Advent is my favorite season of the year. It’s the music that is always playing, the dark nights with candles glowing, the storytelling with awe and mystery, anticipating my son’s Advent birthday… breathe in, breathe out. Advent beckons us to notice more, expect more, give thanks more – the word itself means to anticipate, wait, and prepare. Advent reminds us to pause. To feel all the honesty of this life and the bumps and bruises of it, and receive the truth that my faith is not always neat and predictable, but arises out of a deep hunger for hope, meaning, truth, healing; and that longing is always met in God With Us, Emmanuel. During advent, everyday moments often bring me to tears – I hear a familiar chord, or hear my 4 yr old re-enacting the Christmas story, or read cards from friends across the country – and I feel it, I sense it again, this weighty truth and significance of this celebration of God With Us. I am reminded over and over again of all it means, that Jesus came here, right where we flailing followers of faith were at, entering into mess, doubt, fear, grief and pain, to be With Us. 

Advent is always a gift, but this year I find myself working harder to reconcile the promise of this season with all the struggle, grief, hate, and fear that is at work in the world. This season is heavy with promise and presence, beckoning us to prepare our hearts to let Christ enter in – this year, perhaps more than any other, I am aware of our world’s need for this life-giving, promise-keeping presence. I sense and soak in this presence of God’s Spirit all around us, always asserting the miracle of Emmanuel against the pain of this world. In Advent Jesus pushes against my present weariness to proclaim the most hopeful, world-altering truth there is: I came to be With You, I lived and served and proclaimed life With You, I beat down death and then empowered you with my Spirit, I am still With You, and I will not leave you. I recognize this truth again and again and I can hardly contain the power, the joy, the hope of this truth while I cross off shopping lists, plan events, attend to church business. The everyday is punctured with this extravagant gift – this life given to bring life – this promise to become With Us and for us. Do we really see this gift for all that it is? Do we make room? Do we prepare, do I receive this heavy promise containing the very ingredients for life and peace, joy and hope? Advent feels like a thin place, a season where the holy gets closer to the mundane, the Kingdom of God’s reign seems almost touchable, almost reachable even in the middle of struggle. Advent can be a feast of abundance, every twinkling tree light an interruption of the darkness, every melody hummed a protest of life against hopelessness – but I have to have eyes to see it. 

Because the way that Jesus came to be with us – the how of Advent, is part of the miracle, an integral part of why we have so much hope. God chose to enter the story of this earth, of the church, even my story of faith, in a certain way; vulnerable, small, and among the marginalized. Jesus showed up in a stable as a needy, dependent newborn, one who left majesty and authority to be with outsiders – smelly shepherds, a young but fierce teenage mom, a faithful but questioning earthly dad, and a city/nation/political power system that would fear, reject, and ultimately kill him. God chose this introduction, this form, this human messiness, and it is part of why I am in awe. This way of being With Us also meant fulfilling the waiting, longing, and hopes of the people of God, those outsiders and exiles who for generations, for centuries – waited. For hundreds of years, wandered and struggled. Think of the welcome, the wonder, the overwhelming gratitude of receiving Jesus for those who first met him, those who heard the Good News that Emmanuel was – finally – born. From this week’s Advent reading:

“But you, Bethlehem, David’s country,
the runt of the litter—
From you will come the leader
who will shepherd-rule Israel.
He’ll be no upstart, no pretender.
His family tree is ancient and distinguished.
Meanwhile, Israel will be in foster homes
until the birth pangs are over and the child is born,
And the scattered brothers come back
home to the family of Israel.
He will stand tall in his shepherd-rule by God’s strength,
centered in the majesty of God-Revealed.
And the people will have a good and safe home,
for the whole world will hold him in respect—
Peacemaker of the world!

And if some bullying Assyrian shows up,
invades and violates our land, don’t worry.
We’ll put him in his place, send him packing,
and watch his every move.
Shepherd-rule will extend as far as needed,
to Assyria and all other Nimrod-bullies.
Our shepherd-ruler will save us from old or new enemies,
from anyone who invades or violates our land.”
Micah 5:2-5 (The Message)

This Advent I recognize that I need to be re-centered, to fully enter into the awe of God With Us so that I can remember what it is that Jesus enters into. The “how of Advent” is that God chose to meet us in the mess, to engage and reclaim all of the worldly kingdoms – even our current divisive political reality – through reconciliation and forgiveness, through prophetic truth and righteous anger. Jesus is not only in the manger, or the ornament on the tree, or mentioned in a song Sunday morning – Jesus enters in to all of our world, so it is Emmanuel who helps us re-define and heal the grief, anger, fear, and hate at work in the world. God With Us is our only hope to see the truth, and to know we are not alone. Advent does not tell us to turn our eyes away from the political stress in our country, but reminds us to see it with new eyes. Advent does not proclaim power and privilege have the last word, but proclaims that God chose outsiders, vulnerability, and courageous women to bring Christ to this planet. Advent does not encourage ignoring or turning down the sharpness of the evil we have seen empowered through the political realm this season, but presses us look through the lens of Jesus Christ who entered in even the mess of politics in order to embody the Good News, that God is With Us.

