The Cost of Loving Enemies

Martin Luther King Jr. – Marquette Park, Chicago: August 1966

In January 1966, Martin Luther King Jr. and his family moved to Chicago.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had both been passed after effective direct nonviolent campaigns in Selma and Birmingham. Dr. King’s April 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail and August 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech had vaulted him to soaring heights in American society, with a moral vision that had been clarion and captivating.

But he knew his work was far from done.

King had turned his attention to the hidden systems of segregation and inequality in the nation, moving the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) into a new phase, “one that addressed entrenched racial discrimination in urban cities which kept blacks locked in ghettos, overcrowded schools, and low-paying jobs.” 1

By 1966 he was exhausted, depressed, and increasingly unpopular. It was during this time, at the invitation of the Chicago Freedom Movement, that King moved his wife and young family into a “slum-dwelling” in the west side Chicago neighborhood of North Lawndale, with a broken front door, dirt floors, and the “overpowering” stench of urine. They were bringing their movement to “the heart of the ghetto” in one of America’s most segregated cities.

By most accounts, the Chicago Freedom Movement was a failure.

In June of 1966, King spoke to a crowd of 40,000 in Soldier Field and famously decried, “We are tired of being lynched physically in Mississippi, and we are tired of being lynched spiritually and economically in the north.” He then led a march to city hall, where a list of demands was attached to the door. The powerful Richard J. Daley was mayor at the time.

Several weeks later, King led a march through the Marquette Park neighborhood, where discriminatory real estate practices were known to exclude Black buyers. While on the march, King and his companions were swarmed by a mob of 700 white Chicagoans, who hurled bricks, stones and bottles at them. King was struck in the head by a rock and fell to one knee before rising to continue the march.

King told reporters, “I’ve been in many demonstrations all across the South, but I can say that I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as I’m seeing in Chicago.” When confronted, the more hidden dynamics of northern racism and segregation turned out to be animated by an evil and racist animosity exceeding the more overt racism in the South.

By the end of August, Daley was eager to be rid of his city’s new resident. He signed a “Summit Agreement” on the condition that King move out of Chicago – which King did. This agreement initially seemed promising, but in March of 1967 King pronounced it to be “a sham and a batch of false promises.”

Less than one month later, King would be assassinated.

King had spent his adult life loving his enemies – “to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood” – and it cost him everything.

Turning back the clock one decade, we find find the nucleus of this life in the teachings of Jesus.

It was November 1957, and King was on a speaking tour. He had risen to prominence through his role in the successful 1956-57 Montgomery Bus Boycotts. His home had recently been bombed by white supremacists. In the coming months, he would be stabbed in Harlem. But he was pursuing the theme of Love for Enemies during this speaking tour. Feeling under the weather, and against his doctors counsel, we find King at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery taking up the text of Matthew 5:43-45 (KJV):

Ye have heard that it has been said, ‘Thou shall love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy.’ But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven.

King told his audience at the onset, “I try to make it something of a custom or tradition to preach from this passage of Scripture at least once a year, adding new insights that I develop along the way, out of new experiences as I give these messages.” Here we can observe the way King tumbled this truth over and over again in his hermeneutical drum: Scripture to experience, experience to Scripture, year after year.

Love for enemies is such an “extremely difficult command,” observed King,

Many would go so far as to say that it just isn’t possible to move out into the actual practice of this glorious command. They would go on to say that this is just additional proof that Jesus was an impractical idealist who never quite came down to earth.

Though at the end of Matthew, Jesus made it clear that his disciples were to learn to obey everything He commanded, King knew the Christian proclivity to circumnavigate those commands we find impractical or distasteful.

King exhorted them,

Now let me hasten to say that Jesus was very serious when he gave this command; he wasn’t playing. He realized that it’s hard to love your enemies… He realized that it was painfully hard, pressingly hard. But he wasn’t playing. And we cannot dismiss this passage as just another example of Oriental hyperbole, just a sort of exaggeration to get over the point.

Love for enemies is hard – painfully hard; pressingly hard – but will we learn to obey it or go looking for loopholes. The former is quite costly. The latter, less so. But King understood this was subject to no exceptions.

