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At Heaven's Gate: An Advent Meditation

Among the readings we associate with Advent are these words from the prophet Zepheniah, depicting a day of celebration. "The Lord is in your midst, God will rejoice over you with gladness, ....as on a day of festival." (Zeph. 3:14-20) This is an exceptional image, for it paints a God who is not so serious or so powerful as to stand above and apart from the people. This God appears in the midst of the people, taking part in their exuberant celebration.

Trying to capture the power of this passage, a colleague writes. "The image I have is of God as a rabbi at a Jewish wedding lifted on the shoulders of the dancing guests celebrating the union of the bride and groom." Calls to rejoice and celebrate are frequent in scripture, but the image of God actually stepping up to share in our human celebration, dancing, if you will at a wedding reception, is rare.

It's rare, and I fear it may be too simple. For in the midst of good times, it's relatively easy to celebrate. Whereas the true test of faith is whether we can celebrate when things are not going according to plan. It was this way for the Apostle Paul when he wrote his letter to the Philippians. It was during a time of mounting persecution. Paul had already been arrested, and was being held in a Roman prison, and he was writing a letter of consolation to the little church in Philippi. Paul knew that hard times were coming for such small clusters of Christians all across the empire. But he wanted to share with them a word of encouragement, so he wrote: "Have no anxiety about anything, but ... with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God which passes all human understanding, will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus."

"Have no anxiety about anything....."
....Easier said than done!

The peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding. This is the source of the joy we feel in God's presence. And it's a joy that can come when we least expect it, even in the face of circumstances which would not appear to give much reason for rejoicing. Perhaps that's the difference between true joy and mere happiness. It was so for Jesus when he shared his last moments with his disciples - and he knew that death was waiting in the wings, but still he said to them: "These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full." He said this at the supper which he knew would be his last; he knew he would be leaving them very shortly, yet the one thing he wanted them to remember him by at the moment of separation was the joy. As Fred Buechner puts it, "Happiness turns up more or less where you'd expect it to be -- a good marriage, a rewarding job, a pleasant vacation. Joy, on the other hand, is as notoriously unpredictable as the one who bequeaths it."

But when God comes a calling on us, all our occasions shall dance for joy. That's what the apostle discovered even as he sat there in his lonely prison cell. God came dancing down the corridors of that dreary prison and filled him with a peace which did surpass all human understanding.

Which brings me back to the beginning, to the lesson from Zephaniah, which pictures God dancing in the midst of the people. When I shared this image with a friend the other day, it sparked her memory and inspired her to tell her story. She has graciously given me permission to share it with you in the hope that it might help someone else. It speaks to the kind of joy we are discussing here. The person of whom I speak is now in her mid eighties, but when she heard about the God who could dance at a wedding, she was inspired to tell the story of her divorce, which happened some forty years ago. It followed ten years of pain in a difficult marriage. During that whole time her husband was involved in a series of love affairs, and would not, or could not, give the habit up. For ten years she struggled to make the marriage work, keeping the vows, she thought, for better, or for worse. And there was their nine year old daughter. ... Wouldn't it be better for her sake to hold the family together? Finally she discovered that her husband had fathered a child with another woman. After days of painful conversation and reflection, she graciously offered to take the child in, and raise it as her own, it would be her child too. Her husband scoffed at the idea. "He laughed in my face."

"He laughed in my face."

That was more than she cold take. She decided to make the break, taking her daughter to a tropical island, where it was possible to get a divorce, simply by filing papers after six weeks of residency. Mother and daughter registered at an inn with a heavy metal fence out front, and a large, imposing gate; there was a hand-painted sign outside which read: "Heaven's Gate." Hoping for some words of healing in a time of painful transition, she brought with her a copy of Mary Baker Eddy's Science and Health. Not exactly the sort of book most of us would take with us to that proverbial deserted island. But when times are tough, we sometimes reach out for straws. And in any case, she wanted to use this time to make some decisions about the future and if possible, to get closer to God. Maybe Mary Baker Eddy cold help. Unfortunately, the book was a bust.

Heaven's Gate was another story. Lovely inn-keepers, with a nine year old daughter. A flock of other folk, come to the same island to end failed relationships, all presented the opportunity to share their stories, and begin new friendships. There was a lawyer from Washington State; a swarthy German from St Louis.

My friend and her daughter became very close to the inn-keepers and their daughter. In the days they explored the island and its lovely beaches, swimming at crescent bays lined with tamarind trees; at night, they listened to the music of the steel band, shared long dinners with the other guests, dancing with the governor of the island, black and white together. And the German began to take some interest in my friend. "He was so good looking and so gracious to me, I felt like a real person again. I really blew my top!," she finishes the story with a flurry, throwing her hands up in delight, a tremendous look of glee spreading across her face in the sheer joy of the memory, reveling in the feelings of that hour even though it happened more than forty years ago.

And in this story of joy and liberation, there is God, The Spirit, dancing in pleasure and in delight to the music of the steel band, alongside the woman who is feeling truly free for the first time in ten long years. And she finds God, not in the book of theology, but in the food, and the dancing, and the good times with her daughter, and the friendship, and the love, all of which are cause for great rejoicing! As surprising and as delightful as the one who bequeaths them. God celebrating not in the consummation of a marriage, but in the discovery that real joy is possible once again for a middle age woman and her daughter even in the pain of betrayal and divorce. At Heaven's Gate.

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At Heaven's Gate

As Paul indicates in his letter to the Philippians, we are to rejoice, not just in the good times, but in all times. And when things are seeming rather hopeless, and when even a holiday like Christmas seems to have lost its luster, we can still rejoice in the Lord. In closing his epistle to the Philippians, Paul gives this formula, not for mere happiness, but for the deep joy that comes from God. When times are difficult, and when the bad things seem to be getting the better of you, then suggests the apostle, think on these things: "whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the peace of God which surpasses all human understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, Rejoice."

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.