My dear friends in Christ,
Our secular calendar has now caught up with our sacred one, so for the second time in as many months, I say to you: HAPPY NEW YEAR! And, as I said in my 2021 rector’s report for our last Annual Parish Meeting, WE’RE STILL HERE!
I do not mean to be coy; to the contrary, I begin with these two particular observations because I sincerely believe they are worth celebrating, and I wish for us to enter into this new year from a place, from a foundation, of celebration.
Because, let’s be honest, 2021 was a tough one, in so many ways. Especially in its final few weeks. Many of us, myself certainly included, are still reeling from sudden loss upon sudden loss. Many of us, as well, are still facing difficult and painful challenges right now and in the months to come. It’s especially important ~ crucial, even ~ at such times as these that we take time and care to center ourselves in God’s overwhelming love, mercy, grace, and peace.
I know. So very much easier said than done.
It might even seem somehow inappropriate to spend time reflecting upon such “abstract” pleasantries, when there is so much pain and hurt, so much loss, so much violence and injustice and evil to deal with here in the “real” world.
Well, as fate would have it, even as I was in the midst of composing this message, our good bishop just happened to forward to me some passages of C. S. Lewis’s writings, and this one struck me as especially timely for our world, and for that matter our own parish family:
“A continual looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some modern people think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do.
“It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is.
“If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.
“The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven.
“It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.
“Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither.”
– from Mere Christianity
As with so many of the deep truths of our faith, the point seems at first glance to be counterintuitive, if not outright contradictory. And yet I believe that Lewis is one hundred percent correct here. What’s more ~ forget about leaving our mark on history in this mortal life; I would argue that we can scarcely bear the hardships and pains of this life if we do not keep at least one eye focused on the life to come that is promised us in God’s gift of Jesus Christ, and him crucified and resurrected.
The Christian hope … in point of fact, the Christian experience as lived by countless generations of the faithful for two millennia … has never consisted in the wishful notion that baptism would somehow magically prevent us from ever again experiencing pain or suffering. The stories of the martyrs put the lie to that very idea.
No, the Christian hope is never so fanciful or deluded as all that. Our hope rests in the fact, the concrete reality, that this mortal life, even unto death, is not the sum total of our existence. This mortal life, for us Christians, can never be the whole story. And, as Lewis points out, focusing our minds and hearts on the life to come, the reality of God’s heavenly, peaceable kingdom of which we get a taste each time we share the sacrament of Holy Communion together, is not escapism. For escapism relies on fantasy, on denying or ignoring actual reality. But for the Christian, life everlasting in God’s kingdom is reality, the ultimate, absolute reality, the foundation of all being.
So. Where does that leave us, here at the brink of a brand new year, still here, living our real lives in the real world, with all the real hurts and real burdens we have to carry? How do we live our real lives from the belief ~ from the knowledge ~ that the kingdom of God is real and had indeed come near to us in Christ?
We should recognize, I think, that our answers to those questions may well change from day to day, or even hour to hour, as the circumstances around us change. By now, maybe we’re beginning to get used to the fact that reality changes more frequently than we’d like. What doesn’t change is God’s enduring presence with us, in both our joys and our sorrows, and God’s unfailing, overwhelming love for us, each and every one of us. Meanwhile, we do what Christians have always done: we pray; we worship; we love each other; we forgive each other; we do what we can to help carry the burdens of those around us, making the load each one of us must bear just a little lighter. And we look, and expect to find, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in the people in our lives, every single day.
I realize that this message tends rather strongly in the direction of abstract language and poetic theology ~ well and good, I think, for the start of a new year. Subsequent columns will get a little more concrete and specific, as the opportunities arise. But for now, at this time of beginning, maybe it’s not such a bad thing to lift our minds, our hearts, and our spirits to things eternal, to set aside just briefly the thousand specific, pressing, practical concerns of this particular day and center our souls in the unchanging vastness of a loving God who has wonderfully created, and more wonderfully redeemed, each one of us … to catch a breath of Spirit before we start off again on the next leg of our journey.
Peace & blessings,
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