Advent Reflections On The World Without Jesus (Act III)

This part three of a sermon I preached for Advent at Church of the Sojourners on December 11th, 2020. You can also watch the video or listen to the audio.

Act III: The Word made flesh

I am a man of faith…But faith is not necessarily, or not soon, a resting place. Faith puts you out on a wide river in a little boat, in the fog, in the dark. Even a man of faith knows that (as Burley Coulter used to say) we’ve all got to go through enough to kill us.

Jayber Crow (page 356)

Faith and hope does not come cheaply. It must be practiced. It is a virtue as much as it is a gift. Flimsy or saccharine hope does no one any good, though maybe it somehow feels more certain than taking small steps and noticing the present moment.

For anyone’s hope to endure and be joyful, we must consider all the facts. Waiting (and all of life, for that matter) may very well include unexpected events outside of our control. COVID-19, for example, has left many of us carrying different forms of loss as we move forward with our education, families, and work. This visceral challenge to hope cannot be swept under the rug. Even as I write this reflection, we are in one of the most contentious political moments of my lifetime and, despite many signs of hope, the next few months may very well pose an existential threat for all of us, not to mention those who are most vulnerable here and around the world.

So what does hope actually look like? I’m going to suggest it involves our bodies and relationships and what has been called by some mental health professionals “completing the stress cycle.” A lot of this I’ve grabbed from a book called Burnout written by identical twins Dr Emily Nagoski and Dr Amelia Nagoski. According to the Nagoski sisters, “emotions are cycles that happen in your body. They are neurological events, and when I say neurological, I mean not just happening in your brain but your whole nervous system, the intelligence of your body extends to your nervous system from the top of your head to the tip of your toes and also beyond your skin. Emotions are an involuntary neurological response. They have a beginning, a middle and an end…In short, emotions are tunnels. If you go all the way through them, you get to the light at the end. Exhaustion happens when we get stuck in an emotion.”

So how do we get unstuck and complete this stress cycle? How do we meaningfully put into action the hope of Advent? The following steps may not sound like earth shattering news or even very spiritual, but trust me the proof is in the pudding. You will have more space in your life for all the things that truly matter if you allow yourself to practice these suggestions:

  1. Move
    1. Body movement allows our brains to think and reflect on ourselves. It helps our bodies to feel safe again. Think about yoga, massage, acupuncture, even acting or singing at the top of your lungs (hello Gaby!), dancing, jumping on the trampoline, sports, beach walks, riding bikes, holding your pets, martial arts, and even boxing. 
  2. Breathe
    1. Slow, deep breaths relax our bodies. Try out the 4-7-8 Exercise (it’s a way of breathing deeply). So you inhale and count to 4, hold and count to 7, and then exhale slowly counting to 8. You can also use the Jesus Prayer by combining your breathing with, “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me a sinner”. Of course, breathing with body movements like yoga, exercise, and even singing are other ways.
  3. Talk to people
    1. “Casual but friendly social interaction is the first external sign that the world is a safe place,” say the Nagoskis. “Just go buy a cup of coffee and say ‘nice day’ to the barista. Compliment someone’s earrings. Reassure your brain that the world is a safe, sane place, and not all people suck.” Over 40 years of attachment and bonding research shows our biological and emotional drive for really basic human connections like a smile, eye contact, attention, and touch. Let’s watch this short clip about the “Still Face” experiment to give you an idea of what bonding looks like: 
  4. Laugh
    1. One BIG way to complete the stress cycle, to not get stuck with the stress lodged in our bodies, is through laughter. Wanna to try a little experiment? Let’s watch this bunk bed scene from the movie Step Brothers. Notice how the step- brothers seem to do whatever it takes to connect with their parents and each other (FYI: profanity warning y’all):     
  5. Speak to loved ones
    1. Specifically, I want to draw attention to receiving encouragement from our elders. A conversation between Bryan Stevenson and civil rights activists Ms. Johnnie Carr and Ms. Rosa Parks illustrates this point. Bryan retells his meeting with them where he had just explained all the projects they were doing. He says, “I’m just throwing all of these things out. And when I finished giving Ms. Parks my rap, she looked at me and she just said, “Mm-mm-mm. That’s gonna make you tired, tired, tired.” [laughs] And Miss Carr leaned forward and she said, “That’s why you’ve got to be brave, brave, brave.”
  6. Cry
    1. A couple weeks ago I heard some sad and distressing news. I was in the middle of my work day when I just began to cry. I thought I was alone in the room, but I didn’t see Julissa behind me. She came close, held me, and allowed me to finish my tears. Crying didn’t change the situation itself, but my body felt better and I had a moment to exhale. It was a relief to finish a tearful emotion.  
  7. Do something creative
    1. The Nagoski sisters write: “the arts—including painting, sculpture, music, theatre, and storytelling in all forms—create a context that tolerates, even encourages, big emotions.” So watch a movie, read a book, behold a sunset, visit immersive Van Gogh, write music, shoot photos, act, make something with fabric and cardboard and tape (hello Santiago!), produce videos.
  8. Confession 
    1. This is so important. We are bound to one another in relationship, forgiveness, and truth-telling. We must embrace this personal and collective accountability in order to get the release we need. The goal is always redemption, restorative justice, and mercy, not just paying back the debt or feeling the punishment.   
  9. Find the exceptions
    1. We must acknowledge, with humility and gratitude, the many large and small exceptions to the bad news and negative outcomes we see. For example, Trump lost the election! Some of the election details are not finalized, but the fact that Trump lost and, legally, will have to accept defeat means that we have some relief in store for us. Even now we feel it. Also, we can note the almost total rejection of violent resistance by the majority of marginalized communities. Also, we can consider our friends and family who love us and support us despite our weaknesses, our mistakes, our failures, our disappointments. This is a real cause for joy and thankfulness. 
  10. Do the next right thing
    1. The God who woke you up this morning, the Angel who visited Mary and invited her into this liberation project, also invites us to do and say the next right thing in our story.
  11. Dependence on God
    1. God’s power and mystical presence among us and within us to give provision and security and freedom even when all the oppressive structures are still there. Even when it doesn’t look like there will be a positive outcome. Even when we lose hope that God is here in our midst. Even then, God is restoring and revealing the Holy Spirit to us, in love, passed on through Mary’s song, through Jesus’s embodiment, through all the disciples and their descendants, and also now through us.
  12. The time is now
    1. Take action, no matter how simple it may seem. Hugs make people feel safe. Stress hormones actually help us take control of our lives, make decisions, and put our hands to work. This energy needs to be released. Compare the victims of Hurricane Katrina who were literally strapped down and prevented from getting to work with the victims of 9/11 who instinctively ran home (and were safe) across the Brooklyn Bridge. The PTSD rate spiked after Katrina, but did not after 9/11.       

