Waiting: Joy (Advent Week 3)

Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, Gaudete¹

I.

“Rejoice! Again, I say rejoice!”
These words penned
in prison—
written by
an old man,
in a cell
on death row.
He was almost
blind but
still hoped
he’d taste
His release.

II.

“Rejoice! Again, I say rejoice!”
Though the
The dark
is long and dusk
devours days,
Behold, a
light shines

the Sun’s rays—
a joyful rage,
against the
dying of
the night.

III.

“Rejoice! Again, I say rejoice!”
The Theotokos
aching and sore,
her hips hurt.
And back.
She’s so tired now,
she lowers herself down
on the couch,
rests her hand
on her belly,
she smiles and asks:
How Long, O Lord?

IV.

One day soon:
kings will topple
from their thrones,
the poor will rise,
the hungry feast,
and broken mend;
whole and healthy,
the lame leap,
blind see,
and every
prisoner will
be free.
“Rejoice! Again, I say rejoice!”


[1] The Introit to the Latin Mass for the Third Week in Advent, Gaudete Sunday,  is the Latin translation of Philippians 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord Always, I will say it again: Rejoice!”  This week is all about joy, the rose candle a joyful reprieve to the season’s penitential purple.

Peace on Earth

Jesus, in the song you wrote
The words are sticking in my throat
Peace on earth
Hear it every Christmas time
But hope and history won’t rhyme
So what’s it worth?
This peace on earth -U2

It is hard to hold out hope for peace.

We attend to peace like a river, mindful of where it is moving us to, and we yearn to have the peace that passes understanding down in our hearts to stay. We work to prepare the way for the Prince of Peace to come. But we feel the cognitive dissonance between the world we experience every day and the promised peace of our soon and coming King. “Jesus, in the song you wrote/ the words are sticking in my throat,” sings Bono and we feel with him the angst of a hope and history which just won’t rhyme. How can we hold out hope and sow peace in our wartorn land of discord?

Gerard Manley Hopkins poem Peace describes this same sense of elusiveness—our longing for promised Peace when we’ve only seen a peace, piecemeal and poor:

When will you ever, Peace, wild wooddove, shy wings shut,
Your round me roaming end, and under be my boughs?
When, when, Peace, will you, Peace? I’ll not play hypocrite
To own my heart: I yield you do come sometimes; but
That piecemeal peace is poor peace. What pure peace allows
Alarms of wars, the daunting wars, the death of it?

O surely, reaving Peace, my Lord should leave in lieu
Some good! And so he does leave Patience exquisite,
That plumes to Peace thereafter. And when Peace here does house
He comes with work to do, he does not come to coo,
He comes to brood and sit.

When, Peace, will you, Peace? How long, O Lord? What pure peace allows/ Alarms of wars, the daunting wars, the death of it? 

I had planned to write, today, ways we can welcome more of God’s shalom in our midst, but it struck me that such preachy platitudes would ring hollow if we didn’t stop and notice how hard it really is to hope for peace. We know far too much of grief and sorrow, death, terror and war, oppression and hate, we know far too little peace. It is hard to watch the news and not feel profoundly disillusioned and cynical. There is too much that is broken. How can such a world be made whole?

And yet we hope and wait, work and wonder. Peace is our hope but we hate the delay.  We’ve seen just enough to have some trust, but hope the way is not far off.  The opening lines of Bono’s song are:

Heaven on earth
We need it now
I’m sick of all of this
Hanging around
Sick of sorrow
Sick of pain
Sick of hearing again and again
That there’s gonna be
Peace on earth

We are sick of all we see and suffer. We long for your Kingdom come. How much longer? Prince of Peace, don’t drag your feet. 

Image source: Land art sculpture by Hein Waschefort, Maluti Mountains near Lesotho (Wikimedia Commons)

And Let it Begin With Me

The Advent call to “Prepare the way for the Lord” is a call to conversion (Luke 3:4-6). Anti-shalom marks our systems, structures, and institutions.  Injustice is business as usual. War and rumors of war haunt us. We are anxious people. We long for the peace of God to reign—in our hearts, in our lives, and in our world. But how should we live?