So let us listen to the insights King, here only in his late 20s, gained from the painful, pressing beginnings of what would become a singular life lived into Jesus’ enemy love paradox.

Firstly, King asserts, “In order to love your enemies, you must begin by analyzing self.” Is this not the first and hardest step? To have an enemy is to be threatened, and all manner of self-protective measure activates – often involuntarily – under these conditions. To have an enemy is to have someone bent on your defeat and the defeat of what is right and just.

The last thing we want to do is scrutinize ourselves.

I want to pause briefly here to note that in instances of abuse or other forms of personal and corporate violation, this step of self-analysis – especially regarding guilt or blame – should be unequivocal. Abuse and acts of violation are always wrong. We should never ask, “Did I deserve that?” or “Did I have that coming?” King’s focus is within the ambiguities of animosity between persons and groups.

To love one’s enemy, we must defy that most ancient and self-protective reflex of blame, which means we must make ourselves vulnerable before threat.

King’s second admonition is equally difficult: “A second thing that an individual must do in seeking to love his enemy is to discover the element of good in his enemy.” We must learn to see God’s image in our enemy and honor it. He goes on,

We’re split up and divided against ourselves. And there is something of a civil war going on within all of our lives. There is a recalcitrant South of our soul revolting against the North of our soul. And there is this continual struggle within the very structure of every individual life. 

To love an enemy – individuals or groups – is to understand the great clash of darkness and light raging with them and, at every turn, support the light.

Finally, King advises, “When the opportunity presents itself for you to defeat your enemy, that is the time which you must not do it.” Though we may have chance to hasten the demise of our enemies, this is not the way of love.

Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all men. It is the refusal to defeat any individual. When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the system.

Drawing upon the three Greek words for love, King asserts that enemy love should be understood as agape love,

It is a love that seeks nothing in return. It is an overflowing love; it’s what theologians would call the love of God working in the lives of men. And when you rise to love on this level, you begin to love men, not because they are likeable, but because God loves them.

I will admit that as I wrote these three pieces of advice down – reflecting as I went – my soul writhed and argued and balked. But isn’t that the point? King would have us understand these convulsions as the throes of seeing the demon of hatred cast out. “The strong person is the person who can cut off the chain of hate, the chain of evil,” King contended. Echoing John’s words that “perfect love drives out fear,” he said people must “inject within the very structure of the universe that strong and powerful element of love.”

This is nothing short of a miracle!

King offered a few remarks as to why one would set out to love one’s enemies – reasons originating from “the center of Jesus’ thinking” – and they include the following:

The principle that “hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe.” Additionally, although we tend to see hate as representing a risk to the one hated, King reminds us, “hate distorts the personality of the hater.”

[Hatred] is even more tragic, it is even more ruinous and injurious to the individual who hates. You just begin hating somebody, and you will begin to do irrational things. You can’t see straight when you hate. You can’t walk straight when you hate. You can’t stand upright. Your vision is distorted. There is nothing more tragic than to see an individual whose heart is filled with hate.

For the person who hates, the beautiful becomes ugly and the ugly becomes beautiful. For the person who hates, the good becomes bad and the bad becomes good. For the person who hates, the true becomes false and the false becomes true. That’s what hate does. 

Hate destroys the very structure of the personality of the hater.

So Jesus says love, because hate destroys the hater as well as the hated.

This is not hard to see in the broader world and, if we’re paying honest attention, it is impossible to deny in ourselves. Hate deforms us.

The final reason King offers for enemy love is that love is the truest way to overcome them: “Because if you hate your enemies, you have no way to redeem and to transform your enemies. But if you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption.”

Love is inherently creative, while hate is inherently destructive. “There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. ‘Love your enemies.'”

The love of one’s enemies is ultimately a matter of how we will use what power we have: for good or violence. Thus enemy love is the beating heart of nonviolence. “Violence,” King assured, “isn’t the way.”

