December 1, 2019 – Safe Space

Text:  Luke 1:39-45

Advent, the four-week period leading to Christmas is my favorite season. I love the pace of the season – it invites us to slow down in our hectic schedules, and to take a deep breath in our fast paced world. I’m surprised by how fast people drive even on the icy roads! (Including me sometimes, oops!) I also like the colour of the season. I don’t mean the liturgical colour, purple or blue, however beautiful and meaningful they are. My Advent colour is the combination of various colours that I see at sunset. As the daylight gives way to darkness a magical moment is created. No one colour dominates the entire space. Instead, I see multilayered colours – pink, yellow, red, violet, lavender, white, blue and gray. Altogether they make the wonderful colour of welcoming, embracing and becoming. Soon all the different colours emerge into darkness, the colour of mystery. We find ourselves completely covered by black space, like a mother’s womb. It is a familiar space because we all came from that space. Yet, it makes us uncomfortable because we lose our power, control and ability. We must learn to trust the power greater than ourselves. We are not alone in that space. We are sustained and held by the inexhaustible wellspring like a tree whose roots reach out to the deepest part of the soil. Advent meets us where we are, and invites us to go deeper.

Traditionally the church has focused on time more than space. For example, no one knows when Jesus was born, but we tend to think of the Nativity in a chronological order – an angel visits Mary, Mary visits Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph travel to his hometown where she gives birth, followed by the visits from the Shepherds and the wise ones. This chronological way of thinking makes us believe that God’s incarnation was a one-time event not a process, and that it was what happened in the past, not what’s happening right now. I wonder if the focus was meant to be on space not time. Then the story becomes a principle, how God engages the world rather than what happened in a particular time and place. I don’t deny the power of memories or imagination that time can create – they give us meaning and purpose. Some of my vivid memories of those whose lives have touched me make me feel even closer to them than when they were around me. I also like to imagine my future. Happy and hopeful dreams give me the reason to live. There is, however, something in me that tries to prevent me from living fully in the present moment. When the present moment becomes too painful to bear I tend to get stuck in the past or wander around in the future. There is a danger of getting lost in time when we don’t pay attention to what’s going on in and around us. Spatial thinking invites us to be fully present and to be more relational with whoever we share the space with. Our space is God’s primary concern, and that’s where Advent begins. Every one of us is given space. It doesn’t matter how big or small, all of us have space at home, with the circle of friends, out in the community. The question is what we want to create with any given space.

Angel Kyodo Williams, a writer, activist and ordained Zen priest defines love as space. She said, “Love is developing our own capacity for spaciousness within ourselves to allow others to be as they are.” I think her definition of love makes sense, because without spaciousness within ourselves we want others to be like us or to behave like we do even in the name of love. Good intentions are not enough. We must create space first within ourselves so those around us can find a breathing space. We can also call this a safe space. It refers to places intentionally created for people from marginalized groups – LGBTQ communities, Indigenous people, racialized folks, and people with disabilities. Many of them are still fighting for freedom, and looking for a place to belong. Their traumatic experiences with institutions, including the church, inform them, a safe space cannot be optional; it’s a must for their own sake; it can literally save their lives. Claiming to be an affirming community is one thing, and living it out is another. The inside has to match the outside. While it is important to publicly declare that we are an affirming congregation, we must continue to strive for spaciousness within ourselves to allow others to be as they are. It takes our flexibility, allowance, bigness to be a more whole, just and spacious community for all of us. Many of our Indigenous brothers and sisters recognize the four colours in the new crest of the United Church, but I wonder how many of them can recognize the inside of the structure – how we are living up to the vision of living together in harmony and peace with all peoples. In order to make our space truly safe, we need both the external work and the internal work.

In the gospel according to Luke, after Mary receives a visit from an angel, she sets out on a journey to see her relative Elizabeth. Mary, the mother of Jesus, whom we often praise for her courageous yes to God, needs someone who can truly understand her situation. It takes one person, who has been through what Mary is going through in order for her to feel safe in the world. Elizabeth welcomes Mary unconditionally and wholeheartedly. The Bible doesn’t give us much detail of the visit. But one thing it doesn’t fail to tell us is that there is tremendous joy in their reunion, and that is described with a powerful image – the child in the womb leaping for joy! There is no sound we can hear, no image we can see, but only a movement we can feel within ourselves. That’s what Advent feels like – a new life within us fills the dark space leaping for joy. So we can wait expectantly. We can pay attention to whoever we share our space with. We can create a safe space for those who hunger for connections. No matter who we are, where we came from, or where we are on life journey, Advent meets us right where we are, and invites us to go deeper. Like the diverse colours of sunset, we are beautifully diverse making the wonderful colour of welcoming and embracing. In Advent we merge into darkness, the colour of the Great Mystery. There can we become a new life, like a child in the womb leaping for joy.