Monthly Archives: December 2013

It’s Not ‘Newtown’

 

For all the meaningful declarations and politicking,  mobilizations on left and right,  piggy-backing on the horror to find channels for outrage about guns and school safety and mental health; for all the national breast-beating and blame, loathing and fear, what happened last year at Newtown was then and remains, simply and stubbornly, the awful deaths of people somebody loved—a teacher, a child, a cherished fixture in somebody’s universe, a star in the firmament of a friendship, a family, a school, a tree-lined street in a middle-class neighborhood in a small town in Connecticut.

For all its public symbolism, ‘’Newtown’ is not a generic name for the pain  bereft families feel this week. That pain has no name. Who could name it? There is no name, no word for it, not even ‘Newtown.’ It’s not symbolic of anything, this loss. It doesn’t belong to me or to some global “us.” It isn’t fodder for larger purposes, it isn’t even necessarily ennobling. It is, simply and stubbornly, intimate personal pain, sharp enough even after a year to slice away the body from the soul. It’s not “Newtown.’ It’s Charlotte, Chase, Jesse, Jack, Avielle, Olivia, Ana, Ben…

It’s understandable that ‘Newtown’ has become a cover term, a summation of every befuddling thing that’s wrong with Americans’ resistance to reason when it comes to violence and guns and mental health and self-protection and government tyranny, and… you name it. It’s inevitable that ‘Newtown’ should be employed as shorthand for horror and as a galvanizing slogan for the committed. But this week those who most wish not to remember—not to have to remember—are not remembering ‘Newtown,’ but a cowlick that will not lie down, a wobbly crayon drawing of a horse with a yellow mane, a squealing scream of glee as the swing gains speed and altitude, higher, higher, higher.

It’s good to have public observances of the anniversary. Good to mobilize again around the issues and declare commitment to change and love and peace, and  find beautiful ways to turn horror into life and grace. It’s good that many are active and vociferous and resolute.

What would also be good on the anniversary of such an unspeakable thing is not to speak, at least not all the time; to pause the impulse to make meaning and to make right and to make better; to observe a certain inner and outer restraint; to draw in a breath that, before it’s exhaled in resolutions and speeches and even in prayers, lets Newtown be for its length what it is, simply and stubbornly, a small town in Connecticut, and each horrific death the death of someone somebody loved.

Charlotte Bacon 2/22/06

Daniel Barden 9/25/05

Rachel Davino 7/17/83

Olivia Engel 7/18/06

Josephine Gay 12/11/05

Ana Marquez-Greene 4/4/06

Dylan Hockley 3/8/06

Dawn Hocksprung 6/28/65

Madeleine Hsu 7/10/06

Catherine Hubbard 6/8/06

Chase Kowalski 10/31/05

Nancy Lanza, 52

Jesse Lewis 6/30/06

James Mattioli 3/22/06

Grace McDonnell 11/04/05

Anne Marie Murphy 7/25/60

Emilie Parker 5/12/06

Jack Pinto 5/6/06

Noah Pozner 11/20/06

Caroline Previdi 9/7/06

Jessica Rekos 5/10/06

Avielle Richman 10/17/06

Lauren Rousseau 6/82

Mary Sherlach 2/11/56

Victoria Soto 11/04/85

Benjamin Wheeler 9/12/06

Allison Wyatt 7/3/06

Third Advent Sing! [Isaiah 35:1-10]

darame2daypinkcandle

A young woman had just become the associate pastor of a big suburban church—her first job in ministry—and was asked to give a children’s sermon during the season of Advent. She’d had a hard, busy week and arrived at that Sunday frazzled and unprepared. And so, as worship began, she decided that she would just gather up all the kids in the chancel and conduct an “ask the minister anything you want” children’s time. She figured that she could handle whatever the munchkins might throw at her—I mean, how hard could the questions be?

Now, to conduct an “ask the minister anything you want” session is an act of hubris under any circumstances, but it’s nothing less than a death wish to do it with children, especially when you have made already the mistake of underestimating them. But she had no other tricks up her sleeve that day, and so she went ahead.

So there they were, all the kids gathered around the minister, pondering things they wanted to ask her. Right away, up went a hand and out came a question. “Why,” the little one asked, “is one of the candles in the Advent wreath pink?”

