Advent IS Blue Christmas

One of the things churches have begun doing during the season of Advent is what is called a Blue Christmas. This is a worship service or time of remembrance where people who are in grief over loss may find in worship a sacred time of shelter from the aggressive, mandatory, happy-happy of the secular world.

In one sense, this is a good and kind thing, helping those in grief do their grieving in the face of a culture bent on making everyone “turn that frown upside down” or else “go to your room” until we can be happy and cheerful.

There’s nothing quite like the Most Wonderful Time of the Year to dig up old hurts and rub salt into the wounds of the last and the least. In some ways, it’s very much like Valentines (I mean “Singles Awareness”) Day. A time for those who have to delight in their having while the have-nots are reminded of their lack.

And the things we lack come in many guises. Given the advertisers focus on Getmas, our lack certainly be stuff. After all, “what did you get for Christmas?” is the essential post Christmas question for kids everywhere. What we lack can be a person, a beloved one who has decided to sever the relationship, or one who is dead. What we lack can even be more deeply emotional. My dad did not have a good growing up and so each Christmas he tried so hard for This Time to be the Perfect Christmas that would pay for all the awfulness of the past. It never did however, because what human effort could be perfect?

This then is the season for the Happy Haves to go shouting along, demanding that everyone start having Fun! Fun! Fun! just like them. The sad, scared, tired, and worn need not apply.

But a whole lot of us are in fact sad, tired, worn, and grieving and so the church creates a one off worship service, a chance to recognize the grief that flows just under our surfaces. This is a good and appropriate thing. It is also to, just a little bit, miss the point of Advent.

That’s because the season of Advent is not in fact the Pre-Christmas Rush, the official season where we run about madly getting ready for the day (or multi-day) extravaganza of family and fun. Advent is ITSELF our Blue Christmas. It is the season of opening up our grief, our fear, and our lack to the only One who can give us true healing.

If we want to follow the secular model of “being so busy” this season, valiantly tap dancing on the avalanche of social expectations surrounding us while maintaining our “cool,” there are hundreds of applauding and even adoring fans who will laud our work. In the subtle field of Busier Than Thou, we may well carry off the palm. There are fields upon fields where our glory can shine. But… none of that will prepare our hearts.

Advent begins in our heart, not our day planner, or our home; not even our social relationships. Advent begins where, with the grace and strength of God, we bring our whole torn heart’s field out into the light. We delight in the parts that are strong, we grieve the parts that are broken, and we take the whole mess and put it into hands far more loving than our own.

We bring our best, we bring our worst, we bring our whole MEH-lange of mediocracy into God’s grace and seek healing. Some of the healing will take discipline and practice. Some of the healing will come as a miracle of grace. Some healing will come from simply realizing that God has already fixed that while we weren’t looking.

To reach this healing however, we need to look at ourselves closely. We need a whole season of the year to review, bring out into the open, lift up, and receive grace. And so we have a blue season four weeks long where to prepare our hearts so there’s enough room for the baby to be borne in us.

The color of the season is even blue to get this notion through to us. It’s reflective blue, thoughtful blue, sad and even hopeful blue. This is because the whole of Advent IS blue, a reflective, quiet, cleansing time for us to grieve, let go, and be ready for the gift of life.

That’s a Blue Christmas worthy of us all.

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I Wanna Puppy!

Mark 10.35-45

Because we have a hard time with this stuff about leadership and servantship, I’m going to change the topic slightly and see if that helps. Yes, this is using the creative imagination. No, none of the words I am about to put into mouths actually came from there, but the mood of them? That’s totally there.

James and John came to Jesus and said “we wanna puppy!” To which Jesus replied “Puppies take a lot of time and effort. You have to feed them and walk them and take them to the vet and they will break things you love and make you cry.” But this did not deter the two young men who said “we’ll take care of the puppy and do everything we need to, we promise!” So Jesus replied “You will definitely get to clean up messes and have your heart broken, but this particular puppy is for someone else.”

