Advent used to be a period of repentance and fasting like Lent. With the Church’s decision to celebrate the Mass of the birth of Christ at the same time as the established observance of the solstice, Advent therefore came to correspond with the days of increasing darkness (since Christianity was still a Northern hemisphere religion at the time). In pre-modern times, people found more meaning in the turning of the seasons. While we might be aware that the days are growing shorter in our contemporary world, it is not something that concerns us too greatly given that we have wired houses and glowing screens to chase away the darkness that encroaches.
But when the lengthening of the nights brought the darkness ever closer, it had to be faced for what it was. Without the distractions of the light which provide the space to keep hands and minds busy with work and play, one has to be alone with the parts of life many of us would often rather avoid. Without light to distract us, there is nothing to silence the reminders of grief or the inevitability of death. The questions that haunt us, the memories we fear, and the reminders of the pain surrounding us come creeping in with the darkness.
And for much of human history, this period of opportunity to face the darkness was embraced.
Rituals were devised to help one face the darkness and to even grapple with the darkness within oneself. The period of Advent, mirroring the cultural habits of the season, similarly became a period of repentance and fasting as Christians found the time in the longer periods of darkness to look inward and face the questions that often get brushed aside in the everyday busyness of life. It was a time of vulnerability, a time when it was okay to mourn, to admit to doubts, and to do the hard work of recognizing the parts of oneself that needed to be healed or changed.
To protect themselves in their period of vulnerability and introspection, people in European cultures would hang evergreen branches around the openings of their homes. These symbols of hope that life survives the darkness were thought to keep evil spirits from entering and taking advantage of the vulnerable rituals of the darkness. But the protections were not against the darkness as people knew that the darkness was a natural part of the rhythm of life. The protections were only against that which would take advantage of people as they tried to open themselves up to wrestling with the scary parts of life that must be faced in order for one to grow.
Embracing the approaching darkness was not merely about awaiting the return of the light. The light was celebrated once it returned, but the period of darkness was not just survived but embraced as a necessary part of what shaped the development of the holistic person.
Too often in Advent we rush towards the light. We make it all about preparing for the event of the Christ child without taking the time to be in the darkness. We look forward to a light to distract us without wrestling with the meaning of the darkness. Perhaps we should return to the habit of embracing the darkness instead.
I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God. As, in a theatre,
The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed
With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on darkness,
And we know that the hills and the trees, the distant panorama
And the bold imposing façade are all being rolled away—
- T.S. Eliot, “East Coker”
We’ve grown comfortable with the façade. The pretty backdrop of our lives, the rote stories that prop up our faith, the habits that keep us so distracted that we forget that there is anything more than the construct of life we skim across.
We rush toward Christmas, letting the familiarity of the stories lull us into a contentment with our knowledge of the event. We speak of the return of the light or of the light breaking into the darkness, but often those words are just platitudes we use to pretend that there is some meaning to our experience – that the busyness and the trappings of the season are for a purpose, even if we can’t fully articulate what it is. Even if all we can do is insist on restating the story as we know it to be.
Even the period of anticipation and expectation has become a front for casting judgment on those who display a different façade. Advent often is not about experiencing God in the waiting, but ensuring that the waiting is done properly. If anyone dares mention a Christmas carol, put up a Christmas tree, or (God forbid) use the wrong color candle in an Advent wreath they are resoundingly condemned for not observing the rituals properly.
We are so comfortable with our façades that we miss that there is a deeper story to tell, a drama yet to unfold, a mystery to encounter beyond the constructs we have grown accustomed to. If we will only settle down, let the lights go out, and wait for the imposing façade to be rolled away then perhaps there will be space for the drama to commence.
But turning off the lights is scary. The light distracts us, allows us to only see the façades that we find safe and comforting. Even if they are hollow, they are known. Darkness is unsettling; we don’t know what it might hold, what might by moving within its unseen corners. We would rather embrace the known even if that means that we never encounter where God might be moving than risk having the worlds we have built for ourselves challenged.
Yet, when the darkness surrounds us so does possibility. The potential for God to move and entice us toward encountering mystery enters in with that expectant darkness. The Spirit can hover and in its rumble of wings stir up new ways of being in this world – new stories to tell and depths to explore.
But that is only when we allow the lights to be extinguished and the darkness blanket our imaginations. When we stop simply reiterating the expectations of the season, the words we know by rote, the images we let glaze over our eyes and sit in that darkness, then we might find some meaning in the waiting.
