Tag Archives: Advent

I feel the pressure. I receive your promise.

“I feel the pressure. I receive your promise” is a prayer like Mary’s “magnificat.”

Magnificat is the first word of the Latin translation of Mary’s song, recorded in Luke. Great musicians have been putting it to music for centuries. Try listening to this one by Estonian composer Arvo Part, who manages to evoke Gregorian chant and be postmodern at the same time.

In her prayer, Mary rejoices that she has the privilege of giving birth to the promised Messiah. She praises God’s power, holiness, and mercy.  She looks forward to God transforming the world through her son. She prophecies how the proud will be brought low, and the humble will be lifted up; the hungry will be fed, and the rich will go without.  She exalts God’s faithfulness to His promise to Abraham (see Gen 12:1-3).

Mary’s radical prayer is another reason her life is worthy of our meditation in the middle of the Christmastime anesthesia. Like I was saying the other night at Frankford Ave., Advent is is our discipline season when we remember Mary’s story and also collect our own spiritual histories. Just like her, we feel the pressure and welcome the birth of Jesus into our own lives and our own time. Advent is full of stories about how the Holy Spirit gets into human hearts and into the heart of humanity in Jesus. Somehow, stone-hard places in us, maybe places so hard we didn’t know they were places, are impregnated for the first time or for a surprising umpteenth time, and newness begins to pulse in us. Sometimes, even in spite of ourselves, we end up pregnant with some new life that is pressing to be born.

My home congregation’s pastor, Rachel, wrote to her leaders about some new things popping out in the Sunday meeting two weeks ago. She said, “There was a long-awaited moment of forgiveness and reconciliation between two friends. Someone else joined a Sunday meeting team because they realized that they need to serve in order to make themselves show up every week. Someone else risked some dialogue even though they feel different from “everybody” else, and learned that they actually belong! Someone else gave us all permission and encouragement to village parent because the kids need us all. Someone else risked coming to our meeting for the first time even though they feel burned by religion and are still angry.” Sometimes our rocky center cracks and shafts of light pour through like the sun after a storm. We have moments that become stories about these times we will never forget.

Some of you may hear stories like Rachel listed and feel pressured to have an experience your pastor could put in her little note. You might even be upset that something long-expected is not happening to you right now. Advent may depress you a little. That’s good. Move with that pressure.

I suppose, in this day, I was supposed to say, “No pressure. No problem. It’s all good.” I think some of us still say, “Whatever.” But I’d betray Jesus if I did that! Of course you feel pressured by the story of Mary and stories about the advent of Jesus in the lives of your friends. I think we all feel some kind of resistance to whatever is trying to get out of us and be born. I don’t know this first hand, but I’ve heard many times that pushing a baby out for the first time is especially hard. There is a LOT of resistance. Likewise, blessings are not easily born every time. Of course we feel pressure!

We are into something real here as we remember Mary’s story and our own. They are stories about birthing a child, and birthing a new you, and bringing newness into the world. All those things are hard. Jesus goes through death to give birth to new life! So I will NOT say “No pressure.”   Much the opposite. I say we all need to welcome that pressure like a mother giving birth in Yemen right now, where her children are starving and her husband is out scavenging, and the house is half ruined from bombs, and yet the birth must happen. Even though she must wonder how she could possibly bring a new child into her ruined world, she has the hope that convinced her to carry that child and she has the love to welcome who is being born. Like a Middle Eastern mother giving birth to the hope of the world — that is how Advent keeps showing us how the life we were created to enjoy works.

Mary welcomed the surprising reality that she was a slave to hope in the most elevated sense of the word handmaid.  The other day someone put a job description on the share board. The real estate company was looking for a person who has (quote): “A no job is too small attitude. We want a team player in the office, candidates who have a “that’s not my job” attitude are not welcome.” Mary qualifies. She shows us that the advent of Jesus is all about recognizing a much deeper calling than our usual job description. When Jesus comes to us, things change and we change things. Mary took on the identity of slave (or “handmaid” in the KJV) like a badge of honor, the same way her son would. They turn the powerless word doule (Greek for slave) into the word doula as they aid the birth of new lives in a redeemed creation.

I’ve been practicing Mary’s example by making this my Advent prayer: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” The repetition helps me remember that I, too, can turn slavery into birth. We don’t need to say it in King James English! I’ve made that my breath prayer, but I also say things like:

  • I am your slave. Guide me.
  • I serve you. I am listening for what is next.
  • I have no one to trust but you. I will.
  • I feel the pressure, I receive your promise.
  • Wow! Help! Thanks!

However we say it, the goal is to face our fear of letting it out. We are moving with the pressure, not resisting it.  We let God hear us when we pray and learn to feel heard and known and accepted. We let others hear who we are now so they can keep up with us. We let the world know by how we bring life to birth however we are given to serve.

You’ve been called and gifted too. That pressure we feel usually signifies that something needs to be welcomed into the world. That stranger you fear just might be you becoming your true self. That new little movement cracking your hard heart, even irritating you, is probably the best thing happening in your life right now. Jesus is being born.

Advent: Thank God for the Dayspring!

For me, Advent has a lot of layers (like my December wardrobe!). Maybe the layer I need the most is the personal one: the Advent of Jesus to me, Jesus coming to be incarnate in my little life.

The other day, after I woke up with some threatening congestion, I stumbled downstairs in the dark and finally made it to my chair to pray. I had been feeling what one of my friends called “a recession” for a couple of days –not quite a depression, and I was letting some of my anxieties get the best of me.

In the middle of all that unpleasant stuff, I had such a sweet, little experience of Advent, I thought I’d share it with you, in case you also feel like you are stumbling around in the dark on these darkest days of the year in what feels like a dark time of the world.

I was looking around my room and seized upon a flaw in one of the walls, lamenting that the contractor had done a poor job. Suddenly, it came upon me how wonderful it was to have this warm room in which to pray! It was a strangely instant turnaround. It felt like the Holy Spirit had whipped off the emotional bag that was over my head and showed me the joy that was in the very same room I had been criticizing! Just as suddenly, two Christmas carol lyrics leapt into my mind and I meditated on them for a long time.

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The first song centers on a quote from the John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah, as he was prophesying over his child:

And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways;
To give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins,
Through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us,
To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. — Luke 1:76-79 (KJV)

The Dayspring visited me in the time of my impending seasonal affect disorder and lit up my darkness. My troubled way was guided into peace. So I am writing with this song in mind for me and for you

O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel  [Sweet in Latin!]

