Keep Ringing the Bell

Isaiah 2: 1-5

At the end of Duke of Gloucester Street, which runs through the heart of the historic area of Williamsburg, Virginia, stands the campus of the College of William and Mary, named for King William III and Queen Mary II, who founded the school in the year 1693. It is the oldest college in the South, the second oldest university in the United States. And it has a distinguished history. It is the alma mater of Thomas Jefferson and 16 signers of the Declaration of Independence, as well as the birth place of Phi Beta Kappa and the collegiate honor system.

But in the years following the Civil War, the South lay devastated. Many homes and farms and businesses had been destroyed and the economy of the South was in ruins. The College of William and Mary also suffered greatly at that time. The buildings began to fall into disrepair. There was no money to pay faculty or rebuild. There were no students. Weeds began to take over the campus. And so it was in 1881, almost 200 years after it was founded, William and Mary closed its doors. The roof tumbled in. The windows were broken. And the school was abandoned. And forgotten. Except for one person who would not let the dream die, the president of the school, Benjamin Stoddert Ewell.

President Ewell determined that this once proud school, for which he had invested so much of his life and had given so much of his energy, that this school dedicated to teaching the young men of Virginia leadership in the community and in the church, could not be allowed to die. So without any funds, without any support from the state, every morning he would arise and go to the bell tower of the school. And he rang that bell, every day, for seven years.

On that deserted campus, he rang the bell for classes to which no one came, because he believed that the hope and the dream should never die. He rang that bell as he petitioned the state legislature year after year. Until, after seven long years, his hope was realized when the doors of the college were opened to students once again.

I believe that our task for this Advent season is similar. To ring a bell of hope in a world that has become increasingly cynical and apathetic about the possibility of humankind ever really knowing peace on earth. Advent is that special season in the church of: expectation and hope, watching and waiting. Hoping and waiting for the promise of Christ’s reign to come, for the good things that were supposed to follow Christ’s coming to finally happen. In this way, it is really counter-cultural.

Peter Gomes, the chaplain at Harvard University writes: “Advent is not celebration; it is not the moment for dancing around the light pole. Advent hope is not an exercise in nostalgia or seasonal optimism. Advent hope is not celebration but fortification against the very forces that would drive us to despair and drag us downward. Advent is an exercise in endurance, in preparation for the long journey to a time and place where we have not yet been and for which all of the past and all of the present are mere preparation…Advent hope reminds us that it takes courage to hope in spite of the circumstances, courage to persevere beyond the apparent and the convenient, courage not to be satisfied or dissuaded with our circumstances.” Gomes then adds, “It is the courage not of our convictions, but of our imagination; and perhaps the most courageous thing to do in desperate, disappointing times such as these is to affirm a steadfast hope out of all proportion to what passes for reality.” (Strength for the Journey, pp. 183, 186)  In the introduction of his book, The Soul of Politics, Jim Wallis makes this realistic assessment of the world.

“The world isn’t working. Things are unraveling, and most of us know it…Bonds of family and community are fraying. Our most basic virtues of civility, responsibility, justice and integrity seem to be collapsing. We appear to be losing the ethics derived from personal commitment, social purpose, and spiritual meaning. The triumph of materialism is hardly questioned now, in any part of our society. Both domestically and globally, we are divided along the lines of race, ethnicity, class, gender, religion, culture and tribe…” (Sojourners, September-October 1994, p. 15)

Those words were written in 1994. But sadly, when we turn on the TV and watch the evening news or pick up the morning paper and read the headlines, the world of 2007 is pretty much the same as the world of 1994. Only today, there is the added burden of our nation being at war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Is it any wonder then that so many people have adopted a passive attitude of resignation – accepting the way the world is, as it always has been and ever will be. And so they live with limited expectations of change and only a modest hope for the future.

Long ago, way back to the latter half of the eighth century before Christ was born, Isaiah brought a word from God to his people at a time when that world was darkly shadowed. Israel was surrounded by enemies on all sides. The nation was under fearful threat of attack and warfare. The once great nation of Israel and the holy city of Jerusalem had fallen into decline. Chaos is not too strong a word for how the world felt to them. One commentator compares the feeling to the words of the 20th century poet, William Butler Yeats.

“Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

Into the midst of this dark and gloomy situation, Isaiah spoke a promise of what God would do in the future. With the gift of a poet’s imagination, he describes a vision of peace, of a world without war. “In the days to come,” he wrote, “the nations shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

It is a wonderful and compelling vision. But is it just wishful thinking? That was almost 3,000 years ago, after all. The writer Frederick Buechner counters, saying that, “Christianity is mainly wishful thinking.” And “sometimes wishing is the wings the truth comes true on.” And “sometimes the truth is what sets us wishing for it.” (Wishful Thinking, p. 96)

I think by “wishful” Buechner means “hopeful.” For Christianity is more about hopeful thinking, the hope we have in God. That’s what sets hope apart from optimism. Optimism is a good thing, the attitude that says the sun will come out tomorrow. But hope says that even if the sun does not come out tomorrow, there will be goodness at work behind the dark clouds, and one day the sun will shine so gloriously that we will see how God has been present all along. (see Weavings, Nov-Dec 1999, p.17) Hope faces reality head-on and trusts that God will carry us through.

The problem is though; it is very hard to maintain hope for that which we have waited so long.

We’re all familiar with waiting and hoping for things to change aren’t we? Some wait for the winds to shift, tides to rise or fortunes to improve. Others wait for ships to come in, health to come back, or reconciliation to come around. Still others wait for peace and justice to win out. Isaiah’s vision of all nations streaming to the mountain of the Lord together where they will learn war no more may be a glorious vision, but we are far from there, very far.

It is easy to wait while expecting the best. But time has a way of wearing us down so that we wind up, instead, expecting the worst. Our figures of speech give us away. We talk about “waiting for the axe to fall,” or “the sky to fall.” Then there’s that strange and familiar euphemism, “waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

Waiting is hard. Hoping is harder the longer we wait.

Annie Dillard tells of the pastor whose intercessory prayer included some moving petitions for a better world. As he came to the close of the prayer, he included these words: “But thou knowest, O God, that we ask these same things Sunday after Sunday. So we confess to you our discouragement that so little progress is made.” Says Annie, “His prayer was so painfully honest that I knew I had finally found a preacher who was realistic and yet faithful.”

If we are realistic, as beautiful as the words of Isaiah are about swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, doesn’t that vision maybe strike you as impossible? Of course it is. Given history, the prospect of the world at peace does seem unrealistic and impossible. That is…until it happens, like the peaceful fall of the Berlin Wall, the peaceful end of Apartheid in South Africa, the fragile peace in Northern Ireland. Then what has seemed impossible becomes viewed as having been inevitable.

Comments Jim Wallis, “In hindsight we can see how everything fell into place and that it was quite natural, even reasonable, that it would happen. It was inevitable – at least it seems that way in hindsight. Inevitable in hindsight and impossible in foresight…the door of hope always leads from one reality to another.” (Sojourners, September-October 1994, p. 18)

Our challenge in this season of Advent is to be both hopeful and faithful, even as we are realistic. Hope is the willingness to believe in the inevitable before it even becomes possible, and to live in such a way as to help make the impossible happen.

There is a verse in Proverbs that says, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Hope enables us to have the vision to imagine that someday swords will be hammered into plowshares, someday spears will be beaten into pruning hooks, and someday nation shall not lift up sword against nation. As Peter Gomes suggests, the hope we have in this vision of peace is not so much an act of will, as it is an act of imagination and the courage to persevere.

Every morning for seven years President Ewell got up out of his bed and walked to that tower to ring a bell, because he believed in the vision of William and Mary and refused to give up on it.

As Christians we are called to keep ringing a bell – a bell of hope that testifies to our faith in God’s future. We are called to wait and pray for a world at peace. And so every morning in our prayers, we are to go to that bell tower. Because this world does not move forward yards at a time, but it creeps forward inch by inch, on our knees in prayer.

May it be so. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.