#AdventWord 2019, Week 1

#Unexpected

This color is a dark, grayish cyan, though one website calls it “juniper.” Sherwin-Williams markets it as “peacock plume”; I know this because I picked the paint out myself, using their swatch cards.

It covers the walls of an office that I never planned to occupy, but—I think—I was meant to find. Last December, I told myself that I wanted to do the next #AdventWord for a church—to make church my day job. And here I am, taking a photo of the wall across from the desk in the church where I’m sharing words for Advent.

There really wasn’t any rational indication of that actually ever happening. Until it very much did happen, and it very much happened in the most unexpected way. I’ll say more about that tomorrow. For now, I want to simply acknowledge: someone’s watchin’ this -isht close.

Yep, close.

#Visit

This color is a medium-dark shade of green-cyan, but it’s better known as Chroma Key Green—the color that video producers use to place people in CGI landscapes or have them talk about the weather. It’s a flashy color, but that loudness is one big set-up for something transformational. When you see how it works, the color itself looks a little silly. And that’s a great Advent metaphor.

One Sunday last July, a few of us from around the Diocese stood in front of this wall during a visit to the church that (spoiler alert) I would end up working for three weeks later. This visit almost didn’t happen, and the conversation that led up to my taking on the role almost didn’t happen too. We’d been admiring the campus for a while and stepped into this room as an afterthought.

I was thinking about how tricky it must be to light this green wall properly, when the Rector casually mentioned that the parish was looking to hire somebody to take over the room, this wall, and the ministry they both represented. Did we know anyone? I was too stunned by the effortlessness of this comical set-up that I resisted reading my lines, and only mentioned my interest in the job via email, later that night. And even then, I almost didn’t hit send.

Our visit almost didn’t happen. That conversation almost didn’t happen. Even my follow-up almost didn’t happen. But all these things did happen, and all these things do happen, and all these will happen, though we might not always have the sight or even courage to take notice.

Because the Angel Gabriel doesn’t always show up with a spoiler alert. Important junctures don’t always come bathed in electric green. And most days, the uneven surfaces of our lives keep us too busy chasing the shadows away to really pay attention to what’s flickering in front of our very eyes. But the promise of Advent is funny like that—the promise of Advent is that all of this waiting is one big set-up that’s already over, and we know the punchline. All those things that almost don’t happen, ultimately will happen, are happening, and have already happened. Yes, it’s funny, because it’s true.

#Time

This color is Hex Code A13B96. Our branding doc calls it Dark Orchid, but one website calls it Faux-Fandango. It’s a color we use in our church comms. I like it so much that I made it my desktop wallpaper—& that’s the surface I’m sharing today, because it’s at interfaces like these that I see some of what makes Christianity so countercultural & even maddening:

Since I started working for the Church, how I organize my time has changed; my behind-the-scenes role in ecclesial rhythms has made me more aware of the craft of our calendar’s re-telling of the big story, Sunday after Sunday, year after year. It’s enriching & it’s relentless. Sunday happens every Sunday, someone told me in my first weeks on the job, so church life is kinda like postal work or public transport; time management is my constant anxiety.

But this is about more than organizational culture. Church life is also out-of-step with public time; sure, major holidays tend to have a Christian bias in many parts of the world, but on a day-to-day level, churches that do more than put on a show every Sunday are weird. The centers of civic & moral life have shifted elsewhere, especially for people my age & younger. We’ll volunteer at a faith-based food pantry, but the Church can’t expect any more of our time. Some would even argue that they shouldn’t.

There’s much to say about how churches today should work within this reality of competing commitments & priorities; I just know that, based on my personal sample of one, the process of reorientation can be painful. Over the past months, I’ve had to be less present with other friends & comrades doing other good work or just simply being in community elsewhere; at times, this has made me feel heartbroken… & a tad bitter.

But I’ve been sensing a shift as of late. I’ve grown to appreciate being less fragmented & spread thin. And as my frantic clocks sync up, I feel renewed purpose. I can see fresh ways forward—to participate in that good work that I’ve tried to be involved in since moving here, but with a more solid foundation. It’s going to take time, but that doesn’t bother me as much anymore. Stat crux dum volvitur orbis.

#Humble

Part 1

‘Humble.’ This is going to sound pretentious, but I often think about epistemic humility—the style of thinking that is generally okay with saying “I might be wrong.” I think about it as a name for my own intellectual, spiritual, and personal journey; I also think about it as a virtue or organizing ideal—a socio-political critique and a holistic way of being in the world.

I say that “I think about it” while only hinting at what it is I’m thinking when I think about it, not as a performance of the virtue, but as a consequence of the muddle of my thoughts. It’s a fog that’s especially thick when I sit in spaces like these—in the guts of Seattle’s world-city machine, talking data and systems and workflows, as a pretty strange part of my church job. At this tectonic boundary, there are bridges for sure, but there are few maps, and even fewer guides or interpreters.

This disorientation is especially acute when everyone in the room *thinks* we’re speaking the same language. I’ve been here before, and have found myself losing my temper at the arrogance of certitude. I’ve even found myself reasserting theology’s right to scrutinize the world’s matters of fact; most days, however, I’m more likely to be found troubleshooting churchly triumphalism, whenever it creeps into our communications.

I wanted to talk about this paradox of humility today; then I came across a text that says it so much better. So I’ll sit back down and save my muddle of thoughts for another day—see my next post for part 2.

