Looking for News in All the Wrong Places

BAPTISM OF OUR LORD

Isaiah 42:1-9

Psalm 29

Acts 10:34-43

Matthew 3:13-17

Prayer of the Day: O God our Father, at the baptism of Jesus you proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit. Make all who are baptized into Christ faithful to their calling to be our daughters and sons, and empower us all with your Spirit, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
   my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
   he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
   or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
   and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
   he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
   until he has established justice in the earth;
   and the coastlands wait for his teaching. Isaiah 42:1-4.

There is plenty of crying out these days, not only in the streets, but over the airwaves and throughout the worldwide web. Many of these cries are urgent, warning of imminent destruction to our democracy, our environment and the economy. Others spread outlandish conspiracy theories. Some peddle miracle cures for chronic ailments, fool proof strategies for getting rich quick, instant weight loss programs and just about anything else that will sell. Of course, in every election cycle there is no shortage of promises-along with a good deal of mudslinging-trumpeted by political candidates crying out and vying for our votes. Sadly, there are voices crying out in politics, religion and entertainment that prey upon our basest instincts, appealing to the sickness of racial hate and white resentment so deeply impressed on the American psyche. In all of this crying out and screaming, how is the “teaching” for which the coastlands wait to be heard? Who will even notice the servant of the Lord’s strong but quiet voice?

Social media gets the blame for a lot of what ails our public discourse these days. While there is no denying that the internet has been used to promote violent and hateful ideologies, incite mob violence and spread dangerous falsehoods, the same is true for radio, television and old fashioned print media. On the other side of the ledger, there are positive aspects of social media that should be recognized. For one thing, social media gives a voice to many people previously left out of public discourse. Blogging opens up an avenue for ordinary people who believe they have much to contribute, but lack the social contacts, time and resources to “get published” on traditional media gain a public audience. That has contributed to diversity of opinion and new perspectives in the public square. I also note that online discussions level the playing field between extroverts used to controlling the direction and flow of discourse and introverts who find it hard to get a word in edgewise. Discussions online allow for one to pause, reflect and respond in ways more thoughtful than would be possible in the heat of in person conversations. (Though, to be sure, far too few take advantage of this opportunity!). Still, we are left with the question: how in this cacophonous tangle of chatter is the voice of the Lord to be heard?

It may be that the public square, real or virtual, is not the place where one ought to be listening for God’s Word. Perhaps you need to get away from the noise of the public square in order to hear what God is saying. That, in any event, is how the voice of the Lord makes its first appearance in the gospels. John the Baptist appears “in the wilderness.” His voice is not heard in the precincts of the Temple in Jerusalem or in the Roman senate. Yet his voice pulled people from the orbit of those centers of power to the margins of imperial society where God’s reign was beginning to dawn.

Profound change often begins in small ways and outside the focus of network news. A small congregation in the Midwest was approached by a youth leader with a request to use the sanctuary’s basement to meet with children and teens experiencing bullying at school. Such a request would have been uncontroversial-except that the children were transgender/non gender conforming. The council of this conservative rural congregation was skeptical-until the youth leader began to share some of the stories of individual children and the pain they were enduring. “Hell,” said one member of the council. “No kid should be treated like that! I don’t see a problem with giving them a safe place to be-if that’s all it is.”

At first, the group of young people met on a weekday afternoon where their paths seldom crossed with members of the church. But then one day when some women from the congregation came down to prepare for the annual Christmas fair, they discovered the young people meeting in the basement. They shared some of the cookies they had baked with the children who, in turn, were glad to assist in setting up for the event. The next day, a group of teens from the group showed up to help the trustees set up the church’s Christmas decorations. Through occasions of camaraderie like these, relationships were built, hearts opened and minds changed. Over time, the church became known as an open, welcoming community.   

Public discussion and debate may be essential for a healthy democracy, but they seldom change minds. I never met anyone whose mind was changed by a single speech, sermon or tweet. In fact, I seldom see minds changed at all. That is because it is usually such a slow process. Minds change direction more like aircraft carriers than hydroplanes. A gentle nudge against a great ocean liner might not seem significant at first. But it has the potential to affect a dramatic change in the ship’s trajectory that will only become evident miles out to sea. Small, incremental changes, like ones seen in that little midwestern congregation, are happening all over the place. They just don’t get much coverage by the networks that are crying out and trying to tell us what is news, what matters and to what we should be paying attention. If you allow yourself to be distracted by the headlines you can wind up missing the real news happening out in the wilderness, or among squatters in a stable or in the darkness of a tomb.  

Here is a poem by Mary Oliver that reflects the same wisdom and attentiveness that could have inspired John the Baptist during his wilderness sojourning and given birth to his conviction that the reign of God was dawning.

Morning at Great Pond

It starts like this:

forks of light

slicking up

out of the east,

flying over you,

and what’s left of night-

its black waterfalls,

its craven doubt,

dissolves like gravel

as the sun appears

trailing clouds

of pink and green wool,

igniting the fields,

turning the ponds

to plates of fire.

The creatures there

are dark flickerings

you make out

one by one

as the light lifts-

great blue herrons

wood ducks shaking

their shimmering crests-

and knee deep

in the purple shallows

a deer drinking;

as the turns

the silver water

crushes the silk

shaking the sky,

and you’re healed then

from the night, your heart

wants more, you’re ready

to rise and look!

to hurry anywhere!

to believe in everything.

Source: American Primitive, Oliver, Mary, (c. 1983 by Mary Oliver; pub. by Black Bay Books/Little, Brown and Company) p. 46-47. Mary Oliver was born in 1935 in Maple Heights, Ohio. She was deeply influenced by poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay. Her work received early critical attention with the 1983 publication of a collection of poems entitled American Primitive. She is a recipient of both the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the National Book Award. You can read more about Mary Oliver and sample some of her other poems at the Poetry Foundation Website.

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