Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
Rivers and trees. The Bible begins and ends with rivers and trees: Genesis 1-2 and Revelation 21-22. Why is this striking fact not more well known among followers of Christ? What might this latter text teach us about hope in Advent 2014?
Early on the first Sunday of Advent, I logged in to Pandora and heard the familiar chant “Adoro Te Devote.”
As a child, I knew Thomas Aquinas’ beloved text as “Humbly I Adore Thee.” At that time, faith meant standing with my family in the family church and singing such hymns with devotion.
The joining in song and prayer drew me closer to God. Or so I thought.
Later, as my life became more challenging and as I entered a world that seemed largely untouched by faith — a world where hatred, greed, violence and arrogance had free rein — I wondered if faith needed to be something more.
More rigorous, perhaps, deeper than a child’s cozy feelings. Faith needed to embrace more than lingering echoes of days gone by. Faith needed to address today’s cruelties and sadness. Faith needed to confront warfare, prejudice and unwarranted privilege.
But wait! What if we‘ve got it backward? To revisit that waiting-goes-both-ways thing: Instead of us waiting on God, what if God is waiting on us?
John Dominic Crossan poses that question in his book The Power of Parable. He notes something that’s obvious: Jesus could be very impatient. He wasn’t one to just sit back and wait for things to change. As Crossan sums it up: “You have been waiting for God, he said, while God has been waiting for you. No wonder nothing is happening. You want God’s intervention, he said, while God wants your collaboration. God‘s kingdom is here, but only insofar as you accept it, enter it, live it, and thereby establish it.”
There’s so much to be done — what’s important is to do it now. This moment is a gift. This opportunity to love someone else is too precious to waste.
If all we do is sit and wait for things to change, then we’re like people trapped in a perpetual state of Advent. We never get to our own Christmas morning. We do nothing more than wait.
And all the while, someone is waiting on us.
Like a lot of people, I love giving presents almost as much as receiving them. And the best gifts of all are ones that come with a clear understanding of the recipient in mind — ones that involve thought and care. Maybe a weird record with cover art only your best friend would love, or a necklace that goes perfectly with your mom’s favorite dress.
But spending that much effort on gifts for every single person on your list can be exhausting. Handmade gifts sometimes take weeks to plan and make in advance, and you don’t always have the time (or gas money, for that matter) to spend an entire day driving all over town searching for the perfect present, as romantic as that sounds.
Luckily, there are plenty of great resources out there to provide you with excellent gifts that give back. You can find some of them listed in Sojourners’ Just Giving Guide, which offers options ranging from clothes and jewelry to coffee and pecans (yes, pecans!). And if you just can’t find that special something, there are also plenty of choices for giving a donation in honor of a friend or loved one.
“For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” —Romans 8:24-25
We’ve had a tough year. The media has been full of stories about the raging Ebola epidemic, gridlock and partisanship in Congress, racial injustice in countless communities across our country, immigrant children stranded at the U.S./Mexico border, unrest in the Gaza Strip, and so much more. The Sojourners staff experienced our own personal heartbreak this year with the passing of Elizabeth “Zab” Palmberg, a beloved member of our editorial staff.
With all of this pain and heartache in the world, I often find myself asking, “Where is the hope?”
I realize I am not alone in asking this question. It’s one that many people seem to be asking themselves this year, in light of all that has happened and that continues to happen.
In the midst of my search for hope, I find comfort in these words from Romans, quoted above. As a Christian, I hope in the resurrection and for the full redemption of our broken world. This vision of a redeemed world keeps me going in the midst of my questioning, my doubt, my impatience and frustration with the current brokenness of the world. I hope for this unseen reality and eagerly await its arrival.
The high liturgical seasons of Advent and Lent have always held a special place in my heart because of their emphasis on the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. But Advent has special significance because it, unlike any other season, most accurately expresses the now-not-yet feeling of the Kingdom of God. It highlights the fact that we are waiting. We’re waiting for the return of God, for the day when God will come and restore all things.
Many of our Advent hymns capture this beautifully, especially “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Before the birth of Christ, God’s people lived in a time of waiting. The space between the Old and New Testaments, between Malachi and Matthew, cover a span of more than 400 years. That was 400 years without a word from God, without a prophet. It was 400 years of one invasion after another as one conqueror overtook another. And the people began to wonder, “When will YHWH come? When will God send the Promised One?”
And then, announced by shepherds and angels, and greeted by Magi from the East, Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The Promised One had come! The Kingdom of God was at hand! But not quite. He lived, he died, he rose again … but we’re still waiting. We live between the two great Christ events of history, between his first coming and his second. We live in the in-between time as we await the return of the King and the day when God will come again to dwell with God’s people, to wipe away every tear, and to finally and for all eternity make everything new (Rev. 21).
It’s the end of the year and, as always, a great time to reflect on what has happened over the past 12 months. I’ve been blessed to have so many talented and diverse writers share their voices and views alongside me on the God’s Politics blog. I want to take this opportunity to share some of my favorite posts from this past year with you, in no particular order.
