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The Mayans Were Wrong, but Mostly Right: Advent and Apocalypse

World-ending moments are no laughing matter; I take them quite seriously. But let’s be clear about this: whatever might happen on December 21, 2012, it won’t even come close to resembling 2012, the blockbuster film by Roland Emmerich (even though I enjoyed watching it).

mayan_apocalypseLet’s be clear about this, too: as 12/21/12 unfolds mostly like every other day, that won’t mean that the Mayans were “wrong.” It will mean that certain interpretations of a wonderful artifact of an ancient civilization were wrong. But that doesn’t mean that the ancient Mayans have nothing to say to us today.

I think the Mayans were profoundly right about this: time has punctuation points. That insight seems embedded in the calendric genius of that Mesoamerican people. All sorts of worlds come to an end on a regular basis – personal, familial, social, political, and ecological “worlds” end with astonishing regularity.

Just reflect on the otherwise mundane moment of your childhood world ending in an onslaught of hormones that ushers in a new world of adolescence and eventually adulthood. Consider the world of collegiate companionship and study ending with “commencement.” How about the intimate world of marriage ending in divorce? And didn’t the world of Medieval Christendom reach a dramatic end in the Protestant Reformation? How about the world of established churches ending in the American Revolution? Is the world of heterosexual privilege ending with each new moment of legislated marriage equality? How much of the world of Jim Crow lingers even after the Civil Rights Act?

All sorts of “worlds” end all the time, nearly every day. The question is not if they will end but rather what we shall do in their midst and in their wake.

World-ending moments can mark profound beginnings as well, even when they seem to elude us. That’s how I read the Mayan calendar, not about specific dates but about punctuation points: worlds end and new ones emerge.

That’s how I read the Christian gospel texts as well. Those texts seem to offer a truly peculiar insight about world-ending moments. Precisely when the “world” of the first-century Jesus movement appeared to reach a tragic end with crucifixion, just then something new blossomed forth. That’s the logic of Advent as well, though wonderfully peculiar: the birth of a baby signals the end of a world. A new one is coming…

Ah, but there’s the rub, right? How do we cope with our various worlds ending even when new ones are peaking over the horizon? Why do worlds usually end in pain? What do we do with all that suffering?

In the face of such questions, I can only hold on to the glimmers of light, the slight flickers of a single candle in the darkness. Whatever spiritual discipline I can muster, it’s rooted there: nurturing the embers of hope when advent_candles2world-ending moments loom:

  • For four years I lived in a domestic world in which my mother lived with me. That world ended when Mom moved, this past October, to an elder-care residence. She’s safer there and I’m saner. But that world-ending moment is still tinged with sadness;
  • My childhood world of Evangelical Christian faith collapsed when I came out as gay man at Wheaton College (in Illinois!). A whole new world emerged in its wake, but I was deeply saddened by that experience of abandonment;
  • My friends who divorce, friends with miscarried pregnancies, a fire in a church building, a dear one with cancer, a beloved pet who dies, moving to a new city – lights flicker in all this but threaten to go out in the flood of violence.

At least twenty-seven worlds ended this past Friday in Connecticut, punctuated by the horrific deaths of children. These worlds echo the ones that end nearly every day in every Metropolitan center in the U.S. For me, it’s hard to imagine anything worse.

In the midst of world-ending moments, I don’t look for “answers” anymore. I look for relationships. I don’t see any other way forward. So if you want to prepare for world-ending moments, let me suggest a “to do list.” (And I would gladly welcome suggestions for how to do these things and to add to the list.)

  1. Love Fiercely. Very little if anything matters as much as this. Even more, it’s the one thing that lasts. “Many waters cannot quench love” (Song of Songs, 8:7) because “love never ends” (1 Corinthians 13:8). Don’t ever miss an opportunity to love, because love is stronger than death.
  2. Forgive Freely. So many of us hold on to so much that really doesn’t matter. Let it go. I mean the small slights and the big ones. This is perhaps the biggest challenge to human community. How can we possibly forgive what seems unforgivable? I don’t know. But I do know that upon that question so much depends.
  3. Act Boldly. You don’t have to stand at a podium on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. to do this. You can write a letter, send an email, actually talk to your Starbuck’s barista. Just break the shells of our isolation. Meet your neighbors. Visit your local food bank. Volunteer there.
  4. Huddle Close. Forget Martha Stewart holiday planning (trust me, this is difficult for me). Just relish being close to loved ones. Establish beachheads of fierce love and free forgiveness in your home. Hold all those wacky people close. Relish the “word made flesh” in them, even if you can’t speak it.

communityHere’s the thing: worlds end. In the end, I turn to this, from the prayer for the first Sunday of Advent in The Book of Common Prayer: “cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” That “armor” is love.

