The following post was written by Rev. Ed Moore.
Last summer Mary and I moved from Burlington, NC, where we’d lived for six years, to Harrisonburg, VA, so she could begin her new position as Dean of the School of Business at James Madison University. This was something of a homecoming for me, since I grew up in the Shenandoah Valley.
In one of those ironies life occasionally tosses at us, I learned that our new home would be only a mile or so from Massanetta Springs, a retreat center owned by the Presbyterian Church USA, where I’d attended summer camp for a number of years in my childhood (we EUB’s – Evangelical United Brethren – leased the space for a couple of weeks each summer and remained immune to predestination). Now I drive through Massanetta several times a week, after an absence of many years.
I’ve had some of the experiences one commonly does when revisiting a place from childhood. The old hotel at Massanetta looks smaller than I remember it; trees newly-planted when I attended church camp are now mature; the hillside where most of the cabins are located appears steeper; the swimming pool less challenging. Memories formed in childhood and early adolescence had clearly been filtered by the mind, a common occurrence.
Not long ago I pulled into a parking lot at Massanetta and watched a group of kids playing basketball (boys and girls together; the EUB saints of old would have been mortified). As I watched, an unexpected feeling surfaced, a yearning at once deep and troubling. I found myself wishing for the faith I’d had when I was a kid at church camp, the enchanted faith that easily believes timeless truths abound in the Bible; that the parting of the Red Sea really happened; that there is an upward trajectory to the human story that will one day culminate in John’s vision of the New Jerusalem; that the tribal doctrines of my denomination (EUB’s again) came straight from the mouth of God; and that the basic goodness of people and noble institutions could simply be assumed. I longed for the faith which began to erode with my friends’ coming home in coffins from Viet Nam, with classes in intellectual history and biblical criticism in college and seminary and (true confessions) with my early experiences in the pastoral ministry. Elizabeth Barrett Browning felt, I think, a similar longing when she recalled her “childhood’s faith” and “lost saints.”[i]
Advent will soon begin, wisely set by our ancestors to commence in the darkest part of the year. There’s more than just metaphor in this. We need to be reminded that the enchanted faith of childhood must yield to the world of adults with its complexities, ambiguities, flawed heroes and ethical dilemmas. The baby soon to be born in Bethlehem literally incarnates this Truth for us, in his own journey from the manger to Pilate’s judgment hall. I wonder if Jesus ever longed for his lost angels, who rocked the heavens when he was born, then opted out of the Passion.
Those called to preach the Good News this Advent and Christmas enjoy the great privilege of proclaiming a faith that does not deny the power of darkness, but, instead, meets it head on when it appears most potent, and claims there is, indeed, a Light that begins with Mary’s labor pains and cannot be put out, all the might of Rome – and the world’s sin – notwithstanding. Perhaps it’s mere resurgent enchantment that makes me wonder if even Pontius Pilate dwells in that light at last.
[i] Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sonnet 43. “How Do I Love Thee?” is the popular title.
Rev. Moore is the Director of Educational Programs for the Clergy Health Initiative and an ordained elder in the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Photo by Flickr user Richard Bonnett, via CC