(This is a continuation of the Advent Season in Christendom, begun on November 28. Beginning with similar thoughts to one week ago, I write of a common way for people to “awaken.”)
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Matthew 3:1
Last week I wrote of the darkness during this time of the year. We tend to sleep longer hours and need more coffee. We find ourselves drowsy during the day and needing sleep earlier each night. We are living in the longest dark days of the year, having six or seven hours less light than we did in July. Some call this the SAD season meaning Seasonal Affective Disorders. Some people use special lamps to help them stay awake. Some people like to go to concerts or sports events to help them stay awake.
Sometimes a special person who’s quite new and acts a bit crazy can get our attention. There have been lots of crazy people this season. A few weeks ago we had an election and we found ourselves listening with astonishment or just being appalled at many of the candidates!
John the Baptist was one of these crazy figures. In the biblical stories he lived about 2000 years ago but such figures had been around for thousands of years. You may have heard of some of the old prophets; Elijah, Elisha, and Jeremiah. In ancient Egypt 10,000 years ago, there was a man called Anup the Baptizer. He baptized a great spiritual teacher of those days named Horus. And later in his life Anup the Baptist was beheaded as John the baptizer was in our stories. Perhaps like John the Baptist he was an outspoken teacher of the people of his day.
Who might be John the Baptist figures in our day and time? What names come to mind? Some would say Martin Luther King Jr., or someone like Mother Teresa of Calcutta, India. Some may think of Mahatma Gandhi or perhaps of a modern speaker name Greg Mortenson. I heard Greg a few days ago at the University of Buffalo. In the last 15 years, Greg has led in the building of 140 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He became most famous with his book published in 2005, Three Cups of Tea. Having read the book, I wanted to hear him; he certainly has an amazing message for our time in those dangerous areas.
Maybe the John the Baptist Voices are within us! Maybe they are those voices bidding us to let go of the endless, mindless race, and take time away to listen, be refreshed? Maybe they are those voices telling us, “Come away awhile and be still, and know!”
But what was the essence of the message of John the Baptist? It seems to be one of repentance, of changing one’s ways. Many of the people who went out to hear him were religious people, the Pharisees and Sadducees. Standing in his loin cloth, empowered by eating desert locusts and wild honey, he shouted at the people;
“Repent and bring forth fruit worthy of righteousness!”
Yes John the Baptist was a head turner, a person people longed to meet and see. We read that hordes of the Sadducees and Pharisees went out to hear him. What did he mean by repentance? What does the word mean?
Repentance comes from a Greek word metanoia, meaning to change one’s thinking. I believe it teaches that we are to look for such feelings as peace hope and joy not outside of ourselves but within. It is as Jesus himself taught saying, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand,” or as some have said, “the Kingdom of Heaven is within you.”
For most of us this is a radical change in thinking. We are so used to looking outside of ourselves for satisfaction, peace, and happiness. We are so used to looking for happiness in our bodies and from the bodies of others around us. But I believe the essence of the teaching of John the Baptist and Jesus was that we are not our bodies but we, our essence, is one in spirit with them. It is a profound change in one’s thinking. For most of our lives we are always looking outside rather than finding fulfillment within ourselves. So repentance is a drastic change of our thinking to where happiness can be found, not outside ourselves in others or in things, but within our minds.
This is the season of giving gifts. We find ourselves wondering what we can give to our loved ones to make them happier and to love us more deeply. Many of the things people give us and that we give them, will be carried to the curb in a few months to be sold as yard sale items. They will be in many church rummage sales of the spring season. There’s nothing wrong with giving things to each other, or rummage sales, but the most important thing we can give is awareness that we feel within ourselves a spiritual connection to them. It’s as a sign my wife had hung in our house reading, “the best things in life are not things!”
So the message of John the Baptist preparing the way for Jesus was to change people’s way of thinking. In repentance, one’s thinking is changed to hopefully bring forth fruit worthy of that repentance. When we eat the Eucharist meal, for example, we are not eating to feed the body, but eating to feed the soul. This awakening to peace is not only the same for each of us but for all the peoples of the world. The circumstances and methods indeed are different, however.
John the Baptist warned his listeners,
“Never say to yourselves that we have Abraham for our father but remember God can raise up stones to give Him praise.”
Awakening and experiencing love and peace does not mean one has to belong to certain religious orders or denominations. Jesus illustrated that with his life and his teachings; he spent most of his ministry on hillsides and in country and streets telling outcasts they were healed, they were forgiven, and that they were the Children of God! No one was excluded from his love except by their own decision.
Much of the inclusion of love taught by John and Jesus, I think, was lost in the fourth century teachings of the church. The church then tended to become more of a confessing church rather than one experiencing love by awareness. People were assured of heaven and future joy if they said the right things, performed proper rituals, and believed the right things. Experiencing Eternal Life was contingent upon them belonging to the right church, believing in the right God, and devotion to the right Savior named Jesus. But I understand the message of repentance meaning that anybody and everybody can experience peace, love and forgiveness by simply awakening to it as a part of who we are in our deepest essence. It is a song each of us has within like a light within the darkness waiting to be turned on and followed.
