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

The Advent of Hope, Grounded in Gratitude | November 26, 2023 Rev. Dr. Kathryn Benton

If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you,

it will be enough.

The opening words come from Meister Eckhart, a 13th century mystic. In reflecting on the celebration of Thanksgiving…in the shadow of its former meaning, we acknowledge the murderous colonialism…the trivialization of indigenous peoples and re-envision a new celebration. We can find the heart…the ground…the core of our gratitude. When asked what they were grateful for this Thanksgiving, both of my grandchildren said, “for being alive”. A three and a seven-year-old still have hope…the hope of a seed that, when planted, may sprout new growth. They appreciated the ritual of making special foods and sitting down together to express our gratitude. About such rituals, a teacher of mine, Clarissa Pinkola Estes wrote:

Ritual is one of the ways in which humans put their lives in perspective, whether it be Purim, Advent, or drawing down the moon.

Ritual calls together the shades and specters in people’s lives,

sorts them out, puts them to rest.

Human beings need rituals, I think, to create a sort of rhythm to our existence. Without it, we may not take the time to reflect…to say “thank you” …to plan for the next days. Ritual helps us re-commit our lives to what is important…to our original instructions or as both Meister Eckhart and Carl Jung have called original condition. This is a state of wholeness with the all-pervading presence that heralded our birth.

In working with individuals on the most profound issues of life, I have recently noticed the lack of such a ritual in people’s lives. Most say that they are neither religious nor spiritual, which often means that they do not consider ritual important. In discussing the possibility of ritual, I bring up the value in stopping…waiting…resting. Rooted in our gratitude…our ability to say “thank you” to the universe for our existence, this waiting…this gathering brought to mind the impending season of Advent. With the grounding in gratitude the gestation period can begin…the preparation for a new possibility…a new hope. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in God Is in the Manger:

Look up, you whose gaze is fixed on this earth, who are spellbound by the little events and changes on the face of the earth. Look up to these words, you who have turned away from heaven disappointed. Look up, you whose eyes are heavy with tears and who are heavy and who are crying over the fact that the earth has gracelessly torn us away. Look up, you who, burdened with guilt, cannot lift your eyes. Look up, your redemption is drawing near. Something different from what you see daily will happen. Just be aware, be watchful, wait just another short moment. Wait and something quite new will break over you: God will come.

What is this something new that will come? Bonhoeffer says it is God, but I need to find other ways to express this, since so many of the people I speak with do not “believe in” God. Instead of rushing to an idea of God…be this God in a manger, on a throne, in the great swirl of gases that were present at the first flaring forth, I think the message of the ritual of Advent is waiting…allowing the idea to take shape, first in our own soul and then as a blueprint for our responsibility to heal the world we live in.

One of my clients who is Jewish said to me through tears of despair and sadness over the situation in Israel and Gaza, “but we are supposed to practice tikkun olam”. Instead, this client was torn apart by the murder and destruction of the whole region…no healing, just terror. If we have ever been in need of redemption…of the restoration of hope, it is now. Come, Oh Come Emmanuel…

This coming is not a given, it is something that we need to work for. It is a coming of hope in moments of despair…built upon the work we do in our own souls…the work of returning to wholeness…as individuals and as a people. Jan Richardson, an author and artist writes of this season…this time of anticipation…

The season of Advent means there is something on the horizon the likes of which we have never seen before…. What is possible is to not see it, to miss it, to turn just as it brushes past you. And you begin to grasp what it was you missed, like Moses in the cleft of the rock, watching God’s [back] fade in the distance. So, stay. Sit. Linger. Tarry. Ponder. Wait. Behold. Wonder. There will be time enough for running. For rushing. For worrying. For pushing. For now, stay. Wait. Something is on the horizon.

Richardson says that there is something on the horizon…something new that we haven’t seen before. It is the mystery of our being…our existence on Earth. We are sorely in need of this mystery, says Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

The lack of mystery in our modern life is our downfall and our poverty. A human life is worth as much as the respect it holds for the mystery. We retain the child in us to the extent that we honor the mystery.

This lack of mystery is, I think, at the root of so much suffering in the world. When we are unable to imagine something new, we succumb to the despair of the current reality. Bonhoeffer continues:

Therefore, children have open, wide-awake eyes, because they know that they are surrounded by the mystery. They are not yet finished with this world; they still don’t know how to struggle along and avoid the mystery, as we do. We destroy the mystery because we sense that here, we reach the boundary of our being, because we want to be lord over everything and have it at our disposal, and that’s just what we cannot do with the mystery….

This is the illusion of the all-powerful lord over everything…the illusion that Gabor Maté says we must be willing to shed. He asks, “Would you prefer to be illusioned or disillusioned? Would we rather engage with the world as it really is or only as we wish it were?”

Bonhoeffer continues:

Living without mystery means knowing nothing of the mystery of our own life, nothing of the mystery of another person, nothing of the mystery of the world; it means passing over our own hidden qualities and those of others and the world. It means remaining on the surface, taking the world seriously only to the extent that it can be calculated and exploited, and not going beyond the world of calculation and exploitation. Living without mystery means not seeing the crucial processes of life at all and even denying them.

Does this sound familiar? The denial and illusion of our history…as individuals and of course as a nation…when there is no mystery, there is also no gratitude. There is more of a “taking for granted” of our being alive. There is a lack of indebtedness to our creator and to our ancestors…those who have gone before, dealing creatively with the world as it was. People like James Baldwin who said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced”. He deeply embodied this truth, living his life committed to waking up the sleeper.

My teacher, Gabor Maté echoes Baldwin’s wisdom in his commitment to confront denial, in his own life and in our common life. He says that this waking up has the power to redeem the past, inspire the present and point to a brighter, healthier future. He says: We are blessed with a momentous opportunity. Shedding toxic myths of disconnection from ourselves, from one another, and from the planet, we can bring what is normal and what is natural, bit by bit, closer together.

May we endeavor to use this moment of waiting and look up! May we follow the north star of our being to the freedom land…closer and closer to our original condition…our condition of love and mystery, stripped to the literal substance of ourselves, that has been buried in our illusions. May we steal away for a time of reflection and renewal so that we regain the power of our convictions…our commitment to the moment of our high resolve…individually and as a community.

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