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Advent 1: Just Come Already

Just Come Alreadyrend_heavens

Come, God,
Just come, already.
Rend the heavens,
Like Isaiah said,
And come on down.

(Please do some mending after
the rending, too; we’ve shredded
so much of what you’ve made.
Sorry about that.)

Or come up,
Or come over,
Wherever you are,
Just come.

(We’ll gladly set aside our
postmodern convictions and
deconstruction strategies, and
all those hermeneutical suspicions)

Because we’ve been weeping
Too long, and lip-biting yearning
Too long, and running around the den
tearing up the sofa,
ripping up the carpet,
breaking windows
Too long, waiting for you to come home,
blaming each other
and killing each other
Too long, and pining away
Far too long for your sweet face,
And your lovely voice,
And your tender touch,
For so long

We’ve forgotten
The love that makes us
Write these things,
Crying softly,
Making a bath of hope
from our tears.

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Advent 3: And Still, Rejoice

The daily newsfeed is hereby interrupted. That worrisome, wearisome, ongoing stream of animosity and violence, of bigotry and racism, of a global climate running amok now pauses, at least for a moment. And in that poignant pause, the sound of rejoicing.

No, I’m not hallucinating; I’m just attending to the Christian calendar.

Apocalyptic visions and prophetic denunciations launched us into the first two weeks of Advent (a bit like an infusion of religious caffeine to jolt us awake.) And now we arrive to what some churches call “Gaudete Sunday,” from the Latin for “rejoice.”

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“Rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil. 4:4)

There’s a rather complex liturgical history lurking behind all this, which only the truly religious geeks among us (ahem) likely appreciate. Advent used to have a much more Lent-like character and lasted longer (forty days, like Lent). The midpoint in the season was a time to relax our discipline, catch our breath, and anticipate more fully the coming feast – in this case, Christmas.

Thus the rose or pink candle for this week, to signal a shift in tone.

But isn’t this a bit too soon, far too early, grossly out of synch? I don’t see any pause in American-style xenophobia, no break in the outrageous political rhetoric, and few seem willing to relax their violent postures. If anything, the planet seems to be spinning even more wildly into a deadly spiral of chaos.

And still, rejoice.

That surely qualifies as at least peculiar if not offensive. Yet percolating in this odd calendrical rhythm is the equally odd character and energy of hope itself, which marks this whole season. In contrast to optimism, the object of hope remains unseen, often annoyingly elusive, perpetually beyond our grasp.

And still, rejoice.

Many Christians on the third Sunday of Advent will hear from the ancient prophet Zephaniah. True to form, this prophet is thoroughly disgusted by the state of his own community. God will “utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth,” Zephaniah writes – humans, animals, birds, and fish. And that’s just the first three verses.

But that’s not what we’ll hear from him on the third Sunday of Advent. We’ll hear this instead:

Rejoice with all your heart…for God has taken away the judgments against you. God will save the lame and gather the outcast and turn their shame into praise (3:14, 19).

Same prophet. Same God. Same conflicted human society. The whiplash-like turn in this biblical text has little if anything to do with humans figuring out how to fix things. God will do something to make the shift, the same God who was angry enough just two chapters earlier to eradicate life as we know it.

Who can say, exactly, how God does this, or even why? Zephaniah is pretty vague about the whole thing. But he’s convinced that God will indeed do something, a game-changing move.

And so, and still, rejoice.

For several years now I have practiced a daily moment of gratitude, of giving thanks – for something, anything at all. It could be as small as having coffee in the morning or as large as a life-saving cure for a friend who was sick. It doesn’t matter whether or not I actually feel grateful; I give thanks regardless. And I have to say, this has been life-changing.

Recent psychological studies suggest that an old aphorism might actually be true: I’m not grateful because I’m happy; I’m happy because I’m grateful. Of course, ancient biblical writers beat these researchers to the punch by many centuries. The importance, even the primacy of gratitude appears in countless texts of the Christian Testament (see Philippians 4:6 among many others) and it marks the primary act of Christian worship – the Eucharist, from the Greek word for thanksgiving.

Giving thanks when there seems no particularly good reason to do so can break the cycle of despair, open fresh avenues for engagement with others, and inspire that unreasonable and oddly motivating energy of hope.

And so, and still, and even more, rejoice.

John_baptistThat’s how I read Luke’s rather strange editorial comment about the preaching of John the Baptist, which many Christians will also hear on the third Sunday of Advent. After John warns about the coming judgment (“the ax is already lying at the root of the trees”) and urges a life befitting repentance, Luke notes: “so, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people” (Luke 3:18).

Why would these wilderness diatribes count as “good news”? Here’s a possibility: In a world that seems so impossible to fix and so resistant to change, we can still do things that matter. For John, that meant clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, resisting corruption, and disengaging from systems of economic exploitation (Luke 3:10-14).

That won’t change the world! But it still matters.
We can’t measure the impact! But it still matters.
My voice is soft, my body slow, my courage weak! But it still matters.

It matters because we can never see the full impact of even the smallest gesture or the seemingly insignificant act. It is enough to do what we can, and then trust God to do that oddly mysterious thing that Zephaniah seemed so convinced that God will do.

And so, whether or not it feels like the right moment, rejoice.

 

The Collect for the Third Sunday of Advent, 1979 Book of Common Prayer:

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; aadvent3_rosend, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

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Advent 2: Peculiar Prophets for a Peculiar Faith

What or who, exactly, is a prophet? Among the many possible responses, try this: Prophets simply cannot digest the crap of their own societies. They take it in and it burns in their hearts and minds, like a severe case of acid reflux. And out spews lava-hot invective that has mostly nothing to do with anticipating a cozy fireside scene with a baby in a manger.

