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.

Adult Friendship – Finding, Keeping, Letting Go

Adult Friendship – Finding, Keeping, Letting Go

Every Sunday night I go to a church in a bar filled with people with stories, all kinds of stories. Stories we believe are “the word of God for the people of God,” because God is still speaking in and through our lives. This month we’ve been talking about adult friendships – finding them, keeping them, losing them, and starting all over again. In a world full of lonely people, we don’t talk about friendship enough, or even make room for it in all the things competing for our attention and priorities. And as adults? We often are at a loss when it comes to making the kinds of friendships we want. (The Nancy podcast has done some great stuff recently on how queers can find a “gaggle” of friends, but I think we all need that help.)

This is the story I had the opportunity to tell this week. It’s one that’s still going…

——

It was Easter Sunday 2014. We’d had the sunrise vigil, and the Easter breakfast, and I’d just finished leading the liturgy I wrote for our Easter service. I was walking with my friend Angela to our cars in the parking lot, and I remember telling her, “I think maybe this should be my last service. Everything is good, but if I want my life to be different – and I do – nothing’s very likely to change if I don’t change something.”

I was 41 and tired of being tired of being single. I hadn’t had a date in seven years, and I wasn’t meeting possibilities. Something needed to change and church seemed like the most doable thing.

And that was scary to say, because church meant more than the place I went on Sundays. Church meant six years of friendships, of lives lived together with a group of families and a few singles who lived in my neighborhood. We had dinner together every week. I’d known most of their kids since they were born. When I was sick, they brought me extra plates of dinner and DVDs. When there was a birthday, we threw a party. Some of their children were the only kids I’ve ever felt move and kick and squirm in their mama’s belly.

I spent the years after seminary building my life around these relationships, and now I was going to change that, and I didn’t know what would happen. What all that would mean.

So I started visiting churches.

At the first one, I met a pastor – another single woman – who came from a conservative background not too different from mine. We had lunch and met for coffee and started sharing our stories (she didn’t tell me then about her dream of starting a church where people could share good food and tell true stories and make beautiful worship together!).

At the second one, when I told a work acquaintance and his wife why I was trying to make changes in my life, Judy – a woman who is five feet (maybe) of major general, cheerleader, and CEO all rolled up together – gave me marching orders: “I’m proud of you! And I want you to go home and sign up with a dating site online! You need to go where the men are, and that’s where they are! And I mean today! Report back to me with a text this evening.” And like I imagine everyone in her life, I obeyed. (And had ten first dates in the next three weeks!)

At the third church, I found a community of gay couples who also knew what it meant to be a deep disappointment to a conservative family, as well as how to be a chosen family who could keep me afloat through that storm. I ended up landing in that church, and they gave me the support I needed as I started dating, then moved into the city, changed jobs, and even as I got involved in the queer, quirky new church in a bar my pastor friend was starting.

And when my last birthday came around, I looked across the table at the improv club where we were laughing and celebrating. There was my first friend from my new job, a beautiful friend from that new church, and two of my closest friends in the city – both of them men I met dating. And one of them came with his girlfriend of the past year, who I’d enjoyed hanging out with on many other occasions.

Those friends from my old neighborhood in the suburbs? They weren’t in the city celebrating with me that night, but they cheered me on through it all. I still go up north for the breakfast we all have together one Saturday a month. And I’m still a part of their kids’ lives. And this summer, they all loaded their kids up one Saturday morning (no small feat!) and hauled them into the city to have breakfast at my place.

One of the hardest thing I’ve had to do, the thing that never seems to get easier, is knowing how to keep friends in my life as a single person when life is changing for everybody. It turns out that sometimes that means letting go.

A Love that Won’t Leave

A Love that Won’t Leave

What do you do with a love that won’t leave?

Even when you wanted it to. Even if you wanted it to.

On bad days, like a cobweb you can’t get disentangled from. On good days, like sunshine on the top of your head blessing everything with warmth that fills you to your toes.

Love knocks unbidden, but once the door is opened the house may be filled with something you’ll never get out of the carpets or the air. A fragrance that follows you from room to room, leaving nothing untouched, unmarked. Others may come in, but that love is stubborn and stays, blessing or cursing as the the case may be.

What do you do with a love that won’t leave?

Maybe you take it with you. Breath deeply and hold it in your lungs, accepting everything it can give.

Relax with it. Go with it and it will come with you, keeping you open to so much. A love neither unrequited nor gratified. Making you brave. Daring you to stretch and find more.

