Tuesday, November 30, 2010

an Advent Childhood Memory from the deep south


I loved the first day of school with its box of sharp crayons and pristine notebooks. By December, broken stubs of color and messy scribbles whispered dark messages of imperfection. Such joy to discover that first light arrives daily. I am a frayed survivor, yet I am more and I think I shall soar today. Should I fall down, I'll drag this body up and start again. God bless the broken road I travel.

So I begin and live in Advent. Waiting. Waiting. Rising in the dark quiet morning, waiting for first light. Active waiting accompanied by coffee and a candle. Expectant waiting without knowledge of the future. Faith. Hope. Joy. And the greatest of all, Love: a constant companion in both dark and light. Flannery O'Connor wrote that the best way to avoid Christ is to avoid sin. To live not in debauchery nor by a check-list of rules but to go forth each day fully human, humbled by each step, seeking forgiveness, making amends, resting in a love that is not doled out in sparse helpings but given lavishly, unconditionally. The blessings and humility of brokenness. Choices
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"A voice cries out: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God."   Isaiah 40:3

After my mother's funeral several years ago, I visited the site of my grandparent's house in Georgia. The clay road, now little more than parallel ruts, snaked over small hills and through pine woods.  At the top of the last rise, only the brick foundations remained, woven into the vines and bushes that had run riot over the ruins.  My grandparents had moved away forty-five years ago, but my earliest, happiest memories were born there and populate it yet.  On that clay road I learned to ride my bicycle one cold Christmas day, clad in my grandmother's worn blue wool sweater.  Even now I can feel the scratchy yarn around the holes in the sleeve and hear Daddy's laughter as he ran behind my bike.  And I clearly recall the sound of Santa's sleigh bells racing overhead that Christmas Eve while I labored to breathe under a pile of handmade quilts.  The black, star-filled country sky was made for such magic.  On summer nights, Papa would hold me in his lap on the front porch and show me the constellations, telling me about each one.  My favorites were the two "Dippers" and the Echo satellite that passed over us at regular intervals. This was my beginning, one foot in the post-Reconstruction, post-Depression rural south, the other in the space age.


Fifty years later, those who held me, loved me, and shaped me are gone, along with the illusory innocence of that beginning.  Time and choices fashioned a journey I could not have imagined.  I expected laughter and tears, joy and disappointment, but not impenetrable darkness, devoid of even one tiny star.  In that darkness, illusion died. 


A few years ago, a friend told me of hearing Holocaust survivor/chronicler Elie Wiesel speak at Harvard.  Wiesel crossed the stage and sat in a straight-back chair beside a plain wooden table that held a small lamp, the only source of light in the auditorium. Saying nothing to the large crowd, he reached up and turned out the light.  All waited in the silent darkness for some time.  When Wiesel lit the lamp, he looked around at the audience and said simply, "Only those who have walked in darkness can appreciate the light." [Isaiah 9]


Like the ruins of my grandparent's house, my foundations - broken bits of faith – were born, not destroyed, by the tangle of life.  A darkness of neither grief nor circumstance but of awareness: this awareness of my own personal void, this gift I would not have sought, led me to the one true light that cannot be extinguished.


A star shone brightly in the night sky two thousand years ago.  The light that came into the world that night is the hope of Advent.  And so the journey Henri Nouwen chronicled in Reaching Out continues . . .  "from loneliness to solitude, from hostility to hospitality, from illusion to prayer."