when singing is hard


photo: Ben White

Dear bestfriend,

I knew that you knew that I knew that I failed to call you after the election out of nothing but sadness. Acedia, the desert monks called it, and later sloth: when you know what needs to be done and you just don’t. You wake up sad and let the long day ahead flatten you before it even really gets going. Most pitiful and boring of the seven deadly sins.

A tiny part of me tried not to think about you for too long, in the week after the election, because your work with refugees has always overwhelmed me with a fierce protective pride and I knew and I saw on facebook how deeply sad you were. You go every day and you chip away at the mortar between bricks and you slowly bring down the walls between these fleeing people and their new lives. We sat on the phone this weekend and wondered without saying it how so many could choose fear and blame and walls. We mourned for what our nation loses by rejecting refugees. And we fought down panic for those living in tents somewhere in between the loneliness of no country, in between a past of rubble and a future of more tents and more waiting.

We shared the little things we’ve done to try and move forward in the past month, but underneath all that, a terrible sense of smallness. Don’t just blame it on Trump, either; call it a quarter-life crisis. We have been doing our little things for a while now, and so much has only gotten worse. Maybe we should just acknowledge that we are suckers for trying to triage a world that seems bent on destroying itself. Maybe all we’ve been doing is making ourselves feel better about, or more righteous than, an objectively shitty place. We could be excused for deciding to leave behind our idealistic youth, over time knowing less and caring less and just donating a comfortable amount to charities that flatter us in their promotional materials.

Some days that seems like the only sane way out of despair. And here it is, the darkest time of the year, when it feels like we have more obligations than ever to people who don’t make us less lonely. How do you catch your breath when you can’t stop, and when every quiet moment threatens to drown you in visions of walls and wars?

I think what you do is you go see Messiah. It is one thing to be spiritual and go for walks or pray or bake things and try to meditatively get through whatever next thing. It is a more important thing right now to seize upon the miracle that Advent is here in a great grab at the most tangible celebration you can find, namely a three-hour symphony performance that you don’t get away from without worshiping Jesus. I can say nice things that you already know about Jesus coming as a baby, but what you really need is to sit yourself down to hear the angels proclaim the damn fool’s truth that that baby is the King.

This is no longer the time for a subtle piety, my darling. This is the time to declare ourselves the fools, the poor, the babes. This is the time to give out money to people on street corners, to spend an evening wrestling Christmas Snoopy onto the lawn, to stand still and weep at carols we’ve always known. Maybe in the past, those little things we did felt like nice auxiliary ways to be faithful alongside the real work of the important people and pragmatic programs that would ultimately make the world measurably better. Now that they might be all we have, we find out whether we ever really believed those acts of madness meant anything. Whether, really, we ever believed this ridiculous manger-story. Did we really think the Redemption of the world and the cosmic defeat of the Roman empire came as a wrinkly red baby to a teenage girl, his “reign” announced to farm hands and the bumbling old mystics of some sketchy-ass religion?

You go see Messiah, friend, you will believe. When someone sings you half the Bible you sit up and notice that we’re still in that story. Fill up with music and take heart, let yourself imagine that we really are halfway through one of the tales Sam asked Frodo to remember. If God came as a baby then the greatest lie is that the humble unnoticed doesn’t matter. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. And that is all that matters in the end. Go hear the story. Go as a child who never thought it audacious to cast themselves as Frodo. Go as a weary idealistic-but-cynical sucker. Go as the one who hungers to hear the prophet in that opening line, comfort ye my people. Sing through it, cry through it, hug the person next to you; remember that every time you waste your time in worship, give without getting, and let your heart crack open a little further, you are doing the holiest world-changing things that can be done.

When the powers that be declare war on the stranger and the least of these, the only way out of despair is to go a little mad. Look, love, this Christmas we could burrow into the comforting familiar and pretend like that will protect us from these long, long odds we face. But let’s not miss the chance to tell things on mountains, kiss the feet of peasant children, and thunder out like Zechariah, Who DARES despise the day of small things? He is coming, He is coming, He is coming.

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fall on your knees

This is a repost from the summer, with some new reflections added as it struck me again this Advent.

Then the high priest stood up and said to Jesus, “Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?” 63 But Jesus remained silent. The high priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” 64 “You have said so,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”65 Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, now you have heard the blasphemy. 66 What do you think?” “He is worthy of death,” they answered. [Matthew 26]

I love the fact that the Christian year begins with Advent. This year, I feel especially connected to this season; in moving to a new place, I have spent a lot of time waiting and praying for God to show up.

The Jewish community had waited hundreds of years for its Messiah. But when he finally comes along and goes, “Oh, hey, I’m the Messiah,” their leaders get all outraged and execute him. They’re not even like, “Whoa, that guy is crazy,” or “Hmm, are you sure about that?” They are clothes-destroyingly infuriated.

I have a hard time imagining the Pharisees as the Ultimate Evil, the way they’re always depicted in sermons and stuff. Maybe I’m just a contrary person, but I also have this thing where I don’t like one-dimensional labels for real human beings. So, the Pharisees – kind of crappy people? Probably. Ultimate Evil? Nnnnnno.

I don’t think the Pharisees were such big liars that they were only pretending to expect the Messiah. But they wanted their own kind of Messiah; there was a script in their heads for how this thing would go down. The Messiah would restore the nation of Israel to the nation-state of Israel. He wouldn’t pay taxes or help centurions; he would take names and throw down, rout the Romans and make Israel a theocracy once more. And who better to assist in the government of a theocracy than the faithful keepers of the Torah?

A Messiah who did not legitimize or increase their own power was entirely outside the Pharisees’ frame of reference, because they had stopped worshipping a God who was “slow to anger and abounding in love” in favor of worshipping the Law. They only understood the power of coercion, of religious threats and expensive vocabulary and alliance with governing swords – so they were baffled by Jesus’ power of love, his influence by compassion, his simply-worded summation of the Law and the Prophets, his foolish donkey rides. And if there’s one thing that makes academics angry, it’s the inability to understand. How could they watch their people flock to this penniless, child-honoring wanderer and not feel affronted? After all, anyone who undermined and insulted the Sanhedrin, insulted God: blasphemy.

Jesus’ message and ministry were always simple but never easy. He made it clear that God’s standards for holiness are nothing short of perfection [“love your neighbor as yourself”], but when the time came he did not condemn sinners. The God-man himself is a paradox and at every turn in the Gospels, the paradoxes only compound and multiply.  So here is the question for the scholar, for every person who wants to walk humbly: are you waiting for the true Messiah? Because we always encounter him again and again, as long as we are willing to believe the Living God as he is.
If my Messiah never forces me to confront paradox;
If he always serves my interests;
If he never surprises me;
If he would never, ever ask me to give all I had to the poor;
If he would exercise his right to cast the first stone;
If he prioritizes the powerful over the needy;
If he has no compassion for the Pharisees;
If he did not die for everyone;
If he never asks for more than I think I can give;
if I’ve stopped waiting for him to reveal himself because I think I’ve already grasped him,

then I’ve constructed a false idol, and I do not worship Jesus Christ at all.

The Christian year begins with Advent – with waiting. Stillness. A desire to encounter God in all God’s glory.

And then – somehow we forget every time – it turns out that all along we were awaiting the birth of a very poor woman’s not-really-legitimate child. That he can be found in the face of a child in a food pantry line. That he inspires unhoped-for reconciliation with a housemate. That he is among and within The Liberals and The Conservatives.

This Christmas, may you encounter the God who surprises.

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