Strange Saturday

Something strange is happening today. Beneath the cold, lifeless earth, a flame kindles. The spark we cannot see under the silent, moonless night — the warmth we cannot feel amid all the suffering, the pain, the sorrows, the death — this spark will soon erupt into a roaring, radiating flame of love and life and joy.

We misunderstand if we think of Jesus as merely some metaphysical ideal or the herald of a moral code or the fanciful projection of some poor schmucks just trying to cling to a little hope. Jesus is the healing fire. The fire that burns even in the middle of death’s forgotten country.

Something strange is happening today. Evil and sorrow are having to strain now to hold their grip. Death senses an uneasy rumbling — that ol’ snaggletooth enemy’s getting spooked. As St. Epiphanius said, “God has died in the flesh and Hades trembles with fear.”

It is a strange, strange day. Hold on.

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Something strange is happening: There is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and Hades trembles with fear. {St. Epiphanius of Cyprus}

Tears, Evil, and the Very Near God

Twice yesterday, tears came unbidden. Once when I was listening to my friend Kenneth Tanner proclaim, with clear and stunning conviction, how God is always and in every way the enemy of death, evil, and injustice. It’s remarkable how our theologizing and sermons, our bumbled attempts at comfort, our belabored equivocations in the face of dehumanizing evil, coax us into a gloomy stupor and blunt our unfiltered rage against every violent horror. Our many words (so many) mute the shadow-shattering pronouncement: Jesus is a friend to every human and every creature, but Jesus is a dread enemy to death and evil. I couldn’t stop the tears.

And then last night in the kitchen with Miska, as the yellow curry chicken simmered on the stove, we reflected on a story of devastating tragedy, the sort that would wreck any parent. The conversation opened inside me a larger reckoning with the agonizing pain so many of us carry, that terror and disillusionment that always lurks, just at the edge, ready to pour out its crushing weight. But into this abyss, the good news arrives. God is never far from our suffering, never distant from our despair. If the Cross tells us anything, it’s that amid great suffering — this is where Jesus’ love glimmers most radiant. In Jesus, God descends into the very center of every human horror. My eyes turned moist. God would rather die than leave us alone.

Buechner told us we should pay attention to our tears, especially our unexpected tears, because “more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go next.”

My tears tell me that I’ve come from God and that my end is in God. And my tears tell me, I believe, that this is true for you too, true for all of us. Among the many questions that haunt us, I believe this one cuts closest to the bone: Is God truly, deeply, profoundly good and love — and will God be this goodness and love for us always?

Yes. No matter the anguish that crushes you. No matter the tsunamis that overwhelm you. No matter the loneliness that presses upon you. No matter how far you run. In Jesus, God stands with you, inside your dismay, closer than your breath, opposing all that is evil without us and within us, whispering to us the truth of God’s powerful, undying love. Always. To the end of the age. Amen.

Advent: Piercing the Dark

We’re experts at taking the very best things and grinding them into the ground, hacking at them until we wear away all the life and the wonder. It’s no different with Advent.

Advent’s hope and unease arrive like a bolt of lighting. God catches us off guard. Advent disorients us, sends us reeling. Reading the thundering, weeping prophets (the readings assigned during the first weeks of Advent), every cliché melts. Here, we encounter God aflame. Our future relies entirely on the mercy of God’s sturdy promise — that God will dismantle evil, overwhelm sorrows, and once again speak light into the stifling darkness. Our hope rests in the furious love of God. But this encounter makes us tremble. We’re deluding ourselves if we think we can package or control the fury.

So how then does Advent sometimes feel like yet another intrusion of religious industry? The products. The quotes. And yes, the blog posts too.

Then the wrangling that kicks up every year, all the finger wagging around how we’re supposed to properly observe these Advent days. I have my opinions with these things, but Advent isn’t primarily a celebration to enjoy or a Christian season to “get right.” Advent is the cataclysmic story of God’s disruptive, creative action in human history. Advent renews our heavy souls by insisting that God does in fact arrive in the midst of our pain and worry, right in the middle of our despair and dismay.

In Advent, light pierces the darkness. Pierce — this is not a gentle word. The Light disrupts and scatters, and then the Light renews and heals. In Advent, God confronts us. God makes us promises. In Advent, we tremble and laugh. We lament, and we are overcome by wonder. Advent lifts our heart and rekindles hope’s fire. Advent offers more than we know to ask. Advent is gentle as a child, and Advent blazes like the sun.

Thank goodness, Advent is not what we make of it. I need something more than what I can muster. Advent pierces. Advent pierces the dark.

Brushing Against the Mercy

An Evening at St. Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh

Some of us may think we are far, far from God, estranged across a barren desert of shame or boredom or disillusionment or rage. Some of us may even think we make the distance, denouncing a God we insist does not exist.

But God is always as close as our breath; distance is a delusion. God’s love made visible in Jesus is vast and expansive, filling the whole cosmos. There is no place we can be where we are not brushing against the mercy.

