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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Faith is Always Political: Sometimes-Pastoral Reflections on Election Season

“I don’t think this space should be political,” she posted to the Facebook group for pastors and worship leaders. “Maybe a worship blog isn’t the best place to bring up politics,” wrote another member, in response to a fellow pastor posting a question about a certain political candidate. I’ve had many interactions like this with colleagues and friends during this election season, and while I’m thankful this brief exchange ended with a gracious statement to respectfully agree to disagree, it called forth questions and convictions within me. I am surprised and often frustrated when the message from the Christian community seems to be “don’t bring politics into faith.” My instinctive response is – but politics are already here, within us, within the church, and of course within our worship; politics are woven in the fabric of how we live our lives and therefore how we live out our faithful witness in the world. We in the church are called to be the voices that help shape the political and day to day realities for people, both for fellow Christians and for those whom Christ tells us to speak up for, so shouldn’t we be talking about how we get on with doing our job?

I have been wrestling with how to address the questions, stubbornness, worries, and caution concerning Christians faithfully embracing political engagement for some time. As a pastor currently engaged in many areas of advocacy and compassion work, a past community organizer around policies to end domestic and global hunger, and someone who did way too much school to understand the mission of the church, I am both encouraged by the growing presence of Christian leaders embracing this aspect of public discipleship, and also concerned by the staggering distance we have left to cover in both our belief and our praxis. I am convinced that the church in the U.S. today needs a much fuller, actively courageous, vibrantly hopeful, and wisely skillful movement of Christ-followers engaged in public politics. And we need to be clearer on how and why this engagement is animated by the Holy Spirit, rooted in our central theological truths about who God is, and shaped by our faith and activity of following Christ – nothing more, nothing less.

As this year’s election season moves into full swing, I am reminded again that many of us in the church, particularly the evangelical world where I am from, have not been well equipped to faithfully engage in politics. So let’s talk about this gap, without fear and trembling, and encourage each other to look more closely at how we hold our politics as a matter of discipleship, witness, and Lordship.

On one hand I get the caution, and the fear about political engagement. I hear the heart behind Christians who voice worry about pastors weighing in on politics online, or professors teaching policy in their classrooms, or what to say when fellow Christians share strong partisan views. And yes, we need to think about how we steward our voices well, use wisdom in our witness and passion, and not be shaped by patterns in the political world that can divide or obfuscate. We all should know by now to not endorse candidates from the pulpit, to keep our finances separate when it comes to lobby work, to be above reproach when it comes to our word and trust, acting with civility, patience, holding disagreement without derision and complexity without concern. There is also the reality of the national political stage, which does not always seem to even want to earn our respect and engagement. Many of us are tired and disillusioned by the process of dissecting candidates and ignoring entire voting groups, media choices to lift up or turn down certain voices, lack of representation for women and many communities of color, long-winded debates and never-ending stump speeches, declining levels of trust in general with our public figures, the rampant abuse of campaign finances, and much more – I get that what we call “the political process” can seem like a hot mess not worth jumping into.

But the church’s response to this mess, this reality of the political processes that govern public life, can get stuck being too escapist, individualistic, reductionist, or anxious. As Christians we all too often seem afraid or uncertain about the mess of politics sucking us in, or taking over our relationships, communities, and worship spaces by dividing us or making us uncomfortable. So our response might become partisan or reactionary, where our faith and politics somehow never intersect, like a friend who explained a veritable treatise outlining his Libertarian beliefs – but when asked where his understanding of Scripture related to it, he simply answered that he had never thought of Scripture speaking to his political values. Or our response might be to withdraw or internalize our political beliefs or questions to avoid conflict, critique or complexity, not thinking we are needed in the conversation “out there” so we can do the “work of the church in here,” as if God didn’t design both realms as inextricably related. Still others seem to be afraid that the mess will infect matters of faith, so they police political conversation, or hedge nervously about active political engagement by Christians.

In part this all makes sense, because we have been told and we often believe that politics divide people, whereas faith should unite us, and that political matters should be kept private while Christ’s love and salvation made public. While that sometimes-palatable story has shaped North America for the last century, it is not biblical, and it is based on a false bifurcation that whispers that faith is only personal, internal, and about heaven, while politics is external, social, and worldly. This lie means that a New Testament fervor around evangelism can be separated from the Old Testament commitment to shalom, instead of woven around the same biblical truth of God’s creation and Jesus’s redemption that is brought about through individual salvation and global righteousness/justice and wholeness. Without examining more fully what our political/global/kingdom witness ought to be, the Church may miss its calling to not only engage with the political mess, but to shape it, influence it, speak to it and call things out of it, and then to see its limits and remain unchanged in our rooted identity as Kingdom people. There are so many good and faithful ways to engage politics, from voting to debating issues with friends, from visiting Capitol Hill to texting about a bill you believe in. There is assisting those who can’t access government services and processes, educating ourselves on how much we all depend on common political and social services, to starting a non-profit or doing private work to meet needs in your neighborhood. There is prayer and prophetic intercession around political realities, confession and lament, there is supporting local and global partners and advocacy work around faith and race, there is praying for national leaders and teaching around policies with students not yet ready to vote. There are protests and signing petitions and going deep into fighting injustices in your city that shape housing, policing, education, green spaces, food access, medical care, etc. etc. etc. Church this is just the beginning of what we can do!

