Advent Field Guide (Final Week [4])

Advent Week Four     December 22-24, 2019

LOVE

Love is everything. It is meant to be received vulnerably and it is meant to be given freely. When we love, we live into who we were created to be; that is, we are rightly relating to one another.

As we are members of creation, it becomes necessary to our selfhood that we reflect on what it means to be in right relation with all of creation. When we are disconnected from the rest of creation (human and non-human), we are disconnected from our Creator, because it is only through relationships that we can be fully ourselves.

Thus, these two days before Christmas, work to de-center yourself by focusing on how connected you are to all of creation, especially non-human creation. Think about the connections that you have with the land on which you live; as you sit down to eat a meal, reflect on how long it took to grow that food and how many miles it took to bring it to you; think about the species that dwelled on the land before it was taken up by buildings; think about land practices that consider all of creation and not just humans; think about the season of winter and how it provides rest to the land.Our Emptying Church

In his book God Still Matters, Jesuit theologian Herbert McCabe writes, “Love is rather rare and comes with maturity when we can get away from the need to be dominant or to find another who is not dominant…  the essential gift you give to the one you love is the gift of space to exist, the gift of liberation.”

Think about love as creating space for others to exist. It is not fluffy or weak, but rather, it is a strong, faithful, solid showing up for one another. This also means that you create space for you to exist… loving yourself, valuing your gifts, and believing in your worth.

Use this time of Advent to consider how you create space for you to be your fullest self. Consider how you create space for others to be their fullest selves. This kind of love draws us into a new narrative about ourselves and about the world.

Scripture: 

Luke 1:26-38, 46-55 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. Mary said, “With all my heart I glorify the Lord! In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.
 God has looked with favor on the low status of God’s servant.
 Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored
 because the mighty one has done great things for me.
Holy is God’s name. God shows mercy to everyone,
 from one generation to the next,
  who honors God. God has shown strength with God’s arm.
 God has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.
 God has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
 and lifted up the lowly.
 God has filled the hungry with good things
 and sent the rich away empty-handed.
 God has come to the aid of God’s servant Israel,
 remembering God’s mercy,
 just as God promised to our ancestors,
 to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.”

John 13:33-35 Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

Readings: 

“Love has bridged the high-rises of despair we were about to fall between. Love has been a penlight in the blackest, bleakest nights. Love has been a wild animal, a poultice, a dinghy, a coat. Love is why we have hope.” -Anne Lamott; Almost Everything: Notes on Hope

Let us not tire of preaching love; it is the force that will overcome the world. Let us not tire of preaching love. Though we see that waves of violence succeed in drowning the fire of Christian love, love must win out; it is the only thing that can.   -Archbishop Oscar Romero

Prayer: Center this thought in prayer this week:

O God the Light of the World, prepare our hearts, for Emmanuel is coming. 

Teach us love in our waiting. Amen.

Questions to consider: If love is creating space for others to be their fullest selves (human and non-human), what does this look like for you? If you are married or in a committed partnership, what does this look like for you and your spouse? If you parent, what does this look like for in relationship to your children? If you are single, what does this look like with your most trusted, beloved people? What does this look like for the stranger who is your neighbor but whom you have never met and may never know?

Spiritual Practices: This week, consider incorporating two spiritual practices into your week. First is the practice of lectio divina, which is a form of contemplative reading of scripture. Lectio divina has no goal other than that of being in the presence of God by praying the Scriptures. You can use Luke 1:26-56 in this practice, or choose your favorite Bible passage. Read the text aloud slowly. Read it aloud again. Hold it in silence. Consider a phrase that jumps out at you and ask why? Carry the phrase with you all day. Read it aloud one more time, but this time, read it as a prayer.

The second spiritual practice to incorporate this last week of Advent is service. If love is creating space in the world for others to be their fullest selves, then consider what you can do to facilitate this. Can someone be their best self if they are starving, if they do not have clean water, or a warm place to sleep? Can someone be their fullest self if they are living in a prison of shame? Can someone be their fullest self if they are your enemy? Maybe service this week looks like reconciliation with one who has wronged you… maybe this forgiveness is the liberation you both need. Maybe service is a physical act of caring for another’s humanity. Maybe service is coming your faith community and lending a helping hand. Create space in the world by your love this week.

The Kin-dom of God is like…

The Kin-dom of God is like a beloved waking up at 3am to call to make sure you’ve awakened for your alarm…

The Kin-dom of God is like a dear friend loving on your dogs…

The Kin-dom of God is like another dear friend bringing you a delicious dinner, unsolicited.