The associate minister knew a lot about many things from her seminary training—ecclesiology, scripture, soteriology, and why bad things happen to good people—but she had slept through the class on pink Advent candles. Wait, was there a class on pink Advent candles? She had no idea. So she made another big mistake, and turned the question back to the little questioner.

“What a great question, Jimmy!” she enthused. “So, tell us, why do you think there is one pink candle?”

“Ummm…. because you ran out of purple?”

Jimmy’s reply unleashed a flurry of further fantastical kiddie speculation that, while hilarious, was not exactly on point. Finally, a grown-up sitting with the kids came to everybody’s rescue. “The pink candle stands for joy,” he said.

Ah, that made some sense. “Right!” said the associate minister, as if she’d known it all along. “It stands for joy!” she crowed to the assembly, sending the children back to their pews. And everybody seemed relieved, if not downright joyful, to get that truly weird moment over with.

“It stands for joy.” Well, yes, in fact it does.

Advent is a short season. It doesn’t require as much spiritual stamina as does its more ferocious sibling, Lent. Nonetheless, if you enroll in Advent’s exacting school of bodily yearning; if you adopt its characteristic practice of pondering the end of all things, including your own end, even as you await a wonderful birth; if you accept its sobering climate, its invitation to change your mind now and turn your life around; if you hear its insistence that you watch tirelessly and wait perseveringly for the promised dawn to appear, then right about now, in this third week, you could probably use a little pink. You might really welcome an injection of color into the monochrome wildernesses of this season. You could be ready for a giddy moment of release in the discipline that insists, against the culture and our own inclinations, that we delay our gratification, order and purify our desires until the promised dawn appears.

And so the color of the third candle is pink, and the color of the scripture reading is too. It’s a burst of rosy exuberance from the prophet Isaiah who foresees the day when the long-exiled people will come home to Zion at last in a great pilgrimage procession on a broad highway through a well-watered desert in impossible bloom.

In this luscious vision, God’s greening of the desert, the healing of the natural world, is matched by God’s greening of all things human—the healing and restoration of infirm and outcast people, the ransom and exaltation of the poor and forgotten. Thus, as one preacher put it, God “embroiders a tapestry of salvation with threads from the inorganic, plant, animal, and human worlds,” a peace that is ecological, personal, and communal.

And the sign and proof of God’s mercy in healing all creation is an outpouring of music. At the heart of the new creation is the song. The desert flowers are singing, people who all their lives have not been physically able to utter a word are singing, the company of ransomed captives is singing, the cosmos itself is singing.

Everything is aflush with hope, pink and rosy and bright. And we are meant to feel the mounting excitement of something new just around the corner, something promised, something coming, something good.

For us who call ourselves Christians, that something good is God-with-us, Jesus, born of Mary, the Rose of Sharon, as the medieval theologians would say. He comes to us in a feeding trough surrounded by peaceable animals. The infirm and outcast come to him. The poor adore him. He is a well of living water in the human desert. He turns that water into wine of endless supply. He multiplies loaves for us in the wilderness, more than we need. He himself is the highway on which we travel back home together rejoicing, after a long sad exile.

Jesus is for us the graceful well-being promised from of old, the healing that restores nature and human nature in the harmonious wholeness of God’s original intent. And in his presence, as sign and proof that this is the handiwork of the compassionate God, there is singing.

“Magnificat anima mea,” sings the pregnant Mary as she greets her cousin, Elizabeth. My soul magnifies the Lord who pulls tyrants from their thrones.

“Gloria in excelsis Deo!” sing the angels to announce his birth. Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace to all people on earth!

And the old man Simeon sings at the sight of the baby in the temple, “My eyes behold your promise, Lord; it is fulfilled! Now I can die in peace!”

In the presence of the Holy One, everyone sings. Everything makes music. And we do too. Singing is the way we feel a promised world that we can only imagine. It’s our way of knowing the truth that otherwise we only weakly grasp. When we sing we experience the whole, healed life we were meant for. When we sing, we are, at least for the length of the song, exactly who we were created to be. Our song is sign and proof of God’s delight in us, God’s re-creative power at work among us, God’s inexpressible nearness to us.

