The Girl From Yesterday

In 1994, fourteen years after their acrimonious breakup, the Eagles came together for a new album and worldwide tour.  The dissension that led to the group’s disintegration had been so rancorous that, when earlier asked about a reunion tour, drummer Don Henley said it would happen “when Hell freezes over.”  So naturally, the Eagles titled their new album, “Hell Freezes Over.”  Mostly, the album was a compilation of live, acoustic versions of Eagles hits: “Hotel California,” “Take It Easy,” “Tequila Sunrise”.  But there were a few new songs, including one by Glen Frey entitled, “The Girl from Yesterday.”

How the Eagles Reunited for 'Hell Freezes Over'
The Eagles on the “Hell Freezes Over” Tour

In the song, a man leaves a woman.  He not only abandons the relationship, but also the town, state, and country where they live.  He boards a plane without so much as a backward glance, and the woman is left with her yearning.  The last line of the first stanza reveals, “And she became the girl from yesterday.”

Fast forward years, and the woman still waits on the man.  She keeps vigil, never wavering, faithful and true, in hopes that he’ll come home.  The song’s bridge says:

She doesn’t know what’s right, she doesn’t know what’s wrong
She only knows the pain that comes from waiting so long
And she doesn’t count the teardrops that she’s cried while he’s away
Because she knows deep in her heart that he’ll be back someday…

I got to thinking about that Eagles song, now twenty-seven years old itself, because, though we’re all still sluffing off the effects of Thanksgiving tryptophan, today is the First Sunday of Advent.  Our posture, our horizon, our mindset changes on this day.  Today we enter into the Church’s great season of waiting.

What are we waiting for?  Well, the children among us—and the child within us—will say that we are waiting for Christmas, the Nativity, the birth—again—of the Christ child.  That’s not wrong.  We’ll pile into the Cathedral on Christmas Eve in celebration of exactly that coming.  But there may be danger if that’s only, or even primarily, what Advent waiting is all about.  Because Christmas, when it comes, is so often backward-looking.  It can be all about custom and an annual return to a gauzy past, where (in our faulty memory, at least) we felt comfortable, and content, and secure. 

In our present world, in which so much is in flux and nothing seems sure, that backward-looking waiting for the return of what was can occupy our whole attention, but it can also bring its own sort of pain.  We can cling to that past so tightly that we become calcified, trapped so that we cannot move.  Like the woman in the Eagles song, we become a modern-day Miss Havisham, living lives in which time has stopped and everything is arrested, hoping against hope that the world will go back to what it was in the ideal of our memory.  The last stanza of “The Girl from Yesterday” says:

The light’s on in the window, she’s waiting by the phone
Talking to a memory that’s never coming home
She dreams of his returning and the things that he might say
But she’ll always be the girl from yesterday
Yeah, she’ll always be the girl from yesterday.

wait | Saving Love

In our backward pining for the return of what was, we may become stunted in our willingness and ability to look forward to what can be.   And that gets us to the other way of conceiving of Advent.  We don’t talk much about it in Christianity anymore, and we especially don’t talk about it in the Episcopal Church, but Advent is the season in which we are called to wait upon not only the coming of Christmas again and again and again, but also to wait upon the Second Coming of Christ.

We ignore this doctrine of the Church in some embarrassment, I think, for two reasons.  First, because it gets confused with the odious, modern notion of the Rapture, that ridiculous and fabricated theological idea tied to John Nelson Darby.  Second, because we’ve lost our sense of the mythical, and we take too literally the images of Jesus returning on a cloud, or with a double-edged sword in his mouth like some sort of cosmic circus performer.  Nevertheless, it is one of the tragedies of contemporary Christianity that we ignore doctrines that have granted hope for millennia because we fail to understand them.

The doctrine of the Second Coming of Christ is simply this: When Jesus first lived among us, he embodied in his person the intentions of God: The ways we are to be faithful, and courageous, and love.  If ever we want to know what God is like, and how God calls us to be, we need only look at the person of Jesus.  When Jesus comes a second time, those intentions of God—that fidelity, courage, and love—will wash over the whole creation.  What was circumscribed in a single man, in the backwater of the world, will instead abide in all of us and all of our relationships.  The whole world will be consumed, healed, and fulfilled, by grace.  The brokenness, the shattering not-rightness-of-it-all will be mended into a wholeness we can scarcely imagine. 

