Lauren J. McFeaters
November 20, 2016
Anne Lamott tells a story about taking her two-year-old son Sam to Lake Tahoe where they could have some time away together. And when he napped she could do short bouts of writing. They stayed in a condominium beside the lake.
And one day Anne Lamott put her baby to sleep in his Pack-n-Play in a totally darkened bedroom and in the next room she went to work on her writing.
A few moments later she heard her toddler knocking on the door from inside. She got up to put him back to bed with a kiss and then — as in every parent’s nightmare — found the door had locked behind her.
Somehow she had managed to push the lock button on the doorknob. And when Sam awoke and cried, “Mommy, Mommy,” she tried to stay calm and said, “It’s OK, Sam. Just jiggle the doorknob, honey, push the button again. Just jiggle. Mommy’s right here.” Of course, because the room was very dark he couldn’t see the doorknob.
When it became clear to Sam that his mother couldn’t open the door, panic set in. She could hear Sam sobbing and she did everything she could think of: trying the door again and again; calling the rental agency; contacting the manager; leaving frantic messages on answering machines; running back and forth to comfort her son there in the dark, locked room, terrified.
Finally she did the only thing she could think of, which was to lie down next to the door, and slide her fingers underneath where there was a little bit of space, fingers between carpet and door, just enough space to wiggle a few fingers under the door. She told Sam over and over to do the same: to find the door and find her fingers, to hold on tight. And somehow he did. He held on tight, he calmed, he quieted, and she did too.
They stayed like that for what seemed like a long time, until help came, him holding her fingers in the dark, feeling her presence, her comfort, her love. (1)(2)
Sometimes, you and I,
are like that two-year-old in the dark,
and God is that mother,
present in the darkness,
holding out mercy. (3)
I don’t know about you but I have been in more need of God’s presence in the dark, God’s hand of compassion, God’s embrace of fear, God’s depth of mercy – more than ever before. In these twelve days since the Election I have been weepy, and fearful, and short-tempered, agitated, and it has been very hard to sleep.
The only balm that seems to work is the Balm of Carbohydrates. Of course that only helps for ten minutes and does no good whatsoever. But after that (beside the balm of my family and the love of my congregation) are the songs of faith. A balm for me is found in singing. I keep a hymnal in my car, next to my side of the bed, on my phone. The songs of faith are my prayers when I have few words to pray.
They are the only things that settle me enough to think straight so that I might listen for the voice of God in the midst of the chaos, and as Zechariah says, that I “might serve the Lord without fear.” So as not become maudlin and self-absorbed. So I don’t get stuck in dread. So I don’t become a problem rather than a solution.
Here’s the short list I go to, the Gospel Balm in the form of Hymns:
- Ain’t Got Time to Die
- Gather Us In
- Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee
- My Song is Love Unknown
- My Soul Cries Out with a Joyful Shout
- Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing
- What Wondrous Love is This
- The Haitian Alleluia.
And about 300 more. I want to know yours.
You know there’s always a good story behind a song of faith. That’s why hymns carry the weight of our sorrow and joy, our distress and our pleasure.
When you understand the story leading up to it, a song means that much more. The song we just heard, Zechariah’s Song, is one example. His is a hymn for the Canon of Faith.
- He sung and chanted it after being mute for nine months.
- He thundered and shouted it so the people of God might be ready “to serve the Lord without fear.”
- He prophesied and cried it because after 400 years of God’s silence; four centuries of muteness; God spoke to Israel that the Messiah was indeed coming to give light to the darkness and to guide the people’s feet in the way of peace.
- Like a two-year-old in the darkness, God offered a hand in the darkness; provided compassion; held out mercy.
Can you imagine?
It’s as if Zechariah has been pregnant too. Nothing can contain him. Nothing gets in the way of his sheer exuberance. Nine months of being quiet. Nine months of listening. Nine months of learning a new song.
And what’s birthed is Zechariah’s unleashed joy.
It’s a wild thing.
It’s a thing of beauty.
It’s a heart thing.
It’s a merciful thing.
A Savior thing.
It’s a Marvin Gaye thing: O Mercy, Mercy Me!
Things aren’t what they used to be.
Through this hymn our stage is now set for Advent.
It’s Advent’s Advent. The players are in place: an elderly priest, his spouse Elizabeth, her cousin Mary – a teenager, two babies, the one born is John the Baptist; the other baby – well the other we’ll have to wait and see.
But John, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
And he will go before the Lord to prepare the Lord’s ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to the Lord’s people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
The poet Wendell Berry says it best:
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free. (4)
You see this is where Zechariah’s boy will take us.
John is born for the place of wild things.
With a deep breath,
and with his mother’s faith,
and his father’s song,
John walks us into the wild things.
He prepares us for God’s mercy.
And you know what I mean about God’s mercy.
Because sometimes, you and I,
are like that two-year-old in the dark,
and God is our mother,
present in the darkness,
enfolding us in compassion,
swaddling our fear,
enveloping us in mercy.
Thanks be to God.
(1) Anne Lamott. Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year. New York: Anchor Books, 1993.
(2) John Buchanan. Sermon, “Keep Calm and Carry On. December 6, 2009, Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago, fourthchurch.org.
(3) John Buchanan gives thanks to Mark Ramsey for this story, which he quotes in “Belonging,” Journal for Preachers, Advent 2009.
(4) Wendell Berry, “The Peace of Wild Things” from The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press, 1998.
© 2016 Nassau Presbyterian Church
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