Truth to Power

It was a Christmas dinner conversation about ESPN and Deadspin; a contention was made about how Deadspin spoke truth to the power structures in athletics.  There was a pause  and then the words floated over  the table.  “Wasn’t that what Jesus did?”  And then, “Isn’t that what Jesus does now?”

Jesus, in the simplicity of his human birth, speaks truth to power.  The definitive focus is on love in its every aspect.  The drama of birth itself embraces the reality of suffering that life demands.  The story is more than Jesus’ personal narrative; it speaks to the reality of the origin of each human life, and the power of love and persons.   The Christmas story is an invitation to speak the truth of love, to share in the experience of being truly human.

Jesus’ story and the stories He wound into parables are reminders of the power of the human spirit in the face of life’s challenges and suffering.  The truth that life is difficult and that grief and sorrow are part of human experience are implicit in the nativity story. It is ours to grasp that, to remember, and to live that truth in facing power.  Allowing the Christmas story to be distorted or distilled to any less deprives it of the chance to speak truth to power.

In every way, Jesus is the “common sense teacher”  that recognized the power structures that characterize human life.  The truth he spoke was about how to live attitudinally and behaviorally within society.   The challenge to norms comes in subtle responses wrapped in parables:  the Good Samaritan who chose to be different; the widow whose persistence won the day; the leper who chose to return to say “thanks”.    There is a courage in each pericope, a conviction born of love.  Allowing love to be the motivating factor for choices and decisions echoes the Nativity story itself.

And then there are the  Beatitudes….Matthew, chapter 5:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
 Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

 It was all speaking truth to power, a reminder that there is more to who we are than what happens to us.  It matters what we do and how we do it, what motivates us and what we choose to believe, how we interact with others and how we respond to the circumstances beyond our control.  That all speaks truth to power.





Final Candle

Fourth and final Sunday of Advent:  hopes and memories crowd hours of every day, all inching toward the promise of midnight on Christmas Eve.  And at the heart of it all, pressed between the parties and the promises, rests the reality of  Christmas: birth and family, new beginnings.  For a moment all the worst of the world is suspended, and there is a sense that ever-elusive peace on earth may actually be possible.  For even the most doubtful, there is that flicker of possibility.  Maybe that is the real gift of Christmas:  the chance not to simply see ourselves as we are, but as we could be, as we were meant to be.

The story details the tangled web of human insitutions that shaped reality when Jesus was born:  the demands of the Roman census, the expectations of Hebrew customs, the very kindness that characterizes humanity.  No one of us is born without those, and yet each of us shares the experience of being birthed.  The simplicity of that dares us to be more to one another, to recognize the sameness of how we became human beings is to begin to realize the need for compassion and empathy for one another.

The questions about Jesus’ divinity cannot obscure the simplicity and meaning of his messages.  Even a skeptic like Thomas Jefferson came to the understanding that Jesus was a great teacher of common sense.  And that offers meaning centuries, millenniums, after his birth.  Secularization has  denigrated relgion and faith,  but the story of Jesus’ life provides something that mattters.  Conveyed through the Gospels and letters of the New Testament,  Jesus’ teachings provide guidelines for negotiating the realities every human being is faced with throughout their lives.  Even now, where Alexa can address every query, the Gospel and the message of Jesus’ life is about how to practice kindness, how to approach challenges, how to survive the landmines of social status, how to love one another.

As the fourth and final Advent candle is lit,  it is clear that the birth of Jesus and the holiday celebration of His birth are distinctly different.  There is a profound simplicity in the Gospel re-telling of the story.  It sparkles with wonder about a dark night and a brilliant star, angels and their voices.  It resonates with life, richly addressing the strongest and weakest among us, mirroring human structures and softly opening to the divine. It is a story that entices and enthralls because it is a story that belongs to all of us on some level.  Jesus took the same route we each know so well.  The gift of His presence is the truth of Christmas.  Somewhere, beyond the ribbon and wrapping, the myths and the music, there is the profound message of Jesus’ life:  that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son to that world, and His Son preached “Love one another as I have loved you.”  We have only to listen to find ways to bring that message to life again and make “Peace on Earth” a possibility.



