Ruminating over today’s scripture texts, I am drawn to two images: the “righteous branch” in Jeremiah and, in Luke, the sprouting leaves of the fig tree. In Jeremiah, the armies of Babylon were marching toward Jerusalem. Within a short time, the streets of the city would be filled with blood. Those who survived the brutal attack would be driven into exile. Meanwhile, Jeremiah himself sat in prison, confined by his own government because he dared to speak of the coming doom. And yet, in that grim moment, somehow the prophet found the capacity to imagine a hopeful possibility: he saw, with his heart, that someday a righteous branch would spring forth. A new kind of leadership would arise to heal a defeated, corrupt and scattered nation.
Luke also describes a very scary time. Rather than an invading army, he says, nature itself will attack the earth. The cosmos—sun, moon and stars—will show signs that something is wrong. The sea and the waves will act in strange ways that cause whole nations to feel confusion and distress. “The powers of the heavens will be shaken.” As the Gospel writer senses that creation is about to fall apart, he also imagines a new creation. Look for the sprouting leaves of the fig tree, he says. And know that, after a long, wintery, terrifying night, the light and color and joy of summer is here again.
Adrienne Marie Brown, who is an author, activist and black feminist, based in Detroit, Michigan, wrote a blog post last February called “Living through the Unveiling.” She writes: “Things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered. We must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.” She names the way our government is instilling fear through deportations, emboldening white supremacy, denying climate change. She says, “It certainly feels like this is worse. . . . I say feels like because . . . I’m pretty sure that it’s not true.” She points out that our nation was birthed in racism, genocide and theft—that none of these problems are really new. So, she asks,
Why, now, does it feel like this? Why can’t we sleep, why are we in extreme patterns of drinking, smoking and numbing? Why are so many of us in pain as our bodies try to keep up with the news? Why are so many of us in a panic all day every day? . . . What feels new is the unveiling; the heaviness is the increasing weight of the truth becoming undeniable as more people believe it.
The season of Advent is a moment of transition. We endure the death throes of the world that is, knowing that they are also the birthpangs of a new creation. We glimpse the face of cosmic transformation, oh so mysteriously, in the miraculous ordinariness of a newborn. These times we live in require us to seek out radically new ways of sensing, thinking, and being. So our Advent theme, “Imagine,” has two invitations. First, we are invited to recognize all the ways in which we are constricted, limited, and paralyzed, to uncover the impossibilities we believe in and live by. To name the fears that that trap us and press the breath out of us. And, then, even as we sit with all that difficult truth, we are also invited to receive God’s gift of what is possible—to open our clenched fists, tense muscles, made-up minds and tired hearts. To unfurl ourselves toward the light, hope, and insight of the divine presence.
Lectio divina, or divine reading, is an ancient practice of praying the scriptures. In this form of prayer, we take a brief word, a phrase or few sentences of scripture into ourselves, and ruminate over it, opening ourselves to an encounter with God through it. During this Advent season, as we seek to enliven our imaginations, we will engage in a more visual form of lectio, with the photos you all submitted. At a recent training I attended, the presenter emphasized the personal dimension of this prayer. She especially urged us to pay attention to our feelings, our sensory responses, and the memories that came up. “Enter into the image.” “Put yourself there.” “What is God saying to you?” I struggled somewhat with this search for a personal word from God, and I am guessing that some of you might as well. Maybe it seems weird, or far-fetched, or self-centered to believe that God is speaking to us directly. But, on the other hand, if God is Emmanuel, God-with-us, as we proclaim in Advent, why wouldn’t the heart of God be reaching for our hearts, and seeking to communicate with us in an intimate way? So, I hope you might be willing to set aside your hesitations, just for a little while, and to see what happens. By the way, we’re still adding images to our collection, so if you haven’t submitted one yet, we’d love to have one from you. Send your close-up photo of something that sparks your imagination to the office.
Now, let’s begin. Take a moment to center yourself and move into sacred space. Breathe deeply, notice what’s happening in your body. Slowly repeat this prayer with me a few times: “God, give me vision and compassion to see the world as you see the world.” Now let’s spend a few minutes in quiet with the imagines. First, ask yourself, how does this picture speak to me? Then, what feelings or thoughts or memories does it evoke in me? And finally, what do I believe is God’s message to me today as I reflect on this image?
The philosopher Camus once said: “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” This Advent, let us practice living with imagination, for that is how we move toward freedom. With God’s help, the heavy truths we uncover will be transformed and the new world we long for will become our reality. May it be so.