This video came across my facebook feed and, wow, what a clip. First, I love the ferocious courage of Stephen Fry. He knows himself. He’s smart, and snarky, and often right on point, and I love that about him.
He has also experienced his share of unfairness and looked theodicy (the question of evil) in the eye. And even uses the theological word for questioning evil, which means he has made direct inquiry, right into the heart of of it where all the answers are supposed to be. ‘Theodicy’ isn’t a word you generally hear outside of seminary—and then maybe only for a class or two. To know this word is to have asked the really big questions.
Stephen Fry and I, we ask the same questions—but we answer them differently.
I think we should never back away from demanding to know why there is evil in the world and asking, as well, how we are called to respond to it, and what we are called to do about it. I am not smart enough to have it all figured out, I am not that powerful or great. I trust instead to humility in the face of power greater than my own, be it God or a swarm of ravenous insects. I believe despite our make-no-sense world that we can in fact be a force for serving what is good. Is there capricious suffering in the world? You bet. But I will not serve it.
Why is there suffering? I do not know. But I will stand here with you and I will abide through the pain and injustice, and I will never let go of love and I will declare God good.
I am hurt
and I am angry about that.
I cannot be honest
and vulnerable about my hurt
or you will just hurt me again—
I long for something better, but
my hurt makes me hate you.
And I have been hurting for too long. So—
I’ll hurt you back.
I’ll make you angry.
I’ll provoke you to rage, to madness, to violence,
you will never rest,
there will never be peace,
and all will see that you belong to the self-same suffering
that has captured me.
dıaptych(lεƒt) by Jef Safi 2008 Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
This alone is right and fair: that you will suffer
as I have suffered,
as we all have suffered,
and you will see
I am the righteous one, here. We—
we will meet on the field of anger. And, if—
if you will not apologize,
if you will not agree to the world of my experiences
with my conditions,
with my demands,
if you refuse to hear me screaming
if you knock down my words, then—
there will be a clash,
there will be a war of fortresses,
and mutual annihilation.
I’ve read a lot of laments this year from church leaders who wish Advent was still a thing and, well, I’m sorry, but it’s not a thing anymore. Yes, let us lament that because Advent was a beautiful liturgical season, but let us also move on. I think fighting Advent-as-it-was is a losing battle. It no longer resonates culturally and it hasn’t for a long time. What we are left with is a list of ‘thou shalt nots.’ For example, thou shalt not, we sternly say, bringeth in the color red before proper Christmas.
But the most egregious sin of all is Christmas caroling before December 25th.
Carolers by Matt Rollefson 2005, Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
We are the Debbie Downers of the modern Christmas season. Instead of blessing our congregations as they sing lustily and with great courage for the baby Jesus, we hush and shame them and insist they wait until Christmas is culturally over before letting the Angels Hark or Going and Telling It On the Mountain.
We are missing the boat here.
To state the obvious, Advent is a made-up ritual. Advent is a way that the church developed—in tandem with the cultures of the time—to dig into the essential meaning and hope of the coming Christmas season. But, like I said, it’s made-up. There was no Advent for hundreds of years after Jesus was born. If you want to get technical, the first and only ‘real’ advent belongs to Mary. Mary was the first to celebrate Advent and we don’t all do it like she did—with heartburn and swollen ankles.
Journal de bord de la future maman by Laurence Vagner 2009 Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Advent is really awesome, it’s just over, that’s all. Maybe it can be reclaimed and reinstituted but maybe not. I think we have to be careful of acting as if our faith is ‘church righteous’ and not Christ centered. If we declare Good to be lost if the rules of the calendar are violated what does that say about God? God breaks all the rules.
For goodness sake if the people want to sing a few Christmas carols how does that hurt you? Maybe, as a tradition for Mary’s sake, we should all also drink Mylanta instead of eggnog. (Btw eggnog is a pagan atrocity. Just saying.)
And I must stop now and apologize for snark. I’m gen x, snark is part of my dna.
What I really want to say is that the beauty of anticipation for Christmas is not dependent on Advent-as-it-was. Just like Mary’s heart was filled with anticipation and wonder for the birth of her child that first (and only real) advent, so the advent rituals that emerged in and of the church became a new and meaningful way to await Christ as a Christian community. This was all Good.
