If I’m honest, I’ll admit that I like having things figured out on my own rather than relying on others to teach me. It’s a control issue, of course. Going it alone means I don’t have to depend on someone else. But I’ve also learned that having a guide really makes things so much better. Advent is a time to release my grip on circumstances in my life and find ways to let God in to guide me.
A sermon based on Psalm 25.
Taking a cue from REI, I opted outside this Thanksgiving weekend. As you may know, I’m not big into the retail crush in the run-up to Christmas. We’ve only just lit the first of our Advent candles, even though the Christmas decorations have been out in most stores since well before Halloween, and I think Christmas is about more than consumerism. Hiking has become a passion for me, so Melissa and the kids and I headed up to Mt. Watatic near the New Hampshire border for a classic New England hike on Friday, and then yesterday I joined a group from the Appalachian Mountain Club to hike Pack Monadnock in Southern New Hampshire.
In both cases I had to rely on others to guide me. We learned about Mt. Watatic in a hiking book given to me by a friend for my birthday. Thanks to the author, I knew to look out for the large split rock on the early part of the trail just past the wetlands. Once at the summit, I could point out Mt. Monadnock, Mt. Wachusett and the Boston skyline only because I read that we should look for them. Unlike many of the other folks there, we knew to take an alternate route down that would get us back to our car by a different path giving us more scenery to enjoy. Yesterday, I relied on the volunteer guides for the AMC who handed out maps and talked us through the hike. Our plans changed due to the weather, we did the more difficult part going uphill rather than trying to navigate it downhill on granite slabs. I took their word for it and then, when I got there, became very grateful. Hiking down that trail might have lead to an injury. Having the guidance made for much better experiences this weekend.
Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggermann suggests creating an “anti-psalm” as a way to study the actual psalm you want to understand more thoroughly. Theologian Doug Bratt does this with the one we read today, Psalm 25 (and I’m indebted to him for this idea and for the information about Bruggermann). His anti-psalm reads: “‘I’m on my own in this mess. I have to somehow dig myself out of this trouble. Since I can’t count on anyone else for help, there’s no point in paying any attention to God either. God doesn’t care anyway.’” 1 As he reflects on his antithesis, he recognizes its deep resonance within our culture. We tend to both feel alone and want to be left alone. “Rugged individualism” describes us North Americans at our finest. We know we can handle whatever circumstances come our way if we have to. There’s a recent commercial for an insurance company with a man expressing his ability to take care of a range of situations, from a dirty diaper to a bat flying loose in his house with the expression, “I’ve got this.” (He can’t handle the tree on his car, and he reluctantly declares his inability there.)
“To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul; my God, I put my trust in you; Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; in you have I trusted all the day long.” The Psalmist expresses his utter dependance on God, on his need for God to show God’s ways and to teach God’s paths. The psalmist longs for God to lead him, to guide him. He wants God to be the expert on the trail, the one who has gone before in order to safely traverse this path of life.
But trusting fully in God rarely comes easy. We like control, you and I, or at least I do. I like having things ordered, imagining that I can rely on my own ingenuity and previous experiences to somehow muster my way through. It’s all too easy when I read the guide book to somehow think that I’m now the expert. I rely on my own instincts—or is it my own ego—because that’s what I’ve been taught to do.
Professor Belden Lane recently wrote a fantastic book titled Backpacking with the Saints: Wilderness Hiking as Spiritual Practice. Prof. Lane meshes his love of hiking in the Ozarks near his home in Missouri with reading spiritual classics written by a number of saints, from the Desert Mothers and Fathers in the 4th century to 20th Century mystic Thomas Merton. He explores the call of the desert on those faithful men and women so many years ago, and how they wanted to be free of the encumbrances of their culture and rely completely on God. They decided that it’s much too easy to rely on themselves when things were comfortable, but living alone far away from society’s grasp, eating very little, giving away nearly all of their earthly possessions, that would provide an opportunity that they wanted to explore.
Lane speculates that it’s the wildness of the desert and the mountains that acts as a beacon to many both then and now. And yet in spite of that longing, Lane explains that “In our anxiety to be safe, we flee from all things wild, clinging to what we are able to explain.” While it may keep us safe for a time, it also keeps us from experiencing deep trust. He writes, “Letting go of what we aren’t able to handle is the goal of most spiritual disciplines.” When we have experiences that push us into these wilds places—either in spiritual practices or embarking out into the wilderness— we “release our clutching control on life, [and] we move beyond the ego’s exercise of power to an unanticipated awe, to the possibility of love.” 2
Love eludes us when we try to control things. When we tighten our grip and clutch as tightly as we can, we shut out both God and others. We believe much too readily the sentiments of our anti-psalm that “We are on our own in this mess. We have to somehow dig ourselves out of this trouble.”
We begin today our four week journey to Bethlehem. We head out perhaps thinking we need to be in the driver’s seat this Advent; we’ve got way too much to plan and too many difficult experiences ahead for it to be otherwise. We want (and perhaps, for some of us, need) to be in control. We’ll be reminded in the weeks ahead that in this life circumstances are rarely in our control. An unexpected pregnancy before the wedding, a crazy census demanding you travel to your birthplace, no vacancy signs lit up on a cold evening. Advent tells us again and again that we are not in control of the story of our lives (if we were, Jesus would have been born at home, or maybe in a palace someplace, with comforts deserving of who he is).
Perhaps we need to fight those urges this Advent and place ourselves in the wilderness. Taking on a spiritual practice from as simple as lighting candles on an Advent wreath and reading a small portion of scripture with a prayer to embarking on something more involved like centering prayer or spiritual journaling. Or maybe we need to get outdoors a bit more as the sun continues to set a little earlier and a little more to the south to help pull us away from the comforts of our society. However we do it, we need to say with the Psalmist, “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul; my God, I put my trust in you.” We have to release our grip, and open our hands up to the transforming power of love.
It won’t be easy. This isn’t the sort of thing we just decide to do and then it suddenly happens. It takes work and discipline and an intentionality to lift up our souls and our very lives to God. But that’s the work of preparation Advent affords to us. To open ourselves up more and more each day, to trust God’s lead in our lives in ways that feels antithetical to our instincts or the ways of our culture. To pray once more “Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths.”
The rapturous joy of love is what we’ll find at the end of our journey if we stick with it. God’s path leads us there. The first step on this path is in letting go and trusting in the goodness of God. It begins in recognizing that God does want to help us out of the terrible mess we’re in. Which is exactly why God sent Jesus to be born among us in the first place.