Come What May

November 28, 2010

Glynn Cardy

Advent 1     Isaiah 2:1-5     Matthew 24:36-44

 

This week the country has waited, praying, hoping for a miracle, yet expecting and fearing the worse for the 29 men within Greymouth’s Pike River Coal Mine. We are now told they are dead. 

 

‘Praying’ in this context means a variety of things. It’s a way of upholding the families, friends, rescue teams, police, and West Coast community. It was a way of hoping that Chile’s Los 33 Mine experience would be replicated and all would come out alive. It’s a way of saying that most of us are helpless to do anything, save send literal or telepathic messages of support to the families and people involved. 

 

Some believe that there is an omnipotent deity who hears our pleas and intervenes in human affairs to rescue those we care about. When the Los 33 miners surfaced this God was a hero. When the news came on Wednesday that the 29 were dead this God was nowhere to be found. 

 

Rather than the omnipotent deity I think God is the name we give for those sacred moments we have experienced and hope for. This God is known in the tears, in the aching hearts, in the kindness of others, and in the supportive actions of many.

 

I think of praying as opening one’s self to all that is sacred rather than petitioning a paternal being. In the context of Pike River to open oneself is to let the compassion in the community and the compassion in our own hearts flow through us and out to others. For in being together, in grieving together, in loving together we are strong. In this community of compassion a deity that is best known as Love can be felt. 

 

Advent is a time of waiting, praying, and hoping. Despite, says Isaiah, the circumstances of the present – no matter how tragic and terrible they might be – what we say or believe about the future bears heavily on the way we live.

 

Isaiah speaks metaphorically of a mountain where ‘heaven is joined to earth’; a place where what is human and what is sacred mix and mingle, where God’s tears and ours flow mingling down. And in that togetherness a vision is born. 

 

Matthew’s reading, loaded with code phrases [i], is also a meditation upon the future. He cautions against speculation, for none of us know what the future brings. And to not know is face our vulnerability. 

 

Yet in that mixing and mingling of the human and sacred hope is born – a hope that lifts our gaze from our present pain, the turmoil of our lives, and our fears for the future, and instead invites us to dream, to imagine, and to work towards a better world for all.

 

The Christian community has used these Advent readings for centuries to ready us for Christmas. Instead of buying presents, sending cards, and organising holidays Christians are asked to contemplate upon what we hope for in the future. 

 

Primarily Christmas is not about a baby, his mum, or his visitors. It’s not about God coming to save us, or about being generous to others. Rather it’s about Isaiah’s mythical ‘mountain’ being right here – in the Aucklands and in the Greymouths – where the sacred and the human mix and mingle, and where new hope might be born. That blending is called the incarnation and its here, as it’s always been here, in our tears and fears and hearts.

 

Daniel Rockhouse, one of the two Pike River miners who escaped, suffering the ill effects of carbon monoxide poisoning groggily made his way out of the mine. Yet he didn’t hesitate to stop, assist, and for a while drag his fellow miner, Russell Smith. For Daniel it wasn’t a deliberate heroic decision, weighing up the likelihood of survival if he dropped him. Rather it was simple case of ‘that’s what you do’. Underground you rely on one another, you take responsibility for one another, and when necessary you carry each other. It’s a code, and a vision, we could do well to emulate on the surface.

 

Visions start to build around our values. Here are some starters:

 

First:

 

“Love your neighbour as yourself”. This verse points to a notion of community where we are responsible for one another, seeing each other literally as brothers and sisters, caring for one another in a way so that poverty, war, and human rights violations would be unthinkable. When one suffered we all would suffer. We would not, of course, be close friends with everyone – families aren’t like that. But good families are loyal to each other, avoid hurting each other, and do what they can for each other. 

 

To ‘love your neighbour’ is also to open yourself to the change that your neighbour will inevitably bring into your life, welcomed or not.

 

This verse uses the term ‘self’ – of which there is a long philosophical history. You may be familiar with Descartes ‘I think therefore I am’, and others’ attempts since then. Personally I prefer ‘We are therefore I am’. It intertwines identity and community. In this definition we all belong.

 

Second:

 

Learning is not a means to an end; it is an end in itself. Learning does not have a quota to keep within. There’s no such thing as ‘too smart’. Learning is a value in itself – not to pursue a career, or money, or status – but simply to expand one’s horizons and see beauty and wonder where you’ve never noticed it before. Education should be about the absorption of knowledge, the ‘opening eyes, ears, minds and hearts’, and the development of reason, rather than a curtailed and streamlined skill package for a particular vocation or task. 

 

A friend the other night told me an amusing story. She had received a prize for Religious Education at her school many decades ago. Religious Education consisted in those days of the teacher dictating notes and the pupils writing them down. She won the prize for the neatness of her handwriting. It’s a sad reflection upon an education that doesn’t prize engagement, and a religion that is afraid of the thinking of young girls.

 

Kurt Vonnegut once said, “Reading and writing are in themselves subversive acts. What they subvert is the notion that things have to be the way they are, that you are alone, that no one has ever felt the way you have.”

 

Learning is one of society’s foundations and when we effectively bar groups from acquiring further knowledge we impoverish us all and impair our freedom.

 

Third, and last for now:

 

Live honourably. ‘Honour’ is an old classical word that embodies not only deeds but also courage. This is the courage to take the less popular path, to support the outcasts, and to receive praise from few and ridicule from many. This is the path where our immediate needs are sidelined in order to hear and respond to the concerns of others. This is the path where we close our ears to the clamour of the baying crowd, we show mercy, and we value what’s in another’s heart – even our enemy’s. A honourable life is not one motivated or marked by acclaim, recognition or wealth. Rather it is a life where one does what is right, come what may.

 

To love widely, to learn broadly, and to live honourably… these both contain and build my vision.

 

As we remember those grieving today I leave you with a prayer of Michael Leunig’s that encompasses life, death, and vision:

 

Let us live in such a way

That when we die

Our love will survive

And continue to grow. Amen. [ii]

 

 

[i] “The Lord is coming” is a code phrase for saying that we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future but it belongs to God. Of course ‘belongs to God’ is just another way of saying that we don’t know but still wish to be hopeful.

 

[ii] Leunig, M. The Prayer Tree.

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