The Dalai Lama during his most recent visit to Emory, in 2013.
John 1:6-8, 19-28
When I was in seminary at Emory, the Dalai Lama visited. By that point, Emory had established a relationship with him, granting him an honorary professorship as part of the Emory-Tibet Initiative, a broad project with branches in science, culture, and spirituality. (1)
I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting. At the time, I was only just vaguely aware of the Dalai Lama or his life and impact on the world.
My friend Paul from college came over from Birmingham to Atlanta specifically for the visit, and he explained much more to me about the Dalai Lama than I knew already. Paul is a therapist by trade and quite frankly has always been more naturally spiritual than me. So it was Paul who convinced me that this internationally important figure was worth seeing, so I got us tickets to a couple of events.
One of them was called something like “The Professor’s Office Hours,” modeled after the usual custom of teachers and professors having hours when students can come and ask their own questions.
The question I remember most clearly is when one undergraduate guy got up, looking like that guy — you know, the one who wants to impress everyone with how smart he seems. Now, I should add that we graduate students were not always generous with the undergraduates, which is another spiritual matter that the Dalai Lama and I could work on.
Anyhow, this guy gets up and his image is cast on the screens around the arena we were sitting in. He asks the Dalai Lama what he clearly thinks is a profound question:
“Your Holiness, if you had been silent your whole life and then suddenly had the ability to speak, what would you say?”
Many of us, myself included, internally rolled our eyes but tried to remain polite for the sake of our famous Tibetan visitor. To our surprise, a solitary giggle rung out through the arena, echoing off the walls.
His Holiness was cracking up.
Finally, he got some words out: “What a silly question!” he said. “If I were able to speak and was hungry, I would say, ‘I am hungry!’ Next question. Thank you — sorry” (and he giggled some more) “Thank you.” He smiled at the young man, who, based on his expression, wasn’t quite sure what just happened.
Paul and I spent the rest of his visit quoting that moment: “What a silly question!”
Indeed, many of the spiritual questions that we think are profound actually end up being quite silly if you think about them for long enough.
I imagine that Jesus might have taken the same tone when his disciples asked him questions like “How should we pray?” I imagine him giggling and saying, “What a silly question! You speak to God!” then, when the disciples pressed him, he gave them the Lord’s Prayer. The Gospel writer just left out the part where Jesus just joyfully made fun of the disciples in all their seriousness.
But then there are the simple questions that people think are dumb questions but end up being quite profound. Like each and every Advent, when someone is staring at the Advent wreath and they finally dare to ask: “What’s up with the pink candle?”
“Mary’s favorite color was pink,” I joked once, before seeing that the person believed me because people believe you when you have on a clergy collar and are talking about religious things. (Besides, we all know that Mary was way more into blue, if you ask the Catholics.)
We light that pink candle today, on the third Sunday of Advent, which our ancestors in faith named Gaudette Sunday, after the first words of the introit in the Latin mass for the day. If were were Roman Catholics listening to a Latin introit today, we would hear: “Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete.”
“Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say: rejoice!”
Okay, but really though: why pink?
Because, as many of you will remember, until relatively recently, Advent was purple just like Lent — which makes sense, because they’re both seasons of preparation: Lent for Easter, Advent for Christmas. As the third Sunday of Advent is all about lightening up a little bit to allow ourselves to rejoice, they decided to lighten the color, too. And if you lighten a shade of purple enough, it makes, you guessed it: pink.
At some point relatively recently we decided to differentiate between Advent and Lent, and decided Advent should be blue instead of purple, to signal the coming dawn.
So there you go. Sometimes, it helps to ask, even if you feel silly.
Last week in the Gospel, we had John the Baptist preaching repentance. The Sunday before that, we had the stars falling from the sky as Jesus foretold the apocalypse. This week, there’s joy: joy in the psalm, “rejoice always” in the Thessalonians text, good news in the Old Testament passage.
Then in the Gospel: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light” (John 1:6-8).
This is why I love Advent. When you act like it’s Christmas for all of December, you get nice completed manger scenes and reindeer and Santa Claus. When you go all in on Advent, however, you don’t get Frosty the Cheery Snowman; you get John the Baptist, clearly an outcast, eating bugs and wearing camel’s hair.
Lutherans are weird.
People have argued over the years about the significance of John the Baptizer — what was his role, really?
My theory is that he was so weird that Jesus by comparison seemed quite normal and easy to listen to. It was his eccentricity that really prepared the way of the Lord.
But John also represents something else: in this first chapter of John, scholars (let’s be real: my favorite scholars) suggest that John here represents not only himself, but the entire prophetic tradition: everyone who ever pointed the way towards God before him.
And they ask him a whole bunch of silly questions: “Who are you? Are you Elijah? Are you the prophet? WHO ARE YOU?!”
And I imagine him giggling a bit like the Dalai Lama, because he never really answers, but puts himself right in the middle of the prophetic tradition by quoting Isaiah.
Religious leaders have always had their ways of answering our questions by way of not really answering them, but the point is, he came to testify to the light, and today, Advent takes a turn towards joy.
The Dalai Lama’s latest book, gifted to me by one of you, is called The Book of Joy and is written alongside Archbishop Desmond Tutu and written largely in conversation form between the two. The opening chapter is called, “Why are You Not Morose?”
The chapter details the conversation between the two on why the Dalai Lama is so joyful considering that he is in exile from his home country and can probably never go back. Archbishop Tutu asks him, “Why are you not morose?”
As the Dalai Lama’s translator tries to come up with a good translation, the archbishop clarifies: “Sad.”
The Dalai Lama takes the Archbishop’s hand, the author says, as if comforting him while he relives the painful events of his exile. He speaks of how an Indian teacher taught him that if you can do nothing about your tragedy, it makes little sense to worry about it. The archbishop laughs here — as if at the simplicity of it all. The Dalai Lama also speaks of the suffering of others giving him perspective, and about how his exile has allowed him to travel much more than he would have been able to if he had been confined to leading in Tibet.
Then Archbishop Tutu sums up my own experience of going to see the Dalai Lama those years ago:
The Archbishop says to his Holiness, “When you smile your face lights up… Because, again, you have not said, ‘Well how can I be happy?’ … You’ve said, ‘How can I help to spread compassion and love?’ And people everywhere in the world, even when they don’t understand your English, they come and they fill stadiums. I’m not really jealous. I speak far better English than you, and I don’t get so many people coming to hear me as they come to you. And you know what? I don’t think they come to listen…. What they’ve come for is that you embody something, which they feel…
The archbishop continues“And I hope we can convey to God’s children out there how deeply they are loved. How deeply, deeply precious they are to this God. Even the despised refugee whose name no one seems to know. I look frequently at pictures of people fleeing from violence, and there’s so much of it…. I say that God is crying, because that is not how God wanted us to live. But you see again even in those circumstances, you have these people who come … to try to help… and through the tears, God begins to smile.
Desmond Tutu concludes, “And when God sees you and hears how you try to help God’s children, God smiles.”
There was a person sent from God, whose name is John.
There was a person sent from God, whose name is the Dalai Lama.
There was a person sent from God, whose name was Desmond Tutu.
There was a person sent from God, whose name is your name.
Advent reminds us that the world is hurting, but it also reminds us to smile, and to dare to try to make God smile, too.
And how, you might ask, do you make God smile?
What a silly question!
Help someone, and if all else fails — do something funny. Amen.
1. You can read more about the Emory-Tibet initiative here.