Getting Advent Wrong

Getting Advent Wrong

When I was growing up Baptist in the south, we never celebrated Advent. I’m not even sure I heard about it at all until high school or college! But every year, the Friday after Thanksgiving, we pulled out all the Christmas albums, stacked as many on the turntable as it would hold, and spent the day singing along and decorating the Christmas tree.

After we assembled the tree (always artificial), we untangled all the lights and wrapped every single branch – that alone took half the day. Then each ornament was carefully placed, making sure no two that were alike hung too close together. The most special ornaments always went on first, to be sure they’d have the best spots to show themselves off. And the sentimental ornaments, the ones that were too special not to keep, but too raggedy or plain to show off? They were carefully placed towards the back of the tree so that no side would go empty. Every ornament – whether in the front or around back – each one had a story, and every year those stories were told again, those memories reawakened. Those ornaments were reminders of who we were as a family and what was important to us.

It was our ritual for beginning the season and getting ready for Christmas. And when I began to practice Advent, it didn’t feel all that different. The Advent wreath with its candles, the special colors we use, the songs and scripture readings and stories we come back to year after year to remind us of who we are and what is important to us, to begin the season and get ourselves ready for Christmas.

But this year, as I’ve thought about the lectionary readings for the first Sunday of Advent, and the Gospel reading from Matthew in particular, I can’t get away from the feeling that we’re getting Advent wrong, or at least missing something important in it.

Advent is the time in the liturgical calendar when we anticipate the miracle of God becoming a man, when Jesus came as a tiny crying baby in a stable in Bethlehem, and changed everything. But Advent is also the time in the liturgical calendar when we anticipate Jesus’ second coming, the day when he will come again to earth to complete his mission, when he will set everything right and the world will finally be all it was meant to be. It will change everything!

That’s the way I’ve come to think of it, at least. But when I was growing up, I was taught the second coming would be the End of the World. And while I believe the way that was taught to me was misguided and even harmful, Jesus’ words to his disciples in the day’s Gospel reading tell me there’s something more to that than I’ve wanted to see.

36 “But nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the heavenly angels and not the Son. Only the Father knows. 37 As it was in the time of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Human One.[a] 38 In those days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark. 39 They didn’t know what was happening until the flood came and swept them all away. The coming of the Human One[b] will be like that. 40 At that time there will be two men in the field. One will be taken and the other left. 41 Two women will be grinding at the mill. One will be taken and the other left. 42 Therefore, stay alert! You don’t know what day the Lord is coming. 43 But you understand that if the head of the house knew at what time the thief would come, he would keep alert and wouldn’t allow the thief to break into his house. 44 Therefore, you also should be prepared, because the Human One[c] will come at a time you don’t know.

Matthew 24:36-44

Jesus has been telling his disciples about the end of the world – the end of their world.  Things will get bad, and then they’ll just keep getting worse. Jerusalem and the Temple, the center of their world, the things that tell them who they are and what matters to them – they are going to be completely destroyed, and the people who manage to survive will have to flee for their lives. And after all that suffering and destruction, “the Son of Man,” Jesus says, will return and gather up his people. It’s all going to be very surprising, and Jesus is warning his followers not to be surprised.

The whole chapter can be confusing, and Christians have been arguing about what it all means for hundreds of years. Did what Jesus describes happen just a few decades later, when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman Empire in 70 CE? It did. Could what he describes happen again at some unknown time in the future? Many Christians believe it must, since the second coming didn’t happen back then.

Honestly? I don’t know what I think this passage is telling us about what will or won’t happen to Jerusalem in the future, but I do think Jesus is talking about something that I’ve been missing in Advent.

Jesus obviously isn’t telling us to take four weeks to prepare for the day we’ve chosen to celebrate his birth, his first coming. Christmas Day is nothing if not predictable – it comes around on the same day every year. But the end of the world? The end of the world comes for somebody somewhere every single day of the year.

It will be like the time before the flood, Jesus explains: “they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage” right up until the end. “Then two will be in the field;” Jesus says, “one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.”

