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Advent: Let it Be Strange and Unsettling

Tucked away between Thanksgiving and Christmas are the four Sundays of Advent. I love this season, in part because it’s probably one of the more counter-cultural moments on the Christian calendar. While the wider society gears up for the “holidays” (a.k.a. shopping) and “Christmas” music floods the airwaves, the new liturgical year begins, not with the baby Jesus in a manger, but with the second coming of Christ at the end of time.black_friday.jpg

On the first Sunday of Advent, many Christians will hear (perhaps with some alarm) a whole array of biblical texts rooted in apocalyptic or eschatological sensibilities. Most mainline or “liberal” congregations likely find this quite perplexing, maybe even a bit embarrassing. But I think we should let this first Sunday of the new year remain strange and unsettling; let’s keep it odd and disruptive enough to inspire hope.

We might recall, for example, that the Greek word eschaton means “last thing.” But “last” can mislead us. Rather than referring to something like a final chapter, “last” most often refers to a fresh beginning in Christian traditions; the end of this world inaugurates new life in God.

“World” deserves further scrutiny as well. That word in biblical texts rarely if ever refers to planet Earth. The Greek word usually translated as “world” is kosmos, at once more expansive than this planet (the whole of reality) and much smaller than Earth (one’s own social location or neighborhood). In that sense, all sorts of “worlds” come and go with some regularity, whether the world of one’s personal relationships, or of one’s biological family or a professional career, or the “world” of commerce, of nation-states, and ecosystems.

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Detail from Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment”

I imagine few Christians relish delving into these apocalyptic themes on a Sunday morning while thinking about buying a Christmas tree that afternoon. Yet in a world of violence – whether overseas in distant deserts or European cities or in our own backyard – the strangeness of Advent can remind us about the vital and disruptive character of hope itself.

“Business as usual” simply will not do in a society marked by gross income inequality, violence against women, and so many unexamined social policies rooted in white supremacy. Each of those “worlds” Christians should be glad to see end. Frankly, given the current state of affairs, I’m not optimistic that they will end any time soon.

That’s why I need Advent’s unsettling insistence on hope.

Unsettling, because hope inspires us to live in anticipation of a new world, even when we can’t see how things could possibly change.

Unsettling, because hope urges us to act on behalf of a new world that we can’t yet see (Romans 8:24-25).

Unsettling, because hope might convince us to set aside old, familiar things, even the most comfortable things, to make room for the new thing that God is constantly bringing about (Isaiah 42:9 and 43:19).

To be sure, apocalyptic texts and traditions can sometimes fuel armed conflict as a strategy for social change, or portray the world neatly divided between the saved and the damned, or simply breed complacency and neglect over this world in favor of the next one yet to come. That’s why Advent 1 cannot stand alone. We need the rest of the liturgical year to guide our vision toward the presently unimaginable – a world of peace with justice where all can thrive and flourish.

When that unimaginable world seems so terribly far out of reach, complacency feels easier – or more accurately, the paralysis of despair. That’s when I need to be troubled and startled into a fresh encounter with hope.

The shopping can wait. So can the Christmas tree. And, for right now, so can the baby Jesus. Right now, I need to sit with the strange and unsettling rhythms of Advent.

May this season stir up our collective imaginations for a different world – and the courage to help usher it in.advent1

The collect for the First Sunday of Advent, 1979 Book of Common Prayer:

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus  Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives
and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and
for ever. Amen.

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Paul’s Wake: Coming Out as Christian on the Aegean Sea

By “wake” I mean the scant traces a boat leaves behind as it cuts through the water. I have no idea whether the Apostle Paul was afforded the other kind of wake, the one before a funeral. Both seem rather apt images for my upcoming Greek adventure.

I’ll soon be sailing the Aegean Sea on a fifty-foot sailboat with seven other gay men. Paul himself sailed this sea (at least nearby) on his missionary journeys, even though (of course) his ship’s wake disappeared quickly many centuries ago.

