“Simplicity is the first cousin of contentment. Its motto is, ‘We brought nothing into this world, and we can certainly carry nothing out.’ It recognizes that we are pilgrims. It concentrates us on what we need, and measures this by what we use. It rejoices in the good things of creation, but hates waste and greed and clutter. It knows how easily the seed of the Word is smothered by the ‘cares and riches of this life.’ It wants to be free of distractions, in order to love and serve God and others.” — John Stott
Mosaic of the Nativity
Serbia, Winter 1993
On the domed ceiling God
I made them my joy,
and everything else I created
I made to bless them.
But see what they do!
I know their hearts
“We’re descended from
Cain. Evil is nothing new,
so what does it matter now
if we shell the infirmary,
and the well where the fearful
and rash alike must
come for water?”
God thinks Mary into being.
Suspended at the apogee
of the golden dome,
she curls in a brown pod,
and inside her the mind
of Christ, cloaked in blood,
lodges and begins to grow.
Taken from Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (Plough Publishing House, 2001)
Two twentieth century martyrs—a bishop and a theologian—bring us a special perspective on Christmas. We use that word often—perspective. It is simply a term that speaks about the location from which we view an object. Is the coin round or is it flat? Well, it all depends on your perspective. It depends on your vantage point.
The Bible was written from a very distinct perspective. Most of Hebrew and Christian scripture was written by oppressed people. The Jews of the Old Testament and the Christ-followers of the New (both Jews and Gentiles) found themselves out of sync with the powers, kingdoms and empires around them. They were humble, and yet they were feared by those who held power. They suffered greatly.
So perhaps it is those who suffer who can give us the best picture of the event that changed and changes everything. Perhaps oppressed people can see what the biblical writers saw. What would they say about Christmas?
Bishop Oscar Romero found himself at odds with the government as he stood up for the rights and dignity of the poor in El Salvador. He was speaking out against death squads and doing his best to be a voice for the oppressed. On March 24, 1980 Bishop Romero was gunned down while leading Mass in the chapel of the Hospital of Divine Providence in San Salvador.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer spent his final years in prisons and concentration camps. Early in the reign of the Third Reich, Bonhoeffer spoke out against the ideology of Adolf Hitler. His efforts to run an underground seminary and his continued opposition to Hitler took him to the gallows on April 9, 1945.
What did these martyrs—who were oppressed and stood in solidarity with their oppressed brothers and sister—have to say about Christmas? What did it mean from their vantage point?
No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor. The self-sufficient, the proud, those who, because they have everything, look down on others, those who have no need
even of God—for them there will be no Christmas. Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf, will have that someone. That someone is God. Emmanuel. God-with-us. Without poverty of spirit there can be no abundance of God. — Oscar Romero
Who will celebrate Christmas correctly?
Whoever finally lays down
all power, all honor,
all reputation, all vanity,
all arrogance, all individualism
beside the manger.
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
— Jesus of Nazareth
If this season finds you sick, exhausted, under-resourced, grieving or suffering in ways that are invisible to others, you may be able to grasp what this world misses every December. The yearning for Emmanuel gives you a perspective by which you can understand the child in the manger. And because that child came, you are not alone.
Fr. Richard Rohr is a Franciscan priest who God is using to make a huge impact on the church. This short message from his Advent meditations captures some of his teaching on the self-emptying—kenosis—that is central to the Christian faith that has been handed down to us.
He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”—Mark 1:7–8
John the Baptist’s qualities are most rare and yet crucial for any reform or authentic transformation of persons or groups. That is why we focus on John the Baptist every Advent and why Jesus trusts him and accepts his non-temple, offbeat nature ritual, while also going far beyond him. Water is only the container; fire and Spirit are the contents, John says. Yet if we are not like the great John, we will invariably substitute our own little container for the real contents. We will substitute rituals for reality instead of letting the rituals point us beyond themselves.
John the Baptizer is the strangest combination of conviction and humility, morality and mysticism, radical prophecy and living in the present. This son of the priestly temple class does his own thing down by the riverside; he is a man born into privilege who dresses like a hippie; he is a superstar who is willing to let go of everything, creating his own water baptism and then saying that what really matters is the baptism of “Spirit and fire”! He is a living paradox, as even Jesus says of him: “There is no man greater than John…but he is also the least” in the new reality that I am bringing about (Matthew 11:11). John both gets it and does not get it at all, which is why he has to exit stage right early in the drama. He has played his single and important part, and he knows it. His is brilliantly a spirituality of descent, not ascent. “He must grow bigger, I must grow smaller” (John 3:30).