Why wouldn’t we retain such a doctrine?  Why wouldn’t we preach it first and foremost?  Why wouldn’t it be what we are waiting for?

Because it won’t be easy.  The advent of something new never is.  Healing never is.  Whether physical, emotional, psychological, or spiritual, moving from what was into what can be—moving from yesterday to tomorrow—is often a painful process.  But it is exactly the opposite pain from the that experienced by “The Girl from Yesterday.”  Her pain was the pining, ultimately hopeless kind, the pain that comes from the wishful thinking that the past—which was never as ideal as our memory claims anyway—will return unaltered.  The pain of waiting on the return of Christ is, rather, like growing pains, the pain that knows the past must be allowed to die so that the future can be born.  Among other things, it begs the question, “What must change in me before I can be ready for Christ’s return?”  This is why the Advent readings talk of destruction and dismantling, so that we recognize that the old world of our pining, prejudice, and preconception must be let go in order to be ready, open-eyed and open-hearted, for the coming of Christ.  This is why the Book of Revelation includes twenty long chapters describing what must pass away before God says, “See, I’m making all things new.”[i]

I hope the character of our waiting in this season won’t be a vigil for the return of  the false ideal of a lost past, either personal or corporate.  Let’s instead wait in hope for the new thing God will do, in us, among us, and throughout our suffering world, when God will fulfill God’s promise to heal all brokenness, dispel all loneliness, and dry all tears. I’m already looking forward to Christmas.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  But even more, I’m looking forward to Jesus’ return, to the grace that will wash over the whole world in God’s good time, mending and making whole, ushering in goodness and grace.  Advent has begun.  And so, we wait.  With faith that moves mountains and hope eternal, we wait. 

[i] Revelation 21:5


Last year at Thanksgiving, though I didn’t get COVID (thank goodness) the pandemic nevertheless hit me like a ton of bricks.  Thanksgiving has long been for me the singular annual holiday unsullied by materialism, commercialism, and culture wars.  For me, Thanksgiving is all about relationship—both with God and with one another—and last year for good reason all our relations remained physically distant.  Because we love one another, we stayed far apart.  I can’t adequately express to you how much that wounded me.  My own family gathered only on computer screens over the holiday for a cross-country Zoom, but in some ways that merely added to the sense of loss.  Perhaps none of us recognized just how vitally important, and how fragilely precious, the immediate and tactile relationship with family is until it was denied us.

Thanksgiving Day in the United States | Britannica

Of course, we aren’t out of the COVID woods yet.  But then, we’re never really out of the woods, are we?  There is always something lurking in the darkness, waiting to pounce.  Thanksgiving is about remembering to embrace a posture of gratitude even as the perpetual shadows threaten.  And this year, we have so very much to be thankful for.  First and foremost, and with a humility that makes me want to drop to my knees and put my face in the earth, I am thankful for COVID vaccines and the women and men who have worked tirelessly to develop them. 

I am thankful for a Cathedral family whose faith has not wavered in these long months, who have continued to pray and praise, care for the weak and lonely, and support the ministry of this place in every way. 

If you’ll indulge me, I am thankful for my health, and for the way this community cared for me last spring while I recuperated.

I am thankful for my family, both my side and Jill’s, who will be with us in person this Thanksgiving, to break bread on Thursday and watch the Razorbacks beat Mizzou on Friday.  (Woo, pig!)

In a season not entirely unlike our own, through the Prophet Joel God rejoices with God’s people Israel that a hugely challenging time is subsiding, and days of celebration are on the horizon.  God says:

“Do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice, for the Lord has done great things!  Do not fear, you animals of the field, for the pastures of the wilderness are green; the tree bears its fruit, the fig tree and vine give their full yield.  O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the Lord your God; for he has given the early rain for your vindication…  The threshing-floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil…  You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you.”

