For the longest time, I was convinced that Paul the evangelist totally whiffed on one of his most beautiful passages: the one where he emphasizes that love is what really matters, and then lists some of its defining traits. He starts out by saying that love is … patient.
He goes on to list other traits, such as kindness. He also says what it’s not: rude, selfish, snobbish, brooding, quick to give up on someone. And it’s all really good stuff, written with such grace. But I’ve always had a difficult time with that first word.
Patient. Love is patient.
If Donald Trump had been Pharaoh of Egypt, the Holy Family never would have escaped from Herod’s persecution. Jews would have been prohibited from entering the country. Christmas features the story of a family from the Middle East leaving a homeland in fear and seeking refuge is a foreign land, just as millions do today.
If you visit Egypt and its ancient Coptic Church, you’ll see images of the Holy Family everywhere: Joseph, Mary — always on a donkey — and the infant Jesus. They are moving, wandering. You’ll find pictures of them passing by the pyramids. Egyptian Christians treasure this story for theirs is the land that offered welcome and hospitality to the Son of God when he was a refugee.
For the first week of Advent, my wife Amy preached about hope. She pointed out that having hope doesn’t mean necessarily that we see a way out of suffering. It does, however, give us a reason to try to keep working through it. We have to believe there’s another side to it. Another possibility. The potential for a new reality.
And that reality will never, ever be realized by responding to violence with more violence. It may make us feel better in the moment. It may seem to offer short-term relief. But ultimately, it makes everyone that participates become a little bit of what they hate. And the cycle continues.
Which story will we choose to try to live into?
I wonder if God calls us to celebrate waiting because the lie we’re all most susceptible to is that if we just get what we want, we’ll be ok. When this is our mentality, we actually forget to live. We become so future-oriented that we can ignore the presence of God in our midst and the signs of the Divine work in this world. We can miss out on the good things he provides daily, hourly.
If this is your first Advent, or if it has been awhile, let me catch you up. Advent is the season of expectant waiting before Christmas. It’s a time to wake up, slow down, sit still, listen, and wait. A kind of expected, engaged waiting, with one another. And the first Sunday of Advent — celebrated on the four Sundays before Christmas — always starts with apocalyptic end-of-world scenarios.
Again, an odd way to start. But I think there is wisdom in it. The ancients saw fit to remind us of the harried, violent world into which the Christ child was born. Which, if we are honest, is also like the world in which we find ourselves.
Violence, brokenness, and heartache can take many forms. Each of us experience the heartache of recent weeks. Maybe it was a year-long affair; or Paris; or a lost job; or mass gun violence; or depression; or Laquan McDonald in Chicago, Ill.; or Garret Swasey in Colorado Springs, Colo.
ONE OF THE BEDROCK assertions of the Christian faith is that the kingdom of God is coming.
Jesus announced God’s reign, and embodied it, and brought it among us, but it is not here yet in full. The world’s brokenness and our own selfishness are testament enough that the kingdom is not here in full. But it is coming. And there’s not a thing we can do to hurry it, or stop it, or even delay it. We can, however, join in with it. That’s the best recipe for how to be a human being.
Advent’s reliable annual return is like the kingdom in its future certainty. The blue or purple paraments, the hymns in minor key, the candlelight, the longer nights—they all return, annually, like an old friend. Advent is a season of longing. The church places herself in the position of Israel, crying out for a savior. The hymns express this longing (“O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lowly exile here”). Some churches have a “longest night” service on or around Dec. 21 for those who have experienced especially acute grief in the past year. Advent reminds us that life is not all cheerfulness, as if we needed reminding. It’s also sorrow, longing, waiting, and hoping.
Then Advent returns, ready or not. Just like Jesus and the reign he’ll soon bring in full. It’ll be here before you know it. And it’ll amplify the best parts of human life. It will shear off the worst parts. And it will make the world the one God dreams about.
THE FAMILIES arriving at the Sacred Heart Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, all come with one thing in common—a high sense of hope and faith in God. Much like the Holy Family, these families were forced to flee because they feared for the lives of their children.
Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley began a humanitarian crisis-relief program in the summer of 2014 to respond to the influx of immigrants crossing the border who didn’t have a place to rest. Many are fleeing the violence in Central America. In El Salvador, for example, the murder rate has more than doubled since 2012 and soon will pass that of Honduras, which has the highest murder rate per capita in the world.
With the help of Sacred Heart Catholic Church and hundreds of volunteers, we were able to open a place of safety for refugees before they continue on their journey. For these holy families, it is the love for their children that moves them to face all possible dangers by traveling north.
