December 25, 2016

That They May Know (For Christmas)

After Matthew and Luke, it’s possible that Charles Dickens wrote the most famous Christmas story ever told.

In 1843, Charles Dickens wanted to draw attention to the reality of poverty and the incredible suffering it created among England’s people. Rather than write a political pamphlet about the subject, as was the custom in his day, Dickens chose instead to write a ghost story.

And what a ghost story it was!

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens is one of the most influential books of the last two hundred years.

Since it was first published, the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge’s transformation from nasty miser to generous friend has never been out of print.

Scrooge’s late night visits from the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come have been filmed, staged, and parodied innumerable times and continue to inspire would-be Scrooges to give more freely of themselves and their treasures.

A Christmas Carol’s impact on the holiday season—especially for English speaking Protestants—is without peer among stories not written by a canonized saint.

Dickens set out to shine a light on the poor, and that light did indeed shine brightly. In doing so, however, he also saved Christmas, too.

An article written by Laura Grande for History Magazine elaborates on this point and gives us a sense of the cultural tide A Christmas Carol ultimately turned. Grande writes,

During [the era in which Dickens lived and wrote], old medieval traditions, which were once used to celebrate the birth of Christ, were in a state of rapid decline. However, the disappearance of Christmas traditions was a long time coming, as England had long since stopped celebrating the holiday season on a yearly basis.
“The disappearance of Christmas traditions,” according to the author, was the legacy of Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan influence on culture—an influence that discouraged great feasts and traditional decorations among other festivities that were judged to be excessive, wasteful, or, Heaven forbid, too Catholic.

It’s worth noting, too, that Cromwell’s ideas exerted their sobering influence in this country, too. For example, there was a time when celebrating Christmas was illegal in Boston and Christmas Eve was a school night for kids in that city until 1870.

We know that similar ideas were present in our city as well, as on this night in 1806, in this very neighborhood, a group of New Yorkers tried to storm St. Peter’s Catholic Church on Barclay Street during the Christmas Eve Mass because of their suspicions about the holiday and their neighbors.

Grande concludes,

The outcome of Cromwell’s intense scrutiny of England’s holiday traditions resulted in an almost complete lack of observance of Christmas.
A Christmas Carol played a big part in altering this cultural trend.

The story’s simple moral message and sentimental images stirred something deep within the hearts of its readers.

It established “Merry Christmas!” as a common seasonal greeting.

It made charitable giving a fixture of Christmas celebrations.

And it gave Dickens’ audience permission to make this a time for frivolity and laughter and grand parties in addition to religious reflection and observance.

As one London newspaper put it with knowing hyperbole, Charles Dickens was “The Man Who Invented Christmas.”

Whether you know the story well or not, A Christmas Carol has more than likely shaped your expectations and experience of the holiday this year. It’s definitely shaped mine.

After seeing so many adaptations of the story through the years—and, thanks to my son, recently becoming familiar with the version starring the Smurfs—I actually read the book for the first time earlier this month as a part of a small group here at the church. Not surprisingly, I found several scenes and images among the pages that I don’t remember ever seeing on television or film. I thought one of those scenes, in particular, made a powerful statement about the Good News we share on this Holy Night, and I made a mark in my book as soon as I read it to share it with you now.

The scene occurs during Scrooge’s time with the Ghost of Christmas Present. There the spirit takes Scrooge to the home of his long-suffering employee, Bob Cratchit.

Now, by this point in the story it’s already established that Scrooge is a cruel man and an abusive boss.

Knowing that Cratchit works for Scrooge also lets us know that Cratchit must be very poor and have no prospects for improving his family’s situation.

Nevertheless, we find Bob to be a good man, a loving husband, and a doting father to all his kids, but especially to his son Tiny Tim.

Tiny Tim, one of the story’s most memorable characters, was terribly ill. His bones were weak and he walked with a crutch. One modern theory proposes that Dickens imagined the young character had rickets and tuberculosis as these were common ailments in London’s slums and were exacerbated by the conditions found there.

Although he leaves out a specific diagnosis, Dickens tells us that the boy is sick, but not beyond help.

The Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge a scene in the Cratchit house as Bob and Tim enter the front door. They’re returning from a church service.

As the other Cratchit kids hurry Tim away to wash up before dinner, Mrs. Cratchit asks Bob the question that parents always ask when their children have been out without them.

“How did he behave?”

“As good as gold,” said Bob, “and better. Somehow he gets thoughtful, sitting by himself so much, and thinks the strangest things you ever heard. He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church because he was a cripple, and it might pleasant them to remember upon Christmas Day who made lame beggars walk and blind men see.”
This is the scene that captured my attention line no other, because here, Tiny Tim expresses a desire to be nothing less than an icon and to draw others into the mystery and beauty of the Incarnation.

Tim hopes that his humble presence will bring others into the holy presence of Jesus—the One who makes the lame to walk and blind eyes to see.

He doesn’t want pity, but to point others to the One whose “grace is sufficient” and whose “power is made perfect in weakness.”

Tiny Tim is the foil to Scrooge’s greed—the child who leads us in the ways of selfless hope and genuine faith.

In this way, Tim give shapes to our worship this night.

Tiny Tim’s example asks of us an essential question.

Whose path will be more pleasant because of our presence and participation in what happens here this evening?

Whose spirits will be lifted because you stood up to sing of him who presence brings joy to the world?

Whose burden will become lighter because you possess the strength of a community that shares peace and practices reconciliation?

Who will receive a greater measure of life’s good things because you claimed your place at the Table where all are fed to overflowing with God’s goodness and mercy?

Who will find the courage to come out of the dark because of your testimony about the Light that you have seen and felt here tonight?

One hundred seventy three years ago, Charles Dickens wrote a ghost story that changed the way a culture celebrates Christmas. Tonight his story presents us with a timeless invitation—to point the way to Jesus Christ so that strangers and outcasts, the lonely and hurting, the forgotten and the vulnerable one among us may know that they are loved and valued by God, may know the Good News that the angels sang.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.
Thanks be to God for this Good News and may God bless us, everyone. Amen.

December 21, 2016

Asbury Returns to John Street

After several months in Larry Gordon's Port Stained Glass workshop on Long Island, the Asbury Window, a 198-year old memorial to Bishop Francis Asbury, returned to John Street Church just in time for Christmas.

During its absence, the window underwent extensive repairs and restoration. While it was in his shop, Gordon repaired a crack that ran across the image of Bishop Asbury's face, restored an original stenciled border, and releaded the entire window. He also replaced several deteriorated pieces of glass and, upon returning the window, made improvements to the original installation.

The restoration of the Asbury Window was the first project funded by John Street Church's Capital Restoration Fund, which the congregation established earlier this year. A grant from the General Commission on Archives and History of the United Methodist Church also covered a portion of the project's cost.

John Street will properly celebrate this project's completion and the life and ministry of Bishop Francis Asbury on an upcoming Sunday morning.

Images: The restored Asbury Window (top), Detail from the restored window (middle), The window before restoration (bottom)

December 20, 2016

What's in a Name?

What’s in a name?

When Shakespeare’s Juliet asked the question, she knew the answer—there wasn’t enough power in any name to keep her and Romeo apart.

What’s in a name?

The biblical Book of Proverbs says that a good one is worth more than gold and silver.

What’s in a name?

My son’s emerged after Laura and I spent months examining the branches of our family trees.

What’s in a name?

My wheel making German ancestors are in mine.

Throughout Advent we’ve given our attention to a specific name—Emmanuel. In recent weeks we’ve considered the importance of this name, especially the part it plays in the ministry and writings of a prophet named Isaiah. It’s Isaiah, after all, who identifies Emmanuel—which means “God is with us”—as the chosen and anointed ruler of God’s people, a king who would reign over a Golden Age of peace and prosperity.

Stoked by Isaiah’s vision, faithful hearts prayed that this leader and this age would come quickly. For centuries the words of the iconic Advent chorus were their fervent prayer, "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel."

In words we’ve shared this morning, those prayers and that chorus reach their grand crescendo.

Today we’ve heard Good News like no other.

All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.” which means, “God is with us.”
For us and for our salvation, God’s Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The Kingdom of God drew near. The Promised One, the Chosen One, the Lord’s Anointed One—has arrived.

