Monday, November 30, 2009

Preparing the Path to Advent

This weekend as I went Advent shopping for the church, I found myself once again confronted with the reality of the Christmas explosion. As I searched for purple Advent candles from store to store to store, I could feel my body tensing up with my usual Grinch-like disdain at the overly optimistic, sappy sentimentality of Christmas consumerism. The cloyingly jolly carols piped in even to the restrooms, the brightly colored baubles obscuring my line of sight, the hoards of eager after-Thanksgiving shoppers, the tacky, neon blow-up Nativity scenes, the shelves filled to brimming with cheesy Christmas tchotskies…all brought my blood to boil.

Why in the world cannot I not find a single purple candle in the sea of gold glitter, candy cane stripped, elf shaped, ornament ensconced candles stacked row upon row in the Christmas Tree Shop? Doesn’t the world know it is Advent, not Christmas? Hasn’t anyone read the lectionary for this week? There are no cute babies sleeping, no reindeer prancing, no Santa’s singing, no cookies baking!

You’ve read the lesson for today. You get it, right? In perhaps no other year of our lectionary cycle is the distinction between our secular Christmas expectation and our faithful Advent anticipation more vivid. Luke pulls no punches when describing the eschatological hope of the advent of the kin-dom. Far from the sentimental carols piped into to every grocery store, mall and post office is the stark vision of the end times we read in Luke.

'There will be signs in the sun and moon and stars; on earth nations in agony, bewildered by the clamour of the ocean and its waves; people dying of fear as they await what menaces the world, for the powers of heaven will be shaken.”

This is no baby Jesus meek and mild kind of holiday. This is serious people! This is about the end times, the apocalyptic vision of the days that are surely coming, says Jeremiah, when the Promised One will come…that Branch from David who will execute justice and righteousness, bringing salvation and safety to Israel and establishing a new order in which peace has priority and God’s dream is fulfilled. This is a 2012 epic-end-of-times saga that will not be pretty…agony, bewilderment, clamour, death…the very foundations of the world will be shaken.

A jarring contrast to the holiday madness of the world around us, no?

Our Advent lectionary helps point us toward the completion of God’s dream for the world, reorienting our gaze from the immediate gratification of overindulgent Christmas celebrations to the day in which peace and justice will come to be fully realized. These texts we read, both from Jeremiah and from Luke, arise out of a people who have long been beaten and battered by the world around, tossed to and fro between the world powers of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon and Rome. The eschatological and apocalyptic hope of which we read is rooted in the reality of a historically oppressed and marginalized people.

Both Jeremiah and Luke are speaking to communities who know their fair share of sorrow.
Jeremiah is writing during a time of prolonged exile and desperation. Kate Huey reminds us that

“this wasn't just a disaster in terms of the highest levels of government, when God's own people had been carried off to exile or were suffering its long-term effects. This was an everyday, lived experience of the ordinary person who felt their suffering as a judgment by God.”

It is to this situation of sorrow, grief and loss that Jeremiah proclaims the fulfillment of God’s promise.

Likewise, Luke writing just 15 years after the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem, addresses a community steeped in hopelessness and despair. His depiction of the fall of the temple is not prophetic prediction, but past history.

Both of these communities longed for something more, yearned for a day in which the promise they had heard repeated from generation to generation would be fulfilled…an end to oppression and injustice, an end to colonization and occupation, an end to poverty, marginalization and powerlessness, an end to sorrow, loss and grief.

We, too, can relate to these desires of a community long beleaguered by the powers and principalities of the world around them. Can’t we? We watch with horror at the injustices and sorrow in the world around us…the ravages of a war in Afghanistan and Iraq, the struggle of millions living with HIV AIDS, the suffering of those without clean water, nutritious food, or adequate shelter, the inequalities between those who have much and those who have so little, the brutal sting of prejudice and discrimination, the search for meaningful work and a just living wage, the grief of loved ones lost and promises broken. We, too, long for the promised coming of the kin-dom both in our world in and in our lives.

So in the midst of such significant eschatological and existential questions, it is understandable that we might get a more than a little annoyed at what seems like the nearsighted vision of a Christmas come in a Good Friday world. Why can’t the world get it right? This is not about some sentimental holly jolly season, but about the cold, hard reality of pain and suffering and our longing to relieve it. We know. We get it. Why can’t the rest of the world?

