Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Preparing for Advent

Recently, I bought a cup of coffee at a Starbucks in Rome, GA. The barista and I chatted briefly. He had graduated from Shorter College (a Southern Baptist school in Rome, GA), sung at the Vatican with Shorter’s music program, worked in the music program of some evangelical churches, married, and needed the larger income that he earned at Starbucks.

He and his wife are visiting all of the Christian congregations in Rome, trying to find the one that is for them. They had attended St. Peter’s Episcopal Church the last Sunday and he was sold on the Episcopal Church. Our liturgy appealed to him, he liked the traditional music, and he especially valued our theological openness, i.e., we are a church that prays together without mandating doctrinal specifics. Consequently, he favorably contrasted the Episcopal Church with the Orthodox churches. His wife, however, wanted a congregation with more contemporary music. And, he informed me, some creative arrangements of earlier hymns set to contemporary tunes are appearing, a welcome relief from the vacuity of singing the same seven word phrase eleven times (his analysis!).

A couple of weeks before that incident, a snowstorm had left me stranded in a hotel lobby off an interstate highway in New York’s Westchester County. As I struggled with the New York Times crossword, I could not avoid overhearing a man describe at length how Jesus had helped him to defeat the devil’s attempts on his life. I could not see the face of the person to whom this man was describing his spiritual journey, so do not know if his intended hearer welcomed, tolerated, or rejected the message.

This evangelical Christian believed that he had an extensive and reliable knowledge of the Bible, an understanding shaped by biblical literalism and substitutionary atonement. He clearly had no inkling that some of us Christians approach the Bible in an entirely different manner. In his simplistic view, Jesus had saved him from the devil’s clutches and given him a more abundant life.

Then I read William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India. Sort of a modern Canterbury Tales, Dalrymple tells the stories of nine Indians and their spiritual journeys. The journeys do not cohere theologically or philosophically with one another. Some are Hindus, one is a Jain, and none is a Jew, Christian, or Muslim. One of the nine is virtually an atheist, though he has built his life around spiritual values and growth.

The common thread linking the nine lives together is that each person has found a community of like-minded individuals who offer support, guidance, and encouragement. All nine have rejected materialism and consumerism; they find meaning and joy in their relationships with others and through an inner journey. In this, they share significant commonalities with the Christian that I met at Starbucks and the one I overheard in the hotel lobby.

Advent begins this Sunday, December 2. Advent is a Christian season that traditionally emphasizes spiritual journeys. What is the goal of your spiritual journey? What are your traveling rules? Who are the companions on your journey? Who is your spiritual guide?

The Rt. Rev. Michael Curry, Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of North Carolina, has challenged his diocese to read the Bible in the ecclesiastical year that begins on the first Sunday of Advent (December 2, 2012) and will end on the day before the following first Sunday of Advent (November 30, 2013). He recognizes that people have various spiritualties and different demands on their time, so several options are available (read the entire Bible, only the New Testament, only the gospels, etc.).

Bishop Curry may not have identified your preferred path. If you don’t opt to follow his suggestion, what will you do to nurture your spiritual growth in the year ahead? One of the striking commonalities among Dalrymple’s nine pilgrims and the two Christians that I encountered is that all eleven are actively pursuing spiritual growth. They have a clear idea of the path set before them, even though some, like the Starbucks’ barista, are uncertain as to where that path will lead.

What is your path? What is your next step?

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