Peace in a Time of Dissonance

Last week we entered into this Season of Advent. During the recessional at the end of service, we sang hymn #68: “Rejoice, rejoice believers and let your lights appear!—all in a minor key– and my heart shuddered:   “The evening is advancing, and darker night is near.”

When I sing, it IS the Nightmare Before Christmas.

My husband gently reminded me later, Advent is, after all, a semi-penitential season.

And semi-penitential?  What exactly does that mean? Are we sort of sorry for our sins?  We kind of want to atone?  We maybe will consider the Rite of Reconciliation with Mother Dawn or Father Earl?

Of course, the real answer lies in that little prefix “semi”—what it is actually modifying.  It does not suggest that we are only moderately interested in acknowledging our sinfulness.  It does suggest that, in addition to our sense of penitence, we are also thinking of something else:  We are experiencing at least two very different impulses at the same time.

This is a kind of cognitive dissonance: holding two ideas, two emotions together simultaneously; in this case we regret or feel sorrow for our sinfulness at the same time we are experiencing the joy of hope.

There is still enough of a child in me to feel keenly the cognitive dissonance between the mood of my religion and the mood of my society during this time of the year: Outside it’s bright lights, loud, happy music, bustling crowds, presents.

Inside—like the autumn world itself—we retreat inward:  invited to a quieter, starker, time of introspection, sacrificial acts of giving.

A huge, pregnant pause hangs heavy in the air–as we wait.

As a child, for me anyway, that waiting was uncomplicated.  I knew only of good things; we would sing and laugh and be together more than usual.  And that was good.  But then came adolescence.

With age comes an awareness that life is not so uncomplicated.  Sorrow and pain begin to creep in. The awareness of the intense suffering of those in the world, in our own neighborhoods, our families begin to weigh into the matter—along with personal disillusionment, disappointment; isolation and loss.

Imagine Mary, during this time–as yet unmarried, and pregnant—an offense punishable by death.  And Joseph, hopes dashed, feeling betrayed: decent enough that he doesn’t want to hurt/humiliate her—only quietly wants the problem to go away and avoid public scandal.

Like them, in this season we wait—full of something we do not entirely understand.

I remember once a priest asked, “So how does our awareness of what awaits the baby Jesus, how does our awareness of what will happen to him, what our world, people just like us, will do to Jesus as an adult, how does all of that temper our feeling of Christmas?”

That world outside acts as though the only thing that really matters is the birth of Jesus.  We are much more impacted by our awareness that after that birth comes his death. And resurrection.

Therein lies the crux—the cross—of our ambivalence.

This week, we resolutely face the harangue of John the Baptist: “You brood of snakes! Do not presume!  Bear fruit worthy of repentance—or be cut down and thrown into the unquenchable fire!”

Dire warnings.

Last week, Jesus’ words were also absolutely clear that we must prepare ourselves.

Business—the busy-ness of life can no longer go on as usual.

And those words weigh heavy on me, a sinner, who is very comfortable being where I am, who I am.

Even as I try to give more, do more, be more—I am always aware that it will never be enough.

I learned that a young boy in the after school program, of whom I have become very fond, was moving—leaving the school.  For weeks before he had been bouncing back and forth between homes of different relatives. I will never forget how sad he looked, how sad we felt, as he said goodbye to us that day.

The pain and worry of similar experiences haunt many teachers, social workers, those who care for the public.  It is a reality of the lives of too many children who live in poverty: a lack of stability and security.  And because so much of it is systemic, there are no easy solutions.

And the daily awareness, the pain of this realization can lead at times to resignation, apathy.  “I cannot fix the world.  I cannot fix the people around me.  Heck, I cannot fix all the things wrong with me.”

And this is where sin, where my temptation, creeps in–whispering, seductively, “Then why try?”

Fortunately God gave us a variety of prophets, who speak differently as our need arises.

So today we have an offering, a promise from Isaiah:  “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”

Out of something presumably dead, will come new life.

Of course, as Christians we interpret this as the promise of resurrection into eternal life.

Practically, today, I also find comfort in the thought that in the life of this age, we can see some of this new life as well.

Twenty-five years ago I met a young boy—whose circumstances were not unlike those of the ASP child.   In fact, his were far worse.

Today that boy owns his own home, is happily married to his high school sweetheart, and has three loving children.

God reveals to us the miracle of God’s love, sometimes far too slowly for our liking—all around us, in the here and now.  But we have to pay attention.

We must leave our hearts open, and, yes, vulnerable—in order to recognize those moments when the miracles are revealed.

Even the apostle Paul, who can sometimes be a real pain for my theology, offers this in our lesson today: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing.”

We must realize, however, that God does not offer us an easy joy, nor a painless peace. Mostly because, being human, we carry so many conflicting emotions, memories in our hearts—that dissonance that I was speaking of before.

As we read Isaiah 11—the verses that speak of how one day the leopard will sleep with the kid, the lion and calf will eat from the same trough and a child will tend them both—I think of my own heart.

How, the parts of me that are angry, hungry, fearful, competitive often struggle against the parts of me that are trusting, collaborative, hopeful.

My challenge is always to remain engaged and committed without allowing my soul to be savaged by the anger that flares up over the horrors that I encounter in our world.

And what makes that possible, I think, what allows those disparate,  dissonant feelings to work peacefully, in harmony is remembering:

Love is the one absolute we can never sacrifice.

Jesus never did.  God never does.

And so we gather together—this human family—working to make our lives in the church and beyond its walls testaments to God’s love for us;

Testaments to our love for God and one another.

Blessed be the Lord God, And blessed be God’s glorious Name forever! *
and may all the earth be filled with the glory of our Lord.
Amen. Amen.