We must sit in that darkness so that we can anticipate not just a preconceived or tired idea of Advent, but the actual advent of God appearing mysteriously and wonderfully in our midst.
To wait implies that no matter how much it might frighten us, we actually expect God to show up.
I’ve always been fond of those illusion pictures (like the old woman or young lady image). There is always an image that one sees first and it takes time and training to see the other perspective – but once one does it is impossible to not see both. That shift in part describes my experience with Christian art after having encountered Rita Brock’s work.
I’ve heard Rita speak and have read some of Saving Paradise. In her work, she explores the ways early Christian art focused less on the crucifixion of Christ and instead on the ways Christ redeems and baptizes the world. While later Christian art is full of crucifixion images and accompanied a theology that saw this world as an evil from which we must escape, earlier art presented Christ in his glory using baptism as an entry point into the paradise of this world. This baptized world is not perfect of course, but it is a place to struggle together in the process of becoming more like God. As Brock suggests, this early art — which included images of water flowing from Christ over the earth — conveys the theology that everlasting life begins at baptism (not when we die and escape) and invites us to live as Christ lived even in the present.
Brock points out that most commentaries on Christian art ignore these images of baptism and the theology they imply. But after seeing her point out in images the presence of water flowing from Christ, it is hard now not to see it. And it is exactly what I encountered when I was in Los Angeles recently and had the opportunity to visit the Heaven, Hell, and Dying Well: Images of Death in the Middle Ages exhibit at the Getty Museum.
My experience of the exhibit began as I was walking in and overheard a child asking her father what the title of the exhibit meant. His response was that the church used to use the idea of hell to frighten people into doing what they wanted and that these were some of the images they used to do so. I cringed at his explanation, but then encountered basically the same idea in the commentaries posted by each image. Each one seemed to be explained as “Christ sending sinners into everlasting punishment in hell. Used to convince people to obey the church so that they could avoid such when they died.”
The problem is that is not what I was seeing in those images. I was seeing the baptismal waters of Christ. Even as people were being pulled into the torment of hell by death, the baptismal waters were still covering them and in some it was obvious Christ was rescuing them (see my rather blurry examples). I found it fascinating that these aspects were not mentioned in the commentaries, but that the narrative of Christ punishing bad people by sending them to hell has so infiltrated our cultural imaginations that it is near impossible to admit to alternative narratives. We in our retributive and manipulative culture seem to relish the idea of the wicked getting what they deserve and those who follow the “right” set of rules being rewarded. But, I wonder, how much more poignant (in the full heart-wrenching sense of that term) is the idea of Christ redeeming the world and inviting all into abundant life beginning now?
Forgiveness and mercy aren’t cheap or easy. The wicked are never let off the hook when they are redeemed. If we ignore life in this world and focus on just the punishment or reward of some afterlife, we miss the struggle that walking in the way of Christ involves. If baptism invites us to enter into the earthly paradise where although evil is yet present, we still can struggle along together toward our mutual spiritual flourishing, we are not in for an easy journey. Living in the way of Christ instead of the greedy consuming ways of the world is the hardest path we can ever follow. Punishment is easy because we can remain our selfish selves as we are cast out; mercy is hard because it forces us to change. Not getting what we deserve is truly the most devastating yet beautiful thing that could ever happen to us.
There is a fantastic scene near the end of the Doctor Who episode Last of the Time Lords that illustrates this devastating baptism of mercy perfectly. After the character The Master attempts to take over the universe and nearly destroys the earth in the process, the Doctor yet again saves the day. At one point the Doctor is filled with the glory of all space and time and appears transfigured in all his power before the Master to confront him with his deeds. The Master first tries to attack the Doctor and yet his attacks are futile. He then cowers in a corner as the Doctor hovers above him with a look of infinite sorrow on his face and they have this exchange –
The Doctor: I'm sorry. I'm so sorry…
The Master: You can't do this! YOU CAN'T DO THIS! IT'S NOT FAIR!
The Doctor: Then you know what happens now.
The Master: [scared] No! NO! NO! NO!
The Doctor: [serious] You wouldn't listen…
The Master: [cowering] NO!
The Doctor: [serious] 'Cause you know what I'm gonna say.
The Master: [terrified] No!
[the Doctor touches down, the glow of light vanishes, the Doctor kneels next to the Master and puts his arms around him]
The Doctor: I forgive you.
