Advent II | Hope

During elementary school I participated in a reading program that I quite enjoyed. One story has stuck with me all these years later. It brushes up against the topic of hope.

The fable involves a poor man surviving a night on a snowy mountaintop with only his worn peasant garb for warmth. In performing this act, he demonstrates his fortitude to the arrogant village rich man, who justifies his stinginess by attributing poverty to weakness. The rich man—assuming any who attempted such a bivouac would either die or falter—had promised a sizable portion of his wealth to any would-be survivor. Unbeknownst to him, the poor man’s friends had built a large bonfire on neighboring hillside. Though pummeled by the frigid winds, the man gazed intently upon its distant flicker, imagining its warmth to his body. And he survived.

When the poor man appears back in the village the following day, the rich man is incredulous. Upon learning the device of the friends, he declares the prize null—the poor man had violated the rules. Despite protests, the rich man refuses to honor his promise. “The sight of fire was sufficient,” he insists.

The friends again devise a scheme. After a religious fast, the entire village is gathered to a ceremonial feast in the town square. The feast is prepared while the celebrants wait—including the rich man. Scents of broiled meats, herbs, spices, and cakes flood the square. But no food is served. Eventually the rich man becomes impatient and demands the feast begin. He is notified that they would only be allowed to smell the food. Outraged, he rails that smelling can never take the place of eating. In this admission, he loses his prior cause and is forced to honor his promise to the poor man. 

The moral of the fable seems contradictory. Yearning either holds a power that is actual or illusory. In the same way, hope contradicts us thoroughly! Yet, nonetheless, Advent shamelessly invokes it. So we must decide if we will surrender ourselves into its contradictions.  Hope is, at the same time, sublime and ridiculous.

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Advent I | Peace

I was eight or nine years old when I first visited New York City. It was probably 1984. My mom had just moved to the east coast and was eager to introduce me to the big city. I was visiting for Christmas.

There’s a lot I don’t remember about that trip, but I do remember it being bitter cold and snowy, and that my throat had become raw from a hacking cough. My mom wasn’t yet fluent with city navigation, but we were trying to get to Broadway on a bus to see a meteoric new musical called Cats. After becoming hopelessly turned around, we reluctantly approached a woman at a bus stop to ask for help. This was NYC in the 80s. It was a very different place then. The woman was unexpectedly kind and helpful. She directed us to the exact stop and gave us all the details we’d need to get to our destination. The MTA bus soon arrived, and we boarded.

Entering the warmth of the crowded bus, we heard a small child crying in the back. My mom leaned over to me and said something like, “You know, people always talk about how New Yorkers are so rude, but most of them are really nice…”

As the words departed her mouth, a woman in the back of the bus shrieked at the crying child, “Shut the hell up you stupid little brat!

The entire bus fell into an uneasy silence. You know the type. And we rumbled tensely down a snowy New York City street together. You cannot transit long through this world without being jarred from illusions of peace; jarred awake into the very normativeness of its absence. Pax in absentia.

Of course we could resign ourselves to this. Recalibrate our expectations and feel justified in doing do. But then Advent comes along and ruins all of that! We find ourselves singing songs under our breath about peace on earth. If we don’t watch out, we get ourselves sucked in. 

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vote

I’ve only performed a handful of weddings, only served communion a few times, however, although these activities resemble their commonplace cousins of public speaking and food service respectively, they palpably transcend all other common functions which might be named, save one: voting.

Whenever I vote I experience a certain jitter of otherworldly privilege. In a small way, not unlike eating crispy little wafers and sipping juice from tiny plastic cups, we are making something significant move—together! We become like snowflakes in an avalanche, unawares as to which might become the crashing threshold. Sure, I’m plowing through 57 judges with a simple thumbs up or down; badly coloring in some odd arrow-gap. Sure, sometimes I’m stabbing in the dark, but I’m stabbing!

The original English usage of vote was in proto-Parliamentary England. In its linguistic genealogy you would find the Latin votum, “to wish”, which is itself derived from vovere“to vow”.  And yes, in ancient Roman parlance, such vows were made before a deity. Maybe that’s why it resembles the wedding ceremony: “before God and these witnesses.”

Fill that bubble. Dislodge that chad. Rub that lamp. Make a wish.

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The Sacred

There is a disconcerting passage of Scripture that starkly illuminates the concept of sacredness. I vacillated over whether to draw upon it for this post, but couldn’t divine (pun intended) how this might take shape apart from it.

It’s the story of Uzzah and the Ark of the Covenant (in 1 Sam. 6 and 1 Chr. 13). For the uninitiated (or those only initiated by Raiders of the Lost Ark), the Ark was an ornate chest of sorts containing a number of sacred objects collected during the Israelite’s miraculous escape from Egypt: some manna, a staff that budded (and once turned into a snake), and the tablets of the law. Above all, however, it was said to be inhabited by God’s Presence.

During Israel’s early monarchy, the Ark was relegated to an almost superstitious object—toted into battle like a talisman. God caused this misuse of the Ark to result in its being captured by Israel’s Philistine enemies. It was eventually returned and took up interim residence in a hamlet called Beth Shemesh, at the house of a man named Abinadab.

Then reverent king David decreed that the Ark should find a more honorable home in Jerusalem. He entrusted the task of transport to two men named Ahio and Uzzah, Abinadab’s sons. In a profoundly practical frame of mind, these two men hoisted the Ark up onto an oxcart—sending it along in much the same fashion as it had come to them. (See 1 Sam. 6)

And so it was that the dwelling place of God’s Presence came bumping along out of Beth Shemesh en route to Jerusalem, heaved lurchingly along by oxen. At a point just outside Jerusalem the cart hit an uneven patch of road, and the Ark began to teeter. Observing this, Uzzah reached out and braced it with his hand. Here we encounter the episode that is likely troubling for us, and was undoubtedly troubling for those present.

