I had an experience this year that would have fit with Advent. It happened, however a full four weeks earlier, in the beginning of November. It was a very deep experience, and it felt like someone telling me to let go and to sit back, to follow him and to reflect – without an Advent candle for a change. This happened at the Warwick Conference Center of our Regional Synod, in the midst of beautiful hills still painted in the colors of fall, clear brooks, and an incredibly full moon in the clear nocturnal sky – all only a few hours north of the metropolitan area in the southern part of NY State. It was a retreat with John Bell from the island of Iona in Scotland.
If you have never heard of the Iona Community before, here is your chance. For mainline Protestants trying to re-imagine the traditional church, there are two important monasteries in the old world: TaizÃ© in France, and Iona in Scotland. Both have blessed us with great liturgical reforms and a heightened sense for social justice; both are role models for the ecumenical Church, including Protestants, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians.
John Bell, pastor of the (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland, is a very important songwriter, composer and international ambassador of the Iona Community. Yet his presence in Warwick portrayed nothing but gentle support for the work of us music directors, pastors and worship leaders gathered there. Johnâ€™s red shoes and his down-to-earth Scottish accent were the only things that distinguished him at first sight; this a cappella man had not even brought a guitar.
His minimalism spoke to us immediately. Did we not all have congregations at home with concerns for the future, lacking resources, too few people and not enough break-through ideas? Certainly, there were exceptions. Yet, largely we looked at him, and we knew he told our story, sang our song. Let me give you a few examples:
We want to be an inclusive church. John started by saying how wrong it is to tell a person that he or she cannot sing, and shared how this happened even to him a long time ago.
We also want to be a politically aware church. John taught us to sing If the War Goes On to the tune of Road to Basra.
We want to be a church where inclusive language is not justlip service. John sang of the Mothering God, using words of the 14th century mystic, Julian of Norwich. Then he taught us Women and Men as God Intended and There Is a Line Women.
Last but not least, we want to be a global church, and John gave us Ewe Thina from South Africa, Blest Be God from Pakistan, and Ka Manaâ€™Oâ€™Iâ€™O from Hawaii.
I returned home with a wealth of new material and the certain feeling that I had encountered someone who pointed me new into the direction of Christ. Is this not what John the Baptist did at his time, when he announced Christ? John announced him in Warwick, and through this, we entered Advent, four weeks ahead of time.
It does not always have to be a special event like a retreat with John Bell. I wonder, however, whether this Advent season will bring you also the opportunity to let go and sit back. Will you encounter someone to follow and to reflect on what this past year might mean in the light of Christ coming again? Will you find inner renewal and a sense of direction in this ever-different world of change? I hope you do, and send you Advent greetings from First Reformed Church.
Your Pastor ~ Hartmut