Advent: Imagining a Different Day

Today, as we feel so unsafe, so unsure, so torn asunder, it can be difficult to imagine a different day, a different world. And yet this is precisely what the prophets do for us. The prophets do not flinch from any grim reality. Rather they point to the evil and name the ruin and insist we take our own hard look. The prophets agitate us so often and with such persistence that we find it nearly impossible to stick our fingers in our ears and hum a nursery rhyme while the world burns. And yet the prophets do more: they stand in the middle of the flames and bellow an audacious song of hope. It can be the easiest thing in the world to ignore calamity or injustice or our own sick soul. However, it may be even easier to believe that this same calamity or injustice or sick soul owns the end of the story. We need the prophets to save us from both.

So on the second week of Advent, after Isaiah has described in brutal detail Israel’s national corruption and personal ruin, we find ourselves in a vulnerable place where we see our own world, our own heart, teetering on the edge of a deep abyss. Bana Alabed, the 7 year old “Twitter girl” from Aleppo, has gone silent, her final characters sharing her fear with the troops approaching. Our marriage, enduring for years now, threatens to finally collapse under the pressure. Our job has gone south, a friendship closed off. Our national life–and the many global perils–offers so much gloom on the horizon.

And yet, as the prophets always do, Isaiah tells us we must imagine a different day, a different world. In the world Isaiah sees, the wolf becomes friendly neighbors with the lamb; the leopard stretches out (comfy as a cat being lazy in the afternoon sun) right alongside the goat; the cow munches on dinner right next to the bear (rather than being dinner for the bear); the little toddler sucking on her thumb plays at the cobra’s hole and a rosy-cheeked boy sticks his hand into the very middle of the viper’s nest. In the world Isaiah sees, there’s nothing to fear. There’s no trouble, no conflict. Everyone belongs. Everyone is welcome. Joy is everywhere.

Advent is a time when we see the world for what it is. Advent’s also a time when we begin to see the world for what it can be.

 

image: Evan Rummel

The One Necessary Thing

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Whether we find ourselves in places of crisis and despair or elation and confidence, whether we know rage or desperation or triumph or sadness or joy or debilitating fear – wherever we find ourselves, the one thing we must do, the one thing we must pursue, the one thing we must cling to is what Jesus insisted was the great, essential commandment: love. We are to love God and love our neighbor. Love upends us all, corrects us all, makes space for us all, holds out hope for us all. Love, as St. Paul says, always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love is not merely a means to some other end, some trite sentimental ideal that can be discarded when the stakes are high or the path impenetrable. “Love is the upmost,” Rilke wrote, “the ultimate trial and test, the work for which all other work is just preparation.” Another wise one told us that even if we gave our life defending the poor and even if we enacted monumental works of faith or courage or justice – even if we gave ourself into the martyr’s flames – if we don’t have love, we have lost the truest thing.

Of course, love, stripped of its tenacity to enact goodness and neutered of its fierceness, its staunch rejection of evil and defense of the vulnerable, isn’t really love at all. Likewise, love, separated from its open, hopeful posture for the person in front of you (even the person you staunchly dislike or disagree with or believe to be disastrously wrong) or love overwhelmed by disgust that closes the possibility for relationship or the ability to see complexity and beauty in another isn’t really love at all. Love, we’re finding out, is immensely difficult work.

Hans Urs Von Balthasar, the great Swiss theologian of the past century, wrote (and, interestingly, in the preface to one of his heady theological tomes): Lovers are the ones who know most about God; the theologian must listen to them. And I think we could also say the pastor must listen to them; the writer must listen to them, the mother, the father, the activist, the friend, the politician, the anti-politician.

We need lovers, people grounded in the gritty work of love, now – right now. We need people who refuse to buy into the lie that some moments are so dark or are careening out of control so fast that love is no longer practical. Love has never been practical. However love, modeled by the strength and tenderness of Jesus, has always been our only hope. Love never fails.