Several years ago I came across a poem by Texan Dan Stone that speaks this truth exceptionally well, but in our own, more modern context.  Each time I read it, I imagine an American prophet not unlike Joel himself, reminding his family of what’s important as light begins to scatter darkness, of what they should remember, and of the blessings bestowed upon them by a beneficent God.  Here is Dan Stone’s poem:

Thanksgiving And Thankstaking

We meet here again to share what will become but memories
    of feelings too soon past that we hold close right now.

Our cause is simple, our purpose gentle, a gathering of good
    friends sharing a few moments, watching each other grow in
    body and soul.

       With no gifts to wrap,
          no candles to blow out,
          no heroes to honor,
          no resolutions to make.

       With no clothes to show off,
          no rings to finger,
          no documents to sign,
          no faces to mask.

      With no candy to give,
          no flags to wave,
          no cigars to pass out,
          no thoughts shared without caring.

Just pausing here and now, enjoying the best of each other,
    relaxing for the moment, ignoring what may come.
Recreating pieces of previous meetings, while merging what’s
    past with what is, as memories of feelings become feelings
    of memories.

Holding each other close, pushing away the darkness, keeping
    each other out of the cold.

Thankful for each and hopeful for all, a family of sorts, together.

Recognizing the plain simple joy of getting ourselves outside
    and getting outside ourselves.

Outside, to remind us that thanks inside may become
    imprisoned, lacking freedom to be exchanged as thanks
    given for thanks taken.

So we have returned to this place in our hearts, completing
    our tour of a year’s offerings, harvesting our thanks by
    being together.

Same time, same place, same friends, same things, yet all as
    different as these feelings.

There’s not much I’d rather do than mark these cycles with you.

So, please pass the turkey, and maybe a little of that dressing!!


What if God shows up?

Isaiah is having a bad time of it.  His king—King Uzziah of Judah—has died.  Political uncertainty at home couldn’t have come at a worse time.  Israel, the kingdom just to the north, has formed an alliance with Syria, and sabers are rattling.  Isaiah reacts by going to church—think of our similar reaction on September 11, 2001, when churches were filled.  Isaiah goes to the temple to offer his prayers to God, but I wonder if the desperation of his tiny nation’s circumstances renders his petitions hollow.  In other words, he likely doesn’t kneel in prayer expecting much of a response other than the echo of his own voice off the temple walls.  When we’re honest, do any of us?

          Simon is having a bad time of it.  The line between subsistence and starvation for a Galilean fisherman is a fine one.  Hasn’t it always been that way for small business owners?  All night Simon and his crew have fished, hoping the cool night air would lure the fish out of their languor.  No luck.  In the early morning Simon rows back to the shore to clean distressingly empty nets.  There will be nothing to sell this day, and little to eat.  To a wife, a family, and—lest we forget—a live-in mother-in-law, he will come home empty-handed.  The man Simon sees standing on the bank speaking to the crowd is an added distraction, and a worrisome one.  Even in the countryside, the Romans don’t like large crowds.  And now the man has walked to Simon’s own boat and stepped aboard so as to be better seen by the people.  Simon sighs at his ill luck.  His day is going from bad to worse.


The sound that erupts around Isaiah as his eyes are downcast in what he thinks is futile prayer is not his own voice.  Of that he’s sure.  He raises his eyes, and what he sees takes his breath away.  There is a throne, and upon it sits One who is indescribable.  All Isaiah can think to report is that the presence of this One seems to fill the whole temple, a space much larger than this church.  Around the throne fly seraphs, higher than angels, who leave a trail of incensed smoke in their wake and thunder with praise for the One on the throne.  This is God, and for a moment Isaiah is stricken dumb.  What do you do when you pray, not really expecting a response, and God shows up?


Simon endures the sermon of the man who has invaded his boat, but then the preacher turns to Simon himself and says, “Let’s go fishing.”

Simon responds, “Master” (and we can imagine a bit of sarcasm in the way he uses the title) “we—who do this for a living—have fished all night and caught nothing.”

