#AdventWord 2020, Week 3

#Go

This year’s list brings back the series of words drawn from TEC’s #WayOfLove rubric—an interesting insight into where we were then & where we are now.

Last year, I seem to have indulged in an extended reflection on the Dismissal, those words at the end of every Sunday service when we are called to “go in peace to love & serve the Lord.” I touched on Christ’s ascended body by way of something I must have been reading; it makes for a curious re-read, but my concerns today feel a million miles away from all that.

Today, “go” just means “go”—or don’t go. As in “stay put.” As in “shelter in place.”

As I filled out a King County Metro survey last night, it struck me just how little my mobility has been impacted by the pandemic; even in the hinterlands of post-Christendom, church work is essential—particularly mine. But I’m an immigrant. My geography is dysmorphed. And while I can imagine the possibility of international travel again, the hesitation that’s been stitched into every thought of “going” has made the permanence of this latest displacement in my life a lot more present.

My soul realized this long before my mind ever did, as is often the case, and the other day, it shattered me into a hundred ugly tears because the glow of our Christmas lights & the hum of our Christmas vinyl was too heartbreakingly beautiful to contain. I was happy, I was grateful, I was home—and so very far from it too.

But the funny thing about “going in peace” is that there is often a point—a star to follow. I’m a person with big ideas so I sometimes think I know what that point is, but today I’m wondering if it’s something much smaller & more profound. You see, I’ve been taking part in a virtual Advent pilgrimage to the Holy Land hosted by @smifsc, who very kindly mailed me this guidebook, all the way from South Carolina. As an immigrant born with the wrong passport, I’m used to all my pilgrimages to the Holy Land only ever being virtual. But as I flip through these pages & think about the unexpected relationships this pandemic has formed & reformed, it occurs to me that, one day, I may have the right passport to go—to actually go…

And while that may seem a bureaucratic trifle, entertaining the idea means more to me than leveling up on the global food chain; it means a chance to mature personally, spiritually, and, yes, politically as well.

To put a Lebanese Christian wartime fear of the PLO on its head, it seems that the road to Jerusalem may run through Seattle, for me. But it’s also by way of the Church; I would not have wanted to step one foot across that awful border if I weren’t a Christian—& my life would have been just that tiny bit emptier because of it. You see, that border wasn’t there for my grandfathers & grand uncles. They built homes in that holy land, just like their grandfathers & grand uncles built our stubborn little mountaintop church. I have a right to cross that border—I have a right to go in peace to love & serve the Lord.

#Rest

“About a third of our lives are spent in sleep. Through these collective years of rest, God is at work in us and in the world; redeeming, healing, and giving grace. Each night when we yield to sleep, we practice letting go of our reliance on self-effort and abiding in the good grace of our Creator. Thus embracing sleep is not only a confession of our limits; it is also a joyful confession of God’s limitless care for us. For Christians, the act of ceasing and relaxing into sleep is an act of reliance on God.
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What if Christians were known as a countercultural community of the well-rested—people who embrace our limits with zest and even joy? As believers we can relish sleep as not only necessary but as an embodied response to the truth of the Scripture: we are finite, weak creatures who are abundantly cared for by our strong and loving Creator.”

(Tish Harrison Warren, ‘Liturgy of the Ordinary’)


That’s a quote I shared last year for the same Advent word as today’s; I was tempted to share it again, as is, with no extra frills, as there’s nothing that new to add, & I’m tired. I could use a break. But just as it’s done to this sad little storefront—the same one I captured last year—time adds new dimensions to even our most tired tropes.

The pandemic has made me value rest more deeply than I’d had before through some abstract anti-capitalism or generalized joie de vivre; rest has honestly become the sticky tape & epoxy resin that holds my personality together—or, at least, the personality you’d probably prefer to the one I have when I don’t get enough of it.

As humans, we were made to take rest seriously, but all our endeavors are geared towards our breaking the sabbath. Churches can be a counter-culture in this respect, but I fear that in most places, the actually-existing Church falls right in line on the converter belt of productivity. This is a problem that plagues many nonprofits too, who must always fight to justify their existence; where the line between work & life is blurry by design, in mostly good ways, for sure, but also, in ways that are in all practical terms demonic, if left unexamined or unchecked.

But the Church is not just another nonprofit. It only becomes one when Christians are muddled in their politics—when the meaning of what they proclaim is lost in the pomp & circumstance of mere cultural reproduction, mere service provision, or mere property management.

