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}

Holy

Jael Rodriquez

I told a couple friends recently how essential I think it is for us to recover the word “holy” and the notion of “holiness.” For years (the reasons why are another story), these words made me grimace. And it’s not lost on me that sometimes the people who use this language the most seem to know the least about it. 

One friend replied, “So when you think of holiness, what do you think of?” 

Here’s my answer:

I think of fire that burns so hot you crave to be near it – but you tremble too at its ferocity. I think of those stunning moments (at the edge of the Grand Canyon, at the birth of your child, in the terrible reckoning with how the pain you carry-and the pain you inflict-reveals wounded love) pierces you so profoundly that you know something deeper than you have ever known it before. And you have no words. But somehow in that strange, unspoken knowing, healing happens.

I think of becoming truly human, more alive as the fire burns, the piercing cuts, the balm heals. 

And God is the fire, the one who pierces, and the balm. 

God, Forgive Us

Photo by Dave Hoefler

As a dad who’s tried to raise two sons amid all kinds of treacheries in this seductive age, as a pastor who’s sat with countless wounded, angry souls walking away from their faith (or wondering if it’s ever possible to walk back again), I will tell you this: no atheistic argument has ever dismantled a person’s faith with such swift carnage as seeing someone enact persistent evil in God’s name, someone refusing to call a lie a lie, someone winking at violence or injustice while cloaking themselves in Christian garb.

This past week, as a violent mob stormed our Capitol, beat a police officer to death, and contributed to the death of four others, we saw “Jesus saves” flags and other religious rhetoric and paraphernalia ensconced as part of the seamless accoutrements of this unhinged mayhem. Then, as smoke cleared and Congress climbed out of hiding, numerous professing Christians went to great lengths to downplay our President’s role where, all to save his ego, he stoked this madness with deliberate, systemic lies.

And this coddling has gone on for years. Look, I get competing political philosophies and genuine matters of ethical conviction and quandaries on profoundly important matters. But no tax policy, no abortion law, no judge, no defense of religious freedom justifies a political alliance where the faith that we are supposedly upholding contributes to such in-your-face, acute evil. David Brooks said that we are a “flawed and humiliated nation.” We are also a flawed and humiliated church.

As one who believes with all my heart in Jesus’ story of righteousness, justice, goodness and peace for the whole world, as one who clings to the world-bending story of Jesus’ cruciform love (choosing to die rather than clinging to power or using power in an unholy way), the power-grabs, the rampant narcissism, the persistent dishonesty–and our inability to clearly name it–have inflicted incalculable harm. God, forgive us.

A friend asked me why I thought so many of the younger generation are abandoning the Church. There are numerous reasons I’m still pondering—but these days it’s rarely because our teaching is too zany, never because our music lacks enough thump. It’s not typically because we believe in “One God, the Father Almighty…” One reason they’re leaving in droves is because they don’t think we actually believe the stuff we say. And I’m in tears as I write because we have given them so many more reasons to think that really we don’t.

There is much evil we could name, plenty to go around. But this moment, this bit of words, is for those of us who name Jesus as Lord. I am heartbroken. God, forgive us.

Our Epiphany

Christmas’ twelfth night concluded, we arrive with those pilgrim kings at the Feast of Epiphany. Who among us does not need a revealing, a bolt of clarity that cuts through the dark night, a burning love that ravages our heart? Who among us, like those three wandering souls, have not pinned our hope on a promise, a radiant star offering only enough illumination to carry us a few more midnight miles through treacherous country, through bitter cold and toward uncertain horizons?

Perhaps it’s impossible to imagine, on a day when those poisoned with ego and deceit grasp for power, that the transformation of the entire world happens through absolute humility and helplessness, through a baby who cries in the night and can’t even wipe his own backside.

Perhaps like the magi, we’ve walked a road with no clear end, pointing our nose in the direction of hope with little to show for it. And now we feel like a fool.

Perhaps we’ve entered uncharted territory with no map and bare provisions–and with no friend or lover to walk this hazy mile with us. We can’t see where this leads, but we know we must keep trusting the mercy. And we hope with all we’ve got that the mercy holds.

This story of three hope-filled wanderers and a humble babe is our beginning and our ending. All the truth we need is here. All the hope. All the faith. It doesn’t tell us everything, but it tells us what we need for now. This is our epiphany.

Lean if You Need to

Merry 3rd day of Christmas. Perhaps, like the star atop our tree, you’re knocked sideways, holding tight but barely.

I love our tree, the little fire stove pumping heat next to it, looking out over the quiet carpet of white stretching under the pines behind our house. But this tree’s a quirkster. We cut it because it was the right height and velvety soft, a Michigan fir. But we’ve turned it and twisted it, screwed and re-screwed the base bolts so many times. It leaned to the right. When we fixed that, it leaned left. We straightened it again, and it dipped forward.

