Harrowing Of Hell
December 6, 2020

Coming of Age

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

The season of Advent brings us back to the familiar. The familiar decorations around the house. The familiar music on the radio. For us here in Seattle; the familiar long nights and short days. Maybe even familiar food and holiday drinks appear. And we experience, here in church, very familiar Bible stories.

Today we find ourselves at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark where John the Baptist is proclaiming that God is coming into the world. We meet him in the desert. It’s a familiar scene. People coming out to see him in the hope of finding change…in a sense this is a coming-of-age story. Nothing has gone right up until now. The people of Israel are oppressed and depressed. Rome dominates their lives. There is pain, and yet, they are soldiering on, just moving forward without vision, without hope. One step in front of the other, more because they are used to walking, than because they know where they are going.

Then John appears in the wilderness. Word spreads. He has vision. He has hope. He can see the mountain top peaking above the clouds. To meet John the wilderness, however, means being broken open. To meet John in the wilderness means things are going to change. Relationships will become raw and reoriented, and in some cases, friends will be left behind, the clique coming apart, the gang disbanding, the squad breaking up.

That is the nature of the coming-of-age stories, relationships change. New players appear, old friends are shed. They choose to stay home in Jerusalem, sequestered by the bars of their limited imagination, in their bedrooms playing the same old music, doing the same old things, not taking risks, but more so, choosing to ignore the shifts and changes and newness  in this coming-of-age moment.

And so, this story from the Gospel of Mark arrives to us familiar, and yet new- sent by God to meet us in this wilderness of pandemic, and call our attention to this coming-of-age moment we are in.

Repent is the word John the Baptist puts before the people of Israel. The word he puts before the people courageous enough to meet him in the desert; the people who sensed a coming-of-age moment was upon them.  Repent… it means to turn around. It means to stop doing what you are doing, and change direction. Turn around and lift your eyes to the hills, as the Psalms wrote 500 years earlier- calling out: “From where is my help to come?” To which God replies: “Your help comes from the Lord the maker of heaven and earth”  (Ps. 121).

We are in a moment, as a culture, as a people, that is coming-of-age. Our hand is on the doorknob, legs wound, ready to spring across the threshold and down the path of a post-COVID world.

That image, of being sprung into a new world, reminds me of John Parr’s song: “Man in Motion.” It marked a coming-of-age moment in my life, as I moved from high school to college. I played that song on my boom box all the time, much to my girlfriend’s chagrin. (Spoiler alert: she still married me). I won’t sing it for you, but you’ll remember it as the theme song from the movie St. Elmo’s Fire…You know with Judd Nelson and Ally Sheedy and Demi Moore and Rob Lowe and Emilio Estevez.

As I remember back to that time in my life, however, I’m struck by how a coming-of-age moment is not a one-time event. It is an event that comes back upon us, sometimes uniquely and episodically, but mostly in patterns that all of us pass through in life…like learning to walk, or learning to read, or leaving home, or getting your first paycheck, or retirement, or downsizing.

I’m in a little bit of a coming-of-age season right now.  It is being highlighted by a conversation my sister and I are having with one of her children. It has to do with the Christmas day movie. Each year after the presents are opened and a Christmas brunch has been eaten, we all pile into cars and head to the movie theater for our Christmas day movie. How the movie is chosen a real sausage making process, which, I suspect, inspired the challenge to this tradition in the first place. Simply stated, they no longer accepted that attendance at the Christmas day movie should be a “command performance.”

Of course, my natural first response way is: “We are going to the movie, and it’s going to be fun, because that is what we’ve always done.” It is what we have always done…And if those words ever spring from mind to mouth for you, quick, bite your tongue and REPENT: you may be in the midst of a coming-of-age moment, and, if so, know help is on the way…if your help comes from the Lord.

The trigger to alert you to an unfolding coming-of-age moment is feeling like you’re being broken open a bit, and the familiar is being discarded as power shifts either to you, as when you learn to read, or when you go off to college; or away from you, as when you retire or when a Christmas tradition changes.

Change, new information, revelation and growth are all characteristics of the power shift that comes during a coming-of-age moment…and the response is always the same: Repent, and know that your help comes from the Lord.

