Learn Grief

Learn grief before it is too late!
Hear mourning and fall down prostrate.
Shed tears in ash and chafing cloth;
Share wails of loss with the distraught.
For you shall die, as much is clear.
But will you kill, caged in your fear?
The way of love escapes this fate.
Learn grief before it is too late!

Patrick, the Saint We Need Most

We beg you, holy boy, to come and walk again among us.

Saint Patrick’s day is upon us and, with it, the usual barrage: green clothes and beers and rivers, shamrocks and Guinness and leprechauns, corned-beef and cabbage, kiss mes and pinches. That is to say, the consumerist gaud festooning most holidays, making them ever less holy days.

Yet, as with all holy things, there is treasure for those who dig deeper; a pot of gold, as it were, at the end of the rainbow.

Pinches and kisses have been known to awaken, and I would suggest we awaken to the person of Saint Patrick, for he is a most needed saint for our day.

Did you know Patrick was not Irish? It’s true. He was Welsh-Briton. The circumstances surrounding his arrival in fifth-century Ireland are harrowing, to say the least. The circumstances surrounding his saintly office upon that island, awe inspiring.

In his Confession, Patrick recalls his kidnapping at the hands of Irish raiders. Abducted at the age of sixteen from the his mild Christian home, he was trafficked across what is now called the Irish Sea to a rugged and brutal land where his “littleness” was to be “placed among strangers.” Though reared in a devout family, yet his own faith had not yet taken root; he admitted,”I did not know the true God.” 1

However, soon after his Irish enslavement began, Patrick spoke of being “converted with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my abjection.” His faith became real.

The Ireland of that era was savage; an ever-shifting violent and pagan collection of warring tuatha — kinship clans, which, according to historian Richard Fletcher, “were constantly on the move, splitting, fusing, splitting again”2 with little sense of enduring order.

Patrick would spend the next six years in slave labor on the island, praying in desperation “many times times a day” — hundreds of prayers each day and hundreds more each night. Often sleeping outdoors in woods and on mountain slopes, working in harsh, frigid conditions, yet, as he prayed, “the love of God and His fear” came to Patrick more and more. This was his existence, until the day of his dramatic escape. (Confession, 16)

One night Patrick had a vision; a voice saying, “Soon you will go to your own country. See your ship is ready.” Patrick stole to the nearest port town, some two-hundred miles away, found a ship in harbor and asked to be taken aboard. After initially being rebuffed he was afforded a spot in their crew for what would become a treacherous and death-defying odyssey over sea and land.

After a brief sojourn in Gaul, he made his return to his family in Britain — safe at last!

Meanwhile, in North Africa, Augustine of Hippo was laboring on his masterwork The City of God, for this same era witnessed the crumbling of the Roman Empire. Alaric had crossed the frozen Rhine and sacked the Eternal City — Augustine and many others were attempting to make sense of this unwelcome new order.

The Christian historian Paulus Orosius was recording his own account of the cataclysms taking place, and in his History Against the Pagans, he would openly grieve the loss of “ubiquitous Christianity.” Four centuries later, a scribe in Britain would attempt to translate this phrase and the reality Orosius had eulogized into the English language.

He would coin the term, “Christendom.” 3

Patrick, having powerfully encountered the love, protection, consolation, and eventual deliverance of God during his horrific ordeal in Ireland, now sought to consecrate himself to priestly service. Yet his divine visions and dreams persisted. An unthinkable development was in the works.

One night Patrick had a vision of a man coming to him from Ireland bearing “countless letters.” The visitor, named Victoricus, handed him the first letter titled, “The Voice of the Irish.” As Patrick began to read the letter, a chorus of voices from the region where he had once been held captive cried out, “We beg you, holy boy, to come and walk again among us!”

“I was broken-hearted,” Patrick would recount, “and could not read on.” He woke up. (23)

A few nights later a mysterious voice came to him in a dream saying, “He that has laid down His life for you, it is He that speaketh in you!” Patrick awoke filled with joy. Yes, joy! He knew God was calling him back to Ireland. (24) When he announced his intent to the elders, he was met with derision and scorn — even having the sins of his personal history dredged up and slung at him. But he would not be deterred. (26)

Patrick’s Confession was in fact a defense of his actions; a recounting of what would follow over the next thirty years and a vindication of the call of God.

Fletcher presents Patrick’s decision quite starkly,

Patrick’s originality was that no one within western Christendom had thought such thoughts as these before, had ever previously been possessed by such convictions. As far as our evidence goes, he was the first person in Christian history to take up the scriptural injunctions literally; to grasp that teaching all nations meant teaching even barbarians who lived beyond the frontiers of the Roman empire.5

Even Augustine had no such vision but merely wished the barbarians repelled by sword. This was not the way of Patrick.

And to think, this was a man recovering from great distress and great trauma — a survivor of human trafficking — returning in joy to the place, and the people, and, as it would turn out, the person of his cruel captivity. Moreover, in the midst of a declining empire, Patrick had little interest in the waning ecclesial trappings and perks available to him. In the face of much resistance by recalcitrant church folk, Patrick did the unthinkable: he returned to Ireland.

“Now, it would be tedious to give a detailed account of all my labors or even part of them,” Patrick would write. “Let me tell you briefly.” (35) Yet even a brief telling is breathtaking.

Hence, how did it come to pass in Ireland that those who never had a knowledge of God, but until now always worshipped idols and things impure, have now been made a people of the Lord? (41)

Legend has it that Patrick went immediately back to his former master, Milchu, not only to share the message of Christ but also to pay the price due for his own ransom from slavery. A son of Milchu would eventually become an Irish bishop.

What is known with greater certainty is that Patrick began seeing converts among Irish women; noble princesses and widows alike joining him in the mission. He even worked among sex-slaves — “those enduring terror and threats” — and, despite persecution, they began to “follow Christ bravely.” (43)

Patrick was an unpopular and vexing figure. People would say of him, “Why does. this fellow throw himself into danger among enemies who have no knowledge of God?” (46) Reflecting upon the grace he experienced in such peculiar efforts, he would admonish, “Would that you, too, would strive for greater things and do better! This will be my glory, for a wise son is the glory of his father.” (47) His folly was proven glorious wisdom from God.

Through tireless and ranging efforts, Patrick would come to baptize thousands across Ireland — searching out secluded, dangerous districts “where nobody had ever come to baptize.” He was constantly threatened, often put in chains, and experienced more than a few miraculous escapes.

“With the grace of the Lord,” Patrick testified, “I did everything lovingly and gladly for your salvation.” (51)

Patrick would go on to establish church stations in every corner of the island. Although there were no civitates (city centers) in those times, and thus no civic life or structures into which he could integrate his churches, nevertheless Patrick did situate his outposts near centers of clan authority. But he did so for the purpose of mission and humane influence; both of which were realized. Historian Thomas Cahill writes,”He succeeded beyond measure. Within his lifetime or soon after his death, the Irish slave trade came to a halt, and other forms of violence such as murder and intertribal warfare, decreased.”6

Cahill says later of Patrick, he was “the first human being in the history of the world to speak out unequivocally against slavery.” It would be thirteen centuries more before abolitionism would emerge in earnest.

In his later years, Britain’s own civilization began to collapse, and Patrick found himself vying vigorously against the self-same practice of slave raiding now being inflicted upon Ireland by British marauders! Christians in Britain were loath to support him because they not only deemed the Irish substandard Christians but, in a form of proto-racialism, also not fully human; having never been citizens of Rome. The superior undertones which had caused Patrick such turmoil in his initial designs to reach the Irish were now expressing themselves in a more full-blown cruelty.

Britain, along with the rest of Europe, was succumbing to the Dark Ages: a five-hundred year period of social and cultural deterioration and chaos.

Patrick’s Ireland, on the other hand, was being utterly transfigured, inhabited by what he would come to call his “warrior children” — “seizing everlasting kingdoms” rather than the brutal seizures of yesteryear. Patrick’s redemptive imagination knew no bounds! The terrifying, ravenous pagan gods were driven out like the snakes of lore; new, benign acts associated with pleasing God were henceforth “absorbed completely into the New Imagination.” No longer “a shifting world of darkness,” Ireland was quick becoming a “solid world of light.” 8

But the story didn’t stop there. Not remotely. As Cahill carefully argues, the Irish, in fact, “saved civilization.” 9

He summarizes in dramatic fashion,10

As the Roman Empire fell, as all through Europe matted, unwashed barbarians descended on the Roman cities, looting artifacts and burning books, the Irish, who were just learning to read and write, took up the great labor of copying all of western literature—everything they could lay their hands on.

