Living the Word

Living the Word is a monthly reflection on the Sunday readings from the Revised Common Lectionary.
Raj Nadella 3-27-2024
The image shows a bunch of sea creatures happy, swirling in water

Illustration by Lauren Wright Pittman

DURING THE COP 28 climate change conference in Dubai, participants deliberated at length on the climate crisis and rightly set ambitious goals to address the challenges. As may seem natural, much of the conversation centered on securing a planet habitable for humans. But as Christians we must wrestle deeply with sharing God’s covenant with other creatures. Seeing creatures and the natural world as having no meaning other than how they serve human interest is a failure of human vision. The 2007 documentary Earth poignantly highlighted how an anthropocentric worldview and the human-caused environmental crisis have imperiled other creatures in a miraculously delicate system.

Perhaps out of species self-interest, much environmental work focuses on how climate shifts impact current and future human generations. But as people of faith, we can take a more wholistic view that also demonstrates commitment to the well-being of all God’s creation — animate and inanimate — because all are interdependent. In the context of the climate crisis, corrective justice requires addressing the concerns of communities disproportionately affected by climate collapse, as well as ensuring the welfare of nonhuman creatures. It is incumbent upon us to challenge the anthropocentric lens and champion biocentric approaches that affirm the sanctity of all life and creation. Our scripture readings this month present nonhuman creatures as equal partners on God’s planet and speak forcefully about their right to exist and thrive alongside our human communities. They feature animals dancing in open spaces, frolicking in the sea, and celebrating life in its fullness. Everything in nature reflects God’s glory, participates in God’s salvation, and reminds us of the divine presence.

Raj Nadella 2-12-2024
The illustration shows two purplish hands breaking apart a loaf of bread. The background is a purple and yellow burst of lines coming from the center.

Illustration by Lauren Wright Pittman 

IN THEOLOGIAN STANLEY Hauerwas’ influential book A Community of Character, he highlights the role narratives play in the formation and identity of a community. Stories have a descriptive function but also a formative function. Stories describe key events in the life of a community and preserve that community’s history. They also shape the community’s worldview and character. Stories influence the community’s ethos and commitments. They drive its actions. Gospel stories testify to the nature of Jesus’ mission and the ethos and commitments of the early church. They foreground Jesus’ character traits, which help shape our own ethical outlook and enable us to imagine an alternative moral space in society.

We live in a fraught political context where Christian identity has become a contested moral space. It’s a space increasingly shaped by dangerous nationalisms that celebrate oppressive power and that depict God in ways that provide theological justification for consolidation of power over others. However, the lectionary texts this month challenge just such depictions of God. They lift up the image of a God who suffers with the suffering rather than a triumphant God exercising domination. They feature characters, including Jesus, who insist that it matters what stories we tell and how we tell them.

What stories do we tell about the church today and how do we tell them? Do such stories shape our legacy as Christians and our moral imagination? How do we continue to tell those stories faithfully and meaningfully, allowing them to shape our lives, even in an era when many Christians are attracted to stories of a militant, oppressive God rather than to God’s motifs of justice?

Raj Nadella 1-10-2024
The image shows a Black hand knocking on a door at night, with stars and a moon in the background. On the other side of the door is a candle.

Illustration by Morgan Hyatt

RARELY DO YOU see powerful people advocate for the benefit of others outside their “own” political or economic group. There is a tendency on the part of the elite to leverage their privilege for their own benefit while disguising it as public good, as the concept of “elite capture” has exposed. And the state is often complicit in reinforcing policies and practices that concentrate resources into the hands of those who already have enough. In a 1962 sermon titled “A Knock at Midnight” (see Luke 11:5-6), Martin Luther King Jr. diagnosed the state of the nation and church saying, “It is midnight in the social order.” He urged the church to respond to the oppressed who “knock on the door,” even when it’s inconvenient. “How often has the church left [people] disappointed at midnight, while it slept quietly in a chamber of pious irrelevancy,” preached King.

