Monday, December 22, 2014

Impossible Advent -- the impossibility of blogging

This is part of a series called "An Impossible Advent." It was inspired by this quote from the book Preaching After God by Phil Snider: "For what is religion if not a love for the advent of the impossible?" If that intrigues you, feel free to check out the previous posts.

I have been entirely delinquent in my commitment to blogging during Advent, and honestly I'm not feeling particularly bad about it.

As it turns out, finals week followed by a week of traveling, visiting with family, and getting to see the beautiful farm where Leigh and I will get married in September, hasn't left me with much time for tapping away at a computer, and I am quite content with this fact.

Maybe this will read as a somewhat thin justification, but nevertheless I think there is some truth in it: it seems to me that one of the main lessons of Advent, and all of the metaphors that tend to associate themselves with this season, is that the effort and striving and production of humans is not, in an ultimate sense, the main event. This is a season in which we talk about waiting, about birth, about the dawning of the sun after a long night. All things that, while they might require our alertness, or our care, or our intention, are not really about us, but rather about important things happening in us or through us or around us.

So I'm deciding not to be too concerned that I haven't produced much content here over the past week and a half or so. Advent isn't really about my content, anyway. Not about what I write or make or do. Certainly not about what I blog.

Advent isn't about our flurry of activity and frenzied preparation for five church services on one night (which I am blessedly spared by working with a campus ministry).

Advent isn't about me, or about us.

Which is good news, indeed.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Impossible Advent -- "Tomorrow's Child" by Rubem Alves

This is part of a series called "An Impossible Advent." It was inspired by this quote from the book Preaching After God by Phil Snider: "For what is religion if not a love for the advent of the impossible?" If that intrigues you, feel free to check out the previous posts.

Finals week means not much energy for blogging, but I did want to share this beautiful poem that I stumbled across while madly skimming a book for a final paper:

"Tomorrow's Child" by Rubem Alves

What is hope?
It is a presentiment that imagination
is more real and reality less real than it looks.
It is a hunch that the overwhelming brutality
of facts that oppress and repress us
is not the last word.
It is a suspicion that reality is more complex
than realism wants us to believe
That the frontiers of the possible are not
determined by the limits of the actual;
and that in a miraculous and unexpected way
life is preparing the creative events
which will open the way to freedom and resurrection –
but the two, suffering and hope
must live from each other.
Suffering without hope produces resentment and despair,
But, hope without suffering creates illusions, naivete,
and drunkenness
Let us plant dates
even though we who plant them will never eat them.
We must live by the love of what we will never see.
This is the secret discipline.
It is a refusal to let our creative act
be dissolved away by our need for immediate sense experience
and it is a struggled commitment to the future of our grandchildren.
Such disciplined love is what has given prophets, revolutionaries and saints,
the courage to die for the future they envisaged.
They make their own bodies the seed of their highest hope.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Impossible Advent: Remembering to breathe in the world of "I Can't Breathe"

This is part of a series called "An Impossible Advent." It was inspired by this quote from the book Preaching After God by Phil Snider: "For what is religion if not a love for the advent of the impossible?" If that intrigues you, feel free to check out the previous posts

Over the past week, I've been telling a lot of people to take deep breaths.

I double-dip stress around finals time. I work with college students, and I'm a seminary student myself, so there's a lot of anxiety happening for most of the people I spend time with on a day-to-day basis. Not to mention that for church folks, Advent--which was supposed to be a season of preparation and contemplation--has turned into a season of over-programming. All of us students sort of need to take care of each other around this time of the year.

The advice rings differently in my own ears this year, though. "Take deep breaths," I say. "You can do this."

"I can't breathe," a voice echoes in my head.

"I can't breathe."

Eric Garner said it 11 times.

I tell people to breathe. To take deep breaths. And I wonder if for millions of people in this country, including friends of mine, colleagues, professors, pastors, those words sound like a sick joke. How do you breathe when the system is designed to choke you? How do you breathe in a world of "I can't breathe"?

My position is one of privilege. And so I write this, not as condescending advice to the righteously angry, but as a reminder to myself: that holding my breath does not help Eric Garner get his back. That holding my breath won't amplify a single voice.

I've got to remember to breathe.

I used to think that I could force my voice out, that if I buckled down and tried harder I'd be a better person, a better activist, a better Christian. I forced that voice out, and before I knew it I was trying so hard that I was gasping for air, holding my breath to try to make it through.

Even in the world of "I can't breathe," I've got to remember to breathe.

