I am at Peace with My Becoming

Advent is the season of angelic visitations, miraculous births and joyful expectation. It is the season to mark not what is but what will be. The valleys have been raised up and every mountain brought low—the way is being made for the New. We are mindful and attentive, watching the signs. A baby will be born, a star will die and its brilliant light will ignite the night sky. Soon shepherds will encounter luminous messengers who burst with angel song, “Glory to God in the highest, shalom to women and men who find favor with God!”

All this, but not yet. Still we wait. Advent is a song building to a glorious crescendo. It stokes our expectations. We anticipate Christ’s coming, eager that in meeting again the Divine, we may be changed. The road is open, and there is now real potential:  illumination, enlightenment, change, union. 

Rami Shapiro is a Jewish Rabbi and a Zen poet (he studying Zen Buddhism with Leonard Cohen). His poem “There is a Hunger”(from Accidental Grace, Paraclete Press, 2015, pp 32-33), illustrates this sense of expectancy:

There is a hunger in me that no thing can fill;

a gnawing emptiness that calls forth dreams

dark and unfathomable.

My Soul is whispering; Deep calling Deep,

and I know not how to respond.

The Beloved is near—as near as my breath,

as close as my breathing—

The World Soul of

which my soul is but a sliver of light.

Let me run to it in love,

Embracing the One who is me,

That I may embrace others who are One.

Enwrapped in your Being,

I am at peace with my becoming.

Engulfed in your flame

I am cleared and unclouded.

I am a window for the Light,

a lens by which You see Yourself;

a slight of Mind

that lets me know me as You

and lets me know You as me.

How wonderous this One

Who is the face of all things.

Of course, Shapiro’s spirituality, as a  Zen Buddhist Rabbi, is not particularly Christocentric. He didn’t pen these words in anticipation of some Christmas miracle. Certain lines hint at a pantheist union with all nature—the World Soul. However, if we believe as Christians that in Christ we glimpse the face of God, then our Christmas waiting opens up the potential of seeing Christ a new, in ourselves, in others, in the groaning creation.  We will become a window for others to sense Christ’s presence. How wonderous this One/ who is the face of all things!

The way is open for God’s shalom. Peace is the promise. Swords will be plowshares, spears will be pruning hooks. Predation will cease. All will be safe and secure. 

All this, but not yet. Still we wait. I am at peace with my becoming.

My Lean, Unripened Heart

Sylvia Plath struggled to stave off the darkness. She was clinically depressed, treated multiple times with electrical convulsion therapy. When her marriage to fellow poet Ted Hughes dissolved, because of Hughes infidelity and him leaving her for his mistress, Plath succumbed to suicide by gas oven in her London flat. Her children were asleep upstairs. Six years later, Hughes mistress, Assia Wevill committed suicide the same way Plath did.

I’ve been reflecting on hope and the promise of Advent, how the Christian story tells us that the telos which we are moving toward, is one where all suffering ceases, wars end and all our mourning turns to joy. In the meantime, hope can be a hard thing to hold out for. The pain of broken relationships and biochemistry may make it nearly impossible. Sylvia Plath described the heartache she felt in losing Hughes in her poem Jilted: 


My thoughts are crabbed and sallow,
My tears like vinegar,
Or the bitter blinking yellow
Of an acetic star.

Tonight the caustic wind, love,
Gossips late and soon,
And I wear the wry-faced pucker of
The sour lemon moon.

While like an early summer plum,
Puny, green, and tart,
Droops upon its wizened stem
My lean, unripened heart.

The bitter, the sour, the acetic, the puny green and tart, the drooping, wizened, lean and unripe. 

I believe wholeheartedly in Christian hope, that the story of God’s redemption ends well. But let’s not abstract it. Hope can be a hard thing to hold on to. I don’t know the heartache of being jilted by my lover the way Plath did, nor do I have her struggles with depression. But I know heartache. I know what it is like to a lose a job, and how insignificant and incompetent it makes you feel. I know what it is like to be rejected by those I care about and felt called to love and serve. I know what it feels like to lose hope, and have my life turn sour. 

Christian hope isn’t just for the nameless poor, the migrant, the refugee, or the war-torn in some far off distant land. We, ourselves, need it. When we lose hope, all the sweetness goes out of life. We despair. We give up. If we are to sustain life and joy, we need hope for tomorrow. 