In the biblical story, St. Joseph was a “just man” and faithful. He was forewarned of Herod’s imperial violence and fled the country to protect his wife and infant son. At our center the fathers are also men of profound dedication and attentiveness to the needs of their families.
One young dad had left his home in Central America with his pregnant wife and their two little girls. His wife gave birth in Mexico. As they prepared to cross the Rio Grande into the U.S., he and the baby became separated from his wife and two daughters. He lost them. When he and the 1-month-old baby arrived at our center, he had no idea if his wife and two little girls were alive or if he would ever see them again.
THE MONTH of December brings with it the season of Advent and Christmas. It’s always been my favorite time of the year, because it shows us powerfully and practically how our Christian faith entered the world. The incarnation is unique among world religions. The way I like to say it: In Christ, God hits the streets. Christmas gives Christians the annual opportunity to remember the incarnation of God’s love breaking into the world—how it did and how it still can.
Advent is about waiting, and Christmas brings the newborn who announces a new order meant to turn the world upside down—and our lives with it. Christmas always renews my commitment to bring that revolutionary love into a world that so desperately needs it, and into my own life again.
In the bustle of our daily lives, with all of the distractions and struggles that come our way—even in Christian ministries—it is so easy for us to lose sight of the transforming love embodied in the person of Christ. So it’s vitally important that we have this season to remember and re-encounter and re-center ourselves on the heart of our faith: God breaking into history to transform it, and us, in the person of Jesus.
Christmas always reminds me that being a Christian means being a follower of Jesus, willing to allow that message of the reign of God, a new order of things, to break in again and again.
While that statement about following Jesus may seem obvious, how many of us really focus, on a daily basis, on living our lives as Jesus did? On saying what he said, doing what he did, behaving as he behaved? On treating people in the way Jesus treated people?
ADVENT IS QUICKLY APPROACHING as Pentecost draws to a close. The sweeping, turbulent flow of the Spirit’s work in the church slows down. These weeks are marked by attention to widows, pain, and relationships, and to the up-close, daily grind of life. We zoom in. No sweeping theological treatises here, except those that alert us that Jesus’ second coming embodies all that the world needs to be made right and whole. Pastoral care is the emphasis now. Brush off the dust from your toolbox of “reflective listening,” “productive questions,” and “fogging.” This means no sharp dichotomies between what we do in worship and what we do throughout the week. Pastoral. Prophetic. Administrative. These will need to be one hat, as they always should be.
Scripture reminds us these weeks that our preaching ought always to be about care, about counsel, about presence. Why? Because, after all, we preach to people, not aliens. The goal of preaching is incarnation—the kind that enters the world through a teenage, unwed, poor woman’s womb, into a pig trough with animals and outdoor smells. The church’s message will need to be no less earthy, involved, reaching the ground of people’s actual lives. We’ll need to speak to all of the contradiction, heartache, and tears along with the opportunities, transitions, and celebrations in folks’ lives. I pray that our messages take on flesh. O come, O come, Emmanuel!
Hope is not a feeling. It is a decision — a choice you make based on what we call faith or moral conscience, whatever most deeply motivates you.
I have said that for many years, but this Advent and Christmas season tests my words — even in my own heart.
This is not a time that many of us are feeling a great deal of hope. I hear that from many friends and allies as well.
In fact, many events this year feel like they have sucked the hope right out of us.
And yet, even in the midst of terrible events and stories, the possibilities of hope still exist depending on what we decide to do for reasons of faith and conscience. In fact, people of faith and conscience are already making a difference in the most difficult situations and places.
And that gives me hope. This season of Advent, in the Christian tradition, is a call to patient waiting.
Christmas is the celebration of God literally coming into the world in order to change it.
What can local churches do to support ongoing protests against, and indeed upheaval of, an unjust criminal justice system and deep-seated white supremacy? In a season that Lisa Sharon Harper recently described as “Advent as protest,” what might it mean for Christians to anticipate the coming of Christ by physically challenging oppression? For pastors all over the United States, these are the questions of the moment.
In Washington, D.C., local faith communities sought to live into the vision of Advent as protest by holding a “vigil for justice.” Although this vigil beautifully documented the capacity of the local church to advocate for justice, the way local media framed the vigil forces communities of faith to think more deeply about their understanding of solidarity.
Spread out along nearly 6.5 miles of 16th Street, hundreds of people held candles and signs in support of recent protests against racial injustice. As people passionately waved their signs or held their heads down in prayerful lament, passing cars and buses slowed to honk in support. Catching on with the theme of Advent, attendees hoped to shine light in the darkness not only to create awareness and show solidarity, but also to testify to the hope of faith.
