These days of preparation before Christmas are filled with a sense of wonder and awe. The church has its practice of preparation and so does the larger culture around us. These two preparations could hardly be less alike. Perhaps this age of pandemic and cultural polarity has made the two forms or preparation more similar than either might care to admit.
“Strange things are afoot at the Circle-K.” was a line of dialogue from the 1989 film Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. The “Circle-K” was a convenience store, much like a 7-Eleven is today. The actors were making a comment about a time-traveling phone booth which appears, at a Circle-K, to assist Bill and Ted in the completion of their history project for school. In much the same way, something is afoot in our time which has caused all of us a deep sense of disorientation.
Our days are filled with a disorientation that ranges from the mild to the acute. Pandemic is moving target and the political polarity that grips us all wants to force us into camps. Mask or no mask. Vaccine or no vaccine. It goes on and on.
Churches were forced to close public worship now try to regroup. They do so as many of their constituents have now discovered Sunday brunch and other activities the larger world embraces on a Sunday morning. Where did all the people go?
Most adults never imagined having to prove their vaccination status to eat out. Most churchgoers never imagined the doors being closed on a Sunday morning.
Nearly two years on we are all a bit dizzy about the state of our world and the state of religion. It is hard to make commitments when we are not sure circumstances will allow it. The rush to find certainty and structure is elusive to us all. There is no new normal or next normal. We are left only with new and next both lacking any sense of normalcy.
The first coming of Jesus came in a time very much like our own. Religious and political division were commonplace. People did not know which way was up. Powerful people argued for their vision of reality only to be shuffled off the stage by an ever-changing landscape.
Our courageous figures in the biblical story of Jesus’ birth (Zechariah, Mary, Elizabeth, Joseph, Shepherds, and later, Magi) all find a pathway to align to what God is ALREADY doing. Caesar, Herod, and a cast of others continue to demand that God bless and conform to their own notion of normal. This biblical story contrasts cooperation with coercion.
The temptation here, at least for the church, is to get God to align with what the church had been doing. Those not in the church do the same by repeating a conviction over and over until it becomes fact for them. The same person that cannot fathom the mind on the other side of the political aisle cannot fathom a God that would not want things to get back to normal. Our mutual disorientation asks why people or God can’t align to us. “What’s wrong with everyone?”, we ask ourselves in a strangely unaware manner. Both inside the church and outside the church, coercion often dominates the way we see God and others.
Strange things are afoot, indeed.
The description of Mary’s consideration of the angel’s announcement with the words, “she pondered all this in her heart” aligns to “strange things are afoot.” The same could be said for many others in the Bible.
Trying to get God and others to do, believe, vote, and post what we like is a “vanity, a chasing after wind.” (Eccl. 2:10-11) The notion of asking God to bless what we think or want is just as crazy-making as trying to get our next door neighbor to the same. Both often yield the same result.
Strange things are afoot.
Our preparation for this Christmas must look more and more like our courageous characters from the Bible. Where is God already blessing? How do we get there and do that? Where is beauty unfolding and how is grace being revealed around you?
In these disorienting days, perhaps strange things are afoot for God. If this is true, our waiting and searching draw us inward to find the Holy in us and outward to realize the Holy among us. Once we awaken to the fact that there is not now, nor has there ever been, a normal, the closer we will draw to the amazing revelation of Jesus Christ. Strange things always seem to be afoot for Jesus. The stories before his birth are just the beginning.