These scribes then served as conduits through which the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian cultures were transmitted to the tribes of Europe, newly settled amid rubble and ruined vineyards of the civilization they had overwhelmed …

Without the Mission of the Irish Monks, who single-handedly re-founded European civilization… the world that came after them would have been an entirely different one.

“I am,” confessed Patrick, “countryfied, an exile, evidently unlearned, one who is not able to see into the future.” Indeed, he could never have anticipated the future importance of his labor of love. Patrick’s legacy was not only the saving of an island but the saving of a civilization.

He was self-conscious about his lack of learning — the ripe years of his formal education lost to bondage and servitude. Historians and translators can confirm that his Latin is rough and limited. For this reason, he will likely never hold the prominence of an Augustine or Aquinas in the eyes of Western Christians. Yet it could be argued that his significance rivals any figure in Christian history.

I suggest, as much as any other saint, Patrick is most needed for our times.

Patrick said of himself, “I live as an alien among non-Roman peoples, an exile on account of the love of God.” 11 Fletcher notes, “The exile was quite literally dis-integrated from the protective and emotional fabric in which he had been cocooned and turned into a defenceless individual.” 12 To be an exile is to be without insulation.

Self-deprived, “on account of the love of God,” of familial, tribal, and even imperial possessions, Patrick could fearlessly cross cultural and geographical boundaries for the sake of a global and everlasting kingdom.

Behold, again and again would I set forth the words of my confession. I testify in truth and in joy of heart before God and His holy angels that I never had any reason except the Gospel and its promises why I should ever return to the people from whom once before I barely escaped. (61)

Fletcher wrote of Patrick, “A church which looked to Patrick as its founder would come to set a high value upon foreign missionary enterprise.” 13 And I would end by having us, too, “look to Patrick” as a model for our times.

Four features of his life stand out.

1. Patrick was neither constrained by his traumatic past nor his imperial privilege

The trauma of being kidnapped and enslaved as a young boy cannot be overstated. There is no doubt that Patrick’s life in Ireland was a succession of brutalities from which he ached to escape. Yet he somehow allowed God to write a surpassingly beautiful second act. Patrick was not dominated or held captive by his trauma, but he most certainly drew from its wells. His glimpse of Irish horrors and human plight awakened in him a fathomless compassion and determination to unseat the reign of darkness. He did not become embittered but rather empowered, and that to an unrivaled degree.

Even more, Patrick forsook the trappings of what would come to be called Christendom; voluntarily and in great joy. When he did so, he was derided and slandered. Can we not see the the beauty of Patrick’s life in contrast to the deformities of what Fletcher described as “the moral tradition which had corralled Christianity safely inside the city wall of the empire”? 14

How we must look to this saint who could walk in such liberation from those crippling forces of terror and control which dominate and darken our own world!

2. Patrick had a conciliatory spirit

As we recall, when Patrick heard the voice of the Irish, his heart was broken. When he perceived Christ’s call to return, his heart was overjoyed. I have written elsewhere about this, but the scope of what forgiveness and conciliation introduce into to our world is incalculable. When they are broadly withheld, we can sense their gangrene. When extended, they regenerate in exponential ripples. They hold cosmic power.

It is impossible to imagine Patrick having never worked out his forgiveness for the Irish in general and particular ways. His experience did not devolve, as one might expect, into racial hostility nor even calloused indifference. He saw, as we all must see, beyond the barbarism and violence to the “harassed and helpless” condition of the Irish people. Where we might have expected malice, instead emerged a munificence of love — the love of Christ in him.

“If I am most looked down upon, yet he inspired me, before others, so that I would faithfully serve the nations with awe and reverence and without blame: the nations to whom the love of Christ brought me.” (13)

3. Patrick loved barbarians

The word barbarian was a pejorative term for “the other.” Imagine a group of people sitting around ridiculing another group and making crude caricatures of their idiotic ways of speaking, and thinking, and acting. This is the idea behind barbarianism. No one thinks of themselves as a barbarian, yet this “bar-bar-bar!” form of caustic portrayal is how we barbarianize others. Most Roman Christians had come to have their moral lens warped by this inhumane othering.

But Patrick loved them. God Almighty, he loved them! While Roman Christians recoiled against the hordes of Visigoths stampeding across the frozen waters of the Rhine to trample their precious civilization, Patrick was boarding a vessel to cross over to them. In fact, Cahill suspects it was his fearless love that overcame the fearsome Irish.

“We can also be sure that the Irish found Patrick admirable according to their own highest standards: his courage — his refusal to be afraid of them.” And we remember the words of John, “Perfect love drives out fear.” (1 Jn 4:18)

It is easy to see the attractiveness of this love in the mission of Patrick, but we must also see the grotesqueness in the attitudes of those who hated barbarians. When Patrick decided to return to Ireland, the resistance was stiff. We might chalk this up to run-of-the-mill concern or the lull of “the comfort zone.” But, within Patrick’s lifetime, when savage British chieftains began filling the vacuum left by the departed Roman legions and took to raiding, pillaging, and terrorizing the Irish coastline, the cruelty of these Romanized Christians was thrown into troubling relief. Their resistance to Patrick’s Irish endeavors were only an expression of their pervasive and Christ-dishonoring disregard for the Irish.

Our inability to love barbarians is merely an expression of our own barbarism.

4. Patrick creatively transformed chaos into order

We shouldn’t be surprised to find that Patrick’s tireless efforts brought about great order. This is part of loving barbarians: you see and call forth the imago Dei concealed within barbaric behaviors. This is a plain Biblical anthropology.

Space cannot permit, but Patrick was also a master of cultural synthesis.

Patrick made an “amazing connection… between the Gospel story and Irish life.” Among all the Irish, both low and high, he “raised their status and dignity as human beings.” This cultural synthesis is seen in Patrick’s famous Breastplate poem: 5

All pathways by his feet are worn,
His strong heart stirs the ever-beating sea,
His crown of thorns is twined with every thorn,
His cross is every tree

Cahill puts it thus,

[T]here were aspects of Irish culture that Patrick had taken to heart and on which he chose to build his new Christianity. These aspects would have included Irish courage, which he admired greatly, but even more would he have been impressed by the natural mysticism of the Irish, which already told them the world was holy — all the world, not just parts of it. It was on this sturdy insight that Patrick choreographed the sacred dance of Irish sacramental life, a sacramentality not limited to the symbolic actions of the church’s liturgy but open to the whole created universe.

This is Cahill’s description of “how the Irish became Christian,” yet I would suggest Patrick offers us a pattern for how we might all become Christian — and civilization savers in kind.

We must be liberated from both the afflictions and infatuations of empire, we must be driven by a conciliatory spirit, we must love barbarians, and, through creative and holy forms of embrace, visit renewal upon the culture.

Hear Saint Patrick’s attestation,

So be amazed, all you people great and small who fear God! You well-educated people in authority, listen and examine this carefully. Who was it who called one as foolish as I am from the middle of those who are seen to be wise and experienced in law and powerful in speech and in everything? If I am most looked down upon, yet He inspired me, before others, so that I would faithfully serve the nations with awe and reverence and without blame: the nations to whom the love of Christ brought me. His gift was that I would spend my life, if I were worthy of it, to serving them in truth and with humility to the end. (13)


Notes

  1. “Patrick Confession” from John W. Coakley and Andrea Sterk, Readings in World Christian History I, 16th ed., vol. 1, 2 vols. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004) 221. Parenthesis indicate chapter henceforth.
  2. Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity (New York, N.Y.: Henry Hold and Company, Inc., 1997), 89.
  3. Diarmaid MacCulloch, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (New York: Viking, 2010), 305.
  4. The Barbarian Conversion, 86.
  5. Ibid. In Thomas Cahill’s book How the Irish Saved Civilization, this point is affirmed: “What is remarkable is not that Patrick should have felt an overwhelming sense of mission but that in the four centuries between Paul and Patrick there are no missionaries.” (107)
  6. Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization (New York: Doubleday, 1995), 110.
  7. Ibid, 112.
  8. Ibid, 143-144.
  9. It is worth mentioning that Cahill certainly means “Western Civilization,” specifically the European traditions informed by Classical Greek thought, Roman civil order, and a Christian moral imagination. As Lesslie Newbigin observed in his book Proper Confidence, “It was this [Christian] story that shaped those barbarian tribes into the cultural and spiritual entity that made Europe something other than simply a peninsula of Asia.”
  10. How the Irish Saved Civilization, 3-4.
  11. From “Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus.
  12. The Barbarian Conversion, 93.
  13. Ibid, 86.
  14. Ibid, 33.
  15. From “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” quoted in How the Irish Saved Civilization, 132-133.

