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Got Hope?

Will the world end if the Euro zone collapses? Will it end with rising sea levels and global droughts? Has your world already ended with prolonged unemployment or a foreclosed mortgage? Where do you find hope in a world that seems to be coming apart at the seams?

These are perfect questions for tomorrow, the first Sunday of Advent.

Advent marks the beginning of a new Christian liturgical year. On the first Sunday of this season (“New Year’s Day”) most lectionaries recommend, oddly enough, apocalyptic biblical texts for worship. So the New Year begins not at the beginning but at the End, with the second coming of Christ (not the first) and the end of the world as we know it (cue music from R.E.M.).

So stop shopping (for now), stop stressing over Christmas decorations and ponder the theme for tomorrow that sets the tone for the entire liturgical year to come: hope. What do you hope for? How does your hope shape the way you live? Does it make a difference? Where do you find what you need to replenish your hope?

Let’s be more specific: Should anyone place any hope in the U.S. political system these days? In our financial markets? Do you have any hope of being able to retire? Of having social security checks? Feeding your family? How about the Occupy Wall Street movement? Is that hopeful to you?

Questions like that make it seem far less peculiar to begin a new year with the End. I believe there’s a profound connection to tease out between how Christians navigate the liturgical year and how we think about the world around us. Advent brings this vividly to light.

Tomorrow, the Church will launch again into the great cycle of observances that take us from incarnation to epiphany and on into passion, death, resurrection, and the gift of the Spirit. That cycle takes roughly six months. And tomorrow sets the tone for the whole thing: What, finally, do we hope for from all this?

Rowan Williams, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, once described that great cycle like this: “The whole story of creation, incarnation, and our incorporation into the fellowship of Christ’s body tells us that God desires us.”

Reading aloud that one sentence in every Christian congregation each Sunday morning for a year (to ensure that every member hears it) would transform the Church more fully into the world-changing community it’s called to be. Why? Because I think most people consider themselves, at best, “tolerable,” maybe loveable (if God is the one loving), but very rarely desirable.

Williams appears to have realized this too and insisted that God’s desire for us means, quite simply and profoundly, that the Church’s job is to ensure that people see themselves as desirable and “occasions for joy.”

If the Church really did that, it would change the world. How could we ever let “desirable occasions for joy” go hungry and homeless in our streets, or turn them away at national borders, or deny them health care? How the Church worships can and should shape how the Church lives in the world.

But what about all that apocalyptic, world-ending stuff that bubbles up in Advent? Actually, all sorts of “worlds” come to an end quite regularly – personal worlds and relationships, the worlds of social institutions (banks!?), economic empires, a computer’s operating software. “Worlds” as we know them are never permanent. It’s really not so surprising that they end.

What is surprising is how people manage to live with hope in those world-ending moments. For me, I can’t do that alone. I need a community and I need regular reminders about where true hope can be found. That’s what Advent is all about.

I find it helpful to remember that the word “apocalypse” (which we usually translate as “revelation”) has its origins in a rather ordinary Greek word that referred to a cover, like the lid on a jar. Put a prefix on the front and a verb ending on the back and you get apocalypto, which ancient Greeks probably used every time they opened something. It just means “to take the lid off.”

I believe revelations happen all the time. I believe the Apocalypse unfolds constantly. I believe the advent of Christ is ongoing, not isolated to a moment 2,000 years ago, nor to a far-distant future we cannot see. Everything about life, our relationships, our struggles, our dreams, and fears can “take the lid off” God in our midst. That’s when hope happens, and it changes us so that we can change the world.

May all of us find ourselves desirable this Advent season and treat one another as occasions for joy.

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Unsatisfied, Thankfully

I love Thanksgiving – the food, the friends, the many reasons to give thanks. Others dread this day, maybe because of family arguments that will inevitably ensue around the table, or having no family at all, or just because all the Norman Rockwell nostalgia over holidays never quite seems to match reality.

More than nostalgia, holiday hype promises much more than it can deliver – perfect happiness and fulfillment. So just in case fulfillment eludes you today, you can always go to the mall tomorrow, the official kick-off of the holiday shopping season.

Holiday hype distills a more general feature of American society today: our obsession with food and sex and our simultaneous confusion about both.

In a society with growing obesity rates, publishing houses churn out new cookbooks nearly every week, which often occupy one of the largest sections in today’s big-box bookstores. Similarly, advertisers drench popular culture with sex and sexuality – on billboards, in magazines, and television shows – as if sex is the only thing any of us wants, which each of us will somehow get if we buy their products.

If we can’t get sex, perhaps we can have food, or perhaps eat while waiting for sex. Few rarely admit that neither food nor sex really matches the exaggerated promises for happiness and fulfillment peddled by their purveyors.