I could say a lot more but that just sounds like more work, right now. Instead, I’ll lean on the words of Saint Vida, who wrote:

“Jesus, even when most poetic, is never sentimental. If he presented the life of birds & flowers as the true model for human existence, it is because he actually believed that their freedom from anxious self-consciousness and their peaceful fulfillment of function were conditions that ought to be reproduced in economic relations.”

Everything for everyone.
World without end.
Amen.

#Worship

“What separation of public from private affairs can you possibly maintain when your practices point to, proclaim, & participate in an order that supersedes everything? Literally everything. Everything, everything, and Hugh Jackman.”


Now before you boo me off your screen for going full Žižek, reworking old jokes & quoting my own damn self, let me explain: when I wrote those words last year, I was thinking abstractly, maybe even somewhat abashedly, trying to pry open a space for what the outside world may consider the least useful feature of Christianity. But I could not imagine just how real & very jarring that clash of private & public would become only a few short months later, when worship stopped just being weird—it became downright obnoxious, refusing to be relegated to the dust pile of non-essentials. This was sort of cool and it also kinda sucked—the Christian story as old as ordinary time.

It was cool to see public health officials have to take questions about sacramental theology with a straight face; it sucked that our moratorium on sharing the Eucharist seemed to only come begrudgingly—I still don’t know what our official position on the science of sharing one cup actual is; I just know we complied.

It was cool to see thousands of churches pivot towards digital content; it sucked that much of that leaned too heavily on maintaining continuity over living into the heartbreak & calling of disruption—what if, instead of putting all that energy into improving our technical prowess & our production values, God was calling us to close our doors for a reason? Instead of broadcasting church into people’s homes, maybe we should have gone out & been the church everywhere?

Don’t get me wrong—it genuinely was cool to move church online; it was an opportunity to think more deeply about the interplay of space & place, touch & sight, materiality & virtuality, co-presence & inter-connection—how Zoom was both exhausting & liberating; how the Eucharist was both physical & spiritual; how worship was both a state of interiority & a stack of images, gestures, & sounds, all lined up in a row—shot a + shot b = idea c.

But it also sucked when the audio wasn’t all that great & people wouldn’t shut up about it in the chat…

St Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower, who found God in the pots & pans of her daily chores, famously wrote: “I prefer the monotony of obscure sacrifices to all ecstasies.” Cool, very cool—but also kinda not. It’s good & holy to sanctify labor; that truth consoles me when I miss feeling like a regular churchgoer because the monotony of obscure background tasks is where I mostly find God today. But the dignity of daily chores done in love also limits us to imagining worship as so many burnt offerings when we could be moving mountains…

Perhaps we settle for the comfort of monotony because we cannot imagine what ecstasies are within the realm of possibility.

Should we write ourselves out of a job? Should we tear down this place brick from brick? No, I really do believe in & appreciate this labor. But I also believe that this God we worship is a restless God—a God of tents, not houses; a God who says “come” and “go” and “listen.” God desires mercy, not sacrifice, and we’re still learning what that means.

#Pray

“And now, as our Savior Christ has taught us, we are bold to say: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…”

That’s how the BCP introduces the Lord’s Prayer, though I’ve become accustomed to hearing it as “bold to pray.” I also tend to change camera angles during this prayer; I instinctively want to mark it out, like those red letters you find in some bibles, indicating the actual words of Jesus; not because these are his only words in a worship service, but because I find his prayer to be the closest thing we have to verbal dictation—this is Jesus giving us a straight answer, for once. You want to know how to pray? Pray this way.

I’m not sure if other traditions have that “bold to pray” line in their liturgies, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I just hadn’t noticed; it’s the Protestant lens of my born-again return to faith that sets it off the page. The faith of my ancestors came alive through the reformed church always reforming; to sin boldly & be redeemed! That radical grace that I kept hearing from the pulpit—that blessed assurance of Martin Luther proclaiming “here I stand”—was a firecracker thrown across the marbled floor of what I thought I knew about Christianity, & it didn’t take much imagination to understand why that kind of gospel would set Western Europe ablaze.

I’ve since learned much about the limits of that project; the Law/Gospel binary that underpins it drew too stark a divide between the old & the new orders. That blessed Christian assurance came with some pretty costly antisemitic undertones—sometimes overtly so, as was the case with Brother Luther himself.

Most of what I’ve learned about that theology, I first encountered in @kurtwillems’s sermons at Pangea Seattle & his podcasts on Paul; this was back in Lebanon, way back in the dark ages, before Zoom church was a thing, when I couldn’t find a Christian community I felt I could belong to—& for that, I’m eternally grateful.

