There is an ancient story that is our common heartbeat. It speaks to us, deeply, quietly and simply; its whispers are heard in the rhythms of our ordinary lives, in between the rushing activity of our regular days. As we move together and alone, the power of this ancient story is known and felt in the cracks and creases of our common heart.
We’ve been waiting for this feast for four weeks. We’ve been waiting for this for thousands of years. We’ve been waiting in the dark, lighting candles, and turning calendar pages to count down the days. We are Advent people; we were made to be people of joyful anticipation. We are communities who persist in…
But, the truth is, gratitude is only some of what is stirring in my heart.
I am also restless and longing for greater peace and justice for God’s people. Sometimes this causes there to be layers of sorrow, judgement, disturbance, discouragement, disappointment and anger too — layers that I fear might be thicker than the gratitude that I feel.
As many people begin their holiday shopping, it’s especially tough for me to not become angry about the consumerism that our culture force feeds us. People are excited about sales, about shopping and buying more stuff. What is the craze about? Is it about generosity? Or, is it about greed and getting new stuff, just so we can throw out the old?
The real culprit of the climate crisis is not any particular form of consumption, production or regulation but rather the very way in which we globally produce, which is for profit rather than for sustainability. So long as this order is in place, the crisis will continue and, given its progressive nature, worsen. This is a hard fact to confront. But averting our eyes from a seemingly intractable problem does not make it any less a problem. It should be stated plainly: It’s capitalism that is at fault.
Christians, we are not here to cause more pain and suffering. We must attempt not to contribute to the systemic problems. Even when it’s easier to avoid the heartache of truth, we must step out of our comfort zones and be converted.
Doing so will help move society toward solutions. It is time for us to work for a more sustainable, equitable and just society, a world that builds up the reign of God. This is how we store up treasures in heaven!
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal. But store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.
Although this can become a time when a lot of people are crazily shopping and consuming, this is also a wonderful season of generosity, community, sharing and celebrating the goodness of God! This is what builds up God’s reign! This is what we are made to promote!
So, what’s a Christian to do? How can we resist the craze of consumerism and be countercultural peacemakers?
Collect donations for your local homeless shelter, transitional living program or food shelf. Want to give things that they really need? Then call them up and ask what that is! Most likely money is one of the greatest needs.
Honor children and elders: Mentor young ones and teach them about generosity. Help meet the needs of those who are vulnerable. Visit elders who are homebound and lonely. If anyone asks me what I want for Christmas I’m ready to tell them that I want donations to Tubman House for Christmas.
Pray for peace: This includes asking God how you are needed to be peacemaker.
Spread the Love: Tell young people that they matter and you care about them. Write letters and cards. Be intentional about how you spend time with others.
Getting creative about how you give presents: Re-gift. Buy things at thrift stores. Making DIY crafts out of stuff you have around home. Utilize some of the resources from “Buy Nothing Christmas” and bake goodies to share.
On this day of true thanksgiving, let us give God all that is on our hearts! And, let us make a plan for how we will express our gratitude through our countercultural, generous living. Amen!
With the birth of Christ, we’ve entered into the season of the Incarnation. The arrival of the Incarnation is God-made-flesh and dwelling among us as a babe long ago and God’s powerful presence active in each ordinary moment. God is near, God is here: peer into the humble love revealed among the heartaches, the light shimmering and providing peace. This is God among us.
We must wake up and pay attention to the many holy ways Christ is alive and in our midst.
Speaking of waking up and paying attention, in the past year or so I have heard a lot of folks use the word “woke” in phrases like
Basically, as I understand it, “being woke” means to be aware of injustices; in-tune and conscious of what’s really happening in the world and how oppression seeps into many structures of society.
This sort of consciousness, I’d like to suggest, is a Christmas mode. We can’t help but to expand our consciousness when we come to know The Truth—Truth is one of the many names for God.
Praying and meditating on the Christmas Scriptures, I found myself pondering the impacts of Joseph being woke:
When Joseph awoke,
he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him
and took his wife into his home.
He had no relations with her until she bore a son,
and he named him Jesus.
~ Matthew 1: 24-25
A woke Joseph? I know the context might be a stretch, but hear me out. Although the word in the Gospel is awoke and not woke, and Joseph was literally waking from sleeping, clearly Joseph gained a new consciousness and awareness in the midst of his dreaming in the dark. When he was troubled, Joseph encountered God in the dark and was forever changed.
