Three days after my consecration as Bishop of New Hampshire, I received a handwritten note from a woman at the New Hampshire State Prison for Women. She had apparently read about all the controversy surrounding my election as the first openly gay and partnered priest to be elected a bishop in historic Christianity. Her words were, “There’s something in your election that makes me believe that there might be a group of people out there who could love me despite what I’ve done.”
I went to visit her soon thereafter and discovered that she was a young woman, barely out of her teens, who had killed someone, but who had been a forensic psychiatrist. As I talked with her, it occurred to me that my election was about much more than me. Or homosexuality. It was about the hope and longing for redemption and reconciliation that lies somewhere within each of us.
That was the first of many visits to the Women’s Prison. Many of the women there were in jail because they had abusive husbands or boyfriends, and in a moment of desperation made a very bad decision, and had picked up a knife or gun and tried to kill (some succeeded) their abusers. Because of the verbal abuse and death threats coming my way, these women seemed to identify with me. They took me in and helped sustain me in the days that followed. They became some of my greatest champions, though of course, no one was listening. Not to them!
When the season of Advent rolled around, they presented me with a set of beautiful vestments, hand sewn and decorated with cross-stitch crosses. On the underside of these Eucharistic vestments, each signed her name. They told me that Advent was all about waiting and hoping – that they were indeed a community of waiting and hoping. They were waiting for the next visit from their children, for the next parole hearing, for any word from the “outside.” And they were hoping that the ordeal of prison would be bearable for them and for their families, even hoping that the miracle of early release would happen for them. In the meantime, just a lot of waiting and hoping.
Advent is the four- week season of the Christian calendar that remembers the waiting and longing of the Jews for a Messiah, the One promised by God who would liberate God’s people. For Christians, of course, that longed-for One is believed to be Jesus of Nazareth. But the deliverance and liberation that has been longed for by Jews and Christians has proven to be an elusive thing. Some Jews are still waiting for the promised Messiah. Some Christians believe that Jesus inaugurated a process of liberation and redemption that is ongoing. Some believe that the promised liberation is a spiritual one. But for all of us, a lot of life is still waiting and hoping. So Advent is a season worth celebrating. [maybe commemorating or marking instead? Up to you]
I would venture to say that Advent is something America needs right now, religious or not. That is to say, there is much longing in the hearts of Americans. There are those who long for justice in the shootings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice, as well as and the choking death of Eric Garner, and are taking to the streets to express that longing. There is the longing for a path to citizenship for many who came to this country illegally, and for many of their children who were actually born here and fear possible separation from their undocumented parents via deportation. There is the longing of working- and middle- class people for a share of the recovering economy, or at the very least, a living wage for full time work. There is a longing in far too few of us for America to take climate change seriously and to have a meaningful, science-not-politicsally-based conversation about what needs to happen to save our planet (and our lives) from disaster. Doesn’t it feel like Advent time in America?
There’s a great scene in the first Harry Potter volume in which Harry goes into one of those mysterious rooms that Hogwarts is famous for. In it, he finds a large mirror, and when he looks into the mirror, he sees his parents standing behind him. Harry has longed for his parents ever since they were killed while protecting him from the evil Valdemort. He runs to find his friend Ron to show him his parents in the mirror. But when Ron looks into the mirror, he sees himself being carried on the shoulders of his teammates, the hero who won the game. They are confused until Dumbledore explains that this is a special mirror, one which reflects the heart’s true desire of the one who peers into it.
If you or I were to peer into such a mirror, what would be reflected as our heart’s true desire? It’s a good question to ponder in this season of Advent. What do we really long for? For what do we attentively await?
It strikes me that America would be a better place if more conversations – whether they are about race, gender, economics, immigration, climate change or other vexing issues that face us – began with the questions, “What do you long for? For what are you waiting? What is your heart’s true desire?” Maybe we could find common cause in our longing for justice regardless of race, fairness in the marketplace and in the courts, and a shot at the American dream for all, not just the few at the top. We of course will disagree about how to make those longings come true, but wouldn’t we be off to a better start if we could first talk about what we actually long for?
I’ve not seen that young woman in prison since I retired and moved away from New Hampshire. I’m sure there is still much waiting and hoping. I suspect she still longs for a community who could love her despite what she did. Maybe that’s what we all long for – a community of people who can and will love us despite all the stupid, selfish and hurtful things we sometimes do. That's something worth longing for.