Texts: “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver * Luke 1:1-17 (the birth of John the Baptist foretold)
I have been experiencing a strange feeling of late. I think it might be . . . hope!
Of course, hope is always available to us. We can let it flood into our hearts just by remembering our interdependence with the families, culture, and web of life of which we are just one tiny part. From this perspective, life is a free gift from the Source of Love we call God. This perspective can also help us remember that regardless of sickness, social crisis, or other troubles, we have come from God’s Love, and to it we all return. When we view each moment as a gift of Grace, there is never a situation, no matter how dark, in which we need live without hope.
I try to end every sermon with this hope. Faith, hope and love are Paul’s three cardinal virtues. And while the greatest of these is love, hope is essential; and happily, it is always available to us.
But the strange feeling I have experienced of late is of a more standard kind of hope. I am starting to sense that the massive rise in fear that has been so damnably evident in many countries over the past few years might be ebbing; and so, I am feeling more hopeful we will have an opportunity to participate in a big shift in consciousness, one that would counter fear, racism, and violence.
This morning, I reflect on both of these kinds of hope in relation to birth and parenting.
Christmas is about birth. It is our annual celebration of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem more than 2,000 years ago, and of the rebirth of Christ in our hearts.
But Advent is also about birth and parenthood. Luke’s Gospel contains two stories of miraculous births. The better known one involves Mary, the Angel Gabriel, the Holy Spirit, choirs of angels, and wandering and wondering shepherds who attend the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.
The lesser known birth found in Luke is that of Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist. In today’s reading, we heard a story in which an angel announces to Zechariah the unlikely news that his aged wife Elizabeth will finally bear their first child. This is the last of many births to improbably old people found in the Bible. A few weeks ago we heard the first such tale from the book of Genesis when three angels tell Abraham and his wife Sarah that they are to become parents for the first time despite the fact that both of them are more than 100 years old. Not surprisingly, Sarah laughs at this strange news. Next week, we will hear how Zechariah and Elizabeth handle their news.
Learning that one is pregnant yields many emotions: joy, fear, excitement, and . . . hope. Few things can arouse our hopes for the future more than the news that we will become a parent. And so, the two miraculous pregnancies and births in the opening chapters of Luke link up with Advent Hope.
Contemporary discussions about birth and parenting involve two contradictory observations. One is that fertility rates continue to decline almost everywhere. This decline has many effects just one of which is a large number of disappointed would-be grandparents. Many of us can attest that recent generations in our families have fewer children than previous ones. The decline in birth rates has also led to fears of economic decline.
The contradictory observation is about a continued robust expansion of the world’s population, now at more than 7.5 billion. The number of people in the world continues to climb because every day because more than 350,000 babies are born. But how can this be the case at the same time that fertility rates are plummeting?
Well, the figure of 350,000 births a day is both the highest ever and one that has held steady for several decades despite a growing population. If the fertility rate had stayed as high as it was 50 years ago, the number of births per day would be closer to 600,000.
On an average day, about 150,000 people die, which means that world population increases by about 200,000 per day. This is the equivalent of one new Edmonton every five days! But if fertility rates continue to decline, the number of deaths per day will overtake the number of births in a few decades, and world population will start to decline.
Two weeks ago, The New York Times published a column called “The End of Babies.” In it, the author Anna Sussman outlines the reasons she sees for the decline in fertility rates. She writes, “at its best, the declines reflect better educational and career opportunities for women, increasing acceptance of the choice to be child-free, and rising standards of living. At its worst, they reflect the failure of employers and governments to make work and parenting compatible; the failure of our ability to solve the climate crisis so that children might seem a rational prospect; and a function of an increasingly unequal economy. These latter reasons make having fewer children seem less a choice than the poignant consequence of a set of unsavoury circumstances.”
Now, I don’t know if her column got things right, but it made me think. If becoming a parent is a profound act of hope, what does the decline of fertility rates imply?
One of the things that has delighted me at Mill Woods United this fall has been an increase in the number of infants and children here on Sunday. This is one of the reasons I am feeling more hopeful.
Another thing fueling my hope is the movie “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” which opened one week ago. It is about a friendship between Fred Rogers, who produced and starred in the children’s educational program “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood” on PBS from 1968 to 2001, and a journalist who wrote a profile of him in 1998. I highly recommend the film, and I hope it is successful.
“Beautiful Day” is about parenting. The journalist who is befriended by Fred Rogers is raising an infant son and dealing with painful turmoil in his relationship with his own father. In Fred Rogers, the journalist finds acceptance and a loving and steady gaze that helps him grow to the point where he reconnects with his alcoholic father.
I was deeply moved by the movie. It deals with anger, resentment, longing, and grief. Mr. Rogers was an advocate for children, a Presbyterian minister, and a wise friend who helped people to name their emotions and to realize that they have choices about how to express and deal with them. Despite his TV show being for children, Mr. Rogers didn’t shy away from fear, anger, or pain. He helped his young viewers to acknowledge such feelings and to respect themselves in the midst of childhood’s messiness.
In the movie, as the journalist becomes more accepting of his pain, his grief opens his heart to the point that he can repair some of the damage that had plagued his relationship with his father for 30 years.
I find reason for hope in the recent attention paid to Mr. Rogers – both with this fall’s biopic and last year’s documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbour.” Rogers showed millions of people how to love and accept reality even in tough situations and to name and express emotions in ways that led to healing instead of more harm.
The spiritual path followed by Mr. Rogers is one of Advent Hope. He embraces everyone no matter how wounded. He doesn’t shy away from difficult feelings and the situations that give rise to them. And he shows us how to find love and joy in expressing our difficult feelings. His path is about following the light of love even in a dark season.
The final pillar of my new-found sense of hope is news of a growing moral movement in the United States that seeks to elect a government that has turned its back on the racial divisions and lies that have been the bedrock of its current government. There seems to be a growing awareness that not only is a change of government required, but also a change of heart in which we go deep enough to touch that which connects people of all races and cultural backgrounds. The level of fear that has allowed immoral and untruthful statements and actions to appeal to so many people in the U.S. and elsewhere may yet be countered by movements that are focused on unity, healing and justice.
Much more could be said about this last latter pillar of hope. But for today, I close with what I see as some truths about parenting and the future.
We don’t know what tomorrow will bring. We do know that children fill our lives with challenge, change, and endless opportunities for love and joy. And we know that no matter how long we live or what vicissitudes we experience, at the deepest level we are already healed, already accepted, and already embraced by the Love that was our source and is our destiny.
These are some of the reasons why we welcome everyone to Mill Woods United – people of all ages, families of all configurations, everyone who is now an infant or child or who was once an infant or child, everyone who bears both the wounds of our mortal and conflicted lives and who also is open to the rebirth of love in the dark of another sacred winter.
As Mary Oliver’s poem reminded us this morning, the world offers itself to our imagination, and calls to us like the wild geese, harsh and exciting, over and over announcing our place in the family of things.
As so as we seek new life this Advent, I pray that none of us will lose sight of the joys that come from the struggle for a world of greater compassion and peace; and of the realization that come what may, all is well, and all will be well.