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wrestling

A man once discovered a chrysalis tucked under a shrub in his yard. Upon inspection, he found a moth trapped inside. The little pod rocked back and forth in the mulch as the insect strained in seeming futility to be free of it. The sight of the moth’s wings bound awkwardly by the unyielding silken straps, and of its mortal struggle, moved the man to compassion—it looked to all the world to be dying. With a nearby twig he began delicately nudging away the bonds; carefully picking and prying the suffering moth from its dire enclosure.

At last, the moth was extracted. It stumbled awkwardly across the uneven ground. Its gangly, asymmetrical wings curling inward like fallen autumn leaves. The man used the same stick to place the moth up on a broad green leaf and left it to its liberation.

The next day, the man came back out and wandered over to the location of the dramatic rescue. He found the moth lying just beneath the leaf where it had been left. It was motionless—dead. Its wings still scrunched malformed atop its thorax. The man concluded wrongly it had been diseased, not knowing that it was he who was responsible for its untimely ruin. Continue reading “wrestling”

Forgiveness | #Friday500

“I, Patrick, a sinner…”

Thus begins The Confession of St. Patrick; an account that illustrates the cosmic power of forgiveness.

Patrick wasn’t Irish. He was a Welsh-Briton, who, as a “young man, almost a beardless boy … was taken captive” by Irish raiders and sold into slavery on the harsh, barbaric Irish isle. He was only 16. This took place somewhere in the middle of the 5th century, as the Roman empire suffered its rapid decline and the so-called Dark Ages began.

For 6 years he was harshly worked against his will in the land of his captivity, before making a dramatic escape. He returned home by boat to Wales and was reunited with his family and community.  He then did the unthinkable. He returned to Ireland!

Why? Continue reading “Forgiveness | #Friday500”

Guns | #Friday500

I was watching a conversation this past November between Bill Kristol (founder of The Weekly Standard) and Jonah Goldberg (of The National Review). They were discussing conservatism in the age of Trump. The interview came out on November 5. Goldberg was lamenting the present acrimonious climate of political discourse in our nation and he described how “one of the most repugnant things” is the way in which adherents to political sides wait with baited breath after mass shootings to find out whether it fits their particular partisan agenda in order to to utilize the tragedy as political fodder.

He prefaced his comment in an way that disheartened me, and you’ll see why in a second. He said,

One of the most repugnant things. . . Hopefully when this airs there won’t have been a recent mass-shooting, because it will seem like I’m talking about it—but there hasn’t. The most recent one was a few weeks ago in Las Vegas. . .

I was struck for one reason, shaken for another. I was struck by the fact that Goldberg took for granted that there would likely have been another mass-shooting in the days following his interview—this spoke volumes! But I was shaken because, as I mentioned, the interview was released on November 5, and, on that same day, a man clad all in black entered a rural church in Sunderland Spring, TX and gunned down 26 churchgoers with a modified AR-15. Parents were killed, children were killed, families were utterly and irreparably decimated.

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Trump | #Friday500

It has been a fascinating year, I must say.

Back in July of 2015 I was sitting on a sailboat off the shoreline of Chicago with a friend from out of town and another friend—the owner of the boat. It was a beautiful blue and breezy summer day, and we were drifting blissfully along overlooking the shimmering, sun-bathed skyline. I was playing tour guide.

“So that’s the Sears Tower—AKA the Willis Tower. That one over there is the John Hancock. The glassy one right in the middle? That one’s the Trump Tower.” I paused. Then added with a grin, “You know? Our next president.”

My visiting friend smiled back knowingly. “Well. You never know.”

I’m sure I said something along the lines of, “Wayeell… some-times ya do.” And so we drifted along. I had no idea the strange saga I was about to watch our nation undergo.

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Sympathy | #Friday500

I was sitting at an American-style cafe in Hanoi having hamburgers with a few Vietnamese English-language students and a couple other Americans. We were part of a partnership program with a local foreign language university, in which native English speakers taught and tutored Vietnamese students. We often received social invitations for outings from our students, and this was one such occasion. During the course of the meal, one of the Vietnamese students made a joke that none of us Americans understood. This had happened quite a bit during our time there. Though we’d made some half-hearted efforts to grasp one-another’s humor, we tended to simply smile benevolently and move on. I determined then and there that this time would be different!

“Ok, Ok. Back up. I want to understand this joke; I need to. We’re gonna talk this out until we understand why that was funny,” I said emphatically.

And so we circled back. At each point of ambiguity, we clarified. We defined terms and gave background and returned again and again to the simple question: Why is that funny? This went on for 15 or 20 minutes. Eventually the group of Vietnamese students were all exchanging puzzled glances, as were my group of American companions. We all began laughing at our utter futility in achieving any shared understanding of the humor of this joke—despite our determined efforts!

We had failed my challenge spectacularly, and so resumed eating. Eventually someone brought up a new topic.

During my life I’ve been inculcated to value empathy over sympathy. To see it as superior. Sympathy, I’ve gathered, is some distant brand of pity, absent of real understanding. What we ought to practice is empathy; a personal involvedness of putting one’s self into the shoes of the other. I’m just not sure I agree with that anymore. I suspect sympathy is the more rare of the two, and certainly the more needed.

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