Advent: “In Times Like These”

“In times like these.” I’ve found myself reading, writing and preaching that phrase a great deal over the past year. “In times like these.” Since the election last year many of have used these words. We’ve used them to name, without naming, the sorrow, the hurt, the fear we feel at our social and political reality. The world can feel unsteady and unsafe. “In times like these,” how do we practice hope? What does it mean to hope?

The Sunday after the election last year, I offered a poem. The writer, Nayirrah Waheed is a young black queer woman from Muslim heritage. This is a very short poem from her collection *Salt*:

i don’t pay attention to the
world ending.
it has ended for me
many times
and began again in the morning.

It has ended for me many times, and began again in the morning.” I thought of this poem, and this past year, as I read Jesus’ words from the Gospel.

 

Jesus’ words about the end time seem fitting today. Wherever you are on the political spectrum, I suspect this year has been difficult. Friends from both political parties are doubtful about leadership. Our world seems more divided, more hateful, and closer to nuclear war than it has been in a generation. My friends who are therapists and social workers, everyone I know in the mental health field, is barely keeping up with the needs of their clients.

In times like these, what does it mean to hope? How do you practice hope? 

This passage is known as Mark’s little apocalypse. Jesus describes the end of the world. “Lo he comes with clouds descending,” as we’ll sing at the end of our service. This passage is set in a wider warning for Jesus’ disciples. “beware…they will hand you over to councils, and you will be beaten…” Jesus warns of suffering, then he does something fascinating. Jesus quotes Isaiah.

“In those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened.”

Jesus does not invent his own signs. He reaches back into his haftarah, back into the prophets. His people have been through this kind of suffering, this kind of dread before. For us the world has ended many times. Jesus looks to his spiritual ancestors, and he finds a way to hope. So he says to his disciples “Keep awake.” 

As I said to you a few weeks ago when we read Jesus’ story about the Bridesmaids and their lanterns, when he says “keep awake” I don’t think Jesus is talking about sleeplessness. We know enough about that kind of wakefulness. Jesus isn’t telling his disciples not to rest. This isn’t a literal “awake,” but a way of speaking about hope and awareness.

In the week following last year’s election, the New Yorker published a series of responses by famous writers. Junot Diaz, a black Dominican Pulitzer Prize winner wrote a letter to his God-daughter. It was titled: “Under President Trump, Radical Hope is our Best Weapon.” I want to read just a few of his words:

Colonial power, patriarchal power, capitalist power must always and everywhere be battled, because they never, ever quit. We have to keep fighting, because otherwise there will be no future—all will be consumed. Those of us whose ancestors were owned and bred like animals know that future all too well, because it is, in part, our past. And we know that by fighting, against all odds, we who had nothing, not even our real names, transformed the universe. Our ancestors did this with very little, and we who have more must do the same. This is the joyous destiny of our people—to bury the arc of the moral universe so deep in justice that it will never be undone.

Stay awake, Diaz says. These powers must always be battled because they never quit. Stay awake. Keep fighting. Our people have been here before.

We find ourselves again today in Advent.

Advent is a time to practice hope. Hope needs practice, especially if that hope is going to become radical. Today most of us experience Advent as a busy season. We rush around getting ready for Christmas. Most people, when they think of the word Advent immediately think of the word “calendar.” We experience Advent like a ticking countdown.

But in the earlier church Advent was a time for slowing down. We didn’t rush to Christmas. We sat in these stories. This year could this Advent be one of prayer, breathing, and slowing down?

I would argue that this year, more than most, we could use a good Advent. In the calendar of Bible readings we encounter stories and poems from a people in exile. We remember the angst, the frustration and the longing of God’s people across time. The season helps people to hope.

Like Jesus, we also read from the prophet Isaiah this morning. He writes from exile in Babylon. God’s people have been torn from the promised land. They are enslaved, alienated, and far from home. They have left behind the world they have known. In that strange land Isaiah laments that his people fade like a leaf. And the prophet cries to God, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” What an image.

Isaiah’s hope is not pretty. Isaiah’s hope is big. The prophet names a holy longing. Isaiah transforms his suffering into a longing for God, for God’s justice, for God’s city. Isaiah wants to see the powerful overthrown, the people set free. Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down. Isaiah pours his anger into desire. Isaiah longs for god. Longing can be holy. Longing reminds us from where we come. Longing reminds us that we are not at home. Longing is an important form of hope.

The community organizer Ed Chambers says that the work of justice lies in a single recognition.

That recognition is simply knowing that “the world as it is” is not “the world as it should be.” The work of the organizer is to help people hear, and feel, and work in the tension between the “world as it is” and the “world as it should be.” Staying awake, hoping, means recognizing, knowing where we are, naming injustice. And hope means orienting ourselves toward the world as it should be.