Somebody’s eating dinner and the phone call comes with news that shatters their world. We go to work, fall in love, prepare for the future, and suddenly, out of nowhere, our world ends and nothing will ever be the same.

The bishop who confirmed me was named John Rucyahana. He was the bishop of Rwanda at the time. John had escaped the genocide because his family went to Uganda as refugees when he was in his teens. When he returned to Rwanda as a grown man in the days following the genocide, it was only to learn that many members of his Tutsi family had been taken, while he was left. In only one hundred days, out of the eight million people in Rwanda, one million people had been hunted and murdered by their fellow Rwandans. The world had ended for them in ways we can barely begin to imagine.

And John was left. John and the other Tutsi who had survived, and the Hutu friends and neighbors who had slaughtered them. They were left, in the rubble of their lives and country. There was nothing left to do but build a new world, and that’s when, as I see it, Jesus showed up. He showed up in John and many others. John dedicated himself to his country and became one of the architects of a nationwide movement of accountability, justice, reconciliation, and mercy the likes of which the world has never seen.

I remember Bishop Rucyahana telling us that if the churches of Rwanda had truly been confirming Christians instead of merely going through the motions of a formality, the genocide would never have happened and one million slaughtered Tutsi would still be alive.

To him, confirmation was a matter of life and death. To him, our confirmation meant that, while others had been taken, we were left to build a new world – the kingdom of God Jesus proclaimed, or perhaps better understood for the world we live in today, the KIN-DOM of God, where there is no “us” and “them,” where no human being can be considered less human or less deserving of life and every good thing than we are.

Whether the people and places that make up our world are taken by violence, or disease, or poverty, or natural disaster, or immigration policy, or a legal system that’s anything but just, or divorce, or misunderstanding, or simply someone else’s choices; it’s no easy thing to be the one who is left. Confusion, fear, guilt, regret, anger, grief, survival – there’s no end to the things those who are left may have to deal with.

It may be us or someone else, but the end of the world comes for somebody somewhere every single day.

And in the middle of the grief and everything that goes with it, there’s always a new world to be built. That’s when Jesus will show up in and through us to build his Kin-dom, if we will let him.

Whatever else the end of the world and the second coming of Christ may mean, it means at least that – here, now, today.

And the thing I think we miss in Advent is that Advent is not really about Advent, or even Christmas. It’s a reminder to us to practice. To practice being ready for the things we don’t know are coming. To practice for all the things we know will come but not when or how. To practice for the end of the world and being left. To practice building a new world in the rubble, a world that looks like the Kin-dom of God.

Let’s try not to get it wrong.

Love Really is Love is Love

Love Really is Love is Love

A few weeks ago I stood under a tree at a church cookout and listened for more than an hour as a young, black pastor poured out his reasons against fully accepting and affirming the LGBTQ community. No one else was in ear shot. He wasn’t trying to argue with me – he knows where I stand. And so I did not try to answer his reasons even when he wound down and asked if I wanted to respond. He was pouring out the commitments and convictions of his heart, his concerns and the conclusions they brought him to. I told him I wanted to sit with what he’d said and reflect on it. I wanted him to know I was working to hear him and not just react.

I don’t know if that was the best response or not; I do know it felt appropriate to the moment and the relationship and the context. I can be all too good at the ready argument and answer. He and his context deserve more consideration (something I hope I am growing in recognizing).

One thing he said is something I can easily imagine myself saying not so many years ago. I’d be surprised if I didn’t say something very like it at some point.

“Stop saying this is about love. It’s about sex, and they aren’t the same thing.”

He’s not entirely wrong – sex and love are not the same thing. But he’s not right either. It is very much about love.

I spent most of my life believing that sexual orientation was just about sex. That’s easy for someone whose attractions fit the traditional man-woman scripts to believe. We’ve never had to ask questions about our orientation and its impact on our whole lives. It’s not so hard for us to make a “straightforward” distinction between sex and love.