Below are some guiding theological realities that have shaped my journey of understanding political voice as a matter of discipleship. I pray that these might help us each engage our political discipleship.

1. Worship is always political. How, where, with whom, in what language, in what space, and through what theology we worship is inherently political. Even the cross was political. Christ died at the hands of the state on a symbol of national execution outside the city’s border at the gate where power and access were granted. Politics has to do with how we engage (or don’t engage) matters of power, privilege, economics, and policies that shape our lives and often order the steps and access of the hungry, the sick, the prisoner and the most vulnerable, like widows, orphans, and immigrants – and these are all matters that are of deep importance in the biblical witness.

2. Worship is also about Lordship – it is about where we bow, and who or what deserves our allegiance, our praise, our very lives. We cannot uncouple the ways that Christian worship of a Risen Lord and King of the Universe are therefore connected to and should deeply shape what it is in this earthly realm that we give our allegiance, attention, and maybe our vote to. The Lordship question for a Christ-follower was answered long ago – we follow the One King, One Messiah, who is already heading up the only One True Kingdom that matters. This Kingdom of God that draws our allegiance is alive and active, breathing and building, small as a mustard seed, resilient like seeds on rocky soil, powerful as a lamb who makes a lion lay down. While powers and principalities are at work, we have already been covered and called by the power of Christ. We follow the source of life, the call to long-term (eternal) citizenship, and so we have no fear and perfect freedom to speak up, to walk strong, and to advocate together.

3. Kingdom citizenship is communal and binds us to others and to the vision of flourishing for all that God enacted. Political advocacy is not only an individual endeavor, just as all discipleship needs others along the journey, and can be a source of grace when it helps us see our interdependency in community. We are never ultimately defined by our political voice or affiliation because we are kingdom citizens first and last, and so should desire to remain in faithful among others in the church, calling each other to both grace and truth in our politics.

4. Citizenship in this “here now, but not all the way here, yet” kind of Kingdom does not mean that we just bow out early, or somehow leave the mess of our earthly kingdoms for some pie in the sky cloudy promise. The early part of the 20th Century fought through the painful limits of various Christ-followers – whether Fundamentalist or Neo-Evangelicals, tele-evangelists and Prosperity Gospelers, Mainline and Liberal Protestants and more – who all were tempted in different ways to either ignore this world for the next, or focus on a false binary between evangelism and justice, between kingdom belief and kingdom living. Jesus followers have hope in the next world and so we’re called to represent, now, in the flesh, on this earth, incarnate as Christ was, in the questions and in the mess, and yes even sometimes in the ballot box.

5. Our witness and our politics are always cultural – gathering as God’s people on earth is inherently enmeshed with our whole selves. Faith is taught and expressed and then digested by real live people who see, feel, think, and interpret the world each in their own unique way, shaped by politics and culture from top to bottom. To pretend that it is an option – ever – to not have our worship, our Bible, our convictions and our discipleship in the church and in the world shaped by cultural realities like race, gender, economics, sexuality, power, and nationality, is myopic. Of course God’s creation is not dependent on the politics running through our lives – our identity remains in Christ alone. But God chose to create ethnicity, difference, language, diversity, gender and sexuality, and so much more, fleshing out creation in vastly different forms. Cultural expression is part of God’s good creation, and our political responses to how the world understands those differences are also a matter of faith. We can’t ever enact our faith in some neutral space outside of politics or cultural diversity because it doesn’t exist.

6. When faith and politics are engaged, it is okay to disagree – with me, with another pastor, teacher, leader, or just a fellow Christian, whether on a meta-level lens like our hermeneutics, or the particulars of bills and policies. It is okay to even have a little tension, disagreement, and strong opinions rise to the surface, and to raise convicting or troubling questions that create the need for us to ask, listen, work hard, and maybe even change our positions on particular political solutions. Our faith is not so thin that we cannot discuss opposing ideas about how to enact our faithful Kingdom allegiances in this world – in fact it is our faith and our relationship with our God and King of all in the world that roots these conversations, even propels us into spaces of political engagement, advocacy and voice.

