Ann Weems’ poem, “To Listen, To Look” begins like this:
Is it all sewn up – my life?
Is it at this point so predictable,
that I don’t have time or space
for listening for the rustle of angels’ wings
or running to stables to see a baby?
The Gospel of Luke opens with the story of Zechariah. We don’t hear too much about Zechariah, but given that he was the father of John the Baptist and (story goes) that there was some Divine intervention in John’s conception, he really is a pretty important (or at least an interesting) guy.
Zechariah strikes me as a pretty ”life-sewn-up” kind of guy – in Ann Weems’ words – predictable, orderly, arranged, right. (I’d personally add rigid and set in his ways. but I hate to judge a book by its priestly cover.) Zechariah was born into the Jewish priestly class, so his role in life was determined from the get go. He and his wife, Elizabeth, were worthy in the sight of God, which meant that they “scrupulously observed the commandments and observances.” Clearly he was a faithful servant of God, devoted and diligent in his service in the Temple.
It seems that the couple’s only flaw, or failing, was that they apparently couldn’t have kids, and that brought disgrace upon them. Now they are up in years and past the age of being able to conceive (kind of like the story of Abraham and Sarah).
Frankly, it seems to me like a great place to have a vision or an encounter with an angel, right there in the sacred space of the Temple, but the scripture says Zechariah “was deeply disturbed” and “overcome with fear.” And then when he gets great news: “your wife is going to have a baby, and you’ll name him John, and he’ll be great like the prophet Elijah, and will bring people back to God and prepare them for the coming of God!” he is less than enthused. In fact, his skeptical response is, “How can I be sure of this? I’m old and my wife is old.”
Now, it’s here that I figure the angel must’ve had a long day and was all out of nice. “Seriously?” the angel basically says, “You’re questioning me? The angel Gabriel, who stands before God? I was sent to bring you this good news, but tell you what… why don’t you just take some time to think about it. Say about nine months… in silence, because I’m going to make you mute.”
This whole encounter raises two questions for me:
- Do we make room for angels? For spontaneity? For surprises? For the in-breaking of the Divine?
- Can we shift our perspectives and change our response?
Think about your life. How “sewn-up” is it? How predictable? Are we too tied to our habits, behaviors, and thinking, that we no longer have eyes to see or ears to hear the Divine?
When you’re on a trip, do you plan every step, or do you make room for following where the spirit leads? Can you take a detour? Can you make an unexpected stop because it looks interesting? Or do you need to stick to the plan? Do you ever drive a different way to church or sit in a different seat? Do you always go out to the same place to eat and order the same thing? Or can you be spontaneous?
I’m pretty good with spontaneous shopping… I can come out of a store with all kinds of things that weren’t on my list! But am I paying attention to the spirit? Am I listening for the rustle of angel’s wings? Am I watching for the birth of hope in my life? Am I willing to follow a dream or a song? If I’d been with the shepherds, would I have dared to follow the unbelievable and left my flock to go look for a baby in a manger?
And if my answer – our answer – to those questions is “no” because our lives follows a specific routine that we don’t break, we don’t do things without careful planning, or because we don’t follow whimsical dreams and ideas that pop into our head, and we better not be having visions of angels, because clearly that means we’re losing our minds… well, then, we have to wonder what we might all be missing.
Are we missing opportunities?
Are we missing the blessings and miracles around us?
Are we missing a chance to be filled with wonder and awe?
Are we missing God moving right here in our midst?
In the story of Zechariah he could actually see and hear the angel, but still he didn’t trust him… there wasn’t room in his paradigm for a heavenly visitor. And I truly can’t say as I blame him.
When he’s told that he and his old wife are going to have a baby and he responds, “How will I know that this is so?” do we blame him? Nope. We’re right there with him. We don’t want promises, we want guarantees!
When the unexpected happens in our lives, when we’re faced with opportunity or change, we’d like some guarantees. Is this new job really the right job? How will I know that this is so? Or the relationship you’re in that feels like the right relationship, but how will I know that this is so? Could we have some guarantees please?
Well, there just aren’t a lot of guarantees in life… except death and taxes, right?
So, what could Zechariah have said to the angel instead? What might be a better response to the unexpected, to the unknown? How about, “Will you (my guides, god, goddess, Divine Essence, Higher Power, Spirit) be with me along the way?” We know the answer before asking, – “Of course, you are never alone” – but somehow it feels better to voice it.
This Advent, perhaps we can make room for angels, and new possibilities, and for the unexpected. Perhaps instead of asking the Divine for guarantees about life, we can simply ask for companionship and strength along the way.
Love & Light!