Despite decreasing numbers, the U.S. church wields enormous political and economic power. This month’s readings showcase people — the powerful and the not so powerful — who exercise their agency for the good of those who seemingly have little to offer in return. The texts highlight the church’s moral and theological imperative to employ its power to open the door to the ones who desperately knock. Will the church that gathers in the name of Jesus ignore the state’s complicity in oppressive structures or will it act as the “conscience of the state,” as Dr. King urged? Does the church privilege its own comfort or does it attend to the vulnerable, even at the risk of its own interests? King concluded, “the greatest challenge facing the church today is to keep the bread fresh and remain a Friend to [humanity] at midnight.”

Raj Nadella 1-10-2024
The illustration shows a Jesus figure with a halo standing in a body of water, looking up at a peace dove. Praying figures are on the edges

Illustration by Lauren Wright Pittman

THE CENTRAL CHARACTER in Octavia Butler’s short story “The Book of Martha” lives at a time of heightened human oppression and environmental crisis. Martha encounters God, who invites her to help remedy the situation, to make sure “that people treat one another better and treat their environment more sensibly.” Martha’s fear leads her to believe that such an encounter with God was a dream, more likely a nightmare. She insists that it is impossible for her to affect change and asks God to fix things. God replies, “What change would you want to make if you could make only one? Think of one important change.” Perhaps this is a question for all of us.

Martha’s encounter with God turns into something beautiful and allows her to see new possibilities to change the world. Her eventual move toward facilitating the kind of world she envisioned is made possible by her belief in her own agency — her ability to generate novel ideas and take measurable steps to realize them.

Too often justice is described in terms that are broad and abstract. The realization of justice requires concrete steps. Sometimes we despair when we fail to accomplish substantive change, despite our sacrifices and work. This is part of the human condition. But we are also called to actively hope and then take the steps that are ours to take. An alternative reality is possible when we allow ourselves to be transformed by God’s presence working in earlier models of liberation. We are invited to think creatively together about what is possible and pursue it passionately.

Raj Nadella 12-01-2023
The illustration shows a giant blue eye with silhouettes of people in front of it.

Illustration by Lauren Wright Pittman

THERE IS A saying in Telugu, my mother tongue: “The fence has devoured the garden.” I find it a useful phrase in this year when the United States embarks on a federal election cycle that will test the strength of our democratic institutions and may well damage their integrity. The same leaders entrusted with the power to safeguard the interests of the people (“the fence”) have instead undermined them. Growing economic inequality continues to dehumanize individuals and entire communities. Women, Black, brown, refugee, and LGBTQ people increasingly feel at risk in light of recent court rulings. Leaders expected to provide vision in times of crisis, whose mission is to “protect the garden” of democracy and civil life, appear to be actively “devouring” it. And accountability has been in short supply.

How do we facilitate transformative changes that allow individuals and communities, especially those at the margins, to realize their dreams and flourish? At a time when scriptures (such as Romans 13) are used to prescribe uncritical loyalty to authorities, what are some strategies for holding those authorities accountable? This month’s texts invite us to identify and nurture leaders who can see things differently, offer a generative vision, and undertake radical changes. They exhort us to empower a new generation of leaders who are working collaboratively and serving the people with integrity, and who privilege the interests of the community over their own.

The illustration shows two Black women embracing, both have halos, and the one in front is holding her hand around her stomach as if she were pregnant, presumably the Virgin Mary. The woman behind her has colorful angel wings presumably God or an angle.

Illustration by Lauren Wright Pittman 

“THE CONTEMPLATIVE ON her knees well knows the messy entanglement of sexual desire and desire for God,” writes theologian Sarah Coakley. If she’s right, then attending to what arouses us sensually can teach us something about how God lures us through our longing and, even, how we can attract God’s intimacy. This month, we’re exploring how queer theology can invigorate (dare I say, stimulate?) the anticipation we build throughout Advent. This approach may seem blasphemous to some who aren’t familiar with a queer-affirming lens ... and perhaps uncomfortable to some who are. Many of us are steeped in Christian body-denying theologies and moralities. We are uncomfortable meeting God in ways that are playful, erotic, unnerving, and always cognizant of power dynamics (though scripture is steeped with such sexual innuendo). Queer theology starts from (rather than argues for) not just queer affirmation, but queer celebration. It can expose the erotic dimensions of our sacred stories to reveal God’s wild and promiscuous desire for all creation.

