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.
Advent is a time for stories. In my childhood, these weeks were filled with Sunday school pageants, beautifully illustrated children's books, and swapping out Legos for the figurines in my mom’s Nativity collection. My favorite part of the Advent story was always the gathering of unlikely companions — magi, shepherds, angels, and a menagerie of farm animals. This year, I find the Advent story accompanied by another, and it starts like this:
Gold, frankincense, myrrh: precious gifts carried by three magi for the King of kings and Lord of lords. Gold, coltan, diamonds: precious gifts of Creation held in the earth of Congo, taken by the "kings" of powerful nations for the commodities of their people. Coltan alone can be found in the cell phones, hearing aids, and prosthetic devices we use in the West every day. These gifts have become a curse with the massacre of over 5.5 million Congolese, numbers nearly equal to the Holocaust. Yet Congo’s conflict remains mostly silent.
I currently serve as Pastoral Associate at a Catholic parish in Buffalo, NY, where our pastor decided to hold monthly Prayer Hours for Peace in response to the violent outbreaks in Syria, the uprising in Ferguson over Michael Brown’s death, ISIS, gang violence — to name a few.
Our November Prayer Hour for Peace offered four rounds of Scripture passages and ten-minute reflection and prayer time, followed with an excerpt from a Pax Christi USA prayer called “Just for Today.”
I read this excerpt aloud:
“Just for today, I will believe that world peace is possible. I will remember that hope is the most important gift I can give my world.”
The next Scripture verse was from Psalm 122:6-8.
“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: May those who love you be secure. May there be peace within your walls and security within your citadels. For the sake of my family and friends, I will say, Peace be within you.”
For the next ten minutes, I inhaled “belief….possible” and exhaled “hope most important gift.” Physically, my body relaxed, and I watched my hope flow out into my immediate surroundings.
Wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking,
“Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?
For we have observed his star at its rising,
and have come to pay him homage.”
They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea;
for so it has been written by the prophet.” (Matthew 2:1b, 5 NRSV)
Waiting, preparing, journeying, hoping.
Unless you’re newborn yourself, you may have experienced it before, many times over. Christianity’s rhythm is cyclic, repetitive. Still, in the same way that we can continually find new gusts of loveliness and truth in old Scriptures our eyes have taken in before, each Advent is a fresh encounter. Not because the story is new, but because the cosmos has changed – we have changed. The Word is new because the world is new.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers — all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
As we spend this season of Advent waiting for the appearance of Christ, this passage in Colossians tells us who we are waiting for. Paul describes a ‘cosmic Christ’ who is so fantastic that our language can’t be exalted enough to praise him. In him everything will be recreated as everything was created in him. Since Jesus is the “firstborn from the dead” then there will be many born from the dead after him.
“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.
Late November is Vitamin D season. The dregs of the year threaten to swamp the spirit, clinging to each rough edge of the soul, and frequent shots of sunshine and warm coziness are needed just to keep the deep at bay. Each shadow left in the wake of autumn’s receding glory whispers, “Not yet.” And, “Not anymore.”
Next week the liturgical church celebrates Advent — the crown jewel of liminal spirituality. Advent is the thinnest place of Christian ritual, where material Today touches fingertips with spiritual Tomorrow. It looks forward while standing still, gently holding the embers of our souls, watching with hope for divine light and grace to set them aflame. Advent is gospel, singing, “The real story is yet to come.” Advent is the Now and the Not Yet.
But this week is for the Not Anymore. Today is for the blues.
It’s interesting how the word “grace” gets used a lot, even by those who don’t necessarily consider themselves religious. It’s a favorite name for a character that represents someone who is a gift to us — I’m thinking about Bruce’s girlfriend Grace in Bruce Almighty, or Eli’s reassuring encounter with a woman named Grace in the second season of the TV series Eli Stone.
You can probably cite many more examples of characters named Grace in different movies, television shows, and books.
We like to put flesh-and-blood on the notion that we are recipients of some great gift that arrives unexpectedly and is given freely. Someone or something that comes into our life and significantly changes it for the better in some ways.
But what is grace? Who is grace to us?
As a native New Yorker, I can never forget Tuesday, September 11, 2001. I was in college, but heading to my part-time job that morning. My car was being fixed, so my father drove me to work. There was an unusual amount of traffic and as we turned on the radio, we heard a reporter talk about a plane that hit the World Trade Center.
The first thought we had was that this was an accident. It had to be an accident, right? As we listened to the reports though, the second plane hit and it was clear that something was very, horribly, terrifyingly wrong.
From our office in Queens, we watched the towers burn and then collapse. The image of the great cloud of smoke and debris encompassing the skyline has been burned on my brain. And a few days later, while handing out sandwiches to mourners at the makeshift memorial at Union Square with my parents’ church and non-profit organization, the feeling of hugging a total stranger while she wept on my shoulder will never leave me.
It is impossible to forget.
I must admit the timeliness on the part of HBO to air the season finale of The Leftovers in the week of 9/11. Tom Perotta, who authored the play on which the show is based, purposely included allusions to 9/11. Rather than a theological treatise on the Rapture, it is a beautiful case study in grief and the excruciating tension between the desire to move forward and the need to remember.
