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.

 

Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Advent is always a three-storied affair. We rehearse the ancient story of Christ’s coming—the angelic visitations, visions and John’s voice crying in the wilderness. We look ahead to Christ’s return when all our brokenness and pain will cease, and when He will wipe every tear from our eyes. But Advent is also now. To celebrate Advent is to inhabit the in-between, to remember and to hope, we wait, but our waiting isn’t passive. There is work to be done.

Too much is made about the not-yet-ness of the Kingdom of God. We may look around at all the violence, victimization, suffering, disease, racial hatred, and distrust and say “God’s Kingdom has not come in fullness.  When Jesus comes again, life will be different.” True enough, but to speak like this is to forget. We become passive fatalists and fail to re-member the One who declared to His beleaguered and downtrodden people that the Kingdom of God was at hand.  The Christian hope is that although the Kingdom of God is not yet, it is now.

The first Advent inaugurated the reign of Christ. To live in light of Christ’s coming means to be his agents of shalom, participating in all the ways Jesus’ flips the script of empire and challenges systemic injustice. But if we don’t also have a vision of the consummation of the Kingdom, when injustice and violence cease, we will succumb to despair.

Christmas is coming and if you believe in Jesus, you know his first coming matters. Jesus is coming again, one day. To believe this is to hope in the faithfulness of God to fulfill his promises. In 1923, Thomas Chisholm wrote the words to Great is Thy Faithfulness (reflecting on Lamentations 3:22-23). His fourth stanza reads:

Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,
Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide;
Strength for today, and bright hope for tomorrow
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside.

Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow captures Advent hope. We have the strength to face the brokenness, pain, and injustice in our world, to become change agents and subversives because we trust what God has done in Christ, and what he will do again. We also have not been left as orphans (John 14:18). The Spirit of Christ indwells us, we have his presence to cheer and to guide as we strive to welcome Christ’s kingdom more and more.

Jesus is the Spirit of Advent Past, the Spirit of Advent Present, and the Spirit of the Advent Yet to Come.

Eager Anticipation

The waiting is the hardest part
Every day you see one more card
You take it on faith, you take it to the heart
The waiting is the hardest part –Tom Petty

Every year some celebrity dies, and though we have no personal relationship with theses artists or actors, we feel a connection to them through their body of work. So, I was sad to hear of Tom Petty’s death this year. The Heartbreakers were integral to my life’s soundtrack. I went Freefallin’ from middle school into high school. I’ve tried to best my 10k time while Running Down a Dream. I have imagined vocational opportunities through Into the Great Wide Open, chided my kids with the chorus of Yer So Bad, sang along to Don’t Come Around Here No More in the face of a bad break-up, and celebrated my own identity and becoming with songs like Learning to Fly, and You Don’t Know How it Feels (to be me). And more. When I first picked up my guitar, in earnest, Tom Petty songs were among the first songs I learned to play.

It is Tom Petty’s The Waiting which captures, for me, the eager anticipation of Advent. The verses describe the happiness and elation of the moment, “Oh baby don’t it feel like heaven right now/ Don’t it feel like something from a dream/ Yeah I’ve never known nothing quite like this/ Don’t it feel like tonight might never be again,” and the chorus declares, “The waiting is the hardest part.”

As I read Petty’s lyrics, I think he is describing a longing to be reunited with the one you love, but certainly we have all experienced the existential angst of waiting. We feel this in pre-performance butterflies, on sleeplessness nights before our wedding days, hope for the birth of a child, or before job interviews. We are excited about what lies ahead, and find it hard to just be in the moment.

The Psalmist cry, “How long?” has something of The Waiting eagerness in it, even if it feels a little bit angstier. The Hebrew poets, lamented the state of things in their world, their personal experience and their nation.  They looked honestly at how hard things were, but dared to hope that God’s deliverance lay ahead. Psalm 13 captures this dissatisfaction with what is, but hopeful longing for God’s future action:

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,
and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”;
my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.

But I trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.

The Waiting is the hardest part, and this is especially true as we wait through feelings of alienation, sorrow, defeat and failure.

Other psalms decry ongoing injustices, the triumph of the wicked, and oppression of the poor and marginalized. All in the strong hope that God will act, God will be salvation, God will deliver, restore, heal. It is hard to wait, but Jesus is coming and there is hope.

Don’t let it kill you baby, don’t let it get to you
Don’t let ’em kill you baby, don’t let ’em get to you
I’ll be your breathing heart, I’ll be your crying fool
Don’t let this go to far, don’t let it get to you

The Waiting is the hardest part.

What are you waiting for? What are you waiting through? What brings you hope? 

Singing Hope in a Long Wait.

One of my favorite Advent songs is the Taizé song, Wait for the Lord, from the ecumenical Taizé community in Taizé, Saône-et-Loire, Burgundy, France. It is a short, meditative call to wait drawn from Psalm 27:14:

Wait for the Lord,
whose day is near.
Wait for the Lord:
keep watch, take heart!