The Maladjustment of MLK

During a 1967 NBC interview hosted at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Martin Luther King Jr. confessed, “That dream I had that day has, at many points, turned into a nightmare.”

It was a mere 11 months before his assassination in Memphis.

King was alluding, of course, to his famous “I Have a Dream” speech delivered at the National Mall in August of 1963. This is the King of our memory: hope-filled, electric, inspirational, proclaiming,

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.

By 1966, King’s popularity had plummeted to a point where 2/3 of Americans had an unfavorable opinion of him. As he sought to address the roots of American racism and to redress the more concealed causes and effects of Black inequality in the North, he found himself battling elusive forces and less obvious villains.

King also found himself battling his own internal demons of anger and depression. His friends and aides urged him, unsuccessfully, to enter therapy.

In the NBC interview, King explained the persistence of Black inequality by way of the ‘thing-ification’ of the Negro.

You can’t ‘thing-ify’ something without de-personalizing that something. If you use something as a means to an end, at that moment you make it a thing and you de-personalize it…

In fact, King and his allies were battling for the restoration of humanity to Black people in America; something existential and beyond the mere enactment of laws and policies.

Asked whether Black men and women in America were ready to embrace full humanity and equal participation in American society (“Does the Negro in America know what he wants to be?”), King began to respond in the affirmative before lingering within the pathologies associated with the Black condition in America,

I’m convinced that almost every negro in this country, other than those who have been so scarred by the system and have become pathological in the process—and we all have to battle with pathology, and nobody knows what it means to be a negro unless one can really experience it.

And I know we all have to battle with this constant drain—a feeling of ‘nobody-ness.’

Here we catch a glimpse of King’s own inner conflict, “this constant drain—a feeling of ‘nobody-nes.'” It was the pathology with which he waged constant battle.

We recall King’s words from the previous year to a group of students at Southern Methodist University in which he reflected upon the psychological idea of being “well-adjusted.”

Modern psychology has a word that is probably used more than any other word in psychology. It is the word maladjusted. It is the ring and cry of modern child psychology and certainly we all want to avoid the maladjusted life.

We all want to live a well-adjusted life… But I must honestly say there are some things in our nation and the world to which I am proud to be maladjusted and wish all men of goodwill would be maladjusted until the good society is realized.

King inherently understood that to live and labor in a world of sickness often meant to be psychologically maladjusted.

He continued,

And so we need maladjusted men and women where these problems are concerned. It may well be that our whole world is need of the formation of a new organization, the International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment.

King cited the maladjustment of the prophet Amos, of Abraham Lincoln, and of Jesus Christ. And we remember the words of the prophet Isaiah describing Jesus, “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” (53:3)

These have been incredibly hard days. Many of us who care about justice, equality, and human dignity in our culture have found ourselves quite disheartened.

In days like these, we also find ourselves battling pathologies, finding ourselves maladjusted, and acquainted with grief. We must interpret these things rightly. They are unpleasant emotions—oftentimes crippling—yet they are part and parcel of living in the legacy of those who love the things of God. They are the “inward groanings” of God’s people (Rom 8:22-23) who, because of their heavenly citizenship, remain maladjusted to this world.

Unpleasant though these inner battles be, they signal an eternal inheritance. This comes with the territory of being children of God: “fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” (Rom 8:16, 17)

During the NBC interview, King was wistful. “I must confess that that period was a great period of hope for me,” King said, reflecting on the 1963 March on Washington. “That dream I had that day has, at many points, turned into a nightmare.”

King continued,

Now I’m not one to lose hope. I keep on hoping. I still have faith in the future. But I’ve had to analyze many things over the past few years and, I would say, over the past few months. I’ve gone through a lot of soul searching and agonizing moments and I’ve come to see that we have many more difficult days ahead. And some of the old optimism was a little superficial. Now it must be tempered with a solid realism. And I think the realistic fact is we still have a long, long ways to go.

Fifty years later, we see the truth of King’s words. Through our own soul searchings and moments of agony, we are reluctantly embracing our own solid realism. When paired with a love for the things of God, this solid realism makes us, more or less, permanently maladjusted people. Depression, anxiety, anger and all manner of other unpleasant emotions become for us symptoms not only of our own mental distress but also of the distress of our world; not exactly things to be fought but rather kindly attended to.

King would tell his student audience at SMU,

And through such maladjustment, we will be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice.

That was in March of 1966. One can sense much of King’s irrepressible hopefulness, maybe even optimism. He was calling another generation into the fight. Those students are now in their 70s and 80s. They did not see this daybreak realized.

And we won’t either. Not entirely. But it is ours to be creatively maladjusted to our world: to be part of that invisible international society for the advancement of maladjustment, even as we welcome the “bright and glittering daybreak” from afar.

Thus, on April 3 of 1968, one day before his death, King would tell an auditorium of people in Memphis,

Well I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t really matter to me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.

So I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything! I’m not not fearing any man!

Mine eyes have seen the coming of the glory of the Lord!

Good Humor

A Christmas poem.

It was all a bad joke;
A bad dream.
A bad
Life: not without
Its blessings;
Its cursings.
Oh!
Oh, the cursings!
Curse words, curse ways
Cursive world – winding.
Tortuous.
(Sounds like torturous.)
(Sounds like torture us.)
(Sounds like torture.)
Us.
Each and every.
Not funny.
Bad humor.
Curses.
A nightmare – horror flick.
A slasher.
“Don’t go in the room.”
Don’t take.
Don’t eat.
Don’t die.
Like gods?
Like God; what have we become?
Us!
“The calls are coming
From inside the house.”
Like God.
Good Humor: white garments, something sweet,
On the move.
The calls are coming;
They’re coming!
From inside the house.
Take.
Eat.
Awake.
Laugh.

Advent IV | Myrrh

When I was six years old, my mom and I stopped at one of those self-serve car washes. You know the ones with the big octo-arm vacuum stations and the bank of carports rigged with power-washers? They’re a dying breed.

We’d begun at the vacuums, and my mom had removed all the floor mats and sundries. With coins loaded, she yanked and stretched the noisy hose into the interior coves of our Honda Civic. I was waiting next to the cylindrical vacuum housing when I saw something curious resting on its concrete base.

It was a small, oddly-shaped nail. I picked it up and examined it; fiddling with it in my small hands. We had just been in the mountains hiking (ergo, the carwash), and I had brought home an interesting rock. Flecked with shimmering quartz and pyrite; it was about the size of a large avocado.

I decided to use it to pound the nail into the concrete. I grasped the peculiar nail between my left thumb and middle finger, positioned it up and down, then took the rock in my right hand and commenced hammering.

Tink!

Tink!

BANG!

The object exploded between my fingers. It had not been a nail at all. It was a bullet. My hand was covered in blood. I began screaming.

My mom set me quickly in the car and we zoomed away, leaving behind much jetsam. Off we rushed to the nearest emergency room, which happened to be at the hospital where I was born.

By the time we arrived, I had gone into shock. Though crying, I was no longer hysterical. We were ushered quickly into the emergency bay. Surrounded by scrub-blue curtains, doctors and nurses began attending my hand. One doctor had a brief consultation with my mom, then turned to me and he said he was going to have to start cleaning it out.

