Waiting in the Dark

Each year, Lake Shore Baptist Church in Waco, Texas produces an Advent booklet of daily meditations by current and former members of the church — one for each day of Advent. I have had the honor of contributing for several years now. This year’s theme is Waiting for the Light. My meditation was placed to be read on December 12 this year, so I share it with you on that date.

A host of people help in the preparation of each year’s Advent meditation book. Sharlande Sledge spearheads the effort and Pam Allen designed this year’s beautiful cover. It is truly a labor of love by people who have been changed by their association with Lake Shore, myself among them.

The people who walk in darkness will see a great light; those who live in a dark land, the light will shine on them. [Isaiah 9:2]

Waiting for the Light

Waiting for the Light

Waiting in the Dark

Years ago, I had to make a move to Roswell, New Mexico. It was a move I had not anticipated and had not wanted. At the end of a long, lonely drive down from Washington State, I topped a hill and saw the lights of Roswell stretching out before me in the valley below. “So, this is where I’ve come to die,” I said out loud to the empty seat next to me. Things were bleak in my life and I’d become accustomed to the idea that they were unlikely to get better. It was just before Christmas and darkness was everywhere I looked. I had never heard of Advent and wouldn’t for another thirteen years. If I knew I was waiting for the light, I’d long since forgotten it.

But, instead of being the place I’d come to die, my time there became the beginning of a rebirth. While my darkness initially deepened those first few years, one of a series of doors began to open for me in 2003. Very gradually the darkness began to dissipate. It was still to take another few years of crawling around in that darkness before I realized there was light in my life and that it had been there all along.

More recently, another move not of my choosing. The difference this time was that I’d already begun to see the light surrounding my life. A host of generous people became the mirrors of God’s light and love in my life, helping me see more clearly the light shining just around the edges of my long-familiar darkness. I finally understood the light exists wherever I move. Despite my fear, I found another host of mirrors in my new home – another source of strength where I feared there might be none.

Jesus began his ministry proclaiming the light of the world, knowing full well there would be darkness ahead for him. He understood darkness doesn’t have to consume us. He showed us there is light in all our lives and instructed us to share that light wherever we go. “In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.” [John 1:4-5]

Once I began to understand the light, I knew my wait was over. This Advent season, may God’s light shine into your darkness, giving strength to share the hope of Christ with others trapped in whatever darkness surrounds them. Sharing your light with another miraculously increases your own.

May this season be filled with waiting and wonder. Seize time during what has become an unnecessarily hectic season to take a deep breath and look beyond the hustle and bustle to remember that the greatest gift you can give another is the gift of yourself.

Home By Another Way

God is at home, it’s we who have gone out for a walk. — Meister Eckhart

What is home to you? No, not where your stuff is currently. What is home in those moments when it’s all going wrong, when you’re not sure you can take another step or perform one more task that’s expected of you?

I went to my 30-year high school reunion some years back. I hadn’t returned to that little town in almost that long and was pretty hesitant to go even then. For one thing, I didn’t actually graduate from high school in that town. When my parents split, mom, my sister, and I moved to a larger town. However, I’d gone to school in that little town for most all my school years, with the exception of the last year or so. Too, I was hesitant because I wasn’t certain I wanted to see those people with whom I’d grown up. I didn’t have particularly fond memories of childhood and was pretty sure I wasn’t well-liked – perhaps not even remembered.

It had been home. At least I thought it had been. I drove down the street where I grew up and drove right past the house I’d lived in for about twelve years of my young life without even seeing it. Everything had changed. Or, maybe it’s just that I had changed. About a block from that house, the town basically ends. Even now, that’s pretty much where it ends. So, I knew I must have driven past the house. But where was it? In my vacant lot a half-block from the house now stood a Methodist church. At lot of memories had been paved over – taken over, even. I was still years away from returning to church and I was not particularly happy with this intrusion on my own sacred space. I’d built a little rock altar on that lot decades ago. I’d even accidentally set the whole block on fire once. Sure, I’d walked away, but I still carried that sacred space with me. And they had taken it.

