By Dr. Stephen P. Bauman
Trapped in the corner of the grocer’s produce section, a young couple with two shopping carts and an unhappy toddler had cut off all avenues of my escape as they bickered over whose job it was to address the boy’s ranting. It had started out calmly enough. Dad offered that it was Mom’s turn and he helpfully suggested she might want to pick up their son. Mom responded firmly that she had been handling him long before they decided to go to the store. What little David needed was more attention from his father.
Dad was unhappy, but Mom had played the right guilt card. Dad addressed himself to little screaming David and authoritatively told him to be quiet. Unfortunately Mom couldn’t resist cutting in to say that was no way to handle the situation—to which Dad responded that she could have done it from the beginning; he didn’t need her parenting advice. Mom evidently thought otherwise.
Tempers were on a hair trigger, so in just a few seconds they began to say things to one another they were going to regret later. Hateful things. Spiteful things. Dangerous things. Soon little David joined the fray by bellowing his own unhappiness. All in all, a very ugly scene erupted as I considered the status of several overripe tomatoes.
I finally made my escape during a lull in their raging and pushed through the barricade of carts. Their arguing continued—periodically I heard them as I trolled the aisles. But then I witnessed something unexpected by frozen foods. Dad stopped dead in his tracks and said, “Look, this is crazy. Look at us. We’re in the grocery store, for God’s sake! Let’s just stop and take a breath.” They stood staring at each other, little David brought to startled silence. After a moment Dad resumed: “I’m sorry, Babe. Really sorry. Let’s not do this. Let’s start over. Let’s pretend we just entered the store.” Mom took a deep breath and said, “I’m sorry, too.” They embraced, little David in between.
Given the time of year it occurred to me that I had just witnessed a mini Christmas tableau framed by Stop and Shop. Glory to God in the highest heaven, peace, goodwill to all people! This spontaneous act of generous forgiveness and forbearance was surprisingly invigorating. Somehow they had managed to open a space for grace in their relationship, right there as I held a bag of frozen corn. And it was perfect. A space opened up inside me, too. It felt physical, as though my insides were expanding.
I’m normally robed and standing inside a glorious sanctuary of marble and mosaics when announcing grace and pardon. Lesson re-learned: any space, any place can have the honor of hosting a most holy occasion. In fact, that seems the essential wisdom of Advent, recognizing that the new thing God has in store isn’t relegated to spaces lined with pews. God is rushing in at us everywhere, all the time, knocking on the doors of hearts and minds that we might be made larger, more capable of doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with our God, as the prophet Micah had it.
I don’t know if the young mom and dad were church-goers, but I do know that for at least a moment they honored the God of life with their choosing the better way.
And, of course, that option is available to all of us, all of the time.
For those with the eyes to see, there’s likely more true Advent spirit evident while serving the homeless a hot meal than going through the motions of a liturgy. Don’t get me wrong here: I love gatherings of worship and believe them an essential life component for the spiritually mature. But at their best these hour-long occasions support the other 167 hours during the week in which we live and move and have our being; each of those hours an occasion for Advent enlightenment, for justice and mercy, for God’s grace to break in and shine forth making all things new.
Stephen has guided the revitalization and growth of Christ Church since 1987. As Senior Minister and head-of-staff, he is the principle preacher and worship leader and focuses energy on strategic visioning, growth and leadership development. A graduate of Occidental College and Yale University, Stephen earned a PhD in Leadership and Change at Antioch University. Contact Stephen.