1 Advent 2016: Finding Light in the Dark

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kosovo-metohija-koreni-duse027We need to take care of a little business
before launching into the sermon.
You may have read the article in the Finger Lakes Times
about our development project,
or you may have heard about it from your neighbor
who read it and surprised you with it.
You could have also seen it,
if you are on the distribution list
for the diocesan online newsletter.

As articles go, it was pretty good,
but it had one glaring bit of garbled information.
I mentioned to the reporter that part of our hope
is not only to continue worshipping in this building
but also to have a satellite location downtown
from which to do ministry and program.
That got translated
as we would be leaving this building altogether.

I don’t know about you,
but I have received concern from friends
and acquaintances in the community
about having just bought a house
and now what will I do with Trinity closing?

So even though it was in the newspaper,
and even though it was said we would be here
and continue as a congregation,
those details still seem to get lost.

We’ll just have to keep telling the story
and tooting our horn
and finding new and better ways
to keep the word out that Trinity lives on.

Of course, the best way to do that
is to grow in number,
deepen in wisdom,
and strengthen our ministry and witness.
That is a one-step-at-a-time process.

And with that I would like to point out
what many of you have already noted:
that less than a year ago
we stared our grim prospects in the face
without the slightest idea IF
or how
or what
or when
even the possibility of a future
could be a wish, let alone a legitimate hope.
Nine months later, a full term pregnancy,
we are moving in a specific direction
with prospects that have changed categories
from wish,
to hope,
to opportunity.

Standing here on November 27th
I would also like to add that this experience,
of encountering light in the dark,
is the very substance of what we call “Advent.”

So keep that shared Trinity experience in the background the next few moments
as we explore this Advent theme a little deeper:
Light in the midst of dark.

I want to tell you something I know,
but in order to tell you what I know
I have to tell on myself
in a way that may be more personal
than some folks are comfortable with from the pulpit.

On the other hand,
it is not a big secret or anything either,
because it was in the newspaper last January,
and came up in my interview with the Search Committee.

I am a recovering alcoholic and drug user.
Now that is not a very exclusive club
and I am sorry to say it is becoming even less so.

Anyway, I mention it
because what I learned about myself and other people
during that time before recovery,
and in recovery itself,
is a guiding light for me in dark times.

Advent is about light in dark times, by the way,
as in seeing the path to peace
in the midst of war;
or reaching for equity
in the throws of oppression;
or perceiving the stillpoint
in the midst of chaos and imbalance.

So in order for me to tell you what I know –
the kind of knowing that both glows and gnaws
in the marrow of my bones,
and lines the sheathing of nerves along my spine
with both silk and sand –
I need you to know there was a time in my life
when I was owned, utterly consumed,
by the hungers and thirsts of my darker angels.

When I was trying to stop drinking alcohol
and using drugs,
I simply did not see
how stopping could possibly work.
I could not see to the other side of the river, so to speak.

I could see how bad it had become,
and I could see how much worse it was going to get
if I didn’t find a way to stop,
but I could not see how the heck it was going to happen.

Now anyone who uses mood-altering substances
does it for the same reason,
whether a mere social drinker or a drug addict.
The doggone stuff changes our mood –
when used well and properly
it makes us feel good
without having to pay a price for it.
Almost everyone likes a little bump now and again.
Heck, these days they sell stimulant drinks
over the counter
and advertise them as a daily fix
to help us through the day.

So like everyone else
who abuses mind-altering substances,
I was self-medicating in order to numb myself
against emotional pain.
The unfortunate thing for me was that I started so early –
getting high and drinking in seventh and eight grade.
You see, the earlier a person starts
the greater the impact on them over time.

There probably isn’t a seventh or eighth grader alive
who does not claim to have emotional pain,
even if the pain is stuff that seems pretty typical or silly
by adult standards.
So if a kid starts numbing it that early
he or she will never learn how to manage it.
That’s what happened to me.
I numbed myself for about fifteen years,
more and more thoroughly as I got older.

I knew that if I suddenly took away the numbing agents
that everything from those fifteen years and before –
from the tiniest injury
to the ugliest shame
to the most disabling anxiety –
would be right there in the room with me.

That is the first challenge people face,
if you happen to know anyone going through recovery.