We had so many great posts this year that explored the different facets of our faith. If you haven’t read them yet, make sure you look at:
What Good is a Ph.D. for reading the Bible? by Rev. Dr. Guy Nave
Five Things That Are Holding Christianity Back by Christian Piatt
10 reasons Why Men Should Not Be Ordained For Ministry by Eugene Cho
Women and Girls
Since the 1970s, Sojourners has been committed to resisting sexism in all its forms, while affirming the integrity and equality of women and men in the church and in the larger world. This year we’ve been even more intentional about looking at these topics through our blog and magazine.
Pope Francis is TIME's Person of the Year. But that is only because Jesus is his "Person of the Day" — every day.
Praises of the pope are flowing around the world, commentary on the pontiff leads all the news shows, and even late night television comedians are paying humorous homage. But a few of the journalists covering the pope are getting it right: Francis is just doing his job. The pope is meant to be a follower of Christ — the Vicar of Christ.
Isn’t it extraordinary how simply following Jesus can attract so much attention when you are the pope? Every day, millions of other faithful followers of Christ do the same thing. They often don’t attract attention, but they keep the world together.
As we prepare for the coming of Christ, the third Sunday of advent is celebrated in joy. As followers of Christ, it is reasonable to be exuberant about the birth of our Savior. The amount of happiness that can seep from the soul in response to a virgin birth, a perfect baby boy, and an adorable scene of livestock and shepherds befriending God’s family is immeasurable. Christmas music, Christmas decorations, and yes, even Christmas presents add to the joy and never fail to put a smile on my face.
This past weekend, as I tried to reflect on what it means to be joyful in Christ, my heart was temporarily hardened as I attended a Reentry Arts & Information Fair for returning citizens. I helped host a table for Becoming Church and their Why We Can’t Wait initiative.
The rhythm of the skies and seasons — the rhythm of the church year — both are ancient interlocking symphonies of light that call us to watchfulness and mindfulness. A small light can illumine vast spaces and dark corners of our selves. A light can reveal new aspects to things we thought we knew about our world. And, the light of knowledge can change perceptions about things we thought we understood.
As you read these words, there are tens of thousands of homeless children (perhaps more) on the streets in the United States. Reliable numbers are hard to find, because these children for the most part are invisible. You would probably not notice them if you saw them. Nevertheless, from law enforcement and other government reports, hotline statistics, and the experience of agencies such as youth outreach ministries, we know that homeless, runaway (or “thrown away”) children are part of our communities — eating at McDonald’s, riding the subways and buses, hanging out at the mall, talking on cellphones, and sitting in the park. What we don’t often see about their lives is that, as homeless youth, they are always vulnerable to the worst kinds of danger — from inadequate shelter, to sickness, to malnutrition, to physical violence, to terrible sexual exploitation.
Saying an opening prayer at the Nelson Mandela Memorial Service on Wednesday, in Washington, D.C. was both an honor and a blessing for me. The theme of the homily, by my good friend Rev. Dr. Allan Boesak, was “it ain’t over until God says it’s done.”
I sat there listening to those words from an African American gospel hymn in the midst of my own circumstance of being on the ninth day of a water-only fast for comprehensive immigration reform. In my weakened condition, I was grateful that I had done the opening prayer and wouldn’t have to do the closing prayer! But fasting focuses you and it made me consider how Nelson Mandela would feel about a broken immigration system that is shattering the lives of 11 million immigrants, separating parents from children, and undermining the best values of our nation.
In our nightly meeting at what is now a packed fasting tent, I could imagine Nelson Mandela there with us, telling us to never give up until we win this victory for so many vulnerable people reminding us, "it ain’t over until God says it’s done." Or, as he would tell cynical pundits and politicians, “it is always impossible until it is done.” Today, following a procession from the Capitol which will now include many members of Congress, we will go to that tent and proclaim that immigration reform is not over, and we won’t give up until it’s done.
Editor's Note: New Vision Renewable Energy connects Christians with opportunities to provide renewable solar lights to people in the developing world. Their Christmas Lights Advent Devotional features daily readings and questions from prominent Christian thinkers, including Sojourners president Jim Wallis. This Day 10 of Advent devotional from Jim Wallis is reprinted and adapted with permission of New Vision Renewable Energy. You can find the full Christmas Lights Advent Devotional guide and solar light kits here: http://nvre.org/devotional-order.html
Proclaiming Jesus as light of the world is an audacious statement. It directly challenges all those idols that persistently attempt to replace God as the center of our lives and our world. In our culture, a selfishness that denies any obligation to anyone or anything beyond our own self-interest may be the greatest idol of all. It denies that demanding more and more energy at great cost to our environment and the people who live close to the land has problematic consequences. We have lost sight of the common good and the consequences have been devastating.
In many places, hope has turned into despair. Darkness seems to be crowding out light. From where will our help come from?