So let us be clear – whatever our political persuasion, however we live out the details of our faith, if we follow Christ we are following the way of a Middle-Eastern man who grew up in Palestine, who was then a child refugee in Africa, who never stepped foot on the Americas, but spent a lifetime loving women and men on the edges – those on the margins, overlooked and abused, who were ethnically, culturally, religiously very diverse. THAT is who we follow. And Christ gave his own life for his enemies, for you, and for me, and for our world. That is who came down to the manger, that is the scandalous “how of Advent,” and that is why the promise and challenge of this season rests in us seeing and following this very particular Emmanuel. We who follow Christ cannot be intoxicated by any other version of religion, culture, political platform, or financial motivation. The “how of Advent” is that we are invited into following this God who is With Us – and the prophets proclaim that “the us” God came to be with are first the outsiders, the powerless, the ethnically oppressed, the women and children, the orphans and immigrants, the smelly shepherds and a teenage mom. Will we receive this Emmanuel? Will we make room, and let Advent’s power enter into all of our world this season? Church, our world needs Good News; we know the answer, and we have met the Messenger – God With Us, Emmanuel. May God help us live like this extravagant gift of Advent is true, this season and every day of the year. Amen.

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Patriotism, 9/11, and Football Season

On Sunday, September 11th, the NFL games and opening ceremonies taking place will have a new significance to them. Whether you are a football fan or not, the current protest led by Colin Kaepernick sitting/kneeling during the national anthem and the ensuing conversation for or against his declaration is a timely and profound one that calls for a response. Other professional athletes have even started to join Kaepernick, stating they are proud of him drawing attention to police brutality in the African American community in his own sphere of influence, along with his pledge to give 1million to efforts in the same communities. But others are responding to this protest with deep anger, crying foul that someone could sit during the national anthem, taking personal offense to military honor through the protest, or even suggesting that people who protest the anthem don’t appreciate the freedoms in this country and should leave. (As if citizens in the US had a viable place they could go to escape racist national policies and injustices – if it did exist, that make-believe place might get very full, very fast.) To have this conversation of protesting the anthem boiling over as the anniversary of the national tragedy of 9/11 hits our nation is a convergence that brings certain questions and assumptions to the front of our national consciousness: what do we think is patriotic or unpatriotic, what do we see as divisive or as constructive communal action, and who belongs to this nation/who does our nation promise to protect and defend? Yes, as surprising as it seems, the national football arena is currently captivating our country in a fight about national honor, police brutality, and race.

There are some good pieces already written about understanding Kaepernick’s motivation, the lyrics of the national anthem, and why we sing the anthem at sporting events at all (google for more) – but the reflexive anger and anxiety around his protest seems to be rooted in a belief that this action is unpatriotic and dishonorable. Those arguing with Kaepernick’s protest rarely engage the topics of national racism and law enforcement, but instead critique the method of protest. And here is where I disagree – because peaceful protest should be considered all these things: patriotic, constructive, honorable, a form of exercising constitutional rights, and even an action that benefits our country as it calls attention to injustice done within and by our nation. Protest is historically how our nation gets stronger and better at protecting all of its citizens, and for those doing the protesting it is the only way that those in power are made to listen and take notice. The suggestion made that those who protest our nation’s anthem by sitting or kneeling should leave the country, or be grateful for what they already have, or be more patriotic, is evidence that the reality and desperation that culminated in protest in the first place, is still not being heard. Those protesting belong here, in their country, as much as anyone else. Those protesting are grateful for the good in our country as much as anyone else. Those protesting are citizens taking communal action – asking their country to make good on its promises for equity and justice and to protect and defend life. They are pointing to something about our nation that is broken and that impacts them most deeply: the truth that over and over and over again, racism in our nation’s law enforcement and in our courts is flagrantly taking lives – black lives – and then not being held accountable for those deaths. These men, women and even children who are killed, whose names we only learn as hashtags in the news, are forever silenced and unable to speak for themselves again. Protesting is a way to in part speak for them, to point out and resist the decades (centuries, really) of policies, personal and systemic biases, legal decisions, growing culture of violence, and straight up racism that keeps resulting in these deaths. Protest is a way to collectively remind our nation and each other who we say we are and what we must change to honestly fulfill our proud patriotism.

