aplenty to look above the horizon of what looks like futility. And as we move to celebrating times seen as sacred to those who celebrate Hanukkah, or Christmas, or a National Day of Mourning we come to them together. And there are reasons for each and all to “Raise our Eyes” to where Hope can be seen. Lovely in its eternal promise and its unexpectedness.
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