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Like the hem of a garment

Another lyric quickly came to my mind, since my thoughts are  usually occupied by lyrics. It is a reference to a prophecy by Malachi, collected in the last book of the Old Testament. The old Christmas hymns come from writers steeped in the King James Bible, which is quite beautiful.

For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the Lord of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch.

But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings; and ye shall go forth, and grow up as calves of the stall.

And ye shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet in the day that I shall do this, saith the Lord of hosts. — Malachi 4:1-3 (KJV)

The Sun of righteousness rose in my room with healing in his wings. Like the hymn writer, Charles Wesley, I’m talking about Jesus. Malachi has a broader metaphor. His “Sun” is like God moving through the heavens, the fringes (or “wings”) of his long flowing garment spreading the blessings of life to farmers luxuriating in mild spring sunshine and gentle rains that restore parched ground and fatten starving calves. I woke up to the dawn and felt like singing with Hark the Herald Angels sing!

Hail the heav’nly Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings,
Ris’n with healing in His wings. [Brits!]

It is so good to have Advent again because I need the advent of Jesus in my shadeable little world.

I hope any dark clouds you are experiencing soon pass as the Dayspring drives them away. May the Sun of righteousness rise again where you are seated and convince you to reach out, touch the hem of his garment, and be healed.

The Advent pilgrimage — 5 things to try

This is a good day to start a pilgrimage. It is the second day of Advent, the season that begins the Christian year. An “advent” is the coming of something expected. God is coming in the person of Jesus to be God with us. God’s coming as a baby invites us to begin again, ourselves, and go through our own process of maturation until we move though death into resurrection life with Him.

I take all my vacations as a pilgrimage. If I have my head on straight, I take a trip to Rite-Aid as a pilgrimage. My definition of a pilgrimage includes welcoming the unexpected, even the unwanted as part of my journey with Jesus. A pilgrimage allows me to see God at work in all sorts of new situations that tests my capacity to trust him. I discover, again and again, that beyond my ordinary awareness God is present and leading. So I don’t take vacations anymore; I’d rather inhabit what is happening than vacate. That’s more like God becoming Emmanuel, I think.

Last week many Americans (especially if they were in elementary school) remembered the persecuted separatists from the English Church, called THE Pilgrims, who created a place for themselves in Massachusetts. The kids learned that a pilgrim is a person who goes on a long journey, often with a religious or moral purpose, often a journey to a place that is foreign to them. The Pilgrims who had the famous thanksgiving feast thought of themselves as those kind of pilgrims. Here’s some evidence: After the Mayflower arrived, the first baby born to the Pilgrims who sailed on it was a boy. His parents (William and Susannah White!) named him Peregrine – a word which applies to a person travelling from far away and also means “pilgrim.” When Governor William Bradford wrote about the group’s departure for America he said: “They knew they were pilgrims, and looked not much on those things, but lifted up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country; and quieted their spirits.”

Continue reading The Advent pilgrimage — 5 things to try

Homo Economicus at Christmas

black fridayWere the pundits were right and the “Black Friday” holiday was toned down a bit this year? I am praying that fad dies. God has answered my prayer many times, it could happen.

Maybe the 1% have stratified income so much that it is impossible to be as gluttonous as the general populace once could be. Or maybe we have already been sold so many internet connections that “Cyber Monday” is what I should be praying about, now — I’m not sure. I can only hope that one day capitalism can lose its grip on the Baby born in poverty, who was soon to be the Refugee, and then the Executed. My hoped is always stoked at Christmas time.

Homo Economicus’ engines are also stoked at holiday time. The holiday points out the competition for how humankind is going to see themselves. Will it be “Child of God?” — that probably still owns the hearts of most of my readers. But “homo economicus” probably gets a majority of our attention.

“Homo economicus” is how the proponents of a capitalist view of the world see the nature of a human being and human desire. When one relates to God she is formed from the heart out. Likewise, capitalism forms a particular kind of human, one that relates to the environment in certain ways – like they rush to stores on Black Friday in response to a trumped-up frenzy.

There are many aspects of homo economicus that might be so normal to most of us that we would not even consider them topics to think about. But if we are going to celebrate Christmas, it might be wise to think about them. Let’s just try one on today. (Is “try one on” just another of a zillion shopping metaphors we use to define our reality?).

Above all things, “homo economicus” is an individual. There is nothing generally wrong with that — being a secure, capable individual is a good thing. Jesus is certainly in favor of the dignity of the individual – especially when it comes to individuals coming up against oppressive systems (like sin, death and evil!). What capitalism does not tell you when it lifts up the individual is that it is also an oppressive system that makes you an individual in its own image. It teaches us that if we do anything that is collective or if we feel that being part of a community is a given we are surrendering our freedoms to make voluntary associations built upon individual choice.

So lets start there. Here are three of capitalism’s assumptions about being an individual that wreck Christmas.

1) Homo economicus assumes he or she is autonomous

They think they are in charge of all choices and responsible for all judgment. They think no one is born with any innate or involuntary ties to community, including their family.

So when God, who is in charge and responsible, chooses to be born into a family and forms a radical community, that’s a challenge for homo economicus. The capitalist tribe (but don’t call them a collective) is working hard to erase the incarnation by changing the character of the holiday to meet their perpetual economic interests. I don’t think it is a plot or anything, or even conscious; it is just what they do.

BaptismOfJesus2) Homo economicus thinks he or she is self-made

Capitalism encourages creativity and self-expression over obedience. Thus the poor are always told to create their way out of poverty according to the rules of the economy. If they are disobedient – won’t create themselves and stay dependent, or if they subvert the laws that protect the economy, they are punished. Tom Peters says, “We are all CEOs of our own companies: Me, Inc.” as if that is just a reality.

So when John the Baptist, our Advent person of the week, refuses to compete with Jesus and tells his disciples “I must decrease and he must increase” that seems kind of crazy. He’s obviously giving away the brand he made and de-creating himself – at least according to homo economicus.

3) Homo economicus thinks he or she owns their body and its capacities and have no obligations to society to use themselves in certain ways.

Homo economicus is not an individual like a hermit, they are an individual like a predator looking for someone a bit further down on the economic food chain – or they are at least trying to get to the IPhone 6 before someone else while supplies still last. They have been taught that reality is looking out for oneself. Like Michael Novak bleakly describes, these individuals “wander alone, in some confusion, amid many casualties” on the “wasteland at the heart of democratic capitalism [that] is like a field of battle.”