The Master is heartbroken to unfairly receive mercy and an invitation to live differently with the Doctor – healing instead of dominating worlds. As I watched that episode recently, that scene reminded me of that exhibit at the Getty where the obvious in art is ignored because we simply do not want to accept that perhaps it is mercy and invitation instead of death and punishment that Christ is actually offering. We are terrified to think that perhaps this life does matter, that we must choose a much harder path than merely assuming we chose the right religion. Accepting the baptism of this life is devastating, so we ignore it in our art, label it heresy in our churches, and go on living exactly as we wish. Yet, Christ is there baptizing us anyway, saying “I’m sorry, I am so sorry. I forgive you.”
As posted at the Sojourner's God's Politics blog -
I have a love/hate relationship with the Olympics. I love the pageantry and global drama of it all. And even as one who hardly ever watches sports (I make exceptions for Roller Derby and Quidditch), I nevertheless find myself glued to the screen whenever the Olympics roll around. At the same time I am uneasy with the neo-colonial aspects of the Games and the fact that one’s ability to win a medal increasingly depends upon how much money one’s country has (making the Games a vivid illustration of global economic injustice). Yet even as I have watched (and enjoyed) the London Games with conflicted emotions, I find myself more and more uncomfortable with the ways the presentation of the Olympics serves to reinforce harmful assumptions about women in our culture.
It started before the Games. As the world geared up for the Olympics, it was hard to avoid hearing some guy or another (from TV hosts to bloggers) saying that what they were most looking forward to watching was women’s beach volleyball. It was this strange inside joke insinuating that the real purpose of the Games was to give them an opportunity to see women diving around in bikinis. I even heard complaints about the new Olympic rule allowing women to compete fully covered (a concession offered to allow Muslim women to compete in the Games). It was uncomfortable to hear how nonchalantly women continue to be reduced to mere sexual objects, but I brushed it aside as typical of our culture.
Then the health and fashion magazines put out their summer issues. On their pages I saw a sprinkling of female Olympians looking more like made-over models at a cover shoot than hard-working dedicated athletes. And I noticed another trend as well. I wasn’t seeing any shot-put champions or rowers on those pages. Instead they were gymnasts, swimmers, soccer players, and (of course) beach volleyball players. Instead of reading stories of amazing athletes committed to their sports, I was left with the impression of how one could look pretty (alright, sexy) while playing an acceptably feminine sport. I know that’s just what these sorts of magazines do, but I found myself asking, why can’t these women just be admired for being good athletes?
At first I thought my discomfort was peculiar to me, but then I read more about the ways these stereotypes typify the televised presentation of the Olympics. It’s not just my impression that women athletes are objectified for their looks, two recently published studies prove it to be the case. One study found that in the Vancouver Olympics, men received some 23 hours of prime-time footage while women received under 13 – most of that from figure skating. In the 2008 Beijing Olympics, while women made up 48 percent of the U.S. team and earned 48 percent of the nation’s medals, male athletes received more television coverage, especially in individual events. Significantly, “nearly three-quarters of the women’s coverage was devoted to gymnastics, swimming, diving and beach volleyball” – all sports in which women wear bathing suits (or the equivalent). Another 13 percent of the coverage was devoted to track and field where women are also scantily clad. Only 2 percent of the coverage depicted women competing in hard-body contact or power events (judo, weight-lifting) that are not typically deemed “socially acceptable” sports for women.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not belittling the efforts or achievements of women gymnasts, divers, or even beach volleyball players. They are amazing at what they do and I wish I had the dedication they have to train at their sport. But I am uneasy in how they are presented to the viewing public. I wonder whether it is just the assumption of the network that people are not interested in watching female athletes unless those athletes are sexually appealing in some way, or if that is in fact the reality of the U.S. audience?
There was much derision from western countries when, after the IOC forced a few traditionally Muslim countries to allow female athlete to compete (or else not be permitted to compete at all), an Arabic hashtag which translated to “prostitutes of the Olympics” trended on Twitter in reference to the female athletes from Saudi Arabia. The opinion that a woman’s virtue is compromised if she participates in competitive sports led to this backlash against these women and had many in the U.S. declaring how sexist those countries are. Yet, the facts show that it is in the U.S. where women are not fully accepted as athletes unless they can be “sold” as sex objects in order to boost ratings.
As I watch these Games with my seven year old daughter, I find myself wising for a better world. She keeps asking me when she can see the women weight-lifters, archers, and shot-putters and I have to explain to her that it is unlikely that those events will make it on TV. I want her to feel confident in her body and take joy in its strength, but cringe when even the Olympics, the supposed pinnacle of pure sport, instead send her the message that her body’s primary purpose is to be admired for its alluring qualities. She deserves more than that. These athletes deserve more than that.
