Groan {first week of advent}

Wintercholia.Small

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down… {Isaiah}

Whenever Advent becomes the parlance of The Economy or The Industry (especially the Christian industry), we can be certain the Advent known by frightened shepherds and half-crazed prophets, the Advent familiar to a gutsy virgin and a threadbare people, has grown (to some degree) estranged to us. Advent’s force does not arrive via strategically orchestrated initiatives, certainly not from a writer’s well-timed Advent series. The very best we can do is hold tight and try not to mangle the whole affair while we wait for the mystery to happen.

Advent’s force does not answer cue, bidden by the craft of preacher, activist or entrepreneur. Advent first pierces the cold air as a desperate groan from those living at the jagged edges, from those who taste sorrow’s bitterness, those accustomed to the crush of disappointment, of fear. Advent comes first for those who have made a wreck of things, those who carry a legitimate complaint, for those whose existence teeters on the brink. If you do not know any pain, if you have no yearning for what is not yet true, if you have no pang of grief for your sorrow or the sorrow of another…if there is no raw, raspy voice somewhere in the hollows of your soul that every now and again whispers into the ravaging night, God, please…Please tear the heavens and come down… then some of what Advent offers will always stand remote for you.

And this is okay; it simply means you’re not yet ready. But tuck this in your pocket because someday… someday you will be.

Israel cried out for Yahweh to rend the skies, to move, to act — precisely because God was not acting. For generations, God had gone silent, and Israel, fearful that their history and their future might finally be extinguished, begged God to do what God had done for the ancients. On Sinai, the mountain trembled under the weight of the Voice, and on Sinai, Israel (besieged by the thunder and the darkness and the deluge) trembled as well. On Sinai, the people’s terror was so great that they wanted nothing to do with this God who cracks the sky, and they pleaded for Moses to deal with God and leave them be. But now the fear of ruin loomed larger than the fear of thunder. Now Israel stood desperate for God to act, to speak, to do anything that might assure them they were not abandoned.

And God would act. The Heavens would rip asunder so Love could descend. But now is not the time for that story, not yet. This is the moment for the groan, for the question of whether we will survive, the moment to wonder if there will be anything left of us at all.

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Each Monday during Advent, John Blase, Kelly Hausknecht Chripczuk and I will reflect on the same Advent text from the week’s lectionary. This week, it’s Isaiah 64:1-9.

Shalom. Now and Always.

Countryside Milky Way

In John’s gospel, each time Jesus encounters his friends and disciples during the wild days immediately after his resurrection, he pronounces a new reality, a blessing: Peace to you. Jesus does not speak these words in tepid piety, clinging desperately to a hope that peace might one day arrive. Rather, Jesus stands bold and strong, a Man drenched in victory. When you have descended into the depths of Hades and delivered a piercing, fatal blow to death itself, I suppose you are done with the niceties, disinterested in vague spiritual platitudes. You must speak the unadorned truth. Peace.

For us, the word peace can carry too docile a tone. As you know, peace emerges from the Hebrew word shalom which evokes well-being, an end of hostilities, the world made right. Shalom does not suggest (for it would be insanity if it did) that there is no such thing as violence, isolation, relational rubble, economic devastation or systemic injustice. Rather, shalom (whenever declared by Jesus and enacted by Jesus’ community through the Spirit) announces that the order of the world, because of Jesus’ Triumph, has met its match.

In those first post-resurrection days, Jesus did not suggest to the disciples that their life, hard-scrabble as it was, would soon all turn up tulips and lilies. Jesus told Mary Magdalene not to cling to him, surely inflicting confusion and anxiety. Soon enough, Jesus’ teaching about the persecution and hardships his followers would endure became the disciples’ reality. Yet Jesus declared shalom. Shalom in the midst of (not escape from) the world as it actually was, in desperate need of God’s transformation.

Shalom does not mean we deny all that lies shattered around us. Neither does it mean we escape into some internal privatized spirituality, not knowing how else to make sense of the harsh discontinuity between God’s shalom and our ruins. Rather, shalom means that God stands bold and strong in the dead center of our weary lives and speaks the reality – that God is with us, that God will not leave us, that one day the story will come to God’s good end.

Shalom means we can join with St. Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”

What’s Coming

long road

Perhaps some of us have a distaste for Lent because our life is already shot through with sorrow. We can’t bear days giving any more weight to what is broken, to all we lack. But Lent, we must remember, is far more than only a way to reckon with the wrong. It is even more a way of priming ourselves for the good. Disconnected as we are from communal rhythms, Lent runs the risk of becoming merely another exhausting exercise in isolated spiritual effort. I’d suggest we let that business go.