Advent bids us forward, ever forward. Advent is a kind of teacher. There’s a reason the Advent season is longer than the Christmas season. We look forward to Christmas, but Christmas is just 12 short days. Advent reminds us that in this world Christians are a people of hope. We aren’t yet satisfied. We have not reached our destination, not fully. Christians are a people with a direction.

Advent is not simply a countdown to Christmas. The stories we read are not just about waiting to remember a cute babe in a manger. Advent is not just about recalling the past. The prophets and stories also point us toward the second coming of Christ. Advent points us to the little apocalypse. We will go through the world ending, again and again. For Christians, these dreadful signs and inevitable, but they are also hopeful signs. This season reminds us that we live in hope of God’s world, God’s kin-dom, God’s reign on earth.

“Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.” God will tear open the heavens and come down.

Every time we gather here in the church, no matter the season, we celebrate a little Advent. Christians are always a people of hope. We come to this table not just to celebrate the past, but to mine our sacred history for the courage to move into our future.

In one of our Eucharistic Prayers, in the Book of Common Prayer, the people ask God to “Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal.” We gather around this table because here Christ offers food for the journey. Here we find strength to live in to our “joyous destiny.” From this table we walk ever forward.

“In times like these” may be shorthand for the frustration and the disappointment we’re feeling collectively. But the good news is that we do not have to stay in that disappointment. We do not have to inhabit our dread and our fear. Our ancestors have been here before, and they brought us this far by faith. Even in the dark a candle burns. We can keep on fighting. We will keep on going until the heavens are torn open and God’s reign has come.

In times like these, I invite you to observe this season of Advent. If this year, if recent days have been difficult, take up Advent’s practice of hope. Take a breath. Read some prophetic words written in exile. Join us for prayer. Join us in song. Join us in hope. Christ is coming. The world as it is won’t last much longer. As Arundhati Roy put it: “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way.” Keep awake. Keep the faith. Keep hoping. She is coming.

Advent: A Practical Guide

Advent is one of the shortest seasons in the church year, a time of hope, preparation, and waiting. Today most of us experience Advent as a busy season. We rush around getting ready for Christmas. But in the ancient church Advent was a time for slowing down. This season, could you take a break from the bustle, the consumerism, the pre-Christmas insanity? Could this season be one of prayer, breathing, and slowing down?

I would argue that this year, more than most, we could use a good Advent. The season helps people to wait. In the calendar of Bible readings we encounter stories and poems from a people in exile. The words of the prophets, even the words of Jesus’ mother Mary in the Magnificat, long for a country and a world where justice reigns and powerful rulers are put down from their thrones. These stories help us to know that God is there with us in our longing for a different reality. This year, I think, we could use reassurance, some camaraderie of hope and longing with the saints.

What follows are a few potential practical ways to engage this short season of waiting and hope.

Try a prayer practice

Many people think of Lent as a time for a new prayer practice, but I would argue Advent can work even better. Lent is a long haul. Advent is less than a month. If you are looking for a suggestion, here are just two:

The Daily Office

The services of morning and evening prayer in the Anglican tradition are a simplification and combination of the early morning services and the later evening services of monastic communities. Such a simplification hopes to bring the rhythm of prayer out of specialized communities of monks and nuns, and into the daily lives of common people. The Daily Offices, can really be seen as a guide to praying our way through Scripture. For a longer explanation of the offices, check out this set of posts, a conversation about the offices with my friend Jason Evans, a recent convert to the Episcopal Church.

You can access the daily office through Mission St. Clare. They pre-load all the readings for you. They even have a great app for IOS and Android.

Contemplative Prayer

All the words of Morning or Evening prayer can seem like a lot in a season of slowing down. So, why not try silence as a gateway to prayer? The Trappist Monk, Thomas Keating, has re-introduced the ancient practice of centering prayer. Centering prayer is deceptively simple. You sit in silence for 20 minutes. When you find yourself engaging a thought process, you use a “sacred word” (a simple word, associated with God, that doesn’t lead to images and further thoughts). The sacred word helps you gently let go of your thoughts. Centering Prayer helps us to rest in God.

At Holy Communion we’ll be practicing Centering Prayer for three weeks in Advent on Wednesday evenings at 6pm. We’ll follow the pprayer with a simple soup supper. If you live near St. Louis, you’re welcome to join us. If you don’t, consider finding a group for practice through Contemplative Outreach. 

Here is Thomas Keating’s two-page guide to Centering Prayer.

Sitting in silence can seem difficult, at least at first. Listen to Amanda Olsted talk about her journey:

Shop with purpose

We can always try to buy less, to live more minimally, but this time of year consumption is unavoidable. There are folks we love who might be hurt if we don’t buy them a gift. So what if we shopped more intentionally? What if we paid attention not to the quantity of gifts, but the quality of life of the people producing the goods, food, and services we purchase this season?