I recently read Mercy Oduyoye’s classic work Hearing and Knowing. It is one of the best introductions to theology that I have ever read and I was especially drawn to her exploration of creation as liberating act. Oduyoye explores the way God responds to broken situations in the world by creating (or birthing) something new in their midst. For example, God so loved the world even in its brokenness that God sent Jesus into that very brokenness. By being in the midst of that suffering, Jesus suffered with the community and through that brought healing to the brokenness as he worked to make all things new. The call to be new creations, defined by shalom instead of brokenness, came out of the being withness of community.
Oduyoye then illustrates how the community can live into the power that creating something in order to find liberation offers. She writes –
Among the Igbo of Nigeria, to be creative is to turn the power of evil, sin, and suffering into the power of love. When things are not going well in a community, in order to restore harmony and mutuality of existence, an African community requires artists to camp together, to work together to heal the society by their sacrifice. The creativity of the artists is the sacrifice required for righting wrongs in the community. The artists fashion a model of a whole community and all that they have in a house, and the house and its artifacts are left as a sacrifice, which will renew the community. … The artist symbolically recreates the clan in its pristine state through artifacts and the result is salutary for the real clan. It becomes once again a wholesome people in a wholesome community. (p.92-93)
Jesus willingly entered into a community of suffering in order to create with them a way to be liberated from that suffering. Yet that vision of shalom was not imposed from the outside upon people against their will. It involved solidarity, creativity, and sacrifice. Jesus was with the community, suffering with them. Creativity was required in order for the community to envision the liberation into a better world that becoming new creations would bring. And it required not only the selfless sacrifice of Jesus, but the sacrifice of the old patterns of brokenness in favor of the new vision on the part of the community. Like the Igbo in Nigeria, those open to creative re-envisioning had to live in community together and make sacrifices in order to bring about the healing that is needed.
I love this idea that it is sacrificial creativity within community that brings healing and shalom. All too often healing is reduced to simply an economic transaction or state of intellectual assent. If a person just believes or thinks a certain way, or follows the right set of rules, or refrains from certain actions then they will magically find liberation. Even if others continue to suffer in brokenness, they can still be assured of personally possessing the key to freedom. While these systems are easy to impose upon others and also make it easy to blame individuals for the continued brokenness in the world, they miss the point of something truly new being created. If as the Bible claims, God is working to make all things new, unless one is seeing new healed and liberated communities emerging from where there was once suffering and brokenness, then God’s work there is not yet done (and sometimes has barely even begun).
As Oduyoye comments “God actually searches for us and suffers until the community is complete… Salvation for an elite who have no responsibility to the community at large is contrary to the meaning of the Christ-event” (p.96). The liberation is not simply something for the few to opt into intellectually. Full healing and liberation occur amidst community and involve both sacrifice and creatively imagining a better world. Jesus created an entire alternative way of being in the world he termed the Kingdom of God – a way to live differently than the systems of suffering and oppression the world offered. Rejecting the ways of the world in favor of this new way of being requires one to sacrifice the privileges and entitlements the world offers in exchange for the liberation and shalom of the whole community. It is easy to be told what to do in order to secure one’s personal safety and comfort. It is a lot harder to stand in solidarity with the suffering of the community and do the creative and sacrificial work of together envisioning something new. Yet, as Oduyoye reminds us, God’s plan for liberation was to send Jesus to do just that.
As a mother who is also a follower of Christ, I want my children to learn the stories of the faith I follow. Having grown up in the church and having been a children’s pastor, I also know that there are some pretty messed up ways that churches and families often go about teaching the Bible to kids. From the Aesop fablization of the Bible where gory stories like Noah’s Ark become just about cute animals and instructing kids to obey their parents and teachers to sword drills and programs that encourage binge memorization of verses in order to earn plastic jewels in a crown, children are rarely encouraged to enter into scripture and understand its larger story.
But it’s a story I want my children to know – with all its complexities and overarching narratives intact. While the superbly done The Action Bible has helped my comic-book obsessed daughter become more familiar with the stories, I knew that I needed to find other ways to help expose her to more than just the same dozen “safe for kids” Bible stories Sunday schools seem to favor. So when I saw all over Pinterest a pin about a Child Training Bible, I clicked on it out of curiosity. Something in me hoped it was an accessible way for young readers to piece together the complex history that is the Bible so they could better understand the story of God’s relationship with creation. It couldn’t have been further from that.
