Ten of us met at Emmanuel Church at 7:30 am on Tuesday, November 30 for the final gathering in 2010 of what I call “Heretic School” (aka Early Morning BS, aka Early Morning Bible Study). We’ll pick up again in January, 2011. The group ranges from ordained and lay Bible scholars to those of us who are reading at the Biblical equivalent of “See Dick say unto Jane and Spot, ‘You brood of vipers!'” Well, at least that’s where I feel like I am much of the time.
Our text was Matthew 3:1-12:
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”3This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” 4Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
7But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11“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. 12His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
For those of you who haven’t read my previous description of Heretic School, here’s how it works. Our approach is to read the text out loud three times over the course of the hour, with a different person reading each time. After each reading, we have a question to reflect on. After the first reading, the question is “What do you notice?” After the second reading, the question is, “What is speaking to you?” After the final reading, the question is, “How will your week be different as a result of this encounter?” The general consensus within the group, no matter what individuals comprise a particular gathering, is that each time someone reads the text, it is as though we are hearing it anew.
Our discussion on November 30 was lively and fascinating to me. One woman said she couldn’t read the passage without seeing the image of Rodin’s sculpture of John the Baptist in her mind. I quickly searched through my mental archives and drew a complete blank.
One man said he couldn’t read the passage without hearing sections from Handel’s “Messiah.” Immediately, the line from the aria “for He is like a refiner’s fire” began booming though my brain.
One man reminded us that Advent, which began on November 28, marks the Christian New Year. He added, “So we don’t have to wait until January for the new year. It’s already here! And not a moment too soon. I’m glad to have last year behind me.” Amen to that, buddy.
One man mentioned that he found the first half of the reading much more hopeful than the second half. That had been my response in the beginning, but by the third reading, I had completely shifted. By the end of the hour, I was feeling immense relief when reflecting on the separation of the wheat and the chaff, and the unquenchable fire. Something about the repetition had made me read the last sentence not as a reference to some of us who are wheat and some of us who are chaff, but rather as a reference to the wheat and the chaff that’s in each of us. And wouldn’t it be great, I thought, to surrender the chaffy, indigestible (and indigestion-producing) parts of myself to an unquenchable fire.
Now, I’ve burned my fingers, hands, and arms numerous times on ovens, grills, irons, steam from boiling water, etc. Once when I was about 10, on a dare from my brothers and some neighborhood boys, I held a lit smoke bomb until it got so hot that I had to drop it. When I looked down at my hand, my thumb was on fire. Yes, Internets, tiny thumb-sized flames were shooting up from the tip of it. I stubbed it out in the grass as if it were a cigar.
What I’m saying is that I have a lot of experience with minor burns. Among other things, I know that the recovery can be more painful than the burn itself. If you’re lucky, your skin grows back, but often it grows back tighter and more fragile, with varying degrees of scarring. Despite knowing (and experiencing) all this, the thought of watching my chaffy bits going up in flames seems incredibly appealing to me.
My other evolution with regard to our study text was around the whole “prepare the way” line. The conventional wisdom around “preparing the way of the Lord” seems to be that we need to make it easy for God to get to us. This makes no sense to me, but I’m willing to believe that I’m getting caught up in a semantical tar pit.
But really, this is a God who in verse nine is “able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” Sooo, Mister Scripture Writer, you’re telling me that the same God who can raise up children to Abraham from the zillions of stones that litter the Judean desert, can’t manage move some of those same not-yet-children-to-Abraham-stones out of the way to get to me? What sort of Ruler of the Universe is this? I mean, even Superman can atomize boulders with his laser vision!
I’ve been listening a lot to the new album by the “supergroup” called Fistful of Mercy, formed by Dhani Harrison, Joseph Arthur, and Ben Harper. One song I’ve been riveted by is the song they named after themselves. The line “Maybe it’s soft inside of hard” has worn its own little groove in my cells, probably because I need to believe that somewhere inside this unfathomably hard year of 2010 is something soft, delicate, and new.
I’ve also been drawn to the lyric “Maybe it comes from where we are, the land of the thirsty and hungry.” Then I went to 2010’s last morning of Heretic School, and spent an hour reflecting on the advancing darkness of winter, the season of Advent, and how thirsty and hungry I am for a new year, a clean slate, a jubilee, a de-chaffing.
As I sat in that circle with ten other thirsty and hungry people, discussing the locust-eating prophet known as John the Baptist, the lyric “Maybe it’s soft inside of hard” suddenly seemed to be about preparing the way. Maybe preparing the way is a mystical Adventy euphemism for a kind of internal baby-proofing.
At the end of Advent, we celebrate the arrival of a particularly special baby with what is essentially an annual combination baby shower and birthday party. No wonder conspicuous consumption abounds. But what if the soft inside of hard is the baby in each of us that’s waiting to be born in the land of the thirsty and hungry? Maybe preparing the way has to do with making room for a soft, delicate, new baby to live within us, right there in the midst of our hardest corners and sharpest edges.
If we have the space, preparing the way can mean fixing up a whole new room, just for that new baby. But really, in the beginning at least, all we need to do is empty a drawer. And it wouldn’t hurt to lock up or dispose of our poisons, either. Or surrender them to unquenchable fire.