And now, here we are, again, looking at a new way. As a culture I see a lot of Good in how we actually celebrate the coming of Christmas. The only real difference is that we celebrate the anticipation and waiting of Advent not by holding out on Christmas, but by engaging it and interacting with it. For us today, we engage the material of Christmas as part of our real ritual of preparation. Gift shopping, decoration, the tree all goes up—and all of that is an exercise of anticipation. Interaction makes it real for us. We clergy need to shift how we think of ‘waiting’ in liturgical terms in order to make room for our cultural need for sensual (sensing) and intellectual interaction with the object we await.
Preparation and all its associated materials are the modern way we express the anticipation of the material miracle of Christ. As the tree goes up, so does our excitement for the day to come. As the Christmas songs are sung, so we enter into the place of ‘almost but not yet.’ When Thanksgiving dishes are cleared away and we think ahead to Christmas, the anticipation begins. In our mind’s eye we remember Christmases past, and we grow nostalgic. In looking back we prepare to look forward.
By mid-December we smell the pie baking and our mouths hunger for it! Luckily, one of our foodie aunts or uncles has already done some baking and it tastes sooo good! Whoopee! Christmas is coming!!
Mince pie and Christmas lights by Bertie Charman 2010 Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0
I hear the laments about the loss of Advent by churchfolk and they are right, Advent-as-it-was is not respected or observed any more. I’m sorry. I also hear the main thread of that lament in the observation that the material consumerism of Christmas looms larger and larger and threatens to swamp the manger and replace all the hay with tinsel. With fake glitter-coated sheep everywhere, who knows what will happen next. If glitter gets on the baby Jesus, all will be lost.
Three wise sheep by David Masters 2008 Flickr CC BY 2.0
Yes, the consumer reality of today is antithetical to the sacred reality of Advent. It really hurts to see it, I agree. And I lament this, too. But I think the real challenge is figuring out, not how to stand in opposition to people where they are, but how to stand alongside them. Can we put aside our laments in order that we can accompany the glitterati and affirm that Good part of Advent within them? This good part—the hunger for Christ, the impulse to generosity, the call to kindness and humility—is real. We as spiritual leaders can help the spiritually hungry to identify and name the anticipation they feel in new ways. We can choose to affirm all the good that they are expressing, and tune our sacred rituals to affirm that Good, even as we teach to deepen it.
A few Christmas carols and the opportunity to enter and share the people’s joy is well, well worth it. A whole bucketful of Christmas carols are worth it! So many Christmas carols that I am good and sick of them by Dec 26th are absolutely authentically worth it if we recognize in the singing the real opportunity to tell the story that Christ is coming—if God is with us, who can be against us! Shaking our heads and fingers at the carolers will only drive a wedge between Christmas and the Church.
This wedge is real. When I see things such as the zombie nativity I cringe. Comedic characters are obsessive characters. The church becomes a comedic character and an object of ridicule when it obsessively persists in outdated ritual-making, then clucks its tongue at the celebrations of others. Pop culture at its heart seeks revitalized conversation. Can we have that conversation? Can we engage profane or religious conversations as they actually exist?
So. We can tie our churches to an archaic calendar or we can live into the missional moment. There is good news here. If Advent is a made-up calendrical event, it can be reformed and renewed. If we but choose to look, we will see that hope and anticipation are very much alive in our time and a key character still in the lead up to Christmas. If we choose, we can let go of our church-righteousness, and instead witness to and teach foundationally and meaningfully what is essentially important—that Christ is coming! Praise be to God!
Lodi – Il Tempio Civico della Beata Vergine Incoronata ByGiovanni 2014 Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
I am attached to the idea of really good church. I love the feeling I get when I walk into a place that feels like sanctuary, as if the Holy Spirit has touched down there so many times that one day the Spirit decided simply to stay, and cry, and play, and love the people who worship there for as long as there is lamenting and praising before God.
I am attached to the idea of deeply loving God, of breathing in and of and with the Holy Spirit as I lift my hands to pray, lift my voice to sing, lift my heart to all that is Good, and lift my soul to the Lord, for my soul belongs to God. I am deeply attached to the word ‘beloved.’
I am attached to the notion of really good church community. I love the idea of being one of a great family of believers with whom I work for the glory of the Kingdom of God. And yes I said ‘glory,’ because God is glorious. And yes, I believe there is and will be a kingdom of God, a shining city, welcoming to all people, abundant with all creation, and flowing with the waters of life.