Gaudete Sunday: Dare we?

Yesterday was the anniversary of Sandy Hook.  In Times Square, Canadian tourists shared the incomprehensibility of that moment, the news coverage in British Columbia, questioning softly what is really going on in the world. But there are other fragments of conversation that surface on this Gaudete Sunday.

A breakfast shop wedged between storefronts on Ninth Avenue.  He was sipping green tea and talking about First Nation, his tribe and heritage and the continuum of history: the costs of colonization and conficting identities and the need to revisit  matriarchy.  Reclaim the power: find strength in water and energy in earth and live with consistency.

Another setting.  Private conversation.  She spoke words touched with rage at a church that housed the misfits and elevated males in status.  Episodes of scandal remembered, recited.  Hypocrites, she said, leading with quotes from Sacred Scripture in conversation but clearly failing to practie what is preached.

Ours is a world of hurt and suffering, of pain and change, cycles of loss and gain.  We exist with the demented sense that somehow, to be human is easy and life is fair. Into this confusion come glimmers of light, but that light is met with scrutiny and skepticism.  And that is where the Gospel rests this week: with John the Baptist’s uncertainty about Jesus’ mission and message, and the promise of healing.  The story sits there, on the edge of believing in the Light, and inviting us to that same space.  In this third week of Advent, we sit on that brink,  wondering about life and beliefs, wanting relief and hope and wandering through days and weeks.  There is a tenderness to the vulnerabilty of it all.

And so there is the Christmas story,  a story of loss and vulnerability, of a couple challenged by the requirements of a government, of the last weeks of pregnancy, of the kindness of strangers.  No matter how the story is told, there is an intimacy to it that speaks to the deepest elements of what it means to be human, something that transcends our differences and offers the possibility of moments without distraction to comprehend the very miracles of relationships and birth.  But to hear it, to revisit its simplicity and rediscover its purpose,  there is the need to listen attentively, to trust that there is something worth learning from the world that is past and some continuity in the human story through the millenniums.

Standing on that edge offers a new perspective, a different vision.  And it opens a series of questions:  “What is Jesus about?  What relevance does his message have?  What does the Gospel offer about relationships?  Can human relationships be lived out within social and political systems with joy and freedom?  Can trust and peace be found within our own relationships?  How can we really enter into loving one another and being present to each other and Jesus became present to us?”

But this is the Third Week of Advent, the pink candle in the Advent wreath known as the Shepherd’s Candle.  Can we be like the shepherds, witness and grasp?  Welcome and know wonder?  Can we believe?


Advent week two.  Decorations going up.  Hallmark movies.  Plans re-examined.  Memories resurrected.  Just as the desire for calm deepens, stress ramps up.  And so this moment arrives, now, and the invitation is so clear: “Welcome one another just as Christ has welcomed you”. Romans 15:7.

Advent is a time of preparing to welcome, beginning to see yet again with fresh eyes and an open soul, to celebrate becoming and being human in the truest sense.  This morning, in the early morning liturgy, the priest raised the broken host at the consecration.  In that Host rests the brokenness of humanity:  the reality that each of us, all of us, are broken.  Physically, emotionally, socially, we walk in the reality of who we are.  And yet, we are creatures capable of offering  healing and comfort, kindness and grace to one another.  To welcome one another means embracing the fragments of self and other and trusting in the healing presence of God for strength and comfort.  But welcome comes not only in the liturgy.

Waiting so often precedes  the warmth and wonder of welcome.  Waiting for a child after school, for a ride from a friend, for a conversation.  That all implies some suspension of time, of attentiveness to a moment simultaneously about being and wanting.  And then the rich satiation floods the space:  needs met!  Embraces after a long day, car doors popped open, words and laughter and being understood.  That sort of  waiting is the work of the shepherd,  living fully attentive to the needs and movement of that flock.  And while the flock meets the shepherd’s need for purpose, the shepherd meets theirs as well.  Caretaker, healer, encourager, the shepherd’s roles are multiple.  And chief among those are the ones fashioned around welcoming and watching, balancing and being.  The point is that the shepherd’s role is fully interactive and relational.  It involves decision-making and kindness, practicality and sincerity.