Sometimes the whole country needs to be woken up – jarred awake – in order to see how bad something really is, and for citizens to collectively to care enough to take action and vote for people and policies that will bring national change. Protest was the method that demanded many national policy changes in our history, including Civil Rights, women’s rights to vote, and ending engagement in various national wars. It was when thousands of veterans protested the Vietnam War – even throwing back their earned medals of honor into messy heaps on the steps of the capital to make their point – that the years of ongoing protests grew loud enough that America woke up and paid attention to how many lives were being lost in that conflict. It was an increasingly desperate protest that took years of truth-telling and then drastic policy change to rectify. Right now in our country, the injustices driving protests like Kaepernick speaking out against police brutality have reached a desperate point and people are crying out – don’t you see what keeps happening? Don’t you see the death and suffering that is systemic that we keep having to endure? Why aren’t all of you angry and speaking out with us? We have already been patient – but now what is going to be done to fix it?

Instead of hearing the content of this plea that has led to protest, some are relying on a thin definition of patriotism as the excuse to turn away from the pain and death regularly happening in the Black community. It is offensive and maddening for a certain group of people to keep being told – don’t bring up your pain because that feels divisive to me; quietly wait your turn (and btw, be grateful while waiting says Bill OReilly), for justice and equity to be applied to you and your community; never mind if things keep getting worse and your lives are being lost while you wait, just don’t speak up in this way or that way to demand change. What if these were our children, would we ever tell them that? Would we tell our family or friends that? Or would we stand up and shout and say no, enough, this is not right, I have seen year after year after decade of the African American community struggling and being beaten down and literally losing their lives. How do we respond to pain and death when it matters to us, or whose pain and death do we ignore? Whose life and liberty do we expect our nation to protect and defend, and whose lives do we not seem to value as much as standing during a song that we ascribe as being patriotic? For example, I do not have people in the Armed Services in my immediate family and I don’t always understand that world, but I work to make space to feel that grief, sacrifice, and the cost of that kind of service to our nation that others experience. Why can’t people who are not from the Black community also work to understand and feel the grief of those who are devastated by the ongoing systemic injustices, pain, and death that are driving this pressing issue of police brutality? Saying those who protest don’t belong, should leave their country, should be more grateful, or aren’t being patriotic are just ways to distance ourselves further from their truth that is being revealed – their voices are pointing out gaps in our own nation’s promise to exercise liberty and justice for all. Our own collective sense of justice should be very interested in making space to hear where our nation’s law enforcement, courts, and systems are not being applied equitably. We should welcome the voices raised in protest over racism and police brutality as embodying an important aspect of patriotism, because they are calling attention to the weak links in our national system of security and law that holds us all together.

We can be patriotic in many ways – by honoring those who served and died for our country in the national anthem and in other ways, by remembering those who rescued others and those who died in the national attacks on 9/11, and by paying attention to those dying right now in the Black community that are still waiting to be seen, heard, and fought for in equally significant ways. When Kaepernick brings attention to the injustices and desperation that so many in the African-American community experience to the nationally televised stage that a NFL game affords, I think it is an act of personal bravery and an invitation to others toward collective action. Athletes like Kaepernick are not lessening their patriotism by protesting but exercising it, by using their voices for others. Protest is the language of the unheard, said MLK. I pray that instead of being afraid of what can feel like division, or offended behind a veil of vague patriotism, we instead might be able to make space to listen, and to truly hear and feel the desperation and the death that is giving rise to the protest in the first place. Then we might recognize that listening to the African American community is necessary for our nation to be stronger, better, more free and more just. The same way we must listen to our veterans and those who sacrificed for our country or suffered on 9/11. Together we could then all exercise our patriotism by making space for each other, and speaking out for changes to our national policies that will defend, protect, and be life-giving for all – that would be a beautiful way to honor 9/11 and the best things our country can and should be about.

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Faith and Race and Politics – Matter

The Republican Convention that started this week is angering and concerning me to a new level. I’m currently on sabbatical, and have intentionally decreased my online presence lately, thinking I wanted to choose to look the other way and focus on the goodness in the world while the political competition for voice and power dominates our national media.

