Divine Nativity Draws Nigh

Psalm 80:3, “Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.”

Introduction

When we moved to Louisiana, something drove me crazy having nothing to do with the new culture or context but with one simple human verbal behavior: it’s okay. That phrase and its twin, “It’ll be fine,” met me at nearly every turn. At school, at church, among my neighbors, anytime someone asked me how I was doing and settling in, my reply was met with a quick and sweet, “it’s okay,” “it’ll be fine,” or the more sinister “don’t stress…”

But, see, things weren’t okay.

I *was* stressed. I had just asked my family, my partner and three young children, to move to an unknown location for me to take a job I had no idea if I was going to be successful. We left family and friends and home to make new friends and make a new home. Little things like where do the plates go and does it make sense to put the silverware here and can we seat 5 this way in that room caused stressed and anxiety even if small. Resettling and re-establishing…stress was part of that, anxiety was part of that. I was a mix of sadness having left that place and those whom I loved and excited about meeting those I would grow to love. And even if I knew full well that a new normal would present itself, nothing was “okay”.

We dismiss others’ anxiety and stress because it strikes to close to our home. If I can calm you down with a quick “It’s okay” then I can keep my own anxiety and stress under control. Don’t bring your mess here, that phrase says, I’m barely keeping the closet door shut on my own mess. We gaslight ourselves with the “it’s okay” and we drag others into that altered reality to make it true for us. I tell you it’s okay because I need them to be okay because I’m afraid things aren’t okay. And, deep down we know:

Things are not okay.

The grim reaper stands on every corner of every neighborhood looming over hearths and homes, reminding us our fleshy existence is reduceable to dust by a sub microscopic infectious agent. Covid’s count and toll creep closer and closer to unnecessary heights. Things are not okay. Racial tensions surge as white people across this country make the bold statement that white supremacy is just fine. Black bodies are being destroy and most white people will go to brunch bemoaning the anger and the charged political and civic atmosphere. Things are not okay. We are anxious, stressed, isolated and alone, our pillow damp with tears of frustration and sadness, we have no idea what comes tomorrow, and feel that each new day is one more where risk exceeds reward. Why? is fresh on desperate lips and exhausted bodies bear the when?… When will this be over? Why is this happening? When will we have life and liberty for all people? When will it be okay to embrace and touch and sing with my neighbor without fear? Why does this hurt so much?

Isaiah 64:1-9

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence…to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!” (Is 64:1-2)

These prescient words preserved in Isaiah 64 address the weight of why and when. Isaiah shares the yoke of suffering and stands in solidarity with oppressed and burdened people. [1] The request is that God makes God’s self known in such a way that the earth quakes and nations tremble.[2] A holy plea for revelation of divine presence setting the world right, establishing justice and peace, and stripping power from corrupt leaders. The book of Isaiah is replete with images of divine glory manifest in ways reorienting human beings to what they are: human. To see God revealed in God’s splendor is to also realize our humble: not God. [3] This is Israel’s call: to direct the eyes and ears of all people of all nations to this God who has done “…awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence” (Is. 64:3).

The world Isaiah speaks from and to is sick and is in a desperate way. There is, Isaiah sees, a deep and fleshy need for the revelation of divine intervention of divine presence. Isaiah’s voice cries out on behalf of all the people suffering, cries out for those who have lost their voice under the weight of oppressive rule and regulation, and cries out in solidarity with the marginalized. [4] What we have here in this Isaiahic moment is petition, prayer, and plea. In recalling God’s divine engagement and encounter with and for Israel in the past, Isaiah confesses Israel’s need for God to do again what God has done before.[5] “From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him” (Is 64:4). [6]

This confession is twofold: it is both a confession of what is needed and what has been done. Isaiah takes up the priestly mantel of confession on behalf of the people:

“You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed” (Is. 64:5).

When Israel feels abandoned, when help seems distant, they grow weary in keeping the law. It is easier to give over to selfish desire than to fight against it; it is easier to give into greed of power than resist; it is easier to play along with oppressive systems than to stand with the oppressed, calling out the oppression; it is easier to be violent than just; it is easier to confuse evil and good than to call a thing what it is. “We are like a polluted garment, our virtue like filthy rags, and as for God, he has hidden his face from us.”[7]

One scholar renders 64:5 like this,

“You meet him who joyfully works righteousness, they remember you in your ways. Because you were angry, we have sinned. For a long time we have been immersed in them; how then can we be saved?”[8]

The feeling of hopelessness is visceral. It’s been so long and you’ve been so absent, how then can we be saved? There has been so much violence and so much oppression and so much death, how can we be saved? Isaiah puts words to Israel’s lament, her frustration, her confession, and her fear. Isaiah knows that things are not okay; and as far as Isaiah can see, it won’t end well if God remains silent and seemingly absent (64:12). [9] Israel cries out: Do you hear our cry, O Lord? How Long?!