I turned the car around and, very slowly, began to drive back the other direction. Oh, there it was. 1405 Mercer Street. Oh, my God, what happened? It was so small. It was so drab. Where was that big front yard I’d played in? Had I merely gotten bigger? Perhaps I’d just gotten angrier over the years and everything in my life looked smaller. I was so thankful, at that moment, that I’d remembered to bring an ample supply of alcohol for the weekend – I was pretty sure I was going to need it. This place was still in a dry county. It was also still about eight or nine miles to “Trash Hill” at the Oklahoma border where you could stock up on what you’d need to wet your whistle. It was dusty when I’d grown up there. It was dusty still – and my whistle was feeling pretty dry.

I’m still not certain why I went to that reunion. There was some curiosity, for sure. But there was also a longing. Somewhere in the alcohol-soaked haze of my life, I wanted to reconnect with something I wasn’t even sure still existed, or had ever existed.

I got to the school auditorium just at the end of the opening ceremony. I’d gotten a late start that morning. Had a little trouble getting moving. The hangover I was working to correct wasn’t helping, either. As people were filing out, a woman I’d known as a child recognized me, came over to me, and gave me a hug. She was a nurse and told me to stand up straight whenever she saw me. I probably should have taken her advice. I didn’t then. I still don’t. But it was good to see her. So, something good must have happened occasionally. Here, at least, was a fond memory.

A while later, I arrived on the town square where some festivity was going on. There were people sitting in lawn chairs on the grass and strolling around the square. I have to admit I don’t remember any of it very well. I drank a lot that weekend and a lot more for a couple additional years after that.

As I approached old schoolmates, they called out, “Ben! You haven’t changed a bit!” They were lying, of course, but it’s a lie I enjoy very much so I didn’t try to dissuade them. What it really meant was that they were happy to see me and I wasn’t sure why. They remembered me. They remembered a “me” I didn’t remember. And, apparently, I still looked like Ben, whoever that was. I recognized some of them instantly. It’s hard to forget some faces you grew up with. On the other hand, some of them looked like no one I’d ever met. If you’ve ever been to a school reunion, I’m sure you know what I mean. A lot of them had gotten older – grandparents, even! I guess I’d never really thought about it.

I left that reunion more confused than when I’d arrived. I no longer knew who I was, but I was pretty sure I wasn’t the guy they seemed to remember fondly. I couldn’t have been, could I? I remember being teased relentlessly. I remember being on the outside looking in. I remember a pained existence.

My junior high annual, however, appears to tell a different story. Even then, there were many times I was in the center of things. Even then, there had been a place for me that allowed my picture to appear frequently in that annual despite the fact that I wasn’t any sort of athlete – not part of the “in” crowd. You know, classroom president, on the annual staff, later in drama class – that sort of stuff. The problem is that I remember other things going on at precisely the same time in my life. Even then, my thoughts frequently drifted toward suicide. How could I reconcile those memories with this experience and that Ben they seemed to know? My answer was very much the same one that had become so very familiar to me. I drank more. I couldn’t allow myself to look too carefully at that time because in order to look at good times (if there had, in fact, been good times), I’d have to remember the bad. I just wasn’t willing to do that. I just wasn’t able to do that.

It would be another eight or so years before I was to return to that little town. By then, I’d been sober for a while and was in therapy trying to deal with some of the same things I couldn’t deal with at the time of the reunion. A friend from high school was going to be there and he invited me to join him there for the weekend. He had some other obligations, but we’d have at least part of the evenings to do some catching up. This is the guy who’d helped me stick around all those years ago when I’d called him after an overdose. God has blessed me with friends who are willing to help me remember home.

