The Politics of Advent

These days, if you here the term evangelical in the public sphere, it likely is a reference to a certain type of Right wing, religious conservative voters (speaking specifically of the U.S. American context here). Evidently 81% of evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in 2016, and that support has not diminished.

But while evangelical has become synonymous with a certain type of political expression, Evangelical theology in general self-consciously apolitical. Evangelicals describe the gospel as salvation for our sin-sick souls. At the recent Together For the Gospel conference, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president, Al Mohler declared, “Justification by faith alone is not merely a way of describing the gospel, it is the gospel.” Belief in Jesus saves us at the end of life, and it guarantees our place with God in eternity. It is all about what happens after you die with no concern for the current social order. Progressive Christians for their part, are similarly committed to progressive politics, while holding to a privatized faith.

But despite our enmeshment in our chosen politics, or our apolitical envisioning of eternity, Advent is inherently political.

When Isaiah spoke of Messianic expectation, he envisioned a political leader— a king in the line of David. You don’t hope for a king unless you are hoping for a change to the political order:

Isaiah 11:1–6 (NRSV)

1A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.2The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.3His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear;4but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.5Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

Isaiah hoped for a king that God’s spirit would rest upon. A ruler who was full of wisdom, good counsel and knowledge. One who feared the Lord. A leader with righteous discernment who would not judge by what he saw and heard, but in ways that championed justice for the poor and equity for the downtrodden. One who would stamp out injustice. Righteousness and faithfulness would be the belt around his waist (he wouldn’t be caught with his pants down).

When Mary sang her Magnificat centuries later, she believed the Son growing in her womb was the answer to Israel’s suffering at the hands of Empire, “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.” (Luke 1: 52). When John appeared in the wilderness declaring that “the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand”(Matt 3:2), it was a hope which directly challenged the politics of usual in Ancient Palestine. When the early church declared emphatically that Jesus was Lord, it implied that Caesar was not. When John of Patmos saw a vision of the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven, he hoped for the end of Roman persecution. Advent hope is hope for the coming Messiah. And that hope is political hope.

And here we are 2019, on the cusp of an election year and feeling jaded. It has been another year of corruption and partisan politicking. We have a president who lies reflexively, who mocks mercilessly, who petitions foreign governments for political dirt on his opponents, and promotes policies that fall short of God’s justice. Some hope for impeachment, or a new election cycle, while others of us wonder if the Democrats offer any real alternative. After all, Trump has dedicated his first term to undoing Obama, except in the case of Obama’s militarism (lets increase that!), or border security (let’s amp that up!). People on the margins have been hurt by the politics of both Right and Left.

The time is ripe for Advent politics. What does it mean for the reign of Christ to break into our world a little more? What would it look likefor leaders to lead others with a commitment to care for the poor, the oppressed and marginalized? What would it look like to not pad the pockets of the powerful but to rule with justice? To listen to counsel, and to care for the poor?

Are politics is not what it should be. The American dream has fallen short of the Kin-dom of God. Advent is hope for a new kind of political order. When the messiah reigns, politics as usual will be no more. Justice, equity and peace will flourish. The military industrial complex will be no more. A new world order is coming. Whatever happens in Congress, or in the Primaries, Jesus is our political hope. Come King Jesus!

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A Green Shoot in the Midst of Struggle

I am a preacher. Currently my Sunday morning gig is to supply a small United Methodist church with sermons, and to help lead their worship service. I also do some visitation ministry for the congregation. I am functionally their pastor, but that’s not my job title. While I’ve been a pastor, I am not licensed by the UMC, and the church isn’t big enough to pay a pastor (the denomination and the conference has some guidelines for what their pastors should be paid). It is a small community church, and the membership is aging out. We are lucky if there is 17 or so of us gathered on a Sunday morning and the congregation has no idea what tomorrow holds. In the meantime, I hope to speak a hopeful word for them.