Killings By Police-ProtestsOur friends had a die-in at the Eagles game last night — at the Eagles game, the scene of the society’s exalting of battle all for the entertainment of those who can pay — the perfect capitalist event.  They looked a lot like baby Jesuses, laying out in the cold, being jeered by disappointed, many drunk, game-losers. They were prophesying; demanding that black lives matter. They were like God in Jesus, laid in a tomb to break the power of sin and death, subjecting divinity to the indignities of humanity. In the incarnation God takes on a body and then completely submits that body to the good of others. That is how a child of God is fully himself or fully herself. We are not submitted to evil forces and so surrendering our individuality, we are individuals full of the obligations of love.

I can only hope that Black Friday dies. Maybe the U.S. Americans will tire of being in a traffic jam of self-interest every time they leave their doors or log on. Already my friends tell me they are sick of social media because everyone seems like the CEO of ME, Inc. and it is tiresome to be subtly (or not-so-subtly) manipulated for someone’s self-interest every time you look at Facebook.

Many of my friends hate Christmas for similar reasons. I think they hate the Christmas stolen by homo economicus and turned into a capitalist holiday. If that’s you, please don’t hate Christmas and don’t hate the people who probably don’t consciously know they are ruining it any more than you consciously thought of them as having a philosophy. Jesus is still wheedling his way into some manger-like situation waiting to surprise them with the fact that they are saving their lives and losing them.

Advent is a wonderful truckload of "foolishness"

Maybe Advent should culminate with a Mummers Parade. Maybe we should reorient the whole season to focus on how crazy it all is and stop cleaning things up. Prophets having visions, John the Baptist in animal skins, Jesus in a manger, foreigners with gifts, baby slaughter, angels, Holy Family displacement and immigration — it is much wilder than a family dinner with grandma and all that exquisitely pretty music, don’t you think?

Last night I began with convincing people that the prophets of the Old Testament could be considered “fools” — the kind Paul recommends to us when he says: “It seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings. We are fools for Christ” (1 Corinthians 4:9-10).

jokerHistorians dispute some of this, but Shakespeare popularized the idea that part of a king’s entourage in Europe’s included a fool, or a jester (who said things in jest). He could say things in jest because he was a fool. Sometimes the fool had an actual disability, a natural fool. And sometimes he was a licensed fool, a person who had license to say things back to the king or queen that others could not say. For instance, when the French king Philippe VI experienced a great defeat at sea in 1340 his “fool” told him the English sailors “don’t even have the guts to jump into the water like our brave French.” We preserved the memory of these people in our deck of cards (and Batman movies) with the joker.

We also preserve the function of putting all the foolishness on someone or letting all the foolishness out in some way so we don’t have to bear it ourselves. For instance, Philadelphia provides the world with the best Mummers Parade ever.  The following video will tell you all about it in the first 5-10 minutes. The government tried to eradicate the racism from the Mummers Parade in the 60’s, with some success. They keep trying to eradicate its spirit with super fancy costumes, but the comic brigades preserve the weirdness and the commentary. It is good foolery.

Continue reading Advent is a wonderful truckload of "foolishness"

Take an Advent pilgrimage: Five suggestions from the main players in the story

smart car in germanyLast June Gwen and I were about to drive into Switzerland for the first time. Siri told me to turn a bit late. I slowed way down and a young man in his company’s Smart Car clipped the back of our Auris as he tried to zip by. He pushed us into the oncoming traffic lane. Happily, there were no cars coming or I might not be here to write this. We were shaken up – and then the German police arrived! The polizist was nice – but he spoke German!

We had one thing going for us, however. We decided a long time ago to take all our trips as pilgrimages. Our definition of a pilgrimage includes welcoming the unexpected or even the unwanted as part of our journey with Jesus. A pilgrimage allows us to see God at work in all sorts of new situations that test our capacity to trust him. We get to prove to ourselves again and again that beyond our ordinary awareness God is present and leading. So we don’t take vacations anymore; we’d rather inhabit what’s happening than vacate.

This is a good day to start a pilgrimage. It is the second day of Advent, the season that begins the Christian year. An “advent” is the coming of something expected. God is coming in the person of Jesus to be God with us. God’s coming as a baby invites us to begin again, ourselves, and go through our own process of maturation until we move though death into resurrection life with Him.

Pilgrim-Hat-e1383838921591Last week many Americans (especially if they were in elementary school) remembered the persecuted separatists from the English Church, called THE Pilgrims, who created a place for themselves in Massachusetts. A pilgrim is a person who goes on a long journey, often with a religious or moral purpose, and especially a journey to a foreign land. The Pilgrims who had the famous thanksgiving feast thought of themselves as those kind of pilgrims. Here’s evidence: After the Mayflower arrived, the first baby born to the Pilgrims who sailed on it was a boy. His parents (William and Susannah White!) named him Peregrine – a word which applies to a person travelling from far away and also means “pilgrim.” When Governor William Bradford wrote about the group’s departure for America he said: “They knew they were pilgrims, and looked not much on those things, but lifted up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country; and quieted their spirits.”

Everybody in the story of Christ’s coming is something of a pilgrim. The wise men probably come all the way from Persia looking for what their studies revealed. John the Baptist goes into the wilderness and then out to the Jordan River where people journey to meet him and repent. Joseph and Mary go to Bethlehem and then to Egypt and back. The shepherds go to Bethlehem to see the Savior and then go all over the countryside to tell everyone about him. Where are you going? God has come from heaven and Jesus is taking first steps as a human and leading through death into life. Are you a similar pilgrim?

Advent is a season for beginning the journey. Some people reading are just getting to know Jesus and every step is fresh and maybe unnerving. More people reading are challenged to begin again, to not stay put, to not let the notables in the well-known “Christmas” story just pass them by.

How do we get started? We have a few weeks to figure that out. I think each of the main players in the story offers a very good example of what to do:

1) Go somewhere. The whole season will be filled with places to go that are not really spiritual places at all — take Best Buy, for instance — perhaps your office “winter holiday” party. Plan at least one event in your season that is like being a wise man searching for the Savior. Take half a day off and call it “searching for the Savior time.” Follow the star like the wise men.

2) Experience wilderness. The whole season is exquisitely designed, these days, to be absolutely fake. We even disguise trees and put them in our living rooms. But you don’t really need to travel very far from Philly before you can see actual stars. Or just sit down in the park and experience the weather. Listen to God in creation like John.