 

image: Lorenzo Scheda

Don’t Lose Heart

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Whenever Jesus wanted to encourage his friends to keep praying and to not lose heart, he told them a story. It was a strange story, I’ll grant you: a tenacious widow who badgered a louse of a judge until the scoundrel relented and handed her a legal verdict, though only to get her off his back. Nonetheless, the odd story did the necessary work. We need stories to help us remember that all is not lost, that what we see in this dire moment is not all there is to see, that God is not nearly so far away as it may appear.

People of faith have always told one another stories in order to keep the fire burning. When I was young, we called these stories testimonies. We knew we needed to bear witness to the faithful love that carries us even through the howling night. We needed to receive one another’s faith in those weary stretches where our faith was weak and faltering. God knows, it’s the easiest thing in the world to lose heart. It’s the easiest thing in the world to sink into despair or cynicism.

And so Jesus told a story and said, Keep praying. Don’t lose heart. I think this is one good way to describe prayer: the refusal to lose heart, the refusal to relenquish our hope in God.

So hear these words today: Do not lose heart. I know our world is in the thick of it, ripping at the seams – but do not lose heart. I know your family may be buckling under the crush – but do not lose heart. I know you may feel you are alone without any true friend who knows the deepest parts of you – but do not lose heart. I know you may be tired of holding on, tired of playing your fiddle while the boat sinks – but do not lose heart. I know the questions and the fears claw at your soul – but do not lose heart.

I’ll keep telling my stories, and you keep telling yours. When one of us lags or buckles, we’ll pick each other up, knock off the dust, keep walking toward the dawn. Together, we’ll stand up bold, even if a bit wobbly, and we’ll refuse to relinquish our faith or our hope or our love. Somehow, we’ll make it through.

The History of our Heart

I wonder how so many of us can sit in the same office suite with someone for decades, or sit on a pew in a church in the company of others for year after year, or sleep in a bed with one to whom we profess love, and yet know so little about their longings, their joys, their fears. How is it possible that we could live with ourselves for literally every day of our life and not know our own true desires and wounds and pleasures? How can we live as such strangers, to ourselves and to others, in this magnificent life we’ve been given?

Maybe we know more than we tell, only we have real difficulty knowing what to do with such intimate knowledge. It can be a fearful thing to carry tenderness and hope with you in such a snarling world. How do we move toward another when self-protective distance and a warped kind of self-reliance controls our narratives? How do we offer ourselves without apology but also without constantly scanning the room (or the comments section or the Twitter feed) to judge whether or not we’ve been accepted, whether or not we’ll have the grit to venture further down this uninhibited, self-forgetful path?

Willie Nelson refers to his life’s story as the history of his heart. I like that. Whenever I ask someone to tell me about their life, I’m wanting more than only the biological and geographical storyline. I’m also wanting to know how these places and triumphs and disasters, these loves and these disappointments, these plodding stretches and jolts of wild adrenaline, have formed that beautiful and unique fabric that makes them them.

Each of us are living the history of our heart. I hope we will have the courage to be faithful to this history, to see our life in all of its scuffed and lurching brilliance, to see others for the beauty of their unique history as well.

Gazing Toward the Hopeful Tune

Jim Dollar

There is a kind of energy that flows out of the deep reservoirs of hope, faith and love; then there is a kind of energy that spews from the churning lava beds of fear, self-protection and anger. There is a posture of curiosity, good will and honor toward the other; then there is a posture of presumption, suspicion and damnation of the other. There is a yearning for healing and self-sacrifice; then there is a yearning for victory and personal (or tribal) triumph. There is a way of generosity; then there is a way of suspicion.

We can search for ammunition, or we can search for common ground. We can labor to discover the very best about another, or we can grasp after any conspiratorial hint of the very worst about another. We can live by narrow absolutism (all or nothing, my view of the facts is unassailable, any wise or noble or spiritual person must see it my way, etc) or we can grapple with the tensions of living in a complex world with complex questions and (sometimes) very befuddling answers. We can remain tenaciously committed to our shared human dignity, or we can succumb to our basest instincts and debase ourselves with a craven lust to win, no matter the cost.

There is a way of death, and there is a way of life. Call me a fool, but I believe (yes, even now) that goodness calls to us. Perhaps her voice is even stronger, more potent, distinct as she is amid the cacophonic braggadocio and screeching vexation. She’s a steady voice, humming a haunting, hopeful tune.

