Utopian Dreams and Cold Realities: A Thanksgiving Homily

“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth,” Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1914)

The faithful all lived together and owned everything in common; they sold their goods and possessions and shared out the proceeds to all, according to what each one needed. They went as a body to the Temple every day, but met in their houses for the breaking of bread, sharing their food with glad and generous hearts.

–– Acts 2:44-46


In November of 1972 I participated in an Episcopal Church project to engage with American communal movements in a process of dialogue and mutual learning. For three weeks in the snow and cold of New England, five people and a couple of dogs wandered the back roads of Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont in a 1953 school bus with a rebuilt, unreliable engine. Amid occasional breakdowns and blizzards, we visited a series of communes, ranging from an upscale geodesic dome to an isolated farm with neither plumbing nor electricity. The nights we spent on the bus were cold, and we were one dog short!

As people of faith, committed to watch the horizon where divine intention meets human possibility, we wanted to learn from the modern pilgrims who were making their exodus in search of a new society. What did they hope for? What had they learned? Did their utopian experiments in communal living bear any resemblance to the gospel message?

The Rev. Bill Teska, the priest behind the project, saw in the communal impulse an apocalyptic rejection of the political and economic structures which have been so fatal for both love and justice. The communards, he believed, were saying NO to this world for the sake of something better.

“By thousands, and tens of thousands, they are walking out of this world into a new one. . . In their capacity of standing as living examples of communities whose lives are ordered according to values entirely different from, and in many ways opposed to, the values of this world, the new communes fulfill for our society the same role which monasteries have performed in past centuries.”[i]

Exploring new worlds isn’t for the uncommitted. The trash bin of history is full of failed utopian quests. Even in Eden, there is always a snake or two. And the work can be strenuous. The transformation of consciousness is as daunting as the reformation of society. Every exodus feels the gravitational pull of the “Egypt” in its rearview mirror. But the biblical God has always encouraged the risk-takers: Do not be afraid. I will go with you.

And as Teska wrote at the time about the redemptive hope shared by both church and commune: “The future which the communards envision is one in which triumphant and transfigured Humanity reigns in Love.”

That was many years ago, and I have no idea whether any of those collectives still exist, or to what extent they made a difference in the lives of their members or in the world around them. But I have never forgotten their idealism––or their courage. Blessed are the pure in heart.

At a fairly new communal farm in Maine, I asked someone how their experiment was going. “Ask us in the spring,” he said. “We haven’t gone through our first winter yet. A commune hasn’t proved it can survive until it’s been through a winter.”

In the Plymouth Colony of Puritan immigrants to Massachusetts in 1620, only half made it through their first winter. The ones who survived threw the famous feast of Thanksgiving legend in the fall of 1621, with some combination of European wheat and native corn. About ninety locals––the Wampanoag people––showed up for the potluck, which included some deer meat but no turkey. They outnumbered the immigrants by two to one, but everyone seemed to get along. It would be an example too little followed in the years to come.

However tragic the subsequent history would prove, the early Puritan immigrants idealized their story as a great communal experiment, a chance to revise the tired narratives of the Old World in “a second Eden, rejoicing and blossoming as a Rose, Beautiful as Tizrah, Comely as Jerusalem.”[ii] In that sense, the New England communes we visited in 1972 were heirs of that Pilgrim vision. Liberated from the structures of the past, they hoped to forge a new kind of society and perhaps a new kind of humanity.

But America has always had its dissenters from the glowing narrative of a new people in a new Eden. As Alexander Hamilton would grumble in November of 1787:

“Have we not already seen enough of the fallacy and extravagance of those idle theories which have amused us with promises of an exemption from the imperfections, the weaknesses and the evils incident to society in every shape? Is it not time to awake from the deceitful dream of a golden age?”[iii]

In an America now ruled by a billionaire oligarchy, a raging lunatic, and an unprincipled Congressional majority verging on treason, Hamilton’s cynical doubts would seem to carry the day. The utopian dream of the Pilgrims, or the 1970s communards, has no where to take place in a land so polluted by ignorance, hate and greed. From sea to shining sea, where is Eden now?

For those of us who still dream of a just and loving society, this is a winter of the utmost testing. Many may wither in its icy blast. And yet, come what may, I still believe in divine imagination and human potential. God has a better idea than our despair.