When the other disciples heard about this, they complained “You’re giving THEM a puppy, we want puppies too!” So Jesus got them to circle up for a minute and said “Look people, you know how puppies look on TV and the way they look adoringly to their people for everything, and that kind of power looks really attractive. The thing is that if you really love another creature, if you open your life to a being in my kind of complete self-giving, you are going to be cleaning up messes you never made, catering to selfish beings who do not see what you need, and cleaning up pudding poo at 2am. Because that kind of thing is part of what it means to love a being who is different from you. That’s what it means to love the way I love the cosmos.”

And yes, that’s a whole lot of what it means to love the way Jesus loves. We’re awakened in the middle of the night by someone who needs to go outside. Perhaps the cats decide to go nuts and run around the house. Our favorite shoes or favorite couch will be chewed on or shredded because this being who lives with us. We will have to clean the litter box, and clean up… biological material, and feed creatures who seem only inclined in our favor BECAUSE we feed them. On top of all this, we will likely only have fragmentary thanks from this creature in spite of the care and attention we lavish on them.

On our own, this kind of self-giving love is hard and even impossible to do. We get hurt and mad and want to yell. (My mum recently broke a teacup that was precious to me, you’ve doubtless lost things that others broke of yours). We want to yell and rant and rave about how evil and awful this is. We get to the end of our emotional rope because “they won’t LISTEN!” (and do what we want). We’re frustrated, and hurt, and nobody else knows their lines (that we have so graciously written out for them) and the whole thing is a mess. Plus, we don’t get the thousands of adoring fans (or even one furry fan) that we were promised in the adverts!

The only way we can love and along the way give up our expectations of unconditional adoration is to find the source and power of Jesus alive in us. This is part of the point made right at the end of the reading “For the Son of Humans (tou anthropou) did not come to be deaconed to (diakonethenai) but to deacon (diakonesai) and to give up/give away his being (psuche) as manumission/ransom (lutron from the verb luo “to loose/unbind”) for many.”

In contrast to the political leaders of the time, Jesus gives his life (psuche) in order that this giving frees us from bondage to societal expectations, historical injury, and flat out slavery to ‘the way things are.’ And then there’s the outright slavery to sin, death, and the power of the devil. All of these slaveries are broken by the great Chain Breaking of Easter Morning. All of them are broken by the Way God Loves the Cosmos, with a living, breathing, be-ing, a person who loves, lives and gives personally ad directly.

To be entirely truthful, our own ability to love each other has been less than stellar. Our ability to live faithfully has been such that, were God anyone less than perfectly forgiving, we would have been tossed out on the trash heap long ago. Thus, even though we are most often the puppy messing on the floor and trashing the home we live in, Jesus still picks up the mess and still loves as a Lord who does not lord it over us.

So, the disciples “wanna puppy” and “prawmus” to take really good care of it, even when Jesus warns them of how ungratefully difficult it will be to love another being. In the same way, we too get our puppy, the person or people who are closest to us whose absolute ingratitude will drive us up the wall and across the ceiling. And then we get something else, the Jesus who loves without measure.

We get the strength to clean up again, to start over again, to wakeup to the sound of hairballs hacking, dog barf, and broken hearts and teacups. We get the real love of God which is bigger than our promise, more hope-filled than our hopes, and better than our dreams because it is real, alive, and wriggling in our hands. God hears our promises, knows that we’re going to fail them, and still gives us the strength and energy to love and keep loving through two am feedings, “I hate you” conversations, and the inevitable chewed shoe because “that’s what the promise is for.”

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Leaving and Cleaving

Genesis 2.18-24

I’ve written a bit elsewhere on the beginning of this passage and the way the creation account has been twisted by people who want to use it as a support for power differential in human lives. Now it’s time to handle the end of this passage and a bit beloved and misread by our more patriarchal friends.