Shepherds play a seemingly humble role in the narrative of Christmas;  images of shepherds appear on cards and calendars, in Christmas pageants and holiday parades.  The visuals are romanticized and child like, and yet, these very shepherds welcome us to the waiting that is Advent and the realization that is Christmas.  They are reminders that welcoming one another is not something reserved for either the strong or the powerful.  It is not a privilege reserved to the ordained or awarded to the hierarchy.  Instead, welcoming is a task and a privilege that belongs to each of us, the least and the greatest, the humble and the honored.  Each day of Advent is a promise that we are both flock and shepherd, that waiting is okay, watching has its benefits, and working for the benefit of each other is critically important to all.

That warmth of welcome is the gift of Advent’s second week.  The first reading poetically summons images of wisdom and peace, the lion laying down with the lamb.  The Gospel reading  frames John the Baptist and the stark  demands of his message. In some way, John hints of  the fulfillment of  Isaiah’s prophecy that “the spirit of the Lord will rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and counsel.”   (Isaiah 11:2).   Still, the chance to welcome and to care is squarely in the hands of the most humble of all:  the shepherds.


Staying awake

Advent is anticipatory:  the glorious in-between, somehow suggesting the sheer veils that waft between past, present and future.  It is a space for lingering, treading lightly, remembering.  Advent glows with treasure: the tenderness of the waiting and wanting, the cradle of becoming.   Yet, it exists in a frenzied secular structure that obscures Advent’s most meaningful invitations: to quiet reflection and contentment of purpose, focus on meaning.

In the bustle of holiday magic and the pressure of seasonal gatherings, the blur of shopping expeditions and celebrations, and the stressful demands of ordinary life, how can Advent be lived?  What sort of experience can be most meaningful for now?

The readings of the day focus on that very element of uncertainty, on the way to focus on what might seems ambiguous or even meaningless to someone else. The Gospel message in Matthew 24:42  makes that very clear:  “Keep awake…for you do not know on what day the Lord is coming.” To be awake means to be attentive, to be open and to be observant.  As much as Advent is about waiting, it is also about staying awake.  Staying awake means so much more than simply being physically present.

Stayng awake means daring to take a moment to step aside, to breath deeply, to know for a moment the richness of the life we are called to live.  That can happen anywhere: on line in a grocery store waiting at a gas station, struggling with phone features.  It may be a moment unlocked to share with a neighbor, take time with the elderly,  or even allowing a driver to merge ahead of you.

Staying awake means being attuned and honest about the intricacies of self.  It is easy to miss the emotional flailing of the season, the frustration of shopping and the shortness of time.    It is a busy time of year, but if you are stressed, use that bit of knowledge for making choices.    De-stress before anger flares and tension escalates.  If you are weary, try a cat nap.  Put the activities aside, and focus on what matters,   like  health and well-being.   You cannot do for others if you are spent.  So cutting back can be considerate, and begging off can actually be a service to another.

Pressure to produce has its own rewards; there is a thrill to striking through the items on a to-do list.  The pressure to BE may be less visible, but it is no less rewarding if we let it happen.  There are the natural social interactions and exchanges, the unanticipated feedback from folks at the gym or colleagues in a break room.  In the rush of things, those moments are easily lost.  But that may be exactly where goodness is waiting to be shared and exchanged.  That might be a great reason to stay awake.

Staying awake means recognizing those spaces where God is waiting.  It means choosing to do less and be more.  It means allowing days to reveal themselves rather than be buried in the demands of a to-do list that is bursting with good intentions.  These opening days of Advent are an invitation to a new beginning, a way of living that invites both purpose and becoming.  Staying awake is just the start.