Mary had a baby who came to give us new life and who will come again to chase away the last pretender to his rightful throne.

Emmanuel has come into our lives.

But what’s in a name?

What’s in the name Emmanuel?

The truth is that Emmanuel holds within it the very essence of our faith. It’s the name that speaks of the kind of relationship we can have with God and the relationships we should have with one another.

It’s the name that locates our lives in the larger drama of God’s dealings with Creation, reminding us that our lives intrinsically have purpose and meaning.

And it’s the name with the unique power to break into our present circumstances and lead us in the way that we should go.

Emmanuel is a strong name and it deserves our attention this morning.

What’s in the name Emmanuel?

There’s strength for today and hope for tomorrow in the name Emmanuel.

One of the basic building blocks of the Good News is the conviction that Jesus Christ is the holy and unique embodiment of this divine promise, God is with us to bless and guide us in our present circumstances so that God might lead us into an even better tomorrow.

This is the Good News that we’re not alone—that at work, at home, in times of trouble and confusion we can turn toward and trust God.

Emmanuel brings us the greatest treasures of our life with God—daily bread, blessings for our families and loved one, the strength and wisdom to make good decisions about our children, parents and career.

The promise of Emmanuel God with us is that our lives can be better, more faithful and fulfilling, more radiant with love, and overflowing with joy and peace than they once were.

As we’ve been reminded throughout the season, the promise of Emmanuel is that the way things are is not the way things have to be because God isn’t interested in seeing us suffer or stumble our way through life.

What’s in the name?

Strength for today and hope for tomorrow, these blessings and promises are in the name.

In some circumstances, however, a name can become a curse instead a blessing. If you’re unfortunate enough to share a name with someone who has become famous for some nefarious deed, someone who is wanted by law enforcement, someone who has landed on a no-fly list, then you know about the baggage that a name can carry.

There is, for example, an episode of Seinfeld in which Elaine just can’t get over the fact that the perfectly nice guy she is dating shares a name with a headline grabbing criminal.

What does this have to do with the name Emmanuel though?

We know well that there’s a shameful legacy of people doing great harm to one another in the name of God. If we want to do better than that in our lives, in our relationships, and in our pursuit of justice, then we must confess that while the name Emmanuel is powerful, we can receive that power humbly, or arrogantly try to exploit it.

It is, after all, an incredibly audacious thing to say that, “God is with us.”

Trouble comes when we start believing and acting as though God is with because we’re just so great that we deserve Divine favor and that Jesus calls us to his Table because we’re brilliant company.

This attitude strikes at the very heart of grace and leads us to the sobering truth.

God isn’t with us because we’re great. God’s chooses to be with us because we’re sinners—we fall short—and we need God’s help to do better.

God isn’t with us to bless what we’re doing. God is with us so that we can become a blessing to others.

What’s in the name?

Some baggage? Yes. But there’s also the high and humble calling to place our trust in God’s goodness rather than in our supposed greatness and to embody the depth of God’s love by becoming ambassadors of God’s mercy and peace at work in the world.

An invitation to receive blessings humbly and to share blessings generously, these are in the name.

What’s in the name Emmanuel?

There’s strength for today and hope for tomorrow in the name Emmanuel.

What’s in the name Emmanuel?

An invitation to receive blessings humbly and to share blessings generously, these are in the name Emmanuel.

And there’s something else, too.

What’s in the name?

Your place in God’s great redemption story—that’s what’s in the name.

Martin Luther expounded on this point when the great reformer preached these words.

The Gospel does not merely teach us about the history of Christ. No, it enables all who believe it to receive it as their own, which is the way the Gospel operates. Of what benefit would it be to me if Christ had been born a thousand times, and it would be daily sung in my ears in a most lovely manner, if I were never to hear that he was born for me and was to be my very own?

[The angel of Christmas] does not simply say, Christ is born, but to you he is born, Neither does he say, I bring glad tidings, but to you I bring glad tidings of great joy.

What’s in the name Emmanuel?

God is in the name.

Our hopes and dreams are in the name.

The Church’s mission is in the name.

And you are in the name, too.