Let There Be Peace on Earth by Jill Jackson-Miller and Sy Miller describes how the call (and hope) for peace compels us to live differently:

Let there be peace on earth
And let it begin with me
Let There Be Peace on Earth
The peace that was meant to be

With God as our Father
Brothers all are we
Let me walk with my brother
In perfect harmony.

Let peace begin with me
Let this be the moment now.

With every step I take
Let this be my solemn vow
To take each moment and live
Each moment in peace eternally
Let there be peace on earth
And let it begin with me

The peace of God will one day reign on the earth, but to take up our role as Divine image-bearers means we live out God’s shalom now. This is how we welcome the Prince of Peace and allow the peace of Christ to reign in our hearts (Col. 3:15) But how do we do this?

First, we need to become a people of prayer. Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians is apt for these anxious times:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 4:6-7)

To pray is not to gloss over struggle, conflict, worry, and pain. It is to bring these things to God and invite His presence into them.

Committing to bringing everything anxious thought to God in prayer requires self-awareness about the things which are troubling us. This is easier if our anxiety is a troubling diagnosis or financial worry, but sometimes we have to probe our hearts a little more. We can’t present what we can’t name. When we are able to, our hopes and heartache laid bare before God, we provide the context for the peace of God to enter us more and more.

Secondly, in a world were darkness yet reigns, we are called to a stance of resistance. Peace is not just an inner-state, but a life which accords with the purposes of God for the world. This means as we follow Jesus, we learn to oppose anti-shalom in every form we encounter it.

Walter Wink notes three general responses to evil, ” (1) passivity, (2) violent opposition and (3) the third way of militant non-violence articulated by Jesus” (Jesus and Non-Violence, Fortress Press, 2003, 12). Jesus’ “third way” is not the middle path between revolution and passive fatalism. It is committing to shalom—well being and justice for alland understanding that ends and means are convertible terms (MLK, Gandhi). This is not passive, it is the revolution. Anti-Shalom may be our lived-reality but the kingdom of God grows, as wheat among tares now, even in the shadow of Empire. Resistance is fertile.

Let it begin with me, but it can’t end there. The Peace of God calls us to not only cast all our cares on Him but to allow His shalom to form us to respond to the anxiety and pain felt by our neighbors, our community, our country and our world.

(Image: Flower Thrower by Bansky)

 

 

“The King” and the Coming King of Kings

Thomas Dorsey wrote some of the greatest gospel songs of the 20th Century. One that gets special attention this time of year is There Will Be Peace in the Valley.  Here are the lyrics:

Oh well, I’m tired and so weary
But I must go alone
Till the lord comes and calls, calls me away, oh yes
Well the morning’s so bright
And the lamp is alight
And the night, night is as black as the sea, oh yes

There will be peace in the valley for me, someday
There will be peace in the valley for me, oh Lord I pray
There’ll be no sadness, no sorrow
No trouble, trouble I see
There will be peace in the valley for me, for me

Well the bear will be gentle
And the wolves will be tame
And the lion shall lay down by the lamb, oh yes
And the beasts from the wild
Shall be lit by a child
And I’ll be changed, changed from this creature that I am, oh yes
There will be peace in the valley for me, someday
There will be peace in the valley for me, oh Lord I pray
There’ll be no sadness, no sorrow
No trouble, trouble I see
There will be peace in the valley for me, for me

The version I remember best is Elvis Presley’s. As one of Elvis’s best-loved gospel hits, it is included on the B side of his Christmas album. So if you are like me, and you have a cache of Christmas CDs you haul out every year, you’ve heard it recently. Maybe as you read the words above, you heard them in Elvis’s voice and your upper lip curled up just a little.