December is a season for sending Christmas cards depicting the Holy Family — perhaps the most heteronormative image in the church year: A mom and dad stare lovingly at their beautiful baby. This static image can obscure the mess of desire, power, submission, and surprising gender fluidity required to incarnate this Holy Child. What moves in us as we ponder the design of different Christmas images that don’t shy away from this beautiful mess? What images help us face the wonder and terror of what it feels like to be undone and remade by God’s overcoming?

The illustration shows a woman holding a candle sitting in the darkness, with blue, cloud-like shapes surrounding her on the edges.

Illustration by Lauren Wright-Pittman 

ACROSS THE UNITED STATES, people will soon be preparing for Thanksgiving. We’ll name what we’re grateful for and then, in an ironic turn, let “Black Friday” convince us we need more. “Cyber Monday” will catch all the credit cards that made it, un-maxed, through the weekend. “Giving Tuesday” lets us pay the virtue toll to keep spending guilt-free on the yet-to-be-named following Wednesday. Whew! The consumerist drive in November and December makes the temporality of liturgical living difficult. But let’s try. November marks the end of both Ordinary Time and the church year. Ordinary Time is the day-in, day-out rhythm of everyday life as we await Christ’s second coming. In these final weeks, we’re not quite waiting on Christ, then — as we do during Advent — so much as we’re preparing ourselves to wait.

Come Advent, the scripture readings will be filled with anticipatory hope. But, as the old church year ends, the passages are full of anxiety and dread. The Hebrew Bible selections spotlight the escalating threat of the coming judgment. Paul’s letters pour out end times panic. Or, as songster Leonard Cohen put it, “Everybody knows it’s coming apart.” In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus forces us to ponder which side we are on. It’s not easy to sit with all this. I want to skip over to Advent hope (or even Christmas joy). But I invite us to hospice the old year’s death throes before welcoming new life at the stable door.

An abstract illustration of a DNA strand made of thousands of tiny particles of light. Another stand is slightly blurred in the background to the left against a black backdrop.

 ANIRUDH / Unsplash

IN 2012, a group of scientists from the University of Washington discovered Y chromosomes in the autopsied brains of female cadavers. Finding so-called male DNA in cis women’s bodies certainly complicates our notions of gender! But the focus then was on introducing the sci-fi-sounding concept of fetal microchimerism. Fetal cells, we learned, can remain integrated at the genetic level in someone’s body long after the fetus or baby is not. These cells can be passed on to future siblings, thus embedding visceral relations within our bodies that even the most adept family-systems theorist would struggle to disentangle.

The scientific community labeled this a discovery. But for anyone already skeptical of the mind-body dualisms in Western culture, this was simply science catching up with how we already experience our ancestral relations. Intergenerational wisdom and trauma aren’t simply intellectual concepts. Rather, our ancestors’ presence in our lives connects at sites where body, spirit, mind, and soul inextricably intertwine. And these sites are in desperate need of some decolonizing attention if we’re to reclaim our ancestral relations in our practices of Christian faith. Of course, that might not be something we all want to do. But this month, I’ll engage the lectionary readings through this lens to see what questions and insights might arise. And I’ll do so with the hope that our wide, wondrous communion of saints will read along with us.

A black man with a dark green beard and curly hair is wearing a dark gray sweater and lifting his hands to plug his ears as he yells. His head fits within an abstract arch of light pink flowers. He's surrounded by light green leaves in the background.

Illustration by Lauren Wright Pittman

SEVERAL OF THIS month’s lectionary readings deal with the tensions of navigating wrongdoing, judgment, vengeance, and forgiveness. They call readers to forgive — and forgive again: not just once, twice, or seven times, but at least 77 times and counting (see Matthew 18:22).

These texts have been used throughout history to trap people in positions of disempowerment, abuse, and enslavement. Consider, for example, how victims of intimate partner violence have been pressured to forgive and return to their abusers, who then proceed to hurt them again. Or how entire marginalized communities are expected to “get over it,” whether that is the colonization of Turtle Island, enslavement, or generations of misogynist, queer- and transphobic policies, laws, and violence. In light of the rampant misuse of these texts, we’re right to be wary of biblical interpretations for how to handle conflict that reinforce domination. The texts tend not to deal directly with inherent interpersonal and structural power dynamics. We must do that work ourselves. Any of us preaching the lectionary this month must also be careful.