We all have been journeying in the dark; many of us still are. We have felt disturbed and troubled. The Christian invitation has moved us toward the pain.
We, like Joseph, have been transformed because we have come to know the Truth. Being woke, though, isn’t just about knowing. Nor is Christmas.
The Christmas challenge (that Joseph has modeled for us so well) is that we must move into action. Even bold, drastic, counter-cultural actions that might be misunderstood. Do you think it was easy for Joseph to have “no relations” with his wife Mary? Probably not. Can you imagine how much his friends might mock him for that if this story were to happen in the modern world?
And, what about the naming of his son Jesus? Would that have been an easy action for the sake of God’s plan? I’m no expert, but I don’t think it would have been. Breaking with tradition is always likely to disturb the status quo and confuse community. A scene from the film The Nativity Story comes to mind in which the midwives turn to Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, after her son John is born, and say “What will you name him?” When Elizabeth replies John, they all protest. “But there is no one in your family by that name!”
Being woke with the Truth that many are suffering compels us to name Jesus, to help people know love in the midst of turmoil. This is the great Christmas challenge: we must let our conversion move us into action for the sake of God’s plan. Through bold acts of love, through courageous defenses of human rights and the dignity of life, we proclaim who Jesus Christ is to the world: Prince of Peace, Counselor, Emmanuel, King of Kings, Light of the World, The Way, The Truth, The Life.
Yes, Jesus Christ is born and is here among us; we shall never be the same!
Lately a certain Gospel instruction is has been grinding challenge into my life, really giving my heart a doozy of a talking to.
Jesus says it a lot, in many different ways:
Do not be afraid.(Luke 1:30; Mark 5:36; Mark 6:50)
Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span? (Matthew 6:27)
Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself.(Matthew 6:34)
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life.(Matthew 6:25)
Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid. (John 14:27)
Jesus is, after all, a very encouraging savior, a source of strength. He needs us to be brave if we’re going to do the hard work of building up the kingdom of peace and justice in the here and now.
Plus, it makes sense that the Gospel would be packed with messages telling us to persevere in faith. By the time the Gospels were written down—a few decades after Jesus walked the earth—those early Christians were dealing with some pretty intense fear. Uprisings and persecutions were becoming common. The Roman Empire was increasing its control, getting more oppressive to anyone who wasn’t … well … Roman. With such heavy darkness, it must have felt like the world was falling apart. Sort of reminds me of the world we’re living in today.
Jesus’ demands are not about darkness, though. We are children of Light.
I get it: to be a Christian means I am a person full of vibrant hope, love, and faith in God. Like a ceaseless trust that God can handle anything and shine light and peace into any situation. I know Jesus is trustworthy.
Yet. The “Be not afraid” words straight from Jesus’ heart stir up a gray space inside me; a place where I am not letting my trust in God illumine my faith life. Ultimately, anxiety corrodes the place where God’s light could glow bright.
In the past few months I have been reminded that my anxiety out-of-order is neurological, a condition made by realities beyond my control: genetics, trauma, biomechanics. I wake in the dark of the night with my heart pounding, my body vibrating with restless energy. My mind races with irrational thoughts; electric brain waves I struggle to redirect toward hope, trust and acceptance. My muscles cramp with tension; pinch nerves. Tears of pain moisten my eyelashes. I am afraid of things that I can’t even name and my body lets me know it.
Some might argue there’s good reason to worry. The news doesn’t sound good; happy headlines are hard to find. From Aleppo to South Sudan to the cracking corners in communities throughout the United States, the trouble only seems to be getting worse.
Faced with burdens and commissioned for Christ, we’re overwhelmed. Hearts are heavy with abundant hurt and there are many wounds to tend to. It continues to feel as things will just keep getting worse before they get better. Genuine cries and terrified screams are causing racket in our hearts and dreams as we do as we’re called to do: move toward the pain with servant hearts open wide.
When my body begins to manifest the anxiety that somehow settles into me, it can take hours for me to know relief, to relax into the dark, to rest and calm down. Often, what causes the most comfort when I am in the thick of fear is the calm of silence, the stillness of solitude and wide open spaces, like expansive skies.