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.” which means, “God is with us.” (Matthew 1: 18-23)

Thanks be to God for this name that is high above all others.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

December 12, 2016

Christmas at John Street Church

Dear Members and Friends of John Street Church,

Holly and ivy grace the sanctuary, the words of ancient prophets center our hearts in worship, and the Advent Wreath glows with increasing brightness; Christmas is coming to John Street Church.

As America’s oldest Methodist congregation prepares to celebrate Jesus’ birth and the light of heaven’s triumph over sin’s darkness, I am pleased to announce the season’s schedule of worship services and special events.

Lights and Sounds of FiDi, Sunday, December 18, 1:00PM

Enjoy the holiday lights and sounds of FiDi with your friends from John Street Church as we stroll through the neighborhood on December 18.

Christmas Eve Service, Saturday, December 24, 7:00PM

Our traditional Christmas Eve Service of Carols, Candlelight, and Holy Communion.

Christmas Day, Sunday, December 25, 11:00AM

A Service of God’s Word & Table for Christmas Day

I also invite you to worship God through giving this season by participating in John Street Church’s Christmas Offering. Gifts given to John Street will bless the church’s ministry to and with the people of New York City and around the world. Please visit our online giving site or deliver your gift to the church by mail or in person.

My earnest prayer is that you and your loved ones experience the beauty of Christmas in new and exciting ways this season. May God’s spirit fill your oldest traditions with renewed vitality, and bless you with a deeper appreciation of the gift given to all of us in Bethlehem so long ago.

I hope you have a Merry Christmas.

Grace & Peace,

Rev. Jason P. Radmacher

Then Came a Time

“White as Snow” is the ninth track on U2’s 2009 album, No Line on the Horizon. According to one critic, “the quietest, most intimate, and arguably most arresting” song the band has ever recorded.

“White as Snow” is a song about dying. Inspired by Sam Mendes’ film Jarhead and William Golding’s novel Pincher Martin, it is Bono’s lyrical attempt to enter the mind of a mortally wounded solider as he breathes his last in Afghanistan.

Setting comforting images of childhood’s carefree moments over and against the stark reality of the young man’s bitter surroundings—contrasting memories of family road trips with this place where “the road refuses strangers”—the song is somber, but not bleak. As in so many of the songwriter’s works, faith makes this distinction possible.

Comingled with memories and pain, the dying man’s final thoughts are of grace and redemption. In a clear allusion to the “Lamb of God” Bono sings,

Once I knew there was a love divine

Then came a time I thought it knew me not

Who can forgive forgiveness where forgiveness is not

Only the lamb as white as snow

The snow-white lamb, then, becomes the soldier’s final quest and ultimate hope.

Rising above the moment, in the end the young man ponders things sublime.

“Where might we find the lamb as white as snow,” he wonders.

“If only a heart could be as white as snow,” he concludes.

It’s really a beautiful lyric.

“White as Snow” is something special musically, too.

Recreating the same somber, but not bleak atmosphere, the song’s simple melody is, in fact, based on “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” the quintessential Advent hymn.

This pairing of music and words makes a powerful combination.

The juxtaposition of a familiar and ancient hymn with a contemporary and soul searching lyric establishes “White as Snow” as a touchstone for us this morning as God’s people.

What, after all, are we about as God’s people if we’re not about holding in tension and making connections between things ancient and things contemporary?

Who are we if we are not a people committed to the belief that the old, old story of God’s love will indeed be realized and made new in the midst of the trials and tribulations we face this day?

Disciples of Jesus Christ understand that making connections like these is essential to the faith we share.

Advent is, of course, the season of the year in which the desire to make such connections directs our focus to the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth a little over two thousand years ago. These are the days to remember angelic visitors, the ministry of prophets, and the way in which God’s power transformed a humble manger into a throne room for a king.

But Advent’s images and ideas, its symbols and slogans, have a way of leading us into an ever deeper past—into an age of loss, exile, and a promised homecoming.

Advent brings to mind the darkest season of the Old Testament era, the Exile of God’s People in Babylon.

Some six hundred years before Jesus’s birth, the armies of Babylon invaded the land once ruled by King David, conquered the holy city of Jerusalem, and destroyed God’s Temple.