I love this song. It inhabits this hopeful, future-oriented Advent space, a time when there will be no sadness and sorrow, and God himself will wipe every tear from our eyes (Rev. 21:4). Predators like bears, wolves, and lions will be tamed, a little child will light the world, we will all be changed (Isaiah 11:6-9, 1 Cor. 15:51). But if I could excise one word from Dorsey’s lyrics (and Elvis’s performance), I would get rid of the word “someday.” To me, that word is too passive, too pie-in-the-sky. We can’t just sit back and wait for a world we want. What difference does it make if we wax poetically about lions and lambs if we willfully participate in systems and structures that devour our neighbors?

The Advent season marks time before Christmas, it acknowledges that we have not yet arrived, that we should not be satisfied with what is, and it stokes hope for the coming of Christ when all the world will be set to rights.  But it is more than this. Advent calls us to respond. If not a come to Jesus moment, we are called to a Jesus is coming moment. We are called to be Shalom agents now and prepare the way for the Lord!

At Jesus first Advent, his cousin John preached a gospel of repentance. Luke 3:4-6 (cr. Isaiah 40) says:

“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
    make straight paths for him.
Every valley shall be filled in,
    every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
    the rough ways smooth.
And all people will see God’s salvation.’”

If we believe this stuff, then the call isn’t for us to sit, wistfully dreaming of someday. Jesus is coming and things got to change. Someday is cold comfort to the hurting.

What can we do today, to alleviate inequity, suffering, pain? How can we make our crooked roads straight? How will the wounded, the wicked, the victims and victimizers all see God’s salvation? It is when we finally start living and acting in ways that are cognizant with the reign of the coming King of Kings.

A friend recently tweeted, “How are you complicit in creating the conditions you don’t want?” I can’t think of a more Advent-y question.

Image taken from Wikimedia Commons

 

A Peace that Passes All Understanding

And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Phil 4:7)

-Apostle Paul

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

-Iñigo Montoya

Everyone says peace, peace when there is no peace. On the global scene, we broker our treaties and walk tenuously on days when tensions run high. Our national politics are marked by a strong partisan divide. Closer to home, violence erupts where it should not—at churches, concerts, and playgrounds. Prejudices affect public policy, marring our police forces and our justice system. We sign Christmas cards that say Peace on Earth, goodwill toward all people, but peace is not our lived reality. We keep using that word but I do not think it means what we think it means.  

Our understanding of peace evidences a lack of imagination. We understand peace to mean the cessation of war or conflict (or perhaps, a blissed-out tranquil state). The Hebrew concept of Shalom is far richer than just that. Certainly, it includes the idea of the end of war but it also describes a whole new world:

  • Shalom is health and prosperity, a profound experience of total well-being.
  • Shalom means to be complete, full, and whole. It describes life as ample, abounding, and brimming over. Everything just as it should be.
  • Shalom is a bountiful harvest. The locust and famine have not wasted the crops. There is more than enough to share with everyone.
  • Shalom is to live in a state of friendship with others.
  • Shalom means restoration and restitution. Repayment for the wrong we’ve done and all relational brokenness mended.
  • Shalom means justice, putting the vulnerable, the oppressed and the marginalized in your sphere of care.
  • Shalom is an open-hearted right relationship with yourself, with others, with Creation, and with God.

Underpinning the definition of shalom are some biblical pictures that envision peace: the Garden of Eden (Gen 2), the eschatological vision of the Hebrew Prophets (cf. Isaiah 2, 11), the Kingdom of God(see: Jesus), and the New Jerusalem (Rev 21-22).

We need to allow this vision of shalom to shape our hopes and vision for what peace may be if we are to speak and live as witnesses of another Kingdom. Too often, our public rhetoric of ‘keeping the peace’ is used in ways that are anti-shalom. 

Telling NFL players to stand up and respect the flag without addressing the reality of racial inequalities, and state-sponsored violence against black people, there is no shalom.

