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}

Sulfur and Fire

Growing up, my mom was always hot, which is a difficulty if you live in Waco, Texas, where it doesn’t feel like proper summer until you can fry eggs sunny side up on the sidewalk. We kept the AC cranking full throttle (with dad marveling at the electric bill, though no big complaint because he liked it as cold as she did). When we were dating and Miska visited, she’d bring winter gear, even in July, to bundle up when indoors. She referred to our house as “the meat locker.”

Despite the arctic frost pouring out our AC vents, mom would mop her forehead and bemoan the heat wave. Miska would be wrapped in a blanket on the couch, a little Arkansas icicle—and mom would be walking through the house, pained, like it was the Sahara Desert under noon’s scorching rays.

Vonda and I really got a laugh, though, when mom would go room to room turning off all the lights. “The lights are radiating heat,” she said, flipping switches as if she were shutting down a nuclear reactor. We’d pass knowing grins and chuckle and just let mom do her thing.

Now we live in Michigan where the summer can roast, but in Texas, we would have called this season Fall. For the past month, our AC was on the fritz, though I’m hesitant to complain due to fear of having my Texan Card revoked. Nevertheless, it was weeks of open windows and refraining from using the oven. It was a struggle. On days when I ran, I took cold showers which helped only a little. Sweat pouring, I’d stand in front of our big floor fan (one worthy of sitting in a mechanic’s bay), begging the heat gods to relinquish me from their furnace.

I found myself going room to room turning off those darn lights, those little incinerators pumping sulfur and fire. I’m sorry I doubted you, mom.

A Vast and Rugged Grace

The Rio Grande. 2021

There are places where you sink into the vastness, where you stand silent under the broadest sky, a world you had not recognized until it threatened to swallow you whole. You hear the stillness, a terrible mercy, a gracious reckoning of all you carried into these rugged vistas.

This stunning, wondrous, brutal land does not need me. It asks me for nothing save my reverence. This is God’s country. And I am free.

Sunset at Big Bend, 2021

Two of Our Troubles

Many of us live with one, or both, of these millstones around our neck. On the one hand, many of us live with the nagging, often complexly disguised, fear that we’ll be rejected, that we don’t belong, that we’ll do something or say something or be something that will deliver us to the relational guillotine. On the other hand, many of us live with a smoldering, often nobly disguised, anger – the need to have an unambiguous enemy in order to vent our rage and feel secure or meaningful or validated.

I see this in almost every social structure and most ideologies, only the window dressing is different. I see this in myself.

When these two people are in the same room or same conversation and if our compulsions are left unchecked, all kinds of destruction happens. No wonder we’re at war with one another.

I wonder if, when Jesus encouraged us to grow up, he had in mind, among other things, us laying down our fear of rejection and us laying down our demand for an enemy.

Brown Bags & A Mother’s Love

I was 22 years old, working two jobs to pay for seminary. Three mornings a week, I’d rise long before the sun to pack my books in the car and drive the 101 miles to classes. Before walking out the garage door, I’d open the fridge and find a brown bag lunch sitting on the top shelf.

Maybe it’s odd for a mother to pack her grown son’s lunch, but it was how my mom knew to show she loved me. She saw me hacking my way through a treacherous, dark season of the soul, and she didn’t know what to do. More complicated, I was changing, growing, entering a world she didn’t understand or always agree with—and she didn’t know how to be present with me there (what parent does?). She could sense how I felt very alone, unmoored, experiencing the isolation of not really fitting anywhere anymore. My mom, the woman who’d always fixed and mended and helped me maneuver life, had no idea how to help.

But you know what she could do? She could wrap pizza in aluminum foil or pile Parmesan crusted chicken in Tupperware. And after hours parsing Greek participles or poring over Augustine or Daniel, I’d open my brown bag. Often, tucked next to a ham sandwich or leftover meatloaf, I’d find a little note penned in her elegant cursive. One still sits in a box in my closet, a post-it size card bordered with lavender orchids. Do you think the Apostle Paul felt understood, she wrote, or like he fit in? I love you.

My mom didn’t know what to say, or what to do. She couldn’t fix anything. But she could reach out with her tangible brown-bag love. She could say, “I see you.” I can’t think of a better gift a parent can give.This picture was my last time to be with her. But her love remains with me. This fierce mother’s love that wrote notes and packed brown bags and tried her best to see.

Friend

Photo by Derek Sutton

I want to be a friend where those close to me feel no fear to share shameful things or express potentially combustible disagreements. I want to be the kind of friend with whom others are at ease, where they sense no need to choose their words cautiously, or be on guard, or be “right.”

I want to be a friend who can receive with openness and curiosity another’s half-baked ideas and uncomfortable questions and untamed grief and raucous laughter–maybe all in the same afternoon, throwing all my own convolutions into the mix. I want to be a friend who adds (rather than depletes) energy, a friend where conversation never really ends, navigating silence as easily as words. I want to be the friend that others call, whether they’ve lost themselves in the bottle or hit the mother lode, with no concern that they’ll meet judgment or envy.

I want to be this kind of friend, and I’m grateful to have a few friends like this as well.

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.