Advent

Torn Heavens and Shattered Earth: Advent Vexation

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O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence–as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil– to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!  (Isaiah 64:1, 2)

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This is a longing for God to act as God acted in the Israelite exodus from Egypt. “God why don’t you come down and kick some ass as you did with Pharaoh?” Isaiah asks in lament and frustration. This is an Advent frustration and longing. Desperate that the reign of God would manifest and the nations, the powers, that oppress would be brought to their knees, ending oppression. So that injustice would end and justice would flourish.

Isaiah cries out in anger and exasperation, God, come down, tear the skies, act against oppressors; like you did with pharaoh in Egypt, make yourself known like you did at Mount Sinai. God make those things that seem immovable and unshakable tremble and crumble, come like fire that sets dry brush wood aflame, be like fire to a pot of water causing it to boil over. Like brushwood catching fire from a spark to start of a conf20161219_220829lagration. Isaiah wants God to bring it all down.

If we slow down and let Isaiah’s simile take hold for a moment we find in the middle of the grand gesture there’s something small and imperceptible. Brushwood is also used for kindling to start a fire in a hearth that will then boil the pot of water put over the fire in the hearth. The image is domestic – boiling water and the fire in the hearth.
20161219_221041A rolling boil is certainly violent and the flames of a fire will rapidly lick up dry kindling, but it is all contained, and part of our everyday life, easily overlooked.

Isaiah moves form macro, “tear open the heavens” to micro, a boiling pot on a stove. A pot being brought to boil is such a small and everyday thing. Isaiah sees God’s advent in this way as both upending and earth shattering, like brush wood readily catching flame starting a conflagration, and like a pot of water in a hearth about to boil.

In this season of the Holy Nativity we are remembering and celebrating that God did tear the heavens and come down. 20161219_221038God rending the heavens took place in the womb of Mary, and the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. God comes vulnerable like the beginning flame, just after the first strike of the match to kindling. God tears open the heavens and comes down and it was nearly imperceptible like a pot of water about to boil.

The nations, the powers (Rome), did eventually sit up and take notice, though in the long run not always for the good.  Followers of Christ instead of spreading the fire and letting things shake and boil have shored up the structures of the powers and doused the flames leaving many vulnerable and becoming agents of death and oppression.

After all this, what a20161219_220947re we to say? Did God fail? Was God wrong to abandon the shock and awe of the Exodus and Mount Sinai? Was God wrong to abandon the direct confrontation with the powers as God did with Pharaoh? Was the incarnation, the crucifixion all a mistake? Have we lost God in God rending the heavens and coming down and joining with us? Or have we yet to see the fire spread? Have we yet to see the pot boil? Or is the transformation, the liberation we seek and the shaking of the powers we long for accomplished not through the language and practice of the nations and empire and grasping for power and violence, but some other means?. Does God rend the heavens and come down and show another way, one we have betrayed?

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Hope as Virtue and Discipline: “The arc of the moral universe is long but bends towards Justice.”

What follows is an essay written from my notes for recent Theology on tap for the Oratory of Jesus Christ Reconciler, written after the discussion. another version  was posted on the Oratory’s website.

“The arc of the moral universe is long but bends towards Justice.”

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used this aphorism in a sermon delivered at Temple Israel in Hollywood.  This is a hopeful image.  The aphorism is a snapshot of hope as virtue and discipline, before we unpack and interpret this aphorism, we need to ask some questions.

What is Hope? Hope can be a slippery thing to lay hold. We may buy a lottery ticket hoping to win the lottery.  A child might hope that she will get a gift that she asked to receive, from her parents. Such hope doesn’t seem to be either virtuous nor does it require any discipline.  The second case approaches more what we mean when we speak of hope as virtue and discipline. In the case of the hope of a child for a gift from their parents, is hoping in someone for something. There is a difference between hoping to win the lottery and hoping to receive something one has asked for at Christmas. The hope of the child is rooted in the loving relationship between the child and their parent. The hoped-for outcome isn’t guaranteed, but it is more likely and is bound up with a relationship.  In this second type of hope what one is hoping in is distinguished from what is hoped for, yet they are bound up together. Even so, the hope of a child for a Christmas gift hasn’t yet brought us to hope that is virtue and discipline

All instances of hope aren’t virtuous. So, we need to ask what is common across various instances of hopefulness.  We then can lay hold of a hope that is something we can call a virtue and about which we can be disciplined. What covers all connotations of hope is that hope looks to a fulfillment; it also lives, now, in anticipation of that fulfillment.

