I’m going to begin today with a letter written a few weeks ago by one of our Yearly Meeting staff, Gretchen Baker-Smith:
The day after Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death, my daughter telephoned. Like many of us, she was struggling to find hope and needed to just be heard. After a bit, she asked, "How are you? What are you doing right now?" I answered, "Well, I'm digging potatoes, and listening to the lessons from them." We both laughed, knowing this was no exaggeration.
My mom, the matriarch of the family, has always glowed when talking about digging potatoes. "Every other crop provides evidence that they exist at harvest time," she has always reminded us. "You literally wait for every bit of green showing to have died down before you harvest potatoes, until it looks like there is nothing there. But they're there!"
Because it's too easy to unknowingly pierce them with a spade or fork, I kneel and work with my hands. Feeling rather than seeing, I scoop with my fingers, searching for lovely round shapes too soft to be rocks. As I bring them to the surface, I am amazed and grateful—every time. They really are down there. It is always miraculous.
I'm trying to live this fall with the faith of a farmer (one who is blessed with adequate water, sun, good soil, cool nights, and a reasonably decent back), believing that there are potatoes of holiness even in these very difficult times. It is a season to reach out, to bring them into the light and share them with others hungering for hope, healing, and justice. It's not much different from trying to sense the Inner Light in worship. "Do not be fooled, Gretchen," I am telling myself. "There is more goodness and hope than meets the eye. Get down on your knees and dig."
As I do, I easily find potatoes of holiness—glimmers of Light, hope, compassion—around me. You, dear Friends, are some of them, striving to live into transformation, into wholeness, into right relationships with each other and this beautiful planet. I'm grateful for all the ways you nourish your communities and the wider world—spiritually, physically, emotionally and justly.
Don't lose hope. Take good care of yourselves and each other—but keep going. There's work yet to do and hope yet to be shared. I'm grateful we can do it together.
What a strange Christmas season we’re having without the usual community celebrations happening, without the gatherings with family and friends, with our anxiety over the situation here and worldwide with the pandemic.
Our family is really big on Christmas celebrations. I know that by this time in December I would usually have attended at least 6 Christmas fairs and craft shows, gone to a community Christmas-tree lighting and neighborhood stroll, at least one Festival of Trees, and enjoyed Gardens Aglow at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens. Perhaps there’d have been a parade in there too. I’d have had a little tea party with my daughter Emily, who lives locally, to plan the season’s shared activities and holiday menus, and we’d have gone for our annual Christmas shopping trip together and lunch out. I’d have been preparing for the arrival of other visiting family members, and gradually preparing our big Christmas Eve family feast and party complete with silly games and the whole house lit by candlelight. I would have been connecting with friends, including all of you, for worship and fellowship, and shared meals. And that’s just at this halfway point in December. This year is the most low-key Christmas season I can remember. Seeing some Christmas lights while out driving, swapping some home-made cookies with Emily, having a long-distance games night with our other daughter, Anna, and making a few things to contribute to each of our children’s separate celebrations.
And it’s okay.
I think it’s okay because I know we all feel we are doing what needs to be done to really care for one another and our wider communities and we’re all in agreement about it. There are moments of sadness and I’m sure come Christmas Eve and Christmas Day there’ll be more, but there is also a deep-seated acceptance.
It’s also okay because, as the Grinch discovered, you can’t stop Christmas from coming, especially when you open yourself to what is at its heart.
It’s been quite a year, between the pandemic, the election, and situations in the country which have torn us apart and left us reeling.
And yet, Christmas is coming, as it has even in the darkest of times, with its whispers of hope from the announcing angels.
Father Delp was a Jesuit priest in Germany in the 1940s whose faith compelled him to oppose Hitler and the Nazis. He was arrested and condemned as a traitor. A short time before he was hanged in 1945 he wrote an Advent meditation. Here is a part of it:
How extraordinary that in his situation, in a country gripped by the madness and horror of Nazi Germany, and from a prison cell, this man heard the angels bringing a message of hope. In the face of his own death, Father Delp wrote an Advent meditation, urging the faithful who were still free, to listen more carefully than ever for the life-bringing and life-affirming message of the angels.
Messages from God need not only angels to voice them, but also people to hear them. Often we are too busy and preoccupied, or too scared and in pain, to hear the announcement of good news. But the annunciation of Christmas, the message of God entering into our human condition, is an ongoing event, just as revelation is a continuing and continual process.
This is the kind of year when the annunciation probably won’t happen with a whole choir of angels appearing in the night sky singing in a mighty chorus; it may happen with one small angel whispering the news of hope to us. Our part is to listen, to listen carefully, so that not even those whispers are lost.
Father Delp seems to have come to a similar conclusion. He suggests that in difficult times, our human part in this annunciation drama is critically important: we have to listen, to be ready to hear the good news as it is whispered to a weary world.
We who believe in direct relationship with and experience of the divine, who believe there is “that of God” in every person, who believe in the sacredness of all life, need to listen carefully for the whispers of that sacredness, those evidences of God’s presence in everyone and everything in this world. And we hunger for such evidences with a deep yearning, maybe especially at this time of year.
Frederick Buechner, in his book The Hungering Dark speaks of Advent hunger as a longing for more than just whispers of holiness—a longing for the miraculous to happen; for dramatic and unmistakable evidence of Emmanuel, God with us—a “second coming”:
I know what he means by twisting together those tendrils of hope to get us through the hard times, and also that longing for something miraculous to happen, but I’m not convinced that the deeper yearning, the unsatisfied hunger is the kind of hope that God will unmistakably intervene or that some special Christ-like person will be born.
Other scriptural words from the Epistle to the Hebrews come to my mind:
This is not a desperate hope, a hope for some dramatic thing to happen. It’s a hope that is more like peace or trust; it’s resting in a solid place where there is that of God which can be known. It is the place that lies just beyond the veil in everything that is, and can be experienced within ourselves, within the people around us and in the non-human creatures which surround us. It may be seen, it may be heard and sensed, it may become the world in which we live most truly and fully. Those nourishing potatoes of holiness may be out of view but are just beneath the surface. May we live with the “faith of a farmer” who knows that when all the greenery dies back and nothing is visible on the surface, there is nourishment within the ground of our being.
And as your hands start to feel the shape of what lies beneath, stay on your knees in wonder and gratitude.