But when you hear and accept this it is not your power, but God’s grace, that renders the Gospel fruitful in you, so that you believe that you and your works are nothing. For you see how few there are who accept it, so that Christ weeps over Jerusalem and, as now the Papists are doing, not only refuse it, but condemn such doctrine, for they will not have all their works to be sin, they desire to lay the first stone and rage and fume against the Gospel.
I wish you could see what I see sitting here. In my reading nook. Next to me a sweet schnauzer warms my legs. In the next room, a gentle husband snoozes. Upstairs the sleepy preschooler has conked out for his Sunday afternoon coma, and the silly kindergartner tries his best to keep quiet in his own room. But I hear the leaping off the bed and the happy dancing directly above me.
I see our Christmas tree. Lit. A miracle in itself since just last night the sentimentally appointed pinester was dark due to a malfunction somewhere in its dozen strands of light. From my point of view, the Hubby divined the exact problem (blown light fuse) and fixed it effortlessly. Yesterday’s dead car battery, however, needed Geico’s help. And the vintage Lionel that usually circles the tree couldn’t be fixed without parts, so it waits for us next year. We were electrical Schleprocks yesterday.
But between me and the tree, I see, for the first time in our home, a single advent candle burning brightly. The Candle of Hope. I cobbled together a wreath of velvet leaves I made for Elise’s birth nine years ago and some wool leaves I cut from my old felted sweater. An evergreen of a different sort. All leaves intended for another purpose, resurrected for celebration.
We sang Christmas songs this morning at church. Imagine that — singing Christmas songs during the Christmas season. If you’ve never been a independent, fundamental Baptist, you have no idea what a gift that is. You see, Advent is a big no-no. And you don’t sing Christmas songs until the week of Christmas. Or maybe the two weeks before. And even then, the truly spiritual sing them almost grudgingly. Because Christmas is Catholic (i.e. pagan) and extending the Christmas season is commercial, we really should just ignore it altogether. The pious do!
I can’t even tell you how many Christians I know who refuse to celebrate the holiday at all. I think, in fact, Charles Dickens wrote a novel about just such a person.
But deep down, we want to anticipate and celebrate. We want an old ritual that connects us all to a Story grander than just our own. We want to sing!
Last night, we watched an old Ken Burns special on the Shakers — the mostly 19th-century agrarian sect which took in orphans and made the most simplistically elegant furniture imaginable. Burns’ hagiography brushed past all their ideological problems — that Mother Ann taught that Original Sin was sexual intercourse (and so they were celibate) and that God was both male and female with Jesus being the male manifestation and Mother Ann being the final female manifestation and Christ’s Bride. And, of course, that they must discipline their evil Body in order to let the wholly good Spirit reign.
Instead Burns highlighted their seemingly beautiful straining, struggling, and striving toward perfection. And in 1840 it looked like they had made it. They were booming. They were taking in the poor and homeless. Their industry and craftsmanship was admired and profitable. Their ethic, however, was tailored to a 19th-century agrarianism and could not survive life in the industrialized 20th century. And now in the 21st century, there are only three living Shakers left.
Sound familiar? It’s eerily familiar to me. Scarily familiar. In grad school, I read all about the Shakers and all the utopian sects born out of the Second Great Awakening (most of whom came from the Burned-Over District). And I empathize with all of them. I understand the appeal of perfection — that if I make my work pristine enough and sincere enough, I’ll build an American ziggurat to God. I understand the appeal of the bifurcated thinking — that the world is evil and that my industrious piety is righteous. I understand the appeal of defining sin as out there instead of in here — that my containing evil makes my perfection attainable. I understand the appeal of being peculiar — that doing the hard thing and the unexpected thing will woo people to me/us/God. Whether the hard thing is celibacy or modesty or Scroogery.
What a different Story I heard this morning! That God comes to me and I don’t work my way toward Him. That His love is greater than my sin. That doing good comes because Jesus has made us good. That the first Advent guarantees the second. That Jesus is King. Now!
There’s no room for the curmudgeon in that Story!
The kindergartner has just been freed from his quietness. Daddy bounded down the stairs carrying him piggyback. And the preschooler followed with a big case of bed head. We all have the evening to rest together (and fix the lights on the tree again because another fuse just blew). Three years ago on this day we would have already been headed to a church service or a rehearsal or some such duty. Straining, struggling, and striving toward some illusion of perfection.
I laugh at the irony. Our reactionary anti-Catholic shunning of all things Advent has still duplicated the identical medieval religious feudalism. And our dispensationalist adventism won’t touch an extended celebration of the first Advent.
But I’ll light my Candle of Irony on another day. Today is the Candle of Hope.
This is what is meant by “Thy king cometh.” You do not seek him, but he seeks you. You do not find him, he finds you. For the preachers come from him, not from you; their sermons come from him, not from you; your faith comes from him, not from you; everything that faith works in you comes from him, not from you; and where he does not come, you remain outside; and where there is no Gospel there is no God, but only sin and damnation, free will may do, suffer, work and live as it may and can. Therefore you should not ask, where to begin to be godly; there is no beginning, except where the king enters and is proclaimed.