Attending to the power dynamics of these passages doesn’t mean we dismiss them as useless. Rather, such attention helps us discern how these texts invite and bear witness to God’s presence in processes of interpersonal, intergenerational, and even international healing. They call us to attend to what our own pain has to teach us and to seek hope through community life. And they promise that throughout our attending, God will abide — waiting patiently to see us through.

An illustration of a figure balancing on a tightrope.There's a boat with fantastical creatures in the background at sea. A purple figure is raising their hands on the left side. On the right, people sit around another purple figure teaching from a book.

Illustration by Changyu Zou

JEWISH NEW TESTAMENT scholar Amy-Jill Levine claims that all religions are a little bit supersessionist. Christian supersessionism — which understands God’s covenant with Christians to nullify God’s covenant with the people of Israel — has been so mainstream throughout most of Christian history that it has hardly required articulating. It was just the anti-Jewish water in which we swam. Following the Holocaust, however, Christians recognized how much we’d weaponized supersessionism into antisemitism, which provided support for Nazi and white supremacist ideologies and perpetuated anti-Jewish violence. Unfortunately, Levine argues, no exegetical maneuver can fully expunge supersessionism from the New Testament — though many have tried. It’s there. And the authority of God’s word in Christian lives keeps its dangerous power ever-present.

Still, Paul’s letter to the church in Rome (which we read this month) contains Paul’s own grappling with these questions. Chapters 9 to 11 — wherein Paul corrects some of the Gentile converts who think God has now rejected the covenant with Israel — comprise the hook on which most contemporary attempts to dismantle supersessionism hang their hat. So, we’ll pay special attention to these.

This isn’t going to be an easy fix — particularly for Christians (like me!) who want to hold fast to the gospel, atone for complicity with antisemitism, and stand in solidarity with Palestinians under occupation. Still, I trust God’s promises: I believe both that God’s covenant with Israel endures and that Jesus is the Messiah. So, this month, we are going to sit with the discomfort of failing while attempting the impossible. Because, in trying, we might find a new way through.

An illustration of three vials that contain roots of leafy plants: The left has several oval-shaped green leaves, the center has a large singular dark green leaf, and the right has a blue-green circular leaf. Each has a gold halo behind their leaves.

Illustration by Lauren Wright Pittman

BEFORE THE PANDEMIC hit, I could have told you the precise number of my indoor plants: zero. But then lockdown started and, like countless people around the world, I became obsessed with all things leafy and green. Once I learned how to keep a plant alive, I began to nurture cuttings. To see that first fresh leaf grow — an assurance that new roots had taken hold — filled me with a kind of joy heretofore unknown.

I needed to feel like life could not just survive, but flourish and thrive. “Give this at least six weeks before repotting,” I would text a friend from her porch as I dropped off the gift of a budding leafy monstera, “just to let the roots settle.” Then I’d trudge back to the sidewalk to watch my friend open her door, wave to me, and take this small extension of myself into her home. Months later, when we could visit in person, I’d get to see how much these little ones had grown. Great leafy extensions of love.

Most of the gospel readings this month contain horticultural parables — seeds and soil, wheat and weeds, sowers and reapers. Before the COVID-19 years, I had never read these parables through the eyes of someone who had nurtured plants to life. Their images had been abstractions, ideas, metaphors with no roots. But now that those seeds have grown, I see each one anew. Perhaps you do too?

An illustration of a open light green hand with leaved branches sprouting upwards and tangling along the fingers. Larger and abstracted olive-colored silhouettes of leaves are intermingled with the branches.

Illustration by Cat O'Neil

WE HAVE SEVERAL readings this month where God creates something out of nothing — or at least out of pretty limited materials. In the opening chapters of Genesis, we see creation birthed from God’s imagination and curiosity. In the story of Sarah and Abraham, a child is conceived in a womb so postmenopausal that the now-pregnant woman can’t help but laugh (Genesis 18). A well appears from nowhere to quench the thirst of a dying woman and her child (Genesis 21:19). God “calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17). And God turns death to life through the mysteries of resurrection (Romans 6:1-11).

