Sunday, December 7, 2014
Watching the Detectives
Look around this morning. Take a good look. If you hadn’t noticed, this is the best time of year at Kent. The best. We should have signs put up, so you remember. Instead, our Advent wreath hangs in the chancel, and you can see that two of the large candles are lit for the season. We’re half way through Advent, as we prepare for Christmas. You may remember keeping an Advent calendar as a child. Those were good times--a time of wonder, but the anticipation and beauty of the season are still here, reaching you in new ways if you stop to look around. Sure, the weather can be a little gloomy, like it was yesterday. But the cold can make you appreciate the simple things in life: food, shelter, companionship. These two weeks are quite a few notches less stressful than any other time. It is a time to just be. And it doesn’t end with final exams, or the goodbyes of spring, but rather a chapel service, one that is different from the others. People really sing the Christmas carols. Vacation will hang in the air with the Lessons and Carols service, before we go our separate ways.
One of the great figures of the Advent season is John the Baptist. John the Baptist was a prophet, one of the most significant in our tradition. He left society and lived in solitude, in the wilderness. John went off the grid. In solitude, he sought God with all of his heart, and society eventually followed him, seeking some small portion of what he had. He had many followers, including Jesus himself.
In today’s gospel, John is shown preparing the way for Jesus: “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” What was John’s relationship with Jesus really like? We don’t know, but it’s certainly possible that they disagreed about some things. I’d be shocked if they didn’t. The God of John is a good bit harsher than the God of compassion and love revealed in the teachings of Jesus Christ. But the gospels don’t reveal these details, the relationship of a famous teacher and his pupil, like Morpheus and Neo from the Matrix movies.
What is perhaps most admirable about John is his fearlessness with silence. It terrifies most of us. Silence. It is uncomfortable, awkward. Though he is often crying out in the gospels, John’s normal state, in nature, was silence before God. But he isn’t remembered that way. He’s always making a lot of noise, often railing at the establishment. John was a kind of spiritual detective, one who could hear the voice of God in the silence of nature.
When I thought about the John the Baptist figures in my own life, I didn’t have to look very far. Pastor Nick. Nick was my supervisor for Clinical Pastoral Education, a summer internship in a hospital setting. Every seminarian headed for ordination has to do it somewhere. I did it at a mental hospital. At Napa State Hospital.
There were lots of rumors about Nick. I’ll bet John had them too. I heard Nick had had trouble in his denomination. What kind of trouble? He had been tried for heresy, on more than one occasion. A heresy trial? How exciting, how delicious. Episcopalians don’t have fun like that, unless you use the salad fork on the wrong dish. Nick was found innocent at his trials—not enough evidence was the determination. Apparently his primary problem, one that attracted the attention of his denomination’s authorities, had been his tendency to use profanity from the pulpit.
At my seminary, the administrators steered students away from Napa State Hospital. When this counsel came to me—to stay away, I knew I had found the right posting, and the right supervisor. I learned that Nick had spent most of his career in the California Correctional System, as a Chaplain at San Quentin Prison. In prison, at San Quentin, two of his pastoral relationships were with Charles Manson and Timothy Leary. He eventually left San Quentin for Napa State Hospital. Nick was described to me as anti-institutional, non-hierarchical, and, as mentioned, some in his denomination found him heretical. One administrator at my seminary told me Nick was crazy, certifiable. Say no more, I thought, this is the position just for me. Pastor Nick’s Clinical Pastoral Education program was not even on the official list, so I had to get special permission from my bishop to do it. Which I did. I can do bureaucracy when I need to.
Next came the interview with my John the Baptist; and that’s when things took a strange turn. The interview lasted forty-five minutes, give or take. During the course of the interview, my future CPE supervisor said not a single word. Complete silence. We stared at each other for ten minutes to start things off. Nothing. His eccentric behavior was incongruous with the plain grey suit. He combed his eye brows, I noticed. I love it when older men do this. When I realized he was going to play the silent Buddha for the whole interview, I just started talking. Blah blah blah. Away I went. When I was talked out, I got up, shook his hand, and left his office. Several weeks later, I got a letter from the Napa State Hospital saying that I had been accepted to their Clinical Pastoral Education program.
And so it began. We were an odd couple, Nick and I. Nick distrusted words, except for the curse words. I was in love with them. I met with him weekly. During these hour long sessions, he never spoke. I learned to listen to him, and for him, in the silence. I learned to listen to myself without words. Sometimes the silent treatment made me feel a little crazy, but it made me look for my best, the best inside of me, beyond easy answers. I also learned to listen to God. I felt liberated doing it this way, without talking. I’m still a beginner when it comes to silence, but I’ve found this is a good thing to be. We’re all beginners when it comes to a God of love. During this season, we feel our way a bit as children, as beginners, in a way that belies our age.
In the silence of our world today, John might hear the voice of God. He might hear a yearning for justice in this Advent season: for Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, for Eric Garner in New York City; and for their families. For all the voices of injustice that we ignore, or fail to hear. John would have heard them, the crying of the creation. What John the Baptist found in the silence, in solitude, he brought back into the world. When it came to the voice of God, there was perhaps no greater detective, except the one who followed him
I’d like to close this morning with a passage from The Boy Detective, by Roger Rosenblatt. In this memoir, Rosenblatt walks the streets of New York that he first knew as a child, as a boy pretending to be a detective. But the child intuition and the adult reason work together, as do ours during this time of year.
“Round and round the park. Round and round. My favorite part of being a detective is just this—the walk, just taking in the world. Soon enough someone will engage us on a hunt, a project. And off we will go, armed to the hilt with whatever powers we possess, of reason, deduction, and style. We shall put our powers to use for the sake of honor, decency, and justice. And that’s all to the good, just as it should be in a life that yearns for honor, decency and justice.
But before all that, life calls for nothing but itself. And we do not so much pursue it as let it wrap around us, and just as quickly, unwrap, like the wind…
How do you walk in the world? That’s no trick. The how is easy. Or if it is not always easy, it is at least clear. How to walk in the world? Walk as the private eye walks. Do right, play fair, ignore the trash, and keep your nose clean. But why does one walk in the world? That’s another matter. Which brings me to you, as ever, and you to me. Will you be my partner? Shall we do our walking side by side? What do you say? See, I wasn’t tracking you, after all—through the fog and screams and gunshots. I might have thought I was tracking you. But all I ever wanted was to face you, in the blessed, blazing light.”
So this is it, settle in for the best time of year. It’s a chance to be a beginner again. To listen to the silence with John, and my own St. Nick, as we wait for the one who is coming.