Leigh recently posted this article called "The Activist as Contemplative: Resting for Social Change." What with all its talk of burnout and campus ministers, I have a sneaking suspicion it might've been a bit of But it's a powerful reminder, and well worth the read: prayer and rest are not the opposites of action. They are essential to it. They are the fertile ground out of which it grows.

It seems like an odd contradiction, perhaps even like an excuse. But then again, there's an intuitive link between the inner stillness and the outer activity, the deep breath and the loud protest. There's an oft-quoted scripture verse, from Psalm 46, that is often offered as a comfort to people in times of stress: "Be still, and know that I am God." It's a reminder to still the racing of thought and heart and to relax back into the presence of God. But look at the previous verse, and you'll see this: "Come, behold the works of the LORD; see what desolations God has brought on the earth. God makes wars cease to the end of the earth; God breaks the bow and shatters the spear; God burns the shields with fire." Only then, after all the desolation and the breaking and the shattering, does the psalmist declare, "Be still!" There's an exclamation point. A more recent translation says, "That's enough!"

"Take a deep breath" sounds like lame advice. But it's a bit of a gentler way of saying, "That's enough!" "That's enough of the interior monologue of anxiety and insecurity, enough of the feelings of inadequacy! That's enough of the self-hatred! That's enough injustice"

"Be still." "That's enough!"
"Take a deep breath." "Let him breathe!"

Probably the only thing I'm worse at than being an activist is being a contemplative. But in this season, I am remembering: we have to breathe.

For the sake of a world where "I can't breathe" becomes unimaginable:

We have to breathe.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Impossible Advent -- 5,900 miles

This is part of a series called "An Impossible Advent." It was inspired by this quote from the book Preaching After God by Phil Snider: "For what is religion if not a love for the advent of the impossible?" If that intrigues you, feel free to check out the previous posts.

In September 2007, I arrived in Jerusalem to begin three years of service with Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church. I worked with the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, learning about the struggle of Palestinian Christians for unity and justice in the face of division and oppression.

During my time in Palestine/Israel, I saw houses bulldozed because the families living in them were Palestinian. I saw Palestinian families dragged from their homes, evicted by the Israeli military police to make room for Israeli settler extremists. I saw grandmothers pushed down by soldiers at checkpoints; saw unarmed children arrested, beaten, and intimidated; saw live ammunition fired into a crowd by Israeli soldiers; saw the evidence of blatant and systemic violence with no accountability for the perpetrators. One Palestinian friend was jailed for months with no trial. His crime? Organizing nonviolence in the West Bank.

I came back to the U.S. angry, angry and determined to work for justice, to change the ways in which the U.S. supports this awful situation with money and bullets and guns. Determined to change the ways that our institutions, including our churches, make money by investing in companies that help make this oppressive situation possible.

It's about 5,900 miles from here to Jerusalem. And for the past few months, ever since I saw photos like this ...

... not from the West Bank but from Missouri, the thought that has been rolling around in my head has been:

"Why the hell did I travel 5,900 miles when I could have just hopped in a car for a day?"

Palestinians were even tweeting protesters in Ferguson -- where, as it turned out, the police response was modeled after Israeli military policy -- to give them tips about dealing with tear gas.

5,900 miles away. 

And now, another black man killed by the police...and another...and another.  

5,900 miles.

I'm so grateful for my experiences in Jerusalem and surrounds. I learned so much, not only about the situation and the work of Sabeel and its allies, but about myself, about structures of power, about building community. 

But then, 5,900 miles later, and here are the images of militarization.  Here is the disproportionate violence with no accountability. Here are the immoral investments in racist infrastructure.

As usual, much more articulate people than me are writing about this. Rev. Amy Butler, my preaching professor and now the senior pastor at the Riverside Church in New York, traveled to Ferguson to learn from the protesters and wrote about her experiences -- even as protests in her new home of New York erupted over the Eric Garner (non)verdict -- here. My seminary colleague and friend, AhnnaLise Stevens-Jennings, wrote about her own experiences as an African-American woman engaged in conversations about race here. At American University, students organized a protest and faculty and staff stood in solidarity with them. And the most powerful theological response I saw yesterday was from Rev. Jeff Hood:
"I keep thinking about Eric Garner saying, 'I can’t breathe.'
It made me think -- that’s what Jesus is saying in this culture. Jesus is fundamentally connected to the marginalized and right now Jesus is saying, 'I can’t breathe.'
I think the church should be saying the same thing -- that we can’t breathe in this culture and we have to change this culture in order for us to have breath and exist in this society."
So I won't repeat things here that are being said, more eloquently and powerfully, by others.