The modern rhythm of Advent devotes the second week of Advent to prophets, and especially to John the Baptist, the path-burner for Jesus. John is no modern day front man, no feel-good warm-up act to get the crowd pliable and eager for the real deal. John instead relishes calling out the religious leaders who visit him in the wilderness as hypocrites, a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 3:7).

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John the Baptist preaching to religious and civic authorities

John clearly never took the Carnegie course on how to win friends and influence people. Yet John is pretty mild compared to his ancient forebears. Episcopalians have been reading from Amos during Morning Prayer the last couple of weeks, a prophet who could barely contain his disgust at the sight of his own people oppressing the poor, giving lip service to religious duty, and growing fat on clever strategies for economic exploitation.

“I hate, I despise your festivals,” Amos imagines God saying, “and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies” (5:21). Set all that aside and “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (5:24).

Amos is not alone. On the second Sunday of Advent this year, many Christians will hear from the ancient prophet Malachi. When God sends God’s own messenger, Malachi writes, who can possibly stand it and endure? That messenger is like a refiner’s fire (3:1-4).

The baby in a manger so many anticipate in these early December weeks comes only on the heels of the flame-throwing prophets, the ones who speak to unsettle, disrupt, and cajole. The ones who make plain why the world needs that baby in the first place.

So why doesn’t God just fix the mess? Why doesn’t God rend the heavens, come on down, kick some butt, and set things right?

Well, maybe God does exactly that – through us, a peculiar people of a peculiar faith who listen carefully (if not anxiously) to God’s peculiar prophets. Perhaps we are the ones who take in the white supremacy, the violence against women, the xenophobic diatribes of privileged politicians and spew it back with righteous indignation, the kind sufficient to light up the fires of change.

Perhaps, but quite honestly, that is just not me. I can flame and rant on Facebook with the best of them, but then take it all back (with the delete button) when I worry about losing friends. I’m not really any good at standing on street corners spewing harangues nor marching into institutional hallways of power and demanding justice.

Mostly, I’m just not any good at taking risks all by myself, as ancient prophets so often did, not to mention modern ones, too, like Sojourner Truth, Dorothy Day, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Whmlk_dream_speechat I can do and will do this Advent season is join with others. I mean, go to church and gather around the Eucharistic Table.

Not terribly prophetic at first blush, to be sure. But then I recall how often Jesus got into trouble for table fellowship, for eating with the wrong kind of people, and how the earliest Christian communities did the same thing and kept winding up in jail for it. And still today, when Christians set a Table in the midst of a deeply divided society and say, “All are welcome here.”

In a society marked by so much fear and suspicion, the Table invites a shared vulnerability and a revolutionary intimacy – and even that starts to sound quite prophetic indeed. I don’t mean that Christian worship does this automatically or that Christians haven’t sometimes or even often forgotten the radical character of this liturgical act (we have) or that the Table hasn’t been easily co-opted for nefarious gain countless times in Christian history – it has.

I do mean that God makes space at the Table where grace can happen. Breathing space for the kind of grace that makes friends from strangers and neighbors from enemies; the kind of grace that transforms betrayal and violence, not with revenge or retribution but with tenderness and care; the kind of grace sufficient to inspire ordinary people to do extraordinary things for the sake of peace and justice.

I go to that Table to find the solidarity I need with others – and God has already beat me to it. First and foremost, the Table marks God’s deep solidarity with us, before any of us even thought to ask, the very point of that baby in a manger. This divine solidarity, to be clear, will not keep us safe from violence or moments of doubt or making mistakes. But it will foster courage, the kind of fearless and peculiar faith that creates prophetic communities.

The Table will not solve our problems; Christianity’s peculiar faith and prophetic potential isn’t about solutions at all. I do think it’s about creating the conditions for gracious generosity, bold risk-taking, and astonishing intimacy – conditions from which fresh solutions just might emerge.

And, these days, not a moment too soon.

 

The Collect for the Second Sunday of Advent, 1979 Book of Common Prayer:advent21

Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the day for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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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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A Night for the Unprepared

O holy night, I’m not ready. And as the poets remind me, that is precisely the point.

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Dear Lord, I have swept and I have washed but
still nothing is as shining as it should be
for you. Under the sink, for example, is an
uproar of mice – it is the season of their
many children. What shall I do? And under the eaves
and through the walls the squirrels
have gnawed their ragged entrances – but is the season
when they need shelter, so what shall I do? And
the raccoon limps into the kitchen and opens the cupboard
while the dog snores, the cat hugs the pillow;
what shall I do? Beautiful is the new snow falling
in the yard and the fox who is staring boldly
up the path, to the door. And still I believe you will
come, Lord; you will, when I speak to the fox,
the sparrow, the lost dog, the shivering sea-goose, know
that really I am speaking to you whenever I say,
as I do all morning and afternoon: Come in, Come in.
         –Mary Oliver, “Making the House Ready for the Lord” (2006)

Where children pure and happy pray to the blessed Child,
where misery cries out to thee, Son of the mother mild,
where charity stands watching and faith holds wide the door,
the dark night wakes, the glory breaks, and Christmas comes once more.
          –Phillips Brooks (19th century)

May light shine in the darkness,light_window
hope quickened beyond belief,
and peculiar peace be with us all…

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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.