Saturday, December 10, 2016

On Advent, Infertility, and Finding Space for the Other*

In a Christmas sermon delivered to inmates at a Basel prison, twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth commented on the journey of the holy family, "Thanks be to God the parents and the baby for whom there was no room in the inn found this other spot where this could happen, and indeed did happen” (Deliverance to the Captives).

They found this other spot. In this alternative space, the unexpected happened to the unlikely. 

The entire Christmas drama hinges on surprise and the unconventional. The lack of vacancy at the local inn only reinforces this truth. 

This Advent is unlike any other for our family of five. That is because we are about to become a family of six- with a due date of December 24th In many ways, the Christmas narrative has become our personal, real-life pageantry.  

It would be an understatement to say this pregnancy was an unexpected surprise. Our first three children, to include twins, were born after years of painfully battling infertility and navigating through the complexities of reproductive technology. Until their arrival, Advent was a darkened four weeks. As someone in congregational ministry, I remember fighting my way through the liturgy. So many of the stories and sacred imagery were reminders of the void we sensed and the dreams that became all the more faint with each visit to the doctor. We felt as though we did not belong in the narrative happening all around us, a narrative I was proclaiming through my vocation.  

This Advent, however, my wife carries the unexpected and the improbable. We await the birth of what we previously believed and, on many occasions, were told was unlikely to be possible…ever. As we anticipate the arrival of this little girl, who has defied all odds through her very existence, we do so with a fair share of angst, mixed with gratitude, uncertainty, and a growing list of questions. One of the more pressing logistical questions, “where will this child sleep?” There is not much room left in our over-crowded inn. We are looking for this other spot, too.

God’s preference throughout the biblical story is for the other- those who dwell on the fringe of society, the margins of communities, and are dismissed by conventional wisdom and systems of power. This includes the religious. God's self-revelation happens alongside those who cry out for deliverance, long for hope, and plead for comfort in the midst of increasing despair. The activity of God occurs in these other places like arks and parted seas, prisons and deserts, lions dens and shepherds’ fields. It even happens in the midst of battles with infertility and deep longings for children- Sarah, Hannah, and Elizabeth among others. 

The church must make space for those who presently battle such darkness.

As Mary and Joseph journey towards their makeshift delivery room, she sings the song she composed in the midst of a prolonged visit with her previously-barren cousin who knew such pain and void now redeemed. 
"My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant...He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly." (Luke 1:46-47, 52)
Mary knows it is not only the coming of Jesus that announces God’s solidarity with the lowly, but also the way in which the Christ child comes- in the womb of one marked as ‘other’ only to be born in the other spot behind an overly-crowded inn. Mary sings of the incarnation as God finding a spot among the other, the hungry, poor, exploited, and shamed, who now take center stage within this unfolding drama of deliverance.  

Mary’s song is a challenge to each of us at Advent. The Magnificat dares us to keep our eyes and ears open to the other spots whereby God’s love and grace may be both born and affirmed. The chorus challenges us to look out for those who feel the weight of being the other, especially in this season whereby voids and a sense of belonging are most vulnerable. The echoes of Mary’s song nudge us to find space for those frequently dismissed and ignored, who look for refuge and sanctuary among us. Even more, Mary’s song is a word of comfort to those who may wonder whose side God is on in the midst of a world most favorable to the powerful and privileged. So sing this Advent and Christmas, but sing in a way that elevates the voice and value of the other. After all, this is the song that has been sung by God’s people throughout the ages. This is a soulful song that magnifies the Lord who draws the other to the center. 

*This post was originally written for The presbytery of Philadelphia: 

Sunday, November 13, 2016

What I Would've Preached Today: On Subversion through Not Being Afraid

We don’t fully know what’s ahead. We don’t know what campaign promises the president-elect will act upon in his first 100 days. 

We don’t know what will happen related to immigration policies, foreign wars, ISIS, international trade, domestic infrastructure, law enforcement, relationships with our Muslim and LGBTQ neighbors, etc. We have about 70 days to make speculations, some more accurate than others, but we don’t really know. 

And when we don’t know, we fear. Our speculations lead us to imagine the worst. Frankly, the rhetoric of this recent election season has given the American people more than enough warrant to do just that. It’s also part of the game politicians play- even those who claim to be outsiders and anti-establishment. 

There’s really no such thing. 

What we do know, we are called to embody the same witness to the gospel alongside those who are on the margins of systems, the fringe of our communities, and the targets of abusive language of ignorance and offense that has gained a renewed platform in recent days. 

In the midst of it all, we also know we are called to echo the compassion of Christ, "do not be terrified.” (Luke 21:9). 

This is not to say there are no reasons for concern. For there are many.

Rather, this message subverts the powers-that-be and their patrons as we dare proclaim, live into, and link arms in solidarity with those who tremble in the midst of uncertainty and the crumbling of what is. We assure one another we belong to the One whose reign is always on the side of margin dwellers.

We also know we are to act in the face of our darkest fears, no matter what the law of the land may say (Luke 21:12-18). If we as the church feel so strong about gender equality, dismantling racism and all phobias, providing sanctuary for the refugee, prioritizing economic justice, leveraging peacemaking initiatives, strengthening interfaith relations, and reducing the polarization and characterization of the other (even those with whom we disagree), we must work towards these things even now. Especially now. We must ensure our own ecclesial institutions and communities model what we hope and lobby for in the State. We must beware of and reduce the plank-eye syndrome. 