No, the Child Training Bible is a color-coded system (patent pending) that makes it easy for a child or parent to look up a verse when a child needs discipline. Asserting that the Bible is the answer book for everything in life, the system is described as – “All the things you work on to train your children tabbed and highlighted with a key in the front. Training topics include: anger, complaining, defiance, lying, laziness, and wrong friendships! So when you need the verses you can grab the actual Word and be able to quickly flip to whatever you need!!” I read that and had one of those fingernails on the chalkboard of my soul moments. The whole system was nauseating enough for how it disrespected the entire purpose of the Bible (and ignored the fact that only Jesus is called the Word of God), but then I started reading the reviews on mommy blogs online. Dozens of mothers were lauding the product as the perfect way to discipline and get their children into the word. I only found one single response that questioned using the Bible in such a negative way and then immediately read all the responses accusing that woman of hating the Bible and not truly being a Christian. It was heartbreaking.
Like I said, I think it is important to know the Bible and I desire for my kids to know it as well. I honestly find it disturbing that more and more these days committed Christians (even many of the classmates my husband and I encountered at our seminaries) have no sense of what is actually in the Bible. But systems like this that cherry-pick verses out of context for the purpose of using guilt to manipulate children into a certain set of middle-class American behaviors don’t help the problem. Neither do many of the other popular suggestions for “immersing oneself in the word” that I am seeing these days. Like the suggestions for the “25 (or 50 or 70) essential verses” one should put on post-it notes around the house if one desires ones family (or husband) to be transformed. Bible verses are not magical incantations that through exposure and repetition will change a person. Even daily reminders that one must delight oneself in the Lord or that God grants rest to the weary while possibly useful in helping one feel better about oneself don’t actually enter one into the story of the Bible or the more difficult way of living it calls people to live. And, unsurprisingly, I’ve yet to read one of those essential verse lists that acknowledge the communal (rather than individualistic) nature of being part of the body of Christ or that include anything about seeking justice for the poor and the oppressed.
I have nothing against memorizing scripture or finding encouragement from a saying or two from the Bible. I teach my children passages like the Beatitudes and expose them to music full of scripture. But I harbor no illusion that reading a daily devotion of two or three verses that deliver personal spiritual warm-fuzzies is in any form or fashion “being in the word.” Nor is seeing a verse on a post-it on your mirror, finding a warning verse attached to a TV or computer, or even doing a fill-in-the-blank “Bible” study. Using the Bible in such ways cheapens it and turns it into the Christian equivalent of a Magic Eight ball. The Bible is not an answer book, or a guide to raising children, or even primarily instructions for how to have a personal relationship with God. Yes, the Bible gives testimony to the way of life God desires, but a handful of out-of-context verses can never encapsulate the message of a story that the faithful have been trying to figure out for thousands of years. I want my kids to wrestle with that story, to understand the competing voices and ideologies within the Bible, and learn to work out their faith with fear and trembling as they respect the narrative enough to not reduce it to sound bites.
I know this post is a bit of a rant. And I am sure there are readers who will call me a heretic and hater of the Bible for writing this. But as a frustrated mom, it is hard to find resources that help me encourage my kids to engage the Bible but that also don’t turn it into a shallow shadow of what it is meant to be.
The 2012 Wild Goose Festival East wrapped up just under a week ago and I am still trying to process my experience there. As I tweeted as I drove away from the fest, I left feeling exhausted, hopeful, and blessed – that strange combination that reflected the emotional impact of my time there. And it was a truly blessed time. I was honored with the opportunity to speak on The Hunger Games and the Gospel as well as do a Q&A on everyday justice issues at the Likewise tent. I also was able to join Brett Webb-Mitchell on a panel discussion about living with disabilities in religious communities. But beyond those conversations I was able to help initiate, I also found a generous and safe space to connect with friends, wrestle with difficult questions, and dream of a better world. Such spaces are so rare in my life these days, that finding such at Wild Goose was a precious gift.
There are, of course, the expected complaints about the festival. It was brutally hot (and that is coming from a Texan). I never ceased to be sticky, sweaty, and stinky and there were bugs everywhere. Camping in a field where every action (and parenting attempt) is on constant display is stressful and uncomfortable. And, as with many religious gatherings, there could have been greater diversity. For the first hour I was there as I nearly passed out trying to set up a tent in the sweltering heat, I was in a panic mode wondering why I was stupid enough to subject myself to the discomfort and imperfection of it all again this year. Yet as I entered into the experience of being a part of this crazy wonderful gathering, those issues (although ever-present) faded in significance as I found myself fitting into a place where I felt I belonged. It would be hard to give an all-encompassing report of the Wild Goose since all I have is my particular experience of it, so all I can initially do here is describe a few of those points that provided that resonance of belonging.