Sometimes it will cut open your heart and you will bleed with what is not. But others can enter that wound.

What do you do with a love that won’t leave?

Let it do it’s work, all it finds to do. And maybe one day you will look up to find that you (we) are somehow done.

Or maybe not. But either way, life is bigger, deeper, more unfinished – both full and wanting. Always wanting more.

Naming God for Who God Is

Naming God for Who God Is

“…and you enjoy being loved by God.”

They were passing words from a pastor who was counseling me — not even his point. But something in my mind got caught in them and stayed there while we finished the session. Something inside me that said quietly and without the least drama, “But I don’t.”

Oh.

God loved me. That was as basic a fact in my world as my mama and daddy’s love for me. It wasn’t something it had ever occurred to me to question.

But somehow, in thirty years of life and being loved by God, it had also never occurred to me that I should be enjoying it.

Being loved by the Creator of the universe, the God without whom nothing was, the God who was sovereign over everything that happened (including daddies dying, injustice, abuse, bullying, starving, war,…), the God who gave and took away, the God who made all things work for the good of those who love him?

That was something to be enjoyed?

I trusted God with everything in me I knew to trust with, but something inside me still braced.

You can make yourself do a lot of things, but one thing you cannot make yourself do is enjoy. And I knew the reality that I didn’t enjoy being loved by God meant something was seriously messed up.

I had no idea what to do about it. I didn’t know how to fix it.

But I knew there was a problem somewhere in what I believed, consciously or unconsciously or both, and I became willing to put everything I thought I knew on the table.

I didn’t do it all at once. It was a step at a time. Years in which momentum slowly grew in ways I didn’t really understand. But it started with recognizing that as I had grown up in the church, I had learned to redefine a lot of things — things like love, joy, and peace. These were all things we experience when we know Jesus. I knew Jesus, my (mostly) unconscious mind reasoned, therefore love, joy, and peace must be what it was I was experiencing.

Depression and anxiety got suppressed, redefined, and ultimately, when they were undeniable, blamed on purely physical factors. “I know a peace I don’t feel.” I’d actually said those words and meant them.

It had to be better than this, I decided, or it was just a farce. “It” being life with God, following Jesus, being a Christian.

And over the years, as I let go of a lot and looked for love, goodness, and beauty, it did get better. I wrestled through some really hard stuff and came through it with a relationship with God that was deeper than ever. Something in me relaxed, and I wasn’t bracing any more.

And then a year or so ago, for no apparent reason, the prayers and creeds and words in church started to trigger bracing in me — the instinct to draw back and distance myself. The same words of the liturgy that had been so healing for me for so many years became painful.

It was the word “God” that was doing it. “God,” “Father,” “Christ.” Most any word that referred to deity except “Jesus” triggered in me a reaction to a God I no longer believe in — a God who demands death, a God who turns his back, a God who cuts some people off, a God who is willing to sacrifice a child for the sake of his plan.

Not the God of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and faithfulness. Not the God who

is love.

It hurt. I missed the presence I’d found in those words. I also realized I wasn’t just going to be able to get them back. I had to move through this, not back away from it.

So I started replacing the word “God” in the prayers and affirmations of the liturgy with the word, “Love.”

It was a revelation. I hadn’t realized how much my mind and heart still held of a god who isn’t Love.

I did the same thing with hymns, and the first time I sang Patrick’s Breastplate the new way, I couldn’t stop crying.

“I bind unto myself today

the power of Love to hold and lead,

Love’s eye to watch, Love’s might to stay,

Love’s ear to hearken to my need,

the wisdom of my Love to teach,

Love’s hand to guide, Love’s shield to ward,

the word of Love to give me speech,

Love’s heavenly host to be my guard.

Love be with me, Love within me,

Love behind me, Love before me,

Love beside me, Love to win me,

Love to comfort and restore me.

Love beneath me, Love above me,

Love in quiet, Love in danger,

Love in hearts of all that know me,

Love in mouth of friend and stranger.”

There is no perfect way to approach the holy, the divine. But, love, we have been told, comes closest.

“Beloved, let us love one another.

For love is of God, and everyone that loveth is born of God and knowers God.

He that loveth not knoweth not God for God is love.

Beloved, let us love one another!”

(1 John 4:7-8)

So I’m still learning to know God, to grasp what is at the heart of the universe.

And to enjoy being loved.

Here, Part 4 – A Conversation Cont.

Here, Part 4 – A Conversation Cont.