The only way such freedom can happen is if John learned to be very empty of himself already as a young man, before he even built his tower of success. His ego was out of the way so much so that he could let go of his own ego, his own message and even his own life. This is surely the real meaning of his head on a platter! Some have cleverly said that ego is an acronym for “Edging God Out.” There’s got to be such emptiness, or we cannot point beyond ourselves to Jesus, as John did. Such emptiness doesn’t just fall into our laps; such humility does not just happen. It is surely the end product of a thousand letting-goes and a thousand acts of devotion, which for John the Baptist gradually edged God in.
Richard Rohr, Preparing for Christmas: Daily Meditations for Advent (Kindle Locations 259-260). Franciscan Media. Kindle Edition.
I am honored to sit on the board of Compassionate Ministries of Jackson County (CMJC). Many years ago we started a food pantry. The entire amount we gave away would fit into one grocery cart. Today CMJC annually distributes 450 tons of food.
CMJC’s mission statement affirms that we are “dedicated to creating lasting solutions to hunger, violence, poverty, and social injustice in our community.”
Among our many ministries is David’s Promise, which serves people with special needs, offering dignity and purpose. David’s Promise just concluded our annual New Song Music Therapy Camp.
On this day long years ago, our promising
young President was killed. He was far too young
to die and I too young to watch my world unravel
as it did. I grieved my loss, our loss, then started
to reweave—a work, a life, a world—not knowing
then what I know now: the world unravels always,
and it must be rewoven time and time again.
You must keep collecting threads—threads of meaning,
threads of hope, threads of purpose, energy and will—
along with all the knowledge, skill that every weaver needs.
You must keep on weaving—stopping sometimes only
to repair your broken loom—weave a cloak of warmth
and light against the dark and cold, a cloak in which
to wrap whoever comes to you in need—the world
with all its suffering, those near at hand, yourself.
And, if you are lucky, you will find along the way
the thread with which you can reweave your own
tattered life, the thread that more than any other
laces us with warmth and light, making both the
weaver and the weaving true—the red thread
they call Love, the thread you hold, then
hand along, saying to another, “You.”
— Parker Palmer
From Parker Palmer's On Being column, The Day My World Unraveled
May God bless you with discomfort,
At easy answers, half-truths,
And superficial relationships
So that you may live
Deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger
At injustice, oppression,
And exploitation of people,
So that you may work for
Justice, freedom and peace.
May God bless you with tears,
To shed for those who suffer pain,
Rejection, hunger and war,
So that you may reach out your hand
To comfort them and
To turn their pain to joy
And may God bless you
With enough foolishness
To believe that you can
Make a difference in the world,
So that you can do
What others claim cannot be done
To bring justice and kindness
To all our children and the poor.
— A Franciscan Blessing
The older you get, the more inclusive you get. It’s not so easy to divide the world into good guys and bad guys. You begin to see that many ethical issues are incredibly complex, so you are more equipped to struggle, listen, learn and see the humanity of those with whom you disagree. (Of course, I’m speaking here of what should happen as we age. This journey is intentional, not automatic.)
But there is a problem on this wonderful journey toward inclusion. For some reason, it seems that passion drains from most people as they grow older. For some reason, the ambiguities they learn and the gray zones they discover have a diminishing effect on their passion.
We’re experiencing a dramatic moment in our country. We’re seeing unbridled passion from a group of students who have just walked through unspeakable tragedy. Their sorrow and loss are only beginning. And around the country, their peers are feeling it for them and with them. And we just may be seeing the rise of a passion-filled, passion-driven movement that will forever change our country. I hope so.
And, yes, these young people are seeing the issue of gun violence in stark, either/or terms. As David Hogg said, “You’re either with us or against us.”
But don’t dismiss this passion, that sees the issue in this manner, as naïve or without substance. What we are seeing are young people who know that the massacre of children must be thrust into the faces of our leaders. They know that the “Now is not the time to discuss it” approach simply results in more carnage and heartache. They’re not going to allow the White House or the Congress to say, “There, there, children. It’s not really about guns.” They heard the gun fire, saw the blood and went to the funerals.
So, their tactics are strong and bold. They see NRA money as blood money. And there is no nuance to their rhetoric.
