There Is No Future

My inability to change frustrates me. Recently, I’ve tried to avoid looking at Twitter or news feeds immediately upon waking. I used to tell myself that there was some good reason for doing so. Maybe I’d awaken to see that some national tragedy had befallen us while I slept; maybe the world was on fire; maybe aliens were at the door and I should get dressed.

But more often, I see what I’ve always seen, which is what you’ve always seen: maddening politics, inane entertainment news, and some sports talk. The sports talk is fine. This morning, predictably, my eyes adjusted in the middle of reading a New York Times article detailing the North Carolina legislature’s newest bullshit. Having lost the governorship to a Democrat after a protracted post-election battle, they decided it’d be swell to strip the governor’s office of several key powers, including the ability to oversee state colleges and their trustee appointments.

If irony wasn’t dead, I’d say how ironic it was that in the midst of this season of Advent, in which we look to the nebulous future, a time-not-yet shaped by our ability to be patient and hopeful and tense and a bit sorrowful about what we cannot see but hope we shall soon see, our societal life is filled with those for whom there is no future.

Immediacy is king in politics. Moves like the one in North Carolina mirror so many other political actions and conversations that they begin to run together. Surely our memory is not so short as to have forgotten the debate over the “nuclear option,” in which Senate Democrats were faced with option to neuter the filibuster so as to fast track certain decisions with a simple majority. A primary element of that argument was that such an action might be appealing now, but could (and most certainly would) be used by the GOP when it arose to power once more. We should, said some, think of ourselves as the future minority party and consider what powers we’d want in that situation. Such caution only kept Senate Dems from amending some filibuster rules, not all (though the changes that did pass will almost certainly come back to haunt them now).

Still, that kind of cautious thinking requires an acknowledgment of the future, which we collectively appear to have set on fire.

While conservatives tend to make the headlines for this kind of news, liberals are far from blameless, lest you think shortsightedness prefers red or blue. Resting assured that you have someone's support because you've historically had it—even though you've done little to nothing to see that support as an agreement from a human who has real human struggles and needs real human things from you—is as warped as anything I can think of. Couple that inflated ego with a decade-long unwillingness to stop the erosion of your influence and effectiveness on a local level despite believing in your moral superiority, and you've got a medically-diagnosable lack of imagination.

But imagination requires an acknowledgment of the future, which we threw out the window after we set it on fire.

Flaming acknowledgments aside, our current political reality couldn’t be much more opposed to our religious season if it tried. If Christians are to be people of hope, we must be those who consider a future, for hope is predicated on the to-be-but-not-yet. That’s future talk. Advent is a time of hope set against sorrow, a time when we feel both and seek resolution and reconciliation in the coming of Christ. Christ is born into our brokenness; that’s what Emmanuel, “God with us,” is all about. Not “God watching over us,” or “God up ahead from us,” but with us in all our present maladies.

One of those maladies is clearly our political climate, which isn’t some separate realm from our daily life. Politics is a complicated way to frame the simple idea that people live together and have to figure that out. Throwing out the notion of a future, then, becomes a disastrous way to handle our togetherness. For those of us passionate about our planet and the health of its natural environment, this inability to couple current tension with the possibility of future resolution (good or bad) has been our long-running source of high blood pressure. “How can you not look toward the not-yet and see the potential? The flourishing or the reckoning?” we cry.

But politics work in much the same way currently. Folks who feel no good future awaits them begin to see the lack of potential as no future at all; their decisions then become those defined by no possibility. And if there’s no possibility, why not burn it all down and see what happens? Why not operate as if today’s victory is ultimate?

It’s hard to be an Advent person right now, with the world seemingly antagonistic to the long view. But our faith is of the not-yet, of the to-be, of the possible but not inevitable. Which makes it all the more important to put our hands to the plow right now. Waiting is not stagnant, after all. Waiting is the sprinter hiked on the starting blocks. True patience is a tense state, one fraught with preparation and more activity than can be seen. Waiting with an eye on the almost-but-not-quite is combative and upending. Let us be ready. Let us be against those with no future in mind. Let us be Advent people.

Advent Lament

It’s been a busy month for the cycle of awful, devastating news. A guy shoots up a Planned Parenthood. A couple shoots up an office party at a center for the disabled. A leading presidential candidate advocates for religious persecution. We have seen lots of hate. Lots of death. Lots of blood. Events happen before, the same day, and after that we don’t even hear about. We’ll see more.

It’s difficult, even as it makes a kind of sense, to see all this in the light of Advent, a season where we are waiting on the bringer of Peace. We wait in a darker world, hoping it gets lighter. Not only do we wait, we are active in our preparation. We have our role to play. But the weight of that role seems heavier when the shit, deep and horrifying, rests itself on our daily lives. How can we anticipate the new when the tragedy we see every day is anything but new? It’s old hat at this point.

Our society is used to seeing people die on the other end of a barrel. We are used to seeing hatred spread across the faces of our neighbors, an entrenched hatred for the other who is also our neighbor. We are caught in between feuds that, more often than not, only one party knows exists. This is the world in which we do Advent.