For example: my husband and I are planning to get most of our family members shirts from Bravely, a social enterprise that was conceived by women survivors of sexual exploitation and addiction. Women employed at Bravely are participants in the Magdalene St. Louis residential program—a community where women live and recover together.

You can shop at bravely by clicking here.

Bravely

Eat differently

Advent was traditionally a season of fasting. In our time it can be anything but a fast! Cookies, candy canes, eggnog, and peppermint lattes abound. In the midst of all the temptations, could you choose to engage differently?

A fast is different from a diet. Fasting is not about body image. Fasting is knowing that you could eat something, and choosing to abstain. Fasting helps us remember that this is a season with a direction. We look forward to the Feast of Christmas by making the simple decision to eat less before the feast.

Maybe your fast could involve abstaining from meat, alcohol, or sweets. Or maybe you choose just to have one cookie a day, instead of indulging every time someone shows up with a plate. However you practice fasting, it will help you be intentional about food in a season of over-indulgence, and help you to look forward to the feast to come.

Let Go of Worry

In her book “Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening,” The Episcopal Priest and teacher Cynthia Borgeault points out that Contemplative Prayer helps us to let go. In the prayer, we try and let go of our busy thoughts. We try to let go of the noise that crowds our world. What we do in our prayer practice can also affect how we live our life. How can we let go of worry? How can we turn down the news, the rush, the busy? Are there ways you can practice intentional disengagement? Could you make space for quiet, for waiting, for hope?

Advent is an invitation

This year, perhaps more than most, we could use a little creative spiritual disengagement. By unplugging from the rapid cycle of news, work, and consumption, Advent invites us to encounter this time differently. Advent is a season to acknowledge the “world as it is” is not “the world as it should be.” This season encourages us to rest in the hope that another world is on the way. If we are ready, we might help midwife God’s new creation in the smallest and subtlest ways. To be ready we need to slow down. We need to practice silence, patience, and hope.

The Jesus Movement has a Direction: Out to the Lost, the Least, and Left Out

In 1982 Pope John Paul II became the first Bishop of Rome in over 500 years to set foot on British soil. For five centuries or so the visit would have been unthinkable. At the height of the Reformation the Archbishop of Canterbury was prone to referring to the pope as the “antichrist.” Rome had similar words for the English usurpers.

A few centuries later, on a crisp May morning in 1982, Anglican Archbishop Robert Runcie and the Polish-born pope met outside Canterbury Cathedral, and processed inside for a service of common prayer. There at the site of Becket’s martyrdom together they led the gathered faithful in a renewal of baptismal vows, those promises we are about to make today.

We don’t talk about the Pope much in Episcopal churches. So why bring him up today? The action John Paul II took, on that first papal visit to post-Reformation England, signified a great deal. The Archbishop of Canterbury, titular head of the Anglican Communion, and the Bishop of Rome stood together and recalled their baptismal promises.

Over against all the divisions between these two leaders, divisions of history, nation, culture, language, and the nuances of faith, they stood together. They said, “we acknowledge one baptism.” We all, all Christians, share in one baptism. We aren’t baptized Catholic or Episcopalian. There is one baptism. The movement in which we participate, this Jesus movement, is bigger than any one church, any one communion, any one denomination. Our baptism doesn’t brand us for any human organization or ethnic group.

Pope John Paul II and Archbishop Runcie’s commitment to baptism as a sign of unity was radical because so often in human history we have pretended that we, we were the ones who got to separate sheep from goats. So often we want to make the divisions. We want to count who is in, and who is out. All of us practice this separation. We all form clubs for the purpose of keeping some people out.

Let’s be real for a moment. A number of us just survived another Thanksgiving with family. Even in our own families we pretend we get to decide on sheep and goats. Too often hold on to old grudges. Too often we roll our eyes at the family member who “always has to act this way.” Too often we have already decided that this sibling, or that uncle, is a goat. We like to pretend we get to distinguish.

Baptism reminds us, we don’t get to choose between sheep and goats.

A moment ago I mentioned the “Jesus Movement.” This is the name our Presiding Bishop in The Episcopal Church uses to describe our church. “We are the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement” he likes to say. I find the name fitting for these days. For too long the Church felt static, like a building you visited, or a club you joined. “Movement” gives a different sense of Christianity all together. “Movement” makes us sound dynamic, helps us to understand that following Jesus means getting up off our duffs.

“The Jesus Movement” also reminds us of the ancient church. Before Christians were known as “Christians” they were called simply “the followers of the way.” Our faith is about motion, it has direction. We follow a leader.