This is hard yet honest work.  

When our theological convictions, which frame our witness in the world, are not shared by those in power we dare not shrink back. This is true regardless of who occupies the Oval. As some say, we hold the line and continue to carry cross. We bear witness no matter the cost. We endure, assured that in so doing we gain our very souls. 

Church, we don’t know much about what’s ahead. We can merely speculate and anticipate. 

But be careful not to fear. May we also not become that which we condemn. Rather, embrace the call of Christ that is as urgent now as it was when the earliest saints were first bid to follow. 

They endured. So must we. 

"By your endurance you will gain your souls." 

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Give Me Jesus: Brief Post-Election Reflections and an Alternative Pledge of Allegiance

I fell asleep last night to the lyric, "in the morning, when I rise, give me Jesus." I woke up to the same internal melody. For many, today is a day of great lament. Fear and angst realized and amplified in a way that deeply affects their lived realities and the concerns of their friends, family members, and neighbors near and far. These must be heard and given space to breathe. For others, today is a day where they believe a particular age of reform or return is about to come. I am doing my best to hear them, too.

But I find this quite difficult.

While I woke in a fog and continue to wrestle with what may be ahead, especially for my children, women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, immigrants, refugees, and those seeking asylum in this nation, one thing is certain, I pledge allegiance not to a nation or an office, a political dream or a flag. Rather, this personal anthem, written eight years ago, holds just as true now as it did then and will tomorrow and for the next four years, too.

Church, God is with us and the Spirit inviting us still. People of God, Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. Amen.

Monday, November 7, 2016

A Confession Before Heading to the Polls on Tuesday

“If the Church is a Christian community it will not need a Christian party. If it is a true fellowship it will perform with its words and its whole existence all the functions which the disastrous enterprise of ‘Christian’ parties is intended to fulfill. There will be no lack of individual Christians who will enter the political arena anonymously, that is, in the only way they can appear on the political scene, and who will act in accordance with the Christian approach and will thereby prove themselves unassuming witness of the Gospel of Christ, which alone can bring salvation in the political sphere no less than elsewhere.”
Karl Barth, “Christian Community and Civil Community."

In these days, the anxiety levels swirling around Election Day 2016 are higher than I can ever remember in my lifetime. Some are suggesting they are higher than they have been in our nation’s history. And this includes the age of duals we now know well, thanks to Hamilton.

The rhetoric of candidates and pundits, backyard conversations and on-line rants are laced in hyperbolic fear tactics that perpetuates unparalleled dis-ease and presumes what happens on November 8th could prevent a sun rise on November 9th. Through it all, the American electorate are mere pawns in the political game of chess and quest for public allegiance. 

The church is not exempt from this scheme. 

While our votes matter and the impact of this year’s election will bear consequences for generations to come, in many ways we have forgotten the Christian confession echoed throughout centuries and in the midst of even the most tyrannical and oppressive rulers- Christ is Lord.

This loaded political statement has been lost, for some, in a church wed to privilege, power, political wooing, and the allure of Christendom now dead. So we are dared to reclaim the confession in the days ahead. Not because we are standing on soapboxes with bullhorns bent on converting the masses; rather, we need assurance that no matter who sits in the Oval now or in the next four years, our hope resides in the Elected One whose name is Jesus.* This will be true whether Trump or Hillary, Gary or Theo Epstein (who many may write in post Cubs victory). We are not saved by the faulty promises and broken policies of those who lobby for our votes. Our hope does not rest in political figures, be they Caesar or President. This is a truth both the religious right and left have forgotten these days, myself included, as if we needed further reason to testify to the world the church is as divided and confused as Washington. 

So while we must exercise our right to vote, may we do so aware our first allegiance is pledged to Christ and no other. Regardless of the results, may we dare to live into our Christian witness that speaks truth to power, extends welcome to foreigners, elevates the cause of those on the margins, advocates for just economics, protects those profiled due to their race or ethnicity, values the sanctity of life, cares for the earth we call home, prioritizes peacemaking, extends love to enemies of all kinds, and lives into the hope for a day surely coming when God will make all things new and right again for all nations, peoples, and the creation God made as good.

This through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus the Christ, God’s Elected One.

To cling to this confession neither minimizes nor dismisses our responsibility in this election or any matters related to politics. On the contrary, what we believe to be true about the gospel and the witness of Jesus as Elected One becomes the lens by which we view candidates and the conscience that undergirds our votes.

In this sense, this confession is as urgent in 2016 as it has ever been previously. 

So may we be so bold to follow the Elected One at our polling places and everyday thereafter. Still more, may we remember the sun will rise on November 9th and our call as the church will, too. 

Related Links and Notes:

*Karl Barth once wrote, “Jesus is not merely the Reconciler between God and man. First, He is Himself the reconciliation between them. And so He is not only the Elected. He is also Himself the Elector, and in the first instance His election must be understood as active…It is in Him that the eternal election becomes immediately and directly the promise of our own election as it is enacted in time, our calling, our summoning to faith, our assent to the divine intervention on our behalf, the revelation of ourselves as the sons of God and of God as our Father, the communication with the Holy Spirit who is none other than the Spirit of this act of obedience, the Spirit of obedience itself, and for us the Spirit of adoption. When we ask concerning the reality of the divine election, what can we do but look at the One who performs this act of obedience, who is Himself the act of obedience, who is Himself in the first instance the Subject of this election." (Church Dogmatics II.2 106)