I am weary. I spend more time than most reading the words of, and interacting with, those who cannot agree with me on the pacifist nature of the Gospel. Over the years, my faith has taken large turns, some lovely, many tragic. It is unrecognizable from what it once was. I’m happy about that for the most part, but not for everything. Still, while much of what I felt I agreed with and understood about Christian life has left me, the commitment to non-violence has remained. Such a pity, then, that I should maintain this tenet in a world obsessed with violence. More the pity that I live in such a callously violent nation, especially one which so arrogantly touts its love of civility and lawfulness.

Things are dark in these Advent days. This is as it should be. The light of Emmanuel, God With Us, is not yet here. Oh, that it would be here. Oh, that people could see the gift that is our ability to lay down our swords for ploughshares. If only it were a world of our readying work, of our actions to bring about Love, Joy, Hope, and ultimately Peace. If only it were a world that kept the lamb close and let the lion roam. If only we remembered to continue the work on December 26th.

Peace. Peace. Peace be with you.

Advent4 & Christmas Day, 2014

We blew right past Advent4 into Christmas. Sorry about that. My 13 month old daughter has been giving us a real fresh reminder at night about what it was like a year ago when she was a newborn. Makes me think about this little guy, Jesus, whose birth we celebrate today.

Go, Jesus! Way to be born.

People take to churches, street corners, and social media to announce the birth. And, irresistibly, we inject the Easter stuff into the manger.[^2] “Christ was born to save,” we crow. That’s all fine.

But then again, Advent4 shows us Mary interpreting her own story. She’s given the news that she will bear a child for God and she busts out in this song. She shows us that her life isn’t solely determined by its utility as the God-bearer.[^3] She places her-self smack in the middle of a cosmic history spanning millennia. And look, I know there’s some salvific language in there, but I don’t know if she’s necessarily making a set in stone determination about who Jesus is going to be and what he’s going to do.

Maybe, ultimately, Jesus doesn’t get to be an end unto himself. His story is bigger than that. But there’s ample evidence throughout the scriptures that Jesus craved the ability to define his own narrative, one not set by empire, religious authority, family, his disciples, and ultimately even God.

Look, I know last week I was talking about how we have to look forward to Good Friday to get a full picture of what Advent and Christmas is about. But on Christmas Day that’s bunk. Whatever soteriology (theory of salvation) works for you or your tradition is all fine and good. But right now he’s just this little baby, you know? Mary and Joseph are too tired to think about the savior of a nation, I can tell you that. Can we put aside our narratives for a moment and dwell there with them?

Happy Jesus, everyone.

Advent3, 2014

This post is late, I know. Advent4 is right around the corner and here I am still on Advent3. Like any good American, I'm too busy to really observe Advent for real. So I write blog posts instead.

Sticking with Isaiah[^1] (as I have in my two previous posts in this series[^2]) brings us to hope, which is appropriate because that's what Advent is. Garland instead of ashes, gladness instead of mourning. These are hoped for in the midst of Advent. And implicit in the Christian liturgical observation is that the child born on Christmas is the garland, the gladness, the mantel of praise. Except right now I can't help but think ahead to Good Friday.

When it was announced that there would be no indictment for the death—ruled a homicide by the New York City Medical Investigator—of Eric Garner at the hands of an NYPD officer, people took to Facebook and Twitter to mourn. Many quoted scripture. Many of them quoted scripture from Good Friday, the day marking Jesus' death on the cross. Advent's hope couldn't bear the burden of suffering. Only the cross could do that.

Hope is a work of love. It takes energy and effort to hope, especially in the midst of suffering. But as we hope for the child to deliver garland, gladness, and praise, we do well to remember that his life was not without ashes, mourning, and perhaps even, at times, faint spirit. We remember this not to increase the burden of suffering in the face of hope, but to take full stock of the world the Child enters.

If we hope only for the bright, nostalgic kitsch of nativity scenes, Santa, and holiday cards, we hope for an empty nothing. We deny the full power of the claim that the divine has entered the world in a barn, as the son of an oppressed people yearning for freedom, who truly realized the weight of the world, and who preached gladness but ultimately experienced pain.

Advent2, 2014

"He's coming, so turn around." That's John the Baptizer's[^1] message. It's interesting to me that John is urging those who come to him to get their shit together before Jesus officially comes on the scene. Like, aren't we supposed to get our lives in line with God because Jesus came and taught and loved the world and died and rose again? Not according to John here in Advent.

The gospel writers put the words of Isaiah in the mouth of the Baptizer. John is the one crying out in the wilderness. He says, "Prepare the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight."

His baptism is a baptism of repentance. Using the word repent is tricky because it carries a lot of baggage around with it. You better repent or Jesus'll getcha! It's a Christ-haunted word.[^2] But repent means turn around, or turn away. No big deal. Except when what you're turning away from is your whole culture and everything about it that deals death to God's people.

Last week was all about listening for a God that seems absent, but this week is about moving, turning. Turn away from one thing and turn toward from another. Perhaps God is hard to hear because we're facing away from God.

What are the things we ought to turn away from? Polarized representations of current events? Narratives on all sides of the issues that seek to dominate and bend truth? Blind obedience to our institutions and the people who represent them and act out their power? Power itself?