Our singing is a practice and it is a gift. It has many names – grace, vision, life-line, surrender, healing, re-creation. It is also (to borrow a line from Robert Frost) “a momentary stay against confusion.” For when we gather in the pink beauty of Advent, we don’t come alone. Along with us come also the power struggles of spouses, the resentments of children, the toxic waste of landfills, the gunfire of our streets, the injustice of our economic system, and the quarrelsome niceties of our theologies. When we gather here in the rosy glow of Isaiah’s vision of a redeemed cosmos, the unredeemed world is always with us. And in these circumstances, and because of all the odds arrayed against Advent’s beauty and promise, we have no choice but to sing. No other strength and power but the unending song of God.

As people of God’s song we are compelled to believe that sooner or later, our relentless singing will so bewilder the enemies of love that they will have no choice but to give up and turn themselves in. They will bow to the Mystery that is even now eroding the foundations of hate. Sooner or later, a crack of light will appear under the locked door of life, and the door will fly open. Sooner or later, the song will be on the lips of all creation, and God’s hope for the world will come true.

When we sing we feel the world we can only imagine. Sing, then, on this Sunday of joy, as if by singing high walls will fall, locked chains will snap. Sing as if you believe that at the sound of our songs, one more generous heart will embrace a stranger. Sing as if you believe that by singing, one day the only sound in the whole creation will be a melody of delight – God’s delight in us, and ours in God.

So sing, heavenly bodies in your orbits, stars in your exploding light. Choirs of angels, sing. Sing, Church, a song of healing, a song of resistance, a song of peace. Sing, all the earth—sing for your life! Our God is near!

 

Virgin Mary

Young Mary is flummoxed by Gabriel’s announcement that she will have a son without human agency. She wonders aloud how it could happen, this unheard-of virginal conception.

It’s an obvious and simple question, and it gets a simple answer; but for centuries after this story saw the light of day, theologians have been falling all over themselves in prurient speculation about Mary’s physical virginity, not content to leave the simple answer alone.

But Mary was content with it. Somehow, Gabriel assures her, the Holy Spirit will fix it all up and it will happen. For with God everything is possible.

And we know it’s true.

We know if we have ever been or are right now in the process of being liberated from some captivity, great or small.

If we have ever been or are right now being born into something we have longed for and needed all our lives.

If we have ever felt or find ourselves right now feeling Jesus’ freshness in our weariness, his encouragement in our sorrow, his challenge in our self-involved boredom, his gentleness in our hard reality, his care in our confusion.

If we are looking today at another human being with even a smidgeon more openness and love than ever before, and are able to call them “kin.” If we are looking today at another human being and are able to say to them with even a smidgeon more compassion and solidarity than ever before, “You are my own.”

If one of these things, or any other newfound freedom of mind, soul or body has ever been our deep experience, then we know that what the gospel says about the virgin and the fruit of her womb is true.

For such freedom, such progress, such love, such originality and freshness, such an unheard-of thing did not come from us. We are not the agents of our own new births. Such salvation has only God as its progenitor.

We are all virginally conceived of the Holy Spirit and born into true human life. Our role in the mystery of life is not to make ourselves, but to become God’s Marys, to be welcoming of grace like she was, to say yes to our calling as she did, to become servants of the Most High and disciples of her Son as she became, and respond to the message of angels that visit us night and day.

Image:  Joyful Mystery #1, Annunciation, by Jim Janknegt

Take 2: A Good Word for the World in Advent

Last Advent I posted a Facebook Note called “A Good Word for the World in Advent.” It got a lot of shares. But it did not, alas, change the world, or the church. Oh well.

In that piece, I argued that the church does itself no good when it rails against the world in this season, condemning and shaming ordinary people for shopping too much and failing to slow down long enough to recall ‘the reason for the season.’

To be sure, this posture vis-à-vis the world at Christmas aims to admonish and correct serious sins—consumerism and materialism, for example—but these are no more sins at Christmas than at any other time of the year. And yet we grow especially shrill about them at Christmas, which is supremely ironic, given how frantic the church itself usually is at this season, and how zeroed in on the mystery of the Incarnation the church claims to be during these weeks.

After all, I argued, the world the Babe is born into, the world God loves so much that God enters it in the flesh is not some hushed austere world where nobody gets and spends and everyone has time for contemplating the ‘real meaning’ of things. It is this world, our world, the one we condemn, but which God loves ‘so much…” that God gave us a Son, scripture says, not to condemn, but to save.  A posture of judgment and a stance over against the world hardly evokes the infinite Compassion that takes on our materiality as his own in this season.

