November 28, 2010
"Out of Place"
David A. Davis
Feeling out of place is rarely fun. Whether you are toddler looking around in vain for a familiar face, or a PhD student who is convinced that everybody else around the table actually understands all the words the professor is tossing around, or a dinner guest who discovers right as the soup is served that she is the only person at the table who voted for the other candidate. There is something universal about that knot in your stomach that comes when you feel like you don’t belong. On the playground when the kickball teams are being chosen. In the high school chemistry class when the teacher innocently but unwisely asks everyone to choose their own lab partners. That first week of freshmen year when your three roommates didn’t think you’d care if they left without you. At the church coffee hour as you stood for twenty minutes with no one coming up to say hello.
Separation anxiety is what they call it when we’re little. “Awkward’, they say when you grow up a bit, with a bit of humor to try to make it feel better. But everyone remembers an experience of not fitting in, of feeling uncomfortable, a jarring recollection of being out of place, of not belonging. The day at work when the conversation was so inappropriate, vulgar, degrading to others, completely out of line that you couldn’t get out of the room quick enough. The first time you walked into that large outpatient treatment room where everyone was hooked up to an IV. The first day of school your sophomore year of high school when you had to move because one of your parents got a new job. That time after you lost your job when everyone else in the house headed off to school and work and the door closed with you still inside. That season of life around about junior high when your body changes every day and its hard to know who you are even in your own skin
Not belonging. Not fitting in. And the churning of emotion that comes with it. A learning experience. A teachable moment. Maturity. Growing up. A inside scar that never really goes away. The baggage we carry. Memories forever etched. If someone asked you to draw a timeline of your life, marking some memorable moments, some of those experiences would be there. Not a calendar of absolutely everything, but a time line of scenes that you still relive. Not just birthdates. Not just a list of “the firsts”. Not just the really big events. Not just the joy-filled mountaintops or the challenging valleys of your life. But a timeline that includes some of those run of the mill, everyday experiences when you found yourself on the outside looking in, when you knew you were out of place, when any sense of belonging was shaken to the core, whether you were 4, or 18, or 34, or 73. When sketching a time line of memorable moments, there would no shortage of those “out of place moments”.
I can’t be the only one here this morning who is not ready for Advent. In the church, in a congregation’s worship life, Advent comes every year whether you want it to or not, whether you are ready for it or not. Advent comes with a certain tyranny of the calendar. Advent comes with this unrelenting force. The last Sunday of November or the First Sunday of December, usually Thanksgiving weekend. Culturally, Advent means tree lighting and hustle and bustle and Christmas is coming. So we should get excited. Liturgically speaking it is the first of the New Year. Advent marks the new beginning. Four Sundays. Then Christmas Eve. Epiphany. Then Lent. Holy Week, Easter. Pentecost. Ordinary Time. Christ the King. Advent I and we begin again. UGH! The liturgical calendar can be as oppressive as any other march of time.
But what if Advent had nothing to do with a calendar at all? What if Advent was more like a time line, in terms of a faith journey, and a relationship to God, and your sense of self as a child of God? What if Advent was less like a march of time and more like a charting of memorable moments? A teaching moment. A learning experience. A recollection deep within; an Advent here, and Advent there. Those moments when the Advent of God’s promise breaks in, shines through, cries out. Advent begins not with this Sunday or that, but with our experience of the promise of God amid the jarring displacement of our lives.
Advent begins when God yet again meets us in the “out of place moments” of our faith journey, when we find ourselves adrift, wandering, aimless, alone, out of sorts, searching for meaning or yearning for a purpose or up to the eyeballs in wilderness. Advent begins. When we know ourselves again to be strangers in the world’s foreign land: the market place, the politic, the peer pressure, the achievement at any cost, the self concern, the self preservation, powers and principalities run amuck, strangers in the world’s foreign land. Advent begins. When it is not always that clear, or all that easy, what on earth it means to be faithful here and now, what it means to sing the Lord’s Song here and now, when it just isn’t all plain as day, what it means to walk with God today, let along tomorrow. Advent begins. When we stand up on our toes to look around all around us, seeing again the suffering and the need, hearing over and over again of illness and death and grief, watching the world’s tumult and the earth’s shaking or flooding, or storming. When the petition, “thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven”, when that part of the prayer comes with some desperation, our world, that’s when Advent begins.
Just then. Right about then. Advent begins as God once again draws near, and with the sure power of grace and the persistence of the Holy Spirit, God infuses us with this unwavering, indelible, mark of our belonging. Advent begins when the promise of God meets our displacement. The promise that God will indeed transform humanity’s collective body of work, our fleshy efforts at reconciliation and community and justice and righteousness, that God will transform our body of work that it may conform, reflect, mirror the very glory of Christ Jesus. For our belonging, our lasting fit, our place…..our citizenship is in heaven and from there you and I wait for a Savior. Advent begins every time you and I realize we belong, body and soul, in life and death, not to ourselves, but to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ.
Will Willimon, a Methodist bishop who used to be the Dean of the Chapel at Duke University tells in a sermon of a brief conversation he had with a student at Duke from Iowa. The student was a member of one of the small group bible studies on campus. He told the chaplain that he had never been in a bible study before, that he had never felt the need for a small group bible study back in Des Moines. “Why here”, Willimon asked him. The student replied with some exasperation, “Have you any idea how difficult it is to be a sophomore and a Christian at the same time on this campus.” Advent was beginning.
At breakfast not too long ago, a friend was telling me of how their family was coping with unspeakable grief in the months after a sudden death. The friend told of struggling through holidays and trying to honor family traditions, yet knowing the dinners and the presents and remembering the way things used to be, it just makes it all the more painful. The God question came up, not because of what I do for a living, but because my breakfast partner’s faith has been pushed about as far as it can go. “No, I’m not angry with God. I’m frustrated because there will never be an answer. But you can bet I’m talking to God more than ever in my life.” Advent was beginning.
More than a year ago, I sat with a business executive in the company’s cafeteria to talk about leadership as part of my sabbatical research. Sometime during the conversation, she admitted that the direction of the conversation was not what she expected. We were talking about leading change in the corporate culture, and developing skills as a leader, and building effective teams. “I figured since you were a reverend, we would be talking about faith in the workplace.” I apologized for any confusion and politely tried to affirm that faith in the workplace was important but it wasn’t what I wanted to talk about. “That’s fine”, she said, “But I have to tell you about this prayer that I say every morning at my desk before I do anything else. I have it on a card. I don’t say at home early. I don’t say it at the gym. I don’t say it on the commute. I wait until I get here. I have to say it here.” And she pulled the card out of her purse to show me. “I’m a bit embarrassed. I’m not a holy roller or anything. But life around here can be really hard, some days down right brutal.” She went into some more detail about life in the workplace and then concluded. “This prayer and the picture of my family on my desk is how I start my day. You would not believe how much of a difference it has made, remembering who I really am.” I wanted to talk about leadership. She wanted to talk about Advent.
Advent comes when the promise of God breaks through the jarring displacement of our lives. For our belonging, our lasting fit, our place…..our citizenship is in heaven and from there you and I wait for a Savior. Advent begins every time you and I realize we belong, body and soul, in life and death, not to ourselves, but to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ.
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