Sunday, December 8, 2013

Ironic Advent Meditation #8: The Advent Stump


So church today was a big mess. In many ways.

Sorry, Father Rich, but it was.

I get there early (by my standards) because I'm supposed to sing the anthem (a song I wrote about John the Baptist since this is his big Advent Sunday).

But the Anthem is supposed to follow the Prelude. I Look around. No organist. It's time to go  and still no organist. So I ask Father Rich how I'm, supposed to get the "high sign" to know when start and he says, just start singing. Stickler for punctuality he is.

So be it. Then I sing. Or croak more like. People clap. Half-hardheartedly because we are Episcopalians and know better. Believe it or not, we are actually OK with clapping as part of worship (though you won't catch us doing it very often), but clapping "for" part of the worship service is not OK. It may be a sin, but since it's not structural sin like war or racism, we don't make too big of a deal of it.

I almost shouted down from the balcony to tell O ye citizens of Zion to stop clapping. But just then, Father Rich starts making announcements. And, at the same moment, Edwin walks up the stairs to play the organ. I say, wow, we didn't think you were coming. He says, why wouldn't I come? I think, well, maybe because it's already ten after and I've already sung the anthem that was supposed to be after the prelude which you weren't here to play. Anyway, after the announcements he waits for me to the do the anthem, not knowing that I've already done it. O Lord how long?

Then, of course, his daughter Elisabeth starts screaming up a storm downstairs since Edwin had to leave her to play the organ (and mommy, Jennifer, is at her ordination study meeting thingee in Warsaw). So I leave and go downstairs to try to get Elisabeth to stop screaming by blinking my eyes at her. That usually works, and it did eventually. And some of the people who are supposed to do the reading aren't there, so everyone is kind of looking around like--should I go up and read or just sit and wait for someone else? Which is really very Adventy if you think about it. 

And, OH YEAH, I forgot to mention the craziest thing of all. This being the Sunday with the GREAT John the Baptist reading from St. Matthew, all about baptism (and locusts and wild honey  and camel skins), two kids were supposed to be there to get baptized. And, of course, their families and friends and all. But they weren't there. Deep down I'm thinking, Father Rich are you sure you have the right week? Anyway, the whole service had been set up as a baptismal service at the heart of it. So, we just made lemonade and renewed our baptismal vows, renouncing Satan and all his ways. Unfortunately, we didn't renounce any of our own messy ways while we were at it.

At this point I'm just thinking, can we please get to communion ASAP? That's why I come anyway. That and blinking my eyes at Elisabeth. Of course, I didn't know that Catherine was going to make "very delicate" (as she described them) marshmallow treats for the coffee hour. These seemed to be something like marshmallows stuck together with pretzels.

Catherine is Elisabeth's big sister. I let her use my notebook during the service and she drew an awesome picture of a rainbow girl. It was a rainbow basically, with appropriate colors, but the rainbow itself was kind of the hair of the head of a girl with eyes and a mouth. Reminded me of a model I saw one time in Milan. I'm sorry, I needed to work in something about Milan, since yesterday was the feast of old Saint Ambrose, the very fashion-conscious Bishop of Milan. 

Later, during coffee hour, I explained to Catherine how he was the first person in history (which is to say, in Saint Augustine's experience) to read silently. Which got Edwin and I wondering if anyone had ever identified the actual spot of Augustine's conversion in Milan. Someone should. And sell tee shirts that say tolle lege.

So anyway, I'm sort of praying can we just please please get through the passing of the peace and get to communion in one piece and sample a delicate marshmallow treat and go home? When, of course and obviously and how many times has this happened before whether in Advent, Lent, or even in ordinary time, Father Rich just starts saying stuff that makes me grab my notebook back from Catherine and start scribbling (with a sharpie since that's all I could find). So if some of this looks smudged or stains through to the other side of you brain, you'll know why.

