Visions Of Things Not Seen
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
What struck me about the letters was what they revealed about my growing up, about the rich texture of love and expectation which surrounded me when I was 18.
I found the letters a few months ago in a box of things moved from place to place for decades, and which I now was determined to throw away. There were at least one hundred of them, all from the years of the second world war. They were letters which I had written home, which my brother had written home, and letters to me from my parents, brother and sister, friends, school teachers, and from a few members of my home congregation. In one letter, my brother reported that he had sold his goats. Another letter, from the same brother, was written on the deck of a troop ship, off the beach at Iwo Jima.
There was not much about God in these letters, and yet the presence of God was the paper on which every line was written. We were that kind of family. We talked about football, because my father was a coach, but not much talk about God, though God and Christ and the Church were the foundations on which our common life was built. Prayer before meals, our garden part supply for the Pastor's table, and attendance at services no matter how deep the snow, and no matter how ridiculous the hour. (Every special service was, I think, at 6 a.m.)
We did not talk much about love, either, and we certainly never decided that we wanted to be a loving family. There are no embarrassing intimacies in these letters. But line by line the letters reveal that there was an expectation.
The expectation was that, although separated by college and then by war, each of us would be a certain kind of person. Whether written from parents to sons, or sons to parents, from a friend or from a teacher, the expectation was that some basic things about us would not change. Whether we remained at home, or went to places where the old moralities need not apply, some basic things within us would not change.
I would be hard pressed to prove to your satisfaction that the love and expectations which these letters disclose were shaped and nurtured by the church, but I believe it to be true. How could these scrawled notes from a USO, these formal letters signed "Dad," how could they have anything to do with confirmation classes in the church basement, or with the long sermons by Pastor Henklemann, with the ice cream social or the Easter sunrise service in the cemetery? But I believe it to be true; the tapestry which is my life was woven on the warp and woof of remembed images. The plain brick church stained dark by the wind and rain of decades was part of it, and so were the images of townspeople kneeling to receive the Bread and Wine, of ushers lighting the candles with strike-anywhere matches, the mournful warning of a train as it approached a nearby crossing, and all the marvelous stories of prodigals returning home, of lepers healed, of seas parting to let the captives go free. These were the things which shaped the patterns of love and expectation which the long forgotten letters now revealed.
As our text for the day reports concerning Jesus' baptism, the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form, as a dove, and a voice came from heaven, "Thou art my beloved Son, with thee I am well pleased." In bodily form, always in bodily form, God comes to us in the form of prophets crying out in the wilderness. God comes to us in the form of Jesus Christ, in the words of Christ, the healing touch, and crucifixion of Christ. The Holy Spirit came in the form of a dove. The Spirit comes looking nothing at all like God, or Christ, or the Spirit. The form of God becomes stained glass windows portraying androgynous saints in long robes and the memorial names of our forbearers. The Spirit takes the sound of a bell, the reeds and trumpets of the organ. God comes in the smell of a church shut up for a week, the sight of long robes, in the hope that the choir will be able to complete the anthem. The form is hard candy dropped on the bare floor on a Christmas Eve. God comes as scripture read and preached with all its grace and thunder. Almighty God, and the Son of God, manifest in the sights and sounds of a congregation at prayer and at play. This is the dove we see, the vine into which we are grafted. In such ordinary things God comes to claim and to shape our lives.
It would be foolish to assume that it has been the same for you, or that it will ever again be the same for anyone. There are few goats for sale in the city where I live, and the 1940s will never return. Life is just different, and those of us who are older must acknowledge the change. Moreover, you may not have grown up in the church. Your life may have been shaped more by affluence than by stained glass windows, more by Vietnam than by ice cream socials, more by family troubles than by warm expectations.
It is nevertheless true that those things which we honor, which we cherish in ourselves, do not arise out of nothing. The capacity to love and be loved is not sustained by thin air and no water. The acts of caring, of commitment in marriage, the capacity to affirm life rather than to be cynical, to heal rather than to mutilate the artistry of human encounter, all these high hopes and expectations are not self-generated, nor are they sustained by pious wishes. They grow, whether we begin early or late, they grow out of a vine into which we allow ourselves to become grafted. They are sustained and nurtured by the voices of those who have been to far places and seen visions, sustained by water which refreshes, sustained by faith's disciplines.
Our love grows from being loved. Our acts of love are shaped by the love and teachings of the One who proclaims in His life a hope planted in us from earth's beginning. We respond, not with arguments, but with awe and with a new desire to share, even for a moment, the nobility and gentleness of a world which we have never seen, but recognize and embrace with longing.
We do not touch God. We neither touch nor see the Christ of God. What we touch are small things which are tokens of great mysteries. What we touch are imperfect things which give clues to that which is perfect. What we touch is a present reality which bids us to remember the glory of God and to rejoice in the promise of God. Sometimes, as at the Baptism of Jesus, there is a voice, and the Spirit does take the form of a dove. But more often what we see are multicolored windows and a woman at prayer. What we hear is a bell, the words of a preacher, the cry of a child. And none of these things is God, but they become to us the present things by which we lean toward that which is holy and listen to the One whose love is the length and breadth, the height and depth of all that really matters.
We take into our hands and inmost persons the supper of the Lord, we submit to the disciplines of snowy Sunday mornings, the beauty of music more to be desired than heard, of children squirming and meetings too long. We submit ourselves to the disciplines of returning good for evil, of holding our tongues, of speaking when love should speak and when justice requires it. We allow ourselves to suffer under high expectations. We do all of this, not because these things are love's perfection, not because they are the God we seek, but we do them, because they are the small and present moments, places and things in which God takes bodily form and by which we are gathered into a future which holds promise for ourselves and for our children.
When I had read the hundred or so letters, discovered after almost half a century, I knew something which I did not know when I was 18. I knew that I did not just come from what is called "a good family." The letters reveal a tapestry of love and expectation which was woven over a period of years, woven of the yarns of countless small disciplines, a tapestry of ordinary things within which the Holy Spirit came in myriad forms revealing God in the sights and sounds, in the seasons, of a quite ordinary congregation in an ordinary town.
Maybe it was easier then, back in the `40's, the war years, easier in my small town. But I am convinced that even now, in my present city, a city of streetcars, jackhammers, and large fires, a city of single people and single parent families, that even here it is the same. Holiness adheres to faith's everyday disciplines and faith is nurtured in the midst of modest preaching and common prayer. As at Jesus' baptism, the Holy Spirit takes visible form. Happy are those who see more than a bird.
John W. Vannorsdall Protestant Hour