He began daubing away the blood, then rinsing around the wound. Finally, he retrieved a liquid and looked at me. “This is going to sting.” The moment the antiseptic made contact with the wound, there was a jolt of pain – far exceeding that of the explosion itself.

Advent hits the wounds of our world like lightning. At least it should. The jolt tells you it’s working.

So the magi arrived with their strange gift of myrrh. Myrrh? An embalming ointment, for an infant? What dark humor is this?

Monty Python’s Life of Brian may be the most irreverent movie ever made. It traces the life events of the hapless and reprobate title character, as his biography parallels that of Jesus; from Bethlehem to a Roman cross, upon which he is found whistling and singing, “Always look on the bright side of life.” It is surreal. But, like most surrealism, the creative ploy is juxtaposition.

We may think Life of Brian a crass and unnecessary piece of sacrilege, yet it merely juxtaposes human folly against the divine folly of the incarnation itself. Only by emphasis does it offer anything more ludicrousness than Advent. Even then.

In his darting little book Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy & Fairy Tale, Frederick Buechner insists laughter must accompany the Gospel:

Where does the laughter come from? It comes from as deep a place as tears come from, and in a way from the same place. As much as tears do, it comes out of the darkness of the world where God is of all missing persons the most missed.

Advent is as sublime as it is ridiculous; a juxtaposition breaching fountainheads of all manner of tears. It is indeed a sort of comedy. But what sort? I would argue it is improv, whose governing tenet is “yes, and.” Improv is built from games and scenes and forms, yet the magic steals in through the doorway of availability.

There’s an improv game called, “What’s in the box?” One player approaches another and holds out an invisible box. The other player then asks, “What’s in the box?” Regardless of the answer, the response must conclude the phrase, “That’s great, because…”

If it isn’t quite obvious, all the players of Advent are improvising.

When the magi arrive during the opening sequence of Life of Brian, his mom Mandy begins shooing them away, before discovering they’ve come bearing gifts. Yet the myrrh leaves her nonplussed. Upon collecting the gifts, she unceremoniously bids them depart saying, “If you’re dropping by again, do pop in. Thanks a lot for the gold and frankincense, but . . . don’t worry too much about the myrrh next time.” How cheeky.

Yet Advent demands something more brash: “yes, and.” Life of Brian, ridiculous though it be, is still sketch comedy; scripted from the outrageous instincts of a surrealist troupe. The improv of Advent permits no rejected offerings. The proper term for this is accepting – or overaccepting – in contrast to blocking or rejecting.

The Anglican ethicist, Sam Wells writes,

There’s this notion of overaccepting, where you fit the smaller story that has come your way – which often you didn’t invite or go looking for – into the larger story of what God’s doing with the world.

And so we find Mary and Joseph overaccepting again and again and again – these strange offerings within God’s staggering story. When offered myrrh, they eclipse the surrealism even of “the Pythons” through acceptance. And so too must we. Myrrh may be unbidden, but let us accept this gift as members of the holy family.

The word for myrrh is a derivative of the Arabic murr – bitter. Like frankincense, myrrh is a resin; extracted from a tree’s protective bark through “repeated wounding.” Its fragrance is rich and plumb-like yet also etheric and medicinal – even disturbing. It can be burned as incense however, more traditionally, it is distilled to an antiseptic balm. If gold signaled royalty and frankincense worship, myrrh imported a mood of mortality.

Thus we sing,

Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
    Breathes a life of gathering gloom

What can it mean to accept this gift? Mary had already heard tell something of a sword that was to pierce her soul. Any soul found pilgriming through this world is bound to endure many a sword’s plunge.

“Myrrh? That’s great, because…”

As I type, periodically I stop to rub my left thumb against its adjacent middle finger; still creased across its print from the bullet’s rupture. In a sense, they embalmed my hand; wrapped it in gauze like the hand of a mummy. I spent the next week at school with a mummified hand. As I type, other scars prick my notice: loss and betrayal, failure and fear alike zig-zagging my own soul. I know you have them also. They are inevitable.

To accept myrrh must mean accepting its ongoing necessity; the bitter strike our wounds require. To overaccept it means something more macabre and more mysterious.

In TS Elliot’s poem “The Journey of the Magi,” he imagines an aged magi “setting down” Advent recollections.

This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

The myrrh alerts us that Advent is as much about birth as death. “Had thought they were different,” but now aren’t so sure. Elliot’s magi continue,

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

The death rate remains 100% among our race. Eventually something overtakes us all. No amount of myrrh will will heal or preserve your body indefinitely, let alone your soul. And here comes Advent’s jolt.

Buechner puts it this way, “The tragic is the inevitable. The comic is the unforeseeable.” The gathering gloom of Advent’s myrrh holds a precipitous stroke. Something deeper than death’s deep, dark, and hoary hex.

God’s own availability has begat something unforeseeable!

Who can forget Aslan’s words to Susan and Lucy upon return from his death by the Witch’s blade?

Though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation.

Advent beckons us gaze further into the stillness and the darkness – “the darkness of the world where God is of all missing persons the most missed” – and to behold the arrival of One who would make good on the words of Hosea:

Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?

This birth, like all others, was to include a death. But, unlike any other, it was to become the death of Death itself. Elliot’s magi were right, though they couldn’t quite put their finger on it.

After what was thought to be the bitterest end, more myrrh was brought by those who loved Jesus most, yet they truly needn’t have worried about it. The only things to be found were a stone rolled away, grave clothes, and a few strips of linen gauze – oh, and an angel with a very wry question, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

It was the equivalent of an improv player saying “scene” – the Advent form in brilliant denouement .

The myrrh was returned to its place that day; an ornament of Advent fulfilled.

Advent III | Gold

In AD 1324, the West African Mansa (king) Musa began his legendary hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca. His journey would reconfigure the imaginations and economies of the region for centuries. At that point, the kingdom of Mali was the wealthiest center of civilization on earth.

In addition to the unimaginable gold deposits being extracted from mines of Mali, Musa had established trade to North Africa and the Middle East. Mansa Musa was indisputably the most wealthy person in the history of the world – so opulent that scholars cannot begin to estimate his riches.

Musa’s Arabia-bound entourage was composed of over 60,000 fellow pilgrims and dozens of camels each burdened with 300 pounds of gold. As they made their way north through the Bedouin trade routes then eastward toward Mecca they dispensed with such vast quantities of gold via commerce and largess that the currencies of the entire region were decimated; such sums of wealth were disgorged during their sojourn in Cairo that Egyptian markets required over a decade to fully recover.

Never before and never since has such worldly wealth been conflated in sacred enterprise. The medieval world was left bedazzled.

The grandiosity with which we populate our rhetoric of worship is so often belied by the miserliness of our own pilgrimage through this world. Can Advent birth in us an extravagant generosity? I must believe so. But it does something more. Advent conceives in us extravagant wealth. This is Advent’s miracle.

For the prophet Isaiah announces a mystery that eludes us even still,

For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given,
    and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
 Of the greatness of his government and peace
    there will be no end.

Can it be that this royal child would be born unto us? Might Mary’s joyful awe be ours as well? Should we too come to bear something holy, sovereign, and everlasting within our very selves? Could we, with Mary, each be theotokos; “bearers of God”?

Let us listen along with the faith-filled Virgin to the words of the archangel, “Do not be afraid! You have found favor with God.” What a pregnant phrase! Found favor with God. Favor is the same word for generosity. Like an unwary prospector, she had struck unfathomable riches.

We’re told of Mary, that she “treasured up these things in her heart,” therefore we find her exulting,

My soul praises the Lord’s greatness!
My spirit finds its joy in God, my Savior,
because he has looked favorably on me, his humble servant.
From now on, all people will call me blessed

Her soul praises because her spirit had found its joy. Her joy was in God her Savior. And where was her Savior found? Gestating within her. Many will call her blessed for many will be swept into her blessedness. To quote Tiny Tim, “God bless us! Every one!”

Let us hear with Joseph also, “Do not be afraid!

We are forced to ponder, “Is not fear the centerpiece of my stinginess?” For myself, I must answer yes. I am so often a “bearer” of Scrooge.