 

photography: Acadia coastline shot by Jim Dollar

A Word for Cowards

It requires no imagination whatsoever, nor an ounce of courage, to surrender hope. Anybody can play the cynic’s card. Nihilism may masquerade as some noble act of intellectual integrity, but let’s be honest – you can get there easily enough by just dousing every flame and then slinking into that dark hole from which you never emerge. When we surrender our life, it’s often because of that gutsy, valiant effort: inertia. Like Wendell says, “The word inevitable is for cowards.”

Anybody can bury their disappointment or pain in a cloud of overwrought ambiguity. Anybody can cut joy at the knees. Anybody can lay down and assume everything’s meaningless, purposeless, empty.

I want to demonstrate more mettle than this. I want to stare down all the confusion (and there’s much), all the failures and the impossibilities (and there’s more than a few), all the grief and sorrow. I want to see these things, embrace them even, and then summon things truer, deeper – maybe things more reckless. I want to believe in what is good, solid and just. I want to abandon the coward’s way.

Hopes for These Days to Come

Over the next week or two, most all of us (I hope) will be winding down the engines for a few days of leisure (I hope you squeak out a full week). Many of us will welcome friends and loved ones into our home. Others of us will board planes, trains or automobiles so we can travel to places where we will be the ones receiving welcome. Some of us will watch our children, a little misty-eyed, aware that these moments are too fleeting and will end too soon. Many of us will revel in all the chaos while a few of us will slip away to a quiet corner, overwhelmed by all the good energy. Most of us, I suspect, will eat more food than we need. Hopefully we’ll all laugh more than is typical.

To be sure, some of us will face hardship over this stretch of days. Some of us will know loneliness or scarcity or sit heavy with memories of ones no longer with us. A few of us will bear the weight of disappointment or estrangement, all manner of burdens. Whatever our sorrow, I pray joy will catch us by surprise. I hope we’ll allow ourselves to be carried by the love that always surrounds and sustains us.

And over these days, I hope you have a fabulous book or two that will swallow you whole, that you see a fantastic movie and hear enchanting music. I hope you find yourself, at least once or twice, enjoying really good conversations, ones where your heart feels light and you walk away thinking, well, now, that was an hour I’d do over again. I hope you enjoy stretches of quiet, where nothing is asked of you, nothing required, where you have nothing you must tend to, save pleasure and gratitude.

I hope all of his for you, and more. Merry Christmas. Happy New Year.

 

Something More Than Fear

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There are a few things Jesus repeated often, as if there are a few words so essential they must be spoken again and again. Words like this: Don’t be afraid. Apparently, Jesus’ friends were prone to fear, with the powers menacing and their futures uncertain. And into these grave moments, Jesus spoke a clear instruction. Don’t be afraid.

We too are prone to fear – and the fears are often legitimate. Evil strikes at this world, and if any of are so naive as to think otherwise, the awful truth crashed upon us yet again this weekend, as it crashes upon us most every day in so many places far and near.

And yet, in the very midst of terrors, Jesus tells us to resist this compulsive urge to give ourselves over to fear. Fear takes on many guises. We may succumb to panic. We may hide, just drowning out the noise. We may go the way of machismo and beat our chest, motivated by the madness of crazed retribution. All fear. And all of this yields destruction. None of this yields life.

And to “not be afraid” does not mean that we must never feel fear, but rather that we do not succumb to it. We do not feed the fright. We choose something truer, something more powerful. It means we move toward courage. We resist the catcall of doom and ruin. “My courage is a wild dog,” says Ze Frank. “It won’t just come when I call it. I have to chase it down and hold on as tight as I can.”

And we do hold tight, clinging to an alternative possibility. We refuse to let our courage loose. And even when we must act with a boldness and ferocity (and sometimes love requires exactly this), we still refuse the fear. We hear Jesus again: Don’t be afraid.