You see, while it is true that God made Ha’Adam before Eve (The ‘Ha” is important because it means his name was “the Adam” rather than just “Adam” because his human-ness [Adam “human” is a pun on Adamah “humus/earth”] was more important than his maleness). It is also true that all the creatures of the world in the quest for a “helper to stand before” Ha’Adam (but again, more on that elsewhere).

The next part of the reading however is largely glossed over and even misapplied. You see, in our culture it is waved at the wife who is assured that she must leave her family and cleave to her husband. This is amazingly absurd however because in the text it is the MAN who “leaves father and mother.”

Even more, it is he who, after leaving his home, is to cleave/cling/be close to and in one case “be soldered to” to his spouse so that they become one flesh. The word of “one” in this passage is the same one used in the Shema “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” The Hebrew is thus really serious about this One-ness.

This “one flesh” business has given polemicists much grist and been cruelly misapplied more often than not, but fundamentally it means that the mutual submission described here involves a mutual exchange. As Paul put it, each person no longer belongs to theirself alone but to their spouse. Furthermore, no one hurts their own body but instead helps it. Thus each partner places their whole self in the care of the other and each partner cares for their new self as they did their old.

But what do they do when they’ve learned bad lessons about how to care for a self? That’s the leaving and cleaving bit.

You see, part of this biblical clinging to each other and becoming one flesh is dealing with what has been dumped on us in our past. Our parents taught us both well and poorly how to treat our being. They modeled rightly and wrongly what it means to be in a relationship with another. And now we have to leave that behind.

In order to be a good person in a relationship, we have to sort through all the learnings of our past, all the assurances that This is The Way We Do It and let it go. My family was full of almost casual levels of physical and verbal violence along with rank stupidity about what counts as “manliness” and “womanliness.”

In order to become a person worthy of relationship, I had to let go of the old stuff (i.e. “leave father and mother”) in order to be able to join my life (“cleave”) to another. Suddenly, the biblical text is less of an annoying side note and more of a deeply appropriate psychological encouragement. Add to this the reality that our hardened hearts¬†are a real barrier to intimacy and suddenly this olde timey commentary is actually deeply important.

By no means am I going to say that the only reason relationships fail is because we haven’t left our past to become our future or because our own hearts are hardened against the other. It’s a good place to start because we are indeed the one common element in all our failed relationships, but we are not the sole cause of those failings.

Sometimes the person with whom we have begun a new life really is as crazy as we’ve concluded they are. Sometimes they are the ones unwilling to leave the certainties of their home life in order to cling to us. Sometimes the person we thought we met really didn’t exist except in our dreams. If we are going to grow and become however, it’s always a good idea to start out asking “what do I need to leave in my past in order to cleave to a new life with this person?”

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Punching Satan in the Face

Revelation 12.7-12

The Feast of Michael and All Angels (29 September), also called Michaelmas, is a day largely uncelebrated in the protestant west and that’s just sad. In England it’s associated with the turning of the seasons from summer labor to harvest rewards. It’s used to describe the fall term in schooling which is a beginning of the new academic year. As we have moved away from closeness to the seasons of the earth and look further and further into our past to talk about school, both of those movements seem quaint and olde-timey.

And yet, the Archangel Michael is known to our Eastern Orthodox friends as Michael the Taxiarch, (Greek for Brigadier). He’s the field commander of the heavenly hosts, the Angel Army we talk about when we describe God as Lord of Hosts. We see him in Daniel helping a messenger (angel) fight past the ‘Prince of Persia’ (a spiritual force opposed to God). But it is in the Revelation to St. John where he really comes to his battling peak.

[Important note: the Book of the Revelation to St. John is a mysterious vision about the God who is Mystery, so if anyone wants to sell you a secret decoder ring and says you have to pay more than two boxtops for it, it’s a scam. The point of the vision is that God Wins In The End not exactly who The Antichrist Is [particularly because the word antichristos “anti-Christ” doesn’t even show up in the book]. I’ve talked more about this elsewhere.]