This eschatological idea has been described with biblical eloquence in a poem by Judy Chicago.[iv] May it be sacramentally reimagined at every Thanksgiving feast, and then fulfilled in fact through our daily prophetic acts of compassion, justice, and hope:

And then all that has divided us will merge
And then compassion will be wedded to power
And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind
And then both men and women will be gentle
And then both women and men will be strong
And then no person will be subject to another’s will
And then all will be rich and free and varied
And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many
And then all will share equally in the Earth’s abundance
And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old
And then all will nourish the young
And then all will cherish life’s creatures
And then all will live in harmony with each other and the Earth
And then everywhere will be called Eden once again.



Related post: No Place Like Home


[i] From a report on the project, written in Advent, 1972, by the Rev. William J. Teska, Eleanor Leiper Hall, and the Rev. Jim Friedrich.

[ii] Sacvan Bercovitch, The American Jeremiad (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978), 71.

[iii] Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist Papers No. 6, “Concerning Dangers of Dissensions Between the States.”

[iv] Judy Chicago, “Merger Poem,” 1979.

The World’s End (An Advent Manifesto)

Standing Rock police assault Water Protectors with fire hoses.

Standing Rock police assault Water Protectors with fire hoses.

Advent is not just a season of quiet waiting.
It is also a time of protest and vision.

As the election consequences unfold, Advent seems less a ritual preparation for Christmas than a realistic description of where we find ourselves in a darkening world. Pitting hope against despair, Advent calls us to “cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” My last post proposed 7 Spiritual Practices for the Time of Trial. I want to follow that by revisiting a post from November 2014, an Advent manifesto which seems even more timely today. 

When I was 8 years old, I read in LIFE magazine that in so many millions of years, the sun would burn out and life on earth would cease. This worried me, so I asked my parents, “If the world is going to end, how come we say “world without end” when we pray?” And they told me what the Bible says, that heaven and earth may pass away, but God remains. That relieved some of my anxiety, but I still wasn’t sure I liked the idea of the world ending, even if God was in charge.

Of course the world ends all the time. When I moved from California to Puget Sound in the 1990’s, my first Northwest winter felt like a biblical apocalypse: the sun was darkened and the moon gave no light.

Who among us has not seen their world end? Adolescents exiled from childhood. Black teenagers robbed of their future. Elders deprived of their health. Unemployment …retirement …divorce … the death of a parent, a spouse, a child — in every one of these, a world comes to an end.

For anyone who has known serious loss, this is more than metaphor. The experience of grief can be so total and unrelenting that you can’t see anything beyond it. You can’t imagine the future. It feels like the end of the world.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good. [i]

W.H. Auden was invoking apocalyptic metaphors to express personal loss, but shared, public worlds also come to an end. As in 1789, or 1914. The Holocaust. Hiroshima. 9/11.My Lord, what a morning, when the stars begin to fall.

But why bring up such dreary stuff on this first day of the new Christian year? Shouldn’t we be breaking out the party hats, blowing horns and shouting “Happy New Year?” The wisdom of the Advent season is that it never begins with “A Holy Trinity Production,” or “The Creator of the World Presents.” No, it always opens with “The End.” Advent knows that every beginning involves some kind of ending. In this season’s Scripture, preaching and prayers, the present arrangements of collective and personal life are judged and found wanting. God’s imagination is far too rich and fertile to settle for our barren and diminished versions of human possibility.

Selfishness, greed, consumerism? Fear, racism and violence? Poverty, militarism, war, environmental degradation? That’s the best we can do? Really? God must be saying, “Come on, people. I made you a little lower than the angels, and this is what you came up with?”

George Eliot said “it is never too late to become what you might have been.” But to get to that “might have been” requires an Exodus into the wilderness beyond the way things are; an Exodus beyond even the best we can imagine for ourselves, into a place of unknowing, where only God possesses the language to speak our future into being.

So much of what we hear and pray and sing in Advent is profoundly disruptive. Bob Franke’s great Advent song, “Stir up your power,” gets right to it in the first line: This world may no longer stand. We are meant to be unsettled, to be driven beyond our narrow boundaries, our constricted realities, toward a beckoning horizon. The Christian life is a perpetual series of departures for a better place.

The world as it is – the world of racial hatred and toxic violence and economic injustice and perpetual war and addictive consumerism and pollution for profit and all the other evils which poison our common life – this world has no future in the emergent Kingdom of God.This world may no longer stand.

But the story doesn’t stop there. In my end is my beginning.[ii] Even when we have gone far astray, even when our story seems over, God remains deeply present in the processes of creation, tenderly leading and luring us into newness of life, making a way where there is no way, opening doors that none can shut.

Advent people do not just wring their hands or shake their heads over the latest news from Ferguson or the Middle East. We work and pray for something better. What we can do on our own is limited, but when we offer our priorities and energies to the larger purposes of God, Love will have its way with us.