And we turn toward what? Toward God. Okay, but what does that look like? God is...where? God is with God's people. God is with the disinherited, as Howard Thurman calls them. Get quiet and turn toward them. There is God. And God is speaking.

  • [^1]: I like the flatfooted, literal translation. John who? The Baptizer.
  • [^2]: Flannery O'Connor in the house.

Advent1, 2014

We go immediately from the the secular, civic celebration of Thanksgiving to the deeply quiet divinity of Advent. There is no thanksgiving, nor celebration, and for American Christians God feels far away. I know because in response to the ongoing situation in Ferguson, Missouri I have repeatedly witnessed the following sentiment from Christians on Facebook: “Jesus just isn’t getting through to us.”[^1]

Let’s leave beside the fact that this is a reductive statement that discounts the complexity of American racial issues and the nature of sin. Let’s also leave unanswered for a moment the following questions: what Gospel, which Jesus, what message, whose interpretation?

My immediate response to this sentiment is no kidding, do you think he’s gonna get through to us? I don’t know what magical way people expect Jesus to use to get in touch with us, but it probably ain’t gonna happen in a morally superior Facebook comment. My utterly polarized social media feed, which thrashes me back and forth between emotionally fraught opinions, political stances, and activist outcry, is certainly evidence that hardly anyone is undertaking a quiet inward or outward search for Christ.

But it’s appropriate that God feel distant at Advent. The Old Testament lectionary text for Advent1 is Isaiah 64:1-9. The divine felt distant for Isaiah too. He implores God to tear open the heavens and come down, to make the presence of the divine known when it so often is hidden. He also knew, as we do, that the winds of current events and public sentiment pull us away from the divine attitude and that those who call on the name of God are few.

Not a big surprise at this time and in this place that Jesus isn’t getting through to us. For that we’d have to listen. But to whom? Well, it's Advent and we're looking forward to the incarnation of God. So we better do this listening incarnation style. If we listen, really get low and listen to our fleshy, frustrating neighbors who make errors[^2], who suffer, who hunger, who thirst, who reside in prison,[^3] who rage, who burn, who pray on the street, and who mourn the loss of their sons—if we listen to them we might hear Jesus whispering to us from his lowly birth in the manger.

Or go ahead and turn up the volume on the Christmas tunes. Maybe Jesus is kickin' it there.

  • [^1]: Actually, this is a direct quote.
  • [^2]: Read, “sin”
  • [^3]: Matthew 25: 34-40

Quiet Please, Christ Child Sleeping

Christmas celebrations are often full of sound. It would be good for us to make room for silence, to hear the voice of Love. – Pope Francis, via Twitter

The pope has a point on this one. When I read this quote a few days ago, I immediately started thinking about the sounds of the season, about how much we let Christmas and the holidays in general be dominated by sound. It makes sense really; so many, especially those of us raised in Christian tradition, are moved by the carols, spoken prayers, and scripture we’ve come to associate only with this one special time of year. So what I’m about to say isn’t that any of this is bad. Sound is fine; actually, it’s an amazing part of being a human with functioning hearing. But it isn’t what’s holy about Christmas, at least not to me.

I realize that there’s a lot of stuff, like, biblical stuff, that someone could point to and say, “That part of the coming of Christ is all about sound, and it seems pretty holy to me.” And I’m not going to argue with you. There are angels who scare a bunch of shepherds with what must have been an astounding, though nonsensical, announcement. There’s the annunciation that kicked it all off. There’s even a squalling baby who’s pretty integral to the plot. But for me, there are two critical pieces to the coming of Christ – Christ coming in the first place, and how we react to that arrival. The distinction is important, because I see that first part as the one which contains all the elements of sound, of language and praise and pronouncement. But the second part, where we are confronted with holiness incarnate and must experience it in relationship, is a silent moment draped in awe and the fullness of being.

It isn’t quiet where I’m writing this; it’s a bustling coffee shop, the week after Christmas, people rejoining to recount their holiday trips, stopping in before continuing to shop and spend gift cards, employees falling back into the groove after an all-too-short break. But I’ve made an effort to find my peace, my joy in Christmas, in the quiet spaces. And for those of us who celebrate the mystery that is Emmanuel, God with us, we are still in the season. Epiphany approaches, and in it we have maybe the strongest example of the contemplative act that is seeking to rest in the presence of the Christ. The wise men seek the Christ, not to speak to a newborn or sing to wake him, but to stand in awe in the full yet silent light of God.

The path of the wise men toward their star isn’t one which requires language, hosannas, or even explanation. It is an intentional walk to meet the face of God, to look into the mysterious Love that is a child born to bring grace. Their walk to the manger is a prayer all its own, and we can mimic the act and its meaning. We can seek the Christ in our own silent meditation, in a walking prayer, in the contemplative moments silence affords. I think it’s what Thomas Merton meant when he prayed, “My God, I pray better to You by breathing. I pray better to You by walking than talking.” The holiness of Christmas is standing silently beside a baby, marveling at the love and creativity wrapped up in its being, and knowing all is well. Merry Epiphany.