Dickens’ Scrooge was meant to embody of a generation made stingy. Of course, his character is introduced amidst prosperity, yet without the capacity for generosity. In Dickens’ imagination, Scrooge had grown up in squalor, beset by the austerity of the Napoleonic wars, the uncertainty of civil unrest, the brutal inequalities of an industrialized England, and, yes, epidemics. Scrooge had emerged with wealth, yet remained shackled to the terrors of scarcity.

Having read the latest parliamentary report detailing the heart-wrenching conditions of the poor, Dickens set forth “to write something that would strike a sledgehammer blow twenty thousand times the force of a government pamphlet” on their behalf. His publishers thought it an uncouth Christmas work and rejected it. Dickens was forced to publish it himself, which he did on December 19, 1843. Copies sold faster than could be printed.

A friend described the success,

It seems to me a national benefit, and to every man or woman who reads it a personal kindness.

Advent arrives impolitely to address our stinginess for, in actuality, it addresses our neatly concealed dread.

As magi we journey to find. We journey to find a Child of royal estate. We, “the people walking in darkness,” journey toward a dim light in the fainting hope that this royal Child be also born even unto us!

It isn’t impossible to think that these magi journeyed with fragments of Isaiah’s prophecy clutched to their breasts; studying them by firelight each night.

Like Mansa Musa they brought gifts of gold, though not in economy-unraveling quantities. And as we travel with them, we bring with us our gold; our wealth, our privilege, and also our dread. Can these all be laid down at once? This is Advent’s query.

When, later in his life, this Child of Advent encountered the wealthy, it was with mixed results. During one of his journeys, a rich man chased him down, knelt before him, and asked, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” It began with such promise, until they arrived at the topic of his wealth.

“Jesus looked at him and loved him,” we read, “then said, ‘Sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.'” The man became “deeply dismayed by these words and went away grieving for he had great wealth.” Or did he?

Jesus had invited this man out of a life of dread and scarcity. The invitation had issued from love. Yet this man’s material riches occasioned a pilgrimage away from Jesus; a pilgrimage back to earth-drawn wealth and to scarcity and dread.

As the magi made their way through the Jerusalem of Herod the Great, there was much vexation. And we recall the words playwright Dorothy Sayers put in Herod’s mouth for these magi,

You cannot rule men by love. When you find your king, tell him so. Only three things will govern a people – fear and greed and the promise of security.

There can be no mistaking that this is nearly always the case. Nearly, but not always.

So we find Napoleon on the island of Saint Helena, exiled and debased, marveling at Advent’s Child,

Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and I have founded empires. But on what did we rest the creation of our genius? Upon force.
Jesus Christ founded His empire upon love; and at this hour millions of men would die for Him.

The gold of the magi must pose for us a simple question: what shall govern you? Will it be scarcity and fear expressing themselves through Scroogelikeness, or a superabundance of love expressing itself through generosity?

For the pilgrimage of Advent must be seen for what I really is; not a pilgrimage whereby our wealth is dispersed in dazzling display. It is a pilgrimage whereby God’s wealth bedazzles by the gift of his very Son.

St. Paul summarized it’s message respledently,

For you know the generosity of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.

Napoleon alludes to this, and Advent makes it plain: an empire founded upon love – a perfect love, which drives out fear and scarcity. The largess of Advent does not deflate the currencies of the world but annuls them altogether by ravaging their very standards. God has given us nothing less than Himself.

In the company of the magi, as we open up our treasuries and lay their contents before the royal Child, we are, as it were, unburdening ourselves from their cruel reign of terror.

“Do not be afraid!” Advent announces. You have found the mother lode of God. “Unto us a Child is born!”

Advent II | Frankincense

O Flower, whose fragrance tender
With sweetness fills the air

While walking through the campus near our house a few months ago, a breeze wafted a scent across my path that positively transported me. Without warning, I found myself riding a bike along a dirt road in the foothills of my boyhood home of Colorado Springs. The smell was stinging and nutty. As I passed through more such wind-borne parcels, I was transported again to a homeward walk down the ridge above my neighborhood of Pleasant Valley on a hot, dry Colorado afternoon.

Weaving my way through the planters and gardens, I discovered the source: a berm running along a neo-Gothic hall planted thick with Prairie dropseed. The sun’s warmth had released its sharp bouquet upon the winds and had removed me from time and place; evoking memories and emotions without consent!

The anatomy of the brain endows our sense of smell with with a set of keys; each unlocking treasuries of memory. This has been called involuntary memory or a Proustian moment. “I quivered,” we read in Proust’s In Search of a Lost Time, “attentive to the extraordinary thing that was happening inside me.”

Life is aromatic this way. Not only cartoon characters are lifted from their feet by its sensory provocations. Advent is nothing if not provocative.

Thus we find ourselves among travelers: journeymen and journeywomen, traversing toward a musty manger. Magi all, panniers stuffed with frankincense. Try as one might, there is no keeping its woody citric aroma confined. Clothing and sundries and provisions alike, all fogged through with the scent. Why carry such cargo?

In a word: worship.

The temples and shrines and alters of the ancient world billowed with the smoke of frankincense. A resin that bleeds from the sides of the rare Boswellia Sacra tree, it was both familiar and mysterious. Mysterious, in that lore and legend attended its origins. Familiar, in that its scent was synonymous with veneration.

Frankincense was also to be offered daily within the Hebrew Tabernacle; its furnishings festooned with censers and bowls and acacia wood altars for the burning. It was mingled with all grain offerings and was a perfuming ingredient in the Aaronic anointing oil, which was forbidden in common use.

As the magi traveled west, it could never have been far from their olfaction that theirs was an errand of worship. The resin’s pervasive scent eliciting involuntary reminiscence of manifold venerations while, simultaneously, piquing holy anticipation for One long awaited.

Thus we sing,

Frankincense to offer have I,
    Incense owns a Deity nigh:

and thus Isaiah foretold,

Nations shall come to your light,
    and kings to the brightness of your rising.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
    and shall bring good news, the praises of the Lord.

The journey of Advent ought to be a redolent affair, with transportation upon each gust of wind.

In such fashion, the magi made their odiferous descent into Jerusalem as a worshipful plume, occasioning much vexation upon their arrival. Are we not aware of the unseemliness of worship in our world? I’m not referring to the performance of religious activities, but of the fervor and sincerity which lingers on the lives of the converted. I’ll be frank (pun inevitable), such earnestness can be quite disturbing to me. I am so often playing games. Is this the case for you also? It is the problem Advent arrives to address!

We’re told the magi made their earnestness immediately plain,

Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?
For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.

What of their reception?

When Herod the king heard this, he was disturbed,
and all Jerusalem with him.

Let us pause to remember that this was no “Holiday Season” in Jerusalem; only another day. They were eating and drinking, working and playing, going through their mundane motions. The verisimilitude and vocabulary of worship was no doubt littered through their lives like resinous tears, yet kept mostly apart from any heat by which otherworldly fumes might awake. (Even as I write, I admit there are always exceptions.)

In his lecture, “A Slip of the Tongue,” CS Lewis recounts a misspoken prayer,

I had meant to pray that I might so pass through things temporal that I finally lost not the things eternal;
I found I had prayed so to pass through things eternal that I finally lost not the things temporal.

“What I had inadvertently said,” Lewis confesses, “very nearly expressed something I had really wished.” And so we find Jerusalem. And so we often find ourselves as well. Passing through Advent’s eternal fragrances so as not to lose the temporal.

The worshipful perfume of the magi’s procession became in Jerusalem and in the house of Herod a stench; portending divine disruption. He assembled together an otherwise lackadaisical collection of priests and teachers, who confirmed that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. The client king then began imagining a decidedly darker delegation fit for the occasion.

Decades later, St. Paul would discuss this stark disparity regarding the “aroma of Christ,” which is the selfsame aroma of Advent:

To one a fragrance from death to death, 
to the other a fragrance from life to life.

To the earth-bound, Advent reeks of decay – disgruntling them over the transience of their terrestrial horizons. “Vanity! Vanity!” it nags. “A chasing after the wind!” It is in this spirit that our contemporary consumerist holiday has been realized, which commodifies sacred melodies of Christ’s mass, relegating them to background murmur within an excited consumptive mode.

