I Was Me but Now He’s Gone

These are lyrics from Metallica’s Fade to Black, a 1984 rock ballad about James Hetfield’s struggle with suicidal inclinations (Hetfield was the singer and lyric guitarist of the band).  I have these lyrics and I have a three-day late post because last week a friend of mine killed himself, and Reader, that really fucks up your schedule.

This is not my first loved one to die.  It isn’t even my first suicide.  But that doesn’t matter; if you’ve lost someone by any means, you know that this never gets easier.  Each new death is a suckerpunch, a chalk outline of that person in your life.  I have no real problem with death, but suicides are hard.  Suicides carry not only grief and sorrow but anger, doubt, guilt, frustration—that whole cocktail of “what did we miss” and “how dare he” and the sheer suddenness of it.  It’s a mess, a stupid, painful mess.

I suppose the one good thing about suicides is that no one tries to comfort you with the usual empty platitudes like “it was his time” or “God needed him” or whatnot.  Hint, from someone who has worked as a pastor and a hospital chaplain:  that sort of nonsense is unhelpful.  I get that we who are not part of the grieving circle want very much to help our grieving friends, and I get that grief makes everybody uncomfortable because we humans so desperately want to fix hurt even if that’s not really the best thing to do, but don’t do that.  God doesn’t yank folks out of the realm of the living because some hourglass ran out of sand or because He needed someone with the specific skill set to hang a new wall rug or something.  Even if either of these were true, they are awful to say to someone who is in grief because it downplays that grief, makes it seem selfish to feel that loss.  I mean, there’s a reason our English language calls it “loss”—it’s not because we’ve misplaced someone but because there is that hole in our lives that is no longer filled, that sense of missing a piece of ourselves.  I have lost my friend.

He lost himself.

And it’s funny, in a sad sort of way, that I’m at a divinity school and I reached out to several of my friends here and back home in the Land of Pilgrims, and it took about five conversations with people before anyone was willing to go theological with me about this.  Thankfully my friend Prudence gave me space to say hey, I’m absolutely on board with what The United Methodist Church says about how suicides aren’t automatically damned but my friend was of no faith before that, what does that look like?  How do I mourn someone who turned his back on not just the Church but the God Who started it?  How do I square the many, many conversations he and I had because my friend was tickled pink to have a religious leader like me around to ask questions of when he found the courage to do so?

Telling me that it isn’t my place to judge where people go after death and that God is much bigger than my imagination misses the point completely, so please don’t do that.  What Prudence understood was that I am an exclusivist in my theology, which means that I do believe in a Heaven and a Hell and I do believe that dying isn’t an automatic ticket to Heaven, although I also don’t believe in the laundry list that’s usually trotted out of reasons people go to Hell and I also don’t believe that Hell is a fiery mess of torture or that it’s even limited to the time after death.  I think we can create Hell just fine right here while we’re alive, and I think my friend may have been in it for suicide to seem like a good plan.  But I don’t know, and I never will, and that’s as much grief and pain in itself, and Prudence let me work through that without trying to answer it for me or let me get to a place where it felt answered.  That was good.

But my friend is still dead.

grief-straight-line-and-jumbled-circleAnd will remain dead, and in my estimation will die a hundred thousand more times over the coming years when I reach moments where we usually did something together and he isn’t there, or when I think to text him something funny and remember he won’t answer, or when I want to invite him to things and know he can’t come.  Mr. Honest suggested I think of moments like this as ways to say hello to the memory and the spirit of my friend, to invite him in.  Mr. Honest is far more compassionate and optimistic than I am.

Amidst this is the fact that I went to a birthday party this weekend, and a cookout for a friend who’s about to be married, and last week before this news I went to a wedding, and it is good to have a plethora of friends who are living to help me constructively grieve this one who is not.  Because the grief comes in waves, and is not a linear process that tapers at one end.  Now he’s gone.  I am a different me.