Miska finally said, “Well, I think that’s what we have this year.” We chalked it up to 2020 and embraced our little holiday tower of Pisa. And our tilting star. It’s cute, but the Magnolia folks aren’t heading our way for a photo shoot.

Thankfully, all the tree and the star need to do is stand here and evoke wonder. Every night, I unplug the lights, and for a moment, I take in the glow, the warmth, the grace. From this old limpy tree.

It’s genius that Christmastide is 12 days, not one. We couldn’t sustain the emotional high, the expectations, the push. But we can just stand here and lean. We can take in the warmth and wonder of our limpy, marvelous lives. We have 10 more days of joy and grace. Lean or limp, but make certain to laugh. Tilt as needed. Receive what comes. Be curious. Play, waste time. Make merry.

Happy Christmas.

The Problem with Advent

Lake of Carezza, Carezza, Nova Levante, Italy by Alessandro Viaro on Unsplash

The problem with Advent is that it comes around every single year. Again. And again. And then yet again. As best we can tell, Christians have kept some version of preparation for Christ’s appearing among us–days of repentance and longing and holy stillness–since the late 400’s. Generation after generation, names and stories mostly forgotten, have fasted and prayed and lit candles and set their hope on One coming who would make the world right, who would tend to every tear, snuff out every injustice, and lift every weary heart.

But of course there hasn’t been a single Advent in all these centuries when evil men did not stalk the innocent, when disease did not steal the young, when our heartaches over our broken relationships, broken dreams, and broken promises did not crush and maim. This Advent is no different. Sadly, by all accounts, next Advent will be the same.

And yet we press into these days with steady hands and a faith that seems almost belligerent in its audacity. We touch flame to wick, and we hum those haunting hymns. We bend in prayer, and we steel ourselves for our night-watches. We return again to this story, enacting once more the long, hope-filled narrative–not because we have certainty that this Advent (or any hour before we breathe our last) will finally make all the promises come true. We do not embrace Advent as a kind of elaborate denial, a way to play-act that the harshness or sorrow are not so bad as we’ve feared.

Just the opposite. We return to Advent again because of exactly this problem, an inescapable predicament as old as humanity. No matter how hard we try, no matter how ingenious our leaders, no matter our advancements, no matter our triumphs, no matter our very best intentions–we cannot ever, ever undo all the harm we repeatedly do to one another, all the pain we have set loose in our world.

In a dinner conversation recently with someone I love, we shared our heaviness and disappointment. There was fear of the future, regret over the past. After we finished our bowls of soup, we sat quietly, realizing that words failed. There were only tears. Tears over what we could not fix. Tears over the helplessness we must own, and tears for the grace we must cling to as our salvation.

This is the problem of Advent, and this is why we again light the candles and sing songs of hope in the long, long night. We do not need to “feel” Advent–that is not the point. Rather, we allow ourselves to be embraced by Advent’s true story. We trust the One who promises to be God with us, even amid our many searing pains. We relinquish our life into the hands of the One who promises to hold us near–and to one day undo every sorrow, mend every wound, and make the whole earth aflame with love’s fire.

An Echo of Thanks

“Grace evokes gratitude like the voice of an echo,” Barth said. So much grace surrounds me. There are so many echoes.

I’m grateful for the wool Pendleton blanket that lays over my lap as I write. I’m grateful for our window-filled sun room at the back of our house, with the black-iron stove in the corner offering flame and heat. I’m thankful for Miska leading us through yoga this morning, for the strong mountain pose as we greeted the rising sun, for our dog Gus lying beside my mat and snuggling close any time I sat for more than a moment. I’m grateful to have Wyatt home, the sound of his guitar filling the house. I’m thankful for Seth, his strong, broad shoulders and the unbidden hug he gave me this morning.

I’m grateful for how, if you get going on your morning run early enough, you can smell Bowerman’s baking their blueberry donuts all the way down James Street, the aroma so thick and potent you want to lick the air. I’m grateful for so many memories of watching the Macy’s Day Parade with my grandmother. I’m grateful for Chris Stapleton’s astounding album Starting Over. I’m grateful for the plants in my study (the Snake Plant, the Chinese Money Plant, the Succulent, and especially the Lemon Cypress that suffered at my novice hands, going brown and crisp). I’m grateful for crunchy peanut butter. I’m grateful for a few friends who make me feel less crazy.

I’m grateful that the Love that Holds the World holds me, holds you, holds all of us together. I’m grateful that this love remains the deep truth even when we fight against it with insane fury.