3) Fulfill an obligation. It is a common joke that the season is already so full of obligation that the cool people are all huddled in a bar avoiding it. But submitting to work as someone who must be saved rather than resenting work as someone who is too good for it is good for us. Feeling like you must care for someone else out of your own sense of honor is good. Go do what you have to do like Joseph. Go to your “Bethlehem” and you might unwittingly fulfill a prophecy!

dancing with stars ornament4) Escape. There is no doubt that this season has become a real baby killer (note ornament). It is filled with escapism that needs to be escaped. Maybe you should deliberately skip doing something that you would not do unless expected you to — like making those cookies or going to that thing in New York. Run for your life like Mary taking the baby to Egypt.

5) Go tell your story. Maybe you have no freedom to make a lot of choices or have little money to spend on interesting ways to be a pilgrim. Don’t fret. You can be on a “speaking tour” as you move through your day. Your latest experience with Jesus is worth telling. Move around your own countryside telling about the Savior that is born to everyone, Christ the Lord, just like the shepherds did.

But let’s keep moving. Advent is a pilgrimage. Your inward journey will be greatly benefited if you have outward movement that helps it. If you can manage to not get pushed around by the wacky holiday thing the world does or manage to not just resist that wacky thing, maybe you can experience what the people in the true story are experiencing.

More? Hit “Advent” in my tags for other posts

Three magi who are coming to Jesus presently

Adoration of the Magi -- Mategna 1461
Adoration of the Magi — Mategna 1461

The first thing I remember reciting in a Christmas play when I was the perfect Sunday school child from that nonChristian family was the story of the magi in Matthew 2 in the KJV. “When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him….”  The story has “troubled me” in a good way ever since. When I was becoming a full-on Christian in college, my professor gave me an impossible solo movement of a song to sing in a competition that recited the same thing. “And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.The answer to me then, and now, “He is born in you and all around you; look at the signs.”

I feel a special admiration for the mysterious visitors from the East who found Mary and Joseph and offered gifts to the newborn king. I still am thrilled to see the star “standing over where the young child is.”

I realized this week that I have heard rather improbable stories from three magi in my own life right now. I want to tell you about them, like Matthew wanted to tell the story about the first magi who sought out Jesus. My comrades are seeking the newborn king and offering treasures in their own ways; they are writing the nativity story for 2012.

Howard was out on the street yesterday with his well-worn sign that says, “Tell me your story.” He got rained on and didn’t get too many takers so he started back down Broad St. feeling a bit discouraged. Then he met the pastor of Isaiah Beard’s church at 18th and Federal who told him all about the life of an inner city pastor of a small church. The man was so encouraging that Howard’s spirit was lifted. Then he met a woman who was a recovering meth addict who was on her way to Circle Thrift. Her longsuffering mother had told her to go to “Circle church.” Howard said he would accompany her. “When he saw the star, he rejoiced with exceeding great joy.”

Ben told a story in the PM when he spoke on the second Sunday of Advent that people are still talking about.  He was on the job as a chaplain at Jefferson Hospital when a woman came to give birth in a very high-risk situation. The doctors had very little hope she would survive the process. But he and the family prayed that she would survive her mysterious neurological event when the doctors took the baby by c-section. Her mother and grandmother in particular demanded that God answer their prayer: “We declare it done in your name, Lord.” He longed with all his heart that the baby would live and the family would rejoice. The baby was delivered healthy and he got to meet the father in the nursery before he left for the day. But he couldn’t leave the event at work; he texted his colleague to find out about the mother. The reply read, “She’s fine” – even though the doctors had said she would die. It was a miracle. “He departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.

I was at the Christmas gathering for our main leaders, the BW Cell Leaders and Apprentices. I had a rare time to talk with Maggie in the kitchen as we ate morsels from the mountain of food surrounding us. We got into a discussion about our surprising mutual study of how discoveries in genetics move us to evangelize. How might it be possible that what we believe might actual work back into our genetic development? The research seems to validate that the process of mentalizing actually changes our brain chemistry and neurological formation, even working its way into our DNA. Maggie’s the scientist, the postmodern magi imagining new research projects. It was amazing that she should come from the far reaches of science where she is pointedly and directly told to abandon her faith lest it ruin her career and still bubble over with enthusiasm for science and Jesus right in my kitchen!  “When she was come into the house, she saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when she had opened her treasure, she presented unto him her gifts.”

The story of the birth of Jesus is a living story. The magi still come to the manger. He is born in you and all around you; look at the signs.

           

Whether you stole the baby or are searching for the perp

One year there were a rash of thefts involving the baby Jesus. I don’t think they ever found the one that was taken from the crèche on Independence Mall.  I heard of one baby Jesus stolen in the Northeast by an eighteen year old girl who had an apartment overlooking the scene of the manger. I guess she was just mean enough to do it. Or maybe she was a young, deluded girl who just wanted a baby. As it turned out, the police, on the other end of the social scale, also ended up looking for Jesus. Maybe they were mean as they did it. Or maybe they just wanted to figure out what happened. Regardless, it is the season of looking for Jesus.

This next Sunday, our Advent pilgrimage is focused on the people in the nativity story who best represent most of us: the shepherds and wise men. Someplace along the spectrum of low-life shepherds to high-class wise men, you probably fit in. I also think that all of us have an inner shepherd and an inner wise man searching for Jesus — or needing to.

The shepherds get just a few lines in Luke, but their amazing experience gets all the imagination of the carol writers poured on them. That is probably because we all relate to them so well.

shepherds el greco
Adoration of the Shepherds — El Greco

The shepherds were chosen from among the locals. I’m not sure how that occured; maybe  the angels just happened upon people who were still up in the middle of the night. It is possible that the angel just had a prepared speech to give to whoever he met: “I bring you tidings of great joy, earthling.” But it sounds like these certain poor shepherds might have been selected.  I think the angel was actually being sensitive, like he noticed that the shepherds were looking over their shoulders wondering who the angel was really coming to meet, since they were normally among the invisible poor. That’s why he said, “No, don’t be afraid. I’m talking to you. I bring you good news of great joy, good news for everyone, you included. Go to Bethlehem and you’ll see what I’m talking about. “ Then the heavens erupted because this moment must be an especially great thing for heaven to see. The poor receive the love and justice they’ve been missing. A person trampled back into dust has new life breathed into them. This is what angels live for: “Glory to God! This is it! Life. Light. Joy.” It was nuts.