My passage this Sunday comes from Isaiah 11. There is some evocative imagery there about a wolf and a lamb, a leopard & a goat, a calf, a lion a yearling, a cow and a bear, a child leader, and an infant playing in a snake pit. But the passage begins with familiar words we quote while awaiting the Christ child this season, ” A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
    from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.” (Isaiah 11:1).

I know something about stumps (I am not an arborist, but I play one on tree-vee). Stumps are dead.

We had a giant maple tree in the backyard of the property we rent in Medford. It wasn’t a healthy tree, but it seemed stable enough. It was wide and tall and still had signs of life. But in early autumn a branch fell off onto our shed. I went in the backyard to inspect the tree and discovered that parts of the trunk were rotten. I could stick the handle of my garden hoe right through the trunk. I called our landlord and over the next several days, he had cut the tree down and only a stump remains.

Evidently the previous owner, had decided to make a raised garden bed around an existing tree, and covered the maple tree roots with soil, stressing the tree. While the tree looked alive enough for awhile, it was dying a long slow death. Now there is just stump left for dead.

When Isaiah had his vision, the northern Kingdom of Israel was taken into captivity by Assyria (circa 722 BCE), and the Southern Kingdom of Judah (where Isaiah was) was forced to pay tribute. While Judah maintained their independence, the golden age of David and Solomon was behind them. Judah found itself dominated by powerful nations all around them. They had a noble past, but their roots were distressed under a layer of dirt. Life had ebbed from the tree.

Isaiah has a vision of the dead stump of Jesse—the Davidic monarchy at its end (Jesse was David’s father). Lifeless. I am sure Jesse’s stump wasn’t from a maple tree. I picture one of those Lebanon ceders the Old Testament keeps mentioning, only dead. Just a stump, until a green shoot grows from its center. It was a renewal of hope in a Messiah—an anointed King in the line of David—a green shoot from the stump of Jesse. And with it, hope grows.

Joan Chittister, in Scarred By Struggle, Transformed By Hope (Eerdmans, 2003) writes ” Everywhere I looked, hope existed—but only as some kind of green shoot in the midst of struggle. (preface, ix).” With hindsight and a high Christology, we read of the green shoot in Jesse’s stump and wax eloquent about the Coming of Christ. I am not sure how comforting this was for Isaiah’s hearers, who remembered that stump and the grandeur of yesteryear. But as Chittister says, “Hope, I began to realize was not a state of life. It was at best a gift of life” (ibid).

Advent hope, then and now, is a gift of life. It is a green shoot in the midst of struggle. A green shoot in a stump of a failing monarchy doesn’t sound much like hope. But it became the hope of salvation for the whole earth. Christ’s return sounds to us like pie-in-the-sky escapism, but it is our hope for the renewal of all things, here. A green shoot in the midst of struggle.

I don’t know what you are going through and what it means for you to hold out hope. I don’t know what it means for our world threatened by violence. Or our a country with ever-deepening divisions. I don’t know what it means for the church I pastor that I’m not the pastor of. But each of us, are more than the stump of what was. Hope grows. A green shoot—life where we least expect to find it.

File:Spontaneous seedling of pine on a stump of cypress in Capbreton (Landes).jpg

Last Things and the Thing to Come

You know what? We have never been home yet, to full justice, to full peace, full righteousness, full neighbor-love, full self-love, full trust and obedience. Never there even now. Advent is pondering what it would be like to end our common exile and come home. -Walter Brueggemann

Implicit in the season of Advent, is waiting for what is to come. Yes, Jesus was born in Bethlehem to a teenage peasant twenty centuries ago. If you were there you’d find him, wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger. Yes, there were those who saw angelic visions and dreamed dreams of wonder, at who this child would become. Yes, just like in a musical, people and angels broke out in song.

But when we celebrate Advent, we do more than just remember that. We hope.