 

 

The Lord is near to the brokenhearted
And saves those who are crushed in spirit.
Many are the afflictions of the righteous,

But the Lord delivers him out of them all.
He keeps all his bones,
Not one of them is broken.  (Psalm 34:18-20, NASB)

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Seventy Times Seven

I truly did not mean for my absence to be a full three weeks, Reader; I’m trying to stay to the every-other-week model, but oh, the shit that has derailed me of late.

I’m back in the Wicket Gate, having yet again said good-bye to the Land of Pilgrims and marveled that my heart did not fall out of my chest.  And classes have started up again.  But the main thing that’s consuming my days is the fallout of having had a subletter this summer who not only was careless herself but left the door open—literally—to any and all who decided to wander in, which in my  neighborhood means rather a lot of drug addicts, prostitutes, and thieves.  So the last two weeks have been cleaning (as in I’ve-gone-through-three-rolls-of-Clorox-bleach-wipes and I-had-to-buy-gloves-for-this deep cleaning) and trying to figure out what can be fixed.  It’s been convincing myself that I can live with the burn marks now on my nightstand even after I dumped the drawers full of cigarette butts.  It’s been washing the walls and ceilings over and over again trying to get the smell of smoke to at least be palatable and not give me such a headache.

pain-blue-man-bent-overAnd it’s been grieving at the daily discoveries of what is lost.  There’re the concrete panics, like the fact that someone unearthed my social security card and now I have to deal with the possibilities of identity theft, but there are also the suckerpunches of what I can’t replace.  I can get a new pillow and new spoons and new towels, but I can’t get a new rosary blessed by the Pope from Italy from my parents’ visit to the Vatican.  I can’t get a new high school class ring.  I can’t get new notes from last year’s sermons at my church.  It’s not every camel and the death of all my children, but it is a deep and abiding loss.

I have been fortunate—immensely fortunate, more than I can express—to have a community here in my fellow students spring into action.  People have given me time, have given me a mattress, have given me access to their washers so I can launder the clothes that remain.  People have given me so much and that has been amazing.  But it doesn’t replace that which is lost, and it doesn’t cover the pain of it.

Some folks have, in a sincere and likely well-intentioned desire to help, asked if I’m angry.  No—I am furious.  I am horrified, I am enraged, I am wrathful.  I want to punch things until I can’t feel my hands, I want to scream, I want to harm her for the harm done to me.  The sorrow and hatred and pain and sheer outrage are coiled just beneath the surface of everything I do right now, and it is taking everything I have to avoid touching that surface lest the bubble break, lest I be overwhelmed by the immense power of those emotions and lose myself in them.

Because what would it gain me?  She is gone I know not where.  I don’t have the money to chase her through the legal system, though I have filed a police report and am certainly not shy about telling authorities anything I know of her information.  And I don’t have the time—I work two jobs and am taking five classes as well as holding two offices in student associations on top of the slow and painful reclamation of this space.  Vengeance just doesn’t fit on my schedule.

And vengeance it would be.  I know enough of this woman to know she has even less than I do in finance, support, sanity.  What good is blood from a stone?  And I’ve been wrestling most in the last week or so with the promise that “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.

One of the many hard things about Christianity is that it demands that its adherents forgive.  This does not mean excuse.  The police report remains.  The crime of this remains.  It is not okay that this happened to me and I cannot believe that God would ever expect me to say it’s not a problem.  The grief of this is very, very real.  The shock of it is real.  The pain of it is real, and no loving God would ask me to pretend that any of that is dismissible as though my reactions don’t matter.  Jesus says flat out, “If your brother or sister in God’s family does something wrong, go and tell them what they did wrong” (Mt 18:15).  Forgiveness, if it is to have any value at all, cannot come at the expense of my emotional validity.

But it must come.

Over and over again, Jesus says to His followers that we must return to the relationships that hurt not because we are called to be doormats but because we cannot hold others’ sins close to us in anger and hate.  They will poison us, as surely as our own sins do—and we have our own sins.  have my own sins, to be sure, and I cannot ask God to forgive them if I am utterly unwilling to forgive another’s.  I cannot ask for the mercy I refuse to grant.

