Why Winter and Advent belong together. I took this pic of the bare maple leaf in front of the parsonage this afternoon.

Why Winter and Advent belong together. I took this pic of the bare maple tree in front of the parsonage this afternoon.

Empty trees. Bare branches. Dead stumps. Not exactly the sorts of images you expect during what is supposedly this season of hope, but that’s the mystery of Advent…they really are. One song says that what God wants of us is holiness, righteousness, and brokenness. If I could add a verse, I would add one for the season of Advent…Emptiness. Emptiness is what I long for…what I need…what God wants of me.

What if what we need this season is not more, but less? Not just “less” in the commercial terms of what is said by the Advent Conspirators, though we need that, too. But less of what I have filled my life with, good things though they may be, but the things, sometimes even the gifts and graces in which my trust has begun to become (mis)placed, rather than the One who gifts and graces.

I spoke this morning about a song by David Wilcox that I have ruminated on from time to time. It was a song he wrote in the aftermath of his touring of the Biltmore mansion, where he was bothered to discover that the man whose dwelling was the mansion was lonely, and the ostentatious size of the house must have driven home that point rather well to the man. The story behind the inspiration of the song is on his live album ‘Songs and Stories’ but here’s a video and the lyrics to the song that hits home with me during this season of longing and aching. This season of emptiness and loneliness that just may be what we need to find the fullness that is on its way to adorn and fill us.

The depth of your dreams, the height of your wishes
The length of your visions I see
The hope of your heart is much bigger than this
For it’s made out of what might be

So now picture your hope, your heart’s desire
As a castle that you must keep
And all of its splendor, it’s drafty with lonely
This heart is too hard to heat

When I get lonely, now that’s only my sign
That some room is empty in me, and that room is there by design
If I feel hollow, well that’s just my proof that there’s more
I need to follow
And that’s what the lonely is for
That’s what the lonely is for

But you could seal up the pain
Build walls in the hallways, close off a small room to live in
But then those walls would remain
And keep you there always
You would never know why you were given,
Why you were given that lonely
Why you were given that empty in your heart
Why you were given that hollow
That’s just your proof that there’s more you need to follow
That’s what the lonely is for

Feels like a curse, not a blessing
This palace of promise
When the empty chill makes you weep
With only the thin fire of romance to warm you
These halls are too tall and deep

When I get lonely, well that’s only my sign
Some room is empty in me and that room is there by design
If I feel hollow, well that’s just my proof that there’s more
For me to follow
And that’s what the lonely is for
For me to follow, that’s what the lonely is for.

In Romans 8 St. Paul intimates that creation is achinggroaning as a woman in labor (appropriate for Advent, is it not?) and he says this not only of creation but also of God’s children groaning for the redemption of our bodies, which points us toward Christ’s return and the resurrection of the body.

Aching, groaning, longing. That’s how I have pictured Advent thus far this year. And maybe the first part of that aching is to long for emptiness. So perhaps emptiness seems like an odd word to convey the meaning of hope, but perhaps it is the most appropriate for now. After all, emptiness is one of the benchmark terms we associate with the Incarnation, right? (See Philippians 2:7: “but he emptied himself…”).

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In the sermon yesterday, I mentioned a bit about the story of Cairo, Illinois, its turbulent history of racial tension and its dwindling economic plight, as well as its difficult conditions today. More than 55 arsons have occurred since 2007 in the town of (now) less than 3,000 people. The most recent fire occurred last weekend, which you can read about here. And here is an image of the building engulfed in flames:

Photo of the fire at old King Tut’s Tavern on Ohio & 8th in downtown Cairo. (Photo credit: WPSD-TV)

Carrie and I took the kids to St. Louis a couple of weeks ago, and drove through Cairo on our way. As we drove slowly through the downtrodden city, my heart was broken by the signs of poverty, abandonment, desolation, and destruction that was seen on almost every block. Soon, I began to wonder about those in the town’s midst who have been and are fighting an uphill battle for the cause of justice, praying the town is not deserted, hoping against hope that there is a positive future for the city, that it really can thrive again. I’m not sure where they are, but my prayers have gone up for these warriors, that more support would come their way, that they might see signs of resurrection hope in the city of decay.

