Our destination is never a place,
but always a new way of looking at things.
— Henry Miller
The film Lincoln shows the President near the end of a terrible time, handling the urgency of War, the tension of political division, and the frenetic shifting of the national moral compass, with story-telling. Lincoln’s stories ramble, and you wonder a bit what the point was. None are funny enough to elicit more than a guffaw. But all of them steer the listeners away from the temptation to give in to frustration, each of them settles the air enough to get folks to keep working. His stories, like candles, shine a bit of light in a deep darkness.
Lincoln walks alone at night, his face shows his sleeplessness, his back bends under the strain of being President. He knows the pain he aims to ease with his stories. He tells one about a man who has a talking parrot, who each morning announces, Today the world will end. The man finally shoots the bird, and, Lincoln says, the prophecy came true that day for the parrot.
Lincoln calms everyone else down while his own sense of moral urgency for emancipation is building. It is this urgency that brings him to the commitment he alone can make, to set the nation’s feet on the path that marks the beginning of our journey away from the cesspool of black slavery in which the 19th c. American manufacturing economy had been built.
According to Luke, Jesus spoke to his tense and divided followers, in such times about such choices, and with a similar simplicity, as his own sense of moral urgency grew. And on the first Sunday in Advent each year, his warning to watch the signs of terrible times is read. Jesus talks about confusion in the nations, and he talks about fig trees sprouting leaves, as part of the signs. The dreadful and terrible day, according to Jesus, will be known by its fruitfulness and its blooming as much as by its distress. And this, said Jesus, is how redemption draws near.
This week I had the annual pleasure of interviewing a number of seniors at a local boarding school who have applied to my alma mater. These days alumni do the interviewing, using questions sent by the University. So I asked them about their dreams and plans for their lives. And in these times, at the end of a tempestuous election, on the edge of the fiscal cliff, as FEMA struggles to bring order back to devastated Staten Island, Jersey Shore and Long Island, and as we all watch bombs explode in Israel and Palestine on our TVs, to my amazement, these seniors were ready, even eager to put their lives into the struggles that lie ahead.
One young woman, who had been studying the classics, said she had responded to the Arab spring by deciding she could use her facility with languages and alphabets to learn Arabic. She found a summer program that took her to Jordan where she lived with an Arab family and learned a lot about the culture and the history as well as learning the language. Now she wants to become a diplomat. Urgently.
One young man, a jock through and through, captain of the crew, the swim team, the water polo team, has plunged into environmental sciences. Summers he is working in wetlands conservation, and this fall he has written a paper on the pollution of the oceans. He wants to become an engineer who works to restore the now-endangered ocean waters. All my pleasures come from water, he says, and I need to give back. The planet needs a healthy ocean to survive.
The strength to escape devastation, which Jesus urges us to pray for, is given to us through the urgency we muster to address our times, to read their signs. The temptation to give way to frustration, confusion, and fear will always be overcome by the light of those who pick up the pieces they know they can handle, and give the brief candle of their own lifetime to lighting the common way.
There is something personal, something individual about the great and terrible – and fruitful – day. It does come to each of us as a choice, what hope and expectation we bring to the world and how we use our lives. Lincoln was right about the parrot. And right about his own step, his own use of himself on the D-Day of the vote for Emancipation. The necessary apocalypse is key to developing Urgency in ourselves that will overcome our inertia, our confusion, our tendency to look away. The strength to escape terrors is possible when free people make the long walk together. And that’s the difference between the caged bird and the free – hope – and leaving the cage where flight is not possible.
My own caged heart has been set free this week by the spirits of two seventeen year olds with hawk-eyed vision, who have seen what they can catch hold of, how they can set many free and survive these times.
Cages are endlessly opening, and terror is left behind everyday, as people take steps for freedom. In this first week of Advent, I am grateful for those who have gone before and whose steps of salvation I walk in now. And I am grateful that these days are coming yet again, in terror and in power, in fruitfulness, in the Cradle of our hope.