This is where I love to come into the story, along with all the artists. If you get what is going on, you must be eager to show up with your inner shepherd, out in the dark, out alone on a hill, out in the cold, poor in some way, not getting what you need in some way, ragged, mistreated, unnoticed. And the angel comes to you and says for God, “I choose you. Here is my message for you — needy, needy you.” I don’t know if we ever quite fully improve on this, no matter how many Advents we experience. We search out of our darkness. The light terrifies us — but it shows us the way out. We grope through the hills to find that it was just as we were told, again, but we, again, may not have believed it fully before we got there, again.

As for the wise men, the magi (I’m not sure how they got to be three kings except that they came equipped with treasure),  they are another story altogether. I think they get less songs and less art because they are from the mysterious places of high finance and deep learning. Plus, they are foreigners to Matthew, who is writing the story. They represent the “gentiles,” people who are called from far away.

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Adoration of the Magi — El Greco

Maybe the magi were Persian astrologers. However Mary or Joseph told the story, I am not sure they really knew. When they met them they were probably just glad to get some gold and other things to sell. But we come to find out that these men felt comfortable in King Herod’s court and went there first. And they had the means to travel from the East, across the desert, presumably, where they were getting directions from stars coming up in the West.

We also come into the story with our inner magi needing to get involved, our inner wise person, our king or queen self. We are brilliant, and God calls us in our brilliance just like he called these brilliant guys. We also search out of our light. The lack of a guiding star terrifies us and the presence of one brings us joy. We use our skills to get to some place where we can worship, like all our knowledge and skills told us we should. But we have to get there before we can choose to kneel.

I admit that I resent the way the Augustinian protestants made such an overwhelming emphasis on our dirty shepherd selves. They specialized in convincing us that we are terrible so we would recognize our need for Jesus.  They kind of stopped us from appealing to the best in everyone. It appears that Jesus draws the best of the Persians across the desert to worship him. They figured it out. Their astrology even led them to Jesus! Honest seekers after God find a lot of ways to get there. We are all shepherds, but we are all magi, too. We’ve got stuff, we are hopeful, we are ready to adventure. We are all these good things. And if we are not self-sufficient as a result of having them, and we respond to the revelation that is right in front of us — in our law studies, in sociology, in biology, in architecture, if we are searching there, we end up at the proper place to present our treasure.

Advent is the time of year when we celebrate this wonderful both/and:

  • God in flesh.
  • God present and future.
  • Ourselves as shepherds and magi at the manger.
  • Being chosen and choosing.

There are a lot of places to fit ourselves into the story, aren’t there?  It is “Peace on Earth! Good will to all!” If you are so low that you stole the baby, Jesus will likely influence your apartment. If you angrily searched high and low for the perp who stole the baby, at least the baby has a chance to preoccupy your thoughts.

God chose you where you are, especially if you are shepherdy. God called you from as far away as you have ever been, especially calling all your brilliance into its true service. Each of us is in the story. For us, too, it is “Come and see. Come and worship.”

Even my stable?

Advent is always so revealing.

Yesterday I wrote a pensive little psalm about it. I was just plain distressed about that stable and that vulnerable baby in it being the incarnation of God in the world. The call to be that alive and trusting and welcoming can make me shiver in the bleak midwinter of my hard heartedness and self-occupation!

The Italians set up the kind of nativity scenes I'm talking about
The Italians set up the kind of nativity scenes I’m talking about. That’s one crowded baby!

There is room in the stable for shepherds, who may as well represent pickpockets and thieves of all kinds, the riff-raff of my relational universe. There is room in the stable for magi, who quickly turn into kings as time goes on, who may as well represent establishment figures of all kinds, the oppressors of my relational universe.

Do you ever pray prayers like this?: “I have too much leftover from my insecure attachment to entertain one more person bent on getting something for themselves! Don’t I? I have too much narcissism to allow even the occupiers of the power structure to be valued! Don’t I?”

Is there supposed to be that kind of room in the stable? Even my stable? The church is just your latest stable, Jesus?

If there is supposed to be that kind of room, and I am distressingly sure that there is, then I would like to be a more realized baby. Thus my psalm:

I wish I were not such a typical baby,
like Oliver tired and grumpy
running to grab whatever’s new,
running from Mommy then mad and searching.
You are such a good baby.

I wish no one would come to my stable
and trouble me with their feelings,
breaking the frame and being so real,
making me love and then feel unloved.
You are such a good baby.

I wish I never had to be vulnerable
and sponge up more sin and death,
feeling my desire and resistance,
running in fear then madly searching.
You are such a good baby.

What will become of me,
locked up with you on this scratchy hay?
What will become of you,
locked up with me in my itchy heart?

Intimacity, Again: The capacity for being intimate

Two and a half years ago I wrote a blog piece that came to my mind again this week.  It centered around the word intimacity.  At first, I thought I had coined a word; then I Googled it. Google says it means “the condition of being near.” It is basically a synonym for “intimacy.” So forgive me for improving the definition. We already have the word intimacy. I need this word: “intimacity” – that is, is our capacity for being intimate.

We long for intimacy, but most of us don’t have enough capacity to enter into it, even if we are offered it. The small group I was in one time during an Advent retreat experienced this lack. When I was sent off on a prayer walk as part of the same retreat, I had a moment of clarity. I realized that I and the others in my small group were all struggling with getting to the place where we could connect. Most of us told stories that demonstrated that we were relatively obsessed with connecting – clinging to life rafts of intimacy (even if they gave us splinters), chafing under the bits of our loneliness, restlessly scanning our horizons looking for moments when we might feel together, touched, or at least relevant. But one of the missing factors in our equations of connection was our own intimacity.

We need the intimacy, but it is exactly what is broken between us — and we never seem to know why. At least I am often a bit foggy on just how I operate. I think we all have a tendency to think all our relationships just mysteriously happened. We might be a bit in denial about what we bring to the situation – namely our capacity for intimacy, or intimacity. Our ability (or usually lack of same) needs to be named. We need to develop. So let’s do that a bit, right now.

If we ever try to figure out what’s wrong or undeveloped with our intimacity, we often spend a lot of time and energy starting at the wrong place: with other people. We lay awake at night wondering why someone broke up with us. We minutely (and often wrongly) list what someone thinks is wrong with us, based on their off-hand comment or body language. We dissect the lacks of our parents and how we adapted to them detrimentally. We flood our therapists with stories (thank God for Circle Counseling!) about how we are stuck and stumbling, or how someone has stuck us or made us stumble.