In a township called Khayelitsha, a woman wakes well before dawn to catch a bus that will carry her to the beautiful home in Cape Town where her employer/boss/master wants his tea in bed by 7 a.m. That is what “post-apartheid” South Africa still looks like today.
I just returned from a remarkable month in South Africa—the country that changed my life. I’ve often said that I learned my theology of hope from South Africa, during the anti-apartheid struggle I was thrust into as a young man. South African church leaders invited me in years ago. I got to see and experience the costly movement for freedom in the 1980s, witness the miracle of the inauguration of Nelson Mandela’s rainbow nation in 1994, and later join a wonderful reunion of South African activists, many of whom had been in exile or in prison, along with some of us international allies. So when I set out on a South African speaking and book tour 20 years after the new democracy, I didn’t know what to expect.
This time, I brought my family so they could see the country that had meant so much to me. What I discovered was a new generation of South African leaders ready to define their own vocation and mission as they help build a new nation. I quickly came to understand that making a deep connection with them was the real reason that I had come back. It’s tough to be in the shadow of a heroic generation of leaders like Desmond Tutu whose agenda has been the political liberation of South Africa—accomplished to the amazement of the world. On this trip, 20 years later, I saw the incredible freedom of movement now for all the former racial categories—but also how the systemic geography of apartheid was still painfully evident.
Economic inequality in South Africa is now greater than it was even during the days of apartheid, and gender violence is rampant. So these are the new agendas of a new generation: economic liberation and gender equality, with a commitment to lead on both in the churches. The rainbow of young people who turned up in such great numbers at all of our events truly want a new South Africa— a society yet to emerge.
Theology doesn’t save us from spiritual burnout — people do.
No matter how convincing our doctrines and beliefs may be, they’re ultimately empty and unsatisfying if there’s no human relationship personifying them.
Throughout our faith journeys we’ll be faced with moments of suffering, hopelessness, and sheer desperation — sometimes lasting for what seems like forever. We’ll want to give up — sometimes we will.
These hardships can devolve into isolation, bitterness, and ultimately transform what was once a healthy spirituality and turn it into a total rejection of God. Within Christian culture we label this as “burnout,” but in reality it’s more of a “falling out.”
Not only do we have a falling out with God, but we also disassociate ourselves from other believers and those closest to us. When we feel hurt, betrayed, or abandoned by people we assume God is to blame, causing us to doubt God’s love for us — even questioning God’s very existence.
Many quit faith not because of a newfound disbelief in God, but because of broken and unhealthy human relationships — people are the main reason we give up on God.
Last week, here in Kabul, the Afghan Peace Volunteers welcomed activist Carmen Trotta, from New York, who has lived in close community with impoverished people in his city for the past 25 years, serving meals, sharing housing, and offering hospitality to the best of his ability. Put simply and in its own words, his community, founded by Dorothy Day, exists to practice “the works of mercy” and to “end the works of war.” We wanted to hear Carmen’s first impressions of traveling the streets of Kabul on his way from the airport to the working class neighborhood where he’ll be staying as the APVs’ welcome guest.
He said it was the first time he’d seen the streets of any city so crowded with people who have no work.
Carmen had noticed men sitting in wheelbarrows, on curb sides, and along sidewalks, unemployed, some of them waiting for a day labor opportunity that might or might not come. Dr. Hakim, the APV’s mentor, quoted Carmen the relevant statistics: the CIA World Fact Book uses research from 2008 to put Afghanistan’s unemployment rate at 35 percent — just under the figure of 36 percent of Afghans living beneath the poverty level. That’s the CIA’s unemployment figure. Catherine James, writing in The Asian Review this past March, noted that “the Afghan Chamber of Commerce puts it at 40%, the World Bank measures it at 56% and Afghanistan’s labor leaders put it at a shocking 86%.”
A few weeks ago, my father was hospitalized for heart attack symptoms that might have been stroke symptoms that then turned out to be symptoms of something utterly inexplicable. My father, who suffered a massive heart attack in January 2009, and, against all odds and by the grace of God (he flat-lined twice), went on to survive subsequent surgeries and procedures and scares — always against all odds and by God’s grace. Though my father continues to survive and in many ways thrive, every hospitalization is a reminder that life is precious and short and tomorrow is not guaranteed to us.
This development has left me crying out to God, “Why? I know you don’t have to answer that, but … why?” This question reveals my heart: despite having known real and intense suffering in my life, I still live under the illusion that it is not normal. It’s been commonly reported, discussed, and parodied that those of us in the west, particularly in America, have no concept of how to deal with suffering. For many of us, even minor inconveniences — those “first world problems” like slow Internet access or traffic — feel like suffering in a relatively peaceful and easy world.
But as a Christian, I’m confronted by Scripture that reminds me that suffering will be part of our lives. And I’m confronted by the tendency — which I am sure that I share with many of my sisters and brothers — to shun it, preferring Gospels without suffering instead.