In the Christian calander, Advent refers to the four Sundays and weeks leading up to the celebration of Christmas. In Latin, Advent means “coming,” and this season provides a window in time for Christians to intentionally dwell in a spirit of longing, hope, and patient waiting and anticipation. In a year of public health crisis, financial and work uncertainty, racial unrest, and political strife, this emphasis strikes a new resonance in our life experience and has the potential to impact us more powerfully than in the past.
Kate has put out a free Advent devotional, and I find I am profoundly drawn in by her thoughts, as she so beautifully and compellingly connects traditional Christian faith with the suffering of this year and this moment. Part of this ability surely stems from her own experience and struggle with as someone who suffers as a stage IV cancer patient, (which she discusses in her amazing TED talk). For example, in the “liturgy” she shared today, Kate invites us to pray:
“blessed are we with eyes open to see the suffering from pandemic danger, sickness and loneliness, the injustice of racial oppression, the unimpeded greed and misuse of power, violence, intimidation, and use of dominance for its own sake, the mockery of truth, and disdain for weakness or vulnerability, and worse, the seeming powerlessness of anyone trying to stop it.
blessed are we who despair for our democracy, and ask: what can we do to protect it?
blessed are we who ask: where are you God? and where are Your people the smart, sane, and sensible ones who fight for good?”
As I meditate on these words, I am stunned by the realization of how much pain this year I have consciously or unconsciously tried to suppress. I feel my perspective broadened and made more whole by inviting and welcoming “eyes to see” those who are sick, lonely, and oppressed. I recognize, afresh, the extent to which truth, weakness, and vulnerability are being mocked, and how that makes all the problems we’re facing worse. I appreciate the despairing concern for our democracy and world. And, I agonize over why “God’s people” so often are part of these problems, and why they are not more often involved in the fight for good.
This prayer validates my experience and urges me to have more empathy for those who are struggling right now and do what I can to help. As Kate concludes her “liturgy,” it builds a conviction to “take hold of hope, as protest.”
As we look toward Christmas this year, we do so with a realization that God doesn’t shy away from awfulness (like I tend to do). In fact, God enters in vulnerably – rejected, in the midst of a genocide, and in the humble form of a baby. Emmanuel remains with us, in suffering, and God calls us to be present, in suffering, as well.
Last week, I stumbled upon an opportunity to join a Zoom book club in South Africa in which famed Yale theologian, Miroslav Volf, agreed to participate. I’ve admired Volf for years, beginning with this interview in which he expounds upon some of his ideas about religion, genocide, and violence. I ultimately featured many of his insights in this piece I wrote about Christianity and the Holocaust.
To my surprise and delight, there were only a handful of people in the zoom call, which gave me stunning access to Volf. My daughter joined me over lunch, and we ended up discussing themes raised related to Christianity, genocide, racism, and social justice.
What most struck me during this discussion was a comment Volf made, in passing, which I paraphrase to the best of my memory here: “Every time I post to social media, I pray: ‘Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.‘” The thought was that, if the message to be sent didn’t line up with this prayer, Volf would change it, but if it did line up, the prayer was for the message to have this intended effect.
I’ve been reading and discussing Parker Palmer’s new book, “On the Brink of Everything,” recently, and with great benefit. Many of my discussions seem to return to a portion of a poem, which I share below. Its insight requires no elaboration.
“Love means to learn to look at yourself
The way one looks at distant things
For you are only one thing among many.
And whoever sees that way heals his heart,
Without knowing it, from various ills.”
This is Mary Oliver’s most famous poem, which ends with one of the most important questions we ever could ask ourselves. I love how she frames it.
The Summer Day
“Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean –
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down –
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”
The older I get, the more I am (to my surprise) drawn to poetry. When I read the Bible, I spend more and more time in the Psalms. A few years ago, I shared my favorite poems by Rainer Maria Rilke. Recently, I finished Mary Oliver’s book on “Devotions.”
Mary Oliver is best known for her nature poetry, and has been awarded a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. For those who don’t know anything about her, here is a rare interview on my favorite radio program / podcast, On Being.
I’m tempted to comment, but over the next week or so, I plan to just share some of my favorites of Mary Oliver’s poems. They speak for themselves.
Several years ago, a student of mine shared with me an online survey to determine my religion: the “belief-o-matic.” According to my results, I apparently am “Orthodox Quaker.” This piqued my interest, especially since I knew nothing about Quakers and had never attended a Quaker meeting!
Recently, I started doing some reading about Quakerism. One element of this tradition that I love is the emphasis on quotations. There are some really lovely quotes I’ve found in Quaker tradition, but – following the Quaker testimony of simplicity – I’ll only share a few here. From this tradition, quotes are not merely nice little axioms; rather, they are intended to be prompts for contemplation. Most of these I found through two books, both by Catherine Whitmire.
“So here is my little nugget of gospel truth for you to take home.
The truth is not that it is going to be alright.
the truth is, it already is.” (Fredric Evans)
“Blessed are those…
who delight in the law of the Lord
and meditate on his law day and night.
They are like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither –
whatever they do prospers.”
~Psalm 1: 1-3~
Meditation occupies an important place in contemporary society. What most people associate with the term “meditation” today is mindfulness-based meditation. This form of meditation originates in Buddhism and generally encourages individuals to empty themselves of difficult sensations, thoughts, and emotions by mindfully focusing attention, for example, on their breathing. Psychologists now widely accept mindfulness-based meditation and incorporate it into psychotherapy. Unfortunately, as recently argued in a major research review released by the Association for Psychological Science, much of the practice and hype for mindfulness meditation seems a bit premature given the lack of rigorous scientific study on the topic.
I personally use mindfulness meditation as a way to manage stress, anxiety, and pain. For instance, if I’m feeling anxious, I often will take some time to focus on what I’m feeling and where in my body I’m feeling it. Sometimes, I will mindfully observe my thinking and intentionally label my thoughts as “anxious.” Usually, when I connect with how I’m experiencing anxiety, I also recognize that the sensations really aren’t that bad, that I’m not in any real danger, and that my feelings usually have an understandable cause. This helps me to let my anxiety go and direct my attention toward something more productive.
Source: Ben White | Unsplash
Although potentially very useful, this isn’t the kind of meditation the psalmist had in mind.
Whereas Eastern meditation seeks to empty, traditional Judeo-Christian forms of meditation attempt to fill. As discussed by Richard Foster in one of my favorite books, “The Celebration of Discipline,” Christian meditation comes in four major varieties.
In his op-ed, “The Subtle Sensations of Faith,” David Brooks calls “My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer,” “the best modern book on belief.” The author, Christian Wiman, has struggled – for many years – with a rare form of cancer, and he lays bare many of his rawest thoughts in this book about many aspects of meaningful living, particularly in relation to faith. I think the best way to give a quick glimpse is to share a few select passages.
“No one ever believed in God without perceiving God.”
“To say that one must live in uncertainty doesn’t begin to get at the tenuous, precarious nature of faith. The minute you begin to speak with certitude about God, he is gone. We praise people for having strong faith, but strength is only one part of that physical metaphor: one also needs flexibility.”