Political advocacy and engagement, whether in spaces of worship and community life, or nation-state matters of voting, policies, and budgets, are already all under Christ’s Lordship. That means that it is in these same spaces that Christ-followers are called to be present with eyes to see and ears to hear – not to “start being political,” because we already are; not to “bleed Red or Blue,” but to stand up for those who Christ says we are to remember; not to shout down an opponent or endorse a candidate, but to represent what we think God is already doing in this world. This world – the messy, earthly, full of ugly and beautiful humanity competing with and loving each other, troubled by suffering and overrun with brilliant possibility, home of never-ending CNN coverage and sometimes terrible tweets. This world is our world, it is our Father’s world, and we are invited to take part in the redemptive Kingdom work of God in this world, this mess, now. When we are present in political conversations and advocacy, when we dare to hope and learn and speak up and engage, we are witnessing to our faith. We are helping steward the powers of this world, not for our glory or voting record or budget, but for the glory of the King of all Kings, and the Lord of all Lords. Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

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Fighting for Self-Care: Reset in 2016

As the new year begins I have been motivated to take inventory and reset my intentions for 2016. And the number one area that has been on my mind, heart and spirit is the issue of self-care. I have been reminded in so many ways during this past year that self-care is integral, woven throughout, indeed required for healthy, strong leadership. And I’ve also been reminded of the truth that self-care shapes our capacity toward and commitment to faithful discipleship, marriage, parenting – you know, life! As I finished out a too-full season this past year, and found myself basking in the refreshment and rest over the holiday break, my soul cried out to me, “Hang onto this space of rest, this renewal, this place of pause from rushing so that you can savor – YOU NEED MORE OF THIS.” And I’ve decided that in order to continue on and pastor well, love well, parent well, just to fully and healthily be me – I am going to listen to that cry.

It’s not that the importance of self-care is new information for me – I’ve long understood and worked toward self-care as part of being a healthy leader, woman, mother, activist. And I know too well when feelings of burn out, despair, or fatigue settle in and replace my sense of calling, passion, and capacity – then I am not able to do much of anything well. What feels newer and more deeply impressed upon my soul in this particular season is the reality of how much work, preparing, protection – even fighting for it – self-care requires. It is of course one thing to affirm the truth of self-care being a good thing; it goes to a whole other level when self-care gets written into my day timer, inserted into my time and mind, protected before and in front of other demands that will and do surge over my life. When I am committed to in this coming year is becoming more aware of, and doing the work that is required in my season, of actually protecting self-care. Right now that looks like actualizing the hopes and intentions into hours with my pen and my journal, walks during my lunch break, saying yes to true things of nourishment in my life and saying no to the rest. Before burn-out draws near, I’m committing to having the hard conversations, going on more dates with my hubby, eating more vegetables, having more fun, and celebrating and praying through who God has really made me to be as the new year begins. And it already feels amazing.

Starting over the holiday break I spent a lot of time thinking, planning, and praying around self-care in this next year. I started several spiritual practices that became obvious to me I was in need of, and I charted out plans to reset and reformat different areas of life over the coming year. Yes, I decided to take a whole year to reset portions of life that are in need of more self-care and focus – instead of underestimating the time or intention that this work might require, which I confess is often my usual method when it comes to self expectations. I redid much of my daytimer and my personal rhythms, taking some realistic inventory of my commitments, goals, health, and projects – so that I could say no to some things, plan ahead for other things, move some things back, and limit some things. I have to say, it felt like a tiny revolution to significantly move around my time, to prioritize and decide for myself what was most needed, most nourishing, most where the Spirit was calling me to be! One of the most refreshing parts of this reset was building in protected time each day that I now call “nourish time” – time where I pray, read, write, journal, listen to God, connect with my people, enjoy music, exercise, and enjoy my husband and kids. Every single day I do something in this category – often most things in this category. I’m already sensing that this planned-ahead-for “nourish time” is easily my biggest accomplishment of this month. Forget crossing off my to-do list, I actually redid what got on my to-do list! Because I am realizing more and more that without structure, preparation, and form being given to my value and longing for self-care, it simply WILL NOT HAPPEN. Period. Self-care happens in real time, within the heavy work load, the parenting crisis, the spiritual lament, the painful and the joyful. Other things will continue to be asked of me and expected of me, because there is no break from it all to reset and find self-care – I have to make it happen, create the space, fight for it to happen.

Maybe you’ve been on this journey of planning for and protecting self-care – what can you teach the rest of us? Or maybe you’re tired and overwhelmed and haven’t yet identified what self-care even looks like for you right now – maybe you need to fight for more self-care. Maybe you wrestle with the idea of taking time for your own care, or where that fits with a full job, serving others, justice work, parenting, or just M-F reality. Whatever season of life you’re in, if you’re longing for more of something, space for something, protected time for something – even if you already agree with the value of self-care, my prayer is that we encourage each other toward protecting, and fighting for the actual work of self-care in this coming season. Sharing ideas, tools, resources, or hang-ups with self-care are most welcome – I am sharing two tools below. This is the first of many thoughts and steps lived out around self-care for me, and I am excited to learn alongside others in this journey. I can already feel the shifts taking place internally and the spaces opening up. I can’t wait for more. Reset to fighting for self-care – ready, steady, GO!

Two tools I’ve loved this month:
The Book: “Take Time for Your Life,” by Coach Cheryl Richardson, http://www.cherylrichardson.com/store/take-time-for-your-life-introduction/
Blog and newsletter reflections from Dr. Chenequa Walker-Barnes, https://drchanequa.wordpress.com/2015/12/31/journey-to-self-care/

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