Three times since the early death of my father, when I was five and before my memories could take root, I have dreamed of him: once in college, once at a church convention in 2003, and last week while I slept in the hills of Alabama. He was an Episcopal priest and I have loved carrying on his legacy of serving the church and loving the sacraments. In the most recent dream, we were together in the sacristy at St. Augustine’s Chapel where we keep all the vestments, candlesticks, and wine and where I have worked setting up altars for more than 20 years. When I picked up the two candlesticks my father’s old mission church had given to the chapel years ago, my father showed me that hidden inside the candlestick base were wads of lamb’s wool that he had stored long ago. Lamb’s wool is the traditional fiber that priests use to apply dabs of healing oil while administering the sacraments. When I took out the wool, another older man was in the sacristy with us. He had tears welling up in his eyes and my father gave me permission to take the wool and dry his tears.
Two months ago I was asked by the University of Virginia to write a chapter for a book about forgotten saints in the American Church. I was assigned a man whom I had never heard of named William Stringfellow. He was a lay activist and lawyer who, after the death of his lifelong friend/collaborator and roommate of decades, wrote a book about grief—detailing how it spurs us into intense theological reflection about living in the now. He wrote how Jesus should be integral to the conversation about the state of injustices and theological issues that are before us. He wrote about the idolatry of racism, patriotism, our love of work and money, and our idolatry of the church and that “Nothing seems more bewildering to a person outside the Church about those inside the Church than the contrast between how Christians behave in society and what Christians do in the sanctuary.”
William was a tireless crusader who housed the Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, and the Jesuit priest, Daniel Berrigan, when they visited New York in the 1960s. He fought for peace and human rights, and stood with those living in poverty. There is debate over whether Stringfellow and his friend had been lovers, but there is no debate that Stringfellow denounced homophobic practices in the church as a sin the institution needed to lay to rest. I have struggled with some of his line of thinking and overly simplistic views of how to solve economic, racial and political injustices, but I knew that the man in my dream whose eyes I was anointing with my father’s lamb’s wool, were William’s eyes.
The gift of this dream and of learning about William Stringfellow as a dissenter within the church have made the path in the wilderness a bit straighter for me as we wind our way through another season of Advent. The path is made by a balm in the wilderness of Gilead in which we can find healing beneath the golden candles that mark our altars and institutions. The prophets and John call us today to follow a haling path that leads us hope. When I think of stringfellow loving the world and the church and yet never being able to be fully himself within the institution, my heart aches for him. We can’t count the number of saints who have lived quietly in closets or feared judgment by calling for full inclusion within the body of Christ. I have seen inspiring gay and lesbian candidates for ordination in many churches go into exile to find a space to discern their calls. I have witnessed faithful members of congregations in all denominations seek the help of outside pastors in order to marry. In my twenty years at this chapel, I have heard heartbreaking stories about the painful struggle of men and women trying to unite their sexuality and spirituality, yet remain within the body of the church. I can see their eyes tear and don’t possess the wool to wipe them away. In my dream the healing balm in the lamb’s wool, tucked beneath the light, is compassion bestowed with a fearless love for all people. It makes sense to me that the bearer of the healing wool was my father, whose only line of preaching I know is from a slip of paper that read, “In the shadow of his cross may your soul find rest.” We are called to love and heal in the midst of the shadows of our own suffering and the suffering in the world. Whether we are talking about the suffering from the violence of war, economics, or oppression, always we are called to look beneath the golden, shiny candles adorning altars to find healing in the wilderness. Without loyalty to love, an institution holds little light. The lambs wool reminds us that the ethics we are called to practice are not about applying some abstract notion of moral righteousness, but about obedience to a God who loves all creation.
The reading from Baruch is from the Apocrypha, the intertestamental writings. Baruch was the scribe of Jeremiah who spoke to a congregation in crisis and exile. He pronounced to the community that no one has power over you. If you didn’t polish the candlesticks, you would see how tarnished they are. You have nothing to fear, even in a world with terror, refugees, war, injustice, and trafficking. You are part of the vision of love, called to be unwavering in your commitment to seeing a kingdom where the hills are made low for all people to cross, where the valleys are raised up for all people to gather. John the Baptist picks up Baruch’s cry in his own wildernerness and says, “'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth.” This is the first Advent I have read this passage and wondered about the timber of John’s cry. In this reading it doesn’t sound angry, although I am sure there was some anger there. In this passage his cry doesn’t sound like a lament, but I am sure there was loneliness out there reading Baruch and listening for God’s voice. John’s cry to me sounds like a song of hope, sung to the tune of “There is a Balm in Gilead" with a chorus of “What Wondrous Love.” It is a cry that calls out to all people that we can prepare a highway for love, for our children, and their children. We don’t have to get discouraged or feel our work is in vain.
Thistle Farms, the social enterprise started at this chapel is as a beacon of light to hundreds of women survivors, and has sold more than 10,000 candles this year. We say we light the candle for the woman trying to find her way home and for those still suffering on the streets. Lighting these candles of love and hope for 15 years daily has taught me that we are not alone in the wilderness. There are brother and sisters with us who share the light and who long for the healing balm beneath the light that fuels the candle. We have plans to double those candle sales in 2016, to light another 20,000 so we can continue to be a movement proclaiming that love heals and love is the most powerful force for change in the world. We can only continue to preach and live that theology if we are willing to reach beneath the light and offer a healing balm to the person next to us to is weeping.
We are going to keep the cry going in our wildernesses by trying to love the whole world a person at a time. Let our prayer this Advent be to do it as clearly and faithfully as we can and keep the healing oil flowing so the light is shining.