As a worship leader, I once suggested this as a response song for the congregation to sing after the lighting of the Advent wreath each Sunday in Advent. I got some push back. Some of my fellow worship leaders thought the minor key sounded too sad. They wanted more celebration, having mentally already moved on to Christmas, and anyway who wants to be sad in church?

Beyond our inability to make space for lament in contemporary worship, the song presents another difficulty. We are exhorted to wait for the Lord whose day is near. Near? Really? Because if you look at the state of things in the world, the coming of the King still seems a far way off. It seems like everywhere you look you find deceit, division, abuse and assault. We cry come Lord Jesus but live through days where our rich people are violent; and all the people are liars (Micah 6:12). There doesn’t seem to be any relief in sight.

Do you believe Jesus is coming back and when he does he will set the world to rights? How we answer this question will determine how well we keep watch and wait.

Proverbs 13:12 says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” If waiting for Jesus is like waiting for Godot—a fruitless exercise with no hope on the horizon—then to hold out hope is to torture our souls. If we believe Jesus will come and fulfill our deepest longings than we can bear up under almost anything. Delayed gratification only works if the awaited One proves true.

But do we have the mental space and spiritual imagination to believe in the promised One? Too often, we settle for lesser goods, our hopeful imagination only takes us as far as what presents are under the Christmas tree. Our commodified Christmases, invariably disappoint. The sweater unravels, the toys break, our iPhone overheats.  We are haunted by ghosts of Christmas past: petty disappointments, bruised feelings and broken relationships. Do we dare hope another world is possible? Can we yet hope

Wait for the Lord, his day is near. Wait for the Lord, keep watch, take heart. 

 

Singing Advent

Advent is a time for singing a new song and for imagining new possibilities in the coming of Christ. We note the not-yet-ness of our experience, but we press in with anticipation and longing. We allow ourselves to hope, again.

The traditional Advent carols (e.g. O Come, O Come Emmanuel, and Come Thou Long Expected Jesus) describe this sense of longing.  But the wider culture presses past the waiting, directly to Christmas (but with less Jesus. Everywhere we go, there is Christmas. Walk into any coffee shop or mall, or turn the radio dial and you hear crooning of chestnuts roasting on an open fire, or how I’ll be home for Christmas (if only in our dreams). Rudolph dances the Jingle Bell Rock. Holiday cheer is in full swing. And beyond the music, there are colorful lights, Silver Bells, tree trimming, Christmas parties, and holiday classics on TV. Only eager seminarians, disgruntled ex-pastors, and cranky liturgists seek to deny people all their early celebrations, but there is something pathological about our inability to wait.

The gospel of Luke commends two songs for Advent that describe the hopes. The first comes from the lips of  a Palestinian teenager, Mary, as she considers who the child she carries, is:

“My soul magnifies the Lord,

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

for the Mighty One has done great things for me,

and holy is his name.

His mercy is for those who fear him

from generation to generation.

He has shown strength with his arm;

he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

and lifted up the lowly;

he has filled the hungry with good things,

and sent the rich away empty.

He has helped his servant Israel,

in remembrance of his mercy,

according to the promise he made to our ancestors,

to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”  (Luke 1:46-55)

This is more than just a mother’s hope for a child. Mary senses God will do something new through her baby boy and it will change everything. Donald Kraybill notes:

Five types of people are startled and surprised in Mary’s vision. Those at the top of the social pyramid—the proud, the rich, and the mighty—topple. Stripped of their thrones, they are scattered and sent away empty. Meanwhile the poor and hungry, at the bottom of the pyramid, take a surprising ride to the top. Mary sings words of hope and judgment. Hope for the lowly, as she describes herself, and judgment for those who trample the helpless. (The Upside-Down Kingdom, Herald Press, 2011, 16).

The Advent of Jesus would mean a radical reversal of the way things are. No longer would the proud, powerful and prosperous oppress the poor. No longer would they assume they can do whatever they want to us (because they are a celebrity). God would depose leaders, impeach presidents and remove kings from their throne, and those on the bottom of the social order—minorities, the incarcerated, the alien and the poor—would find themselves elevated to places of prestige.

In short Mary’s song, the Magnificat, hopes. It envisions a day when all injustice will cease.

The second Advent song we hear is Zechariah’s song (Luke 1:67-79, the Benedictus). Zechariah speaks these words after receiving his comeuppance. Like Mary, he had an angelic visitation and the promise of a child, though he didn’t  trust the angel’s words. He and his wife were far too old. The angel prophesied that Zechariah would not speak until after his son is born (Luke1:20). Immediately his voice is gone and Zechariah is mute. When Zechariah’s voice returns, his son had been born and having scrawled the child’s name on his tablet, out of his mouth comes this song of praise:

 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,

for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.

He has raised up a mighty savior for us

in the house of his servant David,

as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,

that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.

Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,

and has remembered his holy covenant,

the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,

to grant us  that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,

might serve him without fear,  in holiness and righteousness

before him all our days.

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;

for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,

to give knowledge of salvation to his people

by the forgiveness of their sins.