In the Gospel today Jesus makes the direction clear, his movement isn’t random. Both the blessed and the condemned in the story are confused. They ask Jesus “When did we visit you, feed you, clothe you? When did we minister to you?” or “When did we fail to see you?” Jesus says, when you did so to the least of these, to my brothers and sisters.

Jesus’ movement is purposeful. Jesus’ movement has a direction. The Jesus movement is headed out, out toward anyone who has been excluded, anyone who has been abandoned, anyone who has been left hungry, anyone who is ill, anyone who is in prison, out to those who have been judged. When a human wall goes up to separate, Jesus’ direction is out past the wall to the excluded. Jesus’ movement is inclusive, breaks down barriers, goes to those who are lost, least, and left out. God is concerned with all of those hungry sheep.

The Jesus movement leads us out beyond our comfort zones.

Sometimes the Jesus movement can be downright inconvenient. Pastors can talk big. We can preach about inclusion until we’re blue in the face. We can write “all are welcome” again and again on our signs, but meaning these words, living Jesus’ movement to the excluded, can be inconvenient.

Just Monday I had a phone call. Holy Communion, since before I got here, has observed St. Louis’ local custom on Mondays. This was new to me moving here from Washington. Mondays the church office is closed. The phones are usually on Do Not Disturb. It used to drive me nuts that nothing is open on Mondays. Now, I love it. I tend to take Fridays off, so Mondays are often my day in the office to get things done when no one else is around. It’s quiet. But this past Monday I was waiting for an important call, so I was picking up the phone. An unlisted number came up on caller ID, so I picked up.

The woman on the other end of the line was a bit confused. She had to stop and start again a few times. Finally I understood, she wanted to ask about details for our laundry love ministry. The caller must have heard frustration in my voice, because she said, “I’m not trying to be rude, I had a stroke and I get confused.” I waited for her while she went to find a pen and paper. I repeated the name and location and time of our Laundry Love ministry over and over. 7200 Balson, Classic Coin Laundry, 3rd Tuesday of the month, 6:30pm. I told her the details. We provide pizza, conversation, soap, and quarters. You do your laundry. Again and again I repeated.

My phone has a little timer on the caller ID screen, so I can see the length of a call. I know we hit the 18 minute mark around the time she was searching for a second pencil. At one point in the call I found myself thinking, “Maybe Laundry Love was a bad idea. This ministry might mean I spend more time talking to people like this, people who are disorganized, and needy, and who take up a lot of my time. I am supposed to be on an important call. Should we re-think this ministry?” Then I heard myself with those thoughts, and I rolled my eyes at myself. Have you ever had a moment like that? Where you see what you’re doing and just think, “oh self…”

“As you do unto the least of these…” Jesus’ movement can be an inconvenience. The Jesus movement will lead you out among those who are a mess, who are disorganized, who are unable to care for themselves. Jesus movement always pushes us out beyond the walls of our clubs, our churches, our safe spaces. Jesus’ movement has a direction.

And today we are initiating Katelyn Elizabeth (Kate) into this movement. We will promise to support her in her life of faith. Her godparents and parents will promise to help her grow into the “full stature of Christ.” Kate, I love you, and you’re doomed. We’re setting her up for an inconvenient and uncomfortable journey, out to the lost, out to the least, out to the people who take up too much time. And we’ll renew our own promises to resist evil and to follow Jesus. Because out with those we would count as goats, that is where Jesus is to be found.

Baptism reminds us that we are caught up in this work together. Before we can make decisions for ourselves, God has chosen to love us. We don’t do anything to merit God’s love. We can’t merit God’s love. God loves all the wrong people. We don’t get to choose who God loves. But we can come along for the ride. God’s love has a direction in which we can participate.

On that crisp May morning in 1982, when the Pope and the Archbishop renewed their own baptismal promises, their prayers mattered. Standing together mattered. Britain was in the midst of a petty little war with Argentina, a Catholic country, over the Falkland Islands. In Northern Ireland, Catholics and Anglicans were actively killing one another. In his homily the Pope talked about the importance of renewing our baptismal vows:

Christ’s promise gives us confidence in the power of this same Holy Spirit to heal the divisions introduced into the Church in the course of the centuries since that first Pentecost day. In this way the renewal of our baptismal vows will become a pledge to do all in our power to co-operate with the grace of the Holy Spirit, who alone can lead us to the day when we will profess the fullness of our faith together.

Baptism is not a mark for insiders. Baptism is bigger than the walls of this church. The Jesus movement is bigger than any one denomination. Without our sisters, brothers, siblings from other walks of life we are not whole. Baptism is incorporation into the least exclusive body in human history. Baptism brings us into a movement, initiates us for following Jesus out beyond our comfort zones, to the lost, the least and the left out. If you take it seriously, baptism will inconvenience the hell out of you.