Yet, among the pilgrim-hearted, Advent is a fragrance from life to life; rousing us from misdirected sleepwalks; reminding us that these consumptive lands can never be our final satisfaction. Lewis infers, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”

The beleaguered hymnodist Edmund Sears penned “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” In a later work titled Foregleams and Foreshadows of Immortality, he wrote,

Let the instinct of home be destroyed, and man would be utterly demoralized, or hopelessly insane. His life becomes aimless, and he wanters in spiritual vagabondism, he knows not whither or for what.

In mysterious affect, the aroma of Advent awakes homing instincts for a place we’ve never yet been, and we must, in the words of Proust, “attend to the extraordinary things happening within.”

“Descend into your heart,” Sears admonished, “and you will find there a deep and unquenchable instinct which belongs to the spiritual nature. It is the instinct for home.”

Frederick Buechner concluded his essay “The Longing for Home” with these words,

I cannot claim that I have found the home I long for every day of my life, not by a long shot, but I believe that in my heart I have found, and have maybe always known, the way that leads to it. The home we long for and belong to is finally where Christ is.

Jerusalem was, for the magi, a mistaken way-station; the wrong city of David. Not the bustling city of David’s complicated kingship, but the quieter hamlet of David’s pastoral childhood.

They’d been guided by the star but were briefly misguided by suppositions. During one of his customary conversational sermons, the Nicaraguan priest Ernesto Cardenal discussed this with his parishioners. A young man named Adán speculated,

The Gospel says later when they left they saw the star again. That means that when they reached Jerusalem the star wasn’t guiding them. They’d lost it.

The path of Advent is notoriously easy to lose. It doesn’t always lead where we expect. There are times when our sense of smell must compensate for our failing sight.

We know by now that one loses one’s sense of smell at great peril. This is true in more ways than one. We carry the frankincense with us on the journey of Advent in the same way one ties a string around one’s finger; to remind ourselves that this is about finding a place of worship.

As mentioned previously, the magi were an unnumbered band; not likely the fabled “three kings.” Nevertheless, these portrayals have become means by which rich meditations have emerged.

Dorothy Sayers notably wrote a gospel play for a 1941 BBC broadcast, in which the characters of the “three kings” appear. Upon their departure, Herod mocks their claim that this king will reign through love. “You cannot rule men through love,” he scoffs. “When you find your king, tell him so. Only three things will govern a people – fear and greed and the promise of security.”

The Jerusalem of Herod did not pass the smell test, and onward they traversed.

Sayers places the gift of frankincense in the possession of Caspar, whom she portrays as a wizened old noble preoccupied with worship and wisdom. Upon entering their low-slung abode, he remarks,

No place is too lowly to kneel in.
There is more holiness here than in King Herod’s Temple.

The Scriptures tell us the magi proceeded “overjoyed” into Bethlehem and, upon entering the house, “bowed down and worshipped him.” It was an Advent consummation!

They then “opened their treasuries” and presented the holy Child with three gifts, frankincense among them. May the frankincense be for us an aromatic atlas; an interior treasury transporting us to Emmanuel, which not only means “God with us” but also “us with God.”

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Mt. 6:21)

Advent I | Pilgrimage

On the morning of February 14, 2001, I awoke to find my Subaru Impreza encased in a half-inch of ice. The sidewalks and roads were iced over, and snow fell steadily, swirling and drifting in a driving wind.

I spent the better part of 15 minutes chipping and scraping, until I could pry open the driver’s side door, start the car, and run the defrost. I tore a windshield wiper blade during the ordeal.

On most such days I would not have hazarded the roads, but this was not any day.

I loaded my car and trekked across town to a Jiffy Lube, where the fluids could be changed, the wiper blades replaced, and the remaining iced thawed from the vehicle. I made my way up the street to a florist, where they charged me $10 for a single long-stem rose. I did not bat an eye.

I then embarked on what would be a 7-hour westward journey over an icy and perilous Interstate 80. I was departing Kearney, Nebraska. My destination was, Lord willing, Ft. Collins, CO. For the uninitiated, I-80 is a veritable cavalcade of 18-wheelers, with grooved, undulating lanes. Under ideal conditions, it isn’t a pleasant roadway. These conditions were far from ideal.

Knuckles white and breaths filled alternately with prayers and curses, I drove like man possessed.

That Valentine’s Day marked my first opportunity to be in-person with my girlfriend of just over one month, and no act of heaven or earth was to prevent the reunion. (Ten months hence, she would become my wife.) We’re prone to forget St. Valentine was a martyr.

Upon reflection, I see that all journeys are acts of worship. Whether an errand for milk, or a road trip to the Grand Canyon; all travels attach themselves to worth. Is it any wonder Advent reads like a travelogue?

The word advent is, unsurprisingly, of the same stock as adventure: something unusual, exciting, daring and oftentimes hazardous. A “venture toward,” whose destination merits the costs.

For this reason, our intrigue is drawn to the mysterious magi; noble mystics hazarding their own westward journey. “Bearing gifts,” we sing, they “traverse afar.”

Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star

They are the “three kings,” the “three wise men,” and yet nowhere are we told there were three of them. We’re not even told they were all men! Scripture tells us only of magi; astrologically-attuned Eastern pilgrims, come, as it were, to worship.

Lore surrounding the “three wise men” owes itself to the fact that these pilgrims indeed bore three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Yet I might even say this catalogue falls at least one gift short. For these star-struck travelers actually offered a more significant gift: themselves. Put differently, they offered the gift of presence by way of journey.

The particulars of these characters has been augmented through much apocrypha, including three places of origin: Persia, Arabia, India. Even more, the tellings construct these characters in trifold specificity, imparting the names Melchior (Persia, gold), Balthazar (Arabia, myrrh), and Gaspar (India, frankincense). Rich as such traditions become, they tend to affect an evicting of the Everyman – the Every-magi – from the narrative. That is to say, they might evict you and me.

Advent is a story of worshipful journey – of pilgrimage – and, like all great stories, has its own magical way of sweeping us into the drama. The word magi is, after all, the base of our word magic.

As I write, I am aware of a set of mental negotiations taking place within me regarding magic, for its place in Scripture and in Christian regard is not uncomplicated. Frederick Buechner wrote, “If security’s what you’re after, try magic. If adventure is what you’re after, try religion.” But he would go on to add, “The line between them is notoriously fuzzy.”

In Advent, the line between magic and religion and many other things does become fuzzy, for here we have magi – astrologers – who, in their watchfulness, “observed his star at its rising.” (Mt. 2:2) Whose star? “The Child who has been born king!”

This places the emphasis of Advent squarely upon alacrity; a brisk and joyful readiness to embark.

Here was a community of Eastern star-gazers who, from time immemorial, had awaited an astral event denoting the birth of a foreign king. These had inherited a tradition of searching the skies. Likely, they had found camaraderie around this peculiar preoccupation. Why? We can’t be entirely sure.

But we know they spent their time on the lookout. Was it something to do with clues of God’s ongoing terrestrial involvement? We can be certain their lands did not lack for gods and demigods; likely many and varied. But each night they were found beneath the stars. The theological term for this is prevenient grace; the notion that God is everywhere at work in human hearts. St. Augustine described it thus, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” Were they restless? Are we?

So they journeyed. Packed up their baggage and provisions, bid their loved ones goodbye, and securely stowed away their treasuries. Their journey would have taken a matter of weeks; an Advent season in whole. By the time they arrived, the nativity was no longer staged in a stable. Let us linger with them in their trip, even as we commence our own in these days.

Many of us have been confined in space in these days: physically, yes, but also spiritually. We’ve forgotten how to look for his star on the rise and our yearnings no longer drift to pilgrimage. Little wonder God’s first question to humanity was, “Where are you?” (Gen. 3:9) Where are you?

The Sons of Korah wrote, “Blessed are those whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.” (Ps. 84:5) They continue by saying that, though they may pass through many a sad and arid landscape, “They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion.” (v. 7)

Star of wonder, star of night
Star with royal beauty bright
Westward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to thy perfect light

Thy perfect light! The blessed exist within a life of pilgrimage, with Zion fixed in their hearts. Elsewhere, the psalmist Asaph called Zion, “the perfection of beauty,” the place from which “God shines forth.” (50:2)

The perfection of beauty. This is the destination of Advent. The journey is often made by unexpected peoples from unexpected places, and what – or rather Who – they encounter defies expectations also.