So If you’re curious about the depths of these controversies, I encourage you to check out Kurt’s work. Today, though, I want to keep my focus on prayer—do we, as Christians, pray too boldly?

Maybe we could learn something from our Jewish siblings in their holy season of Hanukkah. When describing the so-called “cantor’s prayer—the Hineni prayer, heard here in the voice of Joseph Rosenblatt, unique in the Jewish canon for being a prayer in the first-person singular—Matt Axelrod writes: “we literally pray for the ability to pray.” On High Holidays, the cantor sings: “Hineni he’ani mima’as. Here I am, impoverished in deeds & merit. But nevertheless I have come before You, God, to plead on behalf of Your people Israel.”

There’s no way around it; this is not how many Christians think we ought to pray. But what if we did? What if every prayer bore the weight of the cantor’s responsibility—his anguish, his fear & trembling?

Linda Hirschhorn explains: “Hineni is about the attitude & bearing of the entire person—their emotional & spiritual presence. The Bible recognizes the importance of this word: it occurs only eight times…Each time the word hineni is used, it signifies a turning point, a potentially life-changing moment requiring decision, action, & resolution.”

If we treated every prayer as a real & honest turning point, what would we say? Maybe that’s the kind of prayer our Savior Christ has already taught us: a prayer of awe & thanks, of endless anticipation—a pleading prayer of God’s re-formed people always re-forming.

Impoverished in deed & in merit, nevertheless, here we stand.

#Learn

“I’m not interested in •conserving• a religion that Jesus never taught or •progressing• past the Jesus of the Gospels. I️ want the subversive rabbi from Nazareth who showed us the cost of becoming more human, died for his enemies, literally rose, and is renewing all things.”

That’s a tweet from Kurt Willems, the Seattle-based pastor I mentioned in yesterday’s post; it perfectly encapsulates the theo-political quadrant I landed in relatively quickly after my rediscovery of Christianity.

My first steps back were literally through the doors of a Scottish church that openly identified as progressive, which was not a label I ever associated with Christians. But having come of age under Bush, Blair, & Benedict XVI, I desperately needed to make sense of both my very long strides to the left & this newfound fire in my heart; and so, on a whim one morning in Edinburgh, I typed the words “progressive” & “church” into Google, and the rest is history.

This was a powerful learning experience that I’ll never forget, & have written about before; suffice it to say, I met that subversive rabbi that Kurt is talking about for the first time there. And though I still felt incredibly awkward about my experiences, I was lucky to have a couple of friends who were curious enough to want to hear about it.

One of these friends was every Tory grandad’s worst nightmare: an uppity atheist antifa Jew, who played drums in a ska-punk band, drank too much whiskey, & read too many books. A few short months into my time at this church, he invited me to a hardcore Hanukkah for even more whiskey in between the platefuls of latkes, where he very gently introduced me to a seminarian he knew, in what was probably his most classically British move to date.

As I shared my story of learning to reconcile radical justice with ancient faith, the seminarian smiled & nodded knowingly, so I asked if he—a good old Scottish Presbyterian—had any thoughts about this congregation that I’d joined, & he said: “I like to get to where they’re going in a different way.”

I’m not sure if he was being fair in his assessment of that church, but what he meant was: I want to follow a radical Jesus by going through the tradition, not in spite of it.

I’ve since learned that many people know & respect this subversive rabbi—this great teacher of grand ideals—even if they don’t consider themselves to be Christians. Heck, even Nietzsche could not bring himself to poo-poo the man himself, even as he tore apart his philosophical project & cultural legacy. To call Jesus a great teacher is now code for methodological atheism, whether one professes to follow his teachings or not.

I never went through that phase; Jesus either meant nothing to me or he was God incarnate—there was no in between. And that’s because assigning a pedagogical framework for understanding God unlocks the whole mystery of God’s cosmic drama. To call Jesus a teacher does not diminish God; no, it gives me access to God. It makes God make sense in ways that only the Logos—God’s Word made flesh—could accomplish.

It’s almost funny that liberal Christians who sought to make Jesus more human ever believed that calling Jesus a great teacher could defuse his divinity; what does that say about their views on education & educators?

God has been called by many names—Lord, Sovereign, Father—but “teacher” is one we don’t hear often. And yet, God is most obviously a teacher. God is a teacher because God is love, and love has a pedagogy—alleluia! What very good news.