What is hope as virtue and discipline?

Given this sense of hope, what then does it mean for hope to be both a discipline and a virtue? Hope is a virtue and discipline, if what is hoped in is a good that is more than a fleeting desire and more than wishful thinking. Hope that is a virtue is a hope bound up with a movement toward the good, something that through hoping for it we are moved towards our betterment. For hope to be a virtue and discipline requires something to be hoped in and for, which can lead us to something greater than we are now.  Hope, which is a virtue and a discipline, is hope that moves us toward what is hoped for.  Hope as virtue and discipline is anticipation that actively waits for what is hoped for. This sort of hope isn’t passive; it is moving towards a goal or an end.

Hope can be a virtue through hoping in something that moves us towards that which we hope.  Such a hope requires an expansiveness, to borrow Obama’s phrase, it requires an audacity. Simultaneously it requires humility to admit that what is hoped for isn’t yet realized. Hope as virtue and discipline is magnanimous and humble.

The enemy of hope as virtue is presumption. This may find itself in too great a confidence, too much assurance, that at any moment what is hoped for is coming to fruition or fulfillment and completion in that very moment. Thus, it is destructive of hope to use hope as part of a political campaign, as Obama’s campaign did.  This is so, largely because, what we hoped for in Barack Obama wasn’t going to be completely fulfilled by Obama’s administration. Rather a virtuous hopefulness in a political party, or a factional politics, or a politician is in their being able to bring us closer to that which we hope, not for their ability to deliver that for which we hope.  What was hopeful about Obama and his campaign and subsequent presidency was only hopeful to the degree that hope was what propelled Obama, not in his or his administration’s ability to fulfill and deliver that for which we hope.  Thus, to the degree that Obama was hopeful with us and not the object of our hope, then we have a truly hopeful politics, but the moment we hoped in Obama or his administration, we ceased to have hope in a way that is virtue and discipline and which could lead us toward a goal greater than ourselves.

Hope as virtue and discipline needs the humility to admit that in time there is always a remainder of what is hoped for in any movement towards what we hope. For hope as virtue and discipline there needs to be the simultaneous magnanimity of claiming to be able to achieve what is hoped for with a sense that the fullness of what is hoped for can’t be found in any one moment.

What sort of things might we say we hope for in this manner? What is it that we can both be audacious about and about which we can be humble?

Hoping in God and of the God revealed in Jesus Christ.

The God revealed to us in the Hebrew Prophets and the divine human Jew Jesus of Nazareth, is a god who is about justice and who defines for us justice as the concern for and right treatment of those who are marginalized, most vulnerable and who are outcasts. Captives, prisoners, widows, orphans, those who can’t easily and financially hold on to property and means of production to provide for their daily lives, food, shelter and clothing.  In the letter from the Apostle James, we are told that true religion is one that has solidarity with the poor and the vulnerable.

Thus, hope for this sort of justice cannot reside simply in some future wished for utopia, that may or may not be achieved, nor something that may or may not be realistic and realizable rather this hope is bound up in the very fabric of the universe and in the source of all that is.

When Martin Luther King Jr. affirms the aphorism “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”, he isn’t affirming some generic hope, but making a faith statement about the one has aimed the bow and the arrow is on target.  This is faith in the God who is revealed to us in the Hebrew prophets and in Jesus of Nazareth. That is Martin Luther King Jr. isn’t in that moment talking as a politician of a political party nor as a patriot of a certain nation state, but as a member of the people of God, Israel, the Church. He is speaking as a preacher and a prophet.