I am human—very, very human, and I am angry, and I am hurt, and I will take a very long time to get to anything approaching forgiveness for this betrayal.  But I must recognize that I have to walk that direction precisely because it goes against everything in me, precisely because I am so pissed that God would be cruel enough to ask me to do anything other than put spikes around my broken heart and never trust again.  Four hundred and ninety times I am called to forgive these people who are awful and deserve punishment.

May I eventually have the strength for the very first time.

 

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, when someone won’t stop doing wrong to me, how many times must I forgive them? Seven times?”   Jesus answered, “I tell you, you must forgive them more than seven times. You must continue to forgive them even if they do wrong to you seventy-seven times.”  (Matthew 18:21-22, ERV)

Lent, Week Three: Healed and Broken

I went to see Logan this evening; I love the comic book films, love the characters and worlds and adventures and connections.  And for the longest time I loved the action part of action films—I loved a good fight scene where the hero (rarely a heroine) takes down all the bad guys with fists of fury and a kick-ass rock song.

But this—this film was all anger, sorrow, and pain.  I can’t do this level of gore and rage anymore, can’t absorb the sheer amount of ache that we as a culture have reached.  We are in so much pain, Reader; the sickened edges of our never-healed wounds of racism fester in our bellies, the blood we spill on our streets and everyone else’s leaves us weak and stumbling, our throats are raw from throwing up the vapid and unhealthy bullshit we have tried to convince ourselves is any kind of nourishment.  Our illness colors our news, our music, our pastimes and yes, our movies.

healing-touch-sold_We need healing.

It’s funny; I started writing this while half-listening to a Christian radio station and three songs in a row now have dealt with the concept of healing.  Part of that is the Spirit reading over my shoulder, but more of it is that Christianity has a lot to say about healing and the need for it.  After all, one of the many terms for God is “Healer.”

But from what?  Of what?  Oh no, Christiana, don’t be one of those Christians who equate spiritual sin with emotional and bodily malaise, as though some people deserve to be punished with illness.  No, Reader—my best friend has a disease that is frying his brain a little bit more every day, stripping it of its effectiveness.  My good friend’s wife is fighting a cancer that sits sullenly in her femur, spine, and chest.  I myself am gradually going deaf because my body cannot recognize the way it’s supposed to work in order to hear.  I can’t believe in a god who would cause such prolonged torment to satisfy reparation of sin.  That’s sadism, and I don’t roll with a sadistic God.

There’s something to be said, though, for the gulf between Christianity’s language of healing and the reality of just how broken we are in so many ways.  Do we keep breaking ourselves, outpacing God as we find new ways to inflict pain?  Do we never allow ourselves to fully heal, running pell-mell into the next ill-thought thing before our bodies and souls have had time to re-knit?  Perhaps.  I am most certainly guilty of both of these, especially when it comes to myself.  How I haven’t more seriously injured myself on a number of levels, I don’t know.  But I am certainly not whole.  I am broken.

In the film—which I can’t say that I recommend, although it is incredibly well acted, because it is so incredibly violent; there’s a great breakdown of it through the lens of its relationship to religion here—an underlying theme is that you’re never so broken you can’t be at least on the way to healing.  Everybody gets a chance at redemption, at reclaiming the best part of themselves; some take it, some don’t.  Healing comes from being willing to walk back to what you could have been.

I was recently reading an article for class about John Wesley’s ideas of healing and that he had no problem whatsoever with both medicine and prayer as effective tools of healing.  He also never blamed sick people for getting sick.  We live in mortal bodies that are constantly falling apart.  We should definitely take better care of them (preaching to myself) but we can’t stop our own mortality.  We are not Wolverine, able to heal almost instantly, and yelling at sick people about what they should be able to do is both foolish and cruel.  I appreciate that the vast majority of Biblical references to healing have no truck with blaming the broken.  Do they have to do things, like get up or reach out for a hem?  Yes.  Healing requires work on our part.  But do they get shamed into being well?  Nope.  We are all of us broken, so what good would shame do?  How silly is it for one mortal to tell another mortal that their mortality is shameful?

