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.  

Santa Claus is Coming to Town!

I didn’t grow with Santa Claus.

Both my parents were raised with a fundamentalist suspicion of Santa. He was a distraction from the true meaning of Christmas and evidence of the secularization and over-commercialism of the season. They didn’t stop me from standing in line to see Santa at the mall or from watching Christmas movies on TV, but they made certain I knew that the presents under the tree and all the holiday fun was their doing, not Santa’s.

In my 20s, I remember conversations with friends who said they stopped believing in God when they stopped believing in Santa Claus. I concluded that perhaps my parents were right, and it was best not to lie to your kids.

So when I became a dad, my wife and I never really pushed the Santa myth on our kids. We were as generous as we were able each Christmas, filling the floor under the tree with gifts. We talked with our oldest daughter a few times on how Santa is a fun story, but that was it (though she wasn’t supposed to spoil the fun of other families).

I didn’t think my kids were really missing out on anything, until our second child, at the tender age of five asked us one evening, “Why does Santa not come to our house?” Her childhood wonder was intact, but she felt excluded. So that year, for the first time we let Santa into our home. And we’ve been doing it since.

Sometimes Santa brings a present for each kid but he always fills the stockings. Our kids are disappointed if Santa forgets to give them toothpaste and an orange, though not all of Santa’s offerings are so practical. Mostly, Santa gives our kids the same made-in-China crap our kids see at the Dollar Tree. Clearly, with more 7 billion people on the planet, Santa’s workshop has had to do its fair share of outsourcing.

20171217_115255.jpgFor just over a year now, Santa has attended our church in Medford, First United Methodist Church (the Church of the Rogue). He came in full Christmas regalia this past Sunday, and after the service, kids and families took photos with him. It was a joy to see how excited our two-year-old was to see him. At the same age, his brother and sisters were as frightened of Santa as they would be of any bearded man at the mall who wanted them to sit on his lap. But our two-year-old smiled and shook, he excitedly squealed and in a little song voice chanted, “It’s Santa, It’s Santa. . .” Santa has also carved out time to come to church this coming Sunday as well. Even though it’s Christmas Eve and a busy day for him! Our pastor will interview him during her sermon (service at 10:30 if you’re in town for Christmas).

I had an out-of-season conversation with Santa a while back (AKA Don). He’s been doing the Santa gig for years and carries a Chris Kringle ID in his wallet. Even in the Summer, he is never totally out of character. He is the real deal.

I remember him telling me how he regards the Santa mantle as a ministry and he told me about times when kids asked for stuff that couldn’t be wrapped in pretty paper with a bow and placed under the tree. Broken families, terminal diagnoses, tension at home, Santa sees. Santa knows. When a child asks him for something which he can’t deliver on (e.g., “Santa, can you bring my dad back?”), he prays with children and points them to Jesus. Santa can’t always do anything about the things kids face, but he knows the power of Christ’s presence and isn’t afraid to tell them of the true meaning of Christmas.

 

My friend Leroy is also Santa this year. He is the perfect choice to play the part. He has an authentic and hearty laugh. And he’s a big guy, just tall and round enough to fill Santa’s suit and boots.  Yet Leroy is also a different kind of Santa from the many we see around.
Leroy Barber is an African American minister and activist living in Portland.  He serves on the boards of the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA), The Simple Way and EEN, the Evangelical Environmental Network and He and his wife Donna have been active in mission and ministry for decades. Together they founded The Voices Project, an organization that promotes and trains leaders of color.
25299334_10156201567834467_4525382477829976548_nWhen Leroy shared pictures of himself in Santa garb on social media, he got some clap back for not conforming to the dominant cultural image of St. Nick. Here was Leroy’s response:

Ok I will answer publicly the behind the scenes criticism of #blacksanta

My wife and I are in the vocation of youth and leadership development. This can start when kids of color are young. The images that children of color see are overwhelmingly white when it comes to heroes. This is a big problem and it starts young kids of color to doubt themselves and their significance in the world and puts negative images of themselves in their minds. Check out doll test if you don’t believe me. Taking an image like Santa Claus and changing it to a black man does more than make for a good picture outwardly it forms a good image in the soul even if it’s fairy tale. Fairy tales helps us dream of ourselves and be inspired in positive ways. I took pictures with adults yesterday who came alone because they to need to dream of themselves differently in a world that is crushing down on them. We also had many white parents of black children who want their children to see these images, and so many families of color. I was changed as I represented the man who brings gifts and I was black. The gifting was mutual. #blackrolemodels

I hope that helps my critics to chill a bit.

Leroy as Santa subverts the dominant narrative of white supremacy and showsAfrican American children and communities of color that their skin and bodies matter too. That despite dominant cultural images which tells them they don’t matter, they do.They are children of God and yes, Santa comes for them. This is a picture of Jesus.

I still sometimes say curmudgeonly slogans to my kids like, “If you re-arrange the letters in Santa it spells SATAN,” or “Santa Claus is Satan’s Cause!” But I don’t believe it for a second. Leroy and Don are both Santa’s which bring the Presence of Christ with them. They give Jesus to people.

I think sometimes about the people I’ve met who’ve stopped believing in God when they stopped believing in Santa. Maybe the image of God they held in their mind was as cultural and casual as our images of Santa. Maybe faith was just another family tradition. I am committed to showing my kids Jesus, and I have discovered that Santa is not the adversary I once imagined him to be.