As the Christian mystic Hadewijch put it in the thirteenth century:

Since I gave myself to Love’s service,
Whether I lose or win,
I am resolved:
I will always give her thanks,
Whether I lose or win;
I will stand in her power. [iii]

It is not always easy to stand in Love’s power and keep the faith. In some situations it is almost unimaginable. Forty years ago the African-American author James Baldwin wrote:

To be an Afro-American, or an American black, is to be in the situation, intolerably exaggerated, of all those who have ever found themselves part of a civilization which they could in no wise honorably defend – which they were compelled, indeed, endlessly to attack and condemn – and who yet spoke out of the most passionate love, hoping to make the kingdom new, to make it honorable and worthy of life. [iv]

This passionate mixture of protest and love sounds a lot like the Old Testament prophets who permeate our Advent lectionary, making their prophetic plea for history to be broken open by divine justice:

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down …
to make your name known to those who resist you,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence! [v]

Advent is not just a season of quiet waiting. It is also a time of protest and vision. Advent announces an insurgency against the way things are, a revolution to scatter the proud, cast down the mighty, raise the lowly, gather the lost, free the captive, and bind up the brokenhearted. Advent re-imagines the world as paradise restored, a new heaven and new earth suffused with the peace of God.

this is the day of broken sky
this is the space of conflagration-breath
speaking border-trespass
this is the feathered swoop of heaven
on the wing of now …
forking lightning into language …
breaking god into prison …
breaking the truth from jail! …

This is the fire-tongued fork of holy-ghost howl
making love on the tongue …
spitting flames of reconciliation
in the sky of war
making messiah-praise out of the air itself!

this is pentecost in your head
like becoming what you never dared
for the first time and forever

This ecstatic prophecy is from a poem by Jim Perkinson. [vi] He was talking about Pentecost, but his theme fits Advent as well:

“the day of broken sky”
the earth in conflagration
God breaking into the prisons
the truth being set loose at last
and “the fire-tongued fork of holy-ghost howl
making love on the tongue …
making messiah-praise out of the air itself!”

And each of us, all of us, becoming what we never dared.

When Jesus tells us to stay awake, he is warning us not to sleep through the day of God’s coming. Stay alert. Pay attention. Don’t miss it! Become what you never dared. Shake off the sleep of complacency, the sleep of complicity, the sleep of despair. Awake and greet the new dawn.

Jan Richardson describes this dawning reality in her beautiful poem, “Drawing Near.” [vii]

It is difficult to see it from here,
I know,
but trust me when I say
this blessing is inscribed
on the horizon.
Is written on
that far point
you can hardly see…

Richardson accurately expresses the sense of distant horizon that prevents the dominant reality of the moment from closing in on us and locking us in. That reality wants to be believed as fixed and final, permanent and stable. But the horizon calls every finality into question, disrupting its stability with the boundlessness of divine possibility. The horizon draws our attention from what is given to what may yet be. Keeping our eye on the horizon, feeling its pull, is the spiritual practice of Advent. Richardson’s poem expresses the deep longing produced by the distance between the already and the not-yet.

And then the poet discovers what every pilgrim knows: the goal of our long journey is something that has already been inscribed deep within us even before our journey began. Even before the day we were born, we were marked as God’s own forever.

And that is where Advent ultimately leaves us – finding that the thing we have been seeking so long has been with us all the time – within us, and all around us. While we have been walking our Camino to the Promised land, our feet have already been on holy ground, every step of the way. And the God of the far horizon turns out to be the path as well, keeping us company as we stride deeper and deeper into the world.

So when Advent people talk about the end of the world, we are speaking about end in the sense of purpose rather than termination. The word “apocalypse” means “unveiling,” and the apocalypse in our future will not be an annihilation, but a revealing of the world’s ultimate purpose and destiny.

Yes, all the inadequate, incomplete versions of world will come to an end (some of them kicking and screaming!), but creation as it was intended will be restored, not discarded. Like a poet who creates a new language out of old words, Love will remake the ruins and recover the lost. And the Holy One who is the mystery of the world will be its light and its life forever.