Paul’s theological wake remains, however, and in more ways than anyone can calculate. That wake is carved indelibly on the sea of Christian faith and spiritual practice. I’m actually a great admirer of Paul, even though I argue with him frequently.Paul the apostle

I’m going on this trip to relax but I can’t go without pausing to reflect theologically on the locale – especially since Paul’s writings have too often caused serious harm. Paul would be appalled by that damaging wake.

Paul exhibited extraordinary courage, erudition, and even deep pastoral care. Some of my most cherished biblical texts come from Paul: the declaration that “faith, hope, and love” are the hallmarks of Christian life, the greatest being love (1 Cor. 13:13); the insistence that in Christ there is no longer “Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female” (Gal. 3:28); his timely image these days of the whole creation “groaning” as it waits for salvation (Rom. 8:22); and of course his game-changing crescendo that absolutely nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ (Rom. 8:38-39). And that’s a short list.

Sadly, the only Pauline text most LGBT people know instead is the one from his letter to the Romans. There he describes same-sex sexual activity as “para phusin” (1:26-27), or what biblical translators typically render as “unnatural.”

To honor all those who have suffered harm because of this one biblical text (and some have taken their own lives), I hereby dub my upcoming Aegean excursion “The Unnatural Tour.”unnatural_tour_big_map

I call it that not in spite of Paul but to respect his pioneering insights in that world-changing letter (countless people have had course-changing moments by reading that letter to the Romans, including Augustine in the fourth century, Martin Luther in the sixteenth century, and Karl Barth in the twentieth century, to name just a few).

Consider Paul’s astonishing declaration later in that letter where he describes God’s grace with the same peculiar phrase – para phusin (11:24)  Paul uses that phrase only twice in the writings we have from him and both in this letter to the Romans. The first refers to sexual practices; the second, to divine grace. But how to translate it? Against nature? Contrary to nature? Above nature? Or just “unnatural”? Whatever it means, Paul seemed perfectly fine with using it to describe both sex and grace.

So I embark on an adventure in Paul’s wake, the one that disappeared long ago and the one that remains. I go on “The Unnatural Tour” with some anxiety as well. Will my gay sailing companions (whom I have not yet met) find it odd, disturbing, or annoying to be sailing with a theologian? Will I even tell them that they are?

Sad but true, it’s often more difficult to come out as Christian among LGBT people than it is to come out as L, G, B, or T among Christians – at least the kind of Christian one bumps into here on the Left Coast of California.

To live with more anxiety about revealing one’s Christian faith than revealing one’s sexuality actually feels like a relief for those of us who grew up in mortal terror of coming out sexually. But that relief comes with profound sadness and not a little anger. To set the joys of bodily intimacy against the good news of the Gospel distorts both, and far too frequently in tragic ways.

So I set sail with a bunch of gay men, not as a missionary but with honesty. I hope they will discover two things: 1) priests and theologians really can have fun; and 2) the source of their bodily yearnings for intimacy is in fact God, who made them for bodily joy. (By exhibiting the former, I hope the latter becomes obvious.)

map_linesI’m also relishing this: When the gay cruise ends, I will wash up (via ferry) on the shores of the island of Patmos. There, reportedly, the seer known as “John” was exiled and wrote what became the last biblical book of the Christian Testament.

As an eschatology geek, Patmos might be the highlight of my trip, even though it comes at the end (appropriately). I’ll visit the legendary cave on that island where pilgrims mark the spot of John’s visions. I’ll also be staying at the hotel on that island (complete with a spa!) where the restaurant is called “Apocalypsis.”

I’m sure that everyone working there has heard every joke imaginable about their “apocalyptic meals.” But just in case they haven’t heard the campy versions from a gay priest, I’ll make sure they do.

I’ll be my campy theological self on Patmos and on that boat with gay men because it just might prompt a Gospel moment – a moment appropriately and wonderfully encountered in Paul’s wake.

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Popping the Lid Off: AIDS, Advent, and Hope

All I want is a cure and my friends back.