At times, within the gaps of seconds ticking, I somehow come to gradually feel a holy, healing Presence; a fleeting consciousness that I am not ever alone; that Jesus himself knew—knows—the darkness and fear. (That’s Emmanuel, God with us.) Other times, my racing heart and shallow breath either normalize gradually or cause me to pass out from exhaustion.
Because the fear is real and intense, I find myself thinking of holy folks who have dealt with it well; who have modeled for me trust in God. I think of how the Holy Family were no strangers to a climate of fear, a culture of death. I imagine how oppressed the common person in Nazareth must have felt as they tried to survive on subsistence farming and continued to pay heavy taxes for fear of torture, robbery, murder, or the kidnapping and raping of their children. Certainly, they were desperate for a Messiah, a redeemer to liberate them. I meditate on how a very pregnant Mary must have felt; filled with discomfort and concern as she awaited the arrival of her son. I consider how uncertain Joseph must have felt; how he worked to remain steady and kind even while his heart and gut flipped in fear. I pray with Jesus squirming within the dark womb.
There are other words in the Bible that give me strength, that calm my fears—important messages first given to the early Church:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may announce the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:9)
And you, child, will be called prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,to give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our Godby which the daybreak from on high will visit usto shine on those who sit in darkness and death’s shadow, to guide our feet into the path of peace.(Luke 1:76-79)
Yes: no matter how strong our fear or how deep the darkness, we are children of Light. During the darkest days of the year (at least in the Northern hemisphere) we look for the light in the darkness, we decorate our homes with glowing bulbs, we observe the nature of light. We imitate the rays of light that unite together and illumine a way to peace, providing hope to all.
Let us all enter into the story of Christmas and consider the amazing Truth: our God humbly, beautifully, became one of us.
We, as a humanity, have never been the same since. The Incarnation really changed everything. Now, we are people of the New Covenant, this Messianic Age.
God’s entrance into the grime of our human living means that we are transformed into holy co-creators with God.
If we REALLY think about it, and pray about it, we can’t help to have our minds totally blown with wonder and awe.
And, then, hopefully, once we realize that we are empowered to use all of our human potential—our minds, gifts, strengths, and passions—we’ll want to offer it all to God and help create the justice and peace that Jesus proclaimed.
We’ll ask hard questions, seek true answers, and allow ourselves to really be in the messy business of social and personal change.
That’s what I invite you all into this week: to join me in honoring the Baby Jesus by signing up your life; becoming part of the messy business of living as a change-maker.
Together, let’s say yes to the Love of God with all that we are. Amen!
By the way, in case you’re interested, here’s a film that I am excited to see in La Crosse in about nine days that fits with the work of being messy, Incarnation-centered change-makers:
“Salvation came to us from the “yes” uttered by a lowly maiden from a small town on the fringes of a great empire. The Saviour was born in a manger, in the midst of animals.” – Pope Francis (Evangelii Gaudium, 197)
Manure, straw, dust, animal hair, insects: all was known by Baby Jesus. Yes, God is in the mess of a stinky stable.
God is here, in the material world. All matter is amazingly made holy through this great event! Joy to the world for now we know: no mess is too much for God, for God is in the mess that intermingles with beauty and peace present in a barn, present in many corners of the world.
Today, God’s presence is known in the stink of human waste, in the villages living in garbage dumps and in the situations of people living in alleys. God is with refugee families fleeing from danger and now huddled together in make-shift tent homes seeking warmth and comfort. In our poverty, in our needs, God is with us.
God’s love is certainly revealed in the mess, the chaos, and in the interdependence of relationships. The birth of the Savior speaks clearly about God’s poverty and humility. God is a poor, vulnerable Child who cries and relies on his parents for every human need to be met. God’s love is known in the arrival and the giving, but also in the receiving, the needing and the empowering.
We are each called to be part of this holy and true story. We each have a part to play in helping God’s love to be known in every chaotic, cluttered corner of God’s Kingdom. We are called to help others and allow others to help and care for us. Love is alive in the giving and receiving, in the charity and humility. The animals and the infant in the stable show us how to participate in the holy activity.
By imitating the poor baby Jesus and admitting our need for one another we too can manifest God’s love in this holy and hurting world, where inequality and poverty is too extreme. The God of Love took on a humble, human form and came to free us! Let us respond to that Love and acknowledge our need to cooperate, to relate, to be humble and poor and care for one another.