I once heard a conference speaker begin his talk with an old joke. “Sex is like pizza,” he said. “Even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good.” People laughed but a bit uncomfortably; they knew it wasn’t true.

When sex is “bad” there’s hardly anything good about it. More than a few people find sex far less satisfying than they’ve been told it ought to be and then wonder if there’s something wrong with them for not liking it quite so much. For others, sex has too often been a site of control or manipulation, or worse, violent trauma. Still others turn to either food or sex or both as analgesics, hoping they might deaden the pain of loneliness or of failed relationships or of the ever-elusive quest to find life “satisfying.”

People are confused about these things for good reason. Western culture trains most of us from an early age to see ourselves as consumers in a world brimming with commodities. Endless consumption defines the meaning of life itself. St. Augustine’s fifth century insight about the dangers of desire seems particular apt today. As western culture throws itself into the frenzy of consuming, desire withers. Pursuing more and more “stuff” anesthetizes hunger until we hardly know what we really want.

Consider what many will likely experience on this Thanksgiving Day (including me). Staggering away from the table of feasting, nearly every bodily system will shut down to focus on just one task: digestion. The very last thing on one’s mind at that moment is desire.

That moment works perfectly to describe a consumerist culture, which runs not on desire but on digestion. We shop, buy, eat, consume, and digest as much as we can in a vain attempt to touch the deeper longing that most have now forgotten. I call that forgotten longing the “desire for communion.”

That’s why I continue to focus my spiritual practice on another kind of “thanksgiving” – the Eucharist. That ancient Christian rite of worship is familiar to many but it’s also quite peculiar. One of the more peculiar things is this: we call it a “meal” and sometimes a “feast” but we receive only a tiny piece of bread and just a sip of wine.

That’s peculiar for good reason, because the Eucharist is not supposed to be satisfying. The word eucharist means “thanksgiving,” but it’s not supposed to make us feel the way many of us do after a feast of roast turkey.

The Eucharist turns on desire, not digestion. The rite is meant to reawaken our desire and sharpen our hunger, not just for more bread and more wine, but hunger for an end to poverty and homelessness; hunger for a flourishing planet of social and economic justice; hunger for that kind of communion with each other and with God that we have not yet enjoyed in its fullness.

I am truly grateful for many things. As I sit down later today to a wonderful meal with good friends, I will be giving thanks. And I will try to keep that other table of Thanksgiving in mind as well, to sharpen my desire for a world where everyone can enjoy God’s abundance.

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The Privilege of “Non-Violence”

A small group of “agitators” disrupted an otherwise “peaceful” demonstration and general strike in Oakland this past Wednesday with moments of “violence.” The swift disavowal of that violence by just about everyone but the agitators themselves raised some red flags for me. (Read about what happened here, and especially the remarkable notion that shutting down a commercial port qualifies as “peaceful” protest.)

We don’t know exactly who those agitators were. We don’t know precisely why they engaged in vandalism or why they incited the police. But apparently that doesn’t matter; their violence was wrong. The violence of the general strike itself, however, is perfectly acceptable. Why? What’s the difference?

Among the many peculiar stories in the gospel accounts, I can’t stop thinking about the one so often called the “cleansing of the temple” (see Mt. 21:12-13; Mk. 11:15-19; Lk. 19:45-46; and Jn. 2:13-16).  Whatever Jesus did that day – overturning tables, driving people out, whipping bad religious bankers with a cat-o-nine tails – whatever it was, he disrupted a corrupt system and he got into a lot of trouble for it. And let’s be clear: what he did was violent. I mean, don’t you think it was? If not, what counts as “violent” for you?

There are lots of squishy words running through our public and private speeches these days, whether in Congress or at the water cooler or in our living rooms. “Anarchists” is a favorite one of late as it lumps all those people together who don’t behave in public the way the rest of us would prefer. “Wealth” is another notoriously squishy word. Compared to the vast majority of people on this planet, if you don’t worry about where your next meal is coming from and you have a roof over your head, you are wealthy.

“Violence” is just as squishy. We use it in all sorts of ways, as if they all mean the same kind of thing. We “do violence” to a text by misinterpreting it. We “do violence” to ideas when we misrepresent their meaning. If you eat meat of any kind, you are responsible for doing violence to an animal. We “do violence” to humans in all sorts of ways as well, some horrific and physical, others far more subtle, emotional and relational.

So what counts as acceptable and unacceptable violence, and who decides, and why?

I don’t know. But I’ll offer two observations, though I’m not sure yet how to connect these to my peculiar faith in the supposedly “non-violent” Jesus.