It reminds me of the prophetic tradition in the Old Testament. The prophets were wise people who cried out to the nation for justice. They called out the kings and rulers for neglecting the poor, exploiting the weak and making “unjust laws” (Isaiah 10:1). And there was no subtlety in their approach. The prophets issued in-your-face wake-up calls to the powerful.
Jesus did the same. The one who would welcome the very lowest and rejected people into his arms, railed against the powerful exploiters, calling them “hypocrites” and “snakes” (Matthew 23).
Jesus and the prophets before him were not naïve. They fully comprehended the complexity of life. But they also knew that people could hide behind complexity and nuance to neglect simple truth and plain justice. Or as David Hogg said, “We are losing our lives while the adults are playing around.”
The Parkland students and those who are joining their cause are not naïve. They are wise in the ways of the prophets. They know that there is a time for stark, naked truth. The truth is that children are being gunned down with assault weapons and our leaders are doing nothing to stop it. There is a time to thrust that truth into the faces of our leaders. And that time is now.
Every American has an opinion on guns, including me. I have strong views and hard feelings. At times, I find myself intolerant of those who disagree with me because of my extreme anger over the carnage in our schools and on our streets.
Sandy Hook was a turning point for me—not in my thinking, but in my desire to be part of the solution. I remember the evening of that tragedy. I took my grandchildren to see Christmas lights. After driving through the display, we went inside a building where the kids could see Santa and pet a real reindeer. What I remember the most from that evening was the overwhelming awareness and sadness that there were grandparents in Connecticut who would never get to take their grandkids to pet the deer. Someone took an assault rifle into their school and massacred those precious children.
I know that sounds like a purely emotional response. But I’ve also studied what has been written—from both sides—on America’s relationship with guns.
As I said, everyone has an opinion. And those opinions are so deeply entrenched that it feels useless to even talk or write about this issue. As we read, talk, fight and exchange angry missives on social media, we simply reinforce and continue to entrench the opinions we’ve already chosen.
Have we ever seen someone make an about-face on this issue? Yes. We see it every day. There is a group of people who have experienced a radical change in their thinking or have taken on a life-changing commitment to reducing gun violence. They are those whose lives have been forever changed by gun violence—the victims and those who love them.
Perhaps, instead of listening to us armchair experts, we should listen to people who actually know—not from Facebook, but from life—what they’re talking about.
This came home to me this week, when a political commentator opined on Twitter and received an unexpected response.
I fear that many people, while being respectful of what Carly went through, may still dismiss her words due to the trauma, grief and sorrow that she must now endure. I hear people say that we shouldn’t talk about guns from an emotional perspective. But shouldn’t we talk about guns from a human perspective? This isn’t only about pieces of metal forged into objects that can kill. This is about the people who die and the shattered lives that are left behind.
I think we should listen to Carly Novell and three thousand teenagers in Florida who now know more about guns than any one of us. I think we should listen to Gabrielle Giffords and Lucy McBath. I think those who lived through the horror of the Pulse nightclub massacre have something to say to us. Maybe they know more about guns than Wayne LaPierre and Donald Trump.
Now, of course, not everyone will like to hear what these victims have to say. With near unanimity, they will tell you that, while mental health and other issues are at play, this is also a gun issue—or more accurately, a gun access issue.
Is it okay to be emotional when it comes to guns? I would ask, is it okay to be human?
But don’t listen to me. Listen to people who really know what a gun can do to your life.
My daughter, Caitlin Stout, is a gifted writer and an amazing person. She tirelessly works for justice for our sisters and brothers in the LBGTQ community, and, very often, pays a high price. I am so proud of her!
You can read her writings at caitlinjstout.com, but I wanted to share this one here.
(By the way, Cait's mom, my amazing wife, often writes on LGBTQ issues from a parent's perspective. Read her at carolstout.com.)
“Who knows…some of you might even be struggling with your sexuality.”
My professor glanced around the room solemnly as he said this. He had just finished a story about his gay friend, who, after making the decision to live a “full-blown homosexual lifestyle,” eventually succumbed to drug addiction and died from a meth overdose. This, of course, being an example of the proverbial slippery slope– the one that starts with following Jen Hatmaker on Twitter and ends in Hell.