Through God’s incarnation we are freed to recognize that great Truth that salvation history and the signs of our time proclaim. Indeed, God needs our humility, our poverty and our great “yes” to working with Love. As we cooperate with God’s great plan we ALL shall come to know the great depths of God’s peace, justice, and love. Let us share the good news of Love. Let us give and receive and celebrate the birth of Christ who has come, who is Emmanuel. Amen!
Advent is drawing to a close, Christmas is almost upon us. Once again, I feel that the days have passed all too quickly. I seem to have been too busy to attend to advent. Now Christmas Day is around the corner and I have this uneasy feeling that I’ve missed something, that I’m not ready yet.
How often this is the case! I imagine that having a time for waiting is equivocal to having extra time. So much time that it’s common to talk casually about “killing” or “wasting” it. Then, as I do verbal violence to time I wound all that lives within it; killing and wasting the potential waiting to be born in every moment. Momentous events that were meant to come as presents become a presentiment for which I am un or under prepared.
But it’s not too late! Advent is not over yet! And really, is advent about waiting through a patch of time or practicing a way of being, practicing and paying attention, learning to listen. I am beginning to think of advent being akin to waiting on a table. An active stance, attending to a particular table and to its place in a larger room; listening, watching, anticipating, understanding, acting according to what has been seen and heard.
Advent being a time of waiting that precedes Christmas gives context for the attention, a framework, a particular story, instead of a particular table, and how that story stands in the context of time, historical and present. This story reveals Mary, minding her own business, surprised by an angel who tells her not to fear, an angel to whom she responds with acquiescent boldness, “May it be done unto me according to your word.” Joseph too is taken by surprise, no doubt. Before any angelic intervention he discovers that his betrothed is with child (and it is evidently not his). Analyzing the situation, channeling conviction, and perhaps affection, into a generous, socially acceptable action, “unwilling to put [Mary] to shame, [Joseph] resolved to divorce her quietly.”1
And this could very well have been the last we hear of Joseph. Indeed, we may not ever have heard of Joseph accept that, though he had “resolved” in his mind the action he would take, he was waiting. Despite his logical, even loving resolve, “he considered these things.” Joseph too heard the voice of an angel, speaking to him in a dream, saying “do not fear to take Mary as your wife,” he paid attention, overcame the constraints of his anxieties and in so doing entered a new life.
“Do not fear,” continually accompanies the angelic announcements. Indeed, it would require a love that casts out fear to hear, receive and act on the words these angels delivered. Had God’s messenger not intervened, had Joseph been preoccupied, he may have inadvertently been excluded from being a key player in God’s remarkable plan. What God desired of Joseph was not that he follow the law of the land (which would have allowed Joseph to divorce Mary publicly), nor to be politely philanthropic (to show continued care and preserve Mary’s life and some shred of dignity). He was being invited as Mary was (dare I say, as we are?) to move from memory to imagination, to enlarge reason with faith, to take a counter-cultural stand, to stand with God.
The invitation is to participation in Incarnation, an it is an invitation continually extended, even today. That is what the waiting is for and it is not just about a baby born in Bethlehem (but oh what a beautiful image of vulnerability and interdependence – what tender, bold risk!), it is happening everyday; God with us, in us, around us. To receive and respond to such an invitation we need to listen and allow the spirit to supplement and surprise our intellect with the impossible possibilities of God; we need courage.
Advent is almost over, but it is ultimately a reminder, and one that does not lose its relevance with the changing of the season. The waiting is not wrapped up once Christmas arrives, nor is it an indication of empty time standing in the way of a day that is grander than that which is present. The waiting is a reminder to attend to this moment, to recognize Emmanuel, “God with us.”
So I am learning to listen to God who is always with us, not only on a particular day or in a particular place, but on every day, in every place. And to listen to my heart, attending to its quakes and whimpers. What voices are countering the echoing instruction, “do not fear”? What inhibitions obstruct from taking part in God’s extraordinary vision? Where am I blinded by lack of imagination? What sights and sounds are keeping me so distracted that I’ve no longer eyes to see and ears to hear?
This is the time. Wait, be still, listen.
Footnote: 1. Scripture references from Matthew 1:19-20, ESV.