BUT – we cannot be silent when this level of racism, hate, violent language, misogyny, and divisive, untrue, and sometimes plagiarized words are spoken into our communal air space. I kept seeing quotes or soundbites from the Convention’s first day and thinking to myself, this has to be an exaggeration, this can’t be true, is it? Then the speech texts, the clips of video, the documented evidence of this craziness came out. One of the things directly quoted from the Convention that I am most angry about is actor Antonio Sabato Jr., (edited – not Scott Baio), stating that President Obama is a Muslim and can’t serve the same God/Jesus that he serves, bc “Obama isn’t a Christian name.” Notice that RNC voices are not even relying on linguistic code at this point, they are simply calling out that in their opinion, a non-white sounding name can’t be Christian. What is a Christian name exactly? Is King? What about TuTu? Or Cho, my Lead Pastor’s name? What about Martinez, the President of the ECC in Mexico? There are so many, many more names who are not white and lead our world movements in Christianity, I could go on and on… and the fact that some voices of people of color also espouse this divisive language doesn’t change what it is. The point is that faith and race and politics matter – it matters how Christians conduct ourselves in political debates and where we lend our voices and our attention. We need to call these terrible statements out, even though there are SO SO many, that it may seem overwhelming sometimes. The list of lies, of angry and racist statements, the intentional divisiveness, often occurring while invoking the name of Christ – it seems so over the top that I am tempted to think it can’t be real, and it must not be working on everyday, thoughtful, Americans who vote – especially Christians, right? Right???

In case you, or those you know, may NOT know how bad this stage is showing itself to be – please – consider reading up on how hateful and racially divisive the Convention this week is purposefully being. Consider checking in with conservative friends or family of yours to make sure that they are seeing and hearing – really seeing – what the RNC is proudly showing itself to currently be about. Make sure you ask your people – however kindly or directly you feel able – ask them, Is there any chance you’re considering voting for this party/candidate this year? Have you seen how angry, how fear mongering, how racially and ethnically biased these voices being held up are? Have you heard how terribly they refer to women – and their repeated, offensive names for our President, and for our former Secretary of State? (Whether you like them or not, they are human beings in public office deserving of basic respect and not offensive racialized or sexualized names.) Can we talk about the non-biblical basis for the veneer of Christianity that is being currently used by this party, the lack of personal integrity and devotion to Jesus being celebrated but the increased comfort of appealing to evangelical voting power? The assertion that we know someone’s ability to follow Jesus by whether or not their last name sounds Muslim/foreign?

I understand and love many individuals who vote Republican, even if I don’t often vote that way myself; however, I do not understand the current RNC tone, and the level of hate being espoused. It is dangerous, it feels omninous, and it creates fear in many people who see this stage as one intentionally inciting violence and division against them – personally. It is also rhetoric and political power that can be stopped – by everyday people who do not listen to the lies, and who do not let their vote feed the fervor.

At this point, it it not about if you don’t like Hillary Clinton, if you’re a life-long Republican, if you didn’t agree with President Obama, or if you’re a Christian who doesn’t feel comfortable engaging in politics; all of those things are fine and can remain true, but faithful, Jesus following people – esp I would suggest Republicans and white people – need to start standing up to the violent language that is coming into our world from this Convention. It is deeply disturbing. It is beyond a difference of political opinion at this point – when a political party affirms people on their stage who consistently and openly declare war and intend violence on those who are different, those who are not white, those who are in some pre-determined category of “other” – we must say no more, you do not speak for us. We can talk about important political issues like how to be safe, national security, supporting the police, regulating our borders, immigration policy, being pro-life, and how America interacts on the world scene – and a host of other topics likely to come to center stage during the RNC’s gathering – but we as a nation can do these things in so many different, healthy, constructive ways. The RNC is NOT currently choosing a healthy, constructive route for posing solutions or sharing disagreement. Raising fear, hostility toward the other, attacking vulnerable segments of society, intentionally mis-stating the faith and Christianity of our highest national leader – that is the opposite of Christ-like. That is the opposite of using faith to help shape political and national leadership.

Conservative friends, feel free to critique and raise your voices in responsible, constructive ways against national leaders and policies that you don’t agree with – maybe show the world an alternative way to disagree while maintaining some respect for the humanity of those you disagree with in this current media climate. We all know we have the freedom to be critical of our President, of Hillary Clinton, of whatever failures are in the Democratic party as well, and of our national system in general – it is not the kingdom of God nor should it pretend to be. I would also ask – conservative friends, and citizens in general – we all should also know that a faithful response to hate, racism, and dangerous rhetoric ought to be to call it out for what it is. To say that conservative America is better than this. And to not vote to empower or share this dehumanizing language any further.

In case you missed what happened on the first night of the RNC, here is a short list:

Here is a list of some of the things that happened at the first day of the Republican convention: https://t.co/97H81oP8i6

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