Of course King knew where to direct our attention for such a costly and otherworldly love,

There is a little tree planted on a little hill and on that tree hangs the most influential character that ever came in this world. But never feel that that tree is a meaningless drama that took place on the stages of history. Oh no, it is a telescope through which we look out into the long vista of eternity, and see the love of God breaking forth into time. It is an eternal reminder to a power-drunk generation that love is the only way… that love is the only creative, redemptive, transforming power in the universe.

Though King would admit toward the end of his life that some of his “old optimism” had been “a little superficial,” saying it must be tempered with “a solid realism” that “we still have a long, long ways to go.” Nevertheless, this was no departure from enemy love whatsoever, only the insights of one who had tumbled this difficult truth for over a decade of costly work.

King was far from perfect and certainly not universally appreciated in his time. The MLK who emerges each MLK Day is often air-brushed; not the complicated, controversial, fiery, and flawed individual so instrumental in the Civil Rights movement and the broader cause of racial equality in our nation. He has been recast in far less threatening forms since his assassination, such that it is hard for us to imagine King as a figure who would have his home firebombed, receive beatings in police custody, be stabbed, or have rocks and bricks heaved at his head by mobs of northern whites. It is hard for us to imagine this man being viewed unfavorably by nearly two-thirds of Americans by the end of his life.

But, as with Jesus, this is the paradox of enemy love: not only that it destroys the enemy category but that it is more likely to get you killed than loved in return. Of all forms of light, enemy love may be the one that poses the greatest threat to the darkness.

Yet King was so gripped by the mutuality of it all, “that all mankind is tied together; all life is interrelated, and we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”2 Therefore, love for enemy is inseparable from love for all: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

It could absolutely be argued that King’s vision for enemy love, rooted in the Gospel and his unshakable concept of human mutuality, is the incandescence we still find so riveting. This may be the trait of King’s legacy most wanting retrieval in our day. Not a sentimental, superficial love, but a creative and costly love that fights even for the souls of those who would curse, hate, or use us.

It might do us good to adopt King’s custom of tumbling Jesus’ words in our minds and lives, that we would shape and be shaped through their painful press. Certainly, we should part ways with our hermeneutical loopholes and technicalities.

There is, after all, a great battle between light and dark, love and hate, good and violence raging not only out in the world but within us as well. Would we drive fear and hate from our our 0wn souls through these redoubled movements; self-examination, battling for love, honoring the image of God, looking with King to the One on that little tree on that little hill changing everything by the power of love for his enemies?

Then, with King, we might also “move out into the actual practice of this glorious command.”

The Life of the Beloved

Photo by John McMahon on Unsplash

I’ve recently added a liturgical calendar to my phone; even turning on notifications. Even though I grew up Presbyterian and have been influenced deeply by many writers from liturgical traditions, I’ve never fully appreciated liturgy or the liturgical calendar.

Not until I read in Tish Harrison Warren’s book Liturgy of the Ordinary that the liturgical calendar was how the church kept time did I ever pause to think about if and how my time was ordered. How did I know what time it was? If the Solomon tells us, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens,” (Ecc. 3:1) was there a way to not only know the time but the rightful activity?

As I have written elsewhere, these past few years have been very turbulent for me. The distress and disappointments of this season of my life has created for me a crisis of order; a crisis of understanding how my previous season has disordered me and what a season of reordering might involve. This has set me to learning all types of things about how the mind and body interact (or refuse to), attachments styles, and somatic approaches to healing from trauma (EMDR, yoga, swimming). It has also heightened my sense of the importance of time and routine; the way we know our beats and rhythms in this dance of life.

This is why I’ve downloaded this calendar to my phone. I am probably the least routinized person I know; spontaneity and authenticity are some of my highest values! But my need for order feels more urgent than ever. Within the lingering internal aftereffects of a season of scary chaos, my threshold for external disorder has plummeted. Ordered rhythms without enable me to maintain something ordered within. And I suck at this!

All that to say, now I know today is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, and I know where my thoughts must go.

It’s interesting that this liturgical day marks the beginning of Ordinary Time – the periods between major liturgical events, with this one ending at Lent – because there is something of the baptism of Jesus that answers the fundamental question of how his every moment might be spent: the life of the Beloved.