“Ah! Here.  And…you’re here.”

-“I am. You sound surprised, yet not.”

“Well…the dry sauna at the athletic club?”

-“Don’t you read the Psalms?”

“The Psalms?…

Oh! ‘If I make my bed in hell.…’ Very funny.”

-“I thought you’d be amused.”

“But, …seriously?”

-“Seriously, it’s the quietest place I know.”

“Really? What about churches and chapels?”

-“They’re loud with expectation and desperation.”

“Oh. I can see that. And here…

well, it may be the only place that even my mind is quiet.”

-“Exactly. Everything is remarkable still in here.”

“There’s something about the heat.”

-“Yes. It brings your mind and body together to be present with each other.”

<pause>

“That’s not always a comfortable place for me.”

-“I know.”

“There’s a lot I don’t want to feel that directly.”

-“Yes.”

“I’ve lost my dreams.”

-“Lost?”

“Well, I’m pretty sure I know where they went, but they’re gone.”

-“Yes, sometimes people walk away with our dreams whether they intended to or not.”

“I just know I went to find them last week and there was nothing there.”

-“I’m sorry.”

“Thank you….

I’d ask why you didn’t stop them, but I’m long past thinking that you push people around like that.”

-“There’s no love under compulsion or manipulation.”

“Right.”

<pause>

“You know, I never know where these conversations are going to go when they start.”

-“Neither do I.”

“Really?”

-“Yes. They’re something we create together.”

“I like that.”

-“I’m glad.”

<pause>

“So what do I do about the dreams?”

-“What do you think?”

“Well, they didn’t die – then I could bury them or burn them. They just…left.”

-“Do you think they’re coming back?”

“I want to a lot of the time. But I think that’s clinging to something that’s gone, and even if they did come back, they wouldn’t quite be the same.”

-“That makes sense. Nothing that’s alive ever stays the same.”

“I don’t know what to do with the space they left.”

-“What do you want to do with it?”

“Not lose it.”

-“Why not?”

“Because…it’s part of the shape of who I am now, and I like who I am now.”

-“I like who you are now, too.”

“That’s good to hear. I don’t want to lose that.”

-“So you feel stuck between new dreams and losing who you are?”

“Maybe?…

There aren’t really any new dreams taking root. I have plenty of wishes flying around, but new dreams – not so much.”

-“And the wishes?”

“Most of them are connected with the dreams that are gone. Some of them still mean something on their own, and that’s good, but they aren’t the sorts of things that turn into dreams.”

-“Ah. I see.”

“What? What do you see?”

-“I see you.”

“You do?”

-“I do.”

<pause>

“Maybe that’s enough for the moment. I don’t know….

Can that be enough for the moment?”

-“It’s why I’m here. If you make your bed in hell…”

“You’re here.”

-“Yes.”

Lent and Creating Kindness

Lent and Creating Kindness

Over the past couple of years or so I’ve been wondering about kindness a lot. I started being accused of it pretty consistently (which is my way of wrestling with hearing that people see it in me). It caught me off guard at first, and then as it became a pattern, got me to wondering.

If you’d ask me to describe myself, no matter how flattering I was tempted to be, it would’ve never occurred to me to use the word “kind.” It wouldn’t have occurred to me to use the word “unkind” either, but kindness had never stood out to me as something I was notably good at. So I wondered, what is it they’re seeing?

It seems connected to caring, and empathy. And I’ve thought that maybe kindness is one of the ways we understand love when it shows up in action. Love is abstract, and kindness is concrete.

So, “Love is patient, love is kind. Love does not envy, does not boast, and is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (1 Corinthians 13: 4-7)

It’s what love looks like on the ground.

And if people experience kindness from me? Or any of those other things? I’m deeply glad, because I know how very much I fall short of them every day. But I’m still puzzled, because while my background would understand these traits as a kind of automatic “fruit” of God’s presence in my life, I’ve come to doubt it’s ever that straightforward.

If there is kindness in me, how did it get there?

I’m beginning to suspect it gets into us through grief. More particularly, through grieving.

One thing about Lent that we tend not to notice so much anymore is how deeply it is tied to grieving. Sackcloth and ashes, fasting, the colors of black and gray and purple – all the stuff of grieving. And in the days when families practiced a period of mourning after a death, and widows wore their black “full mourning” and then their gray and purple “half mourning,” the practices of Lent would have readily evoked that mourning of a loss.