I realize that I’m switching back and forth between a lot of different kinds of healing and brokenness, but that’s a little deliberate (and a little due to my mind being in about fourteen different places right now).  I think it’s all of piece not in that your soul makes you have cancer but that sickness isn’t just a physical thing.  When I am sick—and I’ve been fortunate in never being long-term, all-the-time sick—I definitely notice an impact on my spiritual and emotional self.  And when I’m aware of my broken spirituality, it takes a toll on my physical commitments.

You may choose, good Reader, to push back on any and all of my assertions.  Perhaps, for you, the spirit has nothing to do with the body, or perhaps you’re really uncomfortable with my equating sick and broken because those mean different things to you.  Please, challenge me.  But recognize that in this wilderness of Lent, we are not whole, and we are not healthy.  Even Jesus needed angels at the end to put Him back together from the stress of the environment and the temptations.

I simply want us to consider, as I have been doing in light of the film, where our brokenness is.  Where do we need healing?  What can we do about that, in both the “non-miraculous” medical and the “miraculous” prayer sense?  (Yes, I put those in quotes because I think it’s a false dichotomy.)  And where are we healed that we can celebrate?  Where, in this desert of forty Lenten days, do we already see the bright edges of Easter?

 

 

Jesus and his disciples came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to Jesus and begged him to touch and heal him.  Taking the blind man’s hand, Jesus led him out of the village. After spitting on his eyes and laying his hands on the man, he asked him, “Do you see anything?”  The man looked up and said, “I see people. They look like trees, only they are walking around.”  Then Jesus placed his hands on the man’s eyes again. He looked with his eyes wide open, his sight was restored, and he could see everything clearly.  (Mark 8:22-25, CEB)

Advent, Week Four: Love

When Elizabeth was six months pregnant, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a city in Galilee, to a virgin who was engaged to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David’s house. The virgin’s name was Mary.  When the angel came to her, he said, “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!”  She was confused by these words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.  The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you.  Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus.  He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father.  He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.”

Then Mary said to the angel, “How will this happen since I haven’t had sexual relations with a man?”

The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son.  Look, even in her old age, your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son. This woman who was labeled ‘unable to conceive’ is now six months pregnant.Nothing is impossible for God.”

Then Mary said, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.” Then the angel left her.  (Luke 1:26-38, CEB)

What a loaded word “love” is for women.  “Love” often means affection, or lust, or attraction, or attachment; for “love” to mean something deep, lasting, empowering, and healthy is, unfortunately, somewhat rare in modern culture all over the world.  This last Sunday of Advent takes all of the waiting of the season, all of the stress and anxiety and wonder and weariness, and hands back love.

historyboys8_queensjoyThe language of love is part and parcel of the Christian Church—for love Christ died, for love Christ rose; Christians are commanded to love God, one another, and self.  But love—true love, and not in the Disney sense of “true” love—is hard.  It takes work.  It takes vulnerability.  It takes hope, and peace, and joy, and frustration, and communication, and dedication, and change.  Love may be something into which people fall, but it must be something in which they actively try to remain.  Christian love asks huge things, demands huge things in the name of incredibly huge love from God Herself.

What does the Church demand?  One of the many things that prompted me to do this series addressing women in the Church from the position of a woman in the Church was the shameful and horrifying things said in the last year toward women and the silent allowance of much of the Church in response.  Christianity’s track record with women is not exactly lovely, whether it be the early Church father Tertullian calling women the “gate to hell” in his treatise On the Apparel of Womenor the description of women as “defective and misbegotten” by Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica.  Such destruction is not limited to the long-forgotten ages:  Pat Robertson, a Southern Baptist evangelist, claimed in 1992 that the feminist agenda was not about equality but “it is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.”  And just this past election cycle in America, many churches and church leaders stayed silent when the man who is now the president-elect called women bimbos, accused them of being at fault for their husbands’ infidelities, rated women’s value as people on their weight and physical appearance, and actively bragged about sexual assault.  (The Telegraph has pulled together a long timeline of his misogyny and predatorial nature, in case you’re curious about how far it goes.)