This is a narrative that so many LGBT folks grow up hearing from their pastors and parents. It’s the idea that anyone who does not currently identify as straight must be experiencing inner turmoil, anxiety, or agony over their own sexual thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Of course, there is a period of struggle for most Queer people. It is an oftentimes agonizing thing to realize that you are not what your friends and family expect you to be. It can be difficult to decipher what your mind and body are telling you when you grow up in a society that assumes everyone is heterosexual and cisgender. And it is terrifying to realize that you’ll have to come out of the closet and into a less-than-friendly world. Sometimes, being Queer is indeed a struggle.
If I’m being honest, I have been struggling quite a bit lately. This past year has been marked by a depression diagnosis, lots of sleepless nights, a new patch of gray hair, and a noticeable dip in my academic performance. I am weary, in the most profound sense of the word. And I am so scared to admit that, because I know that people like my professor will hear it and say to themselves, “Well, that’s just what happens when you give in to sin.”
I think he might be right.
I think maybe depression is what happens when you are constantly told that you are inherently broken. Maybe anxiety is a natural response to multiple anti-gay harassment incidents. Maybe stress takes its toll when the responsibility of speaking on behalf of an entire community is placed on your shoulders. Maybe joy feels elusive when you spend your evenings comforting friends who have been rejected by their families. Maybe it’s difficult to concentrate on homework when you’re busy meeting with school administrators to ask them for equal rights. Maybe it’s fair to be tired when you’re constantly made to fight.
Maybe this is just what happens when the Church gives in to the sin of homophobia.
I don’t know the full story of my professor’s gay friend, but I know that something typically comes between realizing that you’re Queer and dying from a meth overdose. Unfortunately, the narrative that my professor employed, the false dichotomy of “straight-or-struggling,” is one that effectively absolves non-affirming Christians of the role they play in that process. It allows them to read the staggering statistics surrounding LGBT suicide, mental illness, homelessness, and addiction, and trace the blame back to the victims. But what they don’t realize is that gay people do not kill themselves because they are gay. They kill themselves because homophobic ideology makes it clear that there are those who would prefer them dead.
Yes, Church, your Queer siblings are struggling. We are struggling to breathe with the boot of oppressive theology pressed against our throats. We are struggling to keep each other safe and off the streets. We are struggling to maintain our faith while being rejected by the faithful. We are struggling to hold on to the promise that God is with the poor in spirit, those who mourn, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
Church, I am not struggling with my sexuality. I am struggling with the fact that my Queer family is dying, and I can’t seem to make you care.
Church, this is what happens when you give in to sin.
I wrote this in 2008.
In 1983 Ronald Reagan signed into law a national holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. At that time, I was a newscaster at a radio station in northern Indiana. I remember the debate that raged—yes, raged—in America over that holiday. I would watch the AP wire feeds as politicians and pundits argued about whether or not it was appropriate to honor Dr. King in this manner. Some of the arguments seemed a little disingenuous. Some opponents said that the country could not afford another national holiday. They claimed that our economy could not withstand another day of the year in which production would shut down and the banks and post offices would close. Yeah, right.
However, the majority of the outspoken opponents were up front about the reason for their resistance. King was a radical. Most people have forgotten that. Today people tend to see his mission solely in terms of race relations, and in our day, an overwhelming number of Americans would never want to return to segregated lunch counters and “whites only” water fountains. In fact, when we see the video footage of the battles for voting rights, the opponents of civil rights strike us as ignorant, hateful or both. So, most people today feel like they are in sync with Dr. King’s message. But they are not.
Dr. King’s mission—which began as the Montgomery Bus Boycott to end segregation on city transportation—broadened significantly over the years. He focused on economic issues for all Americans—black and white. He tried to be a voice for the poor. And he took on the war in Vietnam. His most significant anti-war speech was delivered on April 4, 1967 at Riverside Church in New York. In no uncertain terms, he stood squarely with the clergy that had gathered that day to affirm their opposition to the war. Again, by today’s standards that may not seem exceptionally controversial. But things were much different in the sixties. King was condemned as a Communist, and not just by some crazy pundits. The FBI considered him a threat to our country. He was the most hated man in America.
I’m always a little amused when I hear some people praising King or commemorating his holiday, when it is clear that they would have hated his values. I heard it again today, as leading politicians put out statements for the King holiday. But the statements I heard were coming from people who reject King’s idea of nonviolence. Those military hawks would find the real King outlandish. Consider these words…
“I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos, without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, my own government.”