We dare hope that that one time, God came in the flesh and entered into the suffering of the world, was not a one time thing. We hope that God in Christ, will return and then we will taste in fulness the meaning of God’s salvation for us. That peace will reign on the earth. That:

The wolf shall live with the lamb, 
the leopard shall lie down with the kid, 
the calf and the lion and the fatling together, 
and a little child shall lead them. 
The cow and the bear shall graze, 
their young shall lie down together; 
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, 
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 
They will not hurt or destroy 
on all my holy mountain; 
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD 
as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:6-9)

Advent hope falls under a category of theology called ‘eschatology,’ the study of last things. In the evangelicalism I grew up in, we loved eschatology. The Bible camp I went to as a child, gave me a detailed chart of the book of Revelation describing the rapture, the beast, and the time of tribulation. It was fanciful and most of the things I was taught, I’ve come to reject as an adequate reading of ancient apocalyptic literature. Sorry, Kirk Cameron.

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Dispensationalist Eschatological Chart

But while mapping the Anti-Christ is no longer my eschatology, I still have one. I still believe that there is a hope that the story is moving toward. That the coming reign of Christ will bring about God’s justice, God’s peace, and fulfill God’s hope for the cosmos. With Walter Brueggemann and the prophet Isaiah I dare hope that there will be a day that no one will hurt or destroy on [God’s] holy mountain. And that we will come home to full justice, full peace, full righteousness, full neighbor-love, full self-love, full trust and obedience.

In The Coming of God, theologian Jurgen Moltmann, argues against a ‘end of all things’ idea of eschatology which envisions the end as ‘final solution’ to all that ails the world:

Christian eschatology has nothing to do with apocalyptic final solutions ofthis kind, for its subject is not the end’ at all. On the contrary, what it is about is the new creation of all things. Christian eschatology is the remembered hope of the raising of the crucified Christ, so it talks about beginning afresh in the deadly end.

Jurgen Moltmann. The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology (Kindle Locations 82-83). Kindle Edition.

I believe Jesus came. I believe Jesus comes to us. I believe Jesus is coming again. And when he does, we aren’t at the end. It is the beginning of the life we are meant to have. In the mean time we live toward that day.

This is Not the Way It's Supposed To Be

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When I was a kid, during the month of December, there was a Peanuts cartoon on the front page of the daily paper, announcing how many shopping days left until Christmas. The month of December was deemed Christmas shopping season. But that was then, now our Christmases, in all its commercial glory begins sometime late September. It is about then that our big box stores begin receiving their Christmas order, and not wanting to clog the back rooms, make space for Christmas décor somewhere on their sales floors.

            And this past Thursday was Thanksgiving, If it was a good one, you likely ate too much and stumbled from your dinner table to the couch, in a turkey-induced Tryptophan haze, trying to stay awake through a football game, or a holiday movie. Our consuming doesn’t end with one holiday meal. There is Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday and holiday sales designed to get us to spend more  money. This is the season of giving, but often it’s the season for overspending. And why not? For many of us Christmas is not the most wonderful time of year, it is the season where we feel the dull ache of what we miss. Loved ones, we’ve buried, family we’re estranged from, and all the things we’ve lost. What better way to get through the holidays, then with a little retail therapy?

                But then we come to church, and we discover that here we mark the season in a wholly different way. Advent. The word Advent simply means ‘arrival’ or ‘coming.’ This is one of the preparatory seasons on our Church calendar, and it is our way of preparing the way for the coming of Christ. Traditionally Christians have thought of this on a couple of levels. There is preparing to remember well, Christ’s nativity—the mystery of Incarnation, the sacred moment of his birth, when light shone in darkness, but the dark did not overcome it. It is also a time for preparing for Christ’s second Advent when Christ shall come with shouts of acclamation. And in between these comings are all of Christ’s little advents, the ways Christ comes to each of us and meets in the quietude of our hearts.

                In Isaiah 2:1-5, and Mathew 24:36-44, our passages for the first Sunday this year, we hear twi descriptions of God’s coming:

Isaiah 2:1–5 (NRSV)

1 The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. 2 In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. 3 Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 4 He shall judge between the nations and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. 5 O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!

