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.

Advent: Are You Prepared?

Are you prepared? This week I caught myself saying, “Christmas is coming like a freight train.” Does that feel true for you? Exams to finish? Papers to grade? Food to prepare? Gifts to buy? Family coming to town? Therapy appointments to schedule to deal with the family coming to town? It is a busy season. Are you prepared?

A decade or so ago, I heard one of my theological heroes talk at my alma mater, The University of San Diego. Gustavo Gutierrez, a Friar of the Order of Preachers, is a tiny little Peruvian man. You’ve heard me say this before, but I’ve noticed that many holy people are very short. Mother Teresa was five feet. Desmond Tutu is tiny. Gustavo Gutierrez is short in stature, but he’s a theological giant. He’s the father of Latin American Liberation Theology.

The speech I heard him give was around this time of year, in great Shiley auditorium. He made many fine points about God’s preferential option for the poor, about Scripture’s attention to the least and the lost. But for me the speech culminated when he talked about what he called the defining prayer of our culture. Our defining prayer: “Our Father, who art in heaven, stay there.” Stay there! We’ve got this handled.

I think he was right to say this is the defining prayer of our culture. We live a society that is more technologically advanced, more militarily dominant, more economically resourced than any society ever, in all of earth’s history. It can feel like we have “it” handled.

And it can feel like it is our job to get “it” together at Christmas. It can feel like if we just wait in one more line at Target, if we just get to the gym one more time to work off the holiday pounds, if we can just get the house cleaned before my mother arrives, we will have it together. We will be prepared for Christmas. It can feel like if we just get that one thing done…

But that’s NOT the point of Advent. That’s not the point of this season of preparation. It’s not.

Christmas isn’t about us having the details ironed out. Christmas is the celebration of God’s biggest invasion of our privacy: the coming of Jesus.

God’s work in Jesus, from the very beginning, is an inconvenience to human plans. In the stories of Mary and Joseph hearing from the angels, they are shocked. Mary and Joseph didn’t plan for this. You don’t plan for unexpected pregnancies. They eventually find the blessing in the disruption, but it takes awhile. It’s a long road to Bethlehem. The stories of Advent can feel like a cascading avalanche of dashed hopes, of ruined expectations. We’re not prepared for God’s entrance into our world, into our lives. We never are.

That’s the beauty. God isn’t waiting for you to be ready. God doesn’t need you to have your act together. God is showing up whether or not you have the presents wrapped and the ham out of the oven. God is always already coming to you.

You’re work is deceptively simple. Get quiet. Wait for the Lord. Be still, as the psalms say. “Be still and know that I am God.”

In the midst of all the rush, can you make room for stillness? In the midst of all our cultures preparing, can you quiet yourself down? Can you wait with hope?

Many of you know that I spent my first years as a priest serving with a Spanish language congregation. Advent sermons are a little easier in Spanish. Wait and hope are the same word: “Esperar.” And the word rhymes well with another good word for Advent: “Respirar.” Breathe.

Slow down and breathe. God is coming. Ready or not, God is coming.

So why slow down? Why breathe? Is this just one more thing on my to-do list? Make room to be quiet. Do I need to add that to my calendar too?

Well, yes, and no. As he worked for the liberation of El Salvador’s poor, and interviewer asked Archbishop Oscar Romero how he made time for an hour of prayer every day. They said, “you are so busy. You have so much work to do.” He said, yes, “on the busy days I need two hours.” We’re not all saintly archbishops. Two hours, an hour, that’s a high standard. Maybe start with five minutes. Work your way to twenty. Then give me a call. The point of the story isn’t the amount of time, it is the practice of taking time. Romero realized that to be fully present to his people, to live into God’s calling, he needed quiet time. He needed space to reflect and to listen, to slow down and be with God.

In Advent, it can seem like the stakes are high. Family members have expectations about what is served at dinner. Kids have expectations about what the gifts they will receive. Let it go. That’s not where the stakes really are. Too often in life we let unimportant expectations set us up for emotional drama. We want something specific under the tree, on the table. Let it go. What if we came together this holiday season with no expectations? What would that Christmas gathering look like?

What if we let go of our small expectations, and looked at the real stakes?

Advent is a season of prophets. Isaiah for two weeks has been speaking about wolves lying down with lambs. He puts forth this incredible vision of God’s Holy Mountain as a place of safety, of strength, of health. Jesus tells John the Baptist’s followers to relate to their leader the story of the blind seeing, the dead being raised. The prophets remind us that the stakes are higher than working Christmas lights.

The stakes are high, but we often use the wrong measuring sticks. God’s vision is one of health, of wholeness, of justice for all creation. God’s vision for humanity is not some postcard of snowflakes and a family gathered around a table, with a goose. In God’s vision we’re all vegetarians anyway (check Isaiah last week, the lion was eating grass like on ox). God would have us involved in the building of God’s kingdom.

In John’s Gospel, chapter 10, Jesus says “I came that you might have life, and have it abundantly.” I came that you might have LIFE. He uses the plural “you” which our presiding Bishop from North Carolina translates as “all y’all.” Jesus came, God came into our world, to bring health and wholeness to EVERYONE, to the whole planet.

The central image of Isaiah’s prophecy today is the desert blooming. Now, I know that most of you grew up here in the midwest. This is a place that doesn’t lack for water, which means that we also don’t lack for vegetation. All year round something is growing, something is blooming. Let me tell you, my sinuses know. Missouri is fertile territory. In this state, it is always green somewhere. The desert is different.

Most of the year the desert is dry, brown, quiet. But have you ever been in the desert in the springtime? It’s unbelievable. Stretches of parched sand become fields of flowers seemingly overnight. I remember driving through Joshua Tree California one Spring when I was in college and being stunned silent, overwhelmed by the colors. “The desert shall rejoice” Isaiah tells us. The least expected terrain can show God’s blessing most vibrantly.

There are desert places in our world, countries where people are fleeing violence, where hope is hard to find. There are neighborhoods in this city that are deserts, where healthy food is hard to find and violence comes to easily. There are desert places in our lives, projects set aside, dreams differed, relationships left fallow. Can we be quiet enough to let God show us the blessing that is possible? Can we quiet our own small expectations enough to hear the still small voice of God, presenting us with abundance?

I began by asking, are you prepared? Let me conclude by asking: why are you preparing? What are you preparing for? I think all of us, this preacher included, could use a dose of prophecy. We all need a reminder from time to time that we are not in charge. We need to pray, but we need to let go of the prayer of our culture. We need to let go of the busy, commercial, culturally loaded preparation. Let it go. Advent is a time to realize that we don’t have things together. God does not need us to hang the tinsel. We need to pray: “Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be they name. THY KINGDOM COME.”