“What do they think as we test out our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe?”
Those who preach the gospel of American Exceptionalism would also reject the real King. That day at Riverside he said…
“This is the first time in our nation’s history that a significant number of its religious leaders have chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent, based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history.”
“I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continue to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube.”
He called the war an “enemy of the poor.”
Martin Luther King articulated what all advocates of justice eventually learn. Justice and peace are inseparable. When you listen to or read King’s anti-war speeches and sermons, you hear him saying that his passion for racial and economic justice compelled him to speak out against the war. He knew that his work for justice would be meaningless if he did not also work for peace.
Perhaps the message of peace is the most difficult one for us to hear. Peace does not seem possible. The methods of peace do not seem practical. And the message of peace requires us to put aside our feelings of exceptionalism and superiority. Tough stuff. People hated King for it.
Our historical amnesia helps make King a likable figure. But in 1983—a mere fifteen years after his death—his holiday was not without controversy, because many people still remembered their visceral reactions to the man who challenged their deepest values with the messages of racial equality and nonviolence.
As you think about Martin Luther King’s legacy, think about justice and peace. And remember that, for all of his flaws, King found that message of nonviolence in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I've taken this from a collection of Richard Rohr's daily meditations for Advent.*
How do we also give birth, as Mary did?
We tend to manage life more than just live it. We are all overstimulated and drowning in options. We are trained to be managers, to organize life, to make things happen. That is what built our culture. It is not all bad, but if you transfer that to the spiritual life, it is pure heresy. It is wrong. It doesn’t work. It is not gospel. We might be economically rich but not spiritually fertile, as Isaiah teaches. If Mary was trustfully carrying Jesus during this time, it is because she knew how to receive spiritual gifts, in fact the spiritual gift. She is probably the perfect image of how fertility and fruitfulness break into this world.
We can’t manage, maneuver or manipulate spiritual energy. It is a matter of letting go and receiving what is being given freely. It is the gradual emptying of our attachment to our small self so that there is room for a new conception and a new birth. There must be some displacement before there can be any new “replacement”! Mary is the archetype of such self-displacement and surrender. If Jesus is the symbol of the gift itself and how God gives the gift, then Mary is the symbol of how the gift is received and treasured. Whatever God gives is always experienced as totally unearned grace and never as a salary, a reward or a merit badge of any sort. In fact, if you do experience it that way, it is not from God and will not expand your heart, mind or soul.
There is no mention of any moral worthiness, achievement or preparedness in Mary, only humble trust and surrender. She gives us all, therefore, a bottomless hope in our own little state. If we ourselves try to “manage” God, or manufacture our own worthiness by any performance principle whatsoever, we will never bring forth the Christ but only ourselves. Mary does not manage, fix, control or “perform” in any way. She just says “yes!” and brings forth the abundance that Isaiah promises (“river,” “waves,” sands of the seashore). This is really quite awesome!
*Richard Rohr, Preparing for Christmas: Daily Meditations for Advent. Franciscan Media. Kindle Edition.
I grew up in a home that made Christmas a beautiful experience year after year. We had all the customs and traditions that characterized most American families of that day—a tree, lights, presents, special food, decorated cookies. But there was so much more. My parents made it a Christ-centered event. It revolved around the church and the home, but we were always taught to care for those who suffered. So Christmas included adopting families, visiting elderly people in our church, and welcoming people into our home so they wouldn’t be alone on Christmas Day.
We didn’t live a sheltered life. While we were not a wealthy family, we knew we were blessed and that many other people didn’t experience the warmth and love that was part of our lives. I knew that not everyone celebrated Christmas like we did. But as I look back, I realize that I assumed all Christians did.
So imagine my surprise in late adolescence and early adulthood when I discovered that the “Christmas Season” as it is practiced in our culture is not always a good thing. In fact, sometimes it is the most dreaded time of the year—a time of deep depression, a time of great loneliness and even a time when people are more susceptible to taking their own lives. I’ve learned that the manner in which our culture approaches Christmas often exacerbates the pain and suffering in the world.
I discovered that the Christmas Season doesn’t work. But many years later, I discovered that Advent does.
No, I’m not playing word games. The Christmas Season our culture observes—which begins mid-November and extends to Christmas Day—is a radical departure from the Christian tradition of Advent. And it can destroy people.