I spent a lot of that Saturday driving alone slowly up one street and down the next. I wanted to remember whatever it was I was going to remember. It was a tough day. But it was a start. I learned that allowing myself to remember whatever there was left of my memory didn’t kill me. The memories were fragmented. So much seemed to be gone forever. My friend remembers so much better than I and was willing to fill in some of the blanks for me. Here and there, the things he told me sounded familiar. Others sounded as though he was talking about someone else. But I trust this friend. I believe this friend. And I was one step closer to finding home.

As you may recall, I accidentally arrived back in church in early February 2009. So much happened in the next few months. I joined the church, was baptized again at age 56. Every Advent season, Lake Shore members contribute to an Advent booklet. There’s a personal story for each day of Advent. The theme that year was Home By Another Way. I was asked if I’d like to write something for Advent. I was honored to be asked to be a part of a tradition in a place I knew very little about. The topic seemed custom-fit for me, though, as I was in the process of finding my own way home. Here’s what I wrote for that first Advent. My entry was for December 3, two days after my fifty-seventh birthday.

Sometimes, the journey home takes a wrong turn or three along the way. At least that’s been the case for me. Stumbling upon the labyrinth behind Lake Shore last February, I was struck by how beautiful, yet sad, it looked – overgrown, neglected. It was by the grace of God that the labyrinth became a metaphor for my own life. I arrived full of anger, hurt, selfishness – in a word, fear.

But, before discovering the labyrinth, I showed up in church one day. It seemed so harmless – just a decision to surprise my stepmother, Charlene, by showing up and sitting with her in church. I honestly don’t know where the thought originated, but there I was. And again, the grace of God was present. I knew nothing of Lake Shore, had never been in a church whose services began the way Lake Shore’s do, did not know the pastor was a woman.

I realized later the importance of having the voices of women inviting me back home. Women had been the enfolding presence in my life as a child, protecting me, though unable to protect me because I knew no words to explain how I needed help. But isn’t that a part of the grace of God – meeting us exactly where we are?

There was Rachel Sciretti and Children’s Time that Sunday morning. I almost bolted as the children gathered in front. The message that morning was “sometimes we need help.” The tears started as I thought to myself, “Why wasn’t I taught that?” The miracle of it all is that my next thought was, “How wonderful these children are being taught that.”

The journey home had begun, though I had no way of knowing it at the time. The sermon was “The Tearing that is Teaching”, a part of the “Tearing and the Light” series. The message I heard was that the light enters through the places torn in our souls. And I ran. The tears hurt too much. The next week I was back. I didn’t know why. For once in my life, I’d decided not to question why, but simply showed up. I contacted Dorisanne and asked if it would be okay if I did some weeding in the labyrinth. I felt a strong attraction to that place and knew my soul needed as much tending as the labyrinth. Each Sunday, I returned to sit with Charlene. And each Sunday, I knew a little more of why I was there. This frightening place with its scary and comforting music and message had begun to feel like it could be home. But I walked away from church forty years ago. How was I supposed to know what home looked like anymore?

So, I listened. And I cried. And I laughed. Gradually, I realized I didn’t have to have all the answers in order to recognize home. Every week there were people coming up to me before and after services to welcome me. They seemed genuinely happy I was there, though I had no idea why. I decided I was happy I was there, also.

One tiny step. It truly is all that’s needed to begin the journey.

Those last two lines. That’s the point, isn’t it? It finally came down to either continuing a long, exhausting journey to nowhere or stepping out on faith and beginning a journey to somewhere. And perhaps it wasn’t even a beginning for me, rather a continuation of a journey interrupted so many years before.

It had taken me over forty years to realize home wasn’t back in that dusty little town. Home wasn’t any of the houses I’d lived in all those years. Home wasn’t even any place my parents lived while they were alive. No, I’d been carrying home around within me through it all. Home was buried, of course, beneath years of pain, years of fear, years of anger. Little by little, though, the fear began to fall away as I faced both the anger and the pain. Not all the fear has left me, nor the anger nor the pain. Funny thing about pain, though. When there’s been so much, you tend to forget that it’s pain. Some of it had to be pointed out to me – still does. As with the anger, I’d convinced myself there really wasn’t that much pain, after all. I thought it was easier on me that way. Again, I was wrong.