What I will say is this:

We are in the season of Advent. And for many in the church--and I would include myself in this--Advent has a tendency to be a warm and fuzzy time, a time of nostalgia and decorations and hot cocoa.

And yet the stories of Advent are stories of a place 5,900 miles away, in an occupied land groaning under the weight of oppressive political structures, violent policing, and economic injustice.

We sing "O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see the lie;" but last time I was in Bethlehem it was anything but still: fighter jets thundered overhead, practicing for an assault on Gaza.We sing "In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan," distancing ourselves from the actual land from whence our Christian narrative emerged. We sing "O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel;" and I'd challenge you to travel 5,900 miles and witness those who are locked in captivity, often with no trial, right now.

Our first gospel reading in Advent (Mark 13:24-37) tells of Jesus speaking to his disciples while sitting on the Mount of Olives -- where I lived in Jerusalem. The second gospel reading is John baptizing in the river Jordan, calling for repentance, in an area now under complete Israeli military control. John the Baptist appears again in the third gospel reading, being challenged by religious authorities from Jerusalem. And then the fourth reading, an angel visiting Mary--Mary, who far from a wilting maiden, is the voice crying out to a God who "brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly"(Luke 1:52) -- in Nazareth, now a majority-Arab city in the state of Israel whose growth is restricted by racist zoning laws.

This is where Advent happens. This is where gospel happens. This is where we look for Jesus.

And then I glance at my news feed, 5,900 miles away from that place, and there it is, in the U.S., in our cities, and in our neighborhoods.

This is where Advent happens. This is where gospel happens. This is where we look for Jesus.

Jesus who is saying, "I can't breathe."

Ask people where they have seen God in a particular day, and they are likely to tell you that they saw God in a beautiful sunset, or in the kindness of strangers, or in a moment of quiet reflection. And those are all good and true and beautiful places to see God.

But, as impossible as it seems, in Advent we look for God in the midst of the blood and the tears, in a world aching for justice and wholeness.

We are looking for Jesus there. Here.

And if faith is about hoping for the advent of the impossible, this impossible Messiah who comes to "lift up the lowly" and "fill the hungry with good things," to use Mary's words ...

... then maybe folks like me, who sound a lot more like the "proud" and the "powerful" and the "rich" of Mary's song, ought to be a bit less cozy and a bit more uncomfortable about celebrating this season of impossibility.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Impossible Advent -- "INCONCEIVABLE!"

This is [a somewhat questionable post in] part of a series called "An Impossible Advent." It was inspired by this quote from the book Preaching After God by Phil Snider: "For what is religion if not a love for the advent of the impossible?" If that intrigues you, feel free to check out the previous posts!

I got nothing today, so I'm just gonna leave this here:

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Impossible Advent -- On Vision, of the tunnel, 20/20, and prophetic kinds

This is part of a series called "An Impossible Advent." It was inspired by this quote from the book Preaching After God by Phil Snider: "For what is religion if not a love for the advent of the impossible?" If that intrigues you, feel free to check out the first post to see where I'm coming from.

In November, in honor of my 30th birthday, I decided to launch a little fundraising page for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. My goal was to get 30 people to each donate $30.

39 people donated a total of more than $1500, and I am feeling immensely, incredibly, impossibly grateful.

It would be hard to overstate how amazed I am. Just three years ago, my parents were picking me up at the end of a several-month stay at a hospital in Connecticut -- a stay that came at the end of several previous months of bouncing in and out of various psych wards. It was a very, very difficult time. And three years later, here I am, smiling in gratitude as I check the fundraising page that will do a little bit to support other people clawing their way through very, very difficult times.

Diane Ackerman writes of those going through such difficult times: "But suicidal people have tunnel vision--no other choice seems possible. A counselor's job is to put windows and doors in that tunnel."

Looking back, with the 20/20 vision of hindsight, I can see just how right she is. During those 6 months in and out of hospitals, I remember how lonely I felt, how isolated, how convinced I was that nobody would care if I was gone, that in fact being gone would be better for the people that I could vaguely remember loving.

I was blessedly, decisively wrong. I was surrounded, during all that time and the years after, by the best support system that anyone has the right to ask for. Friends, family, and faith communities have lavished me with love and affirmation. I'm the luckiest guy in the world. I just couldn't see it at the time.

At the time, my vision was a tunnel, and I couldn't see any light at the end.

Without making too light a comparison, I wonder what this human capacity for tunnel vision says about how we, as a species, view our world. I wonder how much we are all susceptible to that tunnel of despair, that tunnel that makes it impossible to imagine alternatives, or choices, or a better ending to our story.