The Kin-dom of God is like a sunset so beautiful that the sky lingers with it, dancing between darkness and the bright orange colors as long as it can…

The Kin-dom of God is like a hug from your kid…

The Kin-dom of God is like a stranger on the way home from rugby practice, helping you for an hour to try to get into your locked car that’s still running…

The Kin-dom of God is like parents going out of their way to spend time with you…

The Kin-dom of God is like friends gardening together…

The Kin-dom of God is like people–busy, busy people– going out of their way to live into the commitments of love to you.

The Kin-dom of God is like these things, and so much more.

Thanks be to God.

A Post of the New Year (2014)

Here we are in 2013, I mean, 2014.

I’ve seen several reflective posts. Was 2013 a good year? Did it bring achieved goals or greater evolution of self? Did it hurt? Is it a year that will always be remembered for one reason or another? I’m happy to read reflection. I’m not sure that I reflect enough. And reflecting, at its most basic level, provides an opportunity for me to stop and remember what it means for me to be human. But reflection takes solitude and focus, and frankly, who has time for that?

I’ve also seen several resolution posts. What was not accomplished in 2013 that absolutely must be in 2014? What lingering pieces of one’s self or lifestyle does one not want to carry into the next 365 days? Our scarcity and perfectionistic culture certainly lets us know loud and clear the things in which we are lacking.

I don’t know about you, but I’m a little tired of being told what I’m lacking. Are you? Little by little one’s self-esteem gets chipped away by the thoughts of what one should have, what one should be able to give, or how one presents oneself to the world.

Maybe a good healthy moment of reflection can deflect the messages that ask us to become something we are not. I’ll never be who you want me to be. I’ll be me. A woman who sincerely believes that love is it. Love is the jam. And I’m not scared to love past the fear around this place. I’m not scared to love through absolutism and disagreement, through ignorance and belittlement, through the Hollywood-ized version of self, through my own prejudice and fear. I’m not afraid to admit that I am not there yet, but I’m working towards what equality, grace, and interconnectedness mean and trying to base my ethics on such a place. I’m not really interested in the abstract. How am I living my ethics today?

So here’s my semi-obligatory New Years post, for whatever it’s worth. I’m here, ready to dust the cobwebs that need to be dusted, ready to smile at new opportunities, ready to hold a hand, ready to face my fears of false inadequacy, ready to nurture community with life-giving folks. My reflections elucidate my resolutions; they coalesce with a little sadness, a lot of gratitude, and a massive amount of excitement.

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If you have resolutions or reflections, I’m happy to read them here. Let me know what is informing your beginning of 2014.

Dance With Me

Dance with me,
Under the stars,
Across the plains,
Through the sequoias,
Hold me tightly,
when I just can’t.

Come with me,
to the edges,
edges of who we are,
who we want to be,
our best selves.

Take a chance with me,
for the rest of our lives,
smile with me in joy,
pray with me in uncertainty,
and miss me in separation.

Work with me,
to illicit change,
to grieve injustice,
to sit at the table
of the full menu,
of human rights.

Do life with me,
let’s find out,
about the mystery
of grace, and mercy,
and love.

Walk with me,
through my fears,
and hesitancy,
show me what
vulnerability means.

Dance with me,
Through the shadows of
what we might be,
if we, as humans,
would realize our
interconnectedness.

Asceticism: Past & Present (And what that has to do with John Piper)

Wearing a chain around one’s neck to remember the weight of one’s sin. Or leading a life of complete celibacy in order to focus more on the divine.

What is asceticism, and how are the ancient practices of asceticism relevant to 21st Century theological conversation and praxis? In other words, what purpose did asceticism serve for early Christians and is asceticism still relevant today? Popular evangelical theologian, John Piper, seems to think it is as relevant today as it was for the early Desert Fathers and Mothers and has used it to support his idea of “Christian Hedonism.” I suggest that Piper’s version of asceticism and his view of its role in modern Christian discipleship are skewed and misdirected; further, I suggest that asceticism is useful today in Christian theology and praxis but only insofar as it is practiced for the sake of our neighbors and not for avoiding idolatry.  … more on that to come.

What is asceticism, exactly?

