Sunday, December 10, 2017

A Quaker Advent Reader: Day Nine

Guarding the World at Advent – And Other Times

Though Quakers aren't known for celebrating liturgical seasons, it's hard not to be aware that the season of Advent has begun. Especially since Nancy is playing Christmas music and decorating the farm for the holidays. And Advent angels are everywhere. The latter reminded me of a a short story by Alan Gurganus. Title “It Had Wings,” Gurganus tells the story of a woman pushing eighty, dressed in a robe and slippers, doing the dishes, who finds an angel in her backyard. The angel is lying in the grass and the woman stretches out an arthritic hand to touch it – and that hand is healed. “A practical person,” Gurganus writes, “she quickly cures her other hand. The angel grunts, but sounds pleased.” She continues to touch him and as she does “a thirty eight year pain leaves her,” “liver sports are lightening,” and “all stiffness leaves hear.” “Bolder,” Gurganus relates, “she whispers private woes… those woes seem ended.” She feels limber now, as limber as a twenty year old – but she is frightened. She’s afraid he’s about to take her to heaven. “The house is finally paid off,” she tells the angel. “Not just yet.” And then the angel zooms into heaven. As she heads inside, she notices her slippers and thinks, Got to wash these next week. And then she muses, Can a person who’s just sighted her first angel already be mulling about laundry? Yes, the world is like that.

By suppertime her aches and pains return. Still, there is something new and different about her. Gurganus asks, “Can you guess why this old woman’s chin is lifted? Why does she breathe as if to show exactly how it’s done. Why should both her shoulders, usually quite bent, brace so square just now?”

“She is guarding the world. Only, nobody knows.”

When I read that story at this time of the year, I am reminded of the shepherds of the Christmas story. They were the first to hear the news of the baby savior’s birth. And like the old woman of Gurganus’ story, their lives are changed while they remain the same – one of the paradoxes of faith.

Like the woman in the story, the shepherds weren’t the sort of men whom the general populace expected would receive angelic announcements. God, perhaps as a way of showing that faith is best grounded in real life, sends the heavenly singers to the shepherds – men who consult no books, study the skies for nothing except clues to the weather, and have no social standing.
These men, huddled on the foresty hillsides of Palestine, warm beneath their ramskins, eyes vigilant, on guard against roaming wolves, were of low station. Shepherds of that ime were considered generally untrustworthy (which makes Jesus’ later stories centering around the shepherd’s role in the life of faith all the more remarkable).

“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’”

The shepherds are amazed – and afraid. Who wouldn’t be? To be witness to an angelic herald is a wonderful thing – but is frightening, too. Perhaps like Gurganus’ old woman, they are awed by their angel, but they’re not quite ready to go up into heaven.

“Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.’”

Awestruck, amazed, mystified and more, the shepherds go in search of this babe. After encountering the child in the manger, they “returned, glorifying and praising God for all the thing they had heard and seen.” The shepherds are not transported into some new place and increased social standing. No, they go back to their sheep and their jobs. Like the old woman who notices her slippers need washing, they return to normalcy.

Except that they are different. I dare say that people seeing them, like people seeing Gurganus’s woman, noticed their chins lifted, their breathing precise and their shoulders braced so square now. And that’s because, for all their return to outward normalcy, they, like her, were “guarding the world. Only, nobody knows.”

Therein, I think, is a lesson for us this Advent season. Not that angels are going to appear on hillsides or in backyards seen through kitchen windows – though they might. No, the lesson is that any of our encounters with the Divine do not necessarily lift us out of the everyday workaday world. We will find ourselves changed, but changed on the inside, not the outside. An encounter with God is not like winning some celestial lottery where riches untold fall upon us, erasing all pain and sorrow and sadness forever.

There may be times that we are so in touch with the life of the Spirit that this life seems to fade away. We forget our aches and pains, spiritual and physical. We feel transported into the very presence of God. We feel made new and renewed. We see things with a clarity of thought and heart that we wish we had all the time. And are slightly scared by that feeling. But we do not seem to be able to sustain that experience. Which is not to downplay the experience, but rather acknowledges that we are not quite ready to live in that other world. We are human – flesh and blood and spirit and mind and soul. We are not, not yet anyway, quite ready to live completely in the spiritual realm. Like the shepherds, like the woman in the story, we return to constantly to our everyday lives.

The lesson for us from the shepherds and the old woman is to treasure those things in our hearts. And to live life with chins lifted, breathing to show exactly how it’s done, and shoulders no longer bent, but "braced so square just now.” For we, like all people who have encountered the Divine in this Advent, or any other season, are guarding the world. Whether or not anybody knows.


Yes, I know that Quakers don't recognize liturgical seasons. But I like Advent and so will be sharing various readings during this season (all of which fit with my understanding of Friends faith and life).

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