When the star began to rise, so did the magi’s hearts. It was for them a divine overture and it must be for us also!

You may remember the Disney film Finding Nemo. It’s the one where a little clown fish is captured and made to live in a dentist’s office aquarium. He had given up hope of ever being liberated and reunited with his father, until the day a pelican arrives at the window and regales the aquarium-dwellers with the love-inspired exploits of his father – and Nemo’s yearnings are rekindled!

Advent is a story of worshipful journey; of journey predicated on worth. Yet, above all, the journey is God’s. The gift is His presence, and all is hazarded in the hope of reunion. Your life is the worth.

Therefore we sing,

Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till he appear’d and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary soul rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!

Advent is God’s journey to us, which might become our journey to him. Advent is a journey of one to another, and it is a journey to be made with a company of star-gazers.

Oh that its magic might gather us together and set us on the highways to Zion for worship!

Godly Sorrow Over Racism | “Two Sorrows”

In his second letter to the dysfunctional church in Corinth, Paul makes mention of their commendable response to a previous letter. He describes the letter as being “severe” and “painful”—the cause of “hurt.” (7:8-9) Paul admits that he second guessed himself in sending it, saying, “I was sorry at first, for I know it was painful to you.”

Scholars suspect that there is actually a missing Corinthian letter—maybe the most severe one. But we know something of the dysfunction and shame of this church from Paul’s first letter. Of course, Paul famously critiques their petty infighting and posturing over giftedness and devoutness, pronouncing that, devoid of love, these seemingly spiritual acts are empty and hollow. (1 Cor. 13:13) He calls them to a solidarity which resembles that of a body, in which every part has indispensable value, concluding his analogy, “If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it, and if one part is honored, all the parts are glad.” (12:26).

Amidst the salacious, factious, and pretentious smorgasbord of sin afflicting this ailing church, Paul approaches a serious specific issue asking, “Do you want to disgrace God’s church and shame the poor?” (11:22) He is speaking to the way this church handled its Communion gatherings; the sacramental breaking of bread and drinking of wine ordained by Jesus to denote the common union of his earthly people. But they had segregated it by class; stolen this meal away into their own homes; made of it a social club. “When you meet together, it is not the Lord’s Supper that you eat.” (11:20) Think about that. This was not a faulty way of doing Communion, it was not Communion at all. Why? They had excluded the marginalized; “some go hungry while others get drunk.”

Paul puts this matter of inequality and exclusion around the Lord’s table quite severely,

“Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy way will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A person ought to practice self-examination before eating of the bread and drinking of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgement on themselves.” (11:27-29)

When we eat the bread and drink the wine, we declare that the body is one; it is an expression of solidarity and unity that is meant to reflect something actual. As David Swanson writes,

“None of this is theoretical. Our decision to reject defective discipleship that fosters segregation for reimagined practices that lead us toward solidarity with the body of Christ has real-world impact on countless fellow members of the body.”

The Corinthian church had actually rejected their radical commitment to body solidarity! How do we know this? When one part suffered, other parts felt nothing—they were numb to it. In actuality, it was worse. They were not oblivious to or obscured from the suffering part; they were effectual agents—beneficiaries. This is what Paul was denouncing. And insofar as this segregating, depriving principle was in place, their gathered worship had nothing to do with true Communion in Christ. They were not only denying to suffering of the body, they were causing and exacerbating it. They were making God’s church a disgrace.

Imagine, then, if the Corinthian church had filed away Paul’s letter, dismantled its force through fancy systematic theology, or overlaid a free market economic ideology on top of it? What if they had sent Paul a return letter saying, “Paul, these people are only suffering because of their own lack of personal responsibility.” Imagine a church in which Paul’s severe letter was thus blunted; its pain and sorrow rejected; the harms and blasphemies it denounced left in place. If you are an American Christian, you needn’t use your imagination—this is our story.

I cannot here outline the enormity of insidious and cruel ways the White church has participated in racism and White supremacy to disgraceful, blasphemous ends. There are resources such as Jemar Tisby’s recent book The Color of Compromise (also a Prime Video lesson series), Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah’s Unsettling Truths, and many, many others—written by Christian and non-Christian scholars alike.

But, as Tisby sets forth his study, he weightily observes,

“Historically speaking, when faced with the choice between racism and equality, the American church has tended to practice complicit Christianity rather than a courageous Christianity. They chose comfort over constructive conflict and in so doing created and maintained a status quo of injustice.”

Tisby quotes historian Caroyln DuPont, “Not only did white Christians fail to fight for black equality, they often labored mightily against it.” Tisby also make clear that the White American Church’s egregious historical compromise toward and tolerance of White supremacy and racism has had pivotal periods of contingency, during which it might have acted in obedience to Jesus but failed to do so: “white supremacy in the nation and church was not inevitable. Things could have been different.”

For this reason he writes in a holy hope to elicit what Paul called “godly sorrow” or “godly grief”—to prompt the American church to seize upon her diminishing moments with greater urgency and righteousness than ever before. “This kind of grief is a natural response to the suffering of others. It indicates empathy with the pain that racism has caused black people. The ability to weep with those who weep is necessary for true healing.” The sorrow to which Tisby is referring is the sorrow Paul rejoiced to see in the response of the Corinthian church to his severe and hurtful letter.

Ever since I began seeing the streets flood with people after the death of George Floyd, I have had an unshakable and, I believe, divine burden that this is one such contingent moment for America and for the American church—a moment when godly sorrow must be awakened through severity and pain. The church’s tolerance of and complicity with racism and White supremacy are, to quote Martin Luther King, “Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up.”

And so we return to Paul’s subsequent letter to the Corinthians; the one that followed the painful one he was nearly unwilling to send. “I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while—yet now I am glad, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you were sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way.” (2 Cor. 7:8-9)

Here we must start where Paul starts, with an evaluation of sorrows. Whenever a harmed party learns that the perpetrator of their harm is sorry, it becomes a fragile juncture indeed. Paul makes it clear that there are two types of sorrow: one exceedingly good and productive, the other deceptive and lethal. They can be known by their fruits.

So if you care passionately about how the church will respond to its historical and present companionship with White supremacy and racism, then you might actually be averse to the notion that this moment merely calls for “sorrow.” But let me briefly note the quality of the “godly sorrow” which Paul here celebrates, “See what this godly sorrow produced,” Paul declares: earnestness, concern, indignation, alarm, longing, zeal, and a “readiness to see justice done.” (7:11) I would like to spend another piece reflecting on the nature of this sorrow but I will simply note that it is both potent and prolific. It is from God and it indefatigably pursues those things that please him because it has adequately grieved over those things that do not—from a place painfully vivid understanding.

If you are more skeptical of my thrust here—maybe even resentful—let me note, after a subsequent section focused on generosity, Paul writes, “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality.” (8:13) In this statement Paul anticipates the contemporary sentiment, “When you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” So let us set aside the our mere distaste for discomfort and threats to our accustomed way of life. Paul’s own letter evinced the hard truth that the Gospel would, more often than not, overhaul earthly lifestyles.

May we keep in mind, as I wrote earlier, that history bends toward an eternity of total ethnic inclusion and honor; a life without sorrow that can only come about when “the old order has passed away.” Part of the blindness of the White American church is an aversion to discomfort and mortification along with an intractable delusion regarding our own claims to innocence. Godly sorrow cannot penetrate nor take root in this hard-baked soil, and our Enemy will gladly swoop in and carry away these painful truths as a bird.

There is much reason for much sorrow, and if this moment calls for for godly sorrow, then we must be very clear about our sorrows. There are, after all, many expressions of sorrow and contrition being voiced at present: from pulpits and podiums, blogs and vlogs, and within the sprawling social media landscape. Many “I’m sorry”s, many laments, much posting, much soul searching, and endless vows to listen, learn and do better. There have been many, many tears, which, in White Evangelicalism, is the gold standard of sincerity. And there has been much rightful skepticism toward all this—call it the “when Black people are in pain, White people join book clubs” phenomenon. Which is to say, none of this outright exhibit the hallmarks of godly sorrow.

