As I publish this reflection, I will have been an ex-preacher for almost eleven months. I deliberated on whether I should narrate with any degree of detail how that came to pass, but I’m going to choose not to for now. For the sake of some framework, I’ll just say that I preached for just over three years, for a small pulpit fee each week, in hopes that I would do so until the church had the resources to hire a full-time minister. Then I went out of town to visit my family in Indiana, and I came back to discover that the other elders had conducted a secret meeting in my absence to decide that I would no longer be the preacher. When I announced my resignation on the following Sunday, at the end of my last sermon for that congregation, everyone except those elders and their spouses took the announcement as a great surprise, an event that nobody anticipated because nobody was informed, much less asked to share in the decision.
And that’s why I’ve not gotten back into these weekly Bible posts until now, and that’s why, for this first Sunday of Advent, the Psalm reading rings true now in ways that it hadn’t before. As with so many of the Bible’s great poems, Psalm 25 holds contradictions to be true, even when a simpler version of life would hold that the same person can’t still be angry at the treacherous and still humble about his own need to be taught the ways of righteousness. A simpler mindset, perhaps one dulled by floods of televised political advertisements and one-dimensional electronic political exchanges, might hold that righteous protest, the coin of the realm for so many partisans, can only lose its force if the protester isn’t quite sure that she has a strong, final grasp on what’s right and wrong.
Yet that’s what the Psalm holds forth, and that’s the way of life to which I aspire. To ask YHWH not to regard the sins of my youth is to confront the fact that, when I was younger, they weren’t sins. They were my rights, and they were harmless indulgences, and they were even righteous causes, but for me to call them sins now does not mean that I had the wisdom to regard them as sins then. And it sure as Hell means that the causes and indulgences and rights that I grasp and seize now stand to be sins later. Such is not to say that I’m never going to speak against what’s wrong ever again–sloth is no less a deadly sin than is pride–or that I’ve decided that those who have wronged me weren’t really wrong or that I wasn’t really wrong if I didn’t think I was wrong.
It ain’t like that.
Advent serves, if we’re willing to receive the gift, as an annual reminder that our own best ideas and our own excuses when we don’t want to think ourselves treacherous and our own sense of how our neighbors ought to treat us might be good, and we should stand willing to continue in them, knowing that revelation is a mysterious and glorious surprise. But we should be willing as well to find ourselves among the ranks of the hypocrites and the ignorant and the persecutors if in fact revelation’s surprise is that we were sinners but didn’t have the capacity to acknowledge as much. When Christ arrives in the world, a whole mess of the righteous must confront the possibility that they’ve been sinners all along. Something like that happens every time we celebrate Advent.
But the more difficult contradiction to hold to deals with how one’s enemies exist in the world. Although the Psalm, as a song with a strong point of view, doesn’t flesh out these philosophical implications, a moment of reflection has to lead me to realize that those who wronged me, eleven months ago and before then and since then, likely thought their own acts harmless or their rights or even righteous. None of that excuses the harm they did to my family or to me, and none of it makes the harm less harmful, but reflecting on the Psalm invites me to regard even my enemies as living in the strange contradictions that make existence as God’s creatures so weird and so wondrous. We Christians pray for our enemies not only because Jesus tells us to (though that’s a dang good reason) but because we know they’re living in the same confusing reality that we are. And perhaps that’s the Advent reality that I most need to confront this go-round.
May the LORD who is always on the way guide us in truth and heal us when truth wounds.