As it turns out, home consists of fond memories, of people you’ve loved – even if they are no longer with you. Home travels with you in the form of the love that’s been extended to you, even if you chose not to acknowledge it at the time. Home is never really a place, is it? You may have to or choose to leave one place for another. So we take home with us on our travels once we’ve realized home is portable. It’s realizing that’s the problem.

So, home traveled with me through all the pain, all the joy, all those annoyances of life – big and small. I believe in a God I cannot adequately imagine or describe. If you think you understand God, I personally believe your God is too small. The God I know carried me through hell and back. And it’s so much more a knowing than an understanding. It’s so much easier to take a breath now that I’ve given up the job of taking care of you. Frankly, I’m just not up to it. Through God, however, I can reach out a hand and perhaps help make your life a little easier if that’s what you need. I can extend an understanding hand because I’ve been there. In one way or another, we’ve all been there. I know now I don’t have to do it all as long as I can do it with community. Just my little part. I never really had to do it alone, though I’d forgotten that.

And so, I rediscovered home. I frequently sit now in worship with a lot of other people who perhaps already knew they were home. They shared that important secret with me – home is where you are, even if you’re not sure who you are. It’s not always easy, but it’s that place you know to which you can return despite anything that happens. So, I can go to where my stuff lives and discover home is there, also. It’s filled with good intentions and sometimes bad decisions. But most of all, it’s the place where there’s always another chance.

It’s good to be home again. Thanks be to God.

Tossing Christ Out of Xmas

Out of 100 men, one will read the Bible, the other 99 will read the Christian. — D.L. Moody

I had the misfortune a few years back of sitting in a small Baptist church shortly before Christmas. Admittedly, I had not myself returned to church at that point, but I think if I had I would have been even more uncomfortable than I was at that moment in time. Even then, the familiar hymns enveloped me in a deep sadness while threatening to be somehow oddly comforting. In short, visits to church were unsettling and I tried to keep them at an absolute minimum.

I’m not sure what the sermon was supposed to be about that Sunday morning, but what it ended up being about was how “those” people “out there” had taken Christ out of Christmas. You know that saying, “You’re not paranoid, they really are after you.”? Yes? Then you probably know this sermon already. I suppose I could just stop writing here and now, but that would defeat the purpose of a really good rant.

It seemed odd to me then and it still seems odd to me now the supposed logic of this sermon. The pastor appeared to want to whip up emotions about how Christmas had been stolen from Christians. He was downright indignant. Self-righteous, even.

So here’s how the sermon played out. Christmas has been taken over by secular society. They have turned it into a commercial enterprise overrun with Santa Clauses and, thereby, watered down its true meaning. It’s not that the pastor objected completely to the secularization of Christmas, you understand, we have an economy to maintain, after all. We’re a society dependent on selling ever greater amounts of stuff to people who already have more than they could ever need or use. Does Uncle Fred really, really need a new tie? No, it’s just that it’s been taken too far. I sat there thinking to myself, “Define ‘too far’.”

Here’s the problem I had with that sermon. Then, as now, I had a real problem with Christians as the victim in America. Are we an actual minority in the States? I believe we are and, perhaps, have always been but, God forbid, you should actually say that. Recent polls, however, show that the percentage of those identifying themselves as Christian has dropped in recent years, while percentages of those identifying themselves as agnostic or atheist has risen. Frankly, this should come as no surprise to anyone who cares to think about it. We can fool ourselves for only so long that this is a “Christian” nation. I don’t think that’s ever actually been true. There was certainly a time, though, when it was expected to say you were Christian, certainly when I was growing up. If you wanted to be elected President or really elected to much of anything, you needed to say you were Christian. That didn’t mean, however, that anything approaching Christian values were in play in much of this country. Anyone remember slavery? Anyone remember the Jim Crow laws? While there were certainly people who believed slavery was supported in the Bible, would we be willing to say so today – even if someone were inclined to believe that lie?