- I saw people moving past the trivial distractions of the Church to attempt to live authentically in the way of Christ. Last year Wild Goose was a new thing in search of its identity. It was edgy, it was controversial, it was hip. None of that mattered this year. The point wasn’t to have debates over controversial issues, but to do the real work of the church. So collectively it seemed like the festival grew up, got over its fears and struggles to define its identity and decided to stop feeding the infighting within the body of Christ and start being Christ instead. I’m sure there were some people upset by that act of maturing, but I doubt many of them came back this year. There also were far fewer people there who just came to be seen in their own sessions but who refused to attend and learn from other sessions. Being in conversation and humbly letting others speak into our lives was more the norm this year. Wild Goose grew up. I personally found it refreshing to be a part of something that didn’t direct all its energy at defending the rightness of one particular theological ghetto. It was also nice to be amidst people who spent more time living in the ways of the kingdom of God than they do making theological excuses for why the church needn’t bother following the way of Christ. There was also no need to grow any particular church or hold tight to a denominational allegiance. This was a truly ecumenical gathering of Catholics, Mainliners, Evangelicals, and Emergents coming together beyond their tribal boundaries. This is not to say that hard questions weren’t wrestled with at Wild Goose or challenges to privilege issued, but it was done (as far as I could tell) from a respectful and welcoming attitude. I needed to see that to regain some faith in the structure of church itself.
- I got to see my children thriving in community. Last year at Wild Goose we were the hovering parents. Our kids had to be in eyesight at all times which severely limited their ability to make friends as well as our ability to attend sessions and have conversations. This year we, for the first time in their lives, let our kids roam free. Like children from past generations who roamed the neighborhood finding friends and adventures alike, the safe space of the Wild Goose gave our kids the opportunity to be a part of community on their own. I saw them come alive as they made the experience their own. From my son donning his Batman cape and finding a wooden stake somewhere so he could roam as “Vampire Slayer Batman” as we sipped boxed wine and made fair trade s’mores at our tent with friends to my daughter finding quartz rocks on the path and trying to get the food vendors to accept her "diamonds" as payment for ice cream and lemonade – they had the time of their lives. Yes, we got a few disapproving reactions from other parents there and I heard a family was asked to leave the supposedly “open-table” Eucharist because their kids were playing nearby, but I am grateful for this opportunity my kids had to be children in a way kids these days rarely do – and that there is a space for that within a community of faith.
- I was able to be moved by a worship experience for the first time in a very long time. While there were opportunities to enter into worship provided throughout the festival – ranging from contemplative prayer times, to interactive creative worship, to liturgies, and even a good old-fashioned hymn-sing (appropriately held at the beer tent), it was the final Sunday morning worship processional that had me literally choked up with the beauty of being a part of the community of the body of Christ. Proclaiming that every worship processional should in fact be a parade of celebration this call to worship consisted of a ringleader and band leading a parade through the festival grounds as the people of God with painted faces and waving banners danced and sang out “When the Saints Go Marching In.” There was a blessed relief in being amidst a group of people who weren’t worshiping just to be fed or to consume a religious good or who don’t see the rituals as church as the limit of worship. There also was a deeper joy in having been through the festival and hearing of the passion of this sliver of the church to truly live in the ways of Christ by seeking justice for all and loving the whole world sacrificially that made me actually want to sing “Oh how I want to be in their number when the saints go marching in.” In the back of my head I heard all the critics’ voices telling me in that moment that worship must be solemn, that we had sacrificed tradition for novelty, that we were simply being foolish. But the sense of utter rightness and overwhelming hope I saw as I danced along with those committed to marching against injustice in the name of love drowned out the toxicity of those messages I am usually surrounded with and I was able to experience God again. I agree with Bono that the right to be ridiculous is something I hold dear – sometimes it takes foolishly resisting the trappings of church in order to find the strength to resist the injustices of culture. It set my soul free and dismantled the box we so often force God to dwell within.
I could ramble on and on about the wonderful people and conversations I had at Wild Goose. It was a place that revived hope in me for the body of Christ in our world today. And I find myself infinitely grateful to have spent a few sweltering and uncomfortable days amidst these saints in order to catch this glimpse of the Kingdom manifest in this world.
