Advent #3: No More Fear

The reading for the third Sunday in Advent is Isaiah 35:1-10, looking toward a time when there is no more fear.

When a people are enveloped over an extended period of time in an atmosphere of arrogance and are the victims of its injustice, they easily succumb to fear.  Such was the case in Isaiah’s day.  And all these years later a shroud of fear overlays many of our attitudes and actions today.  We know what it feels like to have “feeble knees” and “fearful hearts” (35:3-4). 

This is why the Advent message through the writing of Isaiah is so powerful this year.  We continue to get daily doses of unfolding history which are clearly foreboding. “Fear not!” is a two-word exhortation to live another way–not only one that Isaiah uttered, but also the message Gabriel gave to Mary, and words Jesus and Paul spoke to anxious people.

This is more than telling someone to “Buck up!” although we can engage in practices that decrease our fears.  Rather, the call to abandon fear is the deeper invitation to shift the basis of our trust from the things we see to the One Who is unseen.

This is not easy, and I admit that history shows there are often long stretches when Light and Life are eclipsed by darkness and death.  Isaiah’s time included a 200-year period of division and exile.  I have known people who suffered, without relief, until the day they died–despite being prayed for, anointed with oil, etc.

Isaiah’s vision did not begin in history, it began in the heart’s of those who believed that sin, suffering, and struggle do not have the last word, and by faith they began to live in relation to that larger reality.  Not one person lived to see the return and restoration of the exiled nation, but today’s reading shows that they saw it from afar, and their anticipation kept hope alive. 

The writer of Hebrews said the same was true for the cavalcade of saints who likewise saw their redemption via anticipation (Hebrews 11:39-40).  We continue to sing the fear-not message, “Though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.”  We enter Advent with the promise that there will indeed be a time when there is no more fear, and with the power of faith to deliver us from it in the meantime.

Posted in Advent 2016

Nonviolence: Principles

Martin Luther King Jr. condensed the essence of nonviolence into the following six principles–principles which are still taught at the King Center in Atlanta.

PRINCIPLE ONE:  Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people. It is active nonviolent resistance to evil. It is aggressive spiritually, mentally and emotionally. 

PRINCIPLE TWO:  Nonviolence seeks to win friendship and understanding. The end result of nonviolence is redemption and reconciliation. The  purpose of nonviolence is the creation of the Beloved Community.                                                                                                       
PRINCIPLE THREE:  Nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice not people. Nonviolence recognizes that evildoers are also victims and are not evil people. The nonviolent resister seeks to defeat evil not people.

PRINCIPLE FOUR:  Nonviolence holds that suffering can educate and transform. Nonviolence accepts suffering without retaliation. Unearned suffering is redemptive and has tremendous educational and transforming possibilities.   

PRINCIPLE FIVE:  Nonviolence chooses love instead of hate. Nonviolence resists violence of the spirit as well as the body.  Nonviolent love is spontaneous, unmotivated, unselfish and creative. 

PRINCIPLE SIX:  Nonviolence believes that the universe is on the side of justice. The nonviolent resister has deep faith that justice will eventually win.  Nonviolence believes that God is a God of justice. 

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Advent#2: No More Injustice

The reading for the second Sunday in Advent is Isaiah 11:1-10, as the prophet envisions a time when injustice is no more.

The hallmark of arrogance is injustice–the spirit of partisanship that creates a vested in-group which speaks and acts to the exclusion of others.  Such injustice grants an artificial permission for the “empowered” to legitimize their prejudicial behavior.

To use Isaiah’s imagery, in the fallen world wolves devour lambs, leopards kill young goats, and lions eat calves.  But in God’s world “the wolf will live with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the young goat; the calf and the young lion will feed together” (7:6).

This is today referred to as “the peaceable kingdom.”  It is where hesed and agapé prevail–where discrimination, prejudice, and hatred are eliminated so that Shalom can prevail.  The vision is pervasive, “They won’t harm or destroy anywhere” (7:9).

Advent overcomes injustice.  Those who create and thrive on hierarchical, in/out thinking and acting will be displaced by the “little child who leads them”  (7:6) and everyone to the place of liberty and justice for all (cf. Luke 4:18-19).

Posted in Advent 2016

Nonviolence: A Way Through

Athletes use visualization before they perform.  A gymnist sees herself executing her routine.  A golfer sees his put rolling into the hole.  Basketball players mentally trace the trajectory of their free throw into the basket.

This is not magic.  It is envisioning the accomplishment of a task they have practiced over and over.  And now, they prepare to do it one more time. 

This is how nonviolent participants operated in the civil rights era.  In Nashville, for example, Jim Lawson cast the vision and taught the principles of nonviolence for a year before the group took its first action.  They had seen the way through before they ever sought for it.

Some years later Martin Luther King Jr. spoke out the stanzas of “the dream,” describing what it would look like when the Beloved Community was a reality.  He painted a picture with words which then had to be lived out over and over in very specific ways.