Christmas time in America is a time for fantasy. We see commercials with perfect families in beautiful homes and a Lexus in the driveway with a big bow on top. All the Hallmark movies have happy endings. We’re told that “special something” is the “magic of Christmas” or the “Christmas spirit.” And even when people try to speak out against the materialism of Christmas, they usually still talk in abstract terms, saying that Christmas is about family.
But fantasies don’t last very long. So when we’ve outgrown the fantasy, we determine that we’ll keep it alive for the children. Or sometimes we look for the magic in nostalgia, hoping our traditions will give us a few moments of remembered peace and joy. Maybe the sights, sounds and smells will conjure something “magic” inside for a few minutes. But this can be so destructive.
Depending on your current level of pain, the season can be anything from inadequate to downright disgusting. If you’ve just lost your spouse to a debilitating disease, it’s pretty tough to hear about the joy of the season. If you’re estranged from your family, the “Christmas is family” meme puts a knot in your stomach. And if you’re dealing with major disappointment with God, you actually feel insulted when you hear that “Jesus is the reason for the season.”
But Advent stands in stark contrast to the fantasy of the Christmas Season.
The word “Advent” comes from the Latin word adventus, which means “coming” or “arrival.” And, contrary to our culture’s approach, the weeks before Christmas are actually characterized by mourning. That’s right, mourning.
You see, Advent is a reality check. It acknowledges pain, suffering, and oppression. Advent is no fantasy. It calls us to face our doubts and fears, our sins and disappointment—even our disappointment with God.
We allow Advent to move us from pain to yearning. We talk about hope because Advent helps us to be open to the possibility that God has not forgotten us—that God is still God and we are still his children.
So we grasp the first Advent by re-living it. Our suffering leads to yearning, which—by God’s help—leads us to hope. Then we can begin to see peace and love and even joy may be part of our future. And it is because of the child that was called Emmanuel—which means “God with us.”
If you are suffering, don’t let our cultural December rituals define Christ’s coming. Instead, thank God for the honesty of Advent. Instead of allowing pain to destroy the sense of God’s presence, learn from Advent that we can actually invite God into our pain. Not because we understand it. We don’t. Not because we’ve come to grips with it. We are always in that process. But we invite God to share our pain simply because He is God and He has chosen to enter our living space. That’s the painful yearning and profound beauty of Advent.
My Advent begins with mourning. Two years ago, my granddaughter, Lily, arrived and left us on the same day. So now on November 25 we gather together and sing “Happy Birthday, dear Lily.” Then we release balloons and shed a few tears. I see the pain on the face of my daughter and son-in-law and leave with a heavy heart. The Christmas of our culture won’t sustain us. But our yearning for God, our belief that God is with us—and with Lily—will and does sustain us.
Although I didn’t come from a tradition that talked about Advent, I now realize that the Christmas of my childhood was, indeed, Advent. We looked for Christ in the poor and in the lonely, and found him in our home.
O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appears
— 18th Century Advent Hymn
“We are either a people who love, embrace, and enter into a caring posture with our family, friends, neighbors, strangers, and even enemies (real or imagined) or we will spend our lives mercilessly trying to define who is lovable and who is not, who is worthy and who is not, who deserves my attention and who does not. Inevitably, we will end up loving people who look like us, think like us, and pledge allegiance to the same flag—and we will exclude the rest. In this truly useless pursuit, we will separate ourselves from God (through tribal worship), from the world’s good (by avoiding healing and restoration), and from our very souls (through self-preoccupation with ego).
In effect, the wisdom of Jesus describes the powerful, but often neglected, bridge between spiritual insight and social action/real compassion. In fact, the wisdom of Jesus seems to suggest that the link is even more intimate than a bridge; it is the collapse of the two categories altogether. The separation of spirituality from action is a false one. In other words, we are not called to do spiritual practices—prayer, study, meditation, retreat, ritual—and then make our way, now inspired, to the work of mercy and justice. In fact, it might be argued that, if anything, it’s just the reverse: Love those who struggle with poverty and suffer abandonment and the effect is that we will find ourselves on a path that leads to maturity, prayer, wisdom, and Christ-likeness. If, however, we choose to avoid engagement and community with those who suffer, we will certainly live an incomplete life, including an incomplete spiritual life.