Cecilia Choi, a member of District Church explained, “This is the time of Advent when God came and he started his work of reconciliation with us by becoming one of us. And I think it’s perfect to come out and work on reconciliation and joining with our black brothers and sisters. They’re not just our neighbors, they’re our brothers and sisters in Christ. We have such an obligation to them. I think this is an act of worship.”
When asked why she was on the streets, one woman responded, “Well, what do I say? [Laughs.] That’s the meaning of our faith! To be one with people who are suffering.” Another man called racism “the deepest sin in the United States.”
Such descriptions of the vigil reach to the core of the church’s mission to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly.” Here are churches standing in solidarity with those suffering at the hands of racist oppression as an “act of worship.” Here are churches bringing their resources of prayer, lament, and peace into the public sphere, challenging observers to wrestle with God’s call to justice. Yet, though the event was beautiful, the way it was framed by local media raises tough questions for churches. Contrasting this demonstration with other recent protests, one reporter said, “This protest was in contrast to many of the protests we’ve seen over the past few weeks, with groups blocking traffic and loudly chanting. This group was quiet and purposeful.”
Author's Note: As we close out Advent, when we so quickly determine what’s our legal right or what we’re owed or what “the Bible really says” when, after all, we’re just simply too quick to judge. In these days where we must affirm #BlackLivesMatter, where we must stand up for victims of rape and abuse, and where we must struggle with our LGBTQ sisters and brothers for full inclusion, sermons like this are humbly offered.
We know the Christmas story well.
Those of us that have grown up with regular, annual, church-going rhythms — we essentially hear this story once a year.
Even so, those with no regular church commitments — people from all walks of life, people of faith or no particular faith, people from varied faiths — if you asked your friend, your neighbor, your cousin, a stranger on the street, I bet at least 50 percent of the time they’d be able to share the gist of the story:
Jesus was born to a virgin named Mary.
Mary was married to a guy (named Joseph).
There were angels, and wise men, and shepherds.
And I think there was a manger.
We know this story well.
But we hear it so often it becomes rote — literally a mechanically, automatically, mindlessly routine on repetition in our brains.
Yeah, yeah, yeah — 6lb 8oz baby Jesus, in a manger, Virgin Mary, Adopted Dad Joseph, sheep, shepherds, angels, stars at night, wise men, white Christmas, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer …
You get my point.
So, let’s hear the story one more time and lean in a bit to this wild world of dreams, angels, and ancient Jewish marriage contracts.
On a Sunday when the dominant color in Christian churches is pink — a symbol of joy for the third Sunday of Advent — I was wearing a black shirt, black pants, and a blue tie. Others in our congregation were wearing various combinations of black or blue.
This was a modest way of showing solidarity with African Americans and a reminder that “Black Lives Matter” while still showing empathy for the police in the Madison, Wisconsin, area who have worked hard over the years to have a diverse force that works to serve rather than dominate the varied racial and ethnic communities that exist here.
But even with a nod to the pressure police are under these days, the dominant focus was on the series of killings of unarmed black people. And we know that not all police departments have made the same efforts that have happened here over a generation — and that our police departments are not perfect either.
The movement to wear black on December 14 came from several African-American denominations across the nation. Here in Wisconsin, Rev. Scott Anderson, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches, joined faith leaders in urging people to wear black to church on that Sunday.
What storms are you weathering this Advent? What fires assail your mind, body, and spirit? What relationships cry out to be restored? As we wait and prepare for the arrival of Christ in our midst, both in Bethlehem and at the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God, may we remember that God cares for us in the midst of our struggles and that we can look forward to the complete restoration of our relationships, our communities, and of the world entire.
This is my first Advent as an ordained minister, and I am attempting to quickly learn so many things. Including: what Advent means in different cultural contexts; how to determine the "accurate" themes represented in each Advent candle on the wreath (I've come across at least 4 or 5 different versions thus far); preparing our first discussion series informed by our devotional readings; creating children's worship lessons for the season; writing liturgy and sermons to reflect the mood of the season; and crafting a Christmas Eve service to include children, musical numbers, poetry, and stories.
All this while also correcting 35 final essays, grading 35 final presentations, and finalizing semester grades for my delightful students.
So what's the irony, you ask? Well, in addition to preaching on signs of hope last week, I also spoke about Advent as a space carved out in our church year to wait in eager anticipation of a promise not yet realized. To be still and contemplate the movement of the spirit in the midst of the bustle all around us. To think on hope even when so many are simply thinking of shopping and trips to the mall to snap a photo with Santa.
And yet what do I find myself doing? Anything but waiting, being still, and taking time to ponder hope.