Holy Family in Carpenter’s House — Rembrandt

But our broken relationships with other people are often symptoms of a core issue: our intimacity in relation to God. That’s where we need to start. During Advent every year (and any time we open the Bible, or seek God at all), we get another chance to see God’s great intimacity. It is a good example for us. God, who is so totally other than us, becomes so totally one with us – choosing to be like us in body, sharing our sorrow and sickness, identifying with our unforgiveness and death! All the tender feelings we feel when we see Mary holding the baby should seem as amazing as they are – God just came out of her womb, vulnerable, open to the mother/father love he IS.

The beginning of my own intimacity starts with reconnecting with the Source of it. Trying to get there through endless attempts at human relationship repair is kind of backwards. But I, and probably you, do quite a few things backwards. Just in our small group during the Advent retreat (which was actually rather intimate, even though we’d mostly just met), we all demonstrated our fear of being vulnerable. I know that the whole experience made me ponder how easy it is for me to resist the impending experience of lack of connection rather than resist what I do to help create that experience. I am working on seeing my withdrawals and avoidances as sins against the call of the baby Jesus to be trustingly vulnerable with him.

Blessedly, we can share the Lord’s ability. Once he was born of the flesh. But what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Post-resurrection, our intimacity with God is as amazing as His is with us. The more we open ourselves to that Spirit-to-spirit relationship, discipline ourselves to receive the love, repent of the sin that has tangled up our relationship with God, so far (mainly the sin of not being open and receiving), the more we have a chance to relax enough to explore how we can connect with all the people we would love to love, and would love to love us.

So what can one do to develop intimacity?

1) Have at least one daily appointment with God. Try reading a book about developing intimacity like Martin Laird’s Into the Silent Land. It is one of my favorites from 2011.

2) Get a therapist. You probably need one. Psychotherapy is great for people who are having true difficulty living day-by-day. But it is also great for anyone who is exploring the unconscious ways we all relate that need to be more conscious. We don’t need to spend our whole lives protecting ourselves from disappointing or destructive intimacy.

3) Worship when it is organized for you. If we don’t merely sit through public worship and watch it, sometimes singing songs, our hearts can be softened and love unleashed. It is an easy connecting point that repeatedly gives us a chance to loosen up.

4) Make a plan for how to relate in your cell; don’t just attend it, waiting for something to happen. The cell is a weekly discipline that includes developing our intimacity. I hope it is a safe place for you to move beyond what is typical for you, to be born again in further ways, to have Spirit capacitized in your flesh.

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Did We Make the Advent Journey Body and Soul? Not Sure.

Our theme for Advent at BW was “Becoming Fully Human – the Inward and Outward Journey.” I have to admit, I don’t think we got the point across too well. This is about making a point, not about making cookies or music or firends, or what we usually do well at Christmastime.

For the sake of comparison, Kanye would have stayed up all night making art out of the whole process to make  a point. He would have made the video about making the art that made the theme album, would have provided matching merch that allowed people to get in touch in the ways people get in touch these days. We, in comparison, are still using words with a little visual. Our music randomly attaches. Our art is somewhat last-minute. If we don’t have the relationships and the relating is not consistent, it is hard for us to get anywhere, content-wise.

For the people who get into the relationships, what we do is great. For the rest of you, I apologize. We don’t know how to get the most important thing in the world across to you very well, I fear. I’m sure quite a few people got the whole thing, but I am also sure it is important to fear that they won’t.

The book upon which much of what we were trying to do during Advent is even more remote than what we presented: Soulful Spirituality, by David Benner. I won’t even recommend the last half of the book. Most of my friends don’t have a lot of time for books, anyway, so I don’t have to worry. That’s not meant to be an insult. But it is true. I got into the book because he talks about two main problems that Advent should help people solve. I used it to inform our theme because it responds so well to the main problems people have with being a full-on Jesus follower:

1) I think people who are having problems following Jesus are often disidentified with most religion and they have good reasons to be so. The Boko Haram bombings on Christmas Day are just more examples of appalling things done in the name of religion. Benner says, “Too often religion seems to produce or support dogmatic rigidity, prejudice and small mindedness, intolerance and chronic – even if religiously disguised—levels of anger and hatred. Too often religion seems to contribute to the problems rather than being part of the solution.” Too true.

2) Even more, the people I care about have the main problem Benner wants to address in the book, and for which Advent should be an antidote. They have a disembodied Christianity. Benner says that “spirituality” teachers often describe us as “human beings on a spiritual journey…But I think it is equally true that we are spiritual beings on a human journey. Both journeys are crucial and each should complement the other…Humanity is not a disease that needs to be cured or a state of deficiency from which we need to escape. The spiritual journey is not intended to make us into angels, cherubim, seraphim, gods, or some other form of spiritual beings. It is intended to help us become all that we, as humans, can be. How tragic, therefore, that some suggest that the spiritual journey should head in precisely the opposite direction. Spiritual paths and practices that distance us from what it means to be a human are not good for humans.” Also true.

We tried. We even had a weekly heartbeat meditation to get us into our bodies. We never got it turned up loud enough to make its full impact (yes, we have an art attention deficit disorder), but we tried. Some people really got it. But I’ve got a feeling they were the most properly identified and already appropriately embodied. The disidentified were not there, of course. And the disembodied spent a lot of time feeling a bit suspicious and uncomfortable. I am not sure how much we convinced either needy group.

I read books like Soulful Spirituality so I was into the whole thing. But, like I said, I’m not sure how much impact we made on the rest. One incident that gives me hope, however, was Christmas Eve. Of all the songs we sang, two songs were sung with the most comfort and enthusiasm. The first one was the first one: “Let It Snow.” Who knew everyone even knew that song so well? I turned it into a song about yearning for what all humans yearn for: just being held tight in the warmth. Our bodies and souls are all set up for God to be with us. The second one was “O Holy Night.” Who knew the hardest-to-sing Christmas song is the favorite? For me the most moving line in that song was “He knows our need. Our weakness is no stranger. Behold your king.” Our bodies and souls are moved in the direction of being saved by holy nights. I honestly think Kanye would agree, even if he was snubbed for best album in 2011.

While I am very challenged by the present day and what people think and what they are becoming. Advent has renewed my convictions and has somehow been a filling station for new energy to do what I can do to tell the story of Jesus in a way people can hear it and become part of it. I’m looking forward to 2012.