And yet, cruising the aisles of the Christmas Tree Shop, I found my eyes wandering to the piles of potential gifts for family and friends and began to feel my heart quicken and eyes glisten as I thought about the small joys some might feel at the gift of a plush blanket or wind-up toy. And then I began to get anxious about all I had to and wanted to do for Christmas…the cookies, the gift baskets, the holiday cards. ..not so much a nervous anxious, but an excited anticipation. I was actually looking forward to Christmas celebrations! In spite of my own best efforts to maintain my Scrooge like contempt at the Christmas frivolity, I found myself longing for a bit of the joy of the season.

Regardless of my own theological predisposition toward the kin-dom of peace and justice…I had to confront the idea that this is actually not a bad or even inappropriate thing to desire. You see the desire was not so much for the trappings of Christmas, but for that underlying yearning for moments, snatches, glimpses of hope in the midst of a chaotic, overly busy, rough and tumble world in which sorrow, grief and loss mark so many of the most of the days.

Advent is not an either/or endeavor. As we have been talking about these past few weeks in regard to the life of faith, Advent is a both/and event. It is both a time of expectant waiting for the fulfillment of God’s dream, and also the very present reality of that dream breaking forth in joyous celebration in the here and now.

The text from Luke helps us understand this both/and reality of Advent. Luke borrows from Mark this account of the end times, but adds something that alters the readers’ perspective.

“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap . . . Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength.”

Luke’s addition to the Markan account points us toward the attitude or disposition with which we are called to face these times. Luke is concerned not just about our final destination, but also about how we get there. Both/And.

We live, according to Luke, between the two great poles of God's intervention in the world: the coming of Christ into the world as a tiny babe and the fulfillment of the kin-dom issuing forth peace and justice forever more.

Advent is this path between times…between the already and not yet, not only of Christmas, but of our lives. It is a liminal space in which we are called to prepare ourselves and the world for something more.

We know this in between space intimately, don’t we? Much of our own lives are lived in liminality. Kathryn Schifferdecker reminds us:

“There is a point, or a period of time, that we spend in between one time or place, and another time and place. In that in-between time, we have to live with things being not so clear or comfortable, not familiar and comfortable and yet not being what they will be one day. This "in-between time," though fraught with tension, is nevertheless also characterized by hope.”
It is in this in-between time that Luke calls us to pay attention. Be on guard! Wake up! Be Alert! For the path itself is a place of Divine revelation. It is the time not just of longing for what could be, but also for the celebration of what already is…the glimpses of God we see in our everyday lives…the joy, hope, peace and love we know in and through the world in which we live. While we long for the completion of the promise, for the fulfillment of our joy, we must take comfort in the moments and measures of grace which we see in our everyday lives…for those moments constitute the hope we need to carry on.

As liminal space, the Advent path must attend to both the destination and the journey itself. We are called to lift up our heads and keep our eyes on the prize that is to come… the days that are surely coming when a shoot will arise from the root of Jesse, the time in which the fig tree will come to fruition and the fulfillment of promise of God’s dream. But, we are also called to pay attention to the quotidian hope embedded in our everyday lives.

When we are able to simultaneously be present to the destination and the journey, we find ourselves strengthened for the road ahead. It is only in and through the hope of everyday joy that we find the strength to continue our collective journey toward God’s dream of peace and justice.…whether that be in the singing of a cherished hymn, the embrace of a friend, or even a tacky elf shaped candle for a family member.

These glimpses of hope in the midst of our wilderness lives are like that small, thin, fragile thread that we follow late at night through the dark forest journeys learning to grope and grasp our way through unchartered territory by trusting in the thin wire of hope that leads us through. Or perhaps, these glimpses of hope may even be said to be like breadcrumbs scattered along our path to lead us home once again. Nourishing and sustaining, yet never fully satisfying. We savor them and continue on yearning for more. That is the hope we get in Advent….already, and not yet all at once.

As we begin our Advent journey today, we heed the warning of Luke to be alert, keep awake, for the irruption of the kin-dom is imminent all along our pilgrim journey. It comes in glimpses and snatches, moments of grace and hope that lead us on. So, while no this does not mean we will start singing Christmas carols in worship (sorry), it does mean we will not simply wait for the fulfillment of God’s promise, but rather forge ahead following that thin, fragile wire of hope, gobbling up the breadcrumbs as they come, as we wind our way toward God’s dream in which we are overcome by the floodwaters of grace and hope, our very beings inundated by the presence of the Spirit.

Be alert! The kin-dom is coming here and now! So celebrate and be glad, for God’s hope is bursting forth in our midst!


