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  • Writer's pictureThe Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples

December 27, 2020 | Message from Dr. Benton

The Season of Promise

Let the bells be silenced

Let the gifts be stillborn

Let cheer be muted

Let music be soundless

Violence stalks the land:

Soaring above the cry of the dying

Rising above the whimper of the starving

Floating above the flying machines of death

Listen to the long stillness: New life is stirring

New dreams are on the wing

New hopes are being readied:

Humankind is fashioning a new heart

Humankind is forging a new mind

God is at work.

This is the Season of Promise.

- Dr. Howard Thurman

Silent Night…Holy Night. We have just experienced the longest night of the year, the winter solstice and then the night of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth…the birth of hope in our time. We are turning toward the Season of Promise…the promise of a New Heaven and a New Earth…those 12 days leading up to the Epiphany on January 6th. Epiphany in the Christian tradition is the time of manifestation…the time when the three wise men discovered the baby Jesus and made the announcement of his birth to the world. Interestingly, when I lived in Austria, Epiphany was a big deal. On this day the three kings would come to the house and collect money for the poor. All were expected to give what they could. It was reminder that life goes on… that our responsibilities for participating in the creation of a new heaven and a new earth are upon us. But this work is not easy…it is built upon the experience of the cry of the dying…the whimper of the starving. It is built upon the hope of new life!

For our meditation, let us listen to another version of the hymn, Silent Night, this time in the original German.

Listen to the long stillness of the night…New Life is stirring…Humankind is fashioning a new heart…a new mind…in the person of Jesus of Nazareth? God is at work.

At this, the end of the year 2020, an extremely challenging year, it is life-saving and redemptive to remember this…that although the bells may be silenced…cheer may be muted…violence may stalk the land, God is at work within and among us…birthing a new world. This is indeed the Season of Promise.

It is that promise…that hope that Thurman says comes with the appearance of Jesus of Nazareth. Thurman says that Jesus came preaching a message of hope as well as love. He wrote that, [Jesus} knew …that {this hope} gave relief to the human spirit – temporary but mighty. It is temporary because it is a world that is always changing. And it is often especially at a time of supreme frustration…of real despair that this hope is found. This is what Thurman calls, The Hope of the Disinherited. He writes:

Fundamental to all was his deep confidence in God. This is the heart of what he gives to the disinherited. Here is no superficial optimism, but a vast faith that reaches through all the dimensions of human life, giving dignity, worth and purpose even to the least significant. In Jesus, all [people] may see the illumined finger of God Guiding them in the way that they should go, so that high above the clash of arms in the conflict for status, for place, for privilege, for rights, one can hear the still small voice of God, without which nothing has real meaning, with which all the rest of the journey, however difficult, however painful, however devastating, will be filled with a music all its own and even the stars in their appointed rounds and all the wooded world of nature participate in the triumphant music of the heart. Such is the faith he communicates, and in its presence even Death becomes a little thing.

No superficial optimism…but a vast faith…faith in the reality that God is not through with us yet…faith that we are being held in this universe’s tender, loving embrace…faith in that still, small voice of God that we hear in the wind…that we sense in the crashing of the waves on the beach…the pounding of the raindrops on the rocky cliffs…the song of the sparrow outside our window. Faith and hope made manifest in the triumphant music of the heart. In such a presence, he says, even death is a little thing!

This is the hope that sits in the ground of our being…the hope nestled deep within…the hope that has been with us since the first flowing forth of the universe and the hope that will remain after our own death.

Thurman wrote of the hope. He called it “the growing edge”. He used an oak tree as an example. This speaks to me as I look out on the branches of such an oak in my back yard. Thurman writes:

A kind of oak tree comes to mind.

You have seen it. The leaves turn yellow and die,

but they stay on the tree all winter.

The wind, the storm, the sleet, the snow - nothing is able to dislodge these dead leaves from the apparently dead branches. The business of the tree during the long winter is to hold on to these dead leaves.

Then there begins to be a stirring deep within the heart of the tree. The expression of its life reverses itself. Its function is no longer that of holding onto the dead leaves. It turns them loose. They fall off.

In their places, buds begin to come. What wind, storm, hail, sleet, ice could not do during the long winter, now comes to pass very quietly because of the vitality inherent in the tree. At winter's end people burn the dead grass, so that this growing edge, the vitality inherent in the grass roots, may manifest itself with dignity and with glory.

Sometimes our lives are like this. There are those pesky “dead leaves” that cling to our apparently “dead branches”… the old and outworn ways to live. We think we will never rid ourselves of these leaves…these habits…these addictions…these fears…these doubts. But that stirring that Thurman speaks of is within all of us. We are indeed all divine sparks sent forth in the creative impulse that gave life birth. And as Thurman so wisely points out, sometimes fire is needed to dislodge…to awaken the vitality inherent in our roots, so that this manifestation may happen with dignity and with glory!

We have been through the fire, though we may not be finished with it yet. But like the symbol of ivy placed on the lapel of new members of our community, we must look to the Growing Edge…

All around us worlds are dying and new worlds are being born;

All around us life is dying and life is being born:

The fruit ripens on the tree;

The roots are silently at work in the darkness of the earth

Against the time when there shall be new leaves, fresh blossoms,

green fruit.

Such is the growing edge!

It is the extra breath from the exhausted lung,

The one more thing to try when all else has failed,

The upward reach of life when weariness closes in upon all endeavor.

This is the basis of hope in moments of despair,

The incentive to carry on when times are out of joint

And men have lost their reason; the source of confidence

When worlds crash and dreams whiten into ash.

The birth of a child – life’s most dramatic answer to death –

This is the Growing Edge incarnate,

Look well to the growing edge!

It is this growing edge that anchors our hope in the world…in the here and now…in this community and in the work of Christmas.

May we go forth with the music of Odetta singing the spiritual, Children Go Where I Send Thee. May we go where we are being sent to do the work of Christmas…the work of justice and of peace…of the fashioning of a new heart and the forging of a new mind to the benefit of all life!

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