Insistent Hope

It is the first Sunday of Advent and I sat in church.

I sat in that pew with my baby bouncing on my lap to hear hope insisted upon. Maybe hope needs to come that way. Maybe it will only come by our stubborn determination or it’ll only be something that dances through our daydreams, but it felt forced.

It felt like hope was being poured over me, like it was drowning me. It wouldn’t dare let me catch my breath as it made itself known in the ministries of this particular church. I love this church. It’s the first church in so many moves that I’ve felt at home. I feel like I belong and this is a strange new world for this preacher and military spouse. It is good. It might even feel like hope.

But hope is not something to be named on the first Sunday of Advent. It’s the stuff of possibility and imagination. It lives over there in that land of moving on and getting over. It’s the thing we are never quite sure we’ll find though we’ll fight like hell to keep believing is out there.

Hope is that kind of thing for me. Advent is that kind of place, a liminal space between what was and what is. An open expanse where there is room to dream and curse and lament and wonder. Mostly, I think it’s too short. Four Sundays is not enough though I was reminded just yesterday that historically there were six Sundays in Advent as there are in Lent. (I think that they did actually teach that to me in seminary and I managed to forget it anyway.) That same wise woman pointed out that we need this space. We can’t jump into the celebration of Christmas like our culture seems to want us to do. We can’t live in the hope because we must ask ourselves, in her words:

How do we assess if we’re self-medicating, erasing, avoiding the realities of the biblical moment leading up to Christmas by skipping the critical part of the story?

What if the part about Mary exclaiming that her Son would tear down injustice and literally withhold food from those who had grown fat while others starved…what if that part is in the bible for the people who are comfortable to be awakened to their role in addressing their fellow human’s suffering, not just as an act of charity but as an act of systemic restructuring?

What if the season of Advent is about people with stuff having to do without, to literally feel what longing and absence and need are, to cultivate empathy, the way our Muslim siblings are supposed to feel deeper empathy for the poor during their fasting season of Ramadan?

What if Advent’s point right now is to wake us up and shake us loose from the illusion that democracy actually addresses the needs of the poorest, the darkest skinned, the longest on this land when it was designed for the wealthiest, the lightest skinned and the newest arrivals of a certain type?

I sat in church and wondered if there is any hope in shaking us loose from our illusions if we go right along and start naming all those things that remind us of God’s hope. I wrote the liturgy for this Sunday. There is a piece of this liturgy, as there will be in the three weeks to follow, in which we’re asked to wonder how we are collaborating with God in realizing hope and peace. I want to live into this stuff too. I want to roll up my sleeves and do my part but there is still part of me that approaches this season asking for a break.

I grimace too. I hear my privilege in uttering these words. Hold me accountable to all of that because I think it matters as much as our white churches fail to nuance the promise that a light shines in the darkness, as if darkness can only be bad.

Still, it’s that tiny light that so many of us are holding onto. The wax is burning our fingers. The wick is getting shorter and shorter but we’re not going to put that candle down. We need it. We need that damn thing to shine maybe even brighter than it did last year. That’s what people in the pews are doing as the church enters into its new year. They’re thinking back over the past few months. They’re recounting all that has happened in the past year and gritting their teeth to face another would-be celebration where they’re told what hope looks like again.

In our American culture, that Christmas hope centers around the family. After all, it is what our economy values most. It’s why marriage in queer communities took so long to win. It’s how our entire tax system in structured. In this idealized family, all the relatives get along and want to be together. (This is actually true for my family and it’s still hard for me to be away for the holidays, even if my vocation requires me to work on those high holy days.) But, in our death-denying culture, it also assumes that there has been no loss. There’s no struggle to imagine this holiday without those that first made it magical. There’s no space for that.

It’s that space I craved this morning. To bellow with the prophets and lament with the saints. To wonder about this strange teaching where one is taken and another left. To me, that’s not the Second Coming. That’s just living with grief because grief has been redefined all over again this year.

Three years ago, I sat in another pew with blood pooling between my legs from a miscarriage. I sobbed through the expectant hope of that morning. The familiar hymns stuck in the back of my throat as they had in years past. Grief is not unfamiliar. It’s not unchartered land but it’s always changing. It’s never just the death of my mother but that loss piled on by so much more. This year, I sat there pissed off that I had to pray about another cancer diagnosis even if we don’t actually know it’s cancer yet. This time, it’s my Dad that hope is stuck on.

I don’t want to hear promises of what hope we’ve seen. I don’t need to have hope insisted upon but only for it to be named as a place we might live one day. One day, after all the cancer is gone and racism has ended. Justice hasn’t come and so I’ll still be waiting on hope.

Christmas will be when it comes, when that hope really comes.

 

Liturgical Lights for Sunday June 21, 2015

J A S M I N EThe Narrative Lectionary leads us to pray over the words of Psalm 27 on June 21, 2015.

It happens that it’s Father’s Day but this is not a liturgical holiday. I got a lot of flack for this two months ago when I said this about Mother’s Day — but it’s still true for the dads.

There is so much wonderful imagery to ponder in this psalm that I hope our hearts and minds are led there in worship. The good people at Working Preacher suggest that these are words of disorientation. Next week, we’ll be reoriented in another psalm — but this week allows for a moment to consider what doesn’t feel quite right so that I instantly hear Barbara Brown Taylor in her book An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith asking that wonderful question: what’s saving my life right now? She answers her own question in the book by saying:

What is saving my life now is the conviction that there is no spiritual treasure to be found apart from the bodily experiences of human life on earth. My life depends on engaging the most ordinary physical activities with the most exquisite attention I can give them. My life depends on ignoring all touted distinctions between the secular and the sacred, the physical and the spiritual, the body and the soul. What is saving my life now is becoming more fully human, trusting that there is no way to God apart from real life in the real world.

But, I must admit I rather like this short video from The Work of the People that gets to the same thing. (Sadly, the video will not embed but do follow this link.)

The prayers I’ve written this morning meditate on this question from the illustrious Barbara Brown Taylor — which I imagine would lead to an extended silence where the congregation could individually answer this question for themselves. Perhaps that happens through a prayer station or maybe it simply considered in silence after a brief guided meditation.

Call to Worship (Responsive)

Light came into the world
in the beginning of creation.
It was the very first thing that God created.
And God saw that the light was good. 
When the people could no longer see
the goodness God had created,
Light came into the world in human flesh.
In that flesh was life, and the life was the light of all people.
And the people saw that the light was good.
That light, created in human flesh,
taught the people what they could not believe,
I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me
will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.

And so, we come because we can’t see the light
shining in our lives and in the world.
We can’t see how all of this has been good from the very beginning.
We come to ask and to remember,
What is saving our lives right now?

Prayer of Invocation

With the following words, I would allow for a few moments of silent reflection as the congregation moves together to seek God’s presence. I imagine doing that by saying simply:

So here we are, together,
to find the salvation we’re not even sure we need.
Let us come before God to ask
for that great and faithful love.
Let us share in silent prayer.

I would love to hear what you’ve go planned for worship on Sunday — especially as summer arrives. Does this mean a transition in your worship experience? I’d love to hear what you’re daydreaming about in the comments below. And, if you happen to use the prayers I’ve written in your worship, and I hope you will, please do offer me credit with as follows:

The prayers in our worship this morning were written by/adapted from Liturgical Lights for Sunday June 21, 2015 by the Rev. Elsa Anders Peters. Elsa is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ who blogs at revelsaanderspeters.com.