This month’s lectionary readings make God’s continuous creation — as well as God’s continual renewal of creation — explicit. But the fact is, once we’re looking for it, all of scripture tells these stories of renewal. God is always creating, re-creating, and reimagining our world. God is always making a way where there was no way before. God continually turns death to life. And, just as importantly, we are called to participate in God’s divine practices of continuous creation, in God’s own divine practice of everyday resurrection.

As we exit a series of some of the higher holy seasons in the liturgical year — Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost — June quiets down from such intensity. The slower pace to which (in some places) the warm summer sun calls us can inspire us to seek out everyday resurrection wherever God hides it. How is the Spirit calling you to partner with divine practices of renewal, with everyday resurrections?

An illustration of a blurry figure rising above what appear to be the backs of the heads of a crowd of people. Multiple rays of sunlight in hues of red, purple, green, and yellow shine down from the clouds as well.

Illustration by Alex Aldrich Barrett

MOST OF OUR gospel readings in May move through sections in John’s gospel commonly referred to as the “farewell discourse.” In this long goodbye, Jesus and his disciples have finished eating their last supper together. Judas has departed to betray his friend. Now it’s time for Jesus’ final words to the remaining 11. Or, at least, it’s time for him to say goodbye from the perspective of who they’ve known him to be thus far. He’s preparing them for who he is becoming, as well as how he’ll continue to be among them — and, by extension, among us. There’s a lot that Jesus wants to accomplish without fully tipping his hand. So, his speech is at times confusing!

Unsurprisingly, a sense of longing permeates the whole address. These friends are saying goodbye to each other while also scrambling for ways to stay together. Jesus is grieving that goodbye, while also anticipating a joyful return to his Abba in heaven. As he speaks, then, Jesus tells of a fluid, swirling kind of love that permeates and connects God, himself, and his followers all to each other. This fluid love is the Holy Spirit that Jesus will “breathe” upon his followers (John 20:22) — the Holy Spirit who lingers among us still.

Our celebrations at Pentecost tend to focus on the wild descent of fiery tongues upon the early Jesus community — as they should. But in this lectionary cycle, the New Testament readings don’t focus on wind, fire, or tongues. Instead, they have us abide in these less dramatic, more subtle, ambiguous, and mysterious moments. This year, Pentecost calls us to abide in and with a love that often doesn’t make sense, but that always must be shared.

An illustration with a bright orange backdrop that shows a hand with dark skin touching the stigmata in the middle of Jesus' palm.

rudall30 / Shutterstock

IN 1633, THE Bavarian village of Oberammergau experienced a miracle. The villagers had promised God they would stage a reenactment of the passion of Christ if they were spared from the plague. They were spared. Nearly 400 years later, people continue to come from around the world to see these performances. But there’s a problem. Oberammergau’s passion play is one of the most antisemitic artworks in European history. Adolph Hitler viewed the play in 1930 and 1934 and recognized its propaganda value for his own plan of Jewish genocide.

Christians today may still perpetuate anti-Jewish racism throughout our passion narratives — particularly when the gospel of John forms the core of the lectionary. Unlike the others, John’s gospel frequently labels anyone opposing Christ as “the Jews.” Most of us realize that the writer is naming a subset of religious leaders. But when we repeat the phrase throughout Easter, we can subconsciously reproduce and amplify antisemitism found in the Christian theological imagination.

Recently, rather than ignoring the passion play’s antisemitism, the director worked with the American Jewish Committee to rid the play of anti-Jewish tropes. The 2022 Oberammergau passion play told a more complete Easter story. “The Jews” now include Jesus and his followers too. Jesus lifts a copy of the Torah to pray the Sh’ma Yisrael. Hebrew prayers were recited over the Last Supper. Mary is greeted as the “rabbi’s mother.” Significantly, the updated version calls Christians to repent for how we’ve failed our foundational sibling relationship.

A marble statue of a person with silky fabrics draped over their waist and head.