Just love.

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Bubble-Work: An Advent Agenda, Part 1

Impatient prophets; a cranky Jesus; an apocalyptic Paul – that’s what Episcopalians have been encountering in the Bible lately if they are following the Daily Office lectionary this Advent season. This is hardly the stuff of holiday lights, cookie baking, or shopping malls.

The rhythms of the Christian liturgical year and their attendant biblical texts are supposed to interrupt “business-as-usual” and often quite rudely. Over the last couple of weeks those texts for this season have presented Isaiah’s denunciations of wealthy comfort, Jesus’ confrontations with self-satisfied religious leaders, and Paul’s urgent call to prepare for the coming “Day of the Lord.” I think that qualifies as “rude” two weeks before Christmas, at least in the United States.

advent_bubble3It’s especially rude here in the San Francisco Bay Area “bubble” where I live and work. Professionally, this bubble allows me teach theology and use the word “queer” positively without giving it a second thought. Personally, this bubble keeps me remarkably safe if I want to hold hands with another man in public.

Life outside the bubble is a bit, well, different. I often say that wryly, even tongue-in-cheek. But something usually interrupts that smugness to remind me that my bubble-privilege comes with responsibilities.

Those reminders have been building, nearly tsunami-like on the horizon. They urge me to remember what the Santa-clad Starbucks cups and the roof-top Rudolph on my suburban block can so quickly obscure inside the Bubble: Advent prepares us to be changed by Christmas so that we can change the world.

Among the many ways Advent has been calling me to put my bubble-privilege to work, here are just a few:advent_kadaga_pope

  • The “Kill the Gays” legislation in Uganda has been moving forward, and one of its primary proponents, Uganda Parliament Speaker Rebecca Kadaga, just received a blessing from the Pope at the Vatican. Kadaga, you may recall, rather famously promised the passage of this legislation as a “Christmas present” to Ugandan Christians. Let the record of ironic moments duly note this: The Ugandan delegation was in Rome, in part, to attend the World Parliamentary Conference on Human Rights.
  • In the wake of the decision by the Supreme Court of the United States to hear not one but two marriage equality cases this term, Justice Antonin Scalia made some rather curious remarks at a gathering in Princeton. He tried to defend the legitimacy of legislation that relies on moral condemnations of homosexuality. More pointedly, Scalia wondered (rhetorically?) whether we can’t have any moral objections to murder if we can’t have moral objections to homosexuality. So I guess people who object morally to my dating another man should feel just fine about killing me as well.
  • The distance between Uganda and Antonin Scalia shrinks considerably in the light of anti-LGBT violence. The number of “official” anti-gay murders in the U.S. in 2011 was the highest on record. The less-than-murder versions of anti-LGBT violence ought also to give us pause.
  • While a gay-friendly Mosque where men and women can pray together held its first service recently in Paris (at an undisclosed location for security reasons), All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Pasadena has been the target of ugly emails and threats (from Christians!) just for hosting an Islamic group. Peace on Earth and good will to all? Hardly.

That’s just a short list of the people and places “lost in the valley of the night” and the hope of a “people who are climbing to the light.” Those are of course lyrics from Les Miserables, the film version of which opens on Christmas Day. That musical also includes a question perfectly suitable for Advent: “Beyond the barricades, is there a world you long to see?”

Substitute “bubble” for “barricades” and my Advent agenda quickly takes shape.

advent_candles2Advent is about a new world, the world we long to see when we attend carefully to the visions of ancient prophets, the exhortations of Jesus, and the apocalyptic ranting of Paul. The birth Christians will celebrate in just eleven days evokes far less about the endearing qualities of a baby and much more about the new world God wants to midwife.

I am profoundly grateful for the bubble in which I live and work. Advent urges me to tap that gratitude for a world-changing agenda. In Part Two of this post, I’ll outline just a few nodes of that agenda as we prepare to be changed at Christmas so that we can change the world.