Matthew 24:36–44 (NRSV)

36 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

 Matthew’s passage describes this as great and terrible day of the Lord, when God returns to the judge the wicked, Just like in the story of Noah and the flood where the wicked were swept away, Jesus says “two will be working in the field, one taken and the other left, two women will be grinding meal, one will be taken and the other left. Keep awake therefore because you do not know when the day your Lord is coming.”   19th and 20th Century dispensationalism had an idea called “the rapture” where Jesus took the faithful in Christ out of the world before things really got bad. Chances are you may have come across this idea if you’ve ever saw a Christian movie about end times. It is a relatively new idea, and it reverses the thrust of Jesus words. Like in the flood, those who were taken, were those under God’s judgement, those who were ‘left behind’ were the ones who escaped it.

                The Isaiah passage is a little happier to our ears. In the days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house will be established as the highest and all the nations of world will stream into it. Isaiah imagines a future where nationalism is no more, and Israel has fulfilled its calling to be a blessing to all nations. People from all over the world would come to be instructed in the Lords ways. God will judge between all peoples and all the war mongers and weaponizers will beat their swords into plowshares, and not study war anymore.

Both passages give us a little taste of God’s coming advent, but in a couple of different ways. I think these passages have several lessons for us as we enter Advent this year.

  1. Advent means being dissatisfied with the way things are.  Jesus words in the first century come  at a time when the nation of Israel is occupied by Rome, and the whole conversation that Jesus is having with his disciples in this passage, hinges on Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple (which happened in 70AD). Isaiah began his prophetic ministry, under King Uzziah of Judah reign. The Assyrian empire. had laid waste to the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and Judah was forced to pay tribute to them. In both cases, things weren’t as bad as they could be. In Jesus’ time and Isaiah’s time, God’s people could still worship God in the temple. And there were people that made do with the world they were in. After all, even though things weren’t as bad as they could possible be, things could be worse right?

In our country today, we enjoy religious freedom. Every once and a while you hear someone talk about the war on Christmas, but nobody has stopped us from meeting, and celebrated the birth of Christ. But we have been at war. War perpetually since 9-11.  Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and there is the rumor and threat of war with Iran. And there are worries about fair trade and tariffs, even with our allies. In our own borders, we are also not at peace. We suffer, political unrest, with the great divide between east and west. Are hearts break whenever we hear about another shooter at a school, church, synagogue or public venue. Things are not the way we should be. This is not the way it is supposed to be. And yet, we could busy ourselves in the holiday we can ignore everything wrong with our world and just sing, “Have yourself a merry little Christmas/make the Yuletide gay/ from now on our troubles will be miles away.”

But the message of Advent is this, right now is not the way things are supposed to be. God is coming and we have hope for a different future. Which brings me to our second lesson.

  • Advent means holding out hope for our bright tomorrow. Jesus is coming!

Isaiah tells of a new future where God’s temple, is not only not ‘under siege’ by Judah’s powerful neighbor’s but the place where all the nations come to pay tribute and learn and discover the ways of God. He envisions a future where countries aren’t racing to make weapons of mass destruction, but are joyfully, turning their old weapons into farm tools.  Isaiah holds out hope for the future of God’s promise, even if his current reality falls dismally short. When God sits enthroned in Jerusalem, things will be completely different. All the good things God has in store will come to pass.

In Matthew, Jesus warns of coming judgment. Trained as our imaginations are by American style revivalism, we often hear this as “you’re going to get it,” but I think the sense that Jesus speaks these words is, “they’re going to get it.” A new age is coming and the people that are oppressing you, who are taxing you harshly and conscripting you into service, or even slavery, the occupying military that threatens you, they will meet there end. And the justice of God will reign! When the baby Jesus was born in the village of Bethlehem, the region of Judea was besieged by the Roman empire. But a baby child would come and bring salvation, not only to the Jews, but the whole world.

The good news for us is that where we are is bad. Maybe not the worst case scenario but bad enough. But the good that God has in store for us, is exactly everything he promises and is so much better than our wildest imaginings.