I wonder if a hopeful vision of the future--the kind of vision spoken of by the prophet Habakkuk--requires exactly the sort of windows-and-doors imagination that Ackerman refers to in her work with those grappling with suicidal feelings. The cultivation of an imagination of what seems, in our tunnel-vision reality, impossible.

And perhaps some day, when we have lived into this sort of seemingly-impossible vision, we will look back on our tunnel vision days and, with the 20/20 vision of hindsight, wonder aloud to ourselves:

"How could we not see it, way back then?"


The Diane Ackerman quote is from her essay in Paul Rogat Loeb's book, The Impossible Will Take A Little While (New York: Basic, 2004). 

Monday, December 1, 2014

Impossible Advent - "The Impossible Will Take a Little While"

This is part of a series called "An Impossible Advent." It was inspired by this quote from the book Preaching After God by Phil Snider: "For what is religion if not a love for the advent of the impossible?" If that intrigues you, feel free to check out the first post to see where I'm coming from. 

O LORD, how long shall I cry for help
  and you will not listen?
Or cry to you 'Violence!'
  and you will not save?
Why do you make me see wrongdoing
  and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
  strife and contention arise.
So the law becomes slack
  and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous --
  therefore judgment comes forth perverted.
                       -- from the writings of the prophet Habakkuk

I haven't really known what to say about Ferguson.

Or, to be more accurate, I haven't really known what to say that wasn't already being said, in one form or another, sometimes fiercely, sometimes eloquently, often both, by many other people with quicker reaction times and deeper wells of experience than me. (If you're looking for some of those deeper wells, might I suggest the Theology of Ferguson page?)

Posting this quote from Habakkuk on Facebook was about all I could muster last week, but of course a few verses on a Facebook wall does not deep, lasting change make.

I always have this struggle -- this feeling that others are already saying what needs to be said, better than I could. I'm not trying to excuse myself here: walking across campus today and seeing the students gathered in front of the student center in a "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" pose reminded me of how important it is to speak up:

Students at American University chanting "Hands Up, Don't Shoot"
So these verses from Habakkuk keep echoing in my mind, these words of a prophet who seems at the end of words, who exists in what Howard Thurman, in his commentary on the book, calls a "mood of despair." Justice is perverted, and I don't know what to say, and by not saying anything I'm complicit.

God answers Habakkuk's despairing plea; but as I've reflected on elsewhere, it's hard to be content with God's response:

"Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay."

Not much comfort for those who are sick and tired of waiting.

Dr. Thurman is, as usual, helpful: "The reason for this necessity [of waiting] is made obvious....The vision may not come to pass as quickly as is expected. Here we are face to face with the ever-present problem of timing in relation to ends. The acuteness of human need at any moment may cry out for immediate release, immediate action at the point of urgency. Because the help does not come in accordance with our own timetables, we seem driven to conclude that it will not come at all--or if it does, that it will be too late." In contrast, Thurman describes what he calls "the waiting in anticipation": "Such is the waiting of the righteous, so the prophet insists. It is alert, charged with expectation. It is on tiptoe."

For Thurman, waiting has nothing to do with passivity. It is, to paraphrase the words of Jesus from yesterday's lectionary texts, a quality of alertness: alert to the impossible possibilities stirring under the despairing surface. Or, in Twitterspeak: #StayWoke

The author and activist Paul Rogat Loeb, in the introduction to his book The Impossible Will Take A Little While, writes; "History...shows that even seemingly miraculous advances are in fact the result of many people taking small steps together over a long period of time." Loeb is right. The impossible does, indeed, take a little while. So there is, to again quote Thurman, "the quality of relentlessness, ceaselessness and constancy" to the type of waiting that God calls Habakkuk to take on.

I haven't known what to say about Ferguson, as I often don't know what to say when the violent systems that often operate invisibly--at least, invisible to me and to others who are shielded by our privilege--reassert themselves in overt fashion.

But I am reminded by Habakkuk, by Loeb, and by Thurman, that if the impossible does, indeed, take a little while, that it is likely to start with small, seemingly futile steps:

Students standing together and chanting.
The slow work of creating safe spaces.
The steady growth of boundary-breaking empathy.
Owning my own silence.
Writing --
    -- if not a vision --
         -- then something, at least.

References to Howard Thurman are from his exposition of Habakkuk in The Interpreter's Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 1956), 979ff; and from Deep is the Hunger (Richmond, Indiana: Friends United, 2000). Reference to Paul Rogat Loeb from The Impossible Will Take A Little While (New York: Basic, 2004). References to Jesus are from the Gospel of Mark.