Sunday, November 29, 2009

Advent begins

From the Divine Office for the first Sunday of Advent:

Jesus Christ is the joy and happiness of all who look forward to his coming. Let us call upon him and say:
-Come Lord, and do not delay!
In joy, we wait for your coming,
-come, Lord Jesus.
Before time began, you shared life with the Father,
-come now and save us.
You created the world and all who live in it,
-come to redeem the work of your hands.
You did not hesitate to become man, subject to death,
-come to free us from the power of death.
You came to give us life to the full,
-come and give us your unending life.
You desire all people to live in love in your kingdom,
-come and bring together those who long to see you face to face.

Father in heaven,
our hearts desire the warmth of your love
and our minds are searching for the light of your Word.
Increase our longing for Christ our Savior
and give us the strength to grow in love,
that the dawn of his coming
may find us rejoicing in his presence
and welcoming the light of his truth.
We ask this in the name of Jesus the Lord.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

My God, good or evil!

In what had surprised me by becoming my most controversial post, I once observed some of the peculiarities of the way the writer of Hebrews goes about telling the story of the great heroes of the faith. I failed to mention one of the strangest ones:
By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, "Through Isaac shall your offspring be named." He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.
“That’s not faith!” I always wanted to protest. "You're messing up the story! Abraham is our model of costly sacrifice; if he thinks God is going to raise Isaac from the dead, it's no longer costly!" After all, isn’t the story commonly understood as God’s testing of Abraham’s faith and Abraham passing the test by sacrificing even when it was costly? How would it be faith without sacrifice?

But now I wonder... what if the writer of Hebrews was onto something? What if Abraham showed faith not by being willing to suffer for God, but by following a God he knew to be good? I had always assumed we are to follow God simply because of his authority; maybe Abraham showed faith because he insisted on following a God into a place where God's goodness would be tested (and God passed the test! Huzzah!). Maybe faith is not saying, “My God, good or evil.” Maybe Abraham’s obedience was holding God to his goodness.

And on that note, the Psalmist’s words come to mind on this Thanksgiving Day here in the United States. May we all offer to God this ultimate “sacrifice,” like Abraham before us.
Hear, O my people, and I will speak;
O Israel, I will testify against you.
I am God, your God.
Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you;
your burnt offerings are continually before me.
I will not accept a bull from your house
or goats from your folds.
For every beast of the forest is mine,
the cattle on a thousand hills.
I know all the birds of the hills,
and all that moves in the field is mine.

If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
for the world and its fullness are mine.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls
or drink the blood of goats?
Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving,
and perform your vows to the Most High,
and call upon me in the day of trouble;
I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Its Damp but where ok

Friday morning my friends in Cork woke at 2am to the sound of running water, and went downstairs to find water pouring through their floor. Two weeks of record-breaking rain had finally overwhelmed the dam upstream, and officials were forced to let out water to avoid a bigger catastrophe if it were to burst. Cork, lying on an island between two channels of the River Lee, had become part of the river. By the morning, the water had reached the top of the kitchen table where I had sat every day over the summer.

People lost businesses. The art museum lost the works that were stored in its basement. Several houses may be irrevocably damaged. The city has been essentially shut down. Who knows what the costs of repair will be.

Immediately upon hearing the news, I wrote to friends in various corners of the devastated city to let them know of my prayers, coveting the scarce pieces of news I could acquire from their facebook information and my own internet searches.

This morning I heard from Finbar, a native Corkonian whose blue-collar upbringing, shady history, warm hospitality, and simple approach to life (not to mention his nearly incomprehensible accent) set him apart as pure Cork, through and through. He responded to my concern with a short note that, both in its brevity and its message (not to mention its diction), well-depict what seems to me to be the Irish approach to suffering:

“Thanks for the prayers but don't worry where fine out. Its Damp but where ok.”

It’s damp.

How Irish. How delightfully Irish.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Bitterness unbridled

We only see you in this world of mud
When both your hands are stained with our own blood.
“Dear Lord,” I remember one of the leaders in my church praying after a local high school shooting back in 2006, “we cannot imagine what would make a child do a thing like this...”

...only I could. High school is brutal, and I remember just what it felt like to be rejected by the savage in-crowd... and I was only a little bit nerdy. I can’t imagine what being a little more outcast would have done to my little teenage soul.

I am a part of a generation that grew up with tragedies, I suppose: the Columbine shooting happened at the end of my sophomore year of high school, the Twin Towers fell three weeks into my college career, and the Virginia Tech massacre happened right as I prepared to begin graduate school. And whenever I hear about another story of unbridled bitterness, I can only shudder and think, “There but for the Grace of God go I...”

So when I bumped into an article yesterday about the execution of the DC sniper from seven years ago, back when I had been a rootless college sophomore whose family lived overseas and who was constantly driving to DC to spend time with my cousin, I could not help but be grieved. I remembered the terror in DC on those mornings when I was visiting my cousin; I remembered the frustration of the African American community back home when the man was caught; I remembered the stories of my housemates who would visit the families of people on death row in the ensuing years.

I don’t mean to poke at controversial political issues, but when I read an article like this I can’t help but be grieved for all parties: for the innocent people who were killed, for their families who lost loved ones with no reasons or a chance to say goodbye, for the man’s ex-wives and children who years ago had lost the man who died yesterday, for the man himself who died without having seen his four children in his seven years in prison. The story seems laced with bitterness from start to finish, bitterness that indeed rots the soul but for the forgiveness of Christ.