After the conquest, Babylon took thousands of Israelites captive and carried them into exile where they languished as strangers in a strange land for decades.

Writings from the Exiles paint a picture of a people who were separated from their land, their homes, everything that that knew and believed, and, some thought, even from God.

“By the rivers of Babylon,” laments Psalm 137, “there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion…How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”

To borrow a phrase, “once the Exiles knew there was a love divine / then came a time they thought it knew them not.”

But it wasn’t so! God had not forgotten the people and the Exile did, in fact, end.

This morning we’ve read words that capture the excitement and hope and joy of preparations for the Exile’s homecoming.

Isaiah 35 describes a once barren land and formerly fainting hearts springing forth in new life as the Lord leads the people home.

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom… Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.

Say to those who are of a fearful heart, "Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you."

Isaiah goes on to describe the path upon which God will lead them back home. It will be a road fit for a king and their experience there will be wholly unlike their forced march to Babylon.
A highway shall be there [in the wilderness], and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God's people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.

No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there.

While on the way to Exile, their cries were ignored, their path unclear, and their lives expendable, but on their way home the people would be dignified, guided, and wanted.
And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
The Exile ended in the year 539BC when Babylon lost a war with Persia and Cyrus the Great of Persia announced that the Israelites were free to go back home. Again, that was a long time before Jesus was born, but after his death and resurrection, Christians found the language of Exile and homecoming to be useful tools for describing their experience, too

A people who knew the sorrow of Jesus’ cross found a connection with the prayers of Exiles who felt abandoned and forgotten.

A people who knew the joy of Easter morning found a connection with those who saw their mourning turn to rejoicing.

And a people who possessed Resurrection faith in a world still dominated by Good Friday forces found a connection with those who held on to God’s promises and covenant as exiles in a foreign land.

The believers who saw how the Spirit could transform hard hearts into caring souls, who recognized that outcasts and marginalized people were welcome in God’s family, who came to believe that God’s love for them was more determinative of their identity than any label they wore, any circumstance they faced, any trial they endured—people like these found a connection with those who left exile behind and walked home with God.

So can we.

What, after all, are we about as God’s people if we’re not about holding in tension and making connections between things ancient and things contemporary?

Who are we if we are not a people committed to the belief that the old, old story of God’s love will indeed be realized and made new in the midst of the trials and tribulations we face this day?

Today, ancient words offer us Good News. In our sorrow and worry, in adversity and sin—in all our seasons of exile—we are neither alone nor forgotten for God is with us—making a way where there was no way, leading us home when we thought we were lost.

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom…[So] strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, "Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.”
Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

December 5, 2016

Alone, I Cannot Be

Before Emily Dickinson took her place in the Pantheon of Great American Writers, the people of Amherst, Massachusetts knew her as the reclusive daughter of one of the town’s long-established families. A letter written by Mabel Loomis Todd—a woman who would go on to have a rather complicated relationship with Emily’s family and work—gives us some insights into Emily’s famous eccentricities.

Loomis Todd wrote,

I must tell you about the character of Amherst. It is a lady whom all the people call the Myth. She is a sister of Mr. Dickinson, [and] seems to be the climax of all the family oddity. She has not been outside of her house in fifteen years, except once to see a new church, when she crept out at night, [and] viewed it by moonlight. No one who calls upon her mother [and] sister ever sees her, but she allows little children once in a great while, [and] one at a time, to come in, when she gives them cake or candy, or some nicety, for she is very fond of little ones. But more often she lets down the sweetmeat by a string, out of a window, to them. She dresses wholly in white, [and] her mind is said to be perfectly wonderful. She writes finely, but no one ever sees her. (qtd. in Wetzsteon xv)
Other sources collaborate and expand upon Loomis Todd’s observations.

It’s true that Emily tended to receive her guests in the dark and often required her conversation partners to stand around corners, behind closed doors, or in another room.

It’s true that she made an odd habit of presenting visitors with a treat or flowers while shyly stating, “This is my introduction.”

It’s true. She was a recluse, of this there is no doubt, yet while she withdrew from so much and so many for so long, in the quiet of her bedroom she wrote poetry that would one day explode across the cultural landscape and live forever.

