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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.

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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.”

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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).

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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.

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Messy Bodies, Smelly Dogs, and the Christmas Gift of Repentance

Many Christians were launched into this third week of Advent with the fiery rhetoric of John the Baptist. He’s an odd figure, in more ways the one. His desert roaming and locust-eating offer a stark contrast to inflated Santas on glittering front yards and reindeer shimmering on rooftops.John_baptist

John stands as a forerunner, a figure preparing the way for Jesus. Not so terribly odd for this season, except for the grating substance of his message: repentance.

That word more than merely grates. Repentance is one of those words that makes a growing number insist on being spiritual but hell-no-not-religious.  It qualifies as one of those “trigger words,” especially for those who have heard it only in tirades of condemnation.

As a gay man, I heard that word as a young adult not only as judgment on my sexual desires but for my bodily self, who I am in the world. I came to internalize that judgment, thinking of my very own flesh as wrong, bad, even disgusting. This is what leads a shocking number of young people to suicide; one would be too many. Quite frankly, I am astonished with gratitude that I am still alive after those many years of suffocating religion.

My life changed dramatically in my mid-twenties, when a dear friend recounted the confession he made to a priest about being gay. In essence, this was the content of his confession: “I confess that I have been rejecting the goodness of my sexuality and the divine gift of my bodily desires; I repent.”

My friend told me this, transforming entirely my concept of sin and repentance, not to mention my image of God. Repentance, I realized, is not primarily about remorse; or rather, such regret is not its purpose. The word itself means turning, changing one’s mind, shifting the course of one’s whole life. To repent is to turn away from shadowy realms and toward the light, toward the light of thriving, flourishing and fleshy life, a life of joy, just as God intends.

This Advent season, now on the brink of the Christmas season, is drenched in bodily stuff, in flesh. Biblical writers don’t often dwell on abstract concepts but turn often to bodily images to convey spiritual insights – particular places, landscapes, banquets, other animals. Christmas celebrates newborn flesh in a manger, a feeding trough for cattle and sheep. Bodily, fleshy stuff matters, more than we can imagine; it’s precisely there, in bodies, where we encounter the mystery of God.

Here in the United States, we’ve been living through a period of rather intense moments of bodily stress. The killing of African Americans by law enforcement officials over the last few years has brought black bodies newly onto center stage. The seemingly unending wave of sexual misconduct cases has brought bodily vulnerability and bodily power into the spotlight of our entertainment industry and Congress alike. The entire planet is becoming increasingly aware of the many bodies living in the midst of a climate crisis; the body of Earth itself is groaning (as the Apostle Paul noted many centuries ago). Bodily, fleshy stuff matters – more than we can imagine.

These are indeed distressing moments but perhaps also fruitful ones of repentance, of turning around and changing our minds about flesh and bodies. This matters in Western culture where bodies of all types are objectified, categorized, made into commodities to buy and sell. Perhaps BlackLivesMatter and the flood of “metoo” hashtags and starving polar bears can prompt a profound moment of repentance, of turning toward the flesh once again, not as a consumer product but where the One who creates it is pleased to dwell, with abundant joy.

We need to be intentional about this. It won’t “just happen” on its own. And this is why, in part, I live with a dog. My Australian shepherd dog Judah will not permit me to sit in front of my computer forever; he insists on hikes, playing, wrestling, running down a beach, getting dirty, smelly, and covered in sand and mud and ocean foam. He stands panting after all that rolling about in the muck, panting happily as he stands there as a complete and utter mess; it’s glorious.

judah_rodeo_090916 (2)I actually love the smell of a wet, dirty dog. I sometimes bury my nose in Judah’s furry neck and relish that earthy, canine odor. It speaks flesh, a word made flesh, and there I remember: God really does love this glorious mess – God loves me.

On the endless list of things we all need to do in this “holiday” season, I would add one more and put it at the top. In your encounters with others, all of them, notice that we are bodies with flesh. With colleagues, reach out a hand to touch a shoulder; with strangers, shake a hand and feel your skin against skin; with friends and family, make sure you embrace them – a lot. And don’t ever miss an opportunity to fondle the silky ears of a dog, scratch the chin of a (willing) cat, or take delight in that tumbleweed of animal fur rolling through your living room.

All of this seems ridiculously inconsequential, hardly the revolution we now need. But it matters more than we can imagine, this regular, deliberate, intentional reminder of the flesh we are, the flesh God loves.

There are many reasons why physical touch has become risky these days. There are many more reasons why it is so urgently necessary, the reminder of our fleshy bodies, the stuff through which God chooses to speak and be known.

Repent, turn again toward the flesh, where God takes great delight to dwell, with an abundance of (messy, smelly, confounding, liberating, intoxicating) joy. That’s the gift I wish I could place under every single tree – wrapped in Judah’s beachy scent.

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