But getting back to the battle. In the twelfth chapter of the Revelation, we see a war in heaven. In that war Michael and the Angel Armies war against The Satan and his demons. In the text, “the giant dragon, the original serpent, the one called devil and The Satan, the liar (deceiver) of the whole community” (Personal translation) is thrown down. While the text translates this as a “throwing down,” it has the sense of “pitching out/chucking out like old garbage.” I take it to mean that there’s going to be a certain amount of fighting and punching going on while Mike “takes out the trash.” That’s why I like to call Michael “Mr. Punches-Satan-in-the-Face.”

He’s head of the armies, he fights to bring messages to the beleaguered believers (Daniel f’rinstance), and when the Big Fight goes down, he’s chief Puncher of Satan. What’s not to like about Mike?

If that were all Michael were about, it would be enough for us to get out the pom-poms and cheer. But there are two subtle other things in this text that talk about our part in this fight.

The first is simply to note that there are no people involved in this war in heaven. Angels are fighting demons, Michael and the Giant Dragon are duking it out, and there’s not one single human being anywhere on the field. This is an important reminder to us that we are not in fact Holy Warriors against Other People. Some of the most evil barbarities of Church history have come up because Christians got confused about who the enemy truly is. We looked at human beings and saw demon infested monsters to be slaughtered without mercy.

(Sidenote: has anyone else noticed the way American political language is full of the language of Holy War. Whether the “enemy” is a libtard or a Trumpkin, a Fascist or a Commie; they’re Not Really Human. “They” are monsters to be utterly destroyed instead of human beings with value. This is a vile misuse of our spiritual language).

But there are actually no humans involved in the war. It’s an angelic war not a human one and we need to be unconfused about who the Enemy is. Interestingly, the enemy is actually right there in the text. But to know that, we have to pick up the second point in the text and learn a little Hebrew.

Satan is a job title, not a name. In Hebrew it is written Ha’Satan “the Satan.” Greek and English simply imported the word without also bringing over its meaning. The root word is “accuse” thus “Ha’Satan” is most literally “the accuser.” So Satan is actually the accuser, the one who katergo (“leads others against”) us. This is the voice that says ‘you are not worthy, not capable,’ ‘you’re stupid, dumb, and bad.’ This voice lingers in our heads and undermines our attempts to do, be, and become more than the lies we were told. (And who is the Father of Lies?).

The war in our life is not with people, it is with the voice of lies that echo in our hearts. It is with the Accusations we swallowed down and believed Back In The Day and The Accuser (The Satan) who keeps throwing those accusations at us to this very day.

Does this mean that we are hopelessly outclassed? The Satan is a spiritual enemy after all, our ancient enemy from Back in the Garden. How are we supposed to punch that liar and his damnable lies in the face?

The history of the church shows that there are indeed some believers who have through years of spiritual practice and strength gotten the demons and even the devil to flee. The rest of us are sometimes successful, sometimes stuck, and often outclassed.

If only there were a Designated Satan Puncher somewhere among the Heavenly Host.

(Oh wait, there is)

And that’s why Michaelmas, the Feast of Michael and All Angels, is important to us. Our spiritual life is not just Me and my partial understanding of who Jesus is, it’s not Me and my confusion, it’s Me and the Heavenly Hosts led by the Archangel Michael under the command of Almighty God. And Mike is the designated Satan’s-Face-Puncher.

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Scandal!

Mark 9.38-50

One of the things we miss in Jesus’ admonition about “if anyone puts a stumbling block before one of these little ones” is exactly who the “little ones” are. The word is mikron “small” not pais “child.” While it is true that children tend toward the small side, they are not the only ones called “small” in the bible.

In truth, one of the most famous “smalls” in scripture is when Jesus calls the disciples “little-faith” (It’s one word in Greek). He looks at grown up adult type people and calls them “little.” So something other than physical size is what is meant by “little.”