Resurrection & Creation

It’s a stroke of genius that this year Earth Day happens the first week of Eastertide. Easter, Resurrection, and a grateful tending to God’s beautiful, stunning, and suffering world are, according to the Scriptures, intimately interwoven. While this day was the brainchild of politicians (a Democrat and a Republican teamed up to make it happen, if you can imagine such a thing), the Church, as Resurrection people, should have thought of it first.

John’s gospel takes great literary pains to set Jesus’ story as the in-breaking of a new creation, a healing of the entire cosmos bloodied and scarred by human rebellion and hubris. And John wants to make certain we know that it was in a garden where Jesus’ dead corpse was buried–and that in this garden those courageous, bewildered women discovered that this corpse was no longer a corpse. It all happened in a garden. Maybe we thought Eden was completely lost, but Eden would be remade again.

And in Mark’s telling of the Resurrection, Jesus appeared to those stunned disciples, still rattled and big-eyed. “Go into all the world,” Jesus said, “and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.” The gospel is good news. Good news for you and me, good news for every big wig in a fancy office, for every down-and-outer trying to scrape together a few dollars. Good news for every deluded person thumping their chest at the top of the pile, for every exhausted person suffocating underneath the pile’s crush. But the gospel is also good news for the whole creation. For razed West Virginia mountaintops, for oceans littered with miles of plastic islands, for skies grey with toxins. Paul tells us that creation groans–and we, bound up in creation, grown with her. But Jesus hears our groans. All of them.

My friend and teacher, Vigen Guroian, in his marvelous book Inheriting Paradise: Meditations on Gardening, offers stunning sentences: “Every gardener is an imitator of Mary’s Son; every gardener is an apprentice of the good Gardener of creation. Gardening teaches us that we belong to nature and are also responsible for it. Human culture and nature’s destiny are inextricably intertwined.”

May we–with whatever gifts and resources God has given us–be tender, creative, and wise gardeners in our acres of creation. May we be Resurrection people.

I offer this image of the Grand Canyon because it is for me one of those sacred places of creation

Epiphany of Grace

In the story of Jesus as told through the Church Year, we are in the season of Epiphany. Epiphany commenced right after the twelfth day of Christmas, when we gathered with the wide-eyed magi, stunned by the sheer wonder of a child, a miraculous in-breaking of light and love we did not in any way see coming. And we gathered with those beleaguered, hope-weary bodies around the Jordan River, that distraught band of misfits with no expectations whatsoever that on this day, in the middle of nowhere, their God would thunder–and a Son would descend into death’s murky waters and rise again, carrying all of creation with him for the entire, preposterous ride.

Epiphany–that marvelous, terrifying word. It means that God comes precisely where and when we don’t expect it. Epiphany means that God does for us what we could never do for ourselves, no matter our frantic efforts. Epiphany means that even when all seems lost (and these days there’s a whole lot that feels deep-in-the-well lost), God is (despite every fear to the contrary) very, very near.

Epiphany means that light comes, but it breaks in on a timetable we cannot manipulate–and often into the midnight dark, long after we’ve abandoned hope. Epiphany means that we must lose control, that we never really had control, that we truly are at the mercy. Epiphany means that everything really is grace.

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you
. {The prophet Isaiah}

Advent: The Long Dark Night

Photo by Johannes Roth 

It was early December, cold and dark. Elms and maples, bare and silent, stood lonely watch over our neighbor’s home. In each window (10 or 12 at least), a single white Christmas candle lamp burned, a red bow hung from each window sill. No lights strung across the roof. No candy cane paper wrapping the mailbox or lamppost. No blow-up snowman in the yard. Just those single flickering lights, holding out against the darkness, refusing to be devoured by the night. Warm, spare beauty amid so much barrenness, chill, and gloom.

Watching that illumination, I felt such sadness and emptiness–and such beauty and gratitude. All at once. How could these emotions coexist? The interior conflict felt familiar, an old friend I’d never named nor understood. I remembered the December morning when I still lived at home, listening to an old rendition of the Nativity story on my Sears stereo, when my mom found me overcome by tears. I could not tell her whether they were tears of joy or tears of sorrow. Often, they are the same. Often, if we live honestly, one requires the other.

Advent pulls these tensions taught. Advent fixes our fatigued, jaded, sad eyes on hope and joy, but first it requires us to reckon with our longing for what we lack, with our despair over all we’ve lost, with the fear, isolation, and heaviness weighing on the sagging shoulders of this weary world. Advent is where the Christian story begins. And Advent begins in the long, dark night.

“Christian art began in grief,” David Bannon reminds us. The earliest Christian imagery exists in catacombs, stories of cross and resurrection carved into stone and painted on walls–all of it buried in graves alongside the dead. They needed a way to embrace their tears, and a way to remember Jesus’ impossible promise of a brighter day and a new world. We still do.

Christian art…the Christian story…Christian hope–they are all embedded in a world gone mad, in a life that seems abandoned or ruined, in a heart that’s shattered. That’s not where this whole thing ends, mind you. We’re heading toward goodness and wholeness and blinding love. But we begin in the sorrows. There’s no other way.

“The celebration of Advent,” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come. He is, and always will be now, with us in our sin, in our suffering, and at our death. We are no longer alone. God is with us and we are no longer homeless.”

