Saturday, December 14, 2013

Right, Just and Generous Desire - I wanna wanna

Quite a few years ago, following a Sunday evening service at a local seniors' residence, one of the participants took me on, quite fiercely, about the Magnificat, a staple of Anglican evening worship. He didn't say "bullshit", but he was just being polite. He wanted to know why we say things that aren't true and that we don't believe. "I don't see the mighty suffering or the poor lifted up," he said. I just see the same old world, powerful people thriving and poor people suffering."

And on the surface of things, he had a point. There really isn’t a lot of evidence that the dreadful inertia of history has ever truly been interrupted. Power, wealth, and status continue to dominate the life of the world.  Even the fragments of progress that we celebrate – universal health care, women’s rights, Old Age Security – are woven into a fabric that also contains the generations of trauma suffered among indigenous peoples’ , a “war on terror” that justifies torture, judicial murder, and “collateral damage”, and thousands of deaths of infants and children every single day from hunger. We wear this fabric of history next to our chafed skin, and know deep down what W.H. Auden writes in For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio:

            If we were never alone or always too busy,
            Perhaps we would even believe what we know is not true:
            But no one is taken in, at least not all of the time;
            In our bath, or the subway, or the middle of the night,
            We know very well we are not unlucky but evil….

That is to say, the dreadful inertia is not something that has happened to us – it is something we have fashioned, or at least something we tolerate and at times embrace. We call it “just the way things are”, and whether we are jailers or prisoners, its inevitability absolves us of any responsibility to seek another arrangement.

So the darkness into which this season of Advent anticipates that a light will shine is not just the darkness around us – the darkening towards solstice in the northern hemisphere (where all these times were decided), the dark inevitability of an unjust and harmful social order. It is also the darkness within and among us, as surely as the storm on the heath and the storm in Lear are the same storm. The darkness is a fact about us, part of the truth about us. We stand in need of transformation at the level of our wills. We need to learn to desire what is worth desiring, what is worthy of our desiring, and to desire it with all our hearts.

When “a truly just, peaceful and healthy world” (the vision of the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund) seems impossible, our desire finds other outlets – stuff, status, and power, bread and circuses, trinkets, what today’s Globe and Mail calls (apparently without irony) “Shiny, Pretty Things”. We temper our desire, “cut the suit to fit the cloth”. We make suits for some and leave others naked because we have allowed ourselves to be convinced that there is no other way.

The season of Advent offers the profoundly uncomfortable prospect of another way, of a kingdom – a sovereign order – in which there is both cloth and desire enough that none go naked, food and right desire so that none go hungry, land and just desire so that all find a good place in “our visit to God’s creation”.

I do not believe I am alone in my ambivalence about this prospect. I feel somewhere deep in my soul how right Jesus is when he speaks balefully of the spiritual prospects of the rich, among whom I must surely count myself. My desire is confused by the status, the “shiny pretty things”, that business-as-usual confers on me.  That is why Advent blows such a wind through my soul with it promise that things not only can be different, not only will be different, but are already somehow different. There is a spiritual movement already underway with God as its founder and instigator. God has imagined a new world, a new creation, and that sovereign imagination is already more real than the shiny pretty things, than the stuff , status, and power that so many desire so deeply and so sadly.

Very early in our marriage, Deborah and I discovered a dimension of desire that has sustained us. We learned how difficult it was, sometimes, to want to love, to want to do or say the thing that embodied love for one another. We said, and still do say, “I’m not sure I wanna, but I wanna wanna.” My prayer, for me, and for many others with whom I sense I share that spiritual predicament, is that God can work with that, that the desire to desire rightly, justly, and generously is ground enough for God to establish again a transforming presence within and among us.

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my saviour.


  1. Scatter me, cast me down and send me away empty where necessary so I will reawaken and wanna be gathered in, lifted up and filled again with You, O LORD.

    1. Gene, thanks for the "wanna" shape of this prayer. Advent blessings to you. Really miss your voice at CoGS. Though it's a great council.

  2. Michael,
    Thank you so very much for your image of holy longing and all that inhibits us. I shall ponder your words again and again.