Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Making Friends with the Unknown

Rev. Deborah Meister

The day I moved to Alabama to start my ordained ministry was a strange one. I’d already made two trips down there: one to be interviewed by the Vestry and members of the parish and another to find a place to live, the realtor tangled in the geography of an unfamiliar (read: unfashionable) part of Birmingham, plunging heedlessly down one-way streets in the wrong direction. Now, I was there: my stuff in transit, my name on the deed to a piece of property, my new life about to unfold around me. I dropped my mother, who had driven down with me, at the airport and then confronted a chilling question: did I have any idea of the location of the condo which was now mine?

I drove trembling from the airport and, after a few wrong turns, came upon the wooded street. There, sitting above the mailboxes (to which I realized I did not have a key) was a package, addressed to me. I opened it, and two things tumbled out. The first was a postcard from my friend Sherry. One one side, a 1950’s picture of a person with a bowling ball. On the other, one question: What in blue blazes are you doing in Alabama?? Upon reflection, it seemed like a very good question.

The other item was a cassette tape, bootleg, with a few words on the case:  "Making Friends with the Unknown."

I, of course, needed to do that rather urgently: new state, new home, new parish, new people, new work -- same dog; that, at least, was something. But, as this week’s events reveal, there are also times when it can be helpful for us to pretend that we are at a turning-point. New Year’s Day, for example, when we engage in the collective fiction that the world will be different in the new year, that we will be different: more toned, less crazed by the work of living, more spiritual. Or Inauguration Day, in which we ceremonially re-set the political life of our country, sometimes for real, as when we change presidents or parties, sometimes just because we need to feel that sense of hope, of expectancy, of pride in who we are and in who we might become. It is a pretense, but a helpful one.

Inauguration Day, like any of the great liturgical feasts, reminds us of our fundamental identity. In church, it’s our identity in Christ; on Inauguration Day, our identity as Americans. It gives us the opportunity to tell our story: the brave patriots who won our independence, Betsy Ross sewing on her flag, the contentious crafting of our Constitution, the testing and trial of Civil War, Civil Rights, Women’s Suffrage, Stonewall -- all the ways we have grown and matured and fallen back and tried again as we have sought to live into our best ideals. And that re-telling is formative: we are renewed by it, altered, made less willing to accept cheap answers and civic division and the pale substitutions of a consumerist culture that offers us freedom to buy rather than freedom to live.

This Inauguration Day, of course, coincided with Martin Luther King Day; it juxtaposed our nation’s triumphal narrative with the true cost that many have paid for freedoms we seek to embody. It reminded us that there were slaves as well as patriots, marches as well as battles, water cannon as well as flintlock rifles. It reminded us that the goal we seek is a condition of true freedom, “costing not less than everything.”

At its best, our faith gives us that double vision: the hope for what we might become in Christ, and the reality of what we, too often, have been. We need to be plunged into the narrative of our identity over and over, Sunday after Sunday, for only so does the great good work of Christ in us over-write the stories our culture tries to tell.  We say we are forsaken, desolate, divided, adrift, but Christ calls us My Delight is in You. (Is 62:4-5; “you” is “her” in the Hebrew). We say we are broken, feeble, unable to make a difference; Christ tells us to “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” (Eph 4:15) He promises not that each of us shall have some fragment of Christ, but that we will grow into him fully.

Always, Christ calls us beyond ourselves. Always, Christ urges us to make friends with the unknown: with the people we do not understand, with the future we cannot yet see, with the parts of ourselves we strive to keep hidden. He urges us to tell the Story, the Great Story, and then to keep writing its chapters, day after day, year after year, until we find ourselves within its pages, standing astonished among Jeremiah and Sampson, Deborah and Mary, Simon Peter and James and Chloe, amid all the friends of God who did not seek a new world, but became it, one day of grace at a time.

Many summers ago, I had the opportunity to take a class with John Fenton, a revered scholar of Mark. At one point, he turned to that Gospel’s strange and unsatisfying ending, which, in the original version, ended with the women fleeing from the tomb, too frightened to tell anyone about Christ. Fenton commented that no more ending was needed, for the ending was not in the Gospel text, but in us, the gathered community of Christ. We were our own resurrection appearance, the living proof that God walks among us still. The Evangelists’ aim was not to make a Gospel, but to make us, you and me and all those in whom Christ lives. And if, from time to time, you hear Christ’s voice roaring into your heart, What in blue blazes are you doing with your life?, answer him: I’m trying to live your story. The one you didn’t finish, because you wanted me to be part of it.

(Credit: "Making Friends with the Unknown" is a tape by David Whyte.)
Deborah Meister is the rector at St. Alban's in Washington, DC. Share your reactions, reflections, and comments to her post on Facebook.