I have shamelessly stolen the title of this post from a Henri Nouwen book. It could actually probably be the title of every Henri Nouwen book. The book in question pursues the theme of being beloved over and against the dark power of self-rejection. Nouwen writes, “Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection.” (31) The use of the word trap is key, for it is in our self-rejection that our susceptibility is most pronounced. And nowhere is this clearer than in the baptism of Jesus.

Matthew records this in punchy succession. At the onset of Jesus’ public ministry, he goes to his cousin John to be baptized in the Jordan. We read that when Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens opened. John saw – saw! – “the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.” (3:16) And then a voice from heaven made the following declaration:

“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased!” (3:17)

I’ve often thought about how Jesus lived the most important life and did the most important work in the history of the world and what might have been the most obvious questions in play during these inaugurating moments: “Where to begin?” or “What are my objectives?” or “What’s the plan?”

Instead, we are met with the issue of who — of identity. “This is who you are!”

And if we accept Nouwen’s conclusions regarding the trap of self-rejection, we appreciate the importance of this. The nature of Jesus’ ordinary days was to be paramount! Would he be in the world with generosity or neediness; love or insecurity; with nothing or everything to prove?

“This is my beloved Son,” announced the voice of the Father, “with whom I am well pleased!” In a world of gaping insecurity – a world in which “all toil and all skill in work come from one person’s envy of another” (Ecc. 4:4) – Jesus was to live from this declaration: beloved and the object of true pleasure.

The life of the Beloved.

Jesus was then “led by the Spirit into wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” (4:1) And what there transpired? Only an all out assault upon the certainty and significance of this pronouncement, “If you are the Son of God,” hissed the devil, “prove it.” It was a snare!

If there had been even a hint of self-rejection in Jesus – the smallest diminution of the Father’s grand pronouncement – the devil might have had his quarry. But, in transcendent departure from the entire human family, Jesus did not take the bait.

Jesus essentially responded, “I have nothing to prove.” The pronouncement had been made and unreservedly received. More than that, Jesus demonstrated the surpassing value of this pronouncement, for even “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor” (4:8) could in no way be compared to the bounty of being the Beloved.

Having endured this assault, Jesus began his ministry of love – costly love! – entering the world with nothing to prove and everything to give. Luke tells us that Jesus returned from the wilderness “in the power of the Spirit.” (4:14) The Spirit of belovedness had triumphed over all other rivals. It is impossible to miss the spiritual power of Jesus’ life. Our world tells all time by it!

But what is more profound still is that the life of the beloved is ours to live also!

I’m resisting the urge to sermonizing, except to mention that this is utterly biblical! This is the Good News!

In Christ we are adopted and sealed with the selfsame Spirit, “By whom we cry ‘Abba! Father!” (Gal. 4:4-6; Eph. 1:13) The selfsame Spirit was poured as God’s love into our hearts (Rom. 5:5) and testifies to our spirits that we are God’s children! (Rom. 8:15-16) Jesus is the firstborn of many siblings! (Rom. 8:29)

There is a reason beloved is most common pronoun for believers in the New Testament. Ours is to be the corporate life of the beloved.

Let us accept the phrasing John – “the beloved disciple” – offers as the defining feature of the believer: we are those who “have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us.” (1 Jn. 4:16)

In his book The Return of the Prodigal Son, Nouwen portrays the entire Christian life as a faltering journey home from distant and loveless lands to the belovedness of the Father. “[L]eaving the foreign country is only the beginning. The way home is long and arduous.” (51) The return is “full of ambiguities.” We may be “traveling in the right directions, but what confusion.” (52) It is a hemming and hawing odyssey; at times we are found coming to our senses, other times we are found losing our minds!

When we lose living contact with the Father’s love – and our identity as the beloved – Nouwen warns, we “embark on the destructive search among the wrong people and in the wrong places for what can only be found in the house of [our] Father.” (107)

In such seasons, Noewen notes, “The world around me becomes dark. My heart grows heavy. My body is filled with sorrows. My life loses meaning. I have become a lost soul.” (47) I can relate. Maybe you can too?