Last Sunday was known as “Christ the King Sunday” or in more progressive denominations, “Reign of Christ Sunday;” a Sunday in our liturgical calendar at CWM that always draws moans and groans of justified discontent with the patriarchal, hierarchical, oppressive vestiges of our Christian tradition. Just reading the text for today, an uneasiness pervaded the congregation. King? Really?

And well we should be uneasy about such a seemingly triumphal and easy proclamations of power.

How do we reconcile our faith commitments of mutual love and abiding justice with a tradition that at times can be oppressive in its perpetuation of patriarchal structures of power? What does it mean for us at CWM to celebrate Christ the King Sunday? Is it possible for us to participate in this liturgical rite at all? Or must we simply reject it as incompatible with the Christian tradition we know? Can kingship and the kin-dom exist together in the same faith tradition?

These are critical questions for us to face as a community of faith. While it is easy to dismiss what we perceive as the traditional celebrations of Christ the King Sunday, it is more difficult at times for us to face the inadequacies of familiar progressive interpretations….interpretations which I have preached more than once.

You know them, you have heard them in this very space…sermons that temper the triumphalism of a Kingly Christ by focusing on the paradox of a servant leader. Sermons that focus on the way in which Jesus’ kingship turned the expectations of the world upside down. Sermons that interpret the Reign of Christ as a counter-cultural commonwealth that subverts dominant notions of power and institutes in its place a reign marked by justice, peace, love, and freedom. Sermons that invite parishioners to re-imagine Christ’s reign as God’s commonwealth, God’s kin-dom, God’s vision of peace and justice that we hear reflected in the prophets’ cries throughout the ages. A kinder, gentler reign of sorts.

These are the familiar answers that I, myself, have given over the years to somehow assimilate the Christian Tradition (capital T) with the Christian traditioning done in my own communities of faith. Yet somehow, this year, these all too familiar answers, as true as I still believe them to be, were not satisfying. There was something lacking still.

While I still believe these sermons to express a fundamental truth about our faith, an overemphasis on them does two things: first, it glosses over the importance of understanding and re-interpreting reign as a real re-ordering of priorities and second, it focuses our gaze on the outward, socio-political realities of the world, often times to the exclusion of the inward, transformation of our beings.

As much as we understand the limitations of reign as a patriarchal, hierarchical political state in which which some are allotted agency and independence, while most are kept subjugated as impotent and dependent, there is something significant about re-appropriating the word reign in our own faith lives. Jesus was clear. “My kingdom is not from this world.” Not “of this world,” the text says, but “from this world,” meaning that the notion of kingdom or reign cannot be known in and through our human creations of nation, state and power. It must be re-interpreted through a Christological lens.

Rather than ignore or negate this notion of reign, we are called to re-claim it in a new way. Reign implies a re-ordering of priorities, of norms, of commitments, of rules. A re-ordering in which mutuality has priority over patriarchal domination; in which peace has priority over violence and war; in which love wins out over hatred and fear. The word reign gives us a clearer sense of this radical re-prioritization of the norms and commitments of the world. Everything is not equal in this system. Some values and commitments are given priority over others, and in this sense, there is a hierarchy of commitments.

The difference in this hierarchy is the way in which power is exercised. Rather than a top down imposition of wills, of God demanding obedience to the reign of peace and justice, power in this reign is exercised from below, moving up, in and through and among the world. It is not a power over, but a power with and through. This makes the hierarchy of norms function in a radically different way. God’s reign bubbles up in and through the world as the world opens itself to a new, re-ordering of norms, commitments and values. It happens whenever people witness to the power of love in the face of hate, peace in the face of conflict and life in the face of death. It happens not as imposition from a Divine tyrant, but as rather as a response to Divine Love and possibility.

When we re-imagine reign in this way, we reinterpret the use of power from power over to power with. This we can understand in terms of a socio-political re-ordering of the world in accord with God’s vision of peace and justice. Yet, in our haste to counter the privatized and oft times oppressive spirituality that interprets this Sunday as a pietistic surrender to God’s patriarchal will, we tend to overemphasize this political reading of the text.

The Reign of Christ is not an either/or endeavor. It can never be simply a political re-ordering of the world or a private pietistic surrender to the will of God. It is always simultaneously both/and. The truth lies somewhere in between, doesn’t it?

What would it look like for us to consider God’s reign in our own lives? To open ourselves to a re-ordering of our priorities? To loosen control and invite the Divine to wreck holy chaos with our lives?

This is where I think the re-conceptualization of reign as power with and among is helpful. When we talk about allowing God to reign in our lives, we are not talking about a simple, surrender to God’s will, a throwing up of our anxieties to the Godhead, an uncritical plea for Jesus to take the wheel (which I never thought was a good idea to begin with…).

