Sunday, December 2, 2012

“Advent Marks in Time: God in the Here and Now”

2 December 2012
The First Sunday of Advent
The Reverend Jonathan A. Voorhees
St. Joseph’s Chapel, Kent School

I’d like to begin this sermon exactly where Rachel Choe ended the meditation chapel on Thursday evening.  She was pondering the way we live our lives.  What exactly are we rushing off to?  Why are we in such a hurry to be out of high school?  Or college?  When exactly is this golden time that we seem to be expecting, just around the next corner?  At our formal dinners, we often hear how many days there are left for seniors.  If we lived our lives correctly, I think the seniors would be sad, and the third form would be overjoyed to hear about the plentiful days until graduation.  This is a special time of year, but we do it all wrong.  We even have a name for the madness: the Christmas rush.  At the meditation chapel, an alternative was presented: to be, simply and deeply, present in the moment. 
There is a wonderful book about the power and potential that is in the moment called The Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle.  This short passage is about the mystery of our being that can be found when we stop rushing past our lives, at Christmas or any time. 
            “Being is the eternal, ever-present One Life beyond the myriad forms of life that are subject to birth and death.  However, Being is not only beyond but also deep within every form as its innermost invisible and indestructible essence.  This means that it is accessible to you now as your own deepest self, your true nature.  But don’t seek to grasp it with your mind.  Don’t try to understand it.  You can only know it when your mind is still.  When you are present, when your attention is fully and intensely in the Now, Being can be felt, but it can never be understood mentally.  To regain awareness of Being and to abide in the state of ‘feeling-realization’ is enlightenment.”