This Advent faith is expressed memorably in a short story by British writer Carol Lake, “The Day of Judgment.” On the Last Day of the world, God sails into England aboard a new Ark. But instead of bringing history to a close and pronouncing judgment on everyone, God leaves the Ark to enter the city of Derby. Heading for the run-down inner city neighborhood of Rosehill, he joins the crowd at a local pub, a multi-ethnic mix of the working poor and the unemployed. And there God gets so caught up in being with these people that he loses track of time, and the Ark sails away without him, heading off for the horizon of eternity. As the story describes it:

The Ark is on the edge of the horizon now, its destination the heartlessness of perfection. Most of the inmates already know what they are going to find – endless fruit, endless harmony, endless entropy, endless endless compassion, black and white in endless inane tableaux of equality. It sails off to a perfect world; the sky has turned into rich primary colors and in the distance the Ark bobs about on a bright blue sea.” [viii]

Meanwhile, God is still in that Rosehill pub, in the very heart of imperfection. If you had walked in there, you would have had a hard time picking him out. He blended right in. But if you were paying attention, you might notice that there was now something different about Rosehill. The old non-descript streets and dilapidated buildings had taken on a strange beauty. Maybe it was the warm slant of afternoon light, but people were beginning to see their neighborhood in a new way. And their own faces, too, seemed to glow with an inner radiance, as if they were carrying a wonderful secret, tacitly shared with everyone around them, as if they suddenly knew there was more to life than meets the eye.

They were still poor, the world was still a mess, but something new was in the air, a spirit of change was awakening. And from that day on, the people of Rosehill found themselves becoming what they’d never dared, for the first time and forever.


[i] W.H. Auden, “Twelve Songs (ix)”, Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (NY: Random House, 1976), 120

[ii] T.S. Eliot, “East Coker,” Collected Poems 1909-1962 (London: Faber and Faber Ltd, 1974), 191

[iii] Hadewijch: The Complete Works, trans. Mother Columba Hart, Classics of Western Spirituality (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980), 213

[iv] James Baldwin, No Name in the Street (NY: Dell, 1972), 194

[v] Isaiah 64:1-2

[vi] Jim Perkinson, “tongues-talk,” q. in Catherine Keller, On the Mystery: Discerning God in Process (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 157-8

[vii] Jan Richardson, “Drawing Near” (http://adventdoor.com/2012/11/25/advent-1-drawing-near)

[viii] Carol Lake, Rosehill: Portraits from a Midlands City (London: Bloomsbury, 1989), 119

God and the imagination are one

HS dove

Following this blog’s inaugural series of dispatches from the Camino de Santiago last spring, readers of The Religious Imagineer may have noticed a curious diversity of topics: saints, seasons, nature, culture, theology, Scripture, liturgy, art, theater, circus, classic cars and cinema. And perhaps they wonder, what ties all this stuff together?

The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. When Isaiah Berlin explored the implications of this ancient Greek saying in his celebrated 1953 essay, he argued that Tolstoy was by nature a fox but by conviction a hedgehog. His interests were wide and his eye for the particular was acute, but he sought to contain the world’s multiplicity within a single defining idea.

I can relate. And the one big thing for this blog is found in a line from Wallace Stevens:

We say God and the imagination are one …
How high that highest candle lights the dark.

This might be taken as a secular celebration of the human mind, reducing God to one of its creative fictions. But if I read Stevens with the hermeneutic of a believer, “God and the imagination are one” is not necessarily a matter of either-or. It might also mean both-and. God dwells both in the mind and outside it. Imagination is both a way we reach beyond ourselves, and a means by which the transcendent finds a home in us, enabling us to see with the eyes of God and the mind of Christ, and to act accordingly. To say that God and the imagination are does not mean for me that they are identical, but that they participate deeply in one another.

The Creator’s “Let there be light!” and Jesus’ refusal of the tomb’s finality are the supreme biblical examples of divine imagination. But there have been countless imagineers engaged in the work (or is it play?) of bringing the new heaven and new earth into being. The activist imagining peace, the oppressed imagining justice, the forgiver imagining reconcilation, the mourner imagining joy, the saint imagining a new way of being, the theologian and the artist imagining the beauty of the infinite in the particular, are all practitioners of the holy and transformative task of conforming the world more closely to God’s image.

When Jesus quoted Isaiah 61 in his hometown sermon, he embraced such prophetic imagination as his own vocation.

The Imagination of God is upon me,
for she has sent me to bring good news to the poor.
She has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind;
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of divine favor.

So to return the original question about The Religious Imagineer’s diversity of topics, I would say that imagination is the unifying subject of this blog. How do we say the unsayable, see the invisible, dance the impossible in our images, rituals and stories? How do we attend to the traces of God amid the chronic unknowing of secular modernity? How do we imagine the really Real and the not-yet?

Video artist Bill Viola, the subject of an earlier post, has observed that “in the Middle Ages they painted the sky gold in the paintings … It was realism they were after – reality of the divine effused through everything in the physical world.” That is my theme as well.

As ever, thanks for reading.