There is no love whatsoever in any Church leader or layperson not standing against this systemic dehumanization of women.  There is no excuse for such language or actions to ever be condoned by those who call themselves Christians.  This Advent, the Church must be a bearer of such incredible and deep love for women simply because they are God’s creations that there should be no doubt as to women’s worth.  Many, however, refuse to take on this direct an action, insisting there are other ways the Church shows love and support.

Love must be said.  It is most often shown in works, true, but to voice love for another has a power all its own.  To make the claim of love in front of “God and everybody,” as the saying goes, is to be vulnerable—and the Church is currently not being vulnerable.  Instead, women are told to bear their own vulnerability by the elusiveness of Christians who will not stand up and declare the awareness that women are purposefully and beautifully created, meant from the beginning to be part of humanity’s story in all its twists and turns.

Today’s passage, known in liturgy as the Annunciation, is one of the more famous stories of Christianity.  Much of the focus is on the virgin birth and its impossibility made possible—yet verse 38 is perhaps the most powerful.  It was only after Mary agreed to this child that Gabriel left.  He waited for her consent.  In arguably the most pivotal moment of God’s interaction with humans, the free will of a woman was more important than God’s plans.  The faith and acceptance of Mary made Christianity as it is possible.

Was there a plan B had she said no?  Likely.  But the Church needs to take away from this story this Advent—and women, also, need to hear—that God Herself valued the voice of this woman enough to wait for her answer.  That is love, that recognition that force or absence of choice would have ruined the whole of the religion as far as hope or joy or peace or a feeling of safety or belonging for half of the human population goes.  That listening is something that we of the Church must do, now more than ever, whether it be recognizing as Alice Churnock writes that Christians are also sinners and there are stories of abuse we must be willing to hear because faith must be a place of healing; or whether it be refusing to talk over women who speak of pain within the Church as though their experience is unreal simply because not everyone shares it.

Know that you are loved, Reader.  Know that who you are, no matter your gender, is celebrated by God because you live as Her creation.  For you God made God’s self vulnerable enough to risk rejection; for love God was born; for love God lives.  Hold fast to that, in this and every season.

Advent, Week Two: Peace

Comfort, comfort my people!
    says your God.
Speak compassionately to Jerusalem,
        and proclaim to her that her compulsory service has ended,
    that her penalty has been paid,
    that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins!

A voice is crying out:
“Clear the Lord’s way in the desert!
    Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God!
Every valley will be raised up,
    and every mountain and hill will be flattened.
    Uneven ground will become level,
    and rough terrain a valley plain.
The Lord’s glory will appear,
    and all humanity will see it together;
    the Lord’s mouth has commanded it.”

A voice was saying:
    “Call out!”
And another said,
    “What should I call out?”
All flesh is grass;
    all its loyalty is like the flowers of the field.
The grass dries up
    and the flower withers
    when the Lord’s breath blows on it.
    Surely the people are grass.
The grass dries up;
    the flower withers,
    but our God’s word will exist forever.

Go up on a high mountain,
    messenger Zion!
Raise your voice and shout,
    messenger Jerusalem!
Raise it; don’t be afraid;
    say to the cities of Judah,
    “Here is your God!”
Here is the Lord God,
    coming with strength,
    with a triumphant arm,
    bringing his reward with him
    and his payment before him.
Like a shepherd, God will tend the flock;
    he will gather lambs in his arms
    and lift them onto his lap.
    He will gently guide the nursing ewes.  (Isaiah 40:1-11, CEB) 

No justice, no peace!” we have heard many times this year.  “Peace” has come to mean “silence,” “acceptance,” “docility.”  “Peace” has come to mean not the absence of strife but the ignorance of it, the half-closed eyes that cannot or will not see it. The women of the Church do not want that kind of peace.

