By: David H. May, Rector
For about ten years, from my late teens to my late 20’s, I tried to make it as a professional actor. When people find that out, one of the things they are most curious about is, ‘how do you learn all those lines?’ It’s actually not that hard. Well, that’s not completely true. Depending on the part, it can be pretty hard. But you just have to do it. That’s what rehearsal is for. You have to get all those words and all the movement down pat so that once you open, you can repeat the performance over and over again. And you have to repeat it exactly. Any actor who thinks it’ll be a sign of artistic genius to ‘go off script’ and improvise and make up lines during a performance will find themselves replaced. Of course, there’s room for artistic expression. But there’s no room for changing your lines or leaving them out or making up your own. You have to stay on script.
The only reason I bring this up is that while staying ‘on script’ works great for the theatre, it doesn’t work quite so well in real life, at least not eventually. Here’s what I mean. We all grow up in a cast of characters that includes – if we’re lucky – first our family and then our neighbors, kids in school, then characters in the town or city. And as we grow up, we learn rules about the plot lines of the life we’re living, some history about where we come from and where we’re going and why; we learn about various heroes and villains; we get a moral sense of good and bad, things like that. Most of us eventually have a pretty reliable script that we turn to to know our lines in any given situation.
And maybe most of the time the script we’re carrying around more or less works most of the time. Until it doesn’t.
Eventually, a line from my script that worked just fine when I was 15 or 20 or maybe even 25 doesn’t work anymore, but I keep using it when I 55 or 60. Or how about when I discover that my heroes have feet of clay just like me and that villains love their kids too? What do I do when the plot line I thought would take me safely from my first entrance to my final exit gets confused, re-written or completely tossed overboard? Well, I would say, welcome aboard! Enjoy the ride and get a new script.
And a new script that you couldn’t write if you tried. And no one else could either.
This is a metaphor, of course, but where I’m heading is no metaphor. It’s about the life of a member of this parish who’s come to an age where he’s just too weak to leave his bed and be here this morning even though that’s what he – with his whole heart – wants to do today. It’s about a young family with children whose lives are positively stampeded day after day by too much and things might be going wrong. It’s about someone perfectly put together and always, always on point but the truth is is so lonely that they just can’t see the sense in going on anymore. It’s the person who knows that what comes out of their mouth sometimes hurts people but can’t figure out how that happens or how to fix it. It’s the young person who just wants to be beautiful too, or at least invisible.
It’s about this community of people or that, this kind of people or that, rich, poor, socially acceptable or not who have just decided to write off any hope of being understood or ever being viewed fairly or maybe just being seen as a human too.
It’s about you and it’s about me and all the crooked roads we end up on that gets us God knows where and it’s about glimpsing what John the Baptist is crying out about in the wilderness proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins; which means a change in life that prepares the way for God to walk right into our world.
Repentance comes when it’s time to get a new script. Repentance is about feeling sorry for what you’ve done, that’s true. But it’s mostly feeling sorry for how much love God is holding you up with and how little you made of that and wondering with a broken heart how you could have missed that for so long.
So, if coming to repentance is about getting a new script, then what? Well, to be honest, I’m not sure. But if I don’t know all the details, well neither did John. All he knew was that the time had come and that the Lord was coming and that we had better be ready for that. All he knew to say about getting ready was that new life was coming and so we’re going to have to leave the old life behind.
We know now, that the new life John was talking about was a baby born in Bethlehem. The birth of a baby is one of those things that happens that takes the old script out of your hand without putting a new one back in it. But that doesn’t mean people don’t prepare. I remember when we were waiting for the birth of our first baby we did what people do. We made a place for the baby. We set up a nursery with a bassinet and made a place for a crib to be when we got one. We got a rocking chair. We didn’t really know what we were doing, but we knew we needed to have a place ready. I wasn’t writing a new script. I was just getting ready. I think back and realize I had no idea what was coming. I thought you just had a little baby and your life just sort of went on. I didn’t know that I was coming to the end of the script I’d been carrying around for years. I didn’t know that it changed everything about my life, forever.
In the same way, this season of Advent is a time for us to prepare for the Lord’s coming without knowing exactly what that will mean. But maybe that’s the point. Maybe it’s enough to know whatever may come, it’s time to put away the old script and wait patiently with nothing more than faith, hope and love for God.
A few weeks ago, a number of past Senior Wardens got together for lunch and to talk. I’d asked them to think about two things. First, what was most memorable about your ministry as Senior Warden. Remember what was. And the second question was what do wish for most for St. Mary’s. What do you see in our future. It was a really wonderful conversation as one by one they talked about what was memorable a year ago, two years ago, ten years ago. And then they talked about what they hoped for most for our parish. They talked for nearly two hours I think. What struck me so forcefully was how beautiful and faithful and hopeful they were. In some ways I was sort of an outsider listening in, hearing described a place and a people of such grace. I remember thinking, boy I’d like to belong to a church like that.
And then someone asked me what I thought; which caught me off-guard, off script. And before I knew it really, I was saying, ‘This place has so much to give. You have so much to give. I just find myself wondering what is the place that we, that St. Mary’s, needs to show up in Richmond, and with whom do we need to show up for, that will help heal our city. What is the witness that only we can bring and that God needs for us to bring? And if we don’t do it, then something God needs to happen, won’t happen.’
So, I’m not trying to write the script, honestly. But I do think maybe we need to get ourselves prepared for the Lord’s coming. It’s an Advent thought that begins, ‘what if God gave us a new script?’
One of my very favorite images for Advent comes from the wonderful Frederick Buechner that I’d like to leave you with. He says that it’s like being in a theatre, and Advent is the hush that happens when the lights begin to dim and the curtain begins to rise.
Without knowing what was coming, John the Baptist said, Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Turn away from what is past and make a place for this new life God will put right into your arms whether you know what you’re doing or not. Let faith, hope and love be enough for now. Because the curtain is rising and a new story is about to begin. Amen.