As part of her series on the women of the Gospels Rachel Held Evans recently posted this retelling I wrote of the story of the Widow of Nain. I'm reposting the story here and I encourage my readers to follow the series of posts at her blog!
"Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother's only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, 'Do not weep.' Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, 'Young man, I say to you, rise!' The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, 'A great prophet has risen among us!' and 'God has looked favorably on his people!' This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country." – Luke 7:11-17
At first I thought it was strange that the town gathered to mourn my son. All these years later and I still feel like an outsider, not really one of them. Granted, I grew up just down the road from here in Endor. I saw the same solitary dome of Mount Tabor looming in the distance when I would go to fetch water from the well there as I do here in Nain, but still it is different.
It was a difference I felt sharply when my husband first brought me here as his young bride. What I had always thought was a short walk to the neighboring town when I would accompany my father on the journey, suddenly became the other side of the world. Not that my husband mistreated me or that I protested our marriage, just that I knew I was no longer home. The other women in town knew each other already. They would walk to the well together or spend the morning pleasantly chatting as they gathered to do the wash. I was the inept young bride who didn’t even know how to fashion a new needle when my old one splintered. Oh, the mending I had to do once I finally got a new one!
It wasn’t until my belly started to swell with child that I began to feel a part of the community. It’s hard for the women not to get involved when they see that one in their midst is expecting – especially when it is her first. At first it was casual – someone dropping by with a handful of herbs she had happened upon that were supposed to help with the incessant nausea or backaches. Soon it became long chats as each and every one of them felt it was her duty to tell me the gory details of her birthing experiences. Goodness knows why any woman would ever want to have children after hearing all those stories, but somewhere in the midst of hearing Miriam confessing that she thought she was giving birth to a demon instead of baby and Hannah warning me for the fourth or fifth time to make sure the child suckles on both sides if I didn’t want to be crippled with pain – I became one of them. In the camaraderie of women’s shared experience Nain finally accepted me as one of their own.
It was that acceptance that later allowed me to survive. My son was a healthy young lad, a blessing to our house, but the two daughters I bore since never made it through their first winters. It was that long winter that took our second daughter that claimed my husband as well. And once again I felt utterly alone. The horror stories of childbirth were nothing compared to this. The very act of putting food on the table became a near insurmountable task. As the bitter winter raged on and death surrounded us all, for the first time I understood why those women with the ragged clothes and hollow eyes would dare defile themselves with man after man. Yet somehow it never came to that for me. I don’t doubt that I would have done anything to feed my son, but the women of Nain wouldn’t let one of their own starve.
Granted, nothing was ever again the same. I wasn’t like them anymore. Instead I was the one to be pitied – but at least we survived. My son, young as he was, always found there was a stable to be cleaned for a coin. And the women who I once would laugh and share stories with were always willing to pass on their mending to me in exchange for the occasional jar of oil or loaf of bread. Once again I was an outsider of sorts, but it mattered far less that it had before. Making it through each day became my goal.
When my son was finally old enough to learn a trade, I began to breathe a little easier. Once he could earn a living, we wouldn’t have to live in constant fear wondering where our next meal would come from. I say I trust in the Lord to provide, but despite the generosity of Nain, the question always remained as to when that well too would dry up. It is hard to have faith when despite the pity and the charity, you feel so alone. So it wasn’t until my son was able to work that I dared have hope again. It was more than just knowing we would survive. With his support, I wouldn’t be just a widow anymore, but perhaps could spend time with the other women instead of just taking in their mending.
So when he too was taken from me my world came to an abrupt end. Now I was completely alone. I think I might have laughed when some of the women once again stopped by with herbs for his body and they told me to muster up the courage of Jael to face the difficult road ahead. If only survival was as easy as driving a tent peg through the head of the enemy commander fleeing down neighboring Mount Tabor. Perhaps the women who have never had to question if they belong here can find strength in the tales of old, but I doubted even faith could sustain me now.
So when the town gathered to help me bury my son it felt odd to be surrounded by those to whom I must now entrust my life. We had managed to survive before, but now without the boy to feed I wondered if they would be so eager to provide for me alone. The loss of my beloved son compounded by these fears consumed me with grief. As his body was carried out of town for burial, I could not help but wail in despair and angry. How could God forget me so? Was I as much of an outsider to God as I was in Nain?
Yet even as my faith crumbled in the face of my grief, something amazing happened.
