Over the course of the next Christian year, which just started with Advent, I’ll be reading through two books. The first is Joan Chittister’s The Liturgical Year: The Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life. As you might expect, the book moves through the various liturgical seasons, but it begins with several chapters meditating on the meaning of the liturgical year and how it differs from the secular calendar. That’s what I’m enjoying about the book so far: more than simply imparting information about the seasons, Chittister gives us contemplative reflections on the meaning of the year and its constituent parts. I imagine I’ll be sharing quotations from the book throughout the year here on the blog. Here’s one to start off:

The liturgical year is the year that sets out to attune the life of the Christian to the life of Jesus, the Christ. It proposes, year after year, to immerse us over and over again into the sense and substance of the Christian life until, eventually, we become what we say we are—followers of Jesus all the way to the heart of God.

The second book is Gregory Fruehwirth’s Words for Silence: A Year of Contemplative Meditations. Fruehwirth is the Superior of the Episcopal Order of Julian of Norwich (yes, that means he’s an Episcopal monk). The book is a revised series of chapter talks that Fruehwirth has given to the Order, now organized according to the seasons of the Christian year. I’ll also share occasional quotations from this book.

Is there anything you’re reading that helps you follow the seasons of the liturgical year?

Readings: Malachi 3:1-4 or Baruch 5:1-9 * Philippians 1:3-11 * Luke 3:1-6

This week the theme of righteousness plays a prominent role in the readings. In Malachi, the messenger of the Lord purifies the people until they “present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.” In Baruch, the people are exhorted to “put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God.” Paul picks up this theme in Philippians, praying that they may abound in love so that on the day of Christ they may be “pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” And in Luke, we see John the Baptist fulfilling the role of the messenger by proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

It’s interesting to note that in Luke, John is connected to Isaiah’s “voice of one crying out in the wilderness,” declaring that the valleys should be filled and the mountains lowered so that the way of the Lord is prepared. The end result is that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” In Baruch, it is God who orders that these things be done so that “Israel may walk safely in the glory of God.” The end result is that “God will lead Israel with joy, in the light of his glory, with the mercy and righteousness that come from him.”

This week we are reminded that Advent is about more than waiting for a baby in a manger. We are waiting for the day that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” God sends messengers to announce God’s own coming. John is one such messenger, but note that Luke associates him with Isaiah’s prophetic voice rather than Malachi’s. In this way we are encouraged to see Jesus as Malachi’s messenger, for he rather than John is the one able to purify us in righteousness. And finally, we are reminded that Advent waiting is hardly passive waiting, for as Matthew 28 and Acts 1 tell us, Jesus has made us his messengers. Will we go into all the world, trusting that God has already gone ahead to prepare the way?

Readings: Jeremiah 33:14-16 * Psalm 25:1-10 * 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 * Luke 21:25-36

Here, at the beginning of the Christian year, notice the theme of God keeping God’s promises and how this is tied to the idea of God’s coming among us. In the Jeremiah text, God fulfills God’s promise to raise up a righteous Branch who will execute justice and righteousness in the land. This will result in Judah’s “salvation.” In the psalm, the psalmist counts on God’s “steadfast love” (hesed) for his salvation. He asks God to teach him God’s paths, which are “steadfast love and faithfulness.”

Our New Testament texts take us into the eschatological future and anticipate God’s coming. Paul prays that God will increase the Thessalonians’ love and holiness so that they will be blameless before God at the coming of Jesus. And the Luke text is one of those apocalyptic passages that seemingly combines a prediction of near-term calamity (in the OT prophets, cosmic turmoil represents the downfall of earthly political powers) with the eschatological arrival of Jesus.

What to make of all this? I argued in my six-part series on the gospel that the gospel is good news because its central focus and starting point is God’s action, not me and whether I end up in hell. These passages reflect that belief. Throughout the Bible, one of the writers’ major theological convictions is that God is righteous precisely because God keeps God’s promises (or shows hesed, steadfast love). God keeps God’s end of the covenant even when we don’t. As the psalmist declares, God’s mercy and steadfast love are “from of old.”

This theological conviction is also central to the New Testament. For example, Matthew regularly declares that certain events in Jesus’ life happened to fulfill OT Scripture. All the writers, in one way or another, interpret Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection in terms of God’s action in the world. Thus, in light of Jesus’ resurrection, the early Christians came to believe that he was God’s promised Messiah. God keeps God’s promises.

And one of those promises is that God will come among us in such a complete and final way that justice and righteousness will have complete sway over the earth (see, e.g., Rev. 21). God walked with Adam and Eve in the garden, dwelled in the tabernacle during the wilderness wanderings, directed Israel through the giving of the Torah, took up residence in the temple, and, Christians believe, dwelled among us bodily in the person of Jesus and dwells among us still through the presence of the Holy Spirit. All these are signs and promises of God’s eventual coming in fullness and power.

So here, at the beginning of the year, we remember that God kept God’s promise to Israel by sending them the Messiah, and so we remember Jesus’ birth. But this annual Advent reminds us of that Advent that we ultimately wait for, and that we anticipate here, now, as we are the hands and feet of Jesus in the world. Amen.