O come, O come, Emmanuel

And ransom captive Israel

That mourns in lonely exile here

Until the Son of God appear

Conclusion

Things are not okay. But hope is not tethered to facts and is the flip side of divine love. That we love, there is God; that we hope, there is God. Israel’s feeling of being abandoned and her cries to God are seen, heard, and known by God. Isaiah’s recounting of God’s activity with Israel is to draw his audience into the story line of Israel and her encounters with a God who hears and acts. It is God who made the covenant with Abraham and kept it through threat and famine. It is God who heard the cries of Israel so intimately and intensely that God knew in God’s being the pain of his people and acted by calling Moses to liberate the captives. It is God who comes to dwell with Israel, to see her forward in to fertile and fruitful existence, out of death and into life.

Today we enter Advent as those who are grafted into Israel’s story through encounter with God in the event of faith. It is part of our tradition to slow down here, to pause and reflect, to resist the urge to run to the liturgical “it’s okay” of Easter’s promise of future resurrected life, to viscerally feel the deep pining pleas of Israel for God to hear and to act, and to ask the desperate question: how can we be saved?! 2020 has made this penitential feeling and corresponding question easy. While I cannot tell you when the travail of souls and burdened bodies will end, I can point you to a distant light illuminating this midnight sky over our heads, warming the fringes of this long chill, drawing our eyes from death and destruction around us up toward life and hope. It is this light that will invigorate us to stand where we are and be present; to get up once again and take our places in this world knowing that what is isn’t all there is, that possibility has priority over actuality. It is not the dawn of the sun, but the bright star of the Son of God, the Christ.

Advent begins the ascent of this bright star high into the midnight sky, signaling the depths of divine hearing and knowing. Hold tight and stand firm, Beloved, do not lose heart, the great encounter with God in the divine nativity draws nigh.

Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel


[1] Abraham J. Heschel The Prophets New York, Ny: JPS 1962. In re: second Isaiah “The message of Second Isaiah as he is conventionally called, is of no age. It is prophecy tempered with human tears, mixed with a joy that heals all scars, clearing a way for understanding the future in spite of the present. No words have ever gone further in offering comfort when the sick world cries.” 145

[2] Brevard Childs Isaiah: A Commentary The Old Testament Library Louisville KY: WJK 2001. “The prayer returns to the urgent plea for God’s direction intervention from above: ‘O that you would rend the heavens and come down.’ That the plea is for a theophany is clear from the imagery of quaking mountains, flaming fire, and streaming liquid.” 525

[3] Heschel “The grandeur and presence of God are strikingly apparent, heaven and earth are radiant with His glory it is enough to lift up the eyes on high and see Who created these (40:26). Yet men are blind; spiritually, they live in a dungeon. Israel’s destiny is, as we have seen ‘to open the eyes that are blind.’ Yet the tragedy is that the servant himself fails to understand the meaning of his mission.” 156

[4]  Childs “The form is that of a communal complaint that shares much with the common oral pattern of the Psalter, but especially with other late psalms such as Psalms 76, 106, Nehemiah 9.” 522

[5] Childs “The wording evokes again reference to God’s past intervention with the awesome signs of power displayed when he descended at Sinai and the mountains quaked. The confession of God’s sole rule as sovereign also reverberates from the Sinai tradition: ‘You shall have no other gods before me’ (ex. 20:3), but now understood as an affirmation of God’s uniqueness (‘no eye has seen any God besides you’).” 525

[6] Childs “The voice of faithful Israel had confessed its own unrighteousness in the light of the appalling conditions of national wickedness (59:1ff.). Then in 59:15ff. and 63:1-6 the promise of salvation is repeated with the coming of God as redeemer, but must first be preceded by God’s terrifying judgment on his people…In 63:7ff. the voice of faithful Israel is heard in a prayer that contains all the stereotyped features of the complaint: recital of God’s past mercies, confession of sin, call for divine intervention, and plea for aid in need.” 522

[7] Childs 526

[8] Childs 521

[9] Childs “this proposed reading seems radically to reverse the traditional theological sequence of first the sin, then the divine judgment….In my opinion, the power of the verse lies in the unexpected sequence, which is an ad hoc formulation, and its literary function lies exactly in its outrageous formulation. The sentiment is not to be abstracted into a theological principle, but serves only to identity the frustration of the confession community. The statement is congruent with the intensity of the rest of the lament that follows…” 525

Revelation upon Revelation

A Birthday Reflection

I know this is a week late, but, nonetheless, it appears. My Birthday revelation. 