“No,” Jesus replies, “put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”

Simon expects nothing but a wasted day, but with the watchful eye of the crowd upon him, what can he do?  He trolls out to the center of the lake and lowers the nets.  By the immediate creaking and listing of the boat, Simon knows something is wrong—no, not wrong, but different.  The nets fill to bursting.  They begin to tear under the strain of what they bear.  In desperation, Simon calls to nearby boats for help.  The answer to a prayer, he realizes, is sometimes more difficult to bear than the absence of one.  And his eyes turn to Jesus with wonder and some fear.


What do we expect when we lift our prayers to God?  What do we expect when we come here, to this place, on an autumn Sunday morning?  Not a whole lot, I suspect: A liturgy that flows well.  A friendly smile from a neighbor and a hand-sanitized handshake from the priest.  A hot cup of delicious Cathedral coffee, maybe.  And the sense of fulfilled duty that comes from saying the words of the prayers.  But most days our expectations aren’t a lot different than those of Isaiah or Simon Peter.

Why is that?  Is it part and parcel of the skepticism that comes from our contemporary age?  Or, is the nadir of our expectation like that of Isaiah and Simon, whose lives have simply demonstrated to them that more often than not the world wins?  Or, might we actually prefer that God stay in God’s heaven and leave us alone?  Are we, deep down, a little worried about what might happen if God showed up?

In her book Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard asks, “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?  Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?  The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.  It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets.  Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.  For the sleeping god may awake someday…[and] may draw us out to where we can never return.”[i]

TNT vs. Dynamite: What's the Difference? | Mental Floss

When God shows up in answer to Simon’s prayer he says, “I call you out into the deep waters, and you will fish for people.”

When God shows up in answer to Isaiah’s prayer, he places a live coal on Isaiah’s lips and compels Isaiah to speak.  “Here I am,” Isaiah says, “Send me!”

God shows up, and Isaiah and Simon see God.  As Annie Dillard warns, God changes them both and compels them to speak and follow, and they can never return to what they were before.


Sitting in a musty gothic classroom in 1997 at the University of Chicago, a Lutheran friend named Jay Alanis looked me squarely in the eye and said, “Barkley, God is here, doing something with you.”

“No Jay,” I responded, “I’m too much a heathen for God.”

“But Barkley,” Jay pursued with a light behind his eyes that wasn’t his own, “It’s heathens God calls.”


It is prophets.  It is fishermen.  It is skeptics.  It is the down-and-out.  It is heathens.  It is you and it is me whose prayers God answers, whom God visits and God calls.  God shows up and fills our nets at the most unexpected times and in the most unexpected ways.  If we call upon God, we’d better be ready for our lives to be thrown off balance and the wings of seraphs to graze our faces.  When God shows up, God doesn’t leave us where we are and like we are.  God moves us from the shallows in life and into the deep water.  God will put a live coal to our mouths, and we’ll find we have to speak.

The Burning Coal: Eucharist in the Old Testament – St. Paul Center

That’s the hard part, isn’t it?  That’s why we claim, with Isaiah and Simon, that we’re not worthy.  What will it look like to speak a word of God—of God’s grace, God’s love, and God’s son Jesus—not just here but out there?  How will our lives change if God pays a visit?  Where will we go?  What will we give up?  How will others look at us differently?  In what ways will we be forced to cry out to our brothers and sisters because we admit—perhaps for the first time—that our nets are tearing and we can’t make it without their help?  The answer to a prayer, we realize, sometimes may at first seem more difficult to bear than the absence of one. 

More difficult and infinitely more blessed.  Isaiah finds that the strength given him by God looses his tongue to speak words of wonder, love, and praise.  Simon Peter experiences relationship and redemption in Jesus that transforms him from backward, ego-centered, ruffian into the greatest of apostles.  In fits and starts, the heathen standing before you meets the saving grace of God that empowers me to tell you I need you and I love you, that I am a sinner but I want to be a saint.

I’ll sit down, and we’ll confess our faith, and we’ll pray.  We’ll ask God to meet us here and in our lives.  I hope we mean it.  You may want to put on your crash helmet.

[i] Dillard, Annie.  Teaching a Stone to Talk, pp. 52-53.