Scholars continue to debate why Emily Dickinson withdrew for public. Was she ill? Jilted? Oppressed?

While I don’t think that the quest to understand why she lived like she did is entirely fruitless, I don’t think it’s too interesting of a topic either.

Specifically, I think there’s a powerful (and probably sexist) temptation to treat her solitude as a weakness, as a problem to be solved. There’s a temptation to act as through she became a great poet and profound thinker in spite of her seclusion.

However, I’m far more interested in understanding how solitude allowed her to cultivate the habits of mind and spirit that refined her talent and gave shape to her prodigious thinking.

Far from being victimized by the challenges of her life (whatever those challenges were), it seems to me that Emily Dickinson faced them with a remarkable strength forged in the fertile ground of her solitude.

Emily described her solitude’s richness, appropriately enough, in a poem.

Alone, I cannot be—

For Hosts—do visit me—

Recordless Company—

Who baffle Key—

They have no Robes, nor Names—

No Almanacs—nor Climes—

But general Homes

Like Gnomes—

Their Coming, may be known

By Couriers within—

Their going—is not—

For they've never gone—

Emily Dickinson was stronger and wiser and a greater truth-teller because of her solitude.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to people of faith. After all, the Bible reveals solitude to be a verdant space for profound matters of the spirit.

As the revered spiritual director Dallas Willard noted, solitude is “the creation of an open, empty space in our lives by purposefully abstaining from the interaction with other human beings, so that, freed from competing loyalties, we can be found by God.”

In solitude, Moses received his commission as a leader and the revelation of God’s Law.

In solitude, Hannah laid her grief before the Lord.

In solitude, David prayed and raged and praised God.

Even Jesus sought out solitude—a place where he could pray, listen, and be.

God forged the ministry of John the Baptist in solitude, too.

Given the impression that John makes in the Gospels, it’s not a long stretch of the imagination to envision a letter written by an ancient traveler after an encounter with this legendary man.

I must tell you about the character of the Judean wilderness. It’s a man all the people call the Baptizer. He wears camel’s hair clothes and eats locusts and wild honey. He talks a lot about God, but when the preachers and teachers came down from Jerusalem to see him, he called them snakes and said that they were the ones who really needed to get right with God. He preaches like a wild man, but he still draws a crowd.
John was definitely eccentric, of this this is no doubt, but we revere him and his unique ministry, nevertheless, because he pointed to the Humble and Holy One of God who was coming into the own.

Matthew tells us,

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near…I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
And people came to John, and lives were changed through him, and, when the time was right, he baptized Jesus on the margins in the Jordan River.

“Prepare the way of the Lord,” he said.

The high and mighty must be humbled.

The meek and lowly must be lifted up.

The crooked must be changed as we “make his paths straight.”

It’s no accident that John preached a message like this and engaged in a ministry like this from “the wilderness,” because the wilderness, like Emily Dickinson’s room, was a place of solitude in which revelations were tested, refined, confirmed, and delivered.

Solitude allowed John to cultivate the habits of mind and spirit that shaped his unique mission.

Emily Dickinson and John the Baptist—The Myth and the Baptizer—we don’t normally pair these two with each other, but their stories dramatically demonstrate the same spiritual truth.

Our souls crave solitude for, in the words of the Psalms, we are made to be still and know that God is God.

But satisfying this craving is one of the spiritual pilgrim’s greatest challenges, especially at this time of year.

Or maybe the truth about us is that we struggle to be still and practice solitude during the holiday season because we’re really not so good at it the rest of the year either.

Emily’s insights help us chart a better course.

There is a solitude of space

A solitude of sea

A solitude of death, but these

Society shall be

Compared with that profounder site

That polar privacy

A soul admitted to itself—

Finite infinity.

Encouraged by the Myth and the Baptizer, we glimpse how fulfilling and fruitful solitude can be and receive an invitation to take up this sacred calling—to do the holy work of drawing near to the One who is Emmanuel, “God with us.”

Be still and know that God is God.

Go into your solitude, say the sages and saints, and God will meet you there.

Thanks be to God. Amen.