I Like Dogs, but Let’s Get Real

Not to be too insulting, but we remind me of a dog I once saw on the way back from Home Depot (I was replacing the faulty tree stand that caused my tree to tumble). It was a very nice-looking dog. But it was running around in the street causing a traffic jam. As I waited for the dog to figure out what it wanted to do, its master ran up. The master looked flustered and afraid. I watched him try to catch his self-destructive pet, which clearly liked him, but which kept playing, and managing to keep out of his reach and keep clogging traffic.

Is there any connection here between us and this dog? — us running around, figuring out what to do, sometimes playfully, usually self-destructively, and God coming to us in Jesus and wondering how to connect before we get run over? I think so.

It’s like Psalm 107:

They rebelled against God’s sayings,
The Most High’s counsel they despised.
And he brought their heart low in troubles.
They stumbled with none to help.
And they cried out to the Lord from their straits,
From their distress He rescued them.
He brought them out from the dark and death’s shadow
And their bonds He sundered.
Let them acclaim to the Lord His kindness
And His wonders to humankind.
Psalm 107:11-15

I suppose if I had run into the dog, it might have cried out to its “Lord” from its “straits” and then would have been rescued. But it was still playing when his master caught up to him. I am not sure the dog ever figured out that it might have died. I think we might be in similar denial.

I’m thinking about this because yesterday I felt a bit like a dog master who had just found my pet playing chicken with sedans on Washington Ave.  It is Advent, so I was trying to work with the call to live with the reality of the incarnation, which means: We don’t need to keep organizing our lives according to what amounts to dog-logic. We see our master, who is with us, for who he really is; it is time to stop playing in the middle of the traffic as if that is normal. OK, enough with the dog thing for a minute. The incarnation means that instead of normalizing my craziness or avoiding my problems and suffering, I can welcome a new reality. I can even enter into my depression, failure, illness, betrayal, doubt, and death like Jesus entered into them, and go through it all like Jesus went through it all.

I have been a little hard on dogs, haven’t I? Actually, they know a lot about being themselves, even in the midst of traffic, don’t they? A dog is good at being a dog. I am the being who has to consider how to become fully myself. Advent is a discipline of becoming fully human, even though I already am a human – at least prospectively. We actually have a tougher time than dogs when it comes to being ourselves because we know we are knowing about things. As a result, we create elaborate psychological defense systems to protect us from the horrible reality in which we live. We are so afraid of reality that we think we might die if we allowed it to be real!

Psalm 107 makes our rejection of being real with God appropriately personal, I think. We have “rebelled against what God says” it accuses. In the case of Israel, there was an actual written law that “said” things so “what God says” was hard to miss. So God “brought our hearts low in troubles.” People regularly get mad at God for supposedly doing mean things to them like “bringing them low.” But I often point out that it is not so much that God is finding ways to punish us, He is the Creator, our Father, the author of reality — have a little feeling about what that is like for God! The Lord doesn’t need to punish us; just being God gives us something to run away from. We “stumble with no one to help,” like a dog in traffic, because we were designed to relate to God and we don’t relate.

All these doses of reality have been leading up to those last two lines of the stanza:

He brought them out from the dark and death’s shadow
And their bonds He sundered.
Let them acclaim to the Lord His kindness
And His wonders to humankind.

We may feel locked up, especially in the mental and physical security zones we make for ourselves. But we have a future. Even though I am a very difficult creature to figure out, God’s kindness has a way of opening up my eyes to take in the wonderful reality in which I live, and, even more the reality into which I am called as Jesus brings it near.

Advent welcomes the Lord to come into our world during the darkest days of the year. I never like that darkness, but I do like remembering how the Lord is reaching into my dark reality with light and love. I still do a little dog-and-master dance with God, sometimes. But mostly I long to experience the wonders of the new reality into which I am invited when Jesus shows up looking for me.

In the Bleak Midwinter

Many students of the Bible say that the fourth “gospel,” written by John, is the last one written. It sounds like that to me, too. It sounds like it is written by an old man who has been through a lot. John did go through a lot: a lot of miracle, then crucifixion, then resurrection, then persecution, then evangelism, then church development and leadership, then church conflict, then a final persecution that lead to his exile on the island of Patmos where he had his amazing vision, and where he might have also written his account of Jesus’ work.

When John begins his brief, but poetic and profound, summary of the birth of Jesus, he strikes a mournful note in the middle of it. To me, he sounds like an old man who has suffered to bring the good news of Jesus to people who have rejected it and abused it. That bothers him.

“The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” (John 1)

He is pondering light coming into darkness. He knows the darkness well. It is a darkness that does not recognize God coming onto it. It is a darkness as deep as being rejected by your own family — you come home and they leave you out in the dark!

But John does not dwell there too long. He wants to tell the truth about what happened to Jesus and to himself as a result of meeting Jesus. But he almost breathlessly gets to the secret he wants to reveal: In the midst of this dark world where the light is not recognized as light, and family is not loved as family, the life of God is born into the world and born in people who receive it, who recognize God in Jesus and trust him for renewed life.

I’m feeling with John this Advent. Last night, we spent our monthly Coordinators meeting celebrating our deep love for each other and the great successes of our work in 2010. It felt like an island of light, and spiritual depth in the middle of deep darkness. On one occasion during my 35th-anniversary trip to Costa Rica, my host asked me what I did for a living. When I said, “I am the pastor of our church,” he immediately said, “In my family, we never talk about religion or money.” The darkness wouldn’t even let me be recognized for who I am. I got a gag order! (Didn’t work that well, but I got it).  Another time I asked my local guide, who had been so helpful in every way, when the festival in Nicoya was scheduled. I had read something about a Christmas procession in a guide book. She said something like, “Oh, people in the church do things. I’m not sure.” The church has a parade and a person can manage to be totally ignorant! (Putting Mary on a sedan chair and clogging traffic may not be the best advertisement, but it is pretty adroit ignorance to channel the input to some cranial “junk mail” folder!).

I have such wonderful Advents! Jesus is coming and I recognize and receive him. I am and feel born of God. It is amazing. It was amazing to sit among my close colleagues and witness how the light came into their personal darkness. But that miracle happens in a world that seems to be turning its back on God-with-us even more deliberately, even among people who should know better,  I hear a mournful tone that I have decided to hold on to. My carol has become “In the Bleak Midwinter.” John wants to rush to the joy of new birth, But he has enough discipline to let the whole truth be told. Self-giving love does not come to the world without suffering. In a dark, maybe darkening, world, the light continues to meet resistance.