Warm enough by Andrew Vargas 2007 flickr CC BY 2.0
I am attached to—no committed to—the journey of my Christian faith. And I love being in a small group of people willing to share that journey with me, enriching my faith, challenging my limitations, strengthening my cowardice, holding my hand. I seek and need that circle of folk, people who I am honored to listened to, blessed to have shared with, and know I can count on for support and prayer come what may.
I am attached to good rituals of ‘hello’ and ‘farewell.’ I love being greeted by a brother or sister of the church who has the vulnerability and strength to look into my eyes warmly and lovingly. This is the sort of ‘hello’ you make when you really mean it! It says, ‘welcome’ and ‘I see you.’ Likewise I love a really good goodbye and fare well, with eye contact and a warm touch, a palm pressed against my forearm, a palm raised in a gesture of benediction. Like this:
May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face…
Church Dancing by Adam Cohn 2011 flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
I am attached living the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth with all my ability. I want to find compassion, generosity, kindness, and courage within me every day. I want to encourage compassion, generosity, kindness and courage in others. I want all people to know how precious they really are. I want people to really get that inside, to their core, that they are children of God. I want people to know that no matter how hard it gets or how bad they feel there is nothing more powerful than God, and God can and will work Goodness in their life.
I love the idea of Christ-like companionship—all people, all faces, all generations. I am attached to the hope of both receiving and providing that companionship. I am attached to the idea that I can learn to truly and humbly see the light in my family, my friend, my enemy and my neighbor, whether or not they see the light in me.
Looking Across Generations in Hyderabad by United Nations Photo 2009 Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
I am attached to the idea of Grace—that God loves and blesses us even when we don’t deserve it. Even if we fall short over and over again, I am attached to the idea that we practice getting up, and getting up again, and in each falling short and getting up we are learning a little bit more to trust in God until one day we may be sanctified, a whole people “attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ep 4:13)
Attachments are a feature of our lives. We are too often attached to things that are not life affirming. Because we think we are not worthy on the inside, or are too hurried or too depleted, or because we don’t really love, we are reluctant to participate in rituals of greeting, in small groups of listening, or in the kingdom work of building communities of justice and compassion. We raise up idols of wealth and status, after all these are far easier to chase after in the short term, in the midst of a life of turmoil and disconnection, when the waters of God’s shining city seem impossibly far away.
There are some who would say the highest order of human good is to let go of all attachments, every one. There are also those who say that self-seeking is the only right seeking. But I am not attached to those ideas. I believe that those of us called to Christianity are called to some attachments. I believe Christian discipleship is a discipline of heart and mind and Spirit. I believe that as a Christian I am indeed called to be and do things that matter in the world. I believe that we are called to this: to act with justice, to love kindness, to serve our neighbor, to love our enemy, and to walk humbly with our God.
Yes. I am very, very much attached to that. And I invite you to be a Christian disciple and to walk the Way with me.
May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make his face shine upon you. May the Lord look toward you and grant you peace.
What does it mean to be starving?
What about the phrase, ‘starved for time’?
I want to talk about that for a few minutes, but not in the sense of outliers, those who experience true famine. I want to talk about what scarcity means in the normal course of a normal lifetime, given regular circumstances and everyday people.
I want to talk about Scarcity, Tunneling, Slack, and Abundance.
I picked up this book, titled Scarcity, because I wanted to better understand how I could help the finance team at our church to see possibilities beyond the fear and lack they seemed to be stuck in. I kept reading it because I found myself within it, too, that part of me that works too many hours and tries to do too much.
For the finance team there is never enough money. For me, there is never enough time.
This book explores scarcity. The authors gathered everyday people for their research. In one study they separated people into groups, one group stated they were on a diet, the other group stated they were not. They gave these groups tests measuring executive functioning and fluid intelligence, and they asked them to do a couple of word searches.
Just the regular kind of wordsearch, with the letters all in rows and the point is to find the words hidden inside. The groups searched for words: Street, lamp, building, cloud. Then they had a different wordsearch which substituted a few of the neutral words for loaded ones, and the groups were asked to search for the word Cake and the word Donut.
The group that was not dieting had no difference in the speed of their search or their intelligence when searching for words like Cake. But the dieters did. The food words slowed them down, considerably.
The same for the groups that were told to imagine they needed an expensive car repair. Just imagining such a scenario flustered and distracted regular people to the point that their executive functioning skills and intellectual capacity was diminished the same as if they had pulled an all-nighter at the office. Their IQ dropped 14 points.