  Judah, the Southern Kingdom of Israel, fell to Babylon in 587 BCE. The city of Jerusalem was captured and destroyed. The temple was torn down. Many of the inhabitants died in the siege. Families were torn apart and many were carried into exile. If there was a time that God’s people lost all hope, that was it. God had abandoned them. Their nation was no more.  They were under judgment for their rejection of their God. 

For 70 years they were in exile. A lifetime. People were born and died in captivity. And yet, God was still at work and he hadn’t really abandoned his people. Jeremiah prophesied:

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord. In those days they shall no longer say: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”  (Jeremiah 31:27–29, NRSV)

At the end of 70 years, the sourness was gone, the exiles returned. The walls of Jerusalem and the temple were rebuilt. They experienced what  Martin Luther King used to say, “The arc of history is long but it bends toward justice.” It wasn’t as it was, but their hope returned. Tough the fruit of experience was still sometimes bitter there was hope for tomorrow. 

I feel sad for Sylvia Plath—depressed, rejected, despairing. Suicide is a disease that has claimed far too many lives, and I doubt if I was there I could have said any words that would restore Plath’s hopes for another day. I do know one day, maybe soon, maybe many lifetimes away that:

God will dwell with his peoples, and be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will cease. The sourness will go out of life. He will make all things new.  (cf. Rev 21:4-5). 

Expect the end of the world. Laugh.

In yesterday’s reflection, I asked if hope asks anything of us. Emily Dickinson said no, not a crumb but I wondered if hope did not at least invite certain actions from us. 

Wendell Berry wears many hats. He is an environmentalist, an activist, a farmer, an essayist, a cultural critic, a novelist, and a poet. No one else has been more compelling and steady as he, in warning us against the environmental and economic dangers inherent in the industrial agricultural complex, and the things we’ve lost in our rush to progress.

I love Wendell Berry. He is incisive in his analysis of the state of things. I’ve read his non-fiction and have devoured his novels—all set in the Port William Township, with the Catletts and the Coulters and Jayber Crow. Yet, it was Berry’s poetry that first drew me to his writings.  His best-known poem is Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front. I hesitated to include it in these Advent reflections because it is final exhortation, Practice Resurrection feels more Easter than Advent. But Resurrection runs all the way through Christian hope, even at Advent. No Easter, no Advent hope. Here’s the poem:


Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

The opening of Manifesto describes the state of things in contemporary life, the tedious monotony of a world with no beyond. We scheme for our own personal success—quick profits from get-rich-quick-schemes, jobs with good benefits,  a lucrative 401K. Everything is done for our own satisfaction and security. We are comfortable, but each of us is the center of our personal universe. We have not thoughts of the world beyond our existence. We fear our neighbors (or migrants, refugees and asylum seekers). We fear our own death, and perhaps the death of those who make us happy. Consumerism drives our desire and our behavior. We exist and subsist with a loss of hope for the future, our connection to the past and a sense of transcendence. There is no God, and if there is, it is only the God that makes me happy.  

Enter the Mad Farmer, calling us to each day: do something
that won’t compute
, to Love the Lord, and Love the world; to Work for nothing; to take all that we have and be poor and to love someone who does not deserve it; to denounce government and hope our nation will one day live its ideals of freedom; to approve the incomprehensible and praise ignorance, to be thankful for the things humanity has not encountered and destroyed; to ask the questions with no answers, to invest in a millennium. to plant sequoias and trust in the two-inches of hummus that will build under the trees every thousand years; to listen to the carrion, and hope for the world to come, to expect the end of the world and laugh; to be joyful, even in the face of facts; please women more than men (as long as women don’t go cheap for power), Swear allegiance to our nighest thoughts, lose our minds instead of letting ourselves be co-opted and controlled, to be like the fox, making more tracks than necessary, practice resurrection.

The Mad farmer invites us to enjoy life, to not be driven by our economic interests, to not see Creation and all that’s around us as something to be manipulated for personal gain, but instead, to invest in the far-off future, to expect the end to the world and laugh.

It is possible to go through life and just let it happen to you, to give little thought about how your choices impact nature, others and the future; to drink Keurig coffee because you don’t like the inconvenience of washing out the coffee pot. 