But it appears this minister believed that he and his fellow church members were the victims in his scenario. According to this guy, we poor, helpless Christians were in danger from – what? Oddly, it seemed ultimately the real culprit was ourselves. And yet, we were also the victim. Of course, atheists and government played a big role in this guy’s tale of woe, but we as a Christian nation were also to blame for paying too much attention to shopping, buying, worrying about how to pay for it all. Where in the world was Jesus?

Pogo Possum said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” This pastor railed against the influence of the secular world on Christians while, at the same time, seemed to place the blame squarely on the shoulders of the people of this country – supposedly, of course, Christian. Confused? I was.

A little under three years ago, I arrived back at church. The following autumn, my church was preparing for Advent. What, you ask, is Advent? If you already know, you are way ahead of where I was at that time. When I was growing up in the fifties, it seemed Christmas was a one-day event – with months of anticipation, worry, planning, shopping, etc. – not about the birth of Jesus, you understand, but about what gifts we would receive for Christmas. Jesus and Santa Claus were sort of rolled into one being as a child, though not completely at our house. Christmas Eve was for Jesus, Christmas morning, then, started with Jesus before a segue to Santa Claus. I must admit I was disappointed on many a Christmas morning because I didn’t get what my fertile imagination thought I should have. I don’t recall services of anticipation leading up to the birth of Christ. I’m sure there was a Christmas service at church, though I don’t actually remember them. And, of course, we sang Christmas hymns on the Sundays leading up to Christmas. Come to think of it, I was a part of the church choir from the time I was about five up until I was in high school. So, there must have been something going on there. It’s awful to feel forced to forget even the good parts of your life.

And yet, it all already seemed somewhat commercial. God was still attending the schools I did and there was prayer there. The atmosphere was overwhelmingly Christian-ish. We had a few Catholics, but they weren’t really considered Christian – another blog, perhaps. And, God forbid (literally) if you were some other religion or even some other not-quite-acceptable-to-us flavor of Christian. Jehovah’s Witness members were particularly singled out. Their beliefs prevented them from saying the pledge of allegiance and, for that, they were ostracized. Is it any wonder we’ve lost credibility with “those” people out there who don’t show up at church? We often can’t even be civil with other “Christian” people since a number of denominations tend to think of themselves as the only real followers of Christ.

So why all the hand-wringing? Why do some Christians think they’re under attack? The only thing I can come up with is that it’s easier to attack the “other” than to take responsibility for our own actions. Agree with me or not, but Christianity has had its share of the seamier side. So much of this seems to be wrapped up in the idea that in order for me to be right, you have to be wrong.  You simply have to. We see rhetoric ramped up as, I believe, many Christian churches fear they are becoming insignificant in today’s world – and, frankly, many are. But, what is the message they’re putting out there? Many people see that message as paranoid, judgmental finger-shaking, not a message of a loving God. Why should people want to come to church? Their mortal soul? I sincerely doubt many are worried about that. Let’s face it, this society has become all about me – what I want, what I think I need, right here and now. The hell with you – get your own. That doesn’t just include those “others” outside of church, but includes a lot of people sitting snugly, and smugly, in church.

Perhaps I’ve gotten a little off track, but I believe these things need to be said. Until individuals begin to look in the mirror and ask, “How am I contributing to the downfall of moral sense in this world,” the decline will continue. And I don’t even mean “moral sense” as some God-given thou-shalt-nots. Jesus said, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” And yet, a sense of community is precisely what we’ve lost in great measure. That, I don’t believe, is the doing of outside forces. We in church, it seems to me, are going to have to extend a caring, non-judgmental hand before we can expect people to return – perhaps even to listen. That’s how I got back to church. That’s how my faith returned. That’s why I now worship in the midst of others.