When we claim we are about ‘law and order’ and advocate policies that incarcerate minorities at higher rates and for less than what white people get slapped on the wrist for, there is no shalom.

When we are told we ought to support leaders who support policies that hurt the poor, the widowed, the orphaned and alien, there is no shalom.

When we ignore the cries of victims because our party’s agenda is too important, there is no shalom.

When we claim that social programming will bankrupt our country and we need to first be fiscally responsible if we want our society to function, we ignore commands and biblical exhortations to live open-handed lives toward the poor (Deut. 15:11).  There is no shalom.

When we deregulate environmental protections, poison waterways, pollute the air, and destroy the earth, we are not caring for creation. There is no shalom.

In a series of recent Facebook posts, Mark Van Steenwyk challenged the way  pacifism and calls for peace have been used by the powerful and privileged to oppress and silence the poor and marginalized:

Any anabaptist theology that isn’t re-baptized through liberation theology reinforces oppression.

Anabaptism, on its own, only makes sense as a religion of the oppressed. Just like the Gospels are unintelligible to the middle and owner classes apart from the experiences of the oppressed.

In other words: Any calls for pacifism, meekness, and simplicity that come insistently from the powerful are attempts to keep the oppressed docile and poor.

Nonviolence must be a tool of the oppressed in their struggle, with the aid and support of repentant allies. Otherwise, in the hands of the powerful it becomes an ideology of oppression.

To be clear: I’m a pacifist. But pacifism and nonviolence must be in service to liberation or they become a force for oppression. If you’re a pacifist that isn’t working alongside (and following the lead of) those who struggle for liberation, then your nonviolence is just the velvet pouch sheathing the hammer of oppression (from RadicalDiscipleship.net)

Children, who understand such things better than us, sing out, “I’ve got the peace-that-passes-understanding, down in my heart (where?), down in my heart to stay.”

Come Lord Jesus and

give to us your Spirit of Peace,

enliven our imagination 

that we may live out 

peace bigger than our 

understanding.

 

(photo source: Wikimedia Commons)

Advent Peace Like a River

Horatio Spafford lost his 2-year-old son in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. In 1873 his 4 daughters drowned in a shipwreck. Reflecting on his personal losses, and also the comfort and strength he found through his faith, Spafford penned the words of the beloved hymn, It is Well With My Soul. The first stanza begins with these words:

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

The phrase peace like a river also comes to us from an African American Spiritual:

I’ve got peace like a river, I’ve got peace like a river, I’ve got peace like a river in my soul.

But have you ever stopped to consider what it means for us to have peace like a river? When you hear the phrase, perhaps you picture a panoramic scene, serene, a gentle river winding though forests and hills, stretching toward the horizon. Or maybe you picture the low sun over calm waters, reflecting clouds and mountains and trees. Or perhaps the river at night—a bridge over a snowy river, a warm glow from a cabin on the river bank (as in a Thomas Kinkade™ Painting).

But the river isn’t so serene if you are standing in its stream. Its water is only calm where the way is wide; as the channel narrows, the river rages and roils—driftwood and debris move roughly downstream, over rocks and down waterfalls. In heavy rains the waters rise, levees break, the riverbanks and surrounding lowlands flood. The bridge washes out, The Thomas Kinkade glow is doused as river dwellers flee their homes for higher ground. Even when the water appears calm, a wise person proceeds with caution, making certain her footing is secure, lest she get carried off in the undertow. The river is a dangerous place. Whatever peace like a river means, it doesn’t mean tame.

Our Advent Peace is peace like a river. We tend to picture peace as a static state of serenity, but even when the river appears calm, its nature is to move. The terminus of rivers are lakes, and other streams, ultimately the wide expanse of Ocean which covers our globe.

Advent Peace is peace that proceeds to the Peace hereafter. In our fleeting life moments of quiet calm, or our vacillation between comfort and rage, the waters around us are moving, pulling us forward to a wider, more expansive Reality. One day, all will be made whole. We will be complete.