“Peace” is that which is often “passed” in church services, a synonym for greeting the others seeking peace in that hour.  Yet how often do we bring peace into a service, no matter our gender, in the heartache of a broken world?  How often do we have it to give?  If we are not at peace, if we are not still within our souls, how shall we pass anything but turmoil to our neighbors?  Shall we simply sit silent while greetings flow around us?  For women, the silence is both no option and the only option.  “Peace” is what many say as a way of saying, “stop talking.”  The chafing bonds of Paul’s injunctions spoken in a different time of specific context close women’s mouths in many denominations and they are told to be at peace, to have faith in this God-blessed structure.  “Peace” has become shorthand for a false tranquility that many women are told to feel so as not to be overly emotional, so as not to be disruptive, so as not to overturn the idea that women are somehow inherently gentler, more peaceful.

The Church must stop conflating peace with submission.  The Church, here in the expectant waiting of Advent with breaths caught in hope of all that the coming birth might do, must comfort its people, must “speak compassionately to Jerusalem” and to every city, to every nation, to every woman that “her compulsory service is ended.”  The Church must recognize that all are invited to see the glory of God, that there is neither male nor female in Christ, that the vision of the heavens is to see the valleys and the downtrodden raised up.

Peace is not silence.  Peace is not acquiescence.  Peace is not the status quo remaining unexamined or unchanged.  Peace is the active inclusion of the full body of Christ, peace is the ability to live without fear, peace is the solid truth that equity is part of God’s vision for God’s creation.  Eden was at peace when woman was included and valued; the false hierarchy of the Fall has no place in God’s heaven.  Peace comes when voices are raised to challenge the culture in which the Church exists, taking on the songs of the season like “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” because people of faith will not be complicit in the denigration of women’s choices.  Peace comes when male leaders, both lay and ordained, empower women within their congregations to speak God’s word as pastors, liturgists, teachers, and board members. Peace comes when we challenge the sacred texts speaking of sin and “she” in one sentence; peace comes when we teach and learn that women are not inherently more sinful than men no matter how many times female pronouns are attached to wicked cities or abstract ideas.  Peace is something that we make happen; it does not come on its own but requires our midwifery as the people of God actively birthing peace.

Peace cannot be a command from another who does not acknowledge the anger, the sorrow, the pain, the distance held within; peace must be a choice to be calm in our very souls because we actively decide to rest.  Peace comes as shalom, a wholeness of our very selves.  To the women of the Church, to the women of the world who wait in strife this second week of Advent says “peace” not as a directive but as a gift as yet undelivered.  “Peace,” it offers, knowing that peace has not come just yet, that action is still required though weary hearts are worn by the howling winds of all that is not peaceful.

May you find peace because you have chosen, in the full power of your own agency and value, to receive it as the gift of a God fully aware of all that is not at peace yet.  May peace, like hope, be your armor and strength.

Advent, Week One: Hope

Happy Advent, Reader!  This is a balm for me this year, to return to this time of waiting and being present in the hope of Christ’s birth.  It is important to me to observe it not only in my offline life but also here with you.  However, I bend to the reality of being in seminary; so, instead of my usual habit of observing Advent on this blog through the lens of various Christmas carols, I’m using this space to share a project assigned to me in my Women and Religion class—a challenge to engage the question of women’s religion and to create something that represents the fruits of that engagement.  I’ve written an Advent devotional corresponding to the four weeks and then Christmas Day (which is on a Sunday this year, which makes me terrifically happy) and I will be posting that through this season.  It is, I admit, a departure from my usual style because I am writing it for a specific course; I welcome, as ever, your commentary on it.  Please know that I mean this for both men and women, so don’t feel as though I’m leaving you out, Reader.  No matter your gender, you will encounter women and religion—and the Spirit will be with you in each encounter, delighting in the diversity of Her creation.

Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep.  For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.  The night is far gone; the day is at hand.  So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.  Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy.  But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.  
(Romans 13:11-14, ESV)

It is the first week of Advent, the beginning of the Church’s year and a time of waiting for the celebration of Christ’s birth into the world.

Women know something about waiting.