  • Finally, Advent means walking in the light of the Lord (Isaiah 2:5). Isaiah exhorts ‘the house of Jacob,’ Israel and Judah to walk in the light of the Lord. I think this is an exhortation for us too. Walk in the light of the Lord.

What does this mean? What does it mean for us?  There is a Mahatma Gandhi quote that I learned by way of Martin Luther King, jr., “The ends and the means are convertible terms.” King applied Gandhi’s wisdom to non-violent resistance, concluding the way we get to the ends we want to get at, is to enact them. So for King and his struggle for civil rights, the Beloved Community where blacks and whites joined hands in universal brotherhood, meant that the way he envisioned getting there was by enacting the vision of racial peace he envisioned. If wanted peace between whites and blacks, he wouldn’t get there through violence; he’d only get there through non-violent, peaceful means.

In the words of Jesus and Isaiah we have heard the promise of future justice and peace. We have heard about the promise of a world at peace, where all violence ceases. What does it mean for us to be shaped by this vision? What it does it mean for us as a church? What would it mean for us to invest in a future where it isn’t us vs. them, but believing in God’s shalom, where all that is wrong with the world is put to rights, all injustice is brought to an end, and everything that should be, is, and everything that should not be is not?

In a broken ancient world, Jesus was coming. In our present, national and international divisions, Jesus is coming, in the quietude of our hearts Jesus comes. In Advent, we pause and prepare for the coming of King Jesus. We look honestly at the broken world we are in, we hear God’s hope for our tomorrow, and we live our lives in the light, shaped by God’s promise for us. Merry Advent. Come Lord Jesus, Come.  

Unnoticed and Unknown to Men of Power

When Mary went to visit Elizabeth, her ancient cousin—long past the years of child bearing—she came out to meet her. Elizabeth deepest shame had been that she was barren, but when Mary approached she saw her cousin’s glow, the swell of her abdomen, and delight in her eyes. As Mary approached Elizabeth was momentarily breathless. She put her hand on her belly. The baby had given her a spirited kicked. 

She called to Mary, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb! Why am I so favored that you would come to visit me? As soon as I heard your greeting, the baby in me leapt with joy. Blessed is the one who believed God would fulfill his promise to her! (Luke 1:41-44)”

This is the setting of Mary’s own song, the Magnificat, where she glories in the Lord for her goodness to her and the coming justice her baby boy would usher in.

Priest and poet, Malcolm Guite imagines the scene, two women on the edge of things, unnoticed and unknown to men of power:

The Visitation

Here is a meeting made of hidden joys

Of lightenings cloistered in a narrow place

From quiet hearts the sudden flame of praise

And in the womb the quickening kick of grace.

Two women on the very edge of things

Unnoticed and unknown to men of power

But in their flesh the hidden Spirit sings

And in their lives the buds of blessing flower.

And Mary stands with all we call ‘too young’,

Elizabeth with all called ‘past their prime’

They sing today for all the great unsung

Women who turned eternity to time

Favoured of heaven, outcast on the earth

Prophets who bring the best in us to birth.

This poem is taken from Malcom Guite’s blog: https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/2012/05/31/a-sonnet-for-the-feast-of-the-visitation/

Two women overlooked. The one who couldn’t conceive (Elizabeth), the one who shouldn’t (unwed teenager mum, Mary).The “too young” and the “past her prime.” It is it any wonder that Mary’s song lifts up the poor, the humble, and the hungry, over against the powerful, the wealthy, rulers of the age? Even before Mary unleashed her melody—a song which recalled Hannah (1 Sam 1), another overlooked woman—God was already at work lifting up the forgotten, the overlooked, the outcast.

When the Triune God set his redemptive plan in motion, he didn’t come to the powerful, the strong, or the patriarchy. He came to an unwed teen girl blessing her older cousin also. Both would have boys who would call God’s people to repentance and point to the coming reign of God. One of their boys would be God himself.

Yes, an Angel had visited Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah. The proud man couldn’t accept the angel’s news. Not like Mary. Not like Elizabeth. Favored of heaven, outcast on the earth, Prophets who bring the best in us to birth. 