As I was doing some reading about the town last weekend, I soon found out that Chris Tomlin recorded most of the video, “I Lift My Hands” in Cairo. Most of the images you see convey, in part, the decline that Cairo has suffered.  The opening lyrics of the song gripped me: “Be still, there is a healer…” The language of healing is one that is apt to describe what I pray for Cairo. This 5 minute video is very good and helps convey the message of the power of belief and hope. So give it a watch & listen!

My heart was stirred in watching this. But I must also admit that often the difficult part of this prayer, is the recognition that the harder the decline and the deeper the hurt a person or a town or a nation or a world endures, the more patience, the more work, the more difficult decisions, the longer amount of time is needed for healing. But maybe, just maybe, God will stir in the hearts of more people to reflect on the coming kingdom, whose tree of life produces leaves that are for “the healing of the nations” (Rev. 22:2) and will do whatever possible to bring the life from those leaves to the decaying and despairing parts of the world around us.

“Our Father in heaven…your kingdom come…on earth as it is in heaven.”

In the midst of what is honestly a rather mediocre movie is a scene that has remained embedded in my memory ever since the only time I’ve watched it. Well I’ve gone back and seen this particular clip a time or two, the rest of the movie was “meh” so I haven’t sat through the whole thing again. The movie is Red Planet, starring Val Kilmer, Carrie Ann Moss, Benjamin Bratt and The Mentalist…er, I mean Simon Baker. (I had to be sure that I wasn’t confusing it with the movie Mission to Mars, since they were released about the same time. Ya know, kinda like Armageddon and Deep Impact were released the same summer, only the two movies about Mars were far less memorable.) Since there isn’t a good set of clips that tells everything you need to know, let me set up the scene for you…

Like most other movies that have their setting on “Mars,” this was set in the future when earth was running out of space and resources needed to sustain the life of our planet’s inhabitants. After a prior mission had gone to Mars to set up a large greenhouse of sorts to establish life through vegetation so that oxygen could begin to be introduced on Mars, the plot of the film involves the second mission, which involved the first humans to check up on the project and its progress. As the majority of the group took a smaller shuttle to the surface from the larger craft, which remained in orbit around Mars, they ran into some difficulty and realized that they would be in need of the oxygen that was present in the greenhouse. As they are moving toward the location of the greenhouse, they see the reflections of the sun against the shiny frame from a distance and their hearts immediately grew with excitement. However, their joy quickly turned to dread as they drew nearer and discovered that the greenhouse had been utterly destroyed and the frame was all that was left. To their knowledge and by the evidence of lifelessness before their eyes, they were without oxygen and thus, without hope of making it out alive. Some interesting things happened when they discovered this, including a fight that breaks out where one man gets thrown from a cliff to his quick demise. But the rest decide to just sit there and allow their oxygen tanks to run out and the question is asked right before this clip of what symptoms they would be experiencing as they were going to suffocate to death by lack of oxygen…

What happens next is Kilmer’s character realizes that he’s able to breathe Mars’ air and he quickly tells his colleagues that they can take off their masks and keep living. That raised the question of mystery: where did this air come from? And the rest of the movie is their search for where there might be some green things and life on the planet, which they discover not too long thereafter.

The metaphor always gripped me of the sufficiency of what was unseen in the air around them. We’re sometimes told of another world, another kingdom which is breaking in and invites us to participate, but there is sometimes difficulty in trusting the grace of what (or Who) is not seen. Earlier today, I was with a group of men praying over a friend and his daughter. One man asked that God’s grace would “flood” their lives. I began thinking about the issue of breathing and the impossibility of doing so underwater. Why would we pray for this? But I soon remembered the message of trusting that God would enable us to breathe in this new life. And my mind was brought back to this scene in the movie.

As far as they knew, the world in which they were stuck was full of aridity and lifelessness, or at the very least, an atmosphere to which their lungs could not possibly adapt. In one act of desperation (or perhaps it was mere luck or accident), one person took the leap and discovered that there was life in the midst of a seemingly lifeless world…that there was hope in the midst of a seemingly hopeless world. (Hitting near home yet?) And that unlocked the door for the search of where this was coming from. The goal became, in a sense, “Let’s get to the source of this Life.” That’s part of what I understand when thinking about the Kingdom of God: now & not yet; already inaugurated but still waiting to fully realized until the end; and hence, this search marks the race of kingdom living. Or, as I recall Robert Mulholland in chapel once paraphrased the request in the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread”: “Nurture us today for kingdom living.” Lord of heaven and earth, enable me to breathe in your life as your kingdom continues to come on earth as it is in heaven.