Or perhaps it is most correct to say that physical size is not the only thing that is meant. In both cases, Jesus is talking about faith. Here it is “the little ones believing in me” to the disciples it’s “little-faith.” The faith/trust of the people in question is what’s described, not their size. And that opens up a real of consideration for us all because suddenly, anyone could be the little-faith we might scandalize.

[Language note: the Greek word translated “stumbling block” and “stumble” is skandalon and is the root of the English word ‘scandal.” Thus when we cause others to stumble we are scandalizing them by causing them to trip over the scandal we lay before them.

The behavior of the Catholic hierarchy with respect to priests who have broken their vows of celibacy is a perfect example. The priests injured the parish (awful enough in itself) but the shepherds of those priests compounded it into scandal and have caused the little-faiths among the people to stumble and even led their Protestant sisters and brothers into sin (as this piece sadly and accurately satirizes).]

It is not then the physical size of those who stumble as much as it is their spiritual size that concerns Jesus. And what is it he has said? “If anyone scandalizes (‘puts a stumbling block before’) one of the little ones believing in me…” So it is our actions, our behaviors, and our speech that causes our sisters and brothers to be scandalized, and Jesus objects.

To add to the situation, it is not just Jesus who objects. Paul points out that the strong in faith can by exercising their strength cause the weak to stumble and that his strength causing another to stumble is in fact a great loss to the church. He then points to a key challenge of living our actual life together: how to act in order not to injure the mikron, the weak and little-faiths.

We do it by knowing the other person enough that we can interact with them without injuring them. This may sound a little odd and definitely ‘touchy-feely’ but it’s actually part of the point.

When we are open enough to another person that we can come to know them deeply enough, we know what can injure them and what makes them laugh. One of my friends was routinely addressed as much younger than they were so joking about age hurts them a great deal. Comments that you or I might pass off as absurd silliness instead become deeply hurtful. The only way I know this is because I have learned this person and so I am able to avoid putting a skandal about age before their feet.

It is by knowing the other person, by welcoming them into our life that we learn how to care for others and how to receive care from them in return.

The truth is that even the strongest among us are mikron in places, little-faiths vulnerable to the chaos and injury of life. It is also true that our seeing of each other and caring for each other is the best way to know the places where our sisters and brothers are in fact weak and then know how to care for them rather than cause them to stumble.

Part of why we are able to be vicious online is because we don’t have to see our target go to pieces as our words batter them. We can hurl invective at Those People because they’re not really real to us, mere cardboard cut outs at which we throw darts. And when we’re face to face? There’s a subtle way we miss seeing the human in front of us because we’re so lost in our own history and our own emotion.

The antidote to this cruelty is to see our conversation partner, to know them as little-faith and to find ways to build on their strengths. This will take strength, grace, and patience on our part. It will, frankly, take the miraculous intervention of God, but it will absolutely yield people who can love one another in a way that sees the other as lovable and beloved. And that hard work is worth it.

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Taking Up Crosses

Mark 8.27-38

The notion of ‘take up your cross’ needs a thorough exploration because we’ve misused the notion fairly thoroughly in modern life. We’ve tacked the notion of ‘cross’ onto just about every kind of discomfort and suffering humans face and (often quite blithely) admonished people to ‘take up their cross.’ This is both silly and dangerous.

This is because there are many kinds of suffering and amid all the different agonies there are only a few paths that give life. In the same way, there were lots of crosses in the Roman world, but of the three on Golgotha that day, only one held Jesus. Further, the cross was often used to put down revolts with leaders crucified as mile markers along main roads. Those crosses did not give life, they were put up as a Dire Warning.