The researchers gave participants a whole lot of tests, and over and over again they found people responded to scarcity—rich or poor—in exactly the same way. The only difference was how much slack they had to work with.
What do we do in the face of scarcity?
When we are faced with scarcity, we get tunnel vision and actually improve our performance in dealing with the problem. Hunger boosts our focus and improves our ability to find food.
But this boost is short lived and cannot be maintained. It is also very narrow, so that while you might be very good in the short term at trading off calories to achieve that slice of cake, you are not very good at dealing with anything else.
What you need is slack. What you wish for is abundance.
But when you have abundance you tend to squander it.
Let’s say I have an abundant amount of rope. I can let it “play out” and it is not going to evoke from me a scarcity response. I have room for mistakes, I can take chances.
But then, if things get tighter, I find I am losing ground. I need slack and I start borrowing, borrowing from the vacation budget to pay the visa bill, borrowing from dinner calories to gain lunch calories, and that works, until the slack is gone and the auto repair costs 3 grand and more than maxes out the visa card, and for dinner there is lasagna and deep fried ice cream.
I am at the end of my rope.
Scarcity leads to tunneling, tunneling leads to borrowing until there is no slack left. It’s a trap, you get deeper and deeper and all you can see is scarcity.
Tunneling short term gives you a focus boost that can boost your performance to accomplish that next thing. The church budget gets tight, you have another rummage sale—and that rummage sale is one heck of a rummage sale—but everything else, your kids, your house, your health, your sleep, your hope, your willingness to take risk, it all get compromised.
We have this hope that abundance is somehow deep in the tunnel you know so well, despite the terrible fruit tunneling brings, the ill health, broken relationships, and desperate debt.
It is as if we worship famine instead of God.
Famine is biblical. When Pharaoh dreams of seven fat cows and seven skinny cows Joseph’s careful attention to managing the problems of debt and abundance mean many live who would have died, the stability of the kingdom is maintained, the Pharaoh emerges far richer than before, all because this man, Joseph, this exiled, imprisoned slave who had lost everything, listened to God, trusting that God was with him all the while.
You have to lose your life to gain it.
This book got me thinking about the phrase “going for broke.” In the context of scarcity, “going for broke” means exactly what you think it means. It means you sure are going to be broke. You are actively choosing brokenness, and you are going to be so broke you are never digging out again. You might as well play the last shreds because you are going to lose it all.
But there is more to the phrase “going for broke” than that. “Going for broke” is an American proverb, it’s a paradox. It means losing it all, but it also means letting go and maybe getting everything.
For those of us who dig deep into scarcity and won’t look right or left, for us “going for broke” is that moment even me with my thick skull begins to figure out that maybe this isn’t a winning strategy. That maybe all this borrowing is not going to pay off in some great act of a merciful God who will pity me personally for digging so deep that my rope has become so thin, I am hanging by a thread.
I am Abraham, knife in hand, so sure that God wants me to slaughter my son that I am standing over him, knife in hand. My son is squirming, but all I see is the belief I have that maybe this time my sacrifice will be enough.
I am going for broke. And I see my son. And I grasp the handle of the knife.
I am prepared to “double down” but for the first time I am also “looking up.” You have come to the breaking point, the path is set, no more imagining you can borrow anything else, no imaginary slack is going to show up. And if there is nothing left, it breaks the spell for an instant, and you remember the world, and you remember life, and there, in the bushes is a ram, and the angel of the Lord whispers, “Abraham, why don’t you sacrifice that ram instead of Isaac?”
In our fear of scarcity, we sacrifice our abundance. Let’s not do that. Let’s look up before the end. Whatever it takes, let’s raise the cry, jolt our awareness, and take heart and believe that something else is truly possible.
We are, we have to be, a people of abundance. We do not worship a God of famine and poverty and debt, we worship a God of possibility, we worship a God of Life.
Praise be to God. Amen.
If you get the chance, I absolutely recommend this book: SCARCITY: Why Having Too Little Means So Much by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, Times Books, 2013.
Cake: Pound Cake by Scheinwerfermann 2008 Public Domain, Wiki Commons
Rummage: Seattle Nihon Go Gakko rummage by Joe Mabel 2009 CC BY-SA 3.0
Boat: Boat and rope by Lee 2006 Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0