Heather Shimmin / Shutterstock

MY SEMINARY PREACHING professor used to say that we should only tackle one of each week’s lectionary texts in our sermons, maybe — just maybe — tying in a second. Over the course of a career, a great preacher might have a couple of three-text sermons in her. But only a foolish preacher tries to preach all four. The problem with this month’s readings is that they contain a lot of four-text temptations. Their cumulative effect, though, tends toward incarnation: not just God enfleshed in Jesus, but God enfleshed in us all and, even, in all creation.

By the end of the month, Lazarus will be raised from the dead (John 11:1-45). He and his sisters, Mary and Martha, were among Jesus’ closest friends. So, it seems odd to me that when Jesus first hears the message that Lazarus is ill, he seems to shake it off (verses 3-4). I wonder if Jesus was surprised, then, when he learned that Lazarus had died (verse 32). I wonder if he was shaken, suddenly uncertain about his certainty. Later, Lazarus’ resurrection prefigures Christ’s own rising again in glory. But at this point in the story, we don’t yet know that life is coming. All we can see is death.

That’s the risk of incarnation; it’s the risk of not knowing. And that risk is why I find this story (and the arc that leads to it) so comforting. My comfort comes not just in knowing that Lazarus came back to life. More so, my comfort comes in knowing that, like us, Jesus — God in flesh — risks not quite knowing the way to and through the ending.

A signature in cursive of the name "Jeremy Bearimy,' used to explain the concept of time in the TV show 'The Good Place.'

From The Good Place

WITH THIS MONTH'S liturgical arc, we move from Epiphany to Lent: from a season of illumination to one of penitence. You’d think they would be reversed, though. You’d think it would be necessary to do the soul-searching first, to clean house before we get to invite God over for tea.

But the natural order of things always becomes topsy-turvy when God gets involved. God’s time “doubles back and loops around and ends up looking something like ... the name ‘Jeremy Bearimy’ in cursive English,” as Michael (Ted Danson) explains to Eleanor (Kristen Bell) in television’s The Good Place. The dot over Bearimy’s “i” represents Tuesdays, July, and “when nothing never occurs.”

Joking aside, this is the gift of the liturgical calendar: It lets us glimpse what it’s like to live in God’s time rather than our own. We don’t need to be worthy of an encounter with God before that encounter can happen because we constantly live in the kingdom space of already-not-yet. Revelation and repentance are like the proverbial chicken and egg: No one really knows which comes first, and it probably doesn’t matter in the end.

Divine time’s topsy-turvy nature is also why Christians are called to discern the difference between the “wisdom of this age” and God’s wisdom (1 Corinthians 2:6-7). What this month’s readings might call us to ponder, then, is not where human and Divine wisdoms diverge but, rather, where on Jeremy Bearimy’s curves they converge. Perhaps even on the dot of the “i.”

An illustration of two people in the bottom left corner of the image who are looking up into the night sky, where the Star of Bethlehem pierces through the clouds.

Illustration by Kelly Belter

JANUARY OPENS THE season of Epiphany: In the North, the light begins to last longer, and we reawaken to the world outside our doors. Each Jan. 6, my family performs the old European Epiphany ritual of “chalking the door” to our home. While I pray, my spouse hoists our kids up to write the blessing on our front lintel. This year the markings will look like this: 20+C+M+B+23. Twenty marks the beginning of the year. The letters recall the Magi (Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar) whose visit we celebrate and also the Latin prayer: Christus mansionem benedicat (“May Christ bless the house”). The final number closes out the year. The markings are strange. We’re asked about them often. We recall the great light that led the people out of Egypt, the great star that guided the Magi, and the Holy Family’s hospitality. These signs keep evil spirits out and invite God’s Spirit in. And that’s a lot to explain to the FedEx guy.

But Epiphany is a lot! It invites us to explore the complex roles we play in God’s redemption: our complicity in evil as we reach for the good, our relationship to violence, and how we’ll practice hospitality post-COVID.

In this season we also travel with the community of Jesus-followers at Corinth. Much like them, Christians today have become increasingly divided — even among those who agree on the values of compassion, community, and caring for those most vulnerable. The pandemic has made it difficult to find a vision for how to live out our shared values. What striking illumination will this season bring?