Part 2

“The consequences of…divine self-humbling are remarkable. By it, the understanding & value of humility itself are transformed. In ancient senses of virtue, while arrogance is a vice, so too is a sense of humbleness that undervalues oneself or one’s abilities. What is virtuous in classical antiquity is a properly perceived & judged understanding of oneself, not a willingness to devalue the self or to somehow place oneself beneath one’s station. On such a perspective, a God humbling itself would be not only bizarre, but non-virtuous. For Christianity, then, if we continue to assume that God is good, the value of humility itself must change. Humility, & not accurate self-assessment, becomes the virtuous mode of self-perception.

But our capacity for it is limited. We cannot hope to undervalue ourselves as much as God does Godself (the move from infinite to finite is a greater one than any finite being can make), but we can strive to come as close to this act as possible. In this, the Christian is able to strive to be like God, held as the paragon of all that is good, without striving for the completeness of power & knowledge associated with the first person of the Trinity. That is, the humility of God as Son creates the possibility of striving to be like God without risking being like Lucifer, who, in non-canonical but powerfully influential stories, sought to take on God’s power as an equal.

Thus, of course, the virtue of humility is immediately caught up in a paradox. On the one hand, it provides a way for humans to be more godlike, which is understood as a good, since God is defined as all-good. On the other, to think that one can succeed in being godlike is distinctly non-humble…Thus humility displays both the knowledge of our distance from any resemblance to God (we are humble because we are so limited) and our striving to close that distance (to be as humble as Christ). If, however, we presume that we can succeed in being God-like, even where this means Christ-like, then we have lost our humility.”

(Karmen MacKendrick)

#Raise

This coming Sunday, the Lectionary features a most biting Gospel passage: Matthew 3:1-12. It’s the one where John the Baptist calls religious leaders a “brood of vipers,” reminding them “that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.” Harsh words, but satisfying to anyone who’s ever experienced the ugliness of communitarian self-satisfaction &/or clerical abuse of power. Having grown up in Lebanon, I know all too well that John’s message is something the Faithful need to hear time & time again; the same is true here.

That’s what’s so interesting about the Christian paradox of humility. The Church is Holy, but it’s also home to vipers & thieves. Death & decline in many denominations might just be a blessing, & any healthy approach to renewal today—that question of how to take up space & time in a world where worth is valued elsewhere—has to start with owning up to that. This shouldn’t be too difficult; repentance is baked into our source code—right?

John goes on to proclaim: “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

John wasn’t one to mince his words; he was the original SJW—“repent, or you’re cancelled.” But what makes this an Advent story is the event his admonition points to: the One who is coming to do the work we can’t do alone. The big reveal that maybe even John the Baptist didn’t know is that the never-ending fire is a source of hope; through it, the wheat & chaff of every heart is separated & purified. The fact that God can raise children from stones turned out to be good news; that’s how so many of us supposed outsiders were brought in. That was a trick that even John probably couldn’t anticipate.

The Advent he promised meant death has lost its sting; “evil has no power to hold us & we have no power to cling to evil”—& even the fires of hell are ultimately extinguished by “the healing assault of unyielding divine love upon obdurate souls.”

#House

‘House.’ This is one of those everyday words that can become irradiated with “extra” meaning due to context; in Seattle, to say “house” is to invoke crisis—homelessness, market speculation, tax. But Advent is open to crisis, so these connotations aren’t distractions. Indeed, we often see depictions of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph as refugees, & in this Diocese, the Chaplains on the Harbor raise funds with merch emblazoned with: “Baby Jesus was homeless.” They’ll be at St. Paul’s Advent Party tomorrow at 5 pm—be there if you can.

Jesus experienced crisis. He also communicated crisis. In Matthew 21, we find him disrupting Temple activities with these words: “It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.” He’s making allusions to two prophetic texts; biblical scholars love to point out how the original audience was scripture-soaked, & were likely to have caught his allusions. But the intertextuality doesn’t end there & God continues to speak—as I read those words, I don’t feel like writing about what the audience heard or even what Jesus was trying to communicate. Instead, I‘m thinking of the mournful notes of a Lebanese war song that makes a brief reference to this line, but with Lebanon as the temple-turned-den.

Lebanon is on my mind a lot, especially after yesterday’s YPIN’s event on the ongoing protests there. People ask about the way forward—can Lebanon cleanse its temple of thieves? My answers are hedged; my measures of success are idiosyncratic. I push back with annoying questions of my own.

It can be frustrating for people in dialogue to feel like they’re not having the same conversation, though they’re talking about the same things. I like to imagine that Jesus knows exactly how that feels.

“It was a dramatic gesture, an acted parable, for those with eyes to see…There is no indication, nor is it likely, that any lasting reform was achieved; no doubt the tables were back for the rest of the week, & Jesus took no further action. But the point has been made, & it was not lost on the authorities.”

(R.T. French)

May we have eyes to see Advent’s deepest disruptions.

#Unity

“My blood brother is an immigrant;
A beautiful immigrant.

My blood brother’s Freddie Mercury;
A Nigerian mother of three.

He’s made of bones, he’s made of blood,
He’s made of flesh, he’s made of love,
He’s made of you, he’s made of me—
Unity!

Fear leads to panic, panic leads to pain,
Pain leads to anger, anger leads to hate.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, ah, ah, ah, ah
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, ah, ah, ah, ah

Danny Nedelko, oh.”

(“Danny Nedelko” is the second single from IDLES’ “Joy as an Act of Resistance,” named after the Ukranian frontman of fellow British punk band Heavy Lungs, who released their own song featuring these lines: “I love my blood brother. I you Joe Talbot.”)

“What I am in my original constitution as a person has always already been given to me by God and received by me in and as my response to God’s gift to me of myself—indeed, has also, in some significant sense, been given to me by other creatures and received by me in and as my response to their gift to me.”

(David L. Schindler)

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