In a culture today that does so much to wall grief away and avoid it (rather than literally wearing it on our sleeves), Lent would pull us into grief. All of us. Together. Entering into grief with each other.

It’s not just about moving deeper into ourselves in our own personal grief, but remembering our grief and letting it move us towards each other, allowing another’s grief and loss to enter us, to connect to our own, and to connect us to each other.

That has the power to change us, and to plant kindness in us.

There’s a poem by Naomi Shihad Nye called Kindness. Part of it reads:

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

Whatever kindness there is in me, I can’t tell you how it grew to be there. But I’m pretty sure it was planted by loss and watered with tears. That it grows in the grieving Lent has taught me over the past fifteen years since I started exploring it.

Some years, Lent gives me the space to explore and express griefs I was already struggling with. Other years, it redirects my attention, away from whatever has my life buzzing along, towards grief and loss. I don’t usually like that – I’ve never come easily to sorrow. But over time I’ve learned that until I‘m willing to sit with it, grief will eat away at my life and turn into something that has very little of love or empathy or kindness in it.

There are particular moments when someone showed kindness to me that I remember as far back as my childhood. They are not the sorts of things that those who offered them would ever remember – a few words, a gesture of with-ness in an awkward moment. And those people had no idea of the griefs I was living with at the time. But their kindness was a gift of healing to me, and I remember.

I don’t think I will ever accept grief gracefully, but I hope I can let it grow a space of kindness in me.

Lent and the Journey of Grief to Joy

Lent and the Journey of Grief to Joy

I don’t like grief. I don’t. I really don’t.

A month after my third birthday, my father died after an extended illness (he had ALS). He died at home, in his sleep beside my mother. I remember that morning. The neighbor who was a nurse. The paramedics taking his body. My Sunday School teacher from church who came and read to me, holding me on her lap in the rocking chair in my room while my mother took care of things. I wasn’t interested in what she was reading, or in sitting on her lap for that matter, but I felt the grief rolling off of her and her need to be doing these things, so I let her.

Two weeks later, my step-grandfather worried his way into a heart attack at my grandmother’s kitchen table and died. The house filled with the family, stunned to see a mother and daughter each widowed within two weeks. And then, maybe a month later, my great-grandfather died as well.

As I learned the news and the house began to fill with mourning family once again, I ask my mother to let me go stay with my Sunday School teacher, where I knew I could avoid the fog of grief in the air with her family. She called my teacher, and off I went.

At three, I’d already learned I needed to take care of myself in these times, and others as well, as their grief on my behalf flooded over me.

I learned that life is loss, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

And much as I hate grieving, I eventually learned that there’s no room for joy or love without it.

Grief is not an enemy to joy. Grief gives place to the reality of pain and loss and disappointment and heartbreak so that there can be room for joy again.

I try to remember that when grief comes, because I still hate it. As much as I know that sidestepping it won’t actually somehow take me around it, I still have to fight myself to go there.

I find myself bracing for grief, because I want to recognize it without actually feeling it.

But that won’t work either. And on my better days I know it. On my better days I can cry. I can find my way into feeling all the pain of letting go of what’s gone. On my better days I know that it won’t feel like this forever, and the possibility of joy is on the other side.

But on other days, there’s too much of who I am in the loss. Too much of myself I don’t want to lose with it. And I don’t know how to just grieve without losing myself in it.

I don’t care what other people think of my grieving any more, whether it’s in sync with their expectations or not. We are terrible at grief in our society. We don’t know what to do with it and it makes us uncomfortable. So we tend to ignore it and just hope people keep it to themselves.

But grief calls out to be acknowledged. When everything has changed for us, it’s a callous world that just goes on about its business and expects the same of us.

Lent helped teach me the needfulness of public grief. In my first year of seminary, a remarkable woman named Marva Dawn came to preach to us for several days. It was during the weeks before Easter, during Lent, and at one point she mentioned that she wore Lenten colors – purples, grays, black – during the forty days of Lent to remind herself of what season she was in.

The idea intrigued me, and I decided to try it. It didn’t take many personal losses for me to begin to recognize how powerful public mourning must have been, the tradition that those grieving would wear black then gray and purple for a season.

It was such a relief to quite literally wear my heart on my sleeve. Even if no one recognized it, my grief was present in the world with me. It could be part of everything I did quite naturally.

I still don’t like grief. I still fight my bracing something fierce. But Lent began to teach me how to make room for it. I’ve begun to learn how to respect it, and sometimes even to embrace it.

And I try to hope there’s joy somewhere on the other side.