The above aphorism. isn’t a hope in humanity’s ability to progress based in humanity alone, but is a hope in God’s work in history.

Hope, then in its activist form, is seeking to act in accordance with this goal. This is what makes hope a discipline.  The virtue of living in conformity with the long arc of the universe bent towards justice, is to live in a certain way. Hoping in this manner is especially a discipline when a present moment seems at odds with what is hoped for. As a Rabbi friend says “it is to act as if”.

The difficulty and the virtue of hope is that some aspects of the current moment will appear to be an argument against having hope.  If hope is merely wishful thinking, if we can’t say truthfully that in some sense justice, wholeness, true life isn’t the goal isn’t the direction of things, then no living as if will counter what immediately appears.

Hope that is a virtue and can be a discipline is to have hope in something that is true beyond a certain instance. It is to hope in something that is true about our deepest selves and the entire universe and of human being.  Different philosophies and Spiritualties may give different reasons for it being there or exactly how to describe it but it must be an affirmation that our goal forms us into our truest selves.  Simultaneously it must also affirm that this goal is beyond any one of us or any moment. The fulfillment of this hope is beyond us but partly realized in us in moments even if not yet landing its mark in time.

This is the prologue to Unbounded Love as Resistance (Part 1)

Works consulted in writing this essay:

King, Martin Luther, Jr.  Sermon at Temple Israel of Hollywood , February 25,1965 http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlktempleisraelhollywood.htm . Last accessed 11/25/

Pieper, Josef, Faith Hope Love, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1997, pp 87-138

Words of Comfort and Call to Repentance #StayWokeAdvent

There was no manuscript for my sermon at the Oratory on Sunday December 7th, what follows is my own continuing reflection on a sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent. Edited 12/15/2014 for clarity and grammar

Scriptures for the Second Sunday of Advent were Isaiah, 2 Peter and the Gospel of Mark.  These Scriptures include words of comfort (from Isaiah) a call to wait patiently for the end(2 Peter), and a call to repentance (Mark).

What I asked us to sit with and I am still sitting with is hearing words of comfort together with call repentance in light of the anguish that so many feel and have long felt.

We though can rush too quickly to take on or apply these Scriptures to our context.  There are resonances surely but not necessarily an easy fit.

The call to comfort “my people” may easily resonate with the continued suffering of the African-American community as it continues to suffer under a racist system.  Yet the words of comfort spoken in Isaiah are to an oppressed people in exile but whom according to the prophets went into exile for their failure to act justly and to remember they were once an oppressed people freed by the act of God.  The people addressed aren’t just human beings in general or the oppressed in general but a particular people, who have been oppressed and then who oppressed their own, and who are now again a subjugated and exiled and oppressed people.

It was to those who returned from exile yet still waiting complete deliverance, once again under subjection and oppression, this time of Rome, These are those addressed by John the Forerunner’s ministry and baptism to repentance.  John the Baptist called the  people of God to repentance.

If we are to hear these Scriptures, in concert with what is revealed in our streets and is coming more and more to light in our institutions particularly the police, we must first hear the Scriptures as addressed to others, the people of God, Israel, the Hebrews, Jews.  I would say this is especially true for White Christians in the United States.

We as White Christians need to regain a sense of being grafted into the people of God.  We are those who weren’t a people and now are a people.  Then we can perhaps begin to repent of our sense of privilege and responsibility.

I’ve recently been reading from a variety of sources how often well meaning Whites seeking to be in solidarity with Blacks, will join a protest and then take the initiative or stick with only other Whites at the protest.  Or how the chant #Blacklivesmatter is changed to #alllivesmatter.  Also,  how attempts at acknowledging privilege (such as the problematic  #crimingwhilewhite) turns attention from the lives of Blacks and people of color to whites and our guilt and shame over our privilege.  These aren’t examples of repentance, but as often as not re-inscribe White dominance and privilege.

When there are studies that show that even whites who don’t express or show any overt racism or even racist attitudes still in simulation will give the benefit of the doubt to armed White men and will shoot people of color who are suspected of holding a weapon, we have some fairly deep and unconscious shit to turn from.  We need a change of mind and being.