A few weeks ago my wife and I watched a movie called, “As It Is In Heaven”. It was a Swedish film telling the story of a gifted and famous music conductor who grew up in a small Swedish town. He was forced to return to the town to rest after suffering a heart attack. Thus the conductor returned to the small town, bought an old school which was no longer in use, and made it his home. A few days later the town priest came to see him. He welcomed him to the town’s church and invited him to become the conductor of the church choir. And so a few Sundays later the conductor went to the small church and hearing the paltry sounding choir, accepted the pastor’s offer to become its conductor.
Well the people were excited about their new conductor, and they waited with great anticipation for the first night’s rehearsal. When the new conductor arrived, they couldn’t wait to sing their first song. But the conductor would not let them sing saying they first needed to hear the song within their own souls. And so for several nights the conductor made them sit in silence and hold hands, listening for the tone of the song within their souls. Finally after several weeks, the conductor began to chant “om”! Soon another of the members began to chant “om” and then another and another and another as some broke out into a harmonic “om”, and the sound became increasingly beautiful to hear. They had found “their song.”
In a few weeks they began to sing for the congregants at the church. The people were amazed at the quality of their singing and the sounds they heard. In time they became very well known, but the presiding pastor became quite upset because they were using many new and non-Orthodox methods in “finding this song” within! He wanted the new conductor to be fired but the people refused. The conductor stayed.
If we are to manifest the hope, joy and peace of the season, we too must listen for the sound of love and forgiveness and oneness with spirit within our hearts. And when we hear the song and can sing it we will naturally exude fruits worthy of that new thinking.
What then is the test of hearing this “wild man’s message”? How do we know if we are living out of that center, the center of our oneness with God in Spirit? I believe it is how we treat other people around us beginning with family members, our neighbors, and members within our own congregations and community groups. The apostle Paul said in another of today’s lessons, “we are to receive one another as Christ received us!” I think this means if we do not see the Christ as present in another person with forgiveness and non-judgment, we can see and experience it in our own hearts. How we see ourselves is how we will see another person.
A few days ago a woman told me she was quite surprised that I had befriended a certain person. She said, “That’s the last person I would expect you to befriend.” Well I thought how lonely this person was at times, and how much help he has given me and I thought, “I am glad I am his friend!” A woman named Mary Lou Kownacki has written, “Engrave this upon my heart: there isn’t anyone you couldn’t love once you’ve heard their story.” And so it is.
And so in these dark days of early winter, take time to sit in silence and to embrace the darkness. Hear the call of the wild man or woman within you, that John the Baptist voice, calling you to change your mind about where you are looking and finding happiness and total acceptance. In times of silence and solitude you often can more likely experience this center. As the ancient Psalm goes,” be still and know that I am God!”
When I was a pastor at the Wayside Church, we had an organist named Jo. After I returned from India, she thought I was bit crazy and even irresponsible for thinking that in solitude and silence I could find peace. As an English teacher, she proofread the paper I wrote about my experience in ashrams and in silence and once said, “That will never be for me!” A few years later, she and her husband took a vacation to the desert of Utah. When she arrived home a week or two later she came to me and said,” I think I know what you mean. I experienced a deep, wonderful peace come over me while being quiet in the desert.” She then returned almost yearly to that desert place. Later after being diagnosed with a terminal illness, it was one of the last places she journeyed to before she died.
Sometimes we experience this inward peace by doing selfless acts of love and kindness toward others without any judgments toward them or expectation of reward. People from this congregation such as Bill Mahr, take yearly journeys to places like the Dominican Republic to help some of the most forgotten people of the world have a little better health and to be touched with kindness and compassion. In the East this is called” Karma yoga.” Such acts as being alone in silence contemplating the presence of God within, or giving gifts to others out of a deep willingness to share love, bring a deeper awareness to us of the joy of letting go, of experiencing the Christ within ourselves. Without these times, life can become very lonely and harsh, more so than the lonely and harsh, dark, cold, winter days outside.
Today and during this season of darkness, may a starlight be seen and experienced in each of our lives. It appears as we give up all trust in everything outside of ourselves and connect with the God within, within us and in each other person’s mind and heart. As the poet and musician Daniel Nahmod has written, it can come to us by realizing:
A lifetime of decisions and what is there to show?
A few years come and gone, perhaps a few years left to go.
Well there is a difference between living and discovering the truth;
I’ve done too much of the former, it’s been a quite protracted use.
But when it comes to the latter, I’m an infant nothing more;
I’m finding it’s a matter for my soul, not mind or body to explore.
Don’t decide, the voice says,
Don’t decide, make no choices,
Don’t decide, and you’ll finally get it right!
Prepared by David Persons and shared at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion, Lakeview, NY, on December 5, 2010, Mother Frieda Van Baalen Webb, pastor.