By the tender mercy of our God,

the dawn from on high will break upon us,

to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,

to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Zechariah was a first century Palestinian Jew. Since the days when Babylon tore down Jerusalem’s walls and carried its inhabitants into captivity (586 BCE), the Jews were oppressed by powerful neighbors. They returned from their exile 70 years later, but never fully returned to the days of past greatness. Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome all dominated them. They were at the mercy of foreign leaders and their economy suffered by bad trade deals. Israel’s former glory did not return.

Knowing the singer, we know what key and what tune to apply to Zechariah’s song. He sensed, at last, God was acting to restore his people, rescue and heal them, and renew His covenant with them. God was about to act. Would this be the moment when God Makes Israel Great Again?

Hope and restoration have become political rhetoric. One leader comes promising hope and change. Another comes promising a restoration of past greatness. How easy it is to be cynical at the hollow din of such words.

But if only we can learn to sing again, the way Palestinian teenagers and old men once did, as they imagined the things God could do and was doing in their midst. What is the song God placed in you? What is your song of hope?

 

Waiting: Hope (Advent Week 1)

Hope deferred and heartsick,

the waiting begins

again.

How long this time?

 

How long will the wicked—

predators and abusers—

exult?

How long will we

dismiss the wounded?

Or will we ignore

as the chorus cries

#metoo?

 

How long will we

ignore the poor,

evading their gaze,

just in case

they ask for

handouts??

How long will

debits and credits

have more hold

on us than mercy?

Or Justice?

Or Compassion?

 

How long will the blood of Abel

cry from the ground?

Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.

We stop up our ears, offering

Prayers and platitudes.

How long will we describe

freedom as our right to hate,

to rage, and lock others in a cage?

 

O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here

 

Hope deferred and heartsick,

we wait.

How Long, O Lord?

 

How Long?

 

HOW LONG?

 

Image result for Advent Wreath 1st Week

Glory Everyday: a book review

I am not sure how I came to follow Kaitlin Curtice on Twitter, but I did and my Twitter feed has been better for it. She is a speaker & worship leader and writer who has been featured in Sojourners. If you have followed her blog through the month of November, she has been blogging daily, her reflections on Native American Awareness Month her experience as a Potawatomi woman. Her blog, articles, and social media presence challenge white, eurocentric Christianity and remind us of the diversity of the Kingdom of God and Christ’s heartbeat for justice.

glory-happeningHer new book, Glory HappeningFinding the Divine in Everyday Places (Paraclete Press: 2017) explores  God’s glory in everyday life in ordinary life. Like Kathleen Norris’s Quotidian Mysteries, Curtice interrogates her daily life for glimpses of the divine. She explores the dimensions of  her life as a Native American Christian, a woman, a wife and mother of two, to see what it reveals of God’s glory. Each chapter of this book is a snapshot of her life, combined with a short, poetic prayer addressed to God or Jesus.

Curtice observes that in the Bible and Christian tradition, God’s glory is made manifest in various ways (introduction, xiii). The ways God’s glory are manifest provide the structure for the book, the 50 entries are arranged in seven sections: creation, light, weight, voice, fire, honor, worship, and kingdom.  There are 6 or 7 entries for each section (with the exception of fire, which only has 4). The brief entries and accompanying prayer make this a perfect daily devotional to awake our sense of God.

The chapters run the gambit of Curtice’s life experience. She describes her marriage and family life, pregnancy, the wonder in eyes of her two sons,  reflections on her native identity, remembrances of conversations and encounters with other people and cultures, and the wisdom of authors and teachers.

Pervading all this is a sense of celebration and gratitude for life, which I find really refreshing. Especially since Curtice is something of an activist with eyes-wide-open to the injustices of the dominant culture in the United States (e.g. against Native Americans, African Americans, Muslims, etc). It is easy for activist types to come across as cynical and jaded but I got none of that from this book. This isn’t to say she is overly rosy about our current cultural moment. Just that she trusts that God’s glory is made manifest and holds out a strong hope for the Kingdom coming.

The prayer that closes the book captures this sense of  trust, hope and gratitude:

Mystery of everything that we understand

and most certainly everything that we don’t,

teach us to rest in this unknowing.

Teach us to rest in each other,

to rest in the presence of a stranger,

in the kindness that is always unexpected,

that surprises us, that gives us a taste of you,

as much as we can bare[sic] to understand.

You are Creation,

you are Light,

you are Weight,

you are Voice.

You hold Fire,

you give Honor,

you gift Worship,

and you are Kingdom,

yesterday,

today,

tomorrow.

Hallelujah

for all the glory.

Amen.

If you are like me, it is too easy to get bogged down by the pressures of daily life and a soul-numbing news cycle filled with the misdeeds of powerful men, convenient deceptions, and partisan politicking. Curtice pulls back the curtain a little to reveal the ways God’s glory and kingdom are breaking into our present.  It also doesn’t hurt that Curtice is a great writer too!  I give this book 4 stars  – ★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review.