First, a “general strike” is not an instance of non-violent protest. A general strike, if successful, disrupts the economy of an entire city, and that hurts both businesses and people. Sure, the hurt is temporary, but let’s not pretend that a general strike is merely “harmless” protest. It is, in my view, a form of violence. Both the religious and civic authorities in Jesus’ day apparently thought so, too. Disrupting systems of monetary exchange is a violent act – and those first century authorities responded with violence in return; they crucified Jesus.

Second, the privilege I enjoy because of my class, race, and gender makes it very unlikely that I will ever engage in acts of vandalism. My comfortable job and cozy home blunt what would otherwise be a far sharper disgust and anger toward the corruption of both our financial system and politicians.

But if my house had been foreclosed on by a bank that was later charged with fraudulent mortgage practices and that reaped huge profits without paying hardly any taxes at all – well, I’m not so sure I wouldn’t be out on the streets smashing that bank’s windows.

In short, I worry that even defining what counts as “non-violence” is yet another realm that belongs to the privileged.

I’m thinking about this at all because something is going on in my own backyard – not because of the decades-long struggle in Israel/Palestine, not because of the conflict between China and Tibet, not because Egyptians gathered in Tahrir Square in much the same way that my own neighbors are gathering in Oakland – and that speaks volumes about the privilege I currently enjoy.

I wonder how long that privilege will last. I wonder how that privilege shapes my reading of the Gospel. I wonder if I would care so terribly much about defining “violence” so precisely if I lost my job, my house, my health insurance, my credit cards, and the ridiculously easy access I have to food at the local Safeway. The definition of violence varies, I should think, depending on whether you’re defining it next to a cozy fireplace or seeking shelter beneath a freeway overpass.

These are peculiar quandaries for a peculiar faith. At the very least, I think they ought to lead Christians beyond our usual comfort zones and into something like “transformation.” What will that look like? Offer your suggestions here…please.

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All the Saints or Just the 1%?

I love All Saints’ Day. I wonder if all the saints do, too.

I imagine many “official” saints of the Church as a bit cranky about their saintly ecclesial status. Many of them were critics, and sometimes severely so, of religious authority (what we might call today the “loyal opposition”). Others railed against poverty or injustice or put both their reputations and their lives on the line for the unwanted and throw-aways of their day – often to the chagrin of their own religious leaders.

Achieving “sainthood” was certainly not why any of them did what they did. And that makes me wonder whether the process of canonization more often resembles domestication. By calling someone a saint, whether religiously (the apostle Paul or Francis of Assisi) or culturally (9/11 heroes, war veterans), a community can regulate how that saintly story is told. The story can be tidied up, scrubbed clean of the troubling bits, or “spun” to advance all sorts of institutional goals, and all for the sake of, well, sanctity.

But “sanctity” according to whom?

Sanctity is related to words like “sacred,” “holy,” and “hallowed” (Halloween!) and more generally to the idea of being “set apart” from the ordinary, the routine, and the expected. Or more simply, holy things are peculiar. Holy things and peculiar people are set aside for sacred purposes. But what counts as “sacred”?

Saint Paul argued vigorously for the inclusion of Gentiles in the early Christian Church, people who were certainly not “holy” by the religious standards of his day (see Acts 15). Saint Francis of Assisi loved animals, but he also loved the poor and all those considered “lepers” – those who were certainly not “holy” by the religious standards of his day.

Saints seem to push on the boundaries between the sacred and the secular, challenging their communities to see God’s amazing grace stretching well beyond where anyone thought it could go.

I love All Saints’ Day for all the peculiar stories of heroic courage and selfless love and even miraculous powers that fill Christian history. And I love All Saints’ Day for the stories of those who realized that doubt is an important part of faith, and those who didn’t always know precisely the right thing to do but but who acted boldly with hope nonetheless, and those who weren’t afraid to love extravagantly, even at the risk of scandal.

Faith, hope, and love – these aren’t the marks of just a few special people. These belong to the whole people of God, to all of us, to all the saints. And the greatest of these, Paul wrote, is love (1 Corinthians 13:13).

And I love All Saints’ Day for one of the biblical texts assigned for worship on this day, which comes from the Revelation to John. Yes, that biblical book can be troubling in some respects, but for me, this wonderfully peculiar passage makes up for all the rest:

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’ (Rev. 7:9-10).

Saints are not just the religious 1%, nor are they the vast 99%. In the end, saints are all the familiar ones we know, the ones we’ve never heard of, and you and me – a vast multitude no one can count, who boast not in their own faith, or hope, or even love but declare only the amazing grace of God.

Claim that sainthood for yourself on this wonderfully peculiar day.