The list is long – breast cancer, world hunger, or what Dwight D. Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex.” In a deeply patriarchal, violent world of unrelenting corporate profiteering, I want a cure for all those maladies and more.

aids_ribbon_earthOn this 25th anniversary of World AIDS Day, I’m thinking especially about HIV. When I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1991, I saw those simple yet poignant words on a t-shirt: All I want is a cure and my friends back.

Perhaps that’s just too much to hope for. Yet, tomorrow also marks the beginning of Advent, a Christian season perfectly suited for wildly peculiar hope. Both wild and peculiar especially on the first Sunday of Advent, when most Christians will hear, not about Christmas, but about fantastical world-ending scenarios in apocalyptic biblical texts.

That’s certainly peculiar, but is it hopeful?

The word “apocalypse” has its origins in a rather ordinary Greek word that referred to a cover, like the lid on a jar. The ancient Greeks may have used the verb apocalypto when they opened something. It just means “to take the lid off”; we usually translate it as “to reveal.”

I like that image for sifting through biblical texts and Christian history in search of vision to feed our hope. Here are just a few things we might find when we pop the lid off:

Hope for the Nations
Readings for the first Sunday of Advent will sometimes include something from the last book of the Bible. There are lots of nasty bits in the Revelation to John, completely unsuitable for young chiltree_of_lifedren. In the last chapter, however, there’s no more Armageddon, no more terrifying horsemen, no horrific tribulation, but instead an amazing vision of the City of God. A river flows from that city, and on the banks of that river, a tree. The leaves of this tree, John writes, are for “the healing of the nations” (22:2).

John did not say that those leaves are for the healing of “Christian nations,” or “nations that we agree with,” or “nations that never committed war crimes,” or “nations never guilty of slavery or colonialism or economic imperialism,” or “nations that we might like to visit as tourists on vacation.” Looking forward to healing rather than vengeance surely qualifies as a counter-cultural hope.

Hope for Gate-Crashing
Not long after John’s revelation, a theologian by the name of Origen took the lid off again and found the irresistible love of God. The love of God, Origen declared, is so compelling that not even the Devil and all his fallen angels will be able to resist that love forever. Eventually, Origen believed, everything and every creature would find a blessed home in God.

That’s a compelling vision indeed – so compelling that just a few centuries later the institutional church condemned it as heresy. They put a lid on it. And that’s not so surprising. If an institution understands itself primarily as a gatekeeper, it won’t look very kindly on those who insist that there’s no longer any gate to keep. Gate-crashing is a deeply hopeful spiritual discipline.

Hope Beyond Hope
Fast forward a few more centuries and we find the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich, who lived at a time when bubonic plague was decimating most of Europe in ways difficult to imagine. Anyone who lived through the early years of the AIDS crisis has a sense of what Julian must have witnessed – bodies suddenly and mysteriously falling ill; bodies falling all around her; bodies dying in such numbers that they literally piled up in the streets with no one to bury them.

In the midst of that devastation, Julian had some visions. The lid popped off and this is what she wrote: “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Was she just delusional? Julian herself wondered the same thing. She was surprised by these “showings,” as she called them, these mini-apocalypses. “This can’t be true,” she wrote. “Holy Church teaches that sinners are condemned to hell.”

But the showings persisted: “All shall be well.”

These irruptions of wild hope and fantastical visions throughout Christian history emerged from a truly impertinent question: Can God be trusted? Will God really keep faith with us even with bodies falling all around us?

That was playwright Tony Kushner’s question in a moving prayer he wrote in 1994 for the National Day of Prayer for AIDS: “Must grace fall so unevenly on the earth? Must goodness precipitate so lightly, so infrequently from sky to parched ground?” Can you be trusted, God, really?

Kushner speaks for so many when hope seems little more than a bread-crumb trail in a messy life, or a glimmering ember in the fireplace teetering on the edge of going out.

It’s the rare individual who can summon a hopeful faith alone. The rest of us need some help. We need those fantastical visions that sprout up quite unexpectedly in the middle of troubling biblical texts, or those moments of stupefying hope punctuating a disturbing Christian history.

aids_ribbon_candlesProbably most of all, we need each other. When my faith is weak, I need people whose faith is strong; when my cup overflows, I can share it with others.