To put it rightly, I think, the practice of prayer and the practice of compassion are both necessary and complementary spiritual practices…. We are called to be both activists and mystics, missionaries of love and contemplatives, great lovers and deep thinkers. And, in all of that, the spiritual journey can happen; in all of that, we can be made whole; in all of that, the world can be made whole…. Personal transformation and social transformation are one piece….
The true spiritual quest is not that I become whole. Informed by the belief that the world is birthed by God and is precious and sacred and one, the true spiritual quest is that the world become whole—and we along with it.” — Jack Jezreel
It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.”
— Mary Oliver
Paul had a concrete missionary strategy of building living communities able to produce a visible and believable message. Yet for centuries we’ve interpreted his message as if he is speaking about individuals being privately “saved.” This has made Paul seem more like a mere moralist than the mystic he is. Mystics tend to see things in wholes rather than getting preoccupied with the parts.
Paul believes that corporate evil can only be overcome or confronted with corporate good. He uses primitive yet powerful words for the negative side of corporations, institutions, and nations: he calls them “thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers” (Colossians 1:16). These are not “bad angels” as much as collective attitudes that are almost impossible to break. Because they are so widely shared as mass consciousness—the way we’re programmed to think—they no longer look like evil and are hard to resist. Murder is bad, but war is good; greedy people are bad, but capitalism is going to save the world; ambition and pride are supposedly major sins, but not in the good ol’ USA. Do you see the problem?
I’ve never heard a single sermon my entire life on the tenth commandment—“Thou shalt not covet . . . anything that is thy neighbor’s” (Exodus 20:17)—because coveting goods is the only game in town now. It’s called capitalism and consumerism! In Paul’s thinking, those big cultural blind spots can only be overcome by a group of people living and affirming and supporting one another in an alternative lifestyle. Smaller groups like the Quakers, Amish, Mennonites, and some Catholic religious orders were able to create actual alternative cultures.
For Paul, community is the living organism that communicates the Gospel message. Paul, like Jesus, wants to change culture here, not just send people away to a far-off heaven later! If Christ’s cosmic message doesn’t take form in a concrete group of people, then, as far as Paul is concerned, it is an unbelievable message. An autonomous Christian is as impossible as an independent arm or leg. Arms and legs exist only as parts. No single one of us is the whole Christ, and “the eye cannot say to the hand, I do not need you” (I Corinthians 12:21). Believers exist as parts of the whole, the Body of Christ. Their very existence is an objective, shared state that Paul calls love or living “in Christ.” When Paul says, “without love I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2), he implies that he is inside of another Being who is Love.
Paul sees what we will eventually call the “communion of saints” (by the fifth and sixth centuries) as an organism that is very alive, real, and operative in this world. I like to call it an “energy field” created by all those who share in the various parts of Christ. “Salvation” is thus something we can participate in right here and now. When Paul addresses his letters to “the saints,” he is clearly not speaking of our later idea of canonized saints, but of those who make up his living communities and who are participating in this shared life of love in this world.
Paul does not make heroes of individuals, but it is precisely as members of the Body that they “shine like stars” as “perfect children of God among a deceitful and underhanded brood” (Philippians 2:15). Paul sees his small communities as an adequate “leaven” by which God will eventually change the whole debauched Roman Empire (Paul got the word “yeast” or “leaven” from Jesus, see Matthew 13:33). Talk about patience and confidence!
“Following Jesus is actually a vocation to share the fate of God for the life of the world. Jesus invited people to ‘follow’ him in bearing the mystery of human death and resurrection. It is not a requirement in order that we can go to heaven later, it is an invitation so that we can live an entirely full life now.
Those who agree to carry and love what God loves, which is both the good and the bad of human history, and to pay the price for its reconciliation within themselves—these are the followers of Jesus—the leaven, the salt, the remnant, the mustard seed that God can use to transform the world. The cross is a very dramatic image of what it takes to be a usable one for God.
These few are the critical mass that keeps the world from its path toward greed, violence, and self-destruction. God is calling everyone and everything to God’s self (Genesis 8:16-17, Ephesians 1:9-10, Colossians 1:15-20, Acts 3:21, 1 Timothy 2:4, John 3:17), not just a few. To get there, God needs models and images who are willing to be ‘conformed to the body of his death’ and transformed into the body of his resurrection (Philippians 3:10). They are ‘the new creatures’ (Galatians 6:15), and their transformed state is seeping into history and ever so slowly transforming it into life instead of death. This is the basis for all of our hope—in Christ and for history.”
— Richard Rohr