Such a transformation for Whites may require  stepping back: letting others take the lead, being less concerned about ones identity as White or even to give up one’s need to speak.  What I hear from Black voices and people of color is that we as Whites need to listen and amplify their voices, not to speak ourselves.  Repentance for White Christians in America may be to turn away from all ways of self-preservation, including attempting to assuage guilt by seeking fix the problems.

Then if there is deep repentance and transformation by White Christians in that we begin to be able to see Blacks and people of color as truly human (thus #blacklivesmater) and as truly members of the Body of Christ.

We want to to do something so this will be difficult.  Yet, here, if we can here Peter’s words, there is an openness to God’s refining fire in us and the world.  At this moment there is opportunity in the turmoil and the protests to let the fire burn and refine.  We can allow this apocalypse ( unveiling) to push us to live according to truth and justice, that will hasten the day when God’s righteousness and justice will be all that we know.

Then in this is also our comfort both for we who wracked by guilt and shame for our being caught up and blinded by our privilege and dominance, but especially for those who suffer and are oppressed by the racist structures and actions of the police.

Words of comfort and call to repentance go hand in hand for the people of God. Sometimes as in our case some of the people of God need to repent for participating in the cause of oppression, so that those who are oppressed may find comfort.

This all begins by hearing “my people” as a people to whom we are foreigners, and to whom have been welcomed into by God in Jesus Christ.

White European Christians the Scriptures and the faith aren’t yours.  In fact we may have betrayed the very faith we think we can defend and spread.  Repent, and be comforted.

“Comfort O Comfort my people, God has come and is coming.  If justice seems slow in coming, it is because of God’s patience with all of humanity.  The place where God’s justice and righteousness shows forth fully is what God desires for all.  Let that knowledge change you. Seek that vision of the world and each other.

Comfort and change of mind and being go hand in hand.  Let your story dissolve into the story of a people of God journeying towards and awaiting the coming of God’s justice and righteousness that we don’t and can’t have or control. Give into the consuming and refining fire. Be comforted and repent.

Longing for Justice in Absence: #StayWokeAdvent

WIN_20141130_143419O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence–
as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil– to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!  (Isaiah 64:1, 2)WIN_20141130_143444

This cry for God to act from the lectionary  for the First Sunday of Advent seems very fitting.  Calling on god to tear open the heavens.  Tear down the barrier between heaven and earth that keeps the kingdom from coming and God’s will from being done on earth as it is in heaven.

But what if this has happened?  What if the heavens have been torn open and God has come down? (As depicted in these depictions of heaven opening up)  In Advent what we wait for, what we are awake to is that God has come in the incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth.WIN_20141130_143332

The tearing of the heavens and God coming in justice happened. It happened in a very strange and nearly imperceptible way.  The nations, the powers, have been shaken.  Yet we can be unaware, live as though all is lost.  Admittedly in times like these, it doesn’t seem like this story has much relevance or meaning.  If true what good has it done for those who continue to suffer injustice, oppression and death.

Isaiah a few verses below the words above, wonders why God doesn’t act as in the time of Egypt and Israels deliverance from the oppression of  Pharaoh and Egypt, the empire and power of the day. But think with me on that story:

Did Israel’s freedom from enslavement and oppression at the hands of the state power and government come because Pharoah gradually made reforms and improved the conditions of the Hebrews?  Did the justice Isaiah recalls and longs for come from Pharaoh, or even with Pharaoh’s help and coöperation?  No, it was wrested from pharaoh by God.

But in a sense God remained a part from humanity and creation in that moment.  God crushes the power of oppression destroying its ability to exact its legal penalties, and it’s justice.  It was fearsome and violent, and at Mount Sinai the Israelites weren’t so sure what to make of all this shaking.

But when we speak of God’s advent, we are no longer speaking of the shock and Awe that Isaiah is longing for in the tearing open of the heavens and God coming down, yet even so the heavens have been torn open and God has come down.