Be the Manger: Surrender unworthiness

I guess I did kind of a mean thing at the Advent Day Retreat yesterday. I usually avoid coercing people to do anything, but I made the retreaters turn to a couple of other people and answer this question: “What makes you a good place for Jesus to be born?” Be the manger; be the bed. It is not so shocking that God should be born in us if God is born in a stable! What makes you a good place for Jesus to be born?

Their reactions made me feel a bit like Paul writing to the Galatians: “My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you!” (Gal. 4:19-20) Quite a few people seemed to be having a problem admitting, much less saying, that they were a suitable place for Jesus to be born! They could easily go with how gracious God is to have come to a disintegrating, rebellious creation, to humbly be born in a stable and to act as a servant. But it was much harder for some to get their minds around the suggestion that the stable was quite good enough for God and that servanthood is a splendid means to express self-giving love. God is delighted to live in us. Be the manger.

“But,” the immediate protest begins, “won’t I end up being a prideful fool who is unaware of my sin if I start feeling good enough to receive Jesus?” There are many prideful fools around, after all.

But isn’t it also prideful to tell God that it is absurd for him to feel OK about filling you with his Spirit? Isn’t it foolish to keep an iron grip on your unworthiness instead of letting saved-by-the-grace-of-God be your new self-image? Isn’t it a bit audacious, in a bad way, to tell God he is crazy to love you so much, to want to snuggle in next to you like he supposedly does?

It is perplexing. Is Jesus so unformed in us that we would easily revert to being fearful slaves to whatever monstrous thing that used to run us – so much so that we would leave Jesus perpetually knocking on the door of it? As soon as people were given a chance to claim their right to be children of God, yesterday — to be the earthen jar in which glory is carried, to be the chosen friend in whom the secrets are confided, to be the sent one in whom the campaign for world redemption is entrusted, many were kind of tongue-tied. Maybe you, too. I watched a couple of groups just sit there staring at each other, waiting, until that got too awkward and they had to say something. But even when they started talking, it was not like they were as appreciative of God’s home as God was happy to be there! They did not have a ready list of what made them a decent house.

Being self-critical is useless unless Christ lives in us! Otherwise we are like a dog in the manger – not saving ourselves and not letting the baby get in there!

There are plenty of important ways to spend the season of Advent.
Maybe you are so full of yourself you need to empty out so Jesus can get a toe-hold.
Maybe you should stop being so preoccupied with whether Jesus is alive in you enough and go be an incarnation of the life you already have.
Maybe you need to wrestle with your disbelief and try to get to the bottom of it once and for all.
God knows what we should do; let’s ask him.

But I stumbled on one important way many people need to spend the season. Be the bed. God wants to be born in you. Come on, you’ve got to be at least as good as a stable! Are you really going to tell him there is no room? tell him he shouldn’t even want to stay in you in the first place? he’s dumb to even knock? he should come back when you’re tidy? Don’t do that. If you have to do something other than enjoying your undeserved favor, fluff the hay a bit.

Can We Do Without the House, the Body, the Incarnation?

We have been looking all over the region and all over the country for the people God is nudging into the proactive peacemaking work of Shalom House. I’m not sure we are the best lookers, but we are manifestly not the most successful finders. The fact that we are not successful recruiters raises the question, “Can we do the work of Shalom House without the house? Do we need an intentional community to incarnate our hopes?”

We could probably do the work without the house. I, for one, will have to keep working even if we can’t sustain it. But the work would not be nearly as brilliant. Enough of us in the church would shine the light, but it would probably be a dimmer light. One of the great things about Shalom House is that it gathers the radicals in one place and calls them to live in peace, not just talk about it. They get practical about peacemaking every day, not just write blogs about it. They get up each morning and conflict stares them in the face in the dining room, not only because it is on their bulletin board but because it is on their to-do list and it is sometimes staring at them across the breakfast table! The church needs intentional communities at the heart of us to remind us that community is possible, much more, maybe, do we need a community devoted to peacemaking.

Finding the next people to join in with Shalom House is a specific case of our larger everyday search. We are scouring the region looking for the people God is nudging into Circle of Hope.  Being “in” Circle of Hope is a relative concept, of course. A man who lives in Brooklyn most of the time was at the PM last night and considers himself a part of BW. People who aren’t part of a cell and who attend a PM randomly consider themselves part of “Circle.” Their slight attachment brings up the question, “Can we do the work of Jesus without all the trappings of church – all the meetings, common bank accounts and obligations?” Do we need an organization to be our organism?”

People certainly think they can do without the Church. On the one hand, it is good that they feel like they carry their faith in their heart on their own and don’t require a lot of handling or support. On the other hand, it is so common that people lose their faith by swimming alone in the sea of opposition that it is a wonder that jumping overboard is so popular. We Christians in the U.S. are kind of a strange species; our strongest swimmers are often the ones who jump ship. They are busy with a brilliant, individual life that is conceptually attached to the body of Christ, but practically, is not much of an incarnation. Sometimes they parachute into “missionary” places looking for more individuals, such as themselves, who will leave their community to live an individualistic Christian life and find themselves having a tough time being connected to their own neighborhood (unlike the people they meet), because they don’t connect — at least for very long.

I suppose it comes down to the big question, “Could someone do the work of Jesus without Jesus?” No one reading this is likely to answer, “Sure!” But I am not so sure a lot of us aren’t trying it. The great challenge of turning from our godless way of life to a God-filled way of life is following the living Lord in the day to day, being an incarnation of Jesus as a member of his incarnation, the body of Christ, the church. The past 100 years of Christianity, in particular, seems to have allowed the faith to be one among many religions, a personal decision about meaning, a private experience that can’t be transferred, a “spiritual” matter, not a practical, legal, political, genetic or sociological matter, a collage of concepts, not a relationship with God.

Advent is the season when we are reminded that we can’t do the work of God without God-with-us. I suppose the fact that the season of Advent seems kind of weird to many Christians reflects our desertion of the doctrine of the incarnation —  so many of us are mainly concerned about right thinking or the heat of our personal feelings and less concerned with right living. But, as Paul says, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (Gal 5:6) and “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision [or any other argument] means anything; what counts is a new creation.” (Gal. 6:15) Advent calls us to express our faith in God expressing his love — in a body, in time, in creation by birthing a new creation. We might prefer a more convenient “salvation,” one more personalized to our needs and desires. But we can’t do without the one we’ve been given.