Women through history have waited for recognition, have waited for equality, have waited for respect, have waited for a sense of safety, have waited for not only culture but the Church to see the gifts and talents they have to offer.  In this season of Advent where new political realities have already come to the United States and all over the world, many women feel their waiting for all of this has been prolonged yet again.  They feel that the slouch toward Bethlehem suddenly got longer—or was halted in the middle of the road entirely.  This first week of Advent brings the word “hope,” lighting the first candle to show us that the darkness is never complete.  But what hope does God’s Church offer to women, the often voiceless participants at the very heart of the institution?  What hope does God offer when it seems that we are waiting for liberation that will never come?

Hope comes in that single candle flame.  Hope comes in knowing that the fight is not over, that this is a new year and a new beginning, that neither we nor God are done with the vision of a world that recognizes, respects, and encourages both men and women.  Hope comes as Church leaders like Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne call for the traditional guard of evangelicalism to step aside and create space for women, for people of color, for the new generations, for all who are not currently being heard.  Their recent editorial in the New York Times, The Evangelicalism of Old White Men Is Dead, asserts that “we are not willing to let our faith be the collateral damage of evangelicalism” by excluding the voices God has called to speak.

Hope comes in devotionals like Fuck This Shit that refuse to be quiet or “lady-like” about the outrageous grace of God permeating a world that seems darker than ever before.  Hope comes in the ongoing conversation of gender and racial justice sparked by #StayWokeAdvent, a tag originally created in 2014 as a response to the outrage after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.  Hope comes in the call to everyday action through this season to change the world one person at a time, laid out in calendars like this:

Perhaps, for the women of the Church battered by the destructive force of a patriarchal system built into our religion and now reinforced in our representatives, hope comes from disengaging.  Hope comes from finding the people who respond to you as the purposeful creation you are.  Hope comes from privileging time with them over those who do not honor your value.  Hope comes from refusing to continue walking in the fear created by those who see only flesh and object; hope comes from waking into the fervent belief that God outlasts all governments.  In this season of Advent we wait, but it is not passive.  We wait in the active belief that God has come and the grounded hope that God will return.  Our year hinges on a spectacular birth made possible by a woman and her willingness to bear the impossible to birth the incredible.  We wait fully awakened, shaking the sleep from our eyes and the lethargy from our limbs to stand and say we have hope in the God Who made us, in the promise that righteousness will reign.

Bishop Bruce Ough, president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, wrote into the tension of waiting in just such a time as this:

Friends in Christ, this is not an invitation to naiveté. People’s lives, livelihoods, security and well-being are at stake….We must stand against the meanness and hatred that is upon us. We must stand for what is best in us as People of God….We must stand against bigotry, hate and discrimination in all forms and settings. We must proclaim from our pulpits the Good News that overcomes hatred and fear. We must be quick to confess our own sin and places of complicity and vigilant against all that diminishes the worth of any individual….So, I urge all who follow the Christ to remember who we are in this time. We are the People of God called to proclaim the mighty acts of Christ who calls us out of darkness into his marvelous light. We are the People of God called to create the Beloved Community of Christ. We are People of God commanded to love as Jesus loved. We are People of God created to be the kingdom of God envisioned in the Advent prophecy and fulfilled by Jesus. This is our vision, our hope, our prayer, our opportunity, our commitment.

May our hope layer itself as the armor of the light as we step into this expectation, this waiting, this Advent.

 

A Come to Jesus Moment

I’ve been quite purposefully staying away from this blog for a minute, Reader, while I calmed down about the recent American elections.  I realized it wouldn’t do anyone any good for me to get on here and swear a blue streak, although I must admit that’s what I wanted to do.  I’m mad at conservatives who decided supposed economic security was worth selling the safety of various groups; I’m mad at liberals who can’t seem to hear their own narrow-mindedness while yelling at others for theirs; I’m super, super mad at the fools who didn’t vote at all.  And on top of that I’m utterly heartbroken and ashamed that my country is so broken that a misogynistic asshat is going to be the president.