            Three years ago, I was giving the opening prayer, the benediction, at a dinner for my high school class in Turlock, California.  The Turlock Bulldogs, it was a lifetime ago.  The occasion for the dinner was our twenty-fifth year since our graduation.  Looking around the room, I reflected on how we were all in a hurry to grow up.  Why were we like that?  Most of us would give quite a lot, maybe everything, to go backward in time; to simply be in the moment as the Christmas break was approaching in the magical time of our youth, now gone.   Maybe, just maybe, I said, we could slow down tonight—and be completely present in the moment.  If we did that, if we could find a way, we would be more than young again.  Somehow I think that’s what God is all about, though I don’t think that’s the word we would use: to describe the wonder of just being.   
In 2010, a documentary about education came out called The Race to Nowhere, directed by Vicki Abeles.  She came up with the idea for the documentary as she watched her high achieving daughter actually become physically sick from academic pressure.  This movie is about highly motivated kids who are deeply unhappy, even when they get the results, like the right college admission, that they’re looking for.  These are not the slackers.  The documentary explores the lives and values of teenagers who want to be the very best, but the psychological cost of their striving is presented in this thoughtful and compassionate movie.  Whether you are a high honors student or not, you are all responding to pressure, be it academic, athletic, social, or extracurricular.  And the toxic cocktail of all of these things is the idea that your college admissions, or rejections, are your measurement of worth as a human being.  Why are we racing off to nowhere?  Human beings are crazy.  Animals actually don’t have neuroses.  Unless they live with people.  Then they start to get a little crazy.        
I have compassion for all of you racing off to nowhere: because I was once an insane little hamster on the crazy wheel myself.  I wasn’t always the Zen master of meditative basketball and sacred hoops.  Twenty-eight years ago, I was the valedictorian in my class, out of some five hundred students.  Now I’m in recovery, I go to meetings.  Being the valedictorian was something I decided to be; it didn’t just happen.  I didn’t have the same problem with athletics because I never played, or rarely played when the game was already decided.  Those coaches are all going to hell, by the way.  I’d be sent in with eighteen seconds left to play, so I tried to shoot as many times as possible before the horn sounded.  But, every night, I studied like a demon, with an agenda.  I had two objectives: one was to be the very best, to be #1.  The second was my holy grail, my golden dream: to go to West Point. 
Then a terrible thing happened: I got everything I ever wanted.  I won the race to nowhere.  Now West Point is a wonderful place if you like military perfection, people screaming at you, marching all the time, firing automatic weapons, and the possibility of live combat (whether or not you agree with American foreign policy).  Aside from being unable to take orders, smirking when people yelled at me, and hating regimentation, I loved it at West Point.  The uniforms were fantastic, and great with the ladies.  But I also had a very important and terrible realization.  I wasn’t there for me; I was there for my father.  I was living his dream, not mine, and I wasn’t going to get any closer to him by doing it.  I wasn’t going to get the love I wanted by following his dream.  So I did something that was very painful—is painful to this very day, though it’s a deep and good pain because it came with self discovery.  My great decision: I dropped out of West Point, and the race to nowhere.  I went in search of my authentic self.  Oh, and by the way, nobody at the twenty-five year reunion seemed to remember, or care, that I was the valedictorian, or that I dropped out of West Point.  I felt exactly the same way.
When my dream of being a West Point graduate and an army officer died, a new dream was born—almost instantaneously.  It is often when you fail that you find the true terms of your success.  That new dream, a new story, would lead me to divinity school and the priesthood; and eventually to you, my home at Kent on the other side of the country from California, and not very far from West Point, the citadel of my lost childhood.  In my first year of divinity school, the dean of my seminary told us something strange and mysterious.  He said we should make all of our study into a form of prayer.  To make all of our study into a prayer.  This idea was the exact opposite of my pre-West Point self.  Everything then was an insane competition where a bad grade (like an A-) was an indication of my worth as a human being. 
Make your study into a form of prayer. 
How can you do this?  Well, here’s a place to start in your thinking.  During my first year at Kent, a young man named Jon Geller was diagnosed with bone cancer.  He played center for Coach Marble on a team that eventually won the New England Championship.  But football was over for Jon in preseason; when his cancer was discovered after he broke his shoulder during practice.  Jon had to leave Kent to take a medical leave for chemotherapy treatments at home in Montreal.  Jon wasn’t facing college admissions stress anymore, or the nose guard across the line.  He was facing the ultimate test that we will all face.  And the gritty, determined young man fought his cancer, with every fiber of his being.  This is a happy story because Jon went into remission.  He returned to Kent; not to be a football player, but to be a student.  To be a human being.  To just be.  In the spring of his senior year, before graduation, Jon spoke in chapel about his journey, back to life as we know it.  I can remember every word.  You could have heard a pin drop in this chapel.  At the end of his chapel talk, he gave two Thanksgivings to God.  The first will surprise you.  Jon said he was grateful for being able to do homework again.  To read, to write, to think, to do math problems, to draw, to understand the world around him.  Jon had learned how to make studying into a form of prayer.  His second Thanksgiving was for friendship.  You never know how important your friends are until your life is on the line.  Being a friend is one of the most important human vocations.  Be kind to each other. 
Make your life into a prayer of gratitude, completely in the moment.  People will notice something different about you, almost instantly, a change in the air, a wonderful disturbance in the force.  This is called peace of mind, the change that comes over you when your authentic self is born.  It is God incarnate, but you probably won’t even need to use that word.  Being will be enough.   
There is a Christmas movie that many of you have seen called Love Actually.  How many of you have seen it?  My wife loves it.  We watched it again last night.  I pretend to hate it, because it’s pretty cheesy at times, but I secretly don’t.  I feel it in my fingers.  I feel it in my toes.”  The opening voice over is by Hugh Grant, while watching people at Heathrow Airport, as family and friends unite after flights from all over the world.  In his words, Grant speaks of the phone calls on September 11th , by people on the airplanes.  People who knew that they were going to die made the last phone call of their lives.  They didn’t talk about colleges, or work, or wealth.  They were calls of love to family members, words that live forever.  The conversations were the last words of love, from the deepest place of our being.  It was Love actualized. 
Beyond even approaching your studies with a new heart, make your entire life into a form of prayer.  A prayer of gratitude.                     
            I don’t often wait until the last paragraph to address the gospel.  But here we are at the end.  I think it takes a while to really see this gospel, to wake up to it.  Jesus speaks about the powerful signs coming in the future that will reveal the presence of God in our world.  These lessons are often associated with the second coming of Jesus Christ.  They are read during the season of Advent which is considered a time of watching and waiting.  But if Advent is simply about watching and waiting, we’ll probably miss the miracle, even if it’s right in front of our eyes.  When Advent waiting shifts to simply being, the second coming is in the here and now.  It is.  Don’t miss the magic of the next week and a half by merely counting down the days until you race off to nowhere.  Stop, sit, rest, be, and love actually.  It will make your life rich beyond words.  It’s all around us; as the God of Love, the child of our Being, is born again, and again, in poor hearts like ours. 


  1. I hope I'm allowed to post here! This is a test.

  2. Did I tell you how I nearly got into an argument with Laura Linney when she came to speak at Harvard last year? (She went to Brown, incidentally, which I'm sure McEnroe would love.) Anyway, I persisted in quizzing her about why hers is the only storyline that leaves us with absolutely no hope for romantic success. "But it was just so conspicuous!!," I cried out across the auditorium. "You were the only one who never found any love!" (This is not, strictly speaking, true, but her story broke my heart so I chose to forget the others.) To which she replied, "That's because it's love ACTUALLY." But when I pushed her further, she explained her character's dilemma thusly: "She had to truly believe that her brother would kill himself if she wasn't there for him, all of the time. This was her sacrifice." After that, I was quiet.

    It's still my favorite Christmas movie of all time, cheese and all.