“It’s bad enough that we make fruitcake and bourbon fudge for God. Our main job is singing.”

So said a monk on videotape shown to incoming retreatants at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky. I was one of those retreatants, having arrived that Monday afternoon in mid-October to begin my first week-long sojourn at a monastery. What was I hoping to find? Other than the usual reasons anyone has for getting away—rest, relaxation—I wasn’t quite sure. I knew that the retreat would be undirected and mostly silent, something that had enormous appeal. I looked forward to finding out what it would feel like to have 4-5 days of uninterrupted time in a monastic setting, participating with the monks in praying the daily hours. Although I had no expectations of receiving a beatific vision or hearing the voice of God in my ear, I wanted to enter into the experience as fully as possible, hoping to deepen my relationship with God in some way. 

What did I find? To keep this brief, let me simply point you back to the quote at the beginning of this post. When they pray the daily hours, the monks are singing/chanting the psalms; they are singing the psalms on behalf of the world to the one who was, who is, and is to come at the end of the ages. I find this inexpressibly beautiful.

The other thing to notice about the quotation is the wry, self-deprecating sense of humor. Here is what, weeks later, I realized I most needed—and received—from the retreat: a monk’s view of the world. Monks, more than most, are in a position to withdraw from the world not for the sake of escaping it, but to have a proper perspective on it.

This lesson comes out quite clearly in Jon Sweeney’s book Cloister Talks: Lessons from My Friends the Monks (Brazos, 2009). I picked up the book because Sweeney relates conversations he’s had with monks from 3 Trappist monasteries, including Gethsemani. I did not set aside time to speak to a monk on my retreat (other than listening to talks given by the guestmaster), so the book gave me the opportunity to get the inside perspective on a life I had only glimpsed.

What quickly becomes apparent is that one shouldn’t romanticize the monastic life. The monks certainly don’t. As Sweeney relates, the full range of human experience, of life and death and joy and sorrow, takes place in the monastery. But there, in the context of a life devoted to communion with God, in the conscious cultivation of a life of simplicity, beauty, and mystery, all the things we tend to give lip service to, like authentic friendship or love or the meaning of work, seem to take on a richer, fuller cast.

The monks are there to help us remember what’s important. In their set-apartness and in their hospitality I found resources to help renew my life in the world. Does the monastic life not show us, in miniature, what the Christian community is to be for the world?

Readings: 1 Samuel 1:4-20 or Daniel 12:1-3 * 1 Samuel 2:1-10 or Psalm 16 * Hebrews 10:11-14, (15-18), 19-25 * Mark 13:1-8

More of a question about this week’s readings than an outright reflection, and I welcome your comments. What do you make of the shame/honor themes that run throughout the Bible? Do you think that Western readers have trouble interpreting the text because we don’t live in the kinds of cultures the Bible was written in?

In this week’s readings, the 1 Samuel texts center on Hannah, who is humiliated by her rival, who constantly points out that God has closed her womb. Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2, a clear model for Mary’s song in the Gospel of Luke, exults in God’s action in reversing the places of the powerful and the downtrodden. She “derides her enemies” in her victory.

The Daniel 12 text, likely the first clear reference to bodily resurrection in the Old Testament, declares that some will be raised to everlasting life and some to—not eternal torment in hell, but “shame and everlasting contempt.” In Christian tradition, spending eternity in hell is the worst fate imaginable, but in the OT, telling your enemies off or putting them in their place seems to be ultimate retribution (e.g., Psalm 23’s “The Lord has prepared a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” Take that!).

This motif is picked up in this week’s Hebrews text, which declares that Christ is sitting at God’s right hand until his enemies are made his footstool. And of course, if you know your OT, you know that being hung from a tree was a sign of having been cursed—something that doubtless figures into the Gospel writers’ accounts of Jesus’ death on a cross. Jesus’ resurrection, then, places him in a line of those whom God has vindicated against those who thought to keep them “under their thumb” (or worse), from Hannah to the psalmists.

But what do you think? How are we supposed to talk about shame/honor in Western culture in understandable ways? Many of us today are concerned about not assuming that God is on anyone’s side, but Hannah, the psalmist, and certainly the writer of Hebrews, referring to Jesus, clearly declared that God was on their side. How do we discuss God’s ultimately setting things right without encouraging the triumphalism that seems so prevalent in much American religious life?

I really don’t know anyone who is a supporter or adherent of the prosperity gospel (that I’m aware of), and I don’t imagine that many who link to this blog are. It’s easy in the circles I move in to dismiss prosperity gospel thinking as a silly, obviously shallow distortion of the gospel.

Still, I would encourage you to read this piece in The Atlantic by Hanna Rosin, and to do so without being judgmental concerning those described. Pay particular attention to the story of Billy Gonzales. The prosperity gospel would not be as popular as it is unless it is, in fact, being heard as good news. And it is, by folks just like Gonzales.

