Sunday, December 11, 2011

Longing for Messiah

The pastor was calling us to do something.

He was asking us to actively seek.

He was inferring that perhaps, with all the craziness all around us, all the busyness, all the hullabaloo, we might actually need to be a little more intentional about listening for the story of advent, the voice of God, the word of light.  We might actually need to, I don't know, turn things off.  Take time away.  Create space.  He didn't call us to a fast per se.  But he did ask us to write down a specific thing we might do in order to, you know, listen.

Good for him.

Normally I would be elated and affirmed in the chance to delight over the church community moving in sync with that which the Spirit is moving in me.  This time, however, I was just a little annoyed.

"Really? Ya think?" is what I found myself thinking.  It was more a rueful sentiment than any kind of bitterness.  It was like I had been out gathering wood for the winter when, at the first sign of snow, my neighbor finally poked his head out and said, "Oh, I guess we should get ready for cold weather, huh?"

I suppose.  If one were going to do something like that, yes, this would be a good time.  Though frankly, and I say this without malice: It's a little late.  The wood will be cold and a little damp now - not that you can't dry it and use it.  But ... what were you thinking???

It's like being a vegetarian and having someone come up to you and say, "That seems like a neat idea. I'm going to be a vegetarian for a week."  You might think, "Good for you."  But you might also kind of roll your eyes and get back to your life.

Because for you it IS a life.

As soon as the pastor made the call to response, my spirit rejoiced in the sacred, communal moment that followed, as if it was saying ...


And that's when it hit me.

O God how I miss sacred community.

How I miss the reverent among the mundane, the divine in the midst of the ordinary, the transcendent among the broken, the beautiful alongside the normal.

I miss the Concert of Prayer.  I miss the prayer walks.  I miss the brothers and sisters who sat on the floor in the Westside Room, late afternoon sun streaming through the wall of windows, and wept over each other's lives.  We were the church to each other. Once.  I miss the 'liturgical service' and I miss the band.  I miss the place where I could go to worship and be a part.  I miss the crazy people whose lives were a freaking mess but who actually heard God's voice and it changed them.

I haven't left my church but I wonder if my heart has.  I do not find worship there anymore.  I find wonderful people, beautiful people, even.  But I do not find the Spirit of God moving in and among them communally, whispering over their lives and hearts, disrupting things.

A friend made this observation: "People don't go to your church to get real," she said.  "They go there to hide."

At first I cracked the comment up to the usual accusation of hypocrisy in the church.  (In case you haven't noticed, hypocrisy is human nature.  Most people are duplicitous.  Most of us hide, and often that hiding can be and is appropriate in some ways.  But that's a different story.)  Then I dismissed it because, well, if people REALLY wanted to hide, why would they go to church at all?  They could just stay home.  It seemed a bit of a non sequitur.  But as I thought about it, I realized that it was true.   I don't hear people practicing a whole lot of confession at my church (though it does happen here and there).  People don't come to my church and bare their souls or expose their brokenness, you know?  They don't seem to come to be particularly real or messy or present. What does one do with that?  What does one do about it?

Maybe it is happening elsewhere.  Maybe it is supposed to happen elsewhere and my pining is more a reflection of what is lacking in my life than what is lacking in my church.  And I love the people at my church.  But this is where my advent journey has left me...

Still longing for Messiah.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

In the Midst

Reinvent Advent (part five)
An excerpt from Letters to an Atheist

I don't believe in God because of an argument written by a man who studied Hebrew and the ancient near eastern cultures to present me with a functional ontology of creation.  I don't believe in God because our doctrines are particularly reasonable; it is, after all, an issue of faith.  Fundamentalism contributed to my oppression as a woman; that is certainly not why I believe in God.  I do not believe in God because it is the best answer out there, though it may be, and in many ways I find that it is, particularly in this: It offers me hope.  But that isn't even why I believe in God.

I believe in God because a man was tortured and died in order that I might have the invitation to believe in God.  I believe in God because I heard about his suffering and it both broke my heart and it touched me in a way that I had not been touched before.  Hearing the story of the Messiah, it was as if he were in the room with me testifying to me himself. It was like experiencing intimacy for the first time - intimacy with a man who died, intimacy with a God who lives.  It is an unreasonable reason.  But life is unreasonable. Humanity is unreasonable. I am unreasonable.  Whoever claims otherwise is the most unreasonable of all.