But that doesn’t mean we understand ourselves or the relationship between our sexual orientation and how we love.

Getting to know LGBTQ folks was an incredible gift to me (one I didn’t even know to look for) in part because they have had to ask those questions, and their answers made me look at myself and my own life and sexuality in new ways.

Sexual orientation impacts our whole selves and how we engage everyone in our lives. It’s part of how we relate to ourselves as well as to God, whether we recognize it or not. Sexual orientation shades how we interact with everyone — not just potential sexual partners, but our parents, siblings, and children, as well as coworkers, friends, and aquaintances.

That can make straight people uncomfortable, like we are sexualizing relationships where sex doesn’t (or shouldn’t) come in the picture. And so we can miss the ways our sexuality shapes our lives and relationships when having sex isn’t part of those lives and relationships.

I relate to men and women differently. I always have. As an infant in church, the story goes, I was uninterested in all the women trying to make me smile, but would perk up as soon as a man walked up. I was a daddy’s girl and my favorite family members were boys and men, not because I wanted to be like them, but because I liked and was drawn to them.

It wasn’t about sex, but it is intertwined with my own sexual orientation as a straight woman.

That doesn’t mean that my experiences will be just like those of other straight women. We are all different – gay, straight, bi, and all the ranges in between. We experience ourselves, each other, and the world differently.

But our world has been set up to assume certain norms about sexuality, and those norms are ones that fit a particular range of straight people. If our attractions fit those norms, a lot may remain invisible to us. We don’t even notice. We feel like that’s just the way things are, and even that it’s good that way.

And when those norms are challenged by someone who doesn’t fit them, it can be confusing and even scary for us. We often try to understand others based on how we ourselves function in the world, and we can miss so much.

Sexual orientation isn’t just about the way we have sex and who we have it with. It’s very much about how we love. It’s about how we love romantic partners, yes, but it’s also about how we love everyone else – and maybe most importantly, how we love ourselves.

Love is messy and sprawls across every part of our lives. It confuses clear cut rules and remakes the order we thought was unshakable. Because love is always bigger than principle.

Love always looks at the particular. Love always allows for nuance and incompleteness. Love looks for what is good, and celebrates and builds on that.

It’s a much harder path. It’s so much easier when we can just apply the principle, the rule that tells us how things are supposed to be, what is best and safest for us. But love calls for greater discernment, for deeper listening to the other and even ourselves. Love is open to something different, a new and better way.

Love really is stronger than death.

Love really is love is love.

Valentine’s Day Massacred

Valentine’s Day Massacred

Valentine’s Day is a mess. Even if I set aside my own history with February 14th, I wouldn’t be a fan. Valentine’s Day has become performative – the day when romantic partners are supposed to pull out all the stops, and the sellers of flowers, chocolates, and anything traditionally designated as “romantic” make a killing. The only Valentine’s celebrations that don’t feel so infected are the ones kindergartners and elementary students get, if they are still anything like they were in my childhood. Chalky candy hearts printed with messages, red hots, and silly little cards from friends still make me smile.

If you’re single and would rather not be, it feels particularly cruel to have expectations of romance everywhere you go. It’s not fun, and when I lived with two other single women, we responded with a house party to watch The Godfather and eat plates of spaghetti and, of course, cannoli.

Even in a romantic relationship, I don’t think I’d want to celebrate Valentine’s Day, at least not in any of the traditional ways. I prefer my romance less scripted by capitalism and more extemporaneous and personal.

But while I’m not yearning for an expensive dinner or box of chocolates today (not that I would ever turn down chocolate!), I would love to redeem February 14 for myself.

It was on Valentine’s Day around twenty years ago that my first boyfriend (if I don’t count Blaine Disher in first grade), the first guy I ever dated, for that matter, showed up for our date and proceeded to dump me instead.

I was blindsided.