Advent is the beginning of the Church Year for most Christians in the Western tradition, beginning on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. The word advent means “coming” or “arrival”. Advent is marked by a spirit of expectation, of anticipation, of preparation, of longing. The focus becomes the coming of Christ. Each week includes time for reflection, both individually and corporately. I had been back in church less than a year when I celebrated my first Advent at Lake Shore Baptist in Waco. Most everything about church now fascinated me after such a long absence. Here were traditions I knew nothing about. Some things were perhaps there in a childhood I’d tried so hard to forget. Others were new to me as ideas in a Baptist tradition. Seems some Christian churches spurned Advent as too “Catholic”. After visiting church with me for the first time, my mother said she enjoyed it, but my church was a little more “formal” than hers. I’m smiling even now as I remember that. God bless my mother, she was just so thrilled I was back in church she was willing to have an open mind about things that were certainly not in her own tradition. And that was okay. We believed, after all, we were worshiping the same God.

I made my first Advent wreath that year. I then made another to share with my mother. She lit those candles every day of Advent, too. What’s Advent? For me it’s about sharing. For many years, I could not share anything about faith with my mother – or anyone else, for that matter. To share with you meant I was agreeing with you and I agreed with almost no one. I know now that it’s simply about sharing in faith. I doubt very seriously that I believe exactly the same things as the person sitting next to me in church. Know what? It matters not to me now. If faith is only about believing x, y, and z because we’re told x, y, and z are the right things to believe, we lose something of our own sense of wonder – our own sense of worship.

I believe my mother saw that the rituals observed at my church were important to me. Many churches stripped a lot of those things out of worship, probably at the time of the Reformation. They didn’t want to appear too much like the church from which they were separating. Rituals, for me, however are place markers. They bring me back to a place from which I can begin again. The frenzy of the world around me recedes into the background and I have another chance to consider what’s good and right. I have the time to remember that I am held in the arms of God and ponder what that means for me and, in turn, what I need to try to do for others.

Isn’t it funny how I seem to start at one place in my writing and end up at another? I suppose that’s partly because this is the way my life has gone. I started in one place, escaped to another and another and another, eventually returning to a changed and better place – a changed and better me. I have to remind myself continually to check in on my anger. I have to remind myself that I have been, in fact, a very angry, hurt person. If something disturbs me, I benefit from taking a look at what it is about me that triggers that anger. I love a really good rant, but it does me very little good if I’m not willing to look for a solution. My life, though, has been a lot like a labyrinth. In a labyrinth, there are many twists and turns. If you stay the path, however, you end up, always, back at the center. And, for me, that center is God. I may have lost my way, but returning seemed like the most natural thing in the world for me to do.

So, in the end, I find I need to thank that small-town Baptist minister. His sermon made me angry, but it also made me think. It made me realize that I don’t want to be the guy anymore who sits back and blames everyone else for what I think is wrong in my life or even in the world. I accept today that I can’t change the world, only my tiny part of it. But for that tiny part, I am responsible. If I’ve taken Christ out of Christmas, that is my doing. If Christ isn’t in your Christmas, you have only yourself to blame. Caught up in the noise of the surrounding world? Find a calm spot (church might be it) in which to quiet yourself. If it’s Christ you’re looking for, I’m pretty sure you’ll find him waiting for you in the quiet.

It took hands extended in love to allow me to return to church. It took a group of people who didn’t make it their business to judge me to allow my faith to return and flourish. It took finding a community of people who understand that the command to love our neighbor applies to right here, right now. I don’t recommend the path I took but I can now look back over my life and say thanks. The good and the bad, the pain and the joy – all of it. As Dag Hammarskjold said, “For all that has been, thanks. For all that will be, yes.” I decided to say yes and God placed me in the midst of a community of others who wait, expectantly, with me. You’re welcome there, too.