There is no real coherence to this post; the only common ground is that over the past year I’ve learned a lot as I am wont to do. But, last year was hard. Very. Hard. I had revelation upon revelation about people: they aren’t always who they say they are. I know that this seems like quite the kindergarten thing to learn, but sometimes, even as “wise” adults…we must learn this lesson again. 

You see, there’s a longing I have: to fit in. I have never. I just don’t. I still don’t. And the irony is that I care but don’t care because I’m a 5 who idealizes belonging but then when I get it, I hate it. I guess here I say: lolz. I think sometimes I fear my own individuality. It’s quite fierce and not even I can wrestle it to submission. It’s an alligator, and I’m not one to wrestle alligators. I think this year I’ve learned through some very traumatic mediums: That I’m okay; that I’m enough. 

And I am enough. I know, a protestant priest preaching such drivel…but I believe this. I am content in me–trust me, this has been put to the test this past year…and even so: I am content. It took some great loss, some great trial, and some great self reflection: I am enough. I’m okay. Even if I have “original” sin, it doesn’t mean that I’m inherently “bad,” that all I do is crave wicked. I don’t. You don’t. It’s not a sin to be okay on your own, or to feel one inside of your own skin. That’s not “sin.” It’s not a sin to feel whole and entire in your flesh; it’s not a sin to like yourself. (By the way, there’s no real righteousness in consistently hating yourself or debasing yourself through your own self-criticism; you don’t get the gospel more than me because you think you’re shit. B-t-dubs, that narrative your listening to is not the gospel at work but your broken-ass script you use to keep yourself insulated from prospects of confession and new life.) You can like yourself, and you can like the idea of self-change without it becoming a self-righteous thing. Sin is better defined as that law you use to discern who is “in” and who is “out”; sin is better defined not as individuality but as a “bird” flipped to the rest of humanity–just me!. Sin is better defined as a hatred of self that devolves into a selfish self-non-awareness that steals from the rest of the community your very presence. To love yourself is not pride; to love yourself is an acknowledgement that the One who made you knew exactly what the One was doing. To think you are better than everyone else is bad; to love yourself is not to think that you are above everyone else but that you are worthy of the love that you have received and will receive and will give.  

But aside from that here are some of the things I’ve come to learn this past year:

  1. Everyone reveals themselves; you just have to wait. Doesn’t matter who they say they are, actions speak louder than words. I get tired of people lying to me and speaking crap to me and putting the table cloth of “encouragement” on top of it. Doesn’t matter. That shit stinks to high heaven. Substantiate your words or don’t; just, please, don’t waste them. Our world is so full of useless words, there should be a global call to all who care to use words that have meaning…meaning that incorporates their own being. I tell my students: substantiate your words with yourself. It’s why I like for them to use the first person singular pronoun…I think thisI feel that… If you put yourself behind your words you can’t hide from the attack that may come, and maybe you’ll think about what you say before you say it. What if we reclaimed words, used fewer, and let ourselves be in more of our words…   ….   …. what if?
  2. Speaking of words…Let others tell you who they are. This concept coincides with the first: everyone reveals themselves, and so we should let others tell us who they are rather than determining who they are especially when they protest that you have them wrong. One friendship that went very south was one where I could not speak for myself or convince the person that their perception of me was based on a few poorly developed ideas of me. There’s nothing more frustrating than feeling like you have to yell and shout at deaf ears to be heard. That type of relationship is not a friendship of equals; that is a situation of some sort of domination. You know who you are–even at your worst–no one gets to tell you who you are…especially someone who has known you for only a few months. Experiencing this, I’ve become more adamant about holding back judgment about other people. Let them tell you who they are–even the hardest to get along with–everyone has a story. Think: Gabby Gabby from Toy Story 4. She seems so evil but she has a desire, a story that drives her: to be loved, to be some kid’s comfort. We could brush her off as evil; but she’s not. She has a story. But if we turn the movie off midway she remains evil…but if we let her tell her story…she resonates with us on a human level. I hope we all listen to others. (Also included here is anyone who needs to control you to make their world more calm…this is also a means to dominate and tell you who you are and determine who you should be.)
  3. People who love you aren’t stupid for loving you. I think we struggle with this sometimes…At least I know I do. I was bullied in middle-school. I was fat and ugly and there wasn’t one person there who wouldn’t let me forget it. Except for a small table of other “outsiders”. A table at the cafeteria where I found refuge but where I also found discontent. I found myself looking down on those who liked me because they weren’t the ones who were of status…what’s love if it can’t get you somewhere? What’s love if you do nothing but hate yourself? While I know now that I radically misconceived love, I find that I (we?) still struggle with those who love us. If we have that self-contempt that is so extolled in some theological circles, we will perpetually question those who love us…they’ll always be mistaken. But they’re not.  Now, bear with me: I’m a mom, I know unconditional love and I love…like LOVE my kids. I’d go to fist-a-cuffs over any one of them. There is unconditional love; I’ve felt it. But it’s hard to believe that anyone else would ever unconditionally love us that doesn’t *have to*. But there are people like that who also do not share the same or similar genetic code as you do. There are people who love you just because and do not have to. I won’t name mine because they should know who they are (if not, text me, I’ll send flowers or chocolates….) Don’t forsake these people who love you just because; don’t forsake them just because you don’t love yourself. Let these people tell you a different love-story with you. I guarantee that love-story is better than your hate-story. I cannot guarantee that that story will be a happy ending…but that right now that love is real…don’t let it go. 
  4. and last…Don’t hide your story. I’m famous for this. Well…this sounds hypocritical after an exhortation to be yourself, to let others tell you about themselves, to substantiate your words, and to receive love as is… I promise that I substantiate my words to the best of my ability, that I try to love those who love me and let them love me in return, and that I am myself. But there are somethings or (rathter) something that I still wrestle with: anger over years lost. I’m writing this portion because I think it’s important to my story and because I think I’m not alone. I’ve had years stolen from me; and I hate it. I want those 7 years back more than anything. 7 years of catastrophic self-destruction. I was so angry; I was so lost. I hated me and the world for nearly a decade. I wanted to self-destruct, to implode, to cease to exist.  I wanted to go supernova leaving only a destructive black hole in my wake. My anger coursed through my veins and around me. I was destruction. Everything I touched was dirt and not gold. I hated myself in a visceral way for nearly a decade. And then Christ. And then I encountered God in Christ by the Spirit in the event of faith and I was yanked out of my self-de-struction and oriented toward the world in others-con-struction. But there is still part of me that wants those 7 years back. Those 7 years of anger and self-destruction. I feel that I’ve lost those 7 years. But then recently I realized…those 7 years (and the ones preceding that time) are the reason I am who I am. I know…I know pain; I know turmoil; I know (deeply) existential crisis that brings you the brink; I know darkness; I know trouble; I know that surge of guilt and resentment that courses through your veins where you think you won’t survive before it moves from the warmth of you inner elbow to the pulse of your ankle. I know. And while I wrestle with my age in light of this loss, I realize…that I am who I am because of it. So I cannot resent it fully. I can’t hat it fully because I’d never change who I am, I’d never change my story, I’d never change the fact that I can sit in the deep, deep darkness and those “lost years” are part of my story. Not many of us can say that…but I can. I can sit with you…I promise. I’ve a decade of pain so deep that allows me to be with you not matter what. I’m here with you, in the darkness, no matter what; I mean that with all my person; and I have no problem showing you. Just ask….

So I say this to conclude: I’m 44 and unashamed after many years of feeling regret for having “lost” those years. I’m 44 and don’t want those 7 years back because they’ve deeply formed me. I’m 44 and a whole person, content with herself and who she is now. In my 20s, I never thought I’d make it this far; I’m proud that I have. I’m here, I’m present, I’m active, and I’m not going away anytime soon. And I just don’t quit. #ThatsAPromise #ThatsAThreat

These are my birthday reflections. And to reflect on a question from last year: Am I happy with who and where I am? I have to echo last year’s response: Yes. I am very happy with who I am and where I am. 100%, yes.