I’d been a late bloomer, and in fundamentalist Christianity to boot, so my first date didn’t happen until I was 25. We only dated a few months, but convinced by Joshua Harris and a previous marriage gone wrong on my boyfriend’s part, we “kissed dating goodbye” and were “courting.” This meant hours of processing his first marriage and a long conversation between him and my parents – and that was before our first date! Once we started actually dating, we spent hours talking about our values and kids and finances and all the things you’re supposed to talk about before considering marriage. He sent me red roses at work the day before Valentine’s Day, and when he showed up for our date and asked if we could talk, I honestly thought, “Well, I know we’ve covered all our bases, but it’s really too soon for him to propose!”

Yeah, blindsided.

Around a year later, having processed the worst of the grief, I tried to capture the moment in a poem.

Choke
(or The Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre)

He said, “I can’t do this anymore.”
She wasn’t sure what he was talking about.
He said, “It’s just not there for me.”
And it started to sink in, because he wouldn’t look her in the eye.
And she said, “But what about the roses?
You sent them yesterday.”
You idiot, she thought.
“How will I explain them to everyone now?” was what she said.
“I never thought about that,” he mumbled.

And she thought, then what’ve you been doing all this time?
How could it all be meaningless to you?
But she didn’t say that, because she didn’t want to hurt him
and it was hurting him to hurt her;
she wouldn’t make it worse.
That wouldn’t be loving him
and she didn’t know how to not love him yet.
So she didn’t say that.
And she didn’t cry.

Except her voice got shaky
and her hands.
And her eyes for some reason started to water.
Her heart couldn’t understand
what her mind now saw very clearly:
he was leaving lightly
and he wasn’t coming back.

He said, “At least we didn’t let it get all that far.”
And she wondered what life he’d been living in
to say something so stupid,
and what kind of fool he was
to believe it.
And she couldn’t feel a thing
and she couldn’t understand.

He said, “Well, I think this has gone really well…
about as well as such a thing can go.
But then, I didn’t expect any less from you.”
And she supposed he meant it as a compliment
but it stung.
She wasn’t making it hard on him
because that wouldn’t be loving him
and she couldn’t stop as readily as he.

And then he added, “You’ve never tried to pressure me
I always loved that about you.”
And she thought, oh, now you tell me.
But she didn’t say it.
He hugged her bye
and she didn’t shrink
and she didn’t cling.

He drove away
and as she walked back in the house
she hoped he’d choke.

Am I glad we didn’t get married? Most definitely. Despite this incident, he wasn’t a bad guy, and I suspect we could’ve made a decent marriage, but though he would’ve ended up being a more interesting person, I would’ve ended up much more conventional than I am. And I like who I am and am grateful I’ve had the opportunity to be this me.

I still wish he’d handled breaking up with me a good bit differently. Valentine’s Day was an excruciating reminder for years. And while the sting is only a memory now, redeeming February 14 is something I’m still doing.

So, I throw the occasional Godfather party. I try to remember friends who the day may be difficult for with chalky candy hearts and silly cards. And I find ways to be kind to myself. (My favorite local bakery-cafe has a personal gourmet pizza special tonight I just might take advantage of.)

The murder of St. Valentine may be more apt to the celebration of the day than we tend to acknowledge. Few hearts in this world haven’t been broken, and I suspect far more than me long to redeem the day.

(Side note on the poem – I’d spent weeks perfecting a recipe for his favorite treat, blondies, and testing multiple batches on coworkers and family. I’d already given him his carefully wrapped box of blondies before our “talk,” and he drove away with them in the front seat of his car. I clearly remember the first post-shock anger crystallizing around that realization with the thought, “I hope you choke on them!” Hence, the final line of the poem provided a title with a literal meaning alongside others.)

 

 

The Scandal of the (White American) Cross

The Scandal of the (White American) Cross

I was raised at the cross. It stood atop steeples high in the sky and marked the front of every church I attended — the only symbol allowed in our iconoclastic faith. We sang about it and talked about it, preached about it in every sermon and invited people to come to it at every altar call. We cherished the cross, embraced the cross, and “took up our cross” every day. 

