post

Gandalf’s Question and the Wilderness of Hope

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” Frodo said.

That’s the Hobbit Frodo, from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. You need not have read the books or seen the films to appreciate that quote. Simply know that Frodo had been given an epic task many times his size—and the world’s survival depended on his success.

frodo_ring

Elijah Wood as Frodo in Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” Gandalf responded, Frodo’s wizard companion. “And so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide,” Gandalf declares. “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

What time is it, anyway? High time to wake up, take notice, pay attention?

Is it time, finally, to repent?

Haven’t we heard that before? Aren’t some of us sick of that word? Preachers, I mean, especially. How much time should this take, anyway?

Does anybody really know what time it is (I don’t)
Does anybody really care (care about time)
If so I can’t imagine why
We’ve all got time enough to cry

Those of a certain age will recognize those lyrics from a band called “Chicago.”

My hometown. My kind of town, Chicago is.

Chicago—where they broke some heat records this past summer, during this past July, the hottest month measured on Earth since records began in 1880.

“In those days…John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness.”

John_baptist

Anton Raphael Mengs, “St. John the Baptist in the Desert”

We always hear about that wild man in the wilderness in this second week of Advent; this year, we heard Matthew’s version (3:1-12). But what exactly does Matthew mean by “wilderness”? Are there any wild places left on this planet not contaminated by plastic? Did you know that nearly every day it rains tiny plastic particles at the top of the Pyrenees Mountains in southern France, and at the top of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, and likely over every mountain range on Earth?

It’s hard to know where my attention rightly belongs at a time like this, if not up there in the mountains, then maybe…

  • down here at the border, with the thousands of children separated from their parents, many in cages and put there by my government;
  • or maybe with more than a thousand incarcerated men of color fighting California wildfires for $3 a day and who are then barred from working as firefighters after their release from prison;
  • or where whales beach themselves, starving to death, their stomachs filled with plastic—presumably with whatever plastic hasn’t already rained down on pristine mountaintops.

These days are those days when John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching repentance.

Wilderness—a place of purgation, of starting over, of being refined by fire—and who exactly is that preacher out there? Matthew says he’s the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke.

Isaiah, it should be noted, had some peculiar notions about the wilderness, about wild places—where the wolf lives peaceably with the lamb, and the leopard lies down with the baby goat, and the calf dwells amiably with the lion, that wacky place where bears graze with the cows (Isaiah 11:6-7).

More than a few Bible commentators quickly propose that these are really only metaphors, poetic ways of speaking, not about wolves or sheep or lions and bears, but of humans, and about that day when human warfare shall cease.

That sudden eruption of peace would be wonderful, of course. But I see no reason to shy away from reading Isaiah just as wildly as his wilderness, to let him stretch our credulity and push us beyond—far beyond—what seems polite and reasonable; after all, not everything in the Bible that sounds just a bit outlandish is only, in the end, a metaphor.

I mean this: the God who can inspire humans to beat their swords into plowshares is actually too small for a prophet like Isaiah. The God Isaiah apparently had in mind is the God who rewrites the biological scripts of predation and reweaves the very fabric of creation without any trace of violence or destruction. “No one,” he imagines this God to say, “will hurt or destroy on my holy mountain” (11:9).

peaceablekingdom_isaiah11

John Swanson, “Peaceable Kingdom” (based on Isaiah 11)

I’m guessing this is why Paul quoted Isaiah directly, by name, in his letter to the Romans. We heard from that letter for the second Sunday of Advent, too, probably because Paul really did single out Isaiah by name. I had never noticed that before, and these days it makes perfect sense.

Perhaps only Isaiah is sufficiently outrageous for Paul, sufficiently wild with hope to qualify as a champion for Paul’s outrageous take on the Gospel. Let’s recall some of its glittering nuggets that he offers to the Romans: this is the letter in which Paul invites his readers to imagine God acting “contrary to nature” by grafting the wild branch of pagan Gentiles on to the one true tree of Israel (11:24); in which he reassures his readers that by dying with Christ, we rise (6:1-11); in which he describes the whole of God’s creation groaning with anticipation for the day of salvation (8:19-23).

This is the letter where Paul insists that nothing whatsoever can ever separate God’s creation from the love of God in Christ (8:38-39)—and this is the hope, he declares, that the scriptures (like the stuff that wild and crazy Isaiah wrote) are supposed to inspire in us (15:4), the hope which we cannot see but without which we cannot live, the hope each of us needs, desperately.

But wait. Why is hope so vital, so mission-critical?

