Some of you have heard me tell this story before. It’s one of my favorites. Context: My youngest daughter, Olivia, attended four different schools from second to third grade. It was in the middle of the Great Recession, and for employment reasons our family ended up moving from Indiana to Maine to Rhode Island. Little Olivia started out the school year at Hoosier Road Elementary (Indiana), beginning in December attended Milbridge (Maine) Elementary, and then finished second grade at a public elementary school in Cranston, RI that I can’t even remember the name of. Next fall she began third grade at yet another school–Community Preparatory School in Providence, RI. The good news is that Community Prep is an extraordinary school that ended up being a game-changer for both Olivia and her older sister, Fiona.
The story goes like this. It was Olivia’s first week at Community Prep. I picked her up after school. She threw her backpack in the back seat and climbed in after it, chattering the entire time. I asked her, “Did you make any new friends today?” Olivia replied, “Daddy, they’re all my friends. Some just don’t know it, yet.”
Our theme for the Fourth Sunday of Advent is “Those Who Dream Are Not Alone.” Here’s why: God is with us. When the angel visited Joseph in a dream to tell him that his fiance was pregnant with the Son of God, the angel quoted the prophet Isaiah: “‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us.’” I know what it’s like to feel lonely. I know what it’s like to feel separated from the one’s you love. The pain can be excruciating. In those moments remembering that the same God who was with Mary and Joseph is with me and my loved ones helped me sit with that feeling of separation long enough for it to transform into motivation to pick up the phone and make a connection. The love that is strong as death (Song of Songs 8:6) that nothing in the universe can separate us from (Romans 8:38-39) that binds all things together in perfect harmony (Colossians 3:14) is always and everywhere available to us. It means that we’re always already connected. Our job as Christians is simply to make that already existing connection real in the world.
My spiritual director likes to say that spiritual practice is about cultivating a “basic friendliness” toward ourselves and others. On this Fourth Sunday of Advent when we remember God’s love incarnate in Jesus, I invite us to remember that those who dream are not alone because God’s love always already connects us. When we’re feeling disconnected and alone, I invite us to consider Olivia’s wise words, “They’re all my friends. Some just don’t know it, yet.”
A few weeks ago I was driving home from church when I noticed that something was different about the right rear of the car. Flat tire? I didn’t hear the sound of a rim rolling on the pavement, so I wasn’t sure. I was almost home, so I just continued driving until I pulled in the driveway. Sure enough, the right rear tire was deflated but not flat. I was short on time, so instead of putting the doughnut on myself I called AAA. When the AAA guy took the tire off he showed it to me. A patch of the rubber outer layer had worn clear through exposing the steel belts beneath. When I brought the car to the shop to get the tire replaced the mechanic explained that when the wheels are out of alignment the tires wear unevenly. If you don’t catch it in time you get blowouts like the one I got. Alignment is key to keeping your tires in good shape for driving.
Our theme for the third Sunday of Advent is “Those Who Dream Sow Joy.” The Scripture is once again from the prophet Isaiah. The context for this particular prophecy is the return of the exiles from Babylon to their homes in Judah. Earlier prophecy had created in them great expectations for what their return would be like–comfort, rejoicing, salvation–all the good stuff. What they found upon return was a homeland in shambles. Rebuilding was slow and difficult. Even more challenging than putting roofs over their heads was reweaving the torn social fabric that had made their homeland a home in the first place. Those who had dreamed of returning were becoming disillusioned. Maybe this was a mistake. Maybe they should have stayed in Babylon. To these folks the prophet says, “They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD to display his glory. . . . For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to grow up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before the nations.”
What do tires and exiles and oaks have in common? Alignment. I think we can all resonate with the frustration and disappointment of the exiles. Rebuilding is hard. The obstacles between our dreams and reality often seem insurmountable. The prophet is inviting us to shift our view: to see rebuilding as replanting. Creating a sense of belonging is an organic process. Our role is simply to plant seeds of hope, love, and justice. Our role is to turn the soil of our hearts, to tend the gardens of our relationships. God will bring fruit in its time. Our job is simply to align ourselves with God. The process itself will do the heavy lifting. This is why Jesus can say, “Come to me you who are weary and heavy laden. Take my yoke upon yourselves and learn from me, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” This is not to say that alignment with God doesn’t require anything of us. In fact, it requires everything. It requires us to pray as Jesus did, “Not my will but your will be done.” Nevertheless, living in alignment with God and one another allows us to tap into the source of all things–a limitless energy that causes the plants to grow and the fish to swim and our hearts to sing with praise.
Years ago I attended a church vitality conference. One of the speakers was the pastor of a small New Hampshire church that had experienced a dramatic turnaround. A congregation in shambles had become vibrant. Someone asked the pastor her secret. She said, “I follow the energy.” Where do you find life energy in and around you? How can we align ourselves with the new life God is always already bringing forth? When we continually keep these questions in mind, we will find ourselves continually sowing seeds of joy.