Our Spirits Rejoice With God Our Savior

Nothing captures Advent Joy the way that Mary’s song does:

“My soul glorifies the Lord
  and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
    of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
 for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
    holy is his name.” (Luke 1:46-49)

Mary’s song bursts. It exudes praise. She recognizes the significance of what God was going to do through her baby boy. Every generation will be blessed because of Mary’s participation in God’s redemption and the things her Son will do.

The song goes on:

His mercy extends to those who fear him,
    from generation to generation.
 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
    he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
    but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
    but has sent the rich away empty.
 He has helped his servant Israel,
    remembering to be merciful
 to Abraham and his descendants forever,
    just as he promised our ancestors.” (Luke 50-55)

She describes the mercy of God to those who fear (revere)him and how God scatters the proud, brings down rulers and lifts up the humble, feeds the hungry and sends the rich away empty.

This is radically inclusive and subversive!

A had a seminary professor who used to pastor an ex-pat church in the Philippines where it was illegal to read the Magnificat in public, for fear that it would incite riot and revolution. These words are politically charged. The proud are scattered and the rich go away empty. The humble are lifted up while the rulers are deposed. Mary challenges the whole system centuries before the classic Liberals defied Monarchy, the Communists decried Capitalism and the Anarchists denied institutional authority. If you do not hear a poignant critique of the way things are in Mary’s words, you are over-spiritualizing her words and dismissing them. There is raw power here. This is a rallying call!

Unfortunately, even the poets sometimes miss the point, focusing instead on Mary’s high praise while glossing over the phrases that challenge the status quo. Author and activist Lisa Sharon Harper published this poem in Sojourners in 2008. I think it gets at the joyful and subversive hope of Mary:

Mary’s Song: A Poem

Dark times
Regime change.
“How are we gonna make it?”
“How are we gonna live?”
Tomorrow?

Fear for breakfast
Trembling for brunch
Despair for dinner.

Dark thick air
Full of fumes
Can’t breathe.

Thick over the man on the street
With feet sticking out of his shoes.
Shoes wrapped in muslin.
It does not cover him
He lay cocked to one side.
In a fetal position.
He was a baby once.
Once — he cried and cuddled and coo-ed
Now he knows evil of this world.
His eyes have been baptized in the warped world of war.
They stare –- numb.
Dead eyes.
Murdered by drugs and guns and blood
Murdered by full metal jackets
Innocent eyes stolen
Stolen, too, the man’s soul.
Now
He lays in a fetal position
Waiting…

And the woman on the train
Across the aisle from me.
Her hand stretches forth
Rests on the carriage
Rocking a sleeping baby.
Innocent in all things.
Deserving of nothing
Deserving of all things
Baby lay waiting
In a fetal position
Baby waits to breathe above 125th street.
Fumes hover in her neighborhood
Where bus depots pepper the map.
Cancer fumes
Asthma fumes
Fumes that shape life
Limit life
Steal life
But for now she sleeps
And her momma rocks her carriage.

And the GM
And the Hedgefund
And the free-market giants
Three of them
Jolly and Green
They lay now
Tears trickle from baptized eyes
Dead eyes
They stare –- numb
Ransacked by green greed and time catching up
Now … nothing –- or at least it feels like nothing.
They have what feels like nothing.
And for fear of feeling fear
The giants lay feeling nothing.

Darkness hovers over the deep
And we wait.

We watch with dead eyes
Eyes that have seen too much.
Eyes that have known too much evil.
Redeem! Lord, Redeem!

Watch for the light.
Wait for the light.
It pierces darkness
And unfurls curled bodies
It covers twisted limbs.
It replaces fumes with blankets of breath
Mixed with love and sacrifice.

Mary watched and waited
The powerless, harassed young girl –- 13.
Barely a foot in the world
On the run
Chased down by power
Death surrounded her
Wrapped in the stench of King Herod’s dying babies

But

Into the darkness Mary sang!