So on this Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, as we prepare to exit Advent and embark upon Ordinary Time, let us feast the way our Savior did, upon the love and pleasure of the Father. May it nourish us through the wilderness and beyond. May it multiply in us, that we might part ways with our scarcity, our stinginess, and our greed, going forth generously.

“Freely you have received!” Jesus declared, “Freely give!” (Mt. 10:8)

Can you – will you – hear the Father’s warm and booming voice? “This is my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased!” Is this not the most fitting celebration of our Savior’s baptism?

“This is the God I want to believe in: a Father who, from the beginning of creation, has stretched out his arms in merciful blessing, never forcing himself on anyone, but always waiting; never letting his arms drop down in despair, but always hoping that his children will return so that he can speak words of love to them and let his tired arms rest on their shoulders. His only desire is to bless.”

Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son

“Behold, what manner of love the Father has bestowed upon us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (1 Jn. 3:1)

Hallelujah!

A small Advent reflection

Photo by Brianna Santellan on Unsplash

It’s Advent; a season of marvel and awe. A time of rekindled devotion to Jesus, this Child conceived of the Holy Spirit, born to young and faithful Mary, swaddled in a Bethlehem manger, the light of the world.

Advent has a habit of rousing and lifting me, like Ezekiel, to glimpses of unspeakable beauty; of quickening my pace through the darkness.

But not this year.

Two years ago saw the anti-climax of a period of utter darkness and sorrow for me, a terrifying and depleting escape out of a crushing period of my life. I was shattered and afraid and fighting desperately for my own viability and that of my vulnerable family. If this were the footprints vignette, there would have been but one set of prints in the sand. I wrote nothing for Advent. That was 2019.

I began 2020 with a daunting task of healing, beginning a new work, picking up pieces and reinventing myself. I was 44, venturing off with my own fragile family and my own fragile soul.

Then the pandemic.

I was sitting at lunch with a friend in March 2020 and I was reeling. “If the world shuts down,” I told her, “I will take it as an invitation from God to prioritize my healing.” Days later, the world shut down.

I found solace in yoga, longer periods of morning reflection, spiritual direction, helping my kids with e-learning, and dodging the spotlight. It was no small comfort to have the whole world cast back on its heels during a time when I was in such disarray.

I was in such disarray.

Our world was falling into such disarray, or maybe the disarray was merely announcing itself – “the world, in sin and error pining.” Wasn’t 2020 so brutal?

However, as Advent 2020 approached, I began experiencing a renewed wonder. I had been reading Dorothy Sayers’ BBC play The Man Born to Be King, and knew – months ahead – that my Advent reflections were to gather around the magi and their gifts. My spirit began to stir. I began to gather my thoughts. As the Advent season approached, I was writing! Maybe with a bit of additional labor, but I was back – like some movie character feared dead, now coughing to consciousness.

But in rolled the darkness once more.

Each successive Advent reflection became more difficult; the inspirations and logics and structures all breaking apart. (Though, as I go back and read them, they are not so bad.) The effort of holding these elements together was a faltering function of holding my own self together.

I was working with a communications coach in those days. I had asked her to help me develop my communication strength, especially writing, and she encouraged me to utilize this strength in order to deliver bolstering messages back to myself that might be liberating and clarifying. As I sat down to work these out, the darkness became absorbent – “a darkness that could be felt.” It was, as I discovered, my own subconscious shame and self-loathing that were fracturing these efforts. To address myself – to see myself – was to recoil. Any and all “physician heal thyself” attempts were detonating in my face.

It was like having a spiritual autoimmune disease. I felt powerless. It was trauma work.

I’ll not dive into the trauma piece here, except to say that when you’ve had persistent voices in your life that portray you negatively, indict your motives, question your ability to discern reality, and resort to scorn and spite, it gets coded in – important pieces of our source-code get corrupted. More than that, as I’ve learned, the actual logic-board (“the hardware”) can be damaged through trauma as well. It can be repaired, but it does take work – and time. Triggers are real, C-PTSD is real, the mental disordering is real – disrupting the self in ways words cannot fully reach.

