Advent Art of Waiting

waitingIn many ways, Advent is a tough sell.   The Christian tradition is no longer really the “driver” of the Christmas season, having been overtaken by the commercial Christmas machine.  Now the needs of stores to sell — and of people to buy — have served to move the Christmas season into the whole of December, and, indeed, into November, as well.   Thanksgiving has almost become the day which people must get through in order to dive into Black Friday.  And Advent has become more of a shopping season than a season of spiritual preparation.

In earlier ages, Advent was known as a “Little Lent.”  It was observed with fasting and a more serious devotion to prayer.  The pink or, traditionally, rose colored candle on the Advent Wreath that signifies the Third Sunday of Advent is there as a marker that Advent is halfway over, that the season of fasting is heading toward its completion, that the feasting of Christmas is ever nearer.  Of course, this way of observing Advent emerged in a time when Christmas was also a more spiritual celebration, and gift-giving was modest, before it became the economic juggernaut of modern times.

I realize that I’m probably at risk here of sounding like a bit of a  Grinch, and I don’t mean to.  I love Christmas.  And we put up our Christmas tree at home during Advent, and play Christmas carols on the stereo all through December.   And I don’t fast.  However, it does seem to me that our tendency to run over Advent with faces firmly set toward Christmas is indicative not just of the economics of Christmas, but of the fact that in many ways, we have become unskilled at waiting.  And that is exactly what Advent really urges us to do:  to wait, and to make the waiting itself meaningful.  But we are not good at waiting.  We are accustomed to a life in which things are delivered quickly and efficiently.  We easily become impatient, and even angry, over the prospect of waiting.  We want things to happen now — we want to get on with things.

That’s why I find the practice of church-going during the Advent season to be so important.  While some of my parishioners would wish to sing Christmas carols in church all through December, I like the fact that church services during the Advent season embody a spirit of waiting and preparation, providing a space in which we can wonder about the mystery of waiting for the Promised One, and wonder about the ways in which we long for Christ to be born in us.

I don’t harbor any hope that we will abandon the madness of getting ready for Christmas in our society as a whole.  But I’m glad that the church provides these opportunities to get in touch with the art of waiting and wondering.  Because when we approach Christmas slowly, step by step, instead of rushing headlong toward it as fast as we can, it makes the celebration on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day all the more powerful.  It allows us to savor the celebration when we have waited well.

Who Are the People of God?

forgivingvictim-smallIf you are at all a regular reader of this blog, you will probably have figured out by now that I have become rather a fan of the theology of James Alison.  A key element of his theological perspective is to read the biblical tradition from a different point of view.  Specifically, the point of view of Jesus, whom Alison calls the Forgiving Victim.  He finds, within the New Testament itself, suggestions as to how one is to do this.  And at the heart of this project that Alison sees God undertaking in Christ is to uncover the way in which human beings acquire an identity at the expense of some other person or group, thereby making that person or group into a victim.  For Alison, the life, death, and resurrection of Christ make this mechanism abundantly clear, and then invite us into the possibility of creating a new kind of unity, one that does not depend on this victim-making mechanism.  Christ gives us back to ourselves in a new way, and collapses all the categories that define who is “in” and who is “out”.

My exploration of James Alison’s thought has got me thinking about that phrase, “the people of God.”  Quite often, I think, we hear (and some of us use) that phrase in a kind of smug sense, because we bring to that phrase the assumption that the “people of God” somehow defines an “in” group over against an “out” group.  We assume that it means, “We are the people of God, and you’re not”.  And, indeed, many times when this phrase is used, that is precisely the sense that is intended.  But if we take Alison’s reading of the tradition seriously, then we are able to see that the reality embodied in “the people of God” is one that is being pushed open more and more, to become more and more inclusive, reaching toward that ideal where categories collapse and there no longer any such thing as insiders and outsiders.  And this does not mean that everyone becomes Christian.  It means that we move into a space where we are no longer making victims, where we no longer affirm our identities and lives at the expense of another.

