Sunday, December 04, 2011

Second Sunday of Advent

Mark 1
1The beginning of the good news* of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.*
2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,*
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,*
who will prepare your way;
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight” ’,
4John the baptizer appeared* in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with* water; but he will baptize you with* the Holy Spirit.’

My crown is not a real crown.

No, I’m not talking about that brief period that I became convinced I was the King of France. Louis XIX, to be precise. But I’m done with all that.

I’m talking about the temporary crown I had installed this week, a sure sign of middle-middle age if there ever was one. For you see, my childhood lack of fluoride, and the very Dutch habit of eating chocolate sandwiches has come back to haunt me. So I have a temporary crown.

As we speak, some where in the GTA, someone, maybe the tooth fairy, is making my new crown, an exact replica of the tooth that fell victim to hagelslag on white bread. In the meantime, this temporary crown is a wonder in and of itself.

Dr. Lynas, who might be embarrassed to know that I’m mentioning him this morning, was able to fashion a tooth in a matter of minutes. Sitting there, with a collection of strange tools, a little goop, and lots of know-how was able to do the work we generally ascribe to the Maker of All Things: create a tooth.

Now, maybe you find the work of the dentist unimpressive, or painful, or traumatizing, and I can understand that. However, there has to be some satisfaction for those who can have such an immediate impact on people’s lives. It might even go to your head, and for this, you would need to confess.

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

The French would call John a phenom. Merriam-Webster calls a phenom “a person of phenomenal ability or promise.” John, out there in the desert, welcoming people from city and country, displayed considerable promise. He was preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and the people beat a path to his door.

I imagine it was cathartic. Make your way to this far-off place, take a bit of a swim in the river, unburden yourself of a few troubling things, and stand by while a crowd does the same. I can imagine there was a carnival-like atmosphere, with a great variety of people sharing the stuff that wouldn’t be part of everyday conversation:

I cheated the workers in my olive grove, and I hope none of them are here today.

I mugged a guy on the road to Jericho.

I hate my sister-in-law’s half-brother Baruch. He does nothing all day except sleep and eat.

I collect taxes. Okay, gotta go!

Taken together, it would be quite a snapshot of everyday Judean life. Every kind of sin, from the dramatic to the mundane would be shared, with an encouraging crowd standing by. Maybe they indulged in a little one-up-man-ship, with sinners trying to out sin each other, or at least out-confess each other before a welcoming audience.

Oddly, there is no mention of any kind of absolution. Mark doesn’t mention any kind of assurance of pardon, the message that God has forgiven the sins confessed in the desert that day. And I suppose that makes sense, with the full flower of a confession ritual centuries away in the distant Christian future.

Notice, however, the completion implied in John’s message. He was preaching “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” The water was God’s assurance, it was the cleansing agent needed to wipe away the sin that these poor sinners carried into the wilderness. It’s not clear from Mark if it was confess then wash or wash then confess, but either way, there was a direct connection between immersion and release.

And this, of course, became a primary understanding of baptism. Dying to self and a sinful past, we go beneath the waters of baptism and emerge a new person, reborn in the image of Christ. It is initiation into the body of Christ, it is being marked as Christ’s own, but it is also being cleansed of sin and sorrow on the way to new life in Christ.

But we’re jumping ahead. The sample sins I mentioned a moment ago, my ancient near-eastern imagining is incomplete as long as I neglect to mention the real sin then and now: love of self. And to really give this sin it’s due, I need The Globe and Mail. Under the headline “Feeling lost? Maybe you need a soul coach” the article begins with this:

Laura Thompson doesn’t consider herself a religious person. So when the 27-year-old Toronto resident decided she needed a spiritual fix, craving a sense of belonging to something greater than herself, she didn’t turn to a priest or rabbi. She sought the guidance of soul coach Kimberly Carroll, a bubbly, older sister-type figure, whose business tagline is “Seeking higher consciousness ... in even higher heels.”

So far so good, I suppose. She was craving a sense of belonging to something greater than herself, which is good. And even though I can’t relate to seeking consciousness higher than a pair of stilettos, I certainly applaud anyone who is on a spiritual quest, a quest for something more in life. And there is obvious merit in seeking out a spiritual mentor, someone who can lead you to greater insight. Then a strange turn:

Perhaps one of the most alluring aspects of Ms. Carroll’s approach to spirituality is the absence of any rules. In fact, the soul coach openly admits to being a “spiritual bad girl,” a seeker who has no hesitations about using the odd curse word, indulging in the occasional tipple and embracing her love of stilettos.

Again with the stilettos. Here is the first and most obvious objection to this whole concept. Notice the assumption that this soul-coach makes: religion is the domain of rules, while spirituality is free from rules. And who doesn’t want to be free, right? In fact, it follows a whole set of assumptions that seem to float free out there about the “spiritual, not religious” movement.

In this way of thinking, religion means conformity, spiritual means freedom. Religion is judgmental, spirituality is permissive (in a good way, they would say). Religion is dogmatic, with structured beliefs, and spirituality is “a la carte,” with the option to choose what to embrace rather than being given a set of beliefs.

Before I say more, you will notice I am judging, so guilty on at least one count. You will forgive me while I try to make a point. But I’m not the only one. Pastor Lillian Daniel, in a recent blog, gave voice to the very thought that may of us have had when she wrote “Spiritual But Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me.” Her point is that every time she introduces herself to a new person, and mentions that she is a pastor, the person will describe in great detail how they are “spiritual, but not religious.” And they will tell it as if they came up with this idea themselves and regard it as the most profound thought since E=MC².

Okay, I’m judging again, and maybe I can’t help myself, but Lillian’s blog and the Globe article really got my goat. Here’s more Globe:

“There’s a way to blend the objectives of capitalism with spirituality. You can have it all, you can be rich, beautiful, wear high heels and be an authentic person with a meaningful life,” Ms Carroll says. “This isn’t just about this type of spirituality. This is about our culture. Our whole culture is wrapped up in this endeavour.”

This was the moment I threw the paper across the room. In frustration, of course, but also in recognition that we in the church have no one to blame but ourselves. Until we become more dynamic, and more open, people will seek out any number of stiletto-based solutions to their spiritual problems.

So now we go back to the desert and we hear more confessions:

I can make new teeth, I’m like God, but I do feel guilty about all the drilling and stuff.

I’m interested in a religion without strings. I want to max out my credit cards without ever having to reflect on what I’m doing. And I want to find mentors that will encourage me in my consumption.

I want to imagine that being an authentic person means spending the day thinking about what I need, and how I can develop myself.

The greatest danger we face as a society of becoming a species of narcissists hell-bent on discovering ourselves, tending to our inner wounded child and getting a Visa card with your own picture on it. 60 percent of elementary school children have turned away from astronaut or firefighter and list “being famous” as their life goal. Young people are encouraged to regard themselves as a “brand” to be promoted like Coke or Pepsi rather than simply a job seeker.

I could go on, but I’ve had my John the Baptist moment. And even John knew when to sum up, and he did it like this: ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’

Seeking Jesus, and with great humility: Priceless.


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