In the same way, of the many sufferings, the multitude of crosses, which we face in the world, a lot of them do not bring life. They are painful because the situation is painful and we are actually supposed to avoid it. Like those cute shoes that pinch our feet into agony, and the creepy person who makes us really uncomfortable, pain is often a deeply unsubtle hint to “stop doing this dummy! Run away.”

Slamming our hands in doors, burning ourselves on the stove, and getting splinters are so common that they’re practically a rite of passage. They hurt because we’re not supposed to do them and our body strongly objects if we persist. Calling this sort of thing ‘my cross to bear’ and trying to take up agony for the sake of agony is considered supremely silly and something for which one ought to seek professional care.

It’s fairly obvious that this sort of ‘suffering for the sake of suffering’ is deeply unhealthy and we work hard to help each other avoid it. Unfortunately, we then turn around and proclaim to the abused spouse or child that their abuse is somehow ‘a cross to bear’ as if suffering is, in itself redemptive.

Certainly there are times when suffering cannot be avoided. Our family is a prime group of people whom we cannot throw away without significant self-injury. Even unhealthy relationships can be hard to end because the other person does touch us on a positive and deep level.

Addicts aren’t addicts because they like being horrible human beings, people with eating disorders don’t take them up on a lark. On some deep level, even the most self-destructive behavior touches some tender spot in our heart. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t do it. But no matter how much these behaviors may touch our hurt places, they do not heal us and dwelling in them slowly destroys us.

If all suffering were truly redemptive, as we are so often told, then addicts in their addiction would be the most redeemed of all. The abuse victim cowering through life as a shallow reflection of their deepest potential would actually be the strongest, healthiest, most lively person of us all. But they are not because suffering for the sake of suffering simply brings on suffering. It’s an endless loop, a treadmill to nowhere.

Ultimately, it’s part of the fallacy of “that which does not kill me makes me stronger.” This is bogus. What does not kill us fails to kill and that is all it does. It is what we do with our survival that CAN make us stronger. If we learn lessons of strength, it can be a defeat with a ‘seed of victory in it.’ If we learn lessons of weakness it can be the fractured hip that stays with us all our shortened life. If we learn no lesson at all, whatever failed to kill us last time is going to get another crack at us and probably won’t miss this go ’round.

So much then for the whole notion that our cross is our suffering and that any suffering will do. There were two convicts up there on crosses with Jesus, one turned toward him and found in death a door to life. The other turned away.

So suffering crosses exist all around us, they abound even, filling up our field of view and taunting us with the impossibility of escape. And truly, as Lois Bujold put it “pain, like time will come on regardless.” Our redemption however comes in the next part of that quote “the question is, what beauty will you win in the midst of that pain.”

A suffering cross is essentially inevitable and we rightly distrust the happy clappy, “too blessed to be depressed” people because more often than not, they’re being less than truthful. Like the person who is always “fine” no matter when you ask, they’re at the very least lying to your face, they may even be lying to their soul.

If suffering crosses are inevitable, are we then doomed to distress and lonely death?

Would you be surprised if I said “no?”

If crosses can’t be avoided, if we will, as one wise man explained it die in a ditch anyway, our power is in choosing the ditch. There are many crosses in this world so our power is to take up the life giving cross of Christ instead of some other, life stealing cross. We take up the suffering with a seed of victory in it, the grief where we learn that there is a rock to cling to in the darkness.

We learn that our feet sink into the mire only so far and then we hit the strong, lifting hand of God. We weep and weep and weep until we learn that there is a peace beyond our fear and hope beyond our sorrow. We discover that “I do are the two most famous last words, the beginning of the end. But to lose our life for another I’ve heard, is a good place to begin.

What we learn, in all the ways we learn it, is that when our cross is connected to Christ, when the cross we bear is itself the Cross of Christ, we find life. We find the table in the wilderness where the blind can see and the poor possess. We find that, at the end of ourselves, at the end of our strength, there is so much more. There is, fundamentally, a suffering that is a gateway into life, something that seems a defeat and yet is full victory’s beginning.

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