Alison reminds us that the Greek term that we translate as church (ecclesia) means “to be called out”, and if one is being called out, then one is surely being called out to be or do something.  So perhaps we could say that the church (thinking non-institutionally) is manifested when people experience themselves as being called out on a journey toward a new way of being of the type that Alison seeks to describe.   The people of God, then, are not an elite corps of insiders.  Rather, the people of God are those who are moving into this non-rivalrous way of being, people who are seeking a new unity that does not depend on making victims, who are seeking a way of living that is not at the expense of another.  We cannot think that having experienced ourselves as called out on this journey makes us better somehow — for that would put us back into an identity based on rivalry.  Rather, we should simply be grateful that we have been made aware of a new way of being, and given the opportunity to embrace it.

“Burn Their Fingers”

Burning fingersYou may remember that back around the time the “shut-down” of the US Government occurred, the government also rolled out its online service for enrolling in health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.  Since then, the news has been full of stories about the ways in which that system has not worked well, and the focus for the problem has been on those contractors who built the software for the online sign-up process.

Just yesterday, I heard a news report about testimony before the US Senate by the Secretary of Health and Human Services concerning the problems with this system.  One senator remarked to the Secretary that he hoped there would be repercussions against the contractors responsible for building the system.  Democratic Senator Bill Nelson of Florida said,” As someone who has fought and bled for [the health-care law] . . . I want you to hold them account [sic], I want you to burn their fingers and make them pay for not being responsible and producing a product that all of us can be proud [sic].”  (Emphasis mine)

Now, I feel relatively confident that the senator was not suggesting that the fingers of the programmers should actually be set on fire.  However, when I heard the recording of his statement, I was struck profoundly by the vehemence and violence contained in his rhetoric.   It is a kind of violence of speech that we have become too accustomed to in American life, and it betrays a perspective that is lacking any sense of forgiveness or compassion.  Such a statement suggests that if someone is given a job to do, and makes mistakes in the doing of it, that the proper response is to “burn their fingers”, either metaphorically or literally.   There seems to be no space in Senator Nelson’s world for human frailty or imperfection.   He doesn’t seem to make much room for the humanity of the people whose job it was to put together this new, complicated system.  Did he really expect it to work perfectly right out of the box?

Unfortunately, the senator’s attitude is a common one in our culture.  Generally speaking, we as a people seem rather unwilling to provide space for people to make mistakes or bad decisions.  We seem often to be advocates of a culture of perfection that is just not realistically possible.  The various “zero tolerance” policies that seem popular these days in schools, for example, leave no room for the humanity of inexperienced children.  These policies do not allow for mistakes or misjudgments.  If you violate the policy, you are simply out.  End of story.  There is no possibility of redemption.

It seems to me that people who seek to be followers of Jesus cannot get on board with this way of thinking.  After all, we follow the one who taught that we should turn the other cheek — not burn the fingers of those who wrong us in some way.  Jesus was very aware of the human tendency to make mistakes, and he spent much of his time with people who had made some significant ones.  St. Paul summed it up this way:  “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

And this is, indeed, what it means to be a sinner:  it means to be a person who makes mistakes.  The word “sin” ultimately comes from a Greek word that means to “miss the mark” — and we have all missed the mark at one time or another.  In fact, most of us probably miss the mark pretty regularly in some area of our lives.  We have tended to identify the words “sin” and “sinner” as having to do with moral lapses.  Sinners, we think, are bad people.  But that’s not really the sense of the term in the New Testament, where the title “saint” and “sinner” is given to everyone.  Because sometimes we hit the mark, and sometimes we miss it, but we are held in love, grace, and forgiveness all the time.

And if God holds us in love, grace, and forgiveness always, then we should do the same for ourselves and for one another.

So let’s not burn their fingers, Senator Nelson, either literally or metaphorically.  Let’s recognize that the human beings involved in this new endeavor tried to do a job, and made some mistakes along the way.  They tried to hit the mark, but they missed it in some important respects.  They should go back and fix it, as I’m sure they will.   And we should certainly be honest about the problems, and their responsibility for them.  But no one should get burned.