Asceticism in early Christianity was defined by devotees renouncing worldly pleasures (sexual, familial, monetary, social, etc.) for the sake of spiritual ascent. The Desert Fathers and Mothers are oft referred as “ascetics,” they lived around 300-500 CE in remote desert areas of solitude. Some of their practices were literal and extreme, such as one wearing a weighty chain around one’s neck to be consistently reminded of the weight of one’s sin, or fasting from sleeping and eating for days to focus on prayer. Richard Finn on Oxford Bibliographies offers a helpful general definition of asceticism here. Asceticism grew during a time in which the Roman political authority was imperializing Christianity. You see, Christianity was evolving from a subversive, persecution-filled experience to a state religion under the Roman Emperor, Constantine. A martyr’s death at the hands of Roman officials for one’s faith was not necessarily an empire-wide reality any longer, rather, it was but a memory for these early Christians. Martyrdom was held as one of the highest Christian acts; it was an ultimate act of inversion as persecutors sought to degrade and stamp out Christians. It achieved the opposite, giving martyrs a high honor in the faith. It was a literal manner of giving up one’s earthly, sinful body to emulate Christ in his sacrifice; in other words, it was a way of spiritual ascent. Many of the martyrs are still venerated in church traditions today.1, 2  So, if persecution was no longer a widespread threat, how did Christians achieve spiritual ascension?

The church?

Maybe.

But what if the church was too close for comfort to the Roman government? What if the ideals of the faith had been watered down? What if bishops were controlled by the emperor? Better yet, what if the emperor was venerated as a deity?

Moving away from church and state authority, ascetics chose to reside in the solitude of the desert, finding spiritual ascent in self-denial of worldly pleasures. Their teachings began subsuming anti-empire sentiments during a time when the debate of authority was rampant. There is no doubt that ascetic teaching was a valuable theological practice for early Nov. 2013 038Christians, but it also could very well have been a subversion of church authority with the intent to place that authority in the hands of those who were willing to adopt lives of renunciation.

So is asceticism relevant today?

Rev. Dr. John Piper thinks so.

Piper, a reformed, Calvinist, popular theologian, believes that asceticism as self-denial is necessary to American faith because of the lack of persecution experienced in America the Comfortable. In the 1990s, Piper revived the language of asceticism as he believed it was an essential element to his theological scheme of “Christian Hedonism.” He drew widespread criticism when he wrote a post entitled:  We Want You to Be a Christian Hedonist!.” Piper asserted that a human is made to pursue pleasure, and the chief end of a human is for him/her to find pleasure in God. In fact, he stated that this pleasure is salvific. In his book, Desiring God, he wrote:

The pursuit of joy in God is not optional. It is not an extra that a person might grow into after he comes to faith. Until your heart has hit upon this pursuit, your faith cannot please God. It is not saving faith” (Desiring God, p. 73). 3

Given his belief that a saving faith is one which finds ultimate pleasure in God and not idols, Piper finds asceticism to be an essential faith practice. In a video interview at a Desiring God conference, Piper stated:

“I’m more inclined today at age 58 watching my life and its ease… I’m more convinced than ever that I need asceticism in my life with all of its risks and dangers because I think, in my experience, I am more likely to be deceived right now that I am leaning on God, when I’m leaning on a retirement, or my wife, or successful pastorate, than any other danger. Therefore, I feel like I need some conscious self denials to put myself to the test and see if I get angry, or irritable, or fretful by not having something I want so bad every day or every week…might be sex, might be food, might be approval… wherever I am leaning for pleasure. …when really it’s idolatry. So how do you find out which it is? One of the ways is asceticism.”

So Piper finds that full pleasure in God leaves no room for other idols; he sees asceticism as a litmus test for determining the presence of idols. The denial of self in order to achieve spiritual ascension. Sound familiar?

Perhaps asceticism is relevant today, but not Piper’s version. 

Spiritual discipline and self-denial is valuable to one’s faith, and honestly, one’s sanity. I suspect a deep and profound experience can be found in prolonged solitude and prayer. But in a society of gross economic, sexual, and social injustice, Piper chooses to focus on denying self, not because one’s neighbor is in need, but because denial helps avoid idolatry. And then he calls it saving faith. It takes a fairly privileged view to maintain this theology. Such a theology seems to have not considered hunger, marginalization, or economic despair. To say that the highest calling of a human is to find pleasure in God is to assume an entirely heavenly vision, but what if one does not have the privilege of looking up because one cannot see past the hell?

Racism.

Genocide.

Female mutilation.

Rape.

Cycles of Poverty.

