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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.

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Radical Nuns Take Over the U.N. — World Peace Declared and the Church Objects!

That is, of course, a ludicrous headline, worthy of “The Onion.” That said, and given some of my past experience with Roman Catholic women religious, I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if they made the attempt.

Moreover, given the latest absurdities from the Vatican concerning apparently “rogue nuns,” I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if the Church objected to world peace if it didn’t conform to orthodox doctrinal standards. I wish I were making that up. Alas, the Vatican recently voiced its objection to the compelling and effective social justice ministries of The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, even though those ministries are perfectly aligned with more than a century of Catholic social teaching. (Don’t try to make sense of institutional Christianity; it will make you crazy and drive you to drink. I’m here to testify.)

So let’s pause here. Take a deep breath. Perhaps we can frame these absurdities with the peculiarities of Christian faith. Sure, radical nuns taking over the United Nations is ludicrous. But consider the following story. Is it any less ludicrous?

Two friends are walking down a dusty, deserted road. They are sad and grieving over the death of a friend. As they talk about their lives and the state of the world and their grief, a stranger joins them on the road. This stranger has truly mind-blowing things to say about the meaning of life and those two friends are spellbound.

They invite the stranger to join them for supper. As they sit down to table, they finally recognize this stranger as their dear friend who had died. In that very moment, the stranger disappears.

That’s a rough paraphrase of a classic Easter season story from Luke’s gospel (24:13-35), often referred to as the “Emmaus Road story.” It’s one of my favorites. I like to pair it with the story about “doubting Thomas” that so many Christians heard this past Sunday. I like to pair those stories because both of them diffuse our obsession with certainty. Both of them dethrone human hubris. Both of them elevate doubt and humility to spiritual virtues.

I take both stories as cautionary tales for theologians (like me) and institutional Christianity more generally. Any attempt to make absolute statements about God, Christian faith, or spiritual practice will always fail. Always. Like the risen Christ in the story from Luke, God will always slip through our fingers in that very moment when we think we have it all figured out – or more pointedly, all nailed down, understood, captured, and controlled.

The truth of any religious tradition or spiritual practice does not reside in how well we talk about it or parse its doctrines or ensure its systematic coherence. No, the truth of any religion resides in how we live it, and how our living promotes liberation from oppression, social justice, human flourishing, and planetary thriving. If that kind of effective spiritual living runs counter to doctrinal articulation, it’s high time to adjust the doctrine. The entire history of Christianity bears painful witness to this.

To be clear, I’m not promoting intellectual laxity, moral libertinism, or “laissez-faire spirituality.” I believe Christians ought to make bold claims, strike outrageous social postures, and preach like our lives depend on it (because they actually do). But I also believe that we should infuse all of it with a healthy dose of humility. After all, we could be wrong; we have been wrong in the past; we will be wrong again.

Alas, institutional Christianity’s besetting sin is not boldness but safety; not risk for the sake of life but the status quo for the sake of survival; not reckless creativity but staid conformity, and mostly for the sake of power and privilege. And by “institutional Christianity,” I do not mean only Roman Catholicism.

So here’s a modest proposal for this Easter season. If even the most wonderful news of all time – the resurrection of Jesus – can slip through our fingers in the blink of an eye, then we might want to handle our doctrinal positions a bit more lightly.

Here’s the more pointed version: If the Church can’t control the risen Christ, then maybe it shouldn’t try to control radical nuns who are actually living the Resurrection in their work of social justice and human flourishing.

Is doctrinal adjustment too high a price to pay for new life? Really?