Because without it, we could never take seriously the question Tolkien’s Gandalf poses to every generation: what will we do with the time that is given us?

In these days, in this time that has been given us, the answer to Gandalf’s question will likely be very difficult to utter much less live. It will mean the kind and depth of repentance few have ever attempted. It will mean living in radically and dramatically different ways.

It will mean tapping into hope as if our lives depended on it.

Because they do.

advent21

post

Making Hope Visible: Advent and World AIDS Day

I remember the ambient anxiety of the early 1980s, back when people began to disappear. I knew a couple, Terry and Francis, who lived in New York.  Each of them worked for the same advertising company, sharing ideas and strategies both inside and outside of the office.  Quite suddenly, with hardly any warning, Francis struggled to manage work and home life without Terry, as if Terry had suddenly been snatched away by aliens from outer space.

A friend of mine told me about some of his friends in San Francisco, David and Brad.  They had moved there as roommates a few years earlier from the Midwest.  They might as well have been a couple as they spent nearly all their spare time together exploring the city, taking trips to Napa for wine tasting, or sailing on the Bay.  Just as suddenly as Francis had, David found himself alone, without Brad by his side.

Before long we knew more about the aliens who had been snatching these people away.  They were given names like pneumocystis pneumonia and kaposi sarcoma.  Some of us began referring to this phenomenon like a thunderstorm; no one knew where or when the lightning would strike next.  The storm itself was given a name, too. At first it was called GRID (“gay-related immune deficiency,” or what the New York Times called a “new homosexual disorder”) and then eventually HIV and AIDS (“gayness” was removed from the nomenclature but not from the stigma, which today’s younger generations have apparently revived by hesitating even to hug people infected with the virus).

aids_ribbon_earth

As it sometimes happens, this first Sunday of Advent—“New Year’s Day” on the Christian calendar—coincides with World AIDS Day. The strangeness of what many church-going Christians are hearing from Matthew’s gospel on this day actually sounds eerily familiar to those of us who lived through the pre-anti-retroviral drug years. In that gospel text, Jesus describes the early warning signs of the world’s end: two will be working side by side in a field, Jesus says, and one will be taken, the other left behind. Two will be grinding grain together, he says, and one will be taken, the other left behind (Matthew 24:36-44).

That ancient text describes rather well what life was like for many of us in the 1980s and early 1990s. British theologian Elizabeth Stuart writes about those years and recalls how, with very few exceptions, the vast machinery of the institutional church simply abandoned the sick and dying when they needed its ministry the most, in a time of deep anxiety and even terror. Stuart recalls something else as well: in the face of apocalyptic distress, we learned in new ways how to care for each other. “Lesbians and gay men sat in hospitals together,” she writes, “went to funerals together, and stared death in the face together.”

Back then, queer people offered a tangible reminder of what church ought to look like and why it should matter: in world-ending moments, we need visible signs of hope.

aids_ribbon_candles

This is also why New Year’s Day on the Christian calendar always presents us with apocalyptic texts, with stories and images of the world’s end. This can remind us, first, that all sorts of “worlds” come to an end quite regularly (to which the history of World AIDS Day bears witness), and then second, why the coming of Christ matters for each of those endings—a coming, as Matthew’s Jesus says, that is always unexpected.

To be sure, these texts sound threatening and ominous. But there is another kind of tone running through biblical texts and Christian traditions that also rightly belongs to the apocalyptic genre; it’s the tone of longing and yearning for intimacy, the tender tone of desire. It is—and this may be just as unexpected as a thief in the night—the tone of God’s own desire to be in communion with us.

Biblical writers present us repeatedly with precisely this God:

  • The God who goes searching for Abraham and Sarah in the distant land of Ur.
  • The God who goes searching for Joseph residing in Egypt.
  • The God who goes searching for Naomi, who brought Ruth along with her.
  • The God who goes searching for God’s own dear people in exile.
  • The God who comes as the Lover searching for the Beloved; the one who searches for us as one of us, in the flesh.

The hope we all need in world-ending moments can appear quite simply and quietly, as the touchable presence of accompaniment; it is the hope of not being alone.

Can we adopt that kind of hope today? Is the Creator God still with us, as ecosystems collapse and species disappear? What does hope now look like in this present age of anxiety and barely-contained terror?

We queer people offered visible hope to each other as our late-twentieth-century worlds unraveled. As worlds unravel again today, God calls us to that queer work of embodied hope again. Let us make it our shared Advent discipline—just in time for Christmas—to (re)assure each other of the One whose name stands forever as Immanuel—God with us.

advent_1_1_1