T. Denise Anderson 10-31-2022
An illustration of a brown plant growing out of a grey tree stump with a shadow that's filled with vibrant colors and flowers.

Illustration by Alex Aldrich Barrett

A FEW YEARS ago, I set out to knit a baby blanket as an Advent prayer practice. Knitting is incredibly meditative and allows me to pray with focus and clarity. Knitting a baby blanket seems appropriate as the church awaits the arrival of the “newborn king.” I wish I could say I finished the blanket in time for Christmas. I did not. However, even that seems appropriate, as so much remains unresolved for Jesus’ community at his birth. Their political occupation continued, and even Jesus’ birth story reflects the impositions placed upon his family by the Roman Empire. God’s inbreaking happens under serious duress — but it happens nonetheless.

My favorite lines from the poem “Christmas is Waiting to be Born” by Howard Thurman are: “Where fear companions each day’s life, / And Perfect Love seems long delayed. / CHRISTMAS IS WAITING TO BE BORN: / In you, in me, in all [hu]mankind.”

Thurman reminds us that God was born into our sorrow and among those who are brokenhearted and struggling. That truth is so important to hold on to as we process years of our own collective trauma. No matter how unresolved things are, Christmas is born in us, too! In December we continue our journey through Advent and arrive at Christmas. We might not have received what we’re waiting for by that time, and very little may make sense. Yet, because of who God is, we open our hearts to the improbable, trusting that we won’t be put to shame.

T. Denise Anderson 9-30-2022
Illustration of an hourglass on a teal background; top of the hourglass holds a red/white/blue dem. donkey, rep. elephant, and flag; these dissolve into sand in the bottom of the hourglass. Three people surround the glass, staring at the flag.

Illustration by Ewan White

WE ARE APPROACHING the end of the liturgical year, and the texts have a thread of anticipation running through them. We are deep into the promises conveyed by the prophets and the eschatological vision cast by Jesus. The texts are inviting us to prepare ourselves for something — but what, exactly?

The last Sunday in November, in many traditions, is the Advent Sunday of hope. In biblical Greek, the verb is elpizō (“hope”), which means to wait for salvation with both joy and full confidence. When we hope, we wait not out of boredom or a lack of options but in full confidence that what we are waiting for will arrive. This is the same word used in Hebrews 11:1, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The word “assurance” here can also be translated as “foundation,” as in that of a house. Faith is what anchors our hope into the ground and allows it to stand upright. Faith also often requires that we act before we see. Our hope is first materialized in our faith before it is ever materialized in our reality. Hope pushes us to walk, move, and live as if what we’ve hoped for has already arrived.

Perhaps this moment calls to us to build foundations for the futures we need in defiance of our present realities. Our texts dare us to live into new possibilities, even as our current condition offers far fewer promises.

T. Denise Anderson 8-08-2022
An illustration of a person climbing a ladder while giant hands add rungs to the ladder's frame.

Credit: Anton Vierietin | iStock

PUBLIC EDUCATOR AND philosopher Cornel West has spoken about the difference between optimism and hope. Optimism, as he understands it, can point to empirical evidence that suggests things will get better, while hope can exist without any of that. Even when nothing around us points to a bright future, hope defiantly holds on for a better day. Baptist minister and social ethicist Miguel A. De La Torre argues in his book Embracing Hopelessness that hope is often used as a tool of oppression and pacification. For him, hopelessness can be an animating force for justice because a deep enough dissatisfaction with the status quo will move us to change it.

I find resonance and challenge in both of these dear teachers’ perspectives. Very little of our time suggests that things are progressing the way they should. The status quo is untenable and must be changed. Both perspectives remind us not to trust or be satisfied with the way things are. We must find motivation to build the world we need rather than accepting the one we have. For many Christians, October begins with World Communion Sunday and ends with All Hallows’ Eve and Reformation Day. We celebrate our eucharistic ties to Christians around the world, recognize the great cloud of witnesses and saints who have gone before, and commemorate one of the many movements in church history that have pushed us toward something new. We live in a time when very little resembles what we knew just a few years ago. How might our texts help us build for what is coming?