There are a lot of infuriating things about the story and about purveyors of prosperity gospel. One of them is the fact that bank mortgage officers used pastors as patsies to reach their congregations, encouraging members to take out mortgages they couldn’t afford. As the article notes, the mortgage crisis can’t be blamed entirely on poor immigrants taking out bad loans. White American greed was just as responsible (if not more so) for the mortgage crisis. But the correlation between particular areas hit hard by the mortgage crisis and areas where prosperity gospel preaching is popular is very troubling.

I’m also troubled by the fact that, if the article is correct, the myth of the American dream—the story that financial success is to be had with enough work—plays such a large part in the potent cocktail of reasons that help to explain the popularity of the prosperity gospel.

What I hope the article does is cause us to reflect deeply on the nature of the gospel and how easily it can be coopted by another agenda or syncretized with another myth. If we’re convinced that the prosperity gospel is not what Jesus meant when he said he came to bring good news to the poor, then what did he mean? If you could proclaim the good news to Billy Gonzales, what would you say? What is the gospel?

(If you’d like to read more of my own thoughts about the gospel, I wrote a six-part series beginning here.)

I’ve been pretty quiet blog-wise. I started the blog with a flurry of posts, but after going on retreat in mid-October I wanted to make an effort to reduce some of the noise in my life, especially online noise. But it’s time to get back in the saddle. I’ll start my weekly lectionary reflections again this week, and I’ve been reading some books I’m keen to review on the blog, so that’s coming.

Meanwhile I’ll also refocus on pointing toward places where I’m finding reason to hope. One of those is Generate magazine, a new quarterly “artifact of the Emergence conversation”—i.e., an “emergent” magazine started, as most emergent things are, by a group of folks who wanted to share grassroots stories of what God is doing in the world in a more permanent form than blogs but in less time than it takes to produce a book, and took the initiative to go out and do it. Does it seem like a crazy time to start a magazine? Sure, but I hope they succeed. I haven’t finished reading the first issue yet, but I’ll try to say more about it later.

I won’t mention who the distinguished competition is, but here’s a little typo from a Christian publisher’s recent catalog.

More than an intellectual exercise, The Ten Commandments applies the call of the commandments to modern-day issues. For example, [author] discusses how the commandment “You shall not kill” relates to mans laughter, murder, execution, and war…

Nice…and nicely ironic, as well.

This story, which I first saw reported a couple of months ago, makes me simultaneously want to puke, weep, and punch my fist through a wall. Some Christian churches and pastors throughout Africa, and it seems particularly in Nigeria, have taken to accusing children of being witches and prescribing horrific forms of exorcism, up to and including murder.

Why? The report ascribes blame to a potent mixture of poverty, conflict, and poor education. Families and communities under great pressure seem to be seeking scapegoats for their misfortune, and children have become targets. The report also describes the rapid growth of “evangelical Christianity” in Africa. Churches with names like “Born 2 Rule” and “Winner’s Chapel” apparently dot the landscape. Appallingly, part of what seems to be happening is that these churches see themselves as in competition with each other; and a49909443ccusing children of witchcraft is a tactic some of these pastors are using to gain spiritual credibility (and, no doubt, followers). Further, churches often charge money for so-called exorcisms, resulting in further debilitating financial ruin for families.

Lest we think this is an “African” problem, the article points out that at least one of these churches has its origins in an American (California) church—but, it seems, the U.S. church hasn’t had contact with its African plant in some time. 

This situation is sickening in so many ways. Just a couple of rather obvious observations. (1) This is a prime example of what happens when bad theology and literalistic, wooden interpretation of the Bible is allowed to run amok in a situation of extreme poverty. American churches who have evangelized Africa in the past and are doing so presently need to wake up to the consequences of their actions, particularly if, like the church named in the article, they’ve disengaged from the African churches they planted. (2) Early Christians were known for adopting abandoned children—an extraordinarily countercultural move. Here we have the exact opposite.

And now a couple of declarations. (1) If you’re a Christian who thinks social justice issues like poverty and education are for liberals, it’s time to get real. (2) We keep hearing how quickly Christianity is growing in the global South. Any form of Christianity that does this to children needs to die, and quickly.

May God have mercy on the children of Nigeria being abused in this way.

Since I’ll be making retreat to Gethsemani Abbey this week, I thought it’d be appropriate to share the following prayer, one of my favorites.

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone. –Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude

I love this prayer for the same reason I love U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”—that is, its wonderful sense that things are still in process and unfinished. If we’re honest, we admit that we really don’t see the road ahead. This is not to say that we don’t trust God or believe that God is even now working to bring about the future, only that the road to that future may take us through some dark or unexpected places.

Merton’s prayer represents one possible response to the world around us. In our attempt to drive out the fear of the unknown, we can veer toward extreme certainty and cling so tightly to our own opinions that we demonize anyone who doesn’t share them (think fundamentalists, of whatever religion). Or, like Merton, we can live believing that God will lead us down the right path even if we don’t see the path. This way leaves us in a kind of creative tension in which we trust in God even as we admit that our own knowledge and opinions about God and what God is up to are so very limited. In this case, then, we are led toward humility about ourselves and thus open to others, believing that in our common humanity, journeying down roads that sometimes converge and sometimes diverge, we can love each other as neighbors and God as the creator of us all.

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