Like the Mad Farmer’s Manifesto, Advent hope is the invitation to see the world beyond us. Jesus is coming! Get ready. All the things that isolate people from one another, all the broken relationships and the things that steal our joy, all the ways that institutions chew people up and steal their soul, will meet their end. The wolf will live with the lamb,  Expect the end of the world. Laugh. If hope asks anything of us, it is this: don’t just let life happen to you. Live mindful of the world to come—the world beyond. 

The wolf will romp with the lamb, the leopard sleep with the kid. Calf and lion will eat from the same trough, and a little child will tend them. Cow and bear will graze the same pasture, their calves and cubs grow up together, and the lion eat straw like the ox. The nursing child will crawl over rattlesnake dens, the toddler stick his hand down the hole of a serpent. Neither animal nor human will hurt or kill on my holy mountain. The whole earth will be brimming with knowing God-Alive, a living knowledge of God ocean-deep, ocean-wide.” (Isaiah 11:6–9, The Message)



This Fenced Off Narrow Space

I grew up in a conservative evangelical home. Evangelical is kind of a dirty word these days, but for good or ill, growing up evangelical shaped my spirituality. It imparted to me a love for the Bible, for God’s mission of redemption and a stubborn Christocentrism. These are real gifts to me. But with gifts came also limitations and blind spots and unhealthy emphases.

Our beliefs about end-times were our scare-tactic-evangelism strategy. We took the book of Revelations(sic) and described that the world was evil, that Jesus was coming back, and on the great and terrible Day of the Lord, Jesus would destroy everything, and burn it up! Bound up with our proclamation was a belief that an evil leader would seduce the nations into a false unity, uniting the world under his leadership, forcing citizens who participate in the economy to receive his mark: 6—6—6.
The moon would turn to blood. And there would be pestilence and war, disease, and darkness. 

Of course, Christians would get a Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card, raptured before the days of cataclysmic devastation. 

There is a lot wrong with this eschatology, but one problem was we struggled to make the return of Christ sound like good news, even to ourselves. Jesus is Coming and he’s going to destroy everything you care about!  Yes! There was the promise of heaven, but our imagination was stoked more by the suffering of the world. All of this will burn! The good news was, for us, just a way to circumvent our personal experience of destruction. The world would burn but we don’t have to. Come, Lord Jesus. We ripped Revelation away from John of Patmos and the second-century persecution of the Church. Our blind spot was our social location as modern white middle-class evangelicals.

It took me a long time to understand that the best way to read the Bible was from the underside—with the oppressed, the marginalized, the persecuted, the discriminated against, and the outcasts.  When you do, even the scary bits of Revelation start to feel like good news.

Langston Hughes (1901-1967) was one of the best-known authors of the Harlem Renaissance. His poetry describes the African-American experience—their exclusion from the American dream, and the suffering they endured because of racism and white oppression.  In his poem, I Look at the World, he illustrates the ways society has placed him and his people in a ‘fenced-off narrow space’:

I look at the world
From awakening eyes in a black face—
And this is what I see:
This fenced-off narrow space   
Assigned to me.

I look then at the silly walls
Through dark eyes in a dark face—
And this is what I know:
That all these walls oppression builds
Will have to go!

I look at my own body   
With eyes no longer blind—
And I see that my own hands can make
The world that’s in my mind.
Then let us hurry, comrades,
The road to find.

The poem is ultimately hopeful, showing how Hughes and like-minded comrades can remake the world, but he also names the way oppression has been a fence and a wall, something which constricts movement and imprisons.

When we consider this season of Advent we would do well to listen and look with Hughes. Jesus is coming! When you take in the news from the center, the only good news is that Jesus will give us a bailout before everything gets really bad. When you read Revelation from the underside, you hear the good news that the Oppressor— the one who enslaves, imprisons, deports, turns a blind eye to the suffering of the marginalized—will be deposed. Peace will reign. The dehumanizing institutions will be overhauled. Systemic justice will be our new reality:

I look at my own body   
With eyes no longer blind—
And I see that my own hands can make
The world that’s in my mind.
Then let us hurry, comrades,
The road to find.