There is a place for self-denial in Christian faith BUT it is needed because of our neighbor’s lack and not because it is the way to avoid idolatry or a way for our salvation.

A sole focus on Christian hedonism clouds the church with a focus on inward, ascetic worship while there is much to be done outside the church in the ways of justice making. I suggest that we get back to the basics of believing that if we can even possibly know how to glorify God, that God is most glorified when we love God and when we tend to the imago Deo in our neighbors by our love for them. I suggest that the self-denial of asceticism is important in our theological praxis, but only insofar as it stems from our neighbor’s lack. I suggest that if we have a highest calling, it must be to love, living ethically in that love.

The way of choosing love is salvific.

So in summary, does asceticism have merit in 2013? Yes, I believe it does. So let us practice self-denial and renunciation. Let us renounce the pressure we are under to achieve the American Dream at the cost of other’s lack. Let us renounce the willful ignorance that we become comfortable in. Let us renounce our fear of those who we think are not like us. Let us give up what we think is ours so that we may share it with our neighbors.

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Citations:

1. Wilken, Robert Louis. The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.

2. Harmless, William. Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

3. Piper, John. Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist. Colorado Springs: Multnomah Books, 2011.

Getting Muddy

San Francisco 2013 024

I think courage comes in a multitude of ways. We often hear it associated with war or soldiering, firefighting, policing, or something of the sort. And though I’ve never been engaged in any of those activities, I am sure they require one to forgo one’s innate fear which kicks in the innate flight response… but lately, I’ve been thinking about a different kind of courage.

The kind which allows you to wait in a relationship while you are working things out, the kind which allows you to hold a friends hand during a scary health situation, the kind which allows you to continue to inspire even when you do not feel inspiration, the kind which allows you to admit you are weak or tired or both, the kind which allows you to go into the mire and muck with people and get muddy.

There are so many fears in this world, that it is natural for us to want to survive and take care of ourselves first. But when we enter into the mud with another person, we are saying essentially, “screw what may or may not happen, screw the violence around this place, screw the fear that I have of not getting far enough in society, screw the fear I have of being drug down by someone else’s problems, screw the to-do list I should have had completed two seconds ago… I believe that you matter right now, and I am here for you. I am breathing life into a situation which you can’t see the life in because I believe, at the end of this crappy day, love conquers all.”

It is not being afraid of getting muddy, of getting soaked, of letting the mascara run. Today, this is courage to me. May we have the courage to get filthy.

Something Unpredictable

Inevitably life comes in seasons. Much like the four seasons that greet us at the door each year, we journey through a sectioned life. Seasons in our lives change. Change perpetuates more change. It’s not all bad… because we need that change to grow. People enter and leave our lives for seasons. And sometimes that’s ok… and sometimes it hurts terribly.

So how do you endure… how do you persist?

First, knowing who you are is key. You have to understand your passions, your personality, your body and then sanction all of the above. Learning to be kind to yourself is a necessity. You have to know that when you are on your knees praying, your voice matters. You matter.

Next, it helps to understand the following helpful (rather painful) lesson. Some people who you have given your heart to and love deeply just can’t give that back to you. Maybe it’s because they don’t have it to give. Maybe they still don’t know who they are. Maybe they are just stretched too thin. Maybe they are fighting a bigger battle than you can compete with. Or maybe you just aren’t their person (Grey’s Anatomy reference). Here’s the thing: you can’t force that relationship… as much as you want it to happen, you have to let them go. As painful as it is, you have to release them.

You have to let them go so they can be. Let them be. And be kind to yourself, knowing you’ve just created more room for the right person for you. Or just room for you to breathe again and keep growing.

Often when you let something go, something that matters greatly, you get it back again. Maybe it’s time to let someone go.

And last, you focus on those people in your life who do not change with the seasons. The ones who will hold you in bed when you are exhausted and the ones who will sit down at the kitchen table after their busy day to hear about yours. The ones who let you double dip. The ones who plop down next to you while you cry or confess your deepest insecurities. The ones who you can call 24/7. The ones who look into your eyes, and without speaking, tell you they’ll love you forever.

The ones who would be crushed if you weren’t in their lives tomorrow.

So thank those people in your life today because it takes a lot of bravery to love you like that.

For an INFP like me, this lesson may be one of the hardest I ever have to learn. But the learning of it, is also the path to freedom and hopefully, on the other side of the cloud, the sun’s just waiting to shine.

Have you had to let people go? How do you show those who love you that you appreciate them?