#Bless

Some things just refuse to click. I’ve said this before & it remains to be true; I always need to double-check what TEC means by “bless.” It’s like my relationship with chess & cards; every time Christine convinces me to play a game, I need her to re-explain everything. How do we play Go Fish again? Oh yeah—“share faith and unselfishly give and serve.”

It seems like this word is meant to be performative; just as it did last year, “bless” was completely uninspiring until it suddenly radiated with the light of a tiny epiphany. It only occurred to me this week that, unlike “go,” which I instantly associated with the liturgical dismissal, I’ve never made the equally obvious connection between “bless” & the liturgical benediction—y’know, the part in every Sunday service bulletin that says “The Blessing” in bold Roboto. D’oh!

I reflected on why this very clear link never happened for me, even though it’s a part of the liturgy that I pay close attention to & make sure to embody with the sign of the cross. Then Christine shared a great insight: because that part seems like it’s all about me-me-me i.e. that we are now quite literally being hashtag blessed. It’s not the sort of thing I’d tend to shout from the rooftops.

It doesn’t take long, though, to notice how squeamishness around our blessings is a privileged position. Blessings hint at their lack, just like goings hint at stasis, & it’s uncomfortable to be reminded of the haves & the have-nots when talking about God.

That discomfort is baked right into the structure of liturgical blessings; every line hinges on the word “may,” implying a potential “may not,” & begging all the classical questions of theodicies from time immemorial—why may God not?

I’m thinking about that even more today, as the brute fact of human finitude lodges itself further into the back of my throat, having let some bad news slowly sink in.

This faith does have glimmers of an answer to those classical questions, though; we know that to be highly favored—as Israel was, as Mary was—did not mean a life without hardship. Only God knows the pain of a mother watching her son being murdered by the state.

And yet, the whole world would call her blessed. Why?

To be blessed is not to be hashtag winning at the game of life. It’s to play with purpose; it’s to have someone coaching you the whole time, re-explaining those rules that just won’t stick; it’s to be strengthened by hope and empowered to keep playing.

God blesses us so that we may bless others. So may the blessing of God Almighty,
The Father +
The Son +
and the Holy Spirit +
Be upon us & remain with us—
All of us—
Forever.

Amen

#Turn

“No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor.” – St. Óscar Romero

The holidays are a busy time for church folks; a time when decoration & celebration can take up our attention & take us out of the mindset we are meant to be fostering at that particular time of year. In the Christmas season, we are supposed to meditate on the incarnation—God among us, God in this world—& yet, the holiday frenzy ultimately leaves us disconnected.

Sometimes I think that we are too enamored with the craft of doing church: the music, the lights—and I don’t mean that a more stripped down puritanism would break us free either. No, even without stained glass & vestments of woven gold, Christians will become enraptured by a sermon, the perfect gift, or an Advent word reflection. Sometimes I read these words I string together & everything in my life makes complete sense; other times my baptismal namesake, Elijah, flares up inside me & I want to burn it all to the ground. To burn the perfumed wrapping paper right off words like “turn,” to grab hold of their essence like a bullhorn or a brick: to repent.

Repent of the sweeps. Repent of the very notion of human refuse—la escoba. Repent of the very idea of land ownership—chinga la migra.

Repent & return to the Lord. Repent.

Good Christians will all concur with Saint Óscar to a degree, but still disagree on policy, & that’s fine. And yet, the incarnation means that the politics of God’s Reign are not so abstract as to be inscrutable; transcending human partisanship does not mean that love has no shape nor edge nor name nor orientation.

In fact, I posit that Christianity’s closest dialogue partner is anarchy, & the divergences between the two are more to do with the anarchist movement’s internal diversity than any fundamental ethical mismatch; the points of contact on power and personhood and freedom and change are all there for those with the eyes of faith to see. Or so I will gladly claim.

We’ve all seen woke Christians make radical gestures so cringeworthy, you wish they’d stick to their day jobs, so to speak—‘ti khebzak lal khebbez, we say in Lebanon, which is another way of saying “let the experts handle it.” It’s a metaphor about bread & bakers, which really only makes sense if you know how bread was made there back in the day.
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But we can & must learn to meddle in the baker’s craft because our God is the Bread of Life; a God too big to be contained by any one ideology, yet born as a particular child in a particular manger in a town called Bethlehem. God is not so big as to be without shape nor edge nor name nor orientation.

When we turn—when we re-orient ourselves toward God, when we repent & return to the Lord—let us think deeply about what exactly God is having us face.

May this pivot amount to more than pretty gestures because Christmas is about a child born in a stable & a God who has a name—or so we claim.

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