Things Fall Apart

William Butler Yeats

The year was 1919, the year following the close of the World War I–the war that was supposed to end all wars. William Butler Yeats penned the Second Coming in response to the political turmoil across in aftermath of the Great War, and the upheaval caused by the Irish War of Independence in his homeland.

 Yeats spoke of an Advent, though not an advent which culminates in “Good will to all people,” the warmth of home fires, or the serenity of the Christmas crèche on a calm starry night. His words terrify. He envisions political and social unrest giving birth to a beast. His poem anticipates the specter of Fascism which fall over Europe in the 20’s and 30’s:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

The Second Coming has often been quoted and alluded to, to describe a world untethered. At the close of 2016, in the wake of fears of terror, Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, the poem was quoted more than in any other year than it has in the previous three decades. 

 Two years later, our anxiety about the state of things has yet to diminish. We binge watch the latest post-apocalyptic shows on Netflix and Hulu.  We read our dystopia fiction. We watch the news with an expectant what now? We wonder how long until things fall apart and mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. We know intimately the state of affairs: the  best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. But there are good people on both sides, or whatever. 

The good news of Advent is that despite appearances, despite our fears and deep-seated anxiety, despite our cynicism about the state of the world, the end of all things is not dystopia, darkness and doom. The Apostle Paul* writes:

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.” (Colossians 1:15–20, NRSV)

The gospel tells us that God was at work in Christ, effecting the redemption of all things. Our New Testament ends with the cessation of suffering and pain, and a New Heaven and New Earth  revealed(Rev 21-22). Yes, there will be terrible revelations at hand, rough beasts slouching toward Bethlehem, and things will fall apart. But the end of all things is renewal, redemption and reconciliation. 

Things fall apart. It’s true. But there is One who can put it all back together. 

Wounded In Spirit: an Advent Devotional (p)review and GIVEAWAY!!!

The secular and liturgical calendars nearly converge this year, so whether you mark the start of Advent with those calendars of chalky, cheap chocolate from your local supermarket, or through participation in Sunday worship, the season begins this weekend. During Advent I always look for a devotional to read through, as I attempt to wait well. Friends at Paraclete Press were nice enough to share with me Wounded in Spirit: Advent Art and Meditations, a new devotional by David Bannon. Bannon combines reflections on grief, hope, wounds and waiting with beautiful works of art. It is an exquisite book!

9781640601451But Advent is the season of waiting. To wait is to note that things are not yet as they should be. And so, this is a difficult season for a lot of us. For all the promise of holiday cheer, these are long dark nights, often touched by heartache, loneliness, estrangement, deep wounds, and mourning. Bannon is no stranger to grief and heartache. In 2006 he was convicted for criminal impersonation. In 2015 his daughter died of a heroin overdose (introduction, XVI).  He know what it means to be broken and bereaved, to long for wholeness, healing and the coming of God’s shalom. He doesn’t speak explicitly about his own story in these meditations. He focuses instead on the stories of the artists—their stories, wounds and the works they produced.

The art in this book is varied in style, though exclusively Western European,ranging from the Renaissance era to about mid 20th Century. There are works by celebrated artists like Gauguin, Tissot, Caravaggio, Tanner, Delacroix, Van Gogh and Dürer, as well as notable pieces from artists with less household name recognition. Bannon describes the artist’s life, and the ways their wounds bleed onto the canvas. He invites us to stop and pay attention, to really see the artist and their work, to experience healing and perchance commune. Each daily meditation includes quotations for reflection from notable artists, writers, philosophers or theologians.

Art is something that has been healing for me on my own spiritual journey so I am looking forward to sitting with these artists and their work. I have not read the whole book yet, just introduction and several entries, though Bannon appears to be a good guide.

Waiting is painful. Things are not yet as they should be. But waiting doesn’t have to be dull and dreary, it can be a sensory experience, a time of entering more fully into Life. A time to grieve, yes, but joy comes in the morning.

Paraclete Press, has graciously allowed me to run a giveaway on my blog of 3 copies of the book? Yeah, James, but how can I win? 

There are 2 ways to enter:

  1. Comment below and tell me what do you find most difficult about this time of year.
  2. Share this giveaway on Social Media by hitting the share button below, Be sure to comment and share the link in the comment section, so I see your entry!

Winners will be chosen Thursday, 11/29 at 9pm Pacific Time.

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.