And interestingly, those engaged in nonviolence had no guarantees that they would succeed in their lifetime.  The trajectory of “the dream” unfolded without being on a precise timeline.   In fact, they knew that it generally takes generations to enter the promised land.  It did so with the emancipation of slaves, the ability of women to vote, the freedom of India and South Africa from colonialism and apartheid, etc. 

Nonviolence is action based on a vision of making it through–if not today, then some day, because the quest has the backing of the Universe behind it.  Patience is not resignation, it is confidence that is willing to endure.

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Advent #1: No More Arrogance

The Book of Isaiah is the focal Old Testament text for Advent this year, both with respect to the Sunday Lectionary (Revised Common Lectionary) and the Daily Lectionary (Book of Common Prayer).  I will write each Wednesday about the upcoming Sunday lesson.  Each reading from the prophet looks to a time when an undesirable thing will be no more.

The first Sunday in Advent (Isaiah 2:1-5) anticipates a time when there will be no more arrogance.

Jerusalem (not only a city, but also a symbol) will fall, Isaiah says.  It will fall because of arrogance– because of reliance upon silver and gold, horses and chariots.  Isaiah summarizes the downfall in these words: “they worship their handiwork, what their own fingers have made” (2:8, CEB).

Advent begins this year with an undoing–the fall which must come when we trust in the “principalities and powers” and tout our self-made greatness.  Advent undermines personal, collective, national, and international egotism.  Advent subverts our civic and ecclesial systems whenever and however the thirst for power and partisanship attend them.  The babe of Bethlehem overturns any and all Herods.

Sadly, it took the fall of Jerusalem and an extended exile to dethrone Israel’s embedded pride.  Egotism is always the last thing to go.  The prayer of the Pharisee, “I thank you I am not like other people” (Luke 18:11) is the apex of pride.  Our “sacred cows” (the fattest/most-bloated one being the false self) must be slaughtered in order for God to be seen and served.  The road to hope passes through the desert of the judgment of arrogance.  “What goes up must come down.”

Advent lands hard in the land.  In Advent, knees bow.  Mangers replace thrones.  Where God is, there is no more arrogance.

Posted in Advent 2016

Nonviolence: A Way of Confrontation

Nonviolence is not a philosophical enterprise even though it draws upon key concepts taught in philosophy. Nonviolence is not abstract even though it has roots in general principles.  Nonviolence is a way of concrete action.

Gandhi fasted nonviolence. Pete Seeger sang nonviolence. Thomas Merton wrote nonviolence. Rosa Parks sat nonviolence.  Jim Lawson taught nonviolence.  Freedom Riders traveled nonviolence.  Martin Luther King Jr. marched nonviolence.  All these confronted nonviolence in other ways as well, but these examples illustrate the concreteness of confrontation.

Nonviolence is faith in action, with each person contributing their part to the larger mission which is to overcome evil with good and establish the Beloved Community.  But it is an effort that is always resisted by the in-group whose aim is to establish, maintain, or restore their dominance. 

In the context of resistance, nonviolence declares a “No” to an in-group’s “Yes.”  And no matter what form it takes, this makes nonviolence a confrontation.  But it is a confrontation based on the conviction that nonviolent resistance is the advocacy of ultimate values and virtues that will inexorably come to pass. Nonviolence is confrontation based on a vision which we name each time we pray, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Martin Luther King Jr. described the nature of nonviolent resistance in these words, “The method is nonaggressive physically but strongly aggressive spiritually.”  It was an overcoming of falsehood at a level deeper than the tangible. 

John Lewis described it this way in his book, ‘Walk with the Wind’–“believers in the Beloved Community insist that it is the moral responsibility of men and women with soul force, people of goodwill, to respond and to struggle against the forces that stand between a society and the harmony it naturally seeks.” (p. 78)

Nonviolent resistance arises from the deep conviction that injustice will not have the last word, God will.  Until that time comes, the methods of nonviolence will be used to bear witness to that conviction–“that though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.”

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Year of Mercy: Mercy and Love

The Great Convergence Is when mercy and love flow together to become ‘merciful love.’  This is the combination described as ‘hesed’ in the Old Testament and ‘agapé’ in the New Testament.  We describe it as faithful love, steadfast love, never-ending love, etc.

The source of hesed/agapé is God.  God is love.  Love is the face of God, the heart of God, and the disposition of God.  That is a revelation many do not have.  They picture God as angry, punitive, and vengeful.  Hesed/agapé eliminate that view, and it is our task to proclaim it, so that nobody will live another day holding God at arm’s length–or thinking that God holds them at arm’s length.

But there is more.  Hesed/agapé is not reserved for God.  God sheds this love into our hearts through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, making it possible for us to be instruments of God’s love!  We can love as God loves because we are channels of God’s love.

And as such, we become merciful: mercy-full.  Jesus described this as one expression of the blessed life, and it is what Pope Francis has spent this past year emphasizing, expressing, and enacting.  Clearly, the Pope’s “Year of Mercy” is meant to symbolize the ongoing life of God’s people.  Pope Francis would now smile and say, “If you have been merciful this past year, you are off to a good start!  Never stop!”

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