I believe in God because I accepted that sacrifice.  I accepted it.  That's all.  I accepted that it was for me, that it covered me.  I believed that I was in need of forgiveness, in need of saving.  I agreed with this man and with this God; I accepted his forgiveness and I was filled with love for him, with gratitude, and with a desire to experience that intimacy again, a desire to serve him and be close to him.

I believe in God because I decided to trust him.  I don't care about the fallacies of literalist thinking - I mean, I do because I think literalists often act like morons, but I don't care.  Literalists did not keep me from God; they did not keep me from believing.  They hurt me but God was there.  God was with me.  God was in the midst.

I believe in God because I learned to trust him.  I believe in God because he was there that first moment of believing and he has been there every moment since.  I believe in God because he granted me just the tiniest glimpse of his very presence and it changed my world, it changed my very soul.  And somehow he continues to do it over and over and over again.  I knew him.  I can know him.  I want to know him.

I believe in God, simply, because he helped me.  I did not cry out to him, but he called to me.  I did not know I needed him until he spoke.  And then when I prayed, he answered.  He helped me when I was 13.  He helped me when I was 25.  He helps me even now.

I have chosen to honor God with my decisions, with my body.  And just as God was in the midst of flawed fundamentalism, God was with me and God was in me even though I still carried despair and self-loathing, even though I was a fractured spirit.  In this one thing I know who I am.

I believe in God because he spoke to me in ways I could not understand and made me understand.  I believe in God because he spoke to my spirit and told me the truth and He continues to do so now.  And the truth - it sets me free.  When or if he stops, I will die, and I will die seeking him, for there is no other way for me to live.  I believe in God because he Himself challenged fundamentalism and showed me its flaws, and he shows me that he is still there.

He is in the sometimes meaningless rituals, because he is not dependent on man's heart or man's understanding, he supersedes it; he is in the midst.  He is in the sickening intellectualism, the constant debating.  He was there among the pharisees.  They wailed and moaned and all the while he was there, saving people, rescuing them, healing them, loving them, challenging them, dying for them.  He was there in the midst.  And even when they killed him they could not choke him out.  Though intellectualism slay me as fundamentalism did, God is still here.I don't believe in God because of people or even in spite of people.  I don't care.  I believe because I tasted intimacy and I want it.  Nothing else is even worth my attention; nothing is worth my time.  I want Christ.  I want his Revelation.  I prefer his suffering.  I want his Peace.  I need his wisdom.  There is nothing that makes this life worth living except for him.

Let others do or say whatever they must, but I must have The Messiah.

Paul had all the right teachings in probably their purest possible form and they did not bring him life or salvation.  He had righteousness.  He had power.  He had religious standing.  He had the promise of a covenant!  It did him no good.  And the Messiah was in the midst of it even so.  And it was the Messiah that saved him.

That is the Messiah I know.  And as disillusioned as I am with Paul, we have that in common; we are siblings, co-heirs.  We are one and the same.  Because just as God is in the midst of flawed fundamentalism, God was in the midst of Paul, just as He is in my midst as well.

I don't do this because it gives me life.  I do this because God gives me life.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Lamp-Post and the World in Need of Light

Reinvent Advent (part four)
An Excerpt from an Essay written for Theology of Creation

The leaves have fallen. The grass is brown and coarse. The light has given up its early mornings and early evenings to cold, to dark. It is as if Death has hung its cloak upon the sun, and the grey and dormant garment has settled lightly but solemnly over the earth. These are the sights in which we look for and to advent. It is a poignant setting, a fitting context for a journey into a creational redemptive theology. The advent story, draped in death, is one that whispers of something new. It offers and speaks life, the hope for it, and the need of it.