WIN_20141130_143456It is perhaps worth noting that this didn’t happen only once, God tore open the heavens in the incarnation, and then again as the Spirit came upon those followers of Jesus, to form the Church on Pentecost.

Yet, none of this has brought an end to injustice.  The heavens have been torn open and God descends… and then what… disappears?

Christians, perhaps even the Church, are and have been as much a part of oppression and injustice as working for liberation and justice.

There are questions… is something awakening?

We wait in darkness with not much light.  This is Advent and a place of deep longing.

For now lets sit with heavens torn open and God come down, but seemingly little shaken, and ask what is the source of justice and liberation?  What are we looking for and who will provide it?

 

Wake up and Keep Awake: #StayWokeAdvent

I’ve kept mostly silent about the grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown.  On Social media I’ve attempted to direct people’s attention to Black and other voices from the margins around what happened and the continued unrest in the wake of the announcement of the grand jury’s decision.

In terms of white voices this post by Geoff Holsclaw is a good response from a position of privilege that is seeking to be open to move beyond privilege.

As the strange juxtaposition of the lit sign of Seasons Greetings and heavily armored police showed we are in the Holiday season that begins with Thanksgiving.  I’ve never particularly seen Thanksgiving as a religious holiday, and the attempts to make it a Christian Holiday have always struck me (even as a child) as strange.  As a child it was one of the few Holidays that my family celebrated that was really just about family.  Christmas and Easter were times for family to gather but they were first feasts of the Church. It’s not that God was absent from the celebration, but I don’t remember ever attending a worship service on or around Thanksgiving.  My Grandmother (on my mother’s side) was the daughter of a Swedish immigrants, My Grandfather (mother’s father )second generation Swedish American.  My father was a naturalized citizen of the United States, his family were refugees and displaced persons after World War II (a story for another post).  As immigrants who had been able to assimilate into White America we were genuinely thankful for the life we were able to lead in the U.S.  As for me as a child the story of Thanksgiving never really touched me.  It’s problematic and racist themes eventually came to mean that mostly Thanksgiving is an excuse and a means to see my family.

I say all this to draw attention to what looms on the horizon on Thanksgiving if one keeps the liturgical calendar of the Church: Advent.  The transition between Thanksgiving and Advent  always felt abrupt and jolting.   The pallid whitewashed soporific mythology of the Pilgrims was in stark contrast to the jarring scriptures of wakefulness and prophetic words anticipating God’s justice come in human flesh.  At Thanksgiving we were full and thankful, on the First Sunday in Advent we were in the dark, empty waiting for fulfillment.  Hopeful, yet aware of things being out of whack.  In Advent we were called to admit our failings and await God’s loving answer to our violence and hatred.  Thanksgiving pretended all was as it should be. Advent said we were still waiting, but the dawning transformation of the world was on its way.  In Advent we were to hunger for the righteous reign of God.

Clearly, the shooting of Michael Brown and now with the failure of a grand jury to indict Daren Wilson has jarred us from the whitewashed and soporific mythology of America that continues to be told on Thanksgiving.  Many of course want things to just calm down to not look at the reality that the system of America is and always has been racist, that since I’m deemed white I have privileges that people of color and certain blacks continue to not have.

We’ve had an Advent moment come before Thanksgiving, don’t be lulled back to sleep, Stay woke.  Being awake isn’t easy.  To open your eyes to the world and the systems we inhabit.  This Thanksgiving to be awake probably means to lament, to grieve and to confess.   Sure there are also reasons to be thankful, but I doubt it is for the reasons that the Thanksgiving mythology wishes us to believe, and the source of that goodness isn’t  from the god of the altar at which we are to burn the incense of our thanksgiving.  But then as a member of the body of Christ our Thanksgiving (Eucharist) isn’t the founding of another principality of the world but in one crucified by the systems of the world.  And this crucified one says wake up, stay awake.

This Advent, I encourage  saying awake by listening and waiting with Theology of Ferguson and Stay Woke Advent.