Besides, the consumerist and stress-dealing sins we decry in the run-up to Christmas are sins in which all of us are complicit, not just those frantic folks out there beating each other up in the XBOX aisle on Black Friday. There is much hypocrisy in the frantic busy church of this season, but that is not a new story either.

This is not to say that the church does not have a different picture of the way the world could be to show to people, or that we have no Good News for the harried and consumerist world of acquisition and greed—we do.  Nor does it mean that we ought not attack the systems and arrangements by which an unfettered profit motive creates and sustains real spiritual and material damage. Nor does it mean that we have no right to speak a word of admonishment about the way things are now.

My point is only that if and when we admonish, it should be from a posture of humility, with previous self-examination, so that we are the ones we are admonishing every bit as much as “them” out there. And it must be framed in a rhetoric of immense empathy and compassion for all the human wounds on full display in this season, the waywardness of the sheep, if you will, for whose healing the church exists, and for whom there can be no merciless judgment, only a merciful setting out to find and bring back home.

If you want to read that piece, you can find it on this blog. Look for it in the Advent resources category. Today I want to add another question to the questions I pose there.

Does the shrill tone we tend to take in this season betray an unconscious sense of entitlement? When we complain that consumerism has hijacked Christmas, for example, are we claiming that Christmas is or ought to be untouchable, just as Sunday morning worship should be untouchable, exempt from incursions from soccer leagues?

In other words, does the church think it has some sort of inherent right to be heard and heeded out there, that its ‘stuff’ should be given pride of place and cultural privilege? Are we just all bummed out because nobody else seems to think so and is paying us no mind, going on with business as usual, while we fulminate over here in the corner, year after year?

Are we—yes, even us progressives—still operating out of a ‘Christendom’ mentality in which we expect the culture to play by our rules, and heel when we give the command?

Those days are long gone, of course; so maybe instead of railing against the world at Christmas, the church would be better off in Advent imitating its savior—and that means not remaining aloof or setting ourselves against the world, but rather entering it, entering it more fully and more open-heartedly and more compassionately than ever; and there, among the tinsel and the eggnog, the XBOXES and the maxed out credit cards, feel in our own body the terrible suffering of the captive consumer and their aching desire for lasting gifts

Maybe we’d be better off not insisting on our rights, but opening ourselves instead to experiencing the Lord’s humiliation—the experience of being small and ignored and impotent, having relinquished all status and privilege, and having ‘laid aside the glory that was his.’ Maybe this is the season for laying aside the glory that was ours.

If we must stand against the world this season, why not stand against that world in which the church was a really big deal for all the wrong reasons? Why not choose instead to be compassionate companions of the beleaguered materialist consumer in the real world where such companionship with the suffering always brings more salvation than all the shrill cries of “Bad! Bad! Wrong! Wrong!” ever could.

A Pastoral Prayer for A Cold Sunday in Advent

Let us pray…

God, have pity on our world

this cold and bitter day.

Remember all your creatures who need

a little warmth to make it through—

squirrels and possum and birds,

feral cats, old cars with dying batteries,

feet and hands scraping ice and shoveling snow,

the street folks who won’t or can’t come in.

Remember us too, holy One;

shelter us from winds of chance and change

that leave us blistered and raw.

Welcome us to the hearth of your care,

blanket us with mercy.

Enliven us with your kindness;

make us a church where the world takes heart,

the poor are seen and known and loved,

the sick are soothed and healed,

and people without homes can always find one.

Pour into our hearts this unceasing prayer:

that prophets of justice will be heard and heeded;

servants of the poor will be rewarded and vindicated;

healers and comforters will be blessed and blessed again;

and that God’s church will not be silent,

that we will never b e ashamed of the gospel,

that we will tell our children,

that we will picket and pray,

serve and praise, sing and do.

We pray for discernment and restraint

in our spending and giving this Christmas,

for the return of the holy to the center of our lives,

for the mystery of life to lodge in us anew,

and for God’s love to be, more than ever,

the best joy of our longing hearts.

We ask you to look with comforting relief

on everyone who finds this season hard and sad.

Renew hope in all hard-pressed, grieving,

discouraged, or despairing souls.

We pray too for people we love,

for people we worry about,

for sick and troubled members of this church,

for all our daily ministries,

for our enemies, although it is so hard;

and for all who have no one to pray for them.

Hear us, we ask you, in Jesus’ name;

for we are the kin of your child,

and he is the one who taught us

to be confident and pray:

Our Father…