These days are a gift to receive, not simply another place where we buckle down and exert our last ounce of self-discipline. These ashen days allow us to welcome those who mourn, those life has bent low, those excluded from a life always lived on the upbeat. In a world of plastic cheer, Lent can provide a much-needed space for hospitality to those who are, for the moment, estranged to joy.

Best of all, Lent provides an extended space for the imagination, a stretch of time to dream of bright sunshine and hearty laughter, to lean toward all the raucous joy to come. Lent is not merely an affirmation of a world shot-to-hell but rather a promise that death’s days are numbered. Sorrow holds claim only to the few, fleeting night hours – but have you ever tried to hold back the morning, to chain the sun? We best ready ourselves for the fire and light. No one can stop the morning. No one can stop life.

Sunday’s text told us that Abraham believed in the God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. This gives us the heart of Lent. What we know, real as it is, does not rule the day. Whatever is dead, whatever goodness does not yet exist – this is God’s Easter work. This is what we have coming.

Ashes to Wood

This world is a splendid and magnificent thing. Our lives are wonders to behold. Having no language to top the Creator’s own description, we take a wide, contented gaze and simply exhale, “My, my, this world is good.”

But we are in disarray these days, our world and our lives seeming so fragile, our bright hopes sullied. The truth is there’s much evil and sadness in our world, too much death and too much anger and too many stories of friends and strangers clinging at the brink. Some of us have lost our keen-eyed wanderlust for the horizon, the splendors ahead, the good to come. We are no longer able to hold on to the belief that bright love will write the final chapter.

But it will, friends, it will. The God of all love and goodness, the God who promises to bring tears and evil to its end, is not fragile. God has not forgotten. “My, my, this world is good.”

So have hope. Dig in. Love bold. Go dance. Write a novel. Make babies. Clean up a river. Plant a grove. Bike the Eastern shore. Rent a convertible and tour Route 69. Receive the Eucharist with gusto. Learn to play the sax. Give yourself to big ideas and big causes. Laugh in the face of fear. Do something foolish with a friend simply because they’re your friend. Grab the one you love and kiss them extra hard and extra long. Cry. And then laugh. And then cry again.

If the Christian story says anything at all, it says this: the gloom we know is not the final tally. The God who named the world good gets the final say. The heart of Christian hope is the promise that death is, in the end, merely a two bit player in the great drama.

In Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, the pastor offered the eulogy at the funeral of a young girl who died tragically and too soon, and he knew this hope:

The preacher coughed and asked for silence and said he had a few final words. He went through the formalities of prayer and the old biblical Ashes to ashes and dust to dust, but then he said that it was his firm belief that ashes could someday return to wood, that was the miracle not just of heaven, but the miracle of the actual world, that things could be reconstituted and the dead could come alive, most especially in our hearts

Ashes return to wood. Sorrow to gladness. Cold hearts burn again. One day, everyone will experience the truth that is already here, if we’ll see it. My, my, this world is good.

Advent Hope #adventpicaday

Jeromie Rand.FrozenIt’s been said, at least a time or two, that a picture’s worth a thousand words. I buy it. But, as any son longing for home or any mother listening for love will tell you – it’s also true that sometimes a word’s worth a thousand pictures.

Bottom line: Pictures matter. Words matter. Love matters. Hope matters. A kiss under the moonlight matters. Tucking your boys in at night matters. It all matters.

But we’ll soon be moving into Advent, and the quiet, watchful Advent days are days particularly keen on opening up tired eyes and adding a twinkle when you don’t see it coming. Last year, a few of us helped one another pay attention, to see the days before us, by snapping a picture that spoke of Advent mercies. I figured why not go for it again.

Here’s how it works. This year’s theme will be hope. We’re watching for signs of hope, for things that give us hope – and also for the places we pray hope will arrive. As many days of Advent as you’re able (and please, let this be easy, no pressure or discipline or any such thing – this is Advent, mercy-time, for crying out loud), snap a photo (like the one above – Jeromie Rand gave us this one last year) and post it on Instagram with #adventpicaday in the caption field. That way, we’ll all see what you see.

It is this joyful expectation of God’s coming that offers vitality to our lives. The expectation of the fulfillment of God’s promises to us is what allows us to pay full attention to the road on which we are walking. {Henri Nouwen}

Now that’s hope.