During these days, we don’t go looking for sadness; we merely enact the courage to acknowledge it wherever it appears. There’s more than enough to mourn, more than enough to rattle the optimistic cheer of even the most stalwart souls. We enter the long, dark night, trusting not our own capacity to rekindle hope or our own ingenuity to overcome our many troubles. We trust the One who has come among us, the One who has become one of us (what wonder). We entrust our hopes and our futures to the One who has taken upon himself all that threatens us, the One who is trustworthy and true.

But First We Die

The truest, deepest, human existence–genuine life in its most vibrant, sensual, sacred reality–begins with death. With baptism. Drowning in those deep waters. And from death’s icy clutches, we rise as one made new by the same Spirit who hovered over the waters of the deep in Genesis, the same Spirit who fills the lungs of every human with holy breath, the same Spirit who tells us over and again (in opposition to every competing voice), that we are beloved.

But first we die.

Like Jesus our True Brother, we drown in God’s love. We yield all we cling to in joyful surrender. We cry uncle. We abandon the silly seductions suggesting that we can hold this runaway train on the tracks with just a little more force, a little more wit, a little more brain power or elbow grease, a little more theology, a little more morality, a little more image-puffing.

Instead, we just die. And then–just at that point when all is lost–God brings us up from the grave, gasping and gulping in great droughts of grace. The dove descends. The Father tells us how crazy he is about us. The world is new. And then, finally, we can be free from all our insanity, our machinations. Finally, we can truly live.

When the Church grasps even a portion of the gospel’s downward and dovelike message — theologically (the humility of God, grace) and ethically (gentleness, nonviolence) — the church will be in a stronger position than she now is under a frequently nationalistic and so inevitably militaristic spirit. Christians are given power by the gift of the Spirit in baptism. But it is a dove power. {Frederick Dale Bruner, 2004}

Noise

Ulises Ruiz

Even if I speak hard truth to all I’m certain need to hear it, even if I speak words so piercing and timely that angels wish they’d said it, even if I’m convinced I’m doing prophet’s work, but I don’t have love—love that trembles, love that weeps, love that refuses to give up hope for those who seem hopeless—my searing, soaring words are just clanging cymbals. Just noise, noise—obnoxious, painful noise.

God, make our words healing and hopeful, true and tender. May they kindle fire that burns away the lies, even as it warms the soul. May our words be beauty–and not noise. Amen.

Ashes for the World

C.Z. Shi

Since Lent 2020 seems to have never ended but simply lumbered on, carrying our now raw and limping carcasses behind, it’s difficult to consider how we should renew the experience. Once again we’ve arrived at the gateway to the weeks of bright sadness–but do we want to enter? Did we ever exit?

Each of us will find how we are to engage (or not engage) these days, hopefully with the help of our pastors and those who know us best. But whatever we fast from–or don’t, whatever practice we add–or don’t, I’m convinced that this is a good year to be freed from the tyranny of self-expression by remembering how Lent is not only about my personal experience (what I hope to feel or leave behind or re-engage, what discipline I need) but also about how I enter into the suffering of this aching world.

On Ash Wednesday (in non-pandemic years at least), we’re marked with ashes and reminded that these same friends in line with us will one day lower us into the dirt. With all of creation, we groan. With every other human who has ever lived, we labor under death’s grey gloom. In Lent, we remember that our lot as humans is tied up together–and that our hope is entirely wrapped up together, in Jesus the Crucified, in Jesus the Risen One.

On Ash Wednesday, we repent. Not merely for my sins and shortcomings, but for the world’s. We name our collective greed, our racialized evil, our abuse of the poor, our outrageous consumption, our failure to welcome and protect vulnerable children, our disdain for the immigrant, our failure as stewards of creation, our failure to nurture friendship and tenderness and self-sacrifice and bold courage and the virtues that would make us the kind of community that we would actually hope to hand to our daughters and sons.

And our repentance is not on behalf of “those sinners.” We take on the ashes. We say the words. We confess how we, with all our human family, are the problem. We refuse to separate ourselves with self-righteous godspeak. We confess for ourselves and for all who are unable to utter the words, all who need God’s grace as much as we do.

This Lent, this “on behalf of” element is far more potent, as so few of us will actually be there in body to receive the sooted cross on our forehead. Small numbers of us will receive ashes on behalf of so many.

Perhaps this will be enough this Lent. We can bend our weary body and allow our words, born of pain and sorrow, to confess our collective need. We can be the ones who will take on the burden to tend to hope’s candle, the ones who offer our tears, the ones who cling to God’s mercy on behalf of everyone in the world who needs the love that holds us all.

Church is the group of disciples of Jesus who take upon themselves the sin of the world. Not the way Jesus did, of course, but in confession, in contrition…in confessing that God is our judge and has every right to be our judge. The role of the church in taking on judgment on Ash Wednesday is to do it for all of the people who are not there, and to confess the world’s sin not only on behalf of ourselves but on behalf of those who are not there—ALL of those who are not there. This is what the church does. The church is the representative in the world of God’s forgiven and justified sinners. We want to model that. We want to model what it means to be God’s sinful, forgiven, and justified people. {Fleming Rutledge}

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