Right now, you and I and this nation are in the wilderness, standing at the door, hand on the knob, ready to spring back into the world, but it will not be the same world we left. The path will be paved differently. The streets signs will be, at the very least, written in multiple languages. The mountain top of former ambition will have moved.

This pandemic has given us time to look closely at the state of our nation.  The cracks and fissures have become readily apparent. It has given us a chance to test basic assumptions about rule of law and democracy and the power and pattern of media. It has broken us all open to the sin of slavery and its insidious and long-term impact on this country. We are at a coming-of-age moment… and the end is in sight. All coming-of-age moments have an end. My St. Elmo’s Fire moment ended at college. This pandemic will end with a vaccine. 

And while some of us hope that the end will allow things to go back to “normal,” that would be as normal as bringing your parents to college with you. No, when repent is the watchword, the road is always new, going in a new direction, paved with new materials, marked with new signs; the familiar will have faded away.

And just as we must trust the next generation with their desire not to mandate a Christmas day movie, we must trust God with the new information, revelation and growth that will shift power beyond the patterns we are used to. When things are broken open, when relationship dynamics are changing, when patterns are shifting-know that ultimately and singularly, our help will be found in the Lord.

Coming-of-age moments are inherently uncomfortable. That is by God’s design. God wove the discomfort into creation as an inflection point to invite us back into relationship with God; to repent, to turn around, to return to the Lord.

That is what we see happening in the Gospel today. The people of Israel are broken open, and it gives many of them cause to review and then renew their relationship with God. In the wilderness John the Baptist demands that they repent; that they re-center their life upon God, that they trust God, that they admit “their help comes from the Lord.” In the wilderness the sky is bright, the clouds have cleared, the mountain top has appeared. There is a direction, John has inspired the motion, and now, as always, there is choice –back to Jerusalem…to the same old room, same old music, same of falafel shop; or further up and further in onto a new path paved by a man named Jesus.

We are in a coming-of-age moment. Letting go is always part of this new age. Letting go of relationships, of power, or expectations, or patterns of life. Letting go is so hard to do individually, and even harder to do as a nation.

Here is what I do, in part, when I find myself needing to let go. I double down on that which will never change: I double down on the reality that my help, my only real help, my only unchanging help is help found in the Lord.

As you know, every day I pray. Every day, first thing I do is pray. The thing that gives me the capacity to let go is having a prayer life that I will never let go of, that is an unchanging pattern in my life.

Other things that seem so stable and unchanging in my life will ultimately change: daily exercise will go, when my knees do; reading the daily news will go, when my eyes do; even long walks with my beloved or date nights will go, because dust to dust will take care of that. Ultimately, the only sure and certain pattern that will never go away is the one that claims my help is in the Lord. And that is true for you as well.

What I do in prayer when I find myself broken open and in the wilderness is I tell God, completely and honestly, what I want.  None of this… “You know what I want God, so I won’t ask.”  Or “I don’t want to ask God because God has more important things to worry about than my problems.” No, none of that. God is relational, and just as we want straightforward, honest, authentic relationship, so does God.

So, I tell God what is on my mind, and I also give advice for outcome. Why not? But here is the primary thing, which seems like the secondary thing, but which is really at the core of this prayer… authentic friendship is built on trust. And so, I know, that even when what I pray for doesn’t materialize the way I so hoped it might, I can still trust God. Daily prayer has taught me that. That my help will always come from the Lord. My life is filled with supporting evidence for that claim, and so is yours.

God has been there in the wilderness, and God will continue to be; God is there in the cloud, God will continue to be; God is there on the mountain top, and God will continue to be; God is there at college and in the movie theatre, and God will continue to be.

God is here in this pandemic, and God will be there when we spring out the door, to find our feet on a different sidewalk; the direction of the road changed; the mountain sitting off in a new location; and all the signs written in a foreign language; God will be there, our help is in the Lord.

Thing is no “going back to normal.”  We are in a coming-of-age moment. But what is true now, has always been true in times like these, whether we are in a personal or national coming-of-age moment- we grab the rock, we stay attached to that which is unmovable and immutable; ever present and fundamentally familiar…we turn to the Lord; we repent, for our help is in the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.