|“Playing with Fire”
Hear the following story from the Sufi tradition;
One evening [the Sufi spiritual master] Nasrudin was seen outside his house, rummaging on his hands and knees by lantern light. A friend came by and asked what he was doing. ‘I’m looking for a lost key,’ said Nasrudin. The friend got down on his hands and knees to help with the search. After some time the friend asked, ‘Where, exactly did you lose this key?’ Nasrudin answered, ‘I lost it in the house. But there is more light out here.’1
Often, groping around in familiar darkness, we find that what we really need is to move toward more light. Hope is that light. But, hope is not a mammoth combustion flashing sparks before us with overwhelming heat. Hope is not a big bonfire. No, hope, I think, is a very small flicker. And it’s fragile. And it’s hard to sustain.
Perhaps one of the most searing pains in the human predicament right now is the fear of hoping. The fear that our hopes will leave us disappointed and despairing. Hopes that our economy won’t crash. Hopes that our environment will survive the next four years, sustainable for future generations after repeated onslaughts. Hopes that models of wisdom and peacefulness will rise before our children to eclipse models of arrogance, hate and violence. Hopes that people of conscience and reason will be appointed to judicial and political office across the land. Hopes that our letters and our vigils and our e-mails will bring the war in Iraq to peace soon. Hopes that the numbers of hungry and homeless people won’t go through the roof in our state. In the face of so many dark potentialities, we fear that our hopes will not come to fruition, and that is painful.
And that is where we are this Advent morning. We are in the painful place of lighting a flame to hope and deciding whether we take it seriously, or whether we’re just doing a nice ritual, playing the annual game of Advent candle-lighting. Or do we dare to hope, for a world of new birth, new beginning, refreshment? Do we dare to hope?
Thomas Merton, contemplative and Kentucky monk, warned that
we must not strive to keep an atmosphere of optimism during Advent by the ‘mere suppression of tragic realities.’” Our voices, wrote another monk, Jude Siciliano, “need to speak against sentimentality this Advent and for justice.2
Speaking of justice, this was John’s passion, John the Baptist that is. He hoped, passionately, that Jesus would bring justice and smite the unjust. He devoted himself, his ministry, to this hope. He gave up social status and even shelter for it. He traveled around, an itinerant preacher, spreading this hope to others. And then, as we know, he was severely disappointed that Jesus did no such thing. Instead, Jesus symbolically took on the injustices and hatreds of the world and died a common criminal’s death. He allowed himself to be lit as a candle in the huge darkness of sin. And, throughout his ministry leading up to this sacramental moment, his ministry was incarnational, not on the face of it, global. It was limited in scope to those who would receive it, personally and spiritually, right before him. His flame of hope burned small and hard, rather than burning bright and large in the center of known civilization, and this devastated John. John’s hopes had been guided by his own understanding, rather than by that fragile, small thing, that was Jesus’ touch.
In every major religion, there are illustrations, stories, of how the great leaders worked one trickle, one droplet at a time, to bring peace, to share compassion, to encourage justice.
And this is how our flame must spread as well. The flame of hope is small, yes, but it glows with the presence of the close and constant. Yet, groups all over the globe in Advent light such flames with intention and earnestness, the glow becomes bright indeed. For accepting the model of small, incremental steps toward fulfillment of wishes and dreams for justice and peace, can yield great illuminations, great results.
During the campaign foment before this last national election, I, with many others, was heartened by the vast groundswell of hopeful, energetic canvassing, by e-mail, telephone and paper. People stood on corners in towns and instructed individuals on how to register to vote. Small flames of hope were spread, that each person’s vote, each person’s small effort counts, in slowly sharing that flame of hope for a better U.S. And it’s hard for us not to want to leap to the power of a wildfire when we think of our hopes, our dreams for a better, redeemed, new world, in God’s care. Yet, we know that this has never been the way of the spirit. The spirit is calm and quiet, and though it gets enflamed with energy when a fresh wind blows across it, it settles back down to this constant, reassuring glow. It is our faltering that takes our eyes off of the hope of renewal and convinces us that the flame is not enough to matter.
In 1995, a PBS (educational television), station out of San Francisco held a series of interviews with spiritual leaders from various religions, calling it “A Parliament of Souls.” Most of the spiritual leaders talked about building communities of peace and justice, one person at a time, through faith and communication. Sister Jayanti, of the Brama Kumaris, a yoga-based Hindu group. leads branches of her brand of yogic devotion in 80 countries. In 1986, the international Year of Peace, so declared by the United Nations, Sister Jayanti initiated a project called “A Million Moments of Peace.” Her canvassers asked people in 88 countries to pledge, not money, but time, a few moments in prayer for peace each day, for a month. Their goal had been to have a million such moments committed. Instead, within a month, a billion moments were pledged.
Of this exercise, Sister Jayanti admits that there was no huge splash of peace created from this movement. The world didn’t cease its warring because of it. Still, the model was allowed to expand, and something even more hopeful came. After this month-long project was completed, the group was asked to do follow-up. They called this second hope-building project ‘Global Cooperation for a Better World,” and asked people to share a vision of a better world from within their culture and setting. This project lasted from 1988-1990, about three years, and they collected millions of visions. In her reflections, the Sister says,
The amazing thing was that it confirmed something that I understood
from a spiritual perspective – whether you are in California or I’m in
London or in India, our hopes, our aspirations, our fears, our dreams,
all of these are very similar, because we are human beings. Global
Cooperation gave us the research and facts that validated this. It
became the largest research project ever undertaken by a
nongovernmental organization. It reached 129 countries. Kings and
presidents and princes and prime ministers gave their visions. But
equally, a leper colony in the Philippines, shoe shine boys in Brazil,
aboriginal natives in India also participated and shared their visions.
And their visions were very, very similar.
A person in Argentina said, ‘The color of our skin is different, but the
color of our blood, sweat, and tears is the same all over. So why can’t
there be justice for all equally?’ A person in Africa wrote, ‘Let me
live simply, so that others can simply live.’ A shoe shine boy and a
king both said something like there should be love, there should be
Sister Jayani found herself pleasantly surprised that people didn’t write private visions of material wealth and comfort, but rather of spiritual values, which many truly believed would be capable of building a better world were they honored and lived by.3 Now, imagine what could happen in this world if each person went on to pledge to do some small action each day to honor those visions!
So, this Advent season, how about if we reframe our simple lighting of Advent candles not as irrelevant play, but rather, as potentially a steady and faithful groundswell of millions of tiny lights that eventually dispel the darkness of fear and despair? Spread your light, everyday, in Advent and beyond. Do not be disheartened by the darkness! Hope reigns! Amen.
Rev. Virginia Grace Brown
First Church of Deerfield
Advent Two, 2004