You may be one of those odd people who likes winter. Certainly for those who retired here from away, that would make sense. Personally, if I’m going to hurtle down the face of something at high speeds, I’d just as soon it be a wave, though I’ll admit there are slightly fewer sharks on the ski slopes. And go ahead and strap on those snowshoes and head off into the woods. Me? Not so much. Oh sure, I love the look of the fresh snowfall, the hushed quiet, but give it a couple of days until everything is gray, when there is a seven inch puddle sloshing over the top of your boots where there was only two inches of space. It seems to me that snow melt falls into the realm of the impossible quantum, defying the laws of space and time.
Now, I attended Divinity School in Massachusetts, and my last church was in New York, so I’ve learned to adjust, even to the dark and the mud, but I do not rejoice in winter. I get the need for fallow time, for dark time, for the changing seasons in creation and in our lives, and even if I didn’t get it, that whole spinning planet thing is going to happen anyway, so I might as well accept it, but I truly rejoice in late spring.
Oscar, my Golden Retriever, loves the snow. Give him a yard full of fresh powder and he does his best crazy dog, with zigs and zags and leaps and snow-covered muzzle. If I didn’t have his pedigree, I’d swear he was part husky.
Even though I am not a fan, I can still appreciate the season. I can see things I could not see when there were leaves on the trees, can even see Mount Desert Island from the second floor of the Parsonage. The morning walk includes a view across the harbor, a rushing creek that was nearly dry when I arrived in July.
The planet is alive, a complex system made of the same star stuff as our own bodies. There’s a miracle for you… you are made of the same stuff that came hurtling out of the Big Bang, the same stuff that gives us diamonds and jellyfish. It is no wonder the authors of Isaiah imagined the planet itself rejoicing.
The desert and the dry land will be glad;
the wilderness will rejoice and blossom like the crocus.
They will burst into bloom,
and rejoice with joy and singing.
Now, Ezekiel was a schizophrenic, and at least a quarter of the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah was added centuries after his death. Even so, there is no Hebrew text as central to the Christian faith and as bafflingly complex as the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. Though there are theories, no one really knows why later editors assembled it in the current form. It was written over at least two centuries, all pretty dreadful for the Hebrew people, and we can clearly identify three different historical moments that make up most of the text. In the first of these, Assyria conquered the entire region, destroying the Northern Hebrew Kingdom and leaving little but Jerusalem and surrounding villages to a rump puppet-state of Judah. Then the Babylonians conquered the entire region, destroyed Jerusalem, and took the educated and skilled off into Exile in the second era. The last layer of text was written as the Persians conquered the Babylonians and sent the captives home.
The first period was a time of religious reform under Hezekiah, an age that included the fabrication of the Book of Deuteronomy. The second period was just awful, no matter how you look at it. At least in that final period, the one that gives us the Suffering Servants texts we associate with Jesus, there was some reason to hope.
But scholars are pretty sure that today’s text comes from that bleak second period, even though more text about Hezekiah from the first period follows. Editors inserted it here out of sequence.
So why, in such a depressing context, do we have this uplifting material about the earth itself rejoicing?
Why, in the middle of what was traditionally a season of repentance, do we have a pink week for joy?
I think that you cannot be in right relationship with anything, divine or mortal, without a clear understanding of your dependence and interdependence, and in the case of our relationship with the divine, with matters ontological, the first step is knowing that you did not create yourself. The great German theologian of the Romantic Age, Friedrich Schleiermacher, referred to this as our utter dependence on whence we came.
We can make sure we get enough exercise and sleep, wear our seat-belts and eat non-GMO food from the co-op in a blaze of health conscious vegan glory, and we will still come to an end. You did not create yourself, and while we cling to the promises of Jesus and the weirdness of the quantum when we claim that there is more than this, the truth is that our current form of existence, this embodied self is all we have ever known and it will end.
Only you can decide if this state of being, this life, is good. For it is a decision.
Anglican theologian Marilyn McCord Adams wrestles with this in her books on theodicy, the discipline that considers why bad things happen. She argues that life must ultimately be rendered as a good, even, as she acknowledges, if we have a hard time making the case for a good existence for some individual lives, say a Jewish child born in Germany in 1936 who would be murdered by bigots before ever coming of age. Or maybe a Jewish child born in 3 BCE who would be brutally executed by white authoritarians as an example to others in the Year 30.
Is being good? What do we contribute to being?
We are a non-credal church. I do not care whether you believe that that unwed teenage mother was impregnated by the Holy Spirit or by the baker’s son. I don’t care if you have been washed in the blood, though… ick! Is life good? Are people basically good? Were we meant for good?
It can be mighty hard at times. I know. I sometimes feel like a reluctant Calvinist. Massacres at Sandy Hook and the Pulse nightclub, cluster bombs in Aleppo, the exposure of a radicalized Christian Right as nothing more than White Supremacy without the hoods. As one member of our congregation said in language not normally heard from a pulpit, “I can’t believe we are still protesting this shit!” Matthew Shepherd would have been forty this month. I thought his story, I thought the name Emmitt Till had a place in the history books, but need not remain in our daily conscience. Then the State of Texas mandated that history be re-written and here we are, back where we were.
But we keep fighting precisely because we see the potential in every human being, believe this planet is good and amazing, that we can seem utterly depraved, completely wicked, but God is good and this is the day the Lord has made and we are called to rejoice and be glad in it, even as we roll up our sleeves and get to work to make it the world scripture promises it can be.
God does not need our worship, for God is God, however you construct and understand that Divine Mystery. We do not rejoice because we have to pay something. We rejoice because it puts us in right relationship with existence, and standing on the ground of right relationship, we are liberated from the illusion that tells us we have control, that we have rights, that we earned our life.
For we did not earn a thing. Your life is pure gift. Your skills and talents, pure gift. The people in your life, the ones who touch your soul and inspire you, who unlock the doors and set you free, who weave golden threads into the cloth of your life and paint poems in your imagination, each and every one is pure gift.
So many have turned Christianity into a gloomy way of living in the world, progressives and conservatives alike. It is no wonder that fewer and fewer embrace religion. If you walked out of church feeling empowered, challenged, if church was the spiritual gym where we push one another, “You can do it!” and “Come on, just one more…” then maybe our pews would be full
Rejoice! You are here, maybe with aches and pains and heartache, but you are here.
God is good, whether God is an infant in a stable, a broken brown body on a cross, a Spirit to be found in each of us…
In her 2005 collection of essays “Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith,” Anne Lamott writes of teaching a class with a storyteller friend in San Quentin, where her father also once taught writing. She walks us through the process of getting in, tells of having her hand stamped with a fluorescent mark, like some club kid on a Friday night. When she asks about the stamp, the guard says “If you don’t glow, you don’t go.”
Joy, even during the hardest of times, should be a sure sign that someone is a follower of Jesus, a person who loves God and all that God has made. Just as scripture says that you shall know them by their love, so should we be known by our joy. A Christianity worth joining, joyful, loving, tough and courageous…
“You can do it!”
“Come on, just one more…”
Maybe this is the right attitude to have toward the divine. Maybe we have to glow if we want to go… Glow with joy, with love, with imagination. Be a spark of divine light, joyful light, in your world. Glow so you can go. Even in the gray dark of a winter afternoon, ankle deep in a puddle, glow… warmth, passion, love… glow.
This is the day the Lord has made. May we rejoice and be glad in it.