"The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined" (Isaiah 9:2). This passage speaks of a very specific, concrete experience of darkness not unlike that which we see and hear and feel with the coming of winter, though its context is a death born of oppression rather than fallen leaves, and a chill wrought by exile rather than a few more hours of night. It was in this darkness, to the people who lived and walked and made their lives in its shrouds, that light came. And it is no accident that it is light that came, light that was spoken over and into this place and this people. Regardless as to whether darkness is oppression, sin, chaos, nothingness, death, or merely the absence of function and purpose and relationship, it was light that God spoke first and in the beginning, light that God brought to bear to create.

The incarnation is first and foremost an act of creation, whether ex nihilo or otherwise. Is it any wonder that John begins his own advent narrative by returning to the moment of creation and retelling the story so that we might understand the coming of Christ? The very nature of conception and birth is our corporeal participation in God's creative work, his creative charge, and his creative blessing. It is in keeping with that initial design of ongoing, developing potential, re-creation, and the begetting of something new, something different, something more. The nature of Isaiah's prophetic voice is its link between God's first creative word of light to the light of Christ. The advent story captures in its stark simplicity the strains of suffering and darkness alongside the disruptive wonder of creation, and the exquisite yet painful beauty that is the place where these two meet: Redemption.

Consider the juxtaposition as presented in The Magician's Nephew, by C. S. Lewis. The scene is darkness, a distinct absence of movement or life, like an empty stage in a theater in the off-season, closed and locked-up tight. Several characters have stumbled into the scene and stand a moment in the emptiness.
In the darkness something was happening at last. A voice had begun to sing ... Sometimes it seemed to come from all directions at once. Sometimes he almost thought it was coming out of the earth beneath them ... There were no words. There was hardly even a tune. But it was, beyond comparison, the most beautiful noise he had ever heard. It was so beautiful he could hardly bear it ... Then two wonders happened at the same moment. One was that the voice was suddenly joined by other voices; more voices than you could possibly count ... cold, tingling, silvery voices. And the second wonder was that the blackness overhead, all at once, was blazing with stars (p. 116-117). 
In the midst of that exquisite moment of creation, there stood among the witnesses she who was the potential for this new world's suffering:
Suddenly the Witch stepped boldly out toward the Lion. It was coming on, always singing, with a slow heavy pace. It was only twelve yards away. She raised her arm and flung the iron bar straight at its head. Nobody ... could have missed at that range. The bar struck the Lion fair between the eyes (p. 127). 
The reader understands at this point exactly how this evil, this potential suffering, this risk has come. It was a child's mistake, his sin, foolishness, and selfishness that brought the Witch to Narnia in that moment. The Christian studying the story of our own creation gains a greater insight. The very nature of God's creative work is that of giving and allowing the voice of Other to speak, to have an impact on God himself. Thus, the scandal of creation is that it allows the same potential for suffering to find its voice, too. Even as light is spoken into the dark places - in the creation story, in Isaiah's story, and in the story of advent - the potential for suffering is a painful reality, the great risk of God's profound move to create.

Yet, Lewis' tale goes on to describe a remarkable image of redemption, redemption as the effect of creation on the first act of evil:
The bar struck the Lion fair between the eyes. It glanced off and fell with a thud in the grass. The lion came on ...
"Hullo! What's that?" said Digory. He had darted forward...
"I say, Polly," he called back. "Do come and look."
It was a perfect little model of a lamp-post, about three feet high but lengthening, and thickening in proportion, as they watched it; in fact growing just as the trees had grown.
"It's alive too - I mean, it's lit..."
"Don't you see?" said Digory. "This is where the bar fell - the bar she tore off the lamp-post at home. It sank into the ground and now it's coming up as a young lamp-post" (p. 130-131).
The beauty of this image - the image of something dead and lifeless, a bit of metal torn from its own purpose for that of destruction, offered in violence with the intention of death - is that creation is not stopped. It has its way with even this substance, this malicious act, and the result is redemption. The result is new life, light, and purpose, not just in the moment of re-creation, but in the ongoing story of re-creation. This is the lamp-post that greets Lucy generations later. This is the light that guides her into - and here is the image of darkness again - a Narnia in perpetual winter, a Narnia in need of life and light, a Narnia in need of ... advent ... in need of Christmas.

This is what I consider as the leaves fall and the days grow dark; we are a world in need of light, in need of advent, in need of Christmas.