The One True Thing
In the Charles household, Uncle Willy was the family enigma. No one knew him very well because he kept to himself and he surfaced occasionally, mainly for a holiday meal. Southern manners dictate that you sit at the dinner table until all have finished their meal. For Uncle Willy, though, even the most fervid, table manners legalists would insist on breaking that rule. In fact, most holiday meals with Willy resembled a college fast-food eating contest, because our family rule was that the last person with food still on their plate had to “keep Willy company.” If you were that last person, you could be staring at turkey remains for hours!
It was not just that Uncle Willy was an excruciatingly slow eater; he was. It was more about the bizarre things he would say at the table. The family would be laughing about a recent event, and all the while, Willy kept a sober face. When the laughing would subside enough for him to be heard, he would interject, “You know, this will be our last family meal. The time has come.” No one at the table would take that bait. No one dared to ask Willy, “What time has come?” because everyone knew that it would only get more bizarre from there.
Now, you may be wondering where Gary is going with this family story. The answer is easy enough, for every year on the second Sunday of Advent, Matthew’s Uncle Willy comes to church, the person that you and I know as John the Baptist. Imagine this phone call. Jim and Sarah, relatively new members to Cove call our clerk Marilee and ask if she thinks Gary would be willing to baptize their baby. And, without so much as a pause, Marilee replies, “You brood of vipers! How dare you ask me that question?” That’s how good ole Uncle John addresses his adoring public gathered round the Jordan. And, yet, every Advent, the church insists that we listen to Uncle John before we travel to bucolic Bethlehem.
Why? Why must we hear from this gloomy hermit during this festive season? “Maybe we ask him back each year,” suggests Robert Elder, “because just when we are at our liveliest, we most need to be reminded of his message.”
So, what is Uncle John’s message? In her novel, One True Thing, Anna Quindlen, tells the story of a successful young female executive whose star is on the rise. Then, she learns that her mother has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Her father shames her into quitting her job, and with more obligation than joy, Ellen returns home to care for her dying mother and troubled father. Unexpectedly, though, her life is transformed by this unwelcome interruption in her fast track career.
When her mother dies, she says this to her younger brother: “We made her simpler after she was dead. No, that’s not true, either. We’d made her simpler all her life, simpler than her real self. We’d made her what we needed her to be. We’d made her ours, our one true thing. It’s all anyone wants, really, to make life simple.” There are few greater longings than the longing for life to be simple, especially in this season. We Christians want the Bible to be simple, to say one thing and only one thing. We want none of this Jesus double-talk of “You have heard it said, but I say.” We want complex moral issues delivered to our doors with all parts required so we can solve them like we would solve a simple math formula. We want the church to provide stimulating sermons, inspiring music, festive fellowship, bold outreach, and to do so without sullying our worship time with talk of money.
Much of our longing for a simple existence is nostalgia gone wild. We long for a day when life was less out of control, when doctors knew your name, when pharmacies had soda fountains and made milkshakes with real cream and no one had ever heard of “Weight Watchers.” We long for the day when everyone in town dressed up and went to church on Sunday, when we could catch a plane at the last minute and do so without undressing, when wars were declared “over” and most of the troops actually came home.
This longing for simpler times can cause sketchy memories. “They were also days in which black men were strung up from tall trees,” writes Anna Quindlen, “[in which] women poured caustic cleansers inside themselves rather than face pregnancy, and nobody talked about daddy’s drinking.”
You and I may long for a black and white world, a simple existence, but life has never come in that flavor. In fact, Uncle John’s message is directed to anyone trying to escape into a simplistic land, who just wants to decorate the house, spice the eggnog, hang the lights and sing, “Tis the season to be jolly.” John says, “Life is not that simple. Never has been! Celebrate and be glad, if you will, but celebrate only if you’re ready to make life ‘jolly’ for all God’s children!”
John is no coddler. He doesn’t dish out simplistic advice for those who are looking for a spiritual band-aid. He doesn’t say, “Now, now, you aren’t really that bad after all.” No, John looks out at this group of Jewish blue bloods, and says, “You brood of vipers.”
At the river, some people ask John, “What shall we do?” He doesn’t say, “Pray morning, noon, and night.” “Keep your sanctuaries free of all undesirables!” No, he shouts, “Repent.” Words like “repent,” “sin,” “redemption,” “guilt,” “confession,” litter the landscape of Advent. You can’t walk through this season without stumbling over at least one of these words.
In my favorite old comic strip, Doonesbury, the Reverend explains the philosophy of his “Little Church of Walden” to some prospective new members. The Reverend says, “I like to describe it as 12-step Christianity. Basically, I believe that we’re all recovering sinners. My ministry is about overcoming denial, it’s about recommitment, about redemption. It’s all in the brochure there.”
“Wait a minute – sinners? Redemption?” asks the wife, “Doesn’t that imply guilt?”
“Well, yes,” says the Reverend, “I do rely on the occasional disincentive to keep the flock from going astray. Guilt’s a part of that.”
“I dunno,” says the husband, “there’s so much negativity in the world as it is.”
“That’s right,” adds the wife, “We’re looking for a church that’s supportive, a place where we can
feel good about ourselves. I’m not sure the guilt thing works for us.”
“On the other hand,” comments the husband, “you do offer racquetball.”
“So did the Unitarians, honey,” retorts the wife. “Let’s shop around some more.”
Shop where you will and close your eyes to the sober notes of Advent if you must, but John’s cry of repentance is relentless. Advent is not about finding a mythical past or reducing life to its simplest moral denominator. Advent is about an unwelcome hermit appearing at the river’s edge and crying out, “Repent” or in Tennyson’s more eloquent words, “Ring out the want, the care, the sin, The faithless coldness of the times . . . Ring out false pride in place and blood, The civic slander and the spite” (from Christmas and New Year Bells).
Uncle John prepares us not for Santa who will fill our well-honed list of what we want and hardly need. He prepares us for Advent, the season when we go looking for one thing, and then, by God’s grace, find the one true thing. John prepares us to wait for something more substantial than a simplistic life, free of moral ambiguity, rid of doubts and questions, laden with self-righteous certitude.
To those tired of needy people who always want more than they need or deserve, John says, “Not caring for the needy is an offense to our God.” To a world weary of reports of soldiers and civilians blown to pieces on the streets of Kviv, John says, “Not working for peace is an insult to the One you call `the Prince of Peace’.”
“It’s all anyone wants, really, to make life simple.” Quindlen’s protagoist gives up her simple formula for success and enters into the complex life of her mother’s suffering and her father’s brokenness. She gives up everything that mattered to her, and though Quindlen does not use religious terms, in that loving sacrifice, Ellen finds the one true thing.
Advent can never begin without a visit from good ole Uncle John sitting at the dinner table, interrupting our festive laughter with a cry to “repent.” Advent can never begin without clearing out the clutter in our souls, making way for our Savior to make us whole people, compassionate people, just people, loving people. In W.H. Auden’s, “The Vision of the Shepherds,” the angels announce the glad news of the child born in Bethlehem. To this news, the shepherds respond, “Let us run to learn, How to love and run; Let us run to Love. Let us run to learn, How to love and run; Let us run to Love.”
I am not sure what you are looking for this Advent season, but I know what I hope you will find. I hope you and I will find Uncle John sitting at the Christmas table, nudging his way into our thoughts and ways and through Uncle John we might find the One who leads the way, is the truth, who casts light upon our darkest nights and most gruesome secrets, equips us to love the most unlovely among us and within us, and who interrupts our quest for certainty to introduce us to the one true thing.
If we do nothing else this Advent, “Let us run to Love.”
Let us run to the one true thing.