The instrument of the worst torture the Roman Empire could devise, the cross,  had been transformed into the symbol of a life devoted to God.

And I was taught that cross was a scandal — offensive to all those who wouldn’t believe and didn’t belong. A scandal to liberals who were “squeamish” about blood. A scandal to secular minds and hearts that didn’t like the idea of personal sin and guilt. A scandal to the self-satisfied who didn’t think they needed forgiveness. A scandal to anyone who couldn’t accept that Jesus bore their sin and shame and failure as he hung on it.

I’ve been thinking about the cross lately, and the scandal and offense of the body that hung on it.

Jesus told us what matters is where we see him and what we do about it (Matthew 25:31-45). Do we see him in the hungry and thirsty? In the homeless stranger? In the prisoner?

Do we see him in a black body hung on a tree?

Or do we see ourselves in a white Jesus, unfairly persecuted and undeservedly crucified?

White American Christianity has taught us to see a white Jesus hanging on the cross, and in him to see our white selves. And so it has crucified our ability to see black and non-white people as our true equals (or betters), and to have empathy for their suffering at our hands. 

American Christianity has taught us to honor our own struggle for freedom from royalist overlords (also white Christians) whose oppression consisted of the imposition of a single tax. It has taught us to hear oppression in “Happy Holidays” and persecution in an insistence on the full dignity and humanity of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. It has taught us that following Jesus means being persecuted, and thus when we are criticized and our values questioned or rejected, it is only because we are the persecuted ones.

And American Christianity has taught us to demonize the struggle of black people for freedom from white Christian overlords who starved, beat, raped, enslaved and murdered them, and continue to deny their full humanity through systems designed to benefit white Americans at their expense.

American Christianity has given us a white Jesus to prove our white innocence.

The scandal of the American cross is not, as I was taught, its offense to “liberal sensibilities” that do not like blood and guilt and punishment. The scandal of the American cross is that we have made ourselves its white Jesus while we remain deaf to the cries of the crucified.

Even for those of us who may cringe at the portraits of a blue-eyed, blonde-haired Jesus, images of a black Jesus — or any Jesus with skin darker than the tan a white man might have who spent his days walking the countryside — are “thought-provoking” or challenging or even convicting. What they are not is normative. “Everyone needs to be able to identify with Jesus,” I heard, meaning, those images are for the people who look like them, not for me.

But instead of identifying with Jesus, we have identified Jesus with us. That would be one thing if we were members of a dark-skinned people conquered by and subjected to the whims of the most powerful empire on earth. (Hint: not us.)

What happens when it’s the richest and most powerful who see Jesus in themselves? (“The first shall be last and the last first.”)

We can’t even hear His warnings. (“He that has ears, let him hear.”)

Our identification with a white Jesus is deeply ingrained, even for those of us who squirm at the idea. Because it’s not just my Fundamentalist and Evangelical kin who have made a scandal of the cross.

White Jesus has given American liberal Protestants a savior complex — the conviction that it’s our responsibility to lift up the disadvantaged and give them the benefit of our wisdom and judgement, the benefit of our theology and study, the benefit of our help which they must need. It’s barely a step removed from outright colonialist Christianity, bent on “civilizing the savages.”

We continue to live the (white) Jesus we worship into the world, whether with a persecution complex or a savior complex, because we cannot seem to take ourselves down off the cross and see who is really there.

Others see it and name it as white-centering, erasure, white-privilege, and white supremacy, and that offends us. (“Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.”)

White Jesus persists because we cannot seem to de-center ourselves — from the public square, cultural hegemony, or religion; from our personal faith and its collective practice. (“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”)

White Jesus persists because we continue to refuse people of color full humanity, we continue to refuse to “esteem others as better than ourselves.” We continue to refuse to see Jesus as other than ourselves.

Maybe if we can stop preaching from the cross we’ll finally be able to hear the voice of the one crucified. The voices of all those crucified. Because it is only in hearing them that we have any hope of hearing Him.