But does it exhibit the hallmarks of worldly sorrow? Paul isn’t precisely clear about what worldly sorrow is, yet he contrasts it starkly with the godly type saying, “godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” By way of deduction, we can know it is patently not of the same nature as the godly type. Explicitly, we know worldly sorrow produces death.

This must mean it is ephemeral and, to take Paul’s cues, not entirely sincere. It may be the sorrow of being caught in acts or, otherwise, in the unfashionable state of being socially out of step. Any sorrow over the complicity of racism and White supremacy that is predicated on fashion or the superficialities of wanting to be seen a certain way can only be worldly and transient—it may have the materials of penance but not repentance. It can be preempted by boredom or a short attention span. Such sorrow leads to death.

So too the sorrow of mere sentimentality must not escape our scrutiny. While sorrow is evinced by sentiment, not all sentiment is substantive. It may be that you just don’t like when people are angry at each other, don’t like feeling embarrassed by your ignorance, don’t like seeing ugliness exposed. You may even be genuinely sad over the horrible images of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery’s killings (as is fitting), yet without a sense that you yourself have been accomplice to this very Black-life-devaluing enterprise! The tears of this sorrow are the tears of crocodiles, who seem to weep while devouring their prey. Such sorrow leads to death.

Without doubt, there is a performative sorrow as well. It resembles the disingenuous and functionally atheistic “acts of righteousness” Jesus bid us beware of in the Sermon on the Mount—“righteous deeds done publicly in order to be admired by others.” (Mat. 6:1) These have no value before God whatsoever, for they have nothing to do with God. They are entirely horizontal. Any likes, retweets, shares, or follows that come of this sorrow hold its only value. Such sorrow leads to death.

Jesus made mention of pretentious giving, praying, and fasting—all manner of “seeking God”—and emphasized the non-hypocritical feature of true “acts of righteousness.”

Still let us recall the word from Isaiah 58 about fasting:

 Is such the fast that I choose,
    a day for a person to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a reed,
    and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast,
    and a day acceptable to the Lord?

 “Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of wickedness,
    to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?”

Friends, this must go even beyond personal piety to social concern, solidarity, and a “readiness to see justice done,” or even our seemingly intimate times with God prove themselves largely farcical. How one emerges from times of fasting, prayer, and, yes, even lament is the measure of sincerity—and of the value God places in them. Apart from living justly, such sorrow leads to death.

Because I have spent so much time in Reformed circles, I know the rejoinder to this by heart. “Oh, but I am totally depraved!” we groan. “My ‘righteous deeds’ are only as filthy rags apart from the blood of Jesus!” Stop that! You know you are missing the point—more like evading the point. This Puritanical chicanery has never been consistent with a Gospel morality nor even a cohesive theology. True though the salvific proposition may be, it was never, ever meant to undermine the Gospel project of “our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ,  who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” (Tit. 2:13-14) Such sorrow leads to death.

Look back over the history, and one of the most alarming, grievous features of the White American church is the inexhaustible ingenuity toward such ploys; a playbook of evasive maneuvers toward confronting these the twin travesties of Black and Indigenous dehumanization. These ploys themselves deserve unfathomable grief.

Friends, as I write these words my own heart has been under bombardment; for I have cried many tears, made many posts, felt many sentiments, shared many resources, marched many marches, joined many webinars, read many books and articles, watched many documentaries, attended many prayer meetings, made many friendships, even moved my family to the south side of Chicago. None of this amounts to the proof of godly sorrow. As a middle class White man, I can only say that godly sorrow over White supremacy and racism is something for which I must constantly make time and space—even then, I am more likely than not to underestimate their wickedness in ways that manifest themselves in complacency. As a middle class White man, I can always deny this solidarity, even if I inwardly mourn my complicity. Such sorrow leads to death.

But I am asking in the repeated, importunate way the Savior tells us to ask for justice! (“And will not God give justice to his chosen, who cry to him day and night?”, Luke 18:7) I am asking for justice to be conceived in hearts, gestated in churches, and born into the world. I am asking God to perform a merciful miracle of godly sorrow in our day; that we may rip away our old garments of White supremacy and racism, and “put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its Creator.” (Col. 3:10) Though it happen through much pain, yet it shall lead to something unspeakably beautiful.

Coming of Age

Watch this brief TED talk first.

 

 

Cultures have coming of age traditions and ceremonies; common, ritualized practices that denote a passage into adulthood and accountability. Typically these are imbued with honorific signals to ancestral heritage, community legacy, mores and customs, and the privileges and responsibilities of maturity within society.

Listening to the poet Clint Smith share his own story, I was grieved by what I know without any doubt is the Black American ceremony of alerting adolescent children to the hazards of their Blackness. This is the coming of age tradition our nation has foisted upon this community.

So, of all the affirming and empowering messages any Black adolescent receives from loved ones, those who are their loved ones and who love their lives, the safety of their bodies, the sacredness of their destinies must love them by cautioning them that their humanness is, at best, tenuous in our society.

If, as Christians or even conscientious Americans, we cannot extend grief, anger, and a will to affect something better toward this precious community–our neighbors–than we must wonder of defectiveness of our own humanity.

Dr King wrote,

“It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important also. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless.”

I believe the Civil Rights Movement of the middle of the 20th century was largely an urgent effort toward “legislation to control the external effects of those bad internal attitudes.” We need to remember that there were 4000 lynchings between 1877 and 1950 in the US. One each week. There were also law enactments and enforcements that led to de-facto re-enslavement of Black Americans through share cropping, convict leasing, and widespread intimidation.

The Great Migration was, in actuality, a great refugee movement, because in the South humanness (especially male humanness) was a capital offense. In the North and West, Blacks were introduced to James Crow via segregation, red lining, violence, and dehumanizing discrimination.

When King lived and campaigned in Chicago, he was pelted with stones, spit upon, and met with an open hostility he’d not even experienced in Mississippi. In a speech at Soldier Field in 1966, he famously lamented,

“We are tired of being lynched physically in Mississippi, and we are tired of being lynched spiritually and economically in the north.”

King saw education and spiritual transformation as the only gateway to change in attitude–to “make a man love me.” But these things can only take place voluntarily. Any therapist will say, “You have to want to change.” Do we? Do we want a society in which Clint Smith’s kids can receive a totally different coming of age talk; one that reflects the simple premise that Black lives matter?

If our Civil Right forerunners gave their lives to create a legal framework in which the slaughter and degradation of Black life might be mitigated, how must we give our lives to continue their moral legacy? And should it cost us nothing?

Clint Smith is 31. That means his dad gave him this fierce and fearsome talk in 2001. My Black friends are still giving their kids this talk in 2020.

Tamir Rice was 12.

White friends: what talks are we giving ourselves and our kids? If we have no answer, then we are leaving this sad legacy in place; leaving the weight of these dehumanizing talks to the Black moms and dads and loved ones in our nation. We are not calling the Black community our loved ones for we are not loving them as we must.

A friend visited me last year in Chicago. He was taking his son on a 13 year-old father-son right of passage trip. One night while he was here, I asked, “How are you approaching this time?” He said there were a lot of things they were talking about, but that night he had told his son, “You were born a white male in America. That means you won the lottery. You have got to be very clear about how to use your privilege rightly.” It brought me to tears.

This must be a literal “come to Jesus” for us. Silence is betrayal in our public spaces and silence is betrayal in our private spaces. Being human means naming and defining. For the Black community, this means naming and defining racism, White supremacy, and the lethal threat these represent to Black bodies and souls. For Whites, this must be naming and defining racism and White supremacy in our bodies, souls, communities, institutions, and society–including its lethality.

In his book The Hidden Wound, Wendell Berry wrote,

“If the white man has inflicted the wound of racism upon black men, the cost has been that he would receive the mirror image of that wound into himself.”

What he is saying is something we all know innately: as White people, our humanity is wrapped up in this also. No person can dehumanize or benefit from dehumanization without compromising their own humanity.

This is inherently Christian.

I would argue it is inherently patriotic.

This is inherently human.

Smith said, “I refuse to accept that we can’t build this world into something new.”

White friends, this is something we must refuse to accept also.

White Christian friends, this is part and parcel of our yes to Jesus.