Stirred, but not shaken

The Third Sunday of Advent reminds me of my wife’s split pea soup (arguably the best split pea soup in the world). Thick, rich, and filled with little bits of ham, carrot, onion and other earth jewels as well as the split peas themselves, it both evokes and provides comfort and warmth. Because there is so much in it beyond the velvet-y broth, the ladle has to be plunged deep into the pot to access the best bits.

Of all the collects of the Church’s year, this Sunday’s (3 Advent) is the most kinesthetic, at least in my mind. More than its plea for assistance (which almost all collects share), this prayer discusses not only desired result, but the agency through which that result can be achieved.

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

God’s power, it asserts, like my wife’s split pea soup, is best stirred. The prayer creates a visual image for me, as though there were layers of power available to the Divine resembling layers of a summer frappe. The really strong stuff, it would seem, the most powerful stuff, is deep down.

My imagination likens these levels of Divine power to cleaning agents: household soaps might be fine for ordinary kitchen grime, but industrial oil spills require much stronger solvents.

The prayer posits a couple of difficult possibilities: first, that sin exists at all, second that if there is such a thing, its “sore hindrance” is not easily eradicated.

Ours is a world that is increasingly free of sin. Admittedly, people still behave badly, but it is usually because they are dysfunctional or in need of medication or they haven’t actualized their true selves or they’re chakras are out of alignment, or….

The New Testament word for sin is hamartia. An archery term, it means aiming for a mark, but missing the target. There could be lots of reasons for missing the mark – poor aim, insufficient strength to draw the bow, faulty eyesight, warped or unbalanced arrows – but whatever the reason, the reality is that hamartia indicates a lack of alignment with the best path. That’s my best understanding of sin – being out of true with the Divine: God points one way, we look another. It may be willfulness or selfishness or ignorance that makes us focus elsewhere, but whatever the cause, it results in a loss of synchronicity with that which is true and real. I make no apologies for the fact that my perception of what is most true and real for me is embodied in the life of Jesus. I am also aware that my own actions are all too frequently out of synch with that perfect life.  The “target” analogy has limitations, though. One could be led to believe that toxic thoughts and actions just happen –something unintentional, a mistake, an unfortunate occurrence. I wish I could see my own sins that way, but at my worst, my deviation from true is an act of knowing will, a thought or behavior that feeds a hideously voracious intention. While I’d like to say that I was just misunderstood or maladjusted, I’m afraid that something much darker pulls me off center.

I’ve found that the intensity of that darkness is something over which I have little control, and that I often need help to get me back on track: something strong, something greater than my own will. I take some comfort in the realization that I am in good company. “I do not understand my own actions,” writes Paul in his letter to the fledgling church at Rome. “I do not do the thing I want, but the very thing I hate.” I’m with you, Paul (at least on this one — I’d like to have word with you, tho, about your attitude toward women).

While there may be others in the world who require no deliverance from themselves (remember Pogo?), I’m afraid I’m very much in need of the strongest, deepest agency that can be stirred up.