Monday, December 5, 2016

The Promise of God in the Wilderness

Last Sunday, while you were on your Thanksgiving break, the season of Advent began, and the first candle on our Advent wreath was lit.  Now there are two lights, the second Sunday.  Advent is a special season of watching and waiting; of looking for the subtle and surprising signs of God’s presence in the world.  I love Advent because it has a spiritual subtlety that is very necessary in the commercialized excess of the holiday season.  It reminds me that I could miss the presence of God if I’m not looking carefully for it.  Advent is about cleaning your lens and looking at the world in a new way.  And today we have a baptism for baby Charlotte to remind us of the beginning of life, and the journey of faith chosen by her parents.

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, as a gentle reminder.  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.  A strange thing happened to me earlier this week—something just felt wrong.  I was out of sorts.  And then I realized what I was missing.  I was here at Kent, but I wasn’t stressed out.  These two weeks are quite a few notches less stressful than any other time of the year.  It is a time to just be, or as close as we come to mindful relaxation.  And this time together 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 and rejoin our families for the holidays.      

One of the great figures of the Advent season is John the Baptist.  You heard him calling for repentance in the gospel reading from Matthew.  John the Baptist was a prophet, one of the most significant in our tradition.  He left society and lived in solitude, in the wilderness.  People had to leave society to find him.  John went off the grid to find God.  In solitude, he sought God with all of his heart, and society eventually followed him, seeking some small portion of what he had, that peace of mind that passes understanding.  He had many followers, including Jesus himself. 

The theme of the wilderness is a rich one in the gospels.  Like John, Jesus too sought God in the wilderness for forty days.  What would a modern-day John the Baptist look like?  What would it mean to leave society for the wilderness, even for a short amount of time?

As I pondered the questions, I thought of the writer Robert Sullivan.  Robert Sullivan is an explorer and writer, but not the usual kind.  His specialty is the Meadowlands.  Yes, that’s right, the Meadowlands in New Jersey: a former glacial lake that has been receding for the last 10,000 years, becoming the swampland you know now--and at one time the largest garbage dump in the world.  You’ve driven past it on the way to somewhere more important: Newark Airport possibly, maybe a discount mall, or you went there for a Giants or Jets game.  Robert Sullivan is obsessed with the Meadowlands.  Like Henry David Thoreau, he wanted to get back to nature, but he chose the most unlikely spot in the United States, maybe the world.  The comparison with Thoreau, however ironic in talking about an EPA waste site, became absolutely just when Sullivan found that the Meadowlands did, in fact, have a Walden Pond.  It’s just that no one ever went there; no one even looks at the map of the expansive swampland.  So Sullivan decided to go on his own Thoreau wilderness adventure, exploring the Meadowlands for weeks at a time in a small canoe.

Here is Sullivan’s adventure and vision in his own words in his book The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures on the Edge of a City.

“Sometimes, I sit on the top of Snake Hill until dusk, and I spread out my maps and marvel.  I marvel that I am in the middle of a thirty-two-square-mile wilderness, part natural, part industrial, that is five miles from the Empire State Building and a little bit bigger than Manhattan.

I marvel that the land before me was called ‘a swampy, mosquito-infested jungle…where rusting auto bodies, demolition rubble, industrial oil slicks and cattails merge in an unholy, stinking union,’ by authors of a 1978 federal report, and that now it is a good place to see a black-crowned night heron or a pied-billed grebe or eighteen species of ladybugs, even if some of the waters these creatures fly over can oftentimes be the color of antifreeze.

I marvel that on the edges of the Meadowlands there are places that are stuffed with people (some blocks in Union City have the highest population density in the United States) but that in the middle of the Meadowlands there are acres and acres of land where there aren’t people at all…

On the top of Snake Hill, I am on mysterious ground that is not guidebooked and that reads like a dead language…I am in the middle of a place that forces of progress have perennially targeted but have never managed to completely control, a place that people rush past on their way to the rest of America, a place they spit at with their exhaust pipes.  There, with the sun burning through smog and lighting up the reeds, with eight lanes of traffic providing backup, I sing the Meadowlands.  I am the dot on the Meadowlands’ exclamation point.”    

To go out in a search for peace and enlightenment in the Meadowlands of New Jersey is absurd—it’s completely crazy (which is exactly what Sullivan’s wife thought by the way).  But that’s what Robert Sullivan did, and that’s what he found.  All of the madness of our culture and world was right on the edge of a wilderness, almost totally unexplored.  That boggled Sullivan’s mind.  He found peace, renewal, and the unbelievable power of nature still pulsing in the Meadowlands, even as man’s so-called ingenuity is destroying our natural environment.  Mother Nature is still a very powerful lady.  Sullivan is a wise man of our time, finding renewal, inspiration, and peace in the last place anyone would look

The wilderness is spiritually lively, for both the ancient and modern seeker.  In his book Thoughts on Solitude, Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and spiritual writer, wrote this about the wilderness in considering the Desert Fathers, the early Christians who left society to live in the wilderness in search of God.

“The Desert Fathers believed that the wilderness had been created as supremely valuable in the eyes of God because it was no value to men.  The wasteland was the land that could never be wasted because it offered them nothing.  There was nothing to attract them.  There was nothing to exploit.  The desert was the region in which the Chosen people had wandered for forty years, cared for by God alone.  They could have reached the promised land in a few months if they traveled directly to it.  God’s plan was that they should learn to love him in the wilderness and that they should always look back upon the time in the desert as the idyllic time of their life with Him alone.”

The wilderness comes in many forms.  Our founder Father Sill left his monastery on the Hudson River to go out into the wilderness to found a school, one that would be different from the other Eastern prep schools.  It would be a school for young men of modest means.  His initial fundraising efforts yielded a mere $300, but he kept going forward.  I can’t even imagine the number of times this school might have failed.  But Father Sill persisted, and I have no doubt that he believed he was guided by God.  All of the little details of running a school were put in the light of God’s guidance, including the construction of this beautiful chapel where students might learn about the ways in which we are always part of God’s plan.  Where an alumna’s child could be baptized today.  What a wonderful journey this school has had, and all of us get to play a part in a school that is now thriving.  We keep the fire burning.  It is humbling to be in this space together with the past in mind.  We should always look back to the wilderness of our origins as an idyllic time.  The wilderness is now a land of promise for all of us. 

Expect the unexpected during this Advent season, the best time of the year at Kent.  Where is the wilderness in your life right now?  Where is the neglected place that is alive with new interest?  What have you overlooked about yourself?  The promise of Advent is the promise of God’s love and presence among us.  It’s happening now.  May God bless us during this holy Advent season, that we might awaken to the voice of God calling us his beloved, and calling us home.