No, when we understand reign as a power working in and through us, we begin to see God’s reign in our lives more as a habitus than a command.

Today I want to invite us to re-conceptualize God’s reign as a habitus.

Habitus is a Latin word used most commonly to refer to a habit, a pattern of behavior that happens automatically. Good, bad, indifferent, these patterns of behavior are seemingly unconscious. Nail biting, smoking, brushing our teeth first thing in the morning, crossing our legs, twiddling our thumbs. They arise spontaneously without thinking.

In theology, however, habitus takes on a deeper meaning in regard to our spiritual formation. A habitus is a way of living and being that connects us to our faith and our God; patterns of behavior that both shape and are shaped by our faith. I remember vividly how my first year theology professor likened theological habitus to his driving from home to school on the Jamaica Way. His body knew intimately all the crooks and turns and narrow passage ways of the road. Every pothole, every light, every lane shift had become integrated into his being so much so that driving to work seemed an almost automatic response. This, he asserted, was the way in which our theologies and faith lives were intended to be…so intimately known and integrated into our very beings that faith emanated from our very being. At once one and the same.

What I want to suggest today is for us to begin to think about God’s reign in our own lives as the cultivation of a divine habitus, as a way of allowing God to shape and form our lives in real and concrete ways from within, from below…moving in and through our lives. The Reign of Christ is not just for the powers and principalities, it is intended to re-order and re-shape our own lives.
Here at CWM we have our own set of faith habits, don’t we?

“I greet you with grace and peace…”
“Here at CWM, all are welcome…”
“Look around…”

Our theological habits at CWM, are more than just catch phrases, they serve to radically shape and form our faith lives. Think about the way in which these habits…or habitus’ inform the way in which we think about our faith, the world, each other, ourselves. What we do impacts what we believe in a very tangible, real, concrete way.

Living into the reign of God in this way is reflected in our langauge and actions, but goes much deeper. I confess that all too often I live in my head, preferring to live out my faith through intricate theological arguments and abstract statements of belief. (As evidenced by this very sermon!!) I confess I still have much more work to do in allowing the reign of God to pervade the whole of my being. Allowing God to reign in my life, to cultivate a habitus of kin-dom living is much easier preached about than lived. As much as I strive to live out these gospel ideas and commitments in my life, I know that there still exists within me a resistance to surrendering control, to a complete re-prioritization of my own norms or priorities. There is something wild and chaotic about allowing the Divine to move and breathe through you. I talk a good game, but really, truly, authentically allowing God to re-order my life…well, that’s another thing.

One cannot think their way into living out God’s reign as a habitus. No, rather than think your way into God’s reign, we must be our way in. That is, we must practice living into God’s vision of peace and justice…in the world and in our lives, by living it out. By practicing it. My professor did not one day decide to master the driving of the Jamaica Way, but rather the knowledge and mastery, the habitus of driving came in and through the practice of it. That’s why, we come here to CWM. To practice living in the reign of God. To be our way into a holy habitus that transforms our lives, that opens us to new possibilities, that allows God to live and move and breathe in and through our very beings.

What would it mean for us to live into the habitus of God’s reign? How would our lives be transformed if we invited God to guide our own priorities and norms? What would it be like to allow that power from within to arise in our own lives and emerge in and through us? What if we allowed the Christ to reign in our hearts and our lives? Would we be transformed? Would the world change?

I think it just might.

Today when we celebrate the Reign of Christ, we are inviting the Divine to transform our lives by bubbling up in and through our very beings, transforming us through holy habitus, so that we might not only become for the world glimpses in the here and now of the Commonwealth to come, but also open ourselves to the power of the Mystery that is in and through and among and beyond us all.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Virtually Advent

This week begins our prelude to Advent. While the stores have already decked the halls and begun the annual onslaught of post-Halloween Christmas music, we in the Church are slowing down our pace to settle into the Advent season...that time of watching and waiting, of longing and expectation.

In preparation for our season of Advent, we at CWM, are beginning a virtual Advent reflection here on this blog in preparation for this new season of worship.

We invite you to join us in crafting our Advent season together by reflecting on the following questions here in the comment section of this blog.
  • What hymns and readings do you most want to experience during the Advent season?
  • As you read the lectionary readings (Advent 1, Advent 2, Advent 3, Advent 4), what images strike you? What themes emerge? What visions come to you?
  • How do you imagine our worship space for the next four weeks?
  • What does Advent mean to you?