We had just carried my son’s body outside of the town gate when we encountered a traveling teacher and his disciples. I doubt I would have noticed them, but this teacher came right up to us, halting our progress. And then he commented on my grief. Someone must have told him I was a widow who had just lost her only son, for he seemed to genuinely care about my plight. I half expected him to offer some hollow words of comfort or press a coin into my palm without quite looking me in the eye like a few others had done. Instead he looked at me and seemed to understand – not just my loss but it almost seemed like he knew how utterly alone I felt. And then with deep compassion that went far beyond awkward pity, he told me not to weep and he walked over to my son’s bier and touched it.
A few people gasped at how seemingly oblivious he was to the purity laws, but their concern was quickly dwarfed by what happened next: For the moment he touched the bier, my son sat up and started talking to him!
I was too stunned to speak, my sobs caught in my throat. One of the bearers nearly dropped his side of the bier breaking the tension of the moment. The teacher, laughing, then helped my son down and brought him over to me. All I could do was embrace my son, weeping all over again – this time with tears of relief and joy. Everyone was in awe of this teacher, calling him a prophet and proclaiming that he had brought God’s favor among us. But no one understood the magnitude of that favor more than I. My son and my ability to survive were restored to me – surely I had been blessed.
Like Hagar cast off into the wilderness, God saw me in my isolation and looked with favor on the lowliness of even one like me. I wasn’t forgotten or merely treated with pity, God accepted me even in my grief and despair. I finally felt like I belonged.
I'm off to the Wild Goose Festival this week and am looking forward to seeing many of you there! As the festival kicks off I wanted to share with you all the special offer Likewise Books is offering as part of its involvement in Wild Goose. Likewise Books invites you to Goose your Kindle with a great sale on Kindle books by Likewise authors speaking at Wild Goose.
That means from now until July 3rd you can get the kindle version of my book Everyday Justice for just $2.99!
Enjoy the books and I hope to catch up with whoever will be at Wild Goose this week!
I was annoyed with the worship wars back in the 90s. All too often they boiled down to younger people demanding that church be done in a language they understood and older people demanding that since they tithed the most church should cater to their whims (and yes I heard the arguments stated that crassly numerous times). These days a theological veneer is imposed on the same arguments (generally by those who accuse those who desire the church to embrace only the cultural idioms of 100 or 300 years ago instead of those of the past fifty years). The arguments typically accuse people of rejecting the forms of church that are the “proper” way of encountering God for the siren call of individualism and novelty. Same wars based on personal preference, just new ways of accusing the other side of being wrong.
As I repeatedly encounter these spats in the church, it forces me to ask the question as to what the purpose of corporate worship is anyway. I fully believe that worship can never be limited to just the rituals of church but involves the actions of serving God in the world. Yet I still see a place for corporate worship. What I hear most often is that the purpose of that event is to unveil God – to make God present and known to those gathered in a particular space. The rituals, the prayers, the songs, the sermon, the well-rehearsed actions of the leaders all work together to bring the congregation into an encounter with God.
But this is where I get uneasy. I keep asking myself – is the point of worship simply to encounter God?
The longer I am part of the Christian faith the more uneasy I get with churches that enact a well-planned performance intended to help people have this encounter with God. Whether it is a timed-to-the-minute contemporary stadium show with a recording-level-quality praise band or a highly orchestrated liturgy with a recording-level-quality choir and organist, I find myself increasingly uncomfortable with the affected voice of the church. The manipulative nature of the fact that the religious professionals are staging a show intended for me to consume (as I read or sing as prompted) under the guise of enacting the proper form for how God is to be revealed grates on my nerves like fingernails on a chalkboard.
For a long time I thought this was just my preferences regarding worship and was reluctant to jump in the fray of the worship wars culture. But the question kept returning to me – is worship simply about encountering God or should it also involve participating in God? Watching a show and being moved to see God seems like a mere shadow of worship compared to making of ourselves living sacrifices and being caught up in the work of God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. Rehearsing or timing a performance can make for a beautiful experience in the moment, but it leaves me hollow. Maybe it’s because after so many years in the church world I’ve seen too much of the machinations of the men behind the curtain to even be able to see God in such polished performances.
Perhaps that is my failing.
But I’ve reached the point where it is only in the messy and faltering attempts to be the body of Christ -to give of ourselves as we are instead of in a role someone expects of us – that I not only experience God but feel that I am participating in God’s work in the world. It’s often elusive and frequently difficult and uncomfortable to live into worship instead of merely consume it, but it is where I can actually see God at work as of late. But as I am discovering, desiring to worship in such ways makes it very hard to continue to exist in the church world that has formed different habits.