Standing in the presence of anything and everything
that goes bump in the night
without any true experience or methods
for staying present to them
is daunting.

And by the way,
I am still learning how to do that –
it is never a once and forever thing.
Anyway, I discovered that acting as if
I could do it even if I was afraid I couldn’t;
and acting as if
I could do it even if I didn’t know how;
and simply putting one foot
right in front of the other
without skipping steps
or making leaps;
that if I did those things
I got to where I needed to go.

What I had to learn,
in other words,
was to make a radical act of trust
that I could get from here to there
even though I did not know where there was,
and even though I did not know how.

And in the process of learning how to do
what I didn’t know how to do,
and to get to a place I did not know where it was,
I learned some valuable wisdom
that has stayed with me.
I find it to be an especially potent wisdom in dark times.

Part of that wisdom is this:
When we ask the question “why?”
of a situation we cannot and will not
ever be able to answer with any kind of certainty,
we get stuck.
Buddha called them ineffable questions
and said it was a roadblock to enlightenment.

So instead, in the dark
when we need to go somewhere we do not know where,
or do something we are not sure how to do,
we need to take an outrageous
and radical step off the plank into trust.
We do not get to know why
we have arrived at this moment
any more than we get to know what
will happen in the next moment.
If we dither around with why and what
we will get stuck.

Now, because no sermon should be about me,
allow me to pivot away from myself
to someone with a lot more credibility, Isaiah.

We are going to be hearing from Isaiah
nearly every week in Advent and Christmas
so here is a little perspective with which to hear his prophetic poetry.

He lived in a very scary time.

Israel was divided.
The northern half had already been annexed
by the dreaded Assyrian Empire.
Judah, the southern half,
where the Holy City of Jerusalem was situated,
was paying bribes to the Assyrian Emperor
and ingratiating itself
like a sniveling Smee to a nasty Captain Hook
in order to keep from getting gobbled up.

Isaiah was a prophet
but even so he could not see
what was going to happen next.

He could see
the horrendous injustice in his society.
He could see
that the national and religious leaders
were living very far from the values they professed.
And he could see
an enormous disparity in wealth
and an economy based upon violence and war.

He did not know
exactly what was going to happen
but he could see trouble brewing
with little chance of avoiding it.

It was a time not unlike our own.

Isaiah was pretty sure
a national disaster was on the way;
a time when even the highest national leaders,
and the King himself,
would groan in despair.

He had no answer
for the injustices he saw.

He had no answer
for the fact that God,
who was supposedly a God of justice and mercy,
was not acting like it.
He had no answer
for what seemed like God’s utter neglect
of those who were most vulnerable.
He had no answer
for why bad things were happening to good people
and yet so many bad people
were getting away with so much bad.

What he did have, and what he did know,
was an understanding
that he did not have enough perspective
to perceive final outcomes.
He was powerless in that moment
to see or know
what he most wanted to see and know.
He knew he did not know enough
to answer the questions
that he and other people most wanted answered.

Even so, he refused to make up answers.
He refused to allow his dread of powerlessness
to provoke him into premature action.
He refused to attempt to leap ahead
because he could not tolerate the pain of the present.

And along with that embrace of his limits
and the understanding of his powerlessness,
he had one other small weapon
against the darkness:

It was an outrageous hope
considering the barrel of the gun
they were looking down.

It was a hope born of trust,
and it was simply that God loves us
and cares for us
and is present with us.
Because of that trust
he could act as if…
as if
the right outcome
depended upon his small acts of love.

His or anyone else’s puny actions
were clearly not enough to make a difference,
but he trusted that if he did what he could do
it would be enough.

It was a hope
created by an act of trust
that even the gravest,
most horrendous dangers
were capable of being addressed and resolved
by one small love
added to one small love
added to one small love
until the sheer weight and power of each small act
overwhelmed the hazard
or enlightened the darkness
or righted the wrong.

Deep darkness
and overwhelming odds
that kind of trust
and that kind of hope.

At the end of our nose,
pushed up against us and smooshing our face,
is an overwhelming force
with unbeatable odds
against which we are powerless to succeed.
So the only option to cynicism
or despair
or utter hopeless,
in any such situation,
is to act as if…
as if
one small act of love
and one step at a time
can possibly lead to the other side.

That is what I know.