This is the stream we are in. Even moments we aptly describe as peaceful are ephemeral. Continuing downstream we encounter hazards and peril, but we can be confident that one day the way will open into the wideness of God’s shalom. The Christian story tells us this happens with the coming of Christ and ends in New Creation:

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.  I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

 He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new.” (Rev. 21:1-5)

However you feel right now, whatever you are experiencing, whether terror and tumult, or tranquility, we are not yet at our final destination. The water moves, peace like a river is carrying us somewhere better.

Photo Source: Nelson, BC, Peace River (Wikimedia Commons)

 

Heaven Come Down

Waiting with hope is hard work. There are so many things that make us want to give up and despair. Politicians care more about pressing their agenda (or stopping the opposition!) then they do about the poor, the vulnerable, the widowed, the alien and orphaned. Our world has been rocked by earthquakes, high winds & wildfires. Terror, war and the threat of war loom large on the global scene. We worry more now, than we have in decades, about the threat of Nuclear warfare.

Women and men have braved the trauma of reliving hidden pain, sharing stories of sexual assault, harassment, and abuse, only to be accused of telling convenient lies designed to discredit honorable men. The others, the silence-breakers we believe, have caused powerful men to topple from their thrones. We are disillusioned. Some wonder is every man secretly like this? 

Our world, our leader, celebrities, are not at all what we wish they were. We aren’t either. Every one of us is broken and capable of hurting others. Alexsander Solzhenitsyn’s comment in the Gulag Archipelago proves true:

“Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. . . . even in the best of all hearts, there remains . . . an unuprooted small corner of evil.

The Apostle Paul was more holy than most of us but he could still say,” For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing” (Romans 7:19).  Nobody measures up, not even ourselves. And it isn’t just with theological ideas like sin and evil, none of us is what we wish we wereThere are things I want to do, risks I think would be worth taking, songs I want my life to sing. But If I’m honest, sometimes I am just too hurt and afraid to do anything great. Feeling stuck, it is easy for us to resign to despair. 

Our Advent hope is this: Jesus is coming. And that is no small thing. 

Our hope is not in presidents, prime ministers, bureaucrats, big government, corporate tax-breaks or trickle down economics. Our hope is not based on systems, structures, and institutions (our participation in these, at its best, manages the harm). Our hope is not in good people having access to the guns, or gun control, a strong police force or the justice system. Our hope is not Hollywood. Our hope is not in social security, or our Roth IRA. Our hope is not in the Paris Agreement and equitable Fair-Trade, as good as these may be. Our hope is not a strong military or good foreign policy. Our hope is not winning so much you get tired of winning. Hope is not appointed as a Supreme Court Justice. Our hope is not just learning to listen to the better angels of our nature. Our hope is not self-actualization.

Advent Hope is the coming of Jesus. We are notoriously bad at saving ourselves.

My favorite contemporary Christian Advent song is the Robbie Seay Band’s Heaven Come Done (Sing a Song of Hope).The lyrics exude confidence in God’s goodness, his love, his presence and the way Jesus enables new creation:

All things bright and beautiful You are
All things wise and wonderful You are
In my darkest night You brighten up the skies
A song will rise

I will sing a song of hope, sing along
God of heaven come down, heaven come down
Just to know that You are near is enough
God of heaven come down, heaven come down, yeah

All the things new, I can start again
Creator God, calling me Your friend
Sing praise, my soul to the Maker of the skies
A song will rise

I will sing a song of hope, sing along
God of heaven come down, heaven come down
Just to know that You are near is enough
God of heaven come down, heaven come down

Oh, sing a song of hope, sing along
God of heaven come down, heaven come down
Just to know You and be loved is enough
God of heaven come down, heaven come down

The song celebrates. Though the world is not what it should be, Jesus is coming. This is our song of hope. God of heaven come down.

Artist Credit: Fons Heijnsbroek, Hope, Acrylic, 1988, Wikimedia Commons.