Come now, Lord Jesus. Come into those high schools. Come into those broken families. Come into those prison cells. Come into our bitter hearts. Clean the bitterness from us, before we rot completely.

God have mercy on the soul of John Allen Muhammad. God have mercy on the souls still grieving. God have mercy on mine.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Lost in Translation

I was in a coffee shop the other day and heard two young men talking. Before I had heard a single Christian reference they made, I could already tell by the language they were speaking (the particular mannerisms and metaphors), to say nothing of the almost-hip way they dressed, that they were Evangelicals, and had somewhat of an idea of what sort of interdenominational/emergent church they probably attended. It brought back four-year-old memories from my senior year of college.

In college I was part of an Evangelical Christian fellowship that was particularly concerned with finding ways to “reach” the broader campus community with the Gospel. Because I had decided against the Bible colleges where my high school friends attended in favor of the largest liberal arts university in the state for the sole purpose of learning to love a wide range of people different from me, this was a compelling mission. Because I was a somewhat of an eclectic girl with a wide range of interests and influences, it was easy for me to get sucked into being the figurehead of various incarnations of this mission.

Since my family moved to Europe after my first year in college, they suggested I could help lead their outreach to international students. Since I was an artsy kid with an eyebrow ring and boy-short hair, they suggested I could help lead their outreach to the hippie/artsy crowd. Since I was attending an African-American political organization in efforts to understand some of my friends better (where I got sucked into being a leader as well), they suggested I could help lead their side-missions of racial reconciliation and multi-ethnicity.

On my last day of leadership as a burned-out senior, our time of worship was cut short by an announcement that the university had double-booked the room where we were meeting and we would have to leave to allow the next group to come in. The lights popped on and the startled 250 Christians looked disorientedly around as if they had been roused from sleep a half-hour before their alarm was to go off. I was certainly surprised as well, and stood back to take the scene in.

The young nicely-dressed Evangelicals began to evacuate the room as if it were on fire, and were replaced by a large assortment of people of various ages and races and classes who were gathering to watch some pro-environment anti-war film. The room smelled different as the hippies arrived.

“Maybe God had orchestrated things this way,” I heard one of my friends say as she evacuated. “Maybe one of those people had needed to hear the words of songs we were singing when they arrived. Maybe the mix-up allowed us to reach people without realizing it.”

Because of my aforementioned connection with the international/artsy/multiethnic crowd that my Christian fellowship had wanted to “reach,” I lingered in the lobby to talk to the collage of people who were arriving as my friends left the building. The organizers of the event apologized to me for the mix-up, and suggested that our groups had much in common. Our group was concerned with loving God and theirs with loving the poor, they suggested; did I think some of my friends would linger to watch the film with them? I did not, so I made my answer ambiguous.

As the heavy-metal sounds of their film began to play in my right ear, my left ear picked up the acoustic sounds of some familiar worship songs outside the building, where my friends had gathered to finish the evening of worship on the steps. On our last time of worship for the year, I could imagine the leaders asserting, we would not need to the technology of the speakers and overhead equipment; we could worship outdoors with two guitars and the whole campus walking by to watch. We could be a witness in our faithfulness to worship.

As I stood in the lobby hearing the sound of one culture in one ear and the other culture in the other, I felt like I was standing between worlds that spoke different languages and did not realize their inability to communicate.

“Did you see what’s going on outside?” one woman in dreadlocks asked her friend in cammoes.

“No, what is is?”

“There’s a group out there on the steps playing... folk songs or whatever. It’s like... ‘movement music’ or something. I’ve never seen anything like it!”

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Once again...

Another dear friend of mine lost a baby this week: a seemingly healthy five-day-old little boy whom she put down for a nap only to watch him stop breathing.

There is a name for this syndrome (as it is called): Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. From what I can tell, that is just a fancy way of trying to define the unknown, to diagnose undiagonosability. When life slips through our fingers like sand, we cry out to doctors for reasons, and receive mere descriptions. They could have just as easily named it Frailty; they could have just as easily named it The Fall.

Once again, I find myself grieving for the little momentary miracle that shocks us like a lightning stroke and is gone. Once again I find myself amazed at the human capacity for love, that the human soul can make room for love so quickly, that love can leave a hole so large after so short a life. Once again, I find myself longing for the Resurrection, and find the little seed of love that the little boy’s life creates within us being the germ of hope, the deposit in our souls to remind us that life is not a flame that can be extinguished. But the germ is a small one.

And once again, I find myself pontificating, trying to distract myself with philosophical musings to avoid the only response that makes any sense: grief.
On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare
a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine—
the best of meats and the finest of wines.

On this mountain he will destroy
the shroud that enfolds all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations;

he will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears
from all faces;
he will remove the disgrace of his people
from all the earth.
The LORD has spoken.

In that day they will say,
"Surely this is our God;
we trusted in him, and he saved us.
This is the LORD, we trusted in him;
let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation."
Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

Photo taken by Franklin Golden. Franklin is a volunteer with Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, a non-profit foundation that provides professional maternity and birth photos to parents who are losing a child.