I have spent the better part of 2021 doing “trauma work.” It’s not as fun as it sounds!

Nevertheless, as Advent 2021 approached, I was experiencing that familiar flicker. An Advent series came into view: reflections on the four angelic announcements, each containing a version of the phrase, “Do not be afraid.” I began gathering my thoughts around these four episodes – Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds, respectively – even creating cool header images. And I began to write!

But – wouldn’t you know it? – the fear overtook me!

Fear of what, exactly? I wish I knew. In fact, I’d hoped writing these reflections might dislodge some of that fear. Instead, these pieces will be shelved for now. And I’m still waiting – “how long, O Lord?” – with dozens of writing projects weathering behind my home like a salvage yard. Does it make me sad? Yes. Does it exacerbate the shame and self-loathing. It does.

The story does not end here.

I promised a small Advent reflection, and here it is. In the rubble days of rebuilding Jerusalem, the consoling prophet Zechariah urged, “Do not despise the day of small things.” (4:10) The word small could be translated insignificant, and of course we are tempted to show contempt for such things, especially when we’ve invested such vigorous effort with so little to show. “These feeble Jews!” the onlookers gawked, “If even a fox stepped up on that wall, it would fall over!”

They ridiculed, “Will they restore things? Will they worship? Will they bring these scorched stones back to life?”

Yes.

This is Advent.

By the time of our Savior’s birth, Palestine had devolved into sectarian intrigue. The day of small things had become decades; then centuries of smallness. Now an occupying force debased this tertiary territory. Rome! Rome was significant! People had taken to calling it “The Eternal City.” Wasn’t that supposed to be Zion? What a joke!

So there was intrigue in those days. Herod (“The Great”) was busy making a name for himself. Sadducees affixed themselves to power, Pharisees postured as the true caretakers of faithfulness, Essenes withdrew into mystic asceticism, Zealots pined for the next insurgency. Most folks were trying to scratch out a living, scarcely disturbed by the elongated murmur of insignificance.

And a little baby – one of a multitude – was born in an insignificant structure of an insignificant town. A little baby conceived under a pall of embarrassment.

It was a day of small things; the Day. More despised than opposed. Who would bother about such insignificance, let alone marvel?

Well, some. They were the stubborn ones or, if you prefer, hopeful.

There was Simeon, who’d been awaiting the consolation of Israel. The octogenarian widow Anna, who never missed a day at the Temple. There were the mysterious magi, caravanning westward with their evocative gifts. These had been waiting – at the ready!

In the scuttling buzz surrounding his birth, the hopeful flames of others leapt to life. Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph and the shepherds. One must imagine little Bethlehem, whom Micah named saying, “though you are insignificant, from you shall come forth a ruler,” (5:2) caught up in the small commotion.

The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.

Eventually, it became enough to disturb Herod and all Jerusalem too. And John describes to us the spiritual realm where a fearsome dragon lurked hungrily at the site of this birthing event. Yet the beast would depart unfulfilled. No earthly nor heavenly power could consume this small thing. And though we’re told this dragon has gone to make war on fragile ones such as we are, the darkness of his gaping mouth has never yet overcome the light.

In our elongated days of restless intrigue, what is being conceived? Who knows? But may we be found among the stubborn, or, if you prefer, hopeful. It is an exceedingly rare company and a peculiar one at that. But this entails setting aside the intrigues, both grand and petty, in order to attend small things without contempt. They may seem insignificant but are they holy? They are.

Aren’t we all transporting so much fragile cargo over this uneven terrain? I certainly am. Space can scarcely contain the manifest. It is, all of it, holy, and Advent implores that we despise none of it.

Above all, it means attending to this fragile and holy Life, knowing he arrives for all things fragile. This is Advent.

I am learning as much, while I attentively wait. As I write from the rubble, fending off the voice of contempt. As I imperfectly honor small things. As I prepare to press publish on this piece; the delicate and hoarse whisper, “I believe.”

For unto us a Child was born! Amen.

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)