 

That Thing About Fear

I’ve lived with my old pal fear for a very long time. I don’t know if I struggle with fear more or less than the average person (who, by the way, has ever met this mythical average person?), but I do know that I’ve endured seasons in my life where I thought fear might ruin me, where the anxieties felt so overwhelming, so deafening, that I could no longer imagine a day when I would feel hope or lighthearted again.

These experiences attack your personhood. They make you feel weak and ashamed because you know you’re supposed to be able to handle your life, you’re supposed to be able to do basic stuff like have coffee with a friend or cuddle with your kids or drive your car to work without thinking you’re about to lose your everlovin’ mind.

There’s a lot to be said about all this, but for those who are in the midst of this dark hole, you must hear me: there’s lots of help. Our lives don’t have to lock into this debilitating cycle forever. A few good friends make a world of difference – and if you haven’t entrusted your story to someone, take that leap. It’s not that having friends makes the noise go away, but it does mean you’ll have someone to go grab a taco or see a movie with you when the noise hits an unbearable decibel. Also, doctors and therapists are your allies here. I know therapists can be expensive, but don’t let that stop you. Exercise and being outside does wonders. Sometimes your biochemistry is off, and meds do the trick. And sometimes, you have to just gut it out, at least for a little while. You have to put one foot in front of the other and keep walking, choosing to believe that the crazy circus show that’s camped out in your head will not stay forever.

Here’s one thing I’ve learned about my fears. Maybe this will be helpful to you, maybe not. Whenever I fear something in a compulsive, runaway train kind of way, I’ve learned that I have to step into the fear, not away from it. If I fear an interaction with a person, I step toward them. If I fear a certain social setting, I move into it. I don’t do this all the time, creating some whole other loony compulsion. Rather, when the time seems right or when my action is required in order for me to be present with those I love, I buckle up and do the opposite of what my fears tell me.

There’s psychological language for what I’m describing, but for me, it’s merely my refusal to allow my fears to control me. Whenever I enact this courage, it doesn’t mean my fear immediately evaporates (I may still feel anxious energy pulsing or I may still have wild chatter in my head). It only means I’ve decided that how I feel (fearful) does not define who I am (bold and hopeful). And I choose, in those moments, to act on the truth of who I am rather than on the lie of what I feel. This is a battle, and if I’ve made it sound easy, I lied. But it’s a good battle, and over time, the skirmishes lessen in frequency and intensity.

Here’s the thing: Fear’s gonna do what fear’s gonna do. We have to just keep on living.

Good Tidings {second week of advent}

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Get you up to a high mountain,
     O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
     O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
     lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
     “Here is your God!”
       {Isaiah}

The prophet’s words on the opening days of Advent gave the body an alarming jolt. Anger and indignation. Disillusionment and fatigue. These are not revelations I expect to find printed on any of the holiday cards or included in any of the annual Christmas letters that will soon cover our kitchen blackboard. Advent leads us to joy, but first it reckons with the grief. And we’ve had more than a small share of grief in recent weeks, haven’t we? There are moments when I do wonder whether we will make it, whether this old world might not just release a final, death-rattle gasp and release us into the dark.

But the prophet who weeps is also the prophet who refuses to surrender hope. Isaiah, after the tears and the sorrows have their proper say, kneels beside the haggard woman, the broke-down man. Isaiah drapes his arm around weary shoulders and whispers into tired ears, Get up, now. Get up. This is not where it ends. We have work to do. And the work is to announce good tidings.

When the time has come (and only then – but absolutely then), we dry our tears. We shake the soot and the ashes from our head and our heart. We grab the weathered hands of those around us, and we sing. Our shaky voices unite in a happy song of protest and faith. We drench the cold night with a melody that heralds our stubborn insistence: We are not forgotten. Here is our God!

As God’s people, we weep and mourn over the world’s travails, over our own regrets and sadness. We do not peddle false fantasies. However, far more, we are belligerent in hope. We sing the glad song with tenacious, raspy voices. We cry into the dark. It is not only angels who bring good tidings of great joy. This work is ours as well. So, we lift up our hearts. And we sing.

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Each Monday during Advent, John Blase, Kelly Hausknecht Chripczuk and I reflect on the same Advent text from the week’s lectionary. This week, it’s Isaiah 40:1-11.