“My soul doth magnify the Lord!
My soul doth magnify the Lord!
The one more mighty than darkness has done great things!”

For resting in her belly
Turning in her belly
Pressing on her belly
Light was being born

“God scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts,”
Mary says!
“God brings down the powerful from their thrones and lifts the lowly,”
Mary proclaims!

And the man with feet peeking from his shoes will be lifted up.
He will stand up!
And the baby covered in fumes will be lifted up.
She will stand up! Up!
And the green giants laying with dead eyes — yes, even they will be lifted up!
They will stand!
Blessed are they now, for they are ready to be lifted up.
They will lock hands
With their sisters and brothers and …

Our souls will magnify the Lord.
Our souls will magnify the Lord.
Our souls will magnify the Lord …
… together!
And our spirits will rejoice in God our savior!

Amen.

Poem originally published by Sojourners, 12-17-2008 https://sojo.net/articles/marys-song-poem

The homeless, the mother and asthmatic child riding the train, the greedy green giants which lost everything in an economic downturn. All humble or humbled, awaiting the day when they will be raised up. Jesus is coming. My soul magnifies the Lord!

Stand Still, O Beautiful End

The second week of Advent is the time for declaring our hope for God’s peace. We cry peace, peace when there is no peace. Our journey with the poets has noted a dissonance between our anxious thoughts and war-torn world, and Advent promise. Too often what we call peace in this life, is just a diversion and distraction—a turning a blind eye to the suffering of the world. We stuff down our wounds. We comfort our souls with wine and song.

But we know that there are people struggling, hurting dying. We know about those desperate migrants who have fled the violence, economic and politic instability in Central America; the tenuous relationship between Israel and Palestine, starving children in Yemen, and we’ve heard something about escalating violence in the Philippines. All this seems so far away and abstract. We know we probably should care more than we do and that this is just the tip of the iceberg of the suffering of the world. There are so many stories we don’t know and hurts we’ve not heard about. We are aware, when we listen the anxious cry of our own hearts and though we may have some small measure of inner peace it is fleeting and we are ever aware of the ways we don’t experience it. Yet. 

Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengalese poet was the first non-western Nobel Prize for Literature laureate (1913).  Called the Bard of Bengal, he  was given a knighthood by King George V but later denounced it in protest of the British Indian Army’s Jallianwala Bagh massacre. His novels touch on the violence of Colonial powers and the violence between Hindus and Muslims in India. His poem, Peace, My Heart (part of his Gardener cycle) describes our common longing for peace:

Peace, my heart, let the time for
the parting be sweet.
Let it not be a death but completeness.
Let love melt into memory and pain
into songs.
Let the flight through the sky end
in the folding of the wings over the
nest.
Let the last touch of your hands be
gentle like the flower of the night.
Stand still, O Beautiful End, for a
moment, and say your last words in
silence.
I bow to you and hold up my lamp
to light you on your way.

For Tagore, peace was what awaited us in death— a release from the heartache and pain of existence when we are reunited with the Cosmos. This idea is more Eastern than Western and reflects Tagore’s religious and spiritual worldview. Yet he captures what it means to be at peace, much of which is echoed in our own scriptures:

  • Not be a  death but completeness—from fragmentation to being made whole (Luke 17:19 “Your faith has made you whole”).
  • Love melting into memory and pain melting into song (Psalm 126:5, They that sow in tears will reap with songs of joy).
  • Our flight through the sky ending with us safe the nest, under the wings of a Mother bird (cf. Psalm 91:4, “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge”).
  • Our last touch of our hands gentle like a flower in the night (Philippians 4:5, “Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near”).

Qoheleth wrote that God set eternity in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Strangely anxious souls though we are, we long for and can describe a peace we know little, experientially about.  Torah written on the hearts of humanity (Romans 2:15), we all hunger for the peace of God to come.  Our heart testifies to us—we long for what none of us has, yet. 

Stand still, O beautiful end. . . .I bow to you and hold up my lamp
to light you on your way.