I was reminded of this just last night at the National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco during a lovely event honoring two colleagues and their remarkably hopeful work to end AIDS and comfort the grieving.

That event was “church,” a reminder of why I keep doing what many Christians do on a Sunday morning. There are many reasons. But on the first Sunday of Advent, I need a community that isn’t afraid to say wildly peculiar things and find it hopeful: All I want is a cure and my friends back.

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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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Apocalypse Now or Later?

Harold Camping and his fervent followers in Oakland, California believe that the world will end this Saturday, May 21. (Read about the prediction here.) It’s rather easy to ridicule such beliefs and dismiss this group as just bizarre. But have you read any church history lately?  The whole history of Christianity, from the very beginning, brims over with peculiarities, with one bizarre moment after another.

And what about the Bible? Are those ancient texts really less strange than Camping’s sermons? This Sunday, many Christians will hear a portion of John’s Gospel from the Easter lectionary, including this promise from Jesus: “if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also” (14:3). To me, that sounds only just a little less peculiar than what Harold Camping is preaching. (Read my take on the queerness of the Bible here.)

Given the trendy enthusiasm for atheism these days, some would insist that just believing in God at all is really peculiar if not downright queer.

So I’m not troubled by the oddity of Camping’s predictions. If you’re not odd in some fashion, then you’re really not Christian. I do worry, however, about those among his multiracial, multi-generational community who have forked over their life savings to bankroll the multi-million dollar media campaign that has brought all of this to our attention.  For the sake of argument, let’s say the world does not come to an end on Saturday. Well, who’s going to manage all those really angry, newly-poor people?

But there’s something else I worry about even more: the severe division of humanity between those who will escape the catastrophe and those who are left behind. That’s the core of Camping’s message and why we see his billboards along Bay Area highways.

Philosopher of religion Edith Wyschogrod identified the root of this problem as the “great sorting myths” of Western culture. She means those grand narratives that divide the saved from the damned, or the sheep from the goats (Mt. 25:32-33). Those myths, Wyschogrod argues, have inspired some of the most distressing moments in Western history, fiercely punctuated by Nazi Germany’s concentration camps and gas chambers.

To be sure, one can read the Bible as supporting those sorting myths, just as Harold Camping is doing right now. But there are just as many, if not more ways to read the Bible quite differently.

In that same portion of John’s Gospel for this coming Sunday, Jesus declares that in God’s house there are many mansions (14:2). Don’t skip over the queerness of that image too quickly. (Think of Dr. Who’s phone booth that’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.) That Gospel image ought to stretch our credulity far enough to imagine that there really is enough divine grace to go around for everyone and not just a select few.

(For you theology geeks out there: I do subscribe to the “doctrine of election,” but it’s Karl Barth’s version – everyone belongs to the elect. And if that isn’t queer, I don’t know what is.)

I find it helpful to recall that the original meaning of the word “apocalypse” does not demand some kind of doomsday catastrophe. That Greek word just means “revelation” or “unveiling.” In that sense, what we read in John’s Gospel is thoroughly apocalyptic: the unveiling of God’s wildly generous hospitality that will make room for everyone, no exceptions.

Queerly enough, I consider myself an “apocalyptic Christian.” Worlds actually do come to an end, and quite regularly – the world of one’s personal relationships, the world of professional work, the world of economic stability, the world of thriving ecosystems. All of these “worlds” and many more do on occasion come to an end.

The question all those world-ending moments pose is not how to find the “escape hatch” where we can scramble out with our friends and loved ones and let everyone else go to hell. The question is rather how to live in and through world-ending moments with others, and to do so with faith, with hope, and most especially with love (1 Cor. 13:13).

I pray for Brother Harold and his community, just like I pray for all of us. In this Easter season, may we find the faith and the hope to live into that love that is stronger than our many divisions and disagreements; stronger than any world-ending moment; stronger than death itself.