Right, so as you can see I didn’t get all of my angry out.  And I don’t actually plan to; I think I need angry right now, not in the sense of the “rah burn shit down” kind of rage but in the “power music to change the world” kind of focus.  Righteous anger—that’s right, righteous, with all the forceful overtones that carries—is something that we need to redefine and reclaim.  I agree with the idea that this is the best thing to happen for the Church because it is so easy to align ourselves with the ideals of this world and that ain’t it.  The Kingdom of God is brought with a sword, not in the Crusader sense of hacking people apart but in the sense of refusing to stand by and allow injustice simply so we don’t have to inconvenience ourselves.

We Christians are called to take up our cross and follow Jesus.  By Jesus.  And that verse has been used so often and we have gotten so used to the cross that we think of it—that I think of it—as oh, man, I have to be nice to people at Thanksgiving.

No.  Christianity is not about nice.  Crosses are not about nice.  When Jesus was crucified, it was the most shameful and exposed form of death the Roman Empire could find for those it deemed counter-cultural and dangerous.  It was a slow death in which people’s own body weight killed them as they bled out, naked in front of whoever decided to come watch.  It was a statement that robbed the dying of anything even resembling dignity and made sure they had plenty of time to mull over the fact that the Empire had won.

Let me be clear—I am not advocating that people overthrow the Trump government any more than Jesus suggested His people overthrow Rome.  (His refusal to do so, in point of fact, was part of what endangered Him.)  Nor am I saying that people should just shoulder whatever comes as their own cross, their own burden.  I’m saying that we are called for just such a time as this every bit as much as Esther to risk ourselves for the safety and well-being of others.  If literally all that you can do is wear a safety pin and be prepared for whatever comes with that, that is your cross; bear it.  But do not build the cross of wearing the pin and then walk away when people call you on it, refusing to carry the burden of its realities.

Beyond that, get involved.  Research the things your friends say, whether you agree with them or not; do not blindly agree because something fuels your anger or hurt or fear.  Keep an eye on what is going on in your state legislature, your town councils, the federal congress.  Call offices, take surveys, send emails.  Make your voice heard by the people who can effect change on the topics that most concern you.  I don’t mean that you should make of yourself a 24-hour governmental watchdog (exhausted people are unhelpful to themselves and their movements, so know your own limits), but I do mean that your reaction—and mine—to the new administration must run deeper than Facebook comments and blog posts.

Remind yourself that there is an outside world.  Yes, there is much to be said about the election fallout, but Flint, Michigan still doesn’t have drinkable water.  East Tennessee is currently on fire.  Syria is still being torn to shreds by war, part of which is the fault of us, of America.  Brazil is still grappling with economic insecurity as its government shifts unsteadily.  Great Britain is still figuring out how to deal with the fallout of Brexit.  Boco Haram is still wreaking havoc in Nigeria.  America is not the only nation with problems, nor is the election America’s only problem.  Remember that we, as Christ’s hands and feet, are needed in more than just Washington, D.C.

And start praying right now, Reader, as to what is important to you about what America is.  A lot of promises were made on the campaign trail that shake down the dignity of the very citizens the American government is supposed to protect.  So fight for what you believe, speak out for that which is important to you, but know yourself:  are we willing to stand for those who cannot?  Are we willing to speak for the voiceless?  Are we willing to bear the crosses of seeking justice and extending mercy?  I have to pray my own prayers of reflection.  Am I willing to carry the cross of feeding the hungry, loving the leper, eating with tax collectors, healing the sick?  Am I willing to challenge legislation and to speak against communication that endangers or dismisses those who are female, who are LGBT, who are of color, who are refugees, who are immigrants, who are poor, who are survivors of sexual assault, who are human?  I don’t have to agree or support; I have to protect.  My safety cannot be more important than another’s.

You alone can’t fix the world, so please don’t try to engage every injustice and burn yourself out totally.  But do see the places around you where Christ beckons, come, pick up your cross.

May His yoke be easy.

Because this won’t be.

 

 

Thus says the Lord:

“For three transgressions of Israel,
    and for four, I will not revoke the punishment;
because they sell the righteous for silver,
    and the needy for a pair of shoes—
they that trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
    and turn aside the way of the afflicted[.]”  (Amos 2:6-7b, RSV)