“A time to wait.”
I’ve always struggled with Advent as a time of waiting and awakening. What exactly are we waiting for and what do we need to be awakened to? Are we waiting for the baby Jesus? Is it a sentimental journey of ‘feel good’ when Christmas comes so I can contribute to the treasury of empire? Am I to wake up to some coming event that will happen in the future?
The historical Jesus has already come. God has entered our humanity. St. Paul says that humanity is now God’s temple (1 Cor. 3: 16-17). If we really believe that, are not we — who call ourselves “Christian” after our founder — the incarnation in our time? I think we need to wake up to that reality. As my spiritual mentor Richard Rohr says, following the mystics, “We already are that which we are seeking.”
Could it be that the crescendo of dissention is divinely synched to yet again heighten disruptive unease among the status quo? Could it be that the promise of Emmanuel — "God is with us" — as proclaimed by the heavenly host, but feared by powerful elite, is unavoidably linked through the eternal truth — such that even the Church universal cannot celebrate one and avoid the other? Could it be that through Advent, we are called to acknowledge the humanity and parity of personhood, rather than rest in the laurels of privilege? The anger of youthful Ferguson protests was marginalized and dubbed as riots, but could it be that this Advent response manifested in expanded multiethnic solidarity is of divine intent to raise challenge to elitism and to demand respect for people of color as equals rather than as patronized subordinates? Could it be that whether or not the media chooses to ignore the connection, the Advent message for those with ears to hear is that perpetrators of brutality, the comfortable protectors of privilege, and the self-serving pundits of power that tried to nullify the everlasting promise were unsuccessful then and now? Could it be by divine design that unknown names, stolen lives, are now divinely lifted to eternal and global recognition as sacrificial symbols so that truth could come to light?
At the point of the writing of this article, it has been 124 days since unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot six times and killed by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.
Blocks from the spot where Brown lay dead in the tightknit Canfield neighborhood of Ferguson, Mo., protestors filled West Florissant Avenue, where Brown had been only minutes before his death. They were met by the local police force decked out in camouflage and body armor, armed to the gills with military-grade weapons, and rolling around in armored cars. Many commented that the streets of Ferguson looked like Fallujah.
It was both shocking and clarifying at once.
For the first time, Americans witnessed real-time outcomes of the National Defense Authorization Act, which funnels military weapons left over from past wars to local police municipalities across the country — in theory, to fortify local efforts in America’s drug war. Cable news cameras swarmed as wartime weapons, tactics, and protocols were enacted on unarmed, mostly black citizens exercising their First Amendment rights to assemble and exercise free speech.
Here’s the thing about war: There are only enemies and allies. There is no in-between.
This Advent I am grateful for the gift of hopelessness. Yes, you read that correctly. This past year has been full of heartbreak, suffering, and lament. It follows on the heels of nearly two years of unemployment, financial insecurity, and stress-related health issues. Any hope to which I once clung — any hope outside of God, that is — has been destroyed.
And for that I give thanks.
This summer, as I waited anxiously to hear what was strangely afflicting my father (who had already had several health scares and a heart attack), as I nursed a broken heart and came to grips with personal disappointment, as I watched how a once rosy-outlook turned to a heavy-grey, I learned the true meaning of hope. Everything in this world will break or decay or simply fade away. Nothing here is permanent and even the most seemingly perfect and ideal situation has at least a hairline crack.
For the past several years, I have been less outwardly celebratory during the Christmas season. No wreaths, trees, or bad sweaters for me; I have chosen to be introspective during the end of the year season in order to keep my focus on the true meaning of Christmas. This has become increasingly difficult, as the process of commercializing the celebration of Christ’s birth begins right after Halloween and extends itself until after the nation celebrates the life of Dr. King in January. This year, it has been increasingly difficult to concentrate on this Season of Advent in light of all of the anger and protests going on around the country. The protests over grand jury decisions in both the Michael Brown (Missouri) and Eric Garner (New York) cases and the heartbreak and anger over the deaths of Tamir Rice (Ohio) and Akai Gurley (also in New York) have served for me as a reminder that we need to rally around life.
Many of those critical of the decisions in these cases say that black lives do not matter, and there is some validity to that in a nation that has never truly been delivered and healed from the effects of chattel slavery. Those on the other side say that these cases have gone to the judicial system and that the system should be respected, the issue dropped, and that personal responsibility is the mindset that will move the nation forward. While there is truth in both of those opinions, I am led to think of the joy the families of these dead men and boys must have felt at their birth – a moment of endless possibilities – and I also think of the finality – the end of chances represented by their deaths.