What makes one a good person? Additionally, what makes one a good Christian? I have been spending some time wondering about this as news of Mandela’s death has been making it’s way across the planet. Was he a good man? I think so, but how do we measure that? How do we know? And if, as some have claimed, his greatness stemmed from his willing embodiment of his Christian faith, I need to know if he was a good Christian.
Guy Sorman writes of Mandela:
“The Commission for Truth and Reconciliation, founded by President Mandela and led by Bishop Tutu, is perhaps the most concrete example of Mandela’s Christian faith. Instead of the vengeance and reprisals that were expected and feared after years of interracial violence, the commission focused on confession and forgiveness. Most of those who admitted misdeeds and even crimes — whether committed in the name of or in opposition to apartheid — received amnesty. Many returned to civil life, exonerated by their admission of guilt.”
Mandela is exemplary not because he was perfect, always kind to everyone he met, an ideal husband and father, but because of these larger virtues that he also attempted to live out. He lived into these virtues — all of them, large and small, and all of them incompletely.
The American Family Association has been tracking major companies to see how they promote Christmas. It came up with the “Naughty or Nice” list where it has examined different company’s websites, circulars, commercials, and stores noting how many times they use the word “Christmas,” if at all. According to the association’s website, “If a company has items associated with Christmas, but did not use the word “Christmas,” then the company is considered as censoring “Christmas.” Its research has uncovered that if you shop at Radio Shack, Barnes & Noble, Family Dollar, and Foot Locker (just to name a few) then you are part of the problem and thus should be placed on the “naughty list.”
The American Family Association believes that there is a full out “war on Christmas.” Well, I would have to say that it is correct but not for the reasons it postulates.
I flew to Houston over the weekend to speak at the Conspire Conference. I stood on a stage looking out over a few hundred students in grades 6-12, telling them my story of having breast cancer in my 20s.
I talked to them about what a dark season of life it was for me. The chemo and radiation were difficult, but on top of that I also lost a good friend to cancer, I was out of work for seven months, while in my apartment building’s parking lot, my car was hit by a truck, and my boyfriend broke up with me. After all of that, I ended up in the hospital with a raging lung infection and a good chance that I would die.
On the nights I spent in the hospital, I’d lie awake and stare at the ceiling and wonder where God was. “Do you see me? Do you love me? Do you care about what’s happening in my life?” I prayed. “And if you see me and love me and care about my life, why don’t you come down and make this all go away?”
When I was 4 and 5 years old, my parents hung our stockings up at the beginning of Advent. Each morning, my younger sister and I would run down to the rec room to see if Santa had left us anything during the night. Finding an empty stocking was a huge relief, because the only reason Santa would leave us anything before Christmas was if we had been bad. Bad children would get a warning, you see. An onion or turnip swelling the stocking’s toe meant we were on probation and we had better shape up before Christmas or we’d end up on the naughty list.
This put the fear of God, er, Santa in me, I can tell you! When it happened to me (and it happened a lot — I reigned over my younger sister with the zeal of a tyrant!), I would rack my brain to figure out what I had done the day before that had garnered Santa’s judgment. Sometimes I knew what it was and I’d apologize for it and promise to do better, but sometimes I didn’t know what I’d done wrong and that was the worst of all. How can you fix something when you don’t quite know what needs fixing? I would worry and fret until Christmas morning. My stocking filled with candy and the presents under the tree were a relief, tangible evidence that in Santa’s estimation, I was a good girl. At least good enough to stay off the naughty list!
On the first day of Advent, I began to fast for immigration reform.
I’m not a recent immigrant or a political activist. But I’m a mother, a teacher, and a Christian living in Asheville, N.C., a community affected by our broken immigration system. And I was raised in a faith that tells me that this country should not have an invisible class of people or a justice system that tears apart families. That’s not justice to me.
So Dec. 1-3, I joined the National Days to Act, Fast, and Pray in solidarity with those who have been fasting for three weeks in a tent on the National Mall. Their goal is to urge the House GOP, specifically U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), to call for a vote on immigration reform.
I always had very mixed feelings about Christmas as a kid. My dad — not a religious guy — went all out for this holiday, in the typical secular ways. He bought so many presents that it would end up being hard to make our way through the dining room, where we put the tree. We’d spend at least two weekends in November hanging lights and other swag outside, and the house resonated with Bing Crosby, Dean Marin and John Denver, all wishing us merry Christmas, over and over again.
I came to hate decorating the house. All of that time spent on the roof could have been much better used playing with my friends and, of course, I never hung the lights correctly. I’d flop them along the wrong side of the roofline, only to be sent back to make it right. And suffice it to say that, although I love the Rat Pack singers in particular, hearing any carol more than 43 times in the course of three weeks can sour even the most ardent fans.
Then there was the matter of the gifts. As I said, the piles of boxes were fairly obscene, which actually proved an embarrassment if we had other family visiting for Christmas. I was not a fan of being the center of attention, and opening my remaining presents while jealous cousins looked on made me just want to get it over and done with.