And it wasn't anything . . . you know, brilliant. Or it was, but not like Ambrose or Augustine brilliant. Not that Father Rich isn't capable of preaching like a church father on occasion. It's just that this morning, he was mostly quoting today's reading from the prophet Isaiah. "A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse . . . . " and then, as the old story goes, crazy wonderful things will happen, including justice for the poor, mean nasty animals will lie down with cute cuddly ones, in fact the entire animal world would become vegetarians, and little babies, like Elisabeth, would play with snakes. Edwin said, "she probably would."

And those wonderful things get more and more wonderful and kind of built to crescendo and you can start thinking, maybe thinking too much, about how amazing that sounds and then, maybe how unbelievable and then, maybe how unrealistic and then, maybe haven't we heard this before, like exactly 2013 times or so?

But Father Rich really didn't go there. Here's what he did, and it's what I needed to hear, I think. He went straight to the stump and stayed there. Think about the stump, citizens of Zion (he might have said, if he were being more like Ambrose). Jesse was a great tree once, but this shoot (and shoots don't look nearly as amazing as, say, vegetarian millenial kingdoms, when they are just little . . . shoots) is coming out of a stump. I've got a stump in the backyard where I used to have a tree. And the vacant lot next to my childhood home on 1549 South Ohio St. had a great tree in it. But Missy sent me a picture of it the other day, taken recently, and now there's just a stump where that tree was. 

Stump. Even sounds bad. Like dump. Father Rich said that the stump was sort of what was leftover from all the majestic awesomeness of the tree of Jesse, the family of kings, the glory of the people of God. It's not just NOT GREAT (in its essential stumpiness--OK, Father Rich didn't say that), it's a reminder of hopelessness, of dimishment, of what used to be. Because it used to be GREAT. What now is dead or dying once was something living and expansive. But now a stump is just a sad monument to what had been.

Except there will be, Isaiah said and Father Rich says (either because he believes it or because it's his job or both), a new shoot from the stump. Some sort of miracle causes new life to be. That little shoot will make all the difference. It might look like a small gift of mercy, even just a small insignificant life (maybe a crying child who blinks beautifully or one who draws lovely rainbow girls or a dutiful father//church organist who wears his dutifulness with appropriate level of irony so as not to smell of sanctity or a mother who will be a priest, or a priest who has been through something like purgatory in recent months with personal and family suffering but who doesn't give up or maybe something really will click this time and that baby in the manger will start cleaning up the messes and getting those animals to be vegetarians finally), but, hey, watch where you point that shoot if you get my meaning. Peace, mercy, justice, love--a little shoot can make all the difference. 
Well, it's pretty to think so anyway. And I feel rather stumpy. Or, rather, my experience of life is one of a diminished stump of a thing. That's what Camus calls the absurd. Our hearts tell us, this can't be the thing itself. Camus said. that. Or Peggy Lee, I get them mixed up. Well, whichever, don't blame me. I've just got high standards I guess. And Jeremiah is my favorite book in the Bible.

So anyway, then Elisabeth just screams and screams and screams all the way up to communion. And Father Rich breaks off a little piece of bread and says, the body of Christ, the bread of heaven. And then touches her cheek the way he always does. That kills me. Then he dips his finger in the wine and touches her lips. The blood of Christ, shed for you. She's probably just hungry, but I swear she completely totally quiets down. So much so that you can actually hear Edwin starting to play the hymn after communion. I kind of hurry back to sing, because it's one of my favorites. 
He comes in succor speedy to those who suffer wrong;
To help the poor and needy, and bid the weak be strong;
To give them songs for sighing, their darkness turn to light,
Whose souls, condemned and dying, were precious in His sight.

I don't know. I don't know about the speedy part. But I know that, like Elisabeth, I'm hungry enough to scream. And I'm in for the succor, or at least one of Catherine's marshmallow monstrosities. 

Actually, it's the only time I've ever been the first in line for coffee hour, since usually I sit and wait for Edwin to finish with the postlude.  But those delicate treats are waiting. And everything, really, everything that hasn't already happened in this stump of a universe, is waiting. 

Maybe there will be some locusts and wild honey too.

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