It is Advent. Jesus is coming. And he isn’t the only one.

Joy to the World!

When Advent began, the Christian blogosphere was a buzz, as always, with grumpy liturgists warning us away from jumping to quickly to yuletide cheer. We were cautioned against carols  and mirth, too much cookies and eggnog. Advent, after all, is about preparing. We hope, we long, we eagerly anticipate the coming of the Lord. In the liminal glow of Advent candle light, we are inviting to make our crooked roads straight and prepare the way of the Lord. A lot of the posts here too, inhabit this waiting space.

But now, two-and-a-half weeks in on a year with a short Advent season, the chorus of cranky Adventists have been drowned out by the holiday cheer. We lit the pink candle this past Sunday, signifying joy, if not the full satisfaction and fulfillment of Christmas joy, at least a foretaste of the joy that is to come.  Perhaps now, we can start singing Joy to the World. And when we do, we will discover it is not a Christmas carol at all, it is Advent all the way down.

According to the fount of all knowledge (Wikipedia) as of the late 20th Century, Joy to the World was the most published Christian hymn in North America. But the 18th’s Century hymn writer, Isaac Watts did not write this hymn with Christmas in mind. There is no angelic chorus or Christmas crèche. No little town of Bethlehem and no shepherds on the hillside.

Joy to World was Watt’s paraphrase of the second half of Psalm 98. Watt’s wrote his hymn in a Christological, Messianic key, but he didn’t envision Jesus’ nativity. This hymn instead images Christ’s final coming when he  will reign over all creation:

Joy to the world! the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heav’n and nature sing.

Joy to the earth! the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ,
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains,
Repeat the sounding joy.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make his blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of his righteousness,
And wonders of his love. (The Psalms and Hymns of Isaac Watts, “Psalm 98, part 2,” Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1998).

We sing this as a Christmas carol, mostly because of the way the first verse celebrates that the Lord has come. And yet, the rest of the hymn envisions eschaton. Then the Savior will reign and all sin and sorrow will cease. His blessing will flow into every crack and cranny where the curse is found. The Kingdom of God come in full! Righteousness, and wonder and love!

Despite it’s clearly celebratory tone, the hymn inhabits the liminal, in-between space of Advent. The world it describes, is not yet our world. It is the telos we are moving toward, that which all creation is groaning for.

The Lord has come, and will come. All hardship and affliction will cease and all creation will join in the song of praise: Joy to the earth! the Savior reigns! Let men their songs employ, While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains, repeat the sounding joy. JAll the boys and girls: joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea, Joy to you and me. 

(Image: Anonymous Russian icon painter (before 1917), Joy of All Who Sorrow, 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.

 

The Waiting Begins Again

adventweek1It is the third day of Advent. This Sunday was one of the few Sundays I missed  attending church.  I wasn’t liturgically called into our season of waiting. Instead I spent my Sunday waiting in traffic and counting down miles of Interstate as my family and I made our trek home from seeing family and friends in Maryland.

Our time in the car wasn’t entirely profane. Sarah and I read our Advent devotionals and scripture out loud on our drive. It gave us a brief respite from the monotonous nature of modern travel, with its scenery cropped back and nothing left to look at except a steady stream of billboards and Cracker Barrels.  It was time out of time–time to reflect on what it means to wait for God’s coming. The gospels called us back to the story of Jesus the Incarnate One; the prophets reminded us of His final coming when all will be set right.

Yesterday  I went to my community garden plot and checked the progress there. A few seedlings pushed their way to the surface in my absence, spinach and pea plants poking through the earth. My other plants were healthy and growing. Other places I lived, my garden would be dormant right now (perhaps a woody kale plant hanging on through the frost). My metaphorical frame for the season has changed. Instead of leafless deciduous trees and frozen ground, I have a garden striving toward full potential–life and fruitfulness and world of green. In either case, the point is the same: all of creation groans, and we ourselves, the first fruits of the Spirit, as we eagerly await our full adoption a God’s children and the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:22-23).

There is a telos (a goal or end) for the story we find ourselves in. We all wait to see our destination on life’s road, to see our own gardens teeming. But this season is more than waiting for our arrival and full potentiality. It is about waiting for the coming of the Lord. Two thousand years ago God came near in Jesus Christ and changed the trajectory of human history. For now we wait. Christ has died, Christ has Risen, Christ will come again. 

There have been predictions of the end being nigh, false prophets spouting off the day and hour of Christ’s return.  Jesus is coming soon. Maybe. But with certainty I can say, “Jesus is coming sooner.” We don’t know with certainty when we will  reach home, when God breaks in, and creation reaches its end. We do know it is one day closer than yesterday. Jesus is coming sooner. 

To me this is the joy and invitation of Advent. We remember Jesus first coming and we remind ourselves to live like He is coming back, because He is.This mean care for those around us, nurturing of our relationships,  welcoming others into God’s hospitality and loving one another well.  Take some time to listen for creation’s groan as we long for Christ’s coming and our true home.

God there is so many things that drive us to distraction. Some them are seasonal: Christmas shopping, holiday traffic, the hustle and bustle. Some are personal:  family struggles, vocational crises, broken relationships,  hopes deferred and deep disappointments.  Some of them corporate: Injustice, War, Terror, Poverty, and Apathy for the Vulnerable. We cry, “how long O Lord?”  We remember your coming and we long for your coming again–your second Advent. When all sorrow and suffering will cease. Amen