In closing, I want to tell you about my friend and fellow member of Bethel AME Chico, David Phillips. I see him embodying this kind of hope. Every Sunday he goes to the people who live on the streets in downtown Chico and gives them food and a smile and a warmth that comes from his heart. Why does he do that? Because his son, Desmond Phillips, used to drag him along even though Desmond had enough mental health problems to easily excuse himself from reaching out to others in this way. When Desmond was murdered, shot 16 times in their own home by Chico police officers during a mental health crisis, his father adopted his son’s hope and activism. He simply kept going to feed Desmond’s unhoused friends in the city plaza every Sunday. He continues to lift up Desmond’s life and express gratitude for God’s presence when he could just as well feel powerless. He thanks Desmond, he thanks God every single day.

David Phillips teaches me that hope is not as complicated as we sometimes fear. Hope looks like holding a child’s hand. Like passing the ketchup. Like giving way to someone walking past us on the sidewalk. Like saying the names of the people we have lost. Like smiling and hiking and breathing deeply (yes, behind a mask). Like David Phillips handing out his sandwiches in the park.

Do you believe this hope is true? Please take a moment now to reflect on your life and the people you call family. How can you cultivate hope in this week to come? What small step can you take?

Take Your Burden to the Lord and Leave It There, recorded by Washington Phillips:

Advent Reflections On The World Without Jesus (Act II)

This part two of a sermon I preached for Advent at Church of the Sojourners on December 11th, 2020. You can also watch the video or listen to the audio.

Act II: The waiting

In March of 1965, nonviolent activists from the Dallas County Voters League, SNCC, and SCLC organized protest marches from Selma to Montgomery. Their first attempt to cross into Dallas county via the Edmund Pettus bridge resulted in what subsequently became known as, “Bloody Sunday.” State troopers as well as local police used billy clubs and tear gas against marchers, including the late US Representative, John Lewis. It reads, “Mounted police [even] chased retreating marchers and continued to beat them.”  

That same evening Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other activists began planning to retry this bridge crossing only two days later. A legal battle to stop them was also underway. They had to decide whether to disobey the pending court order or continue their plans to cross the bride. One account reads: 

[A]fter consulting late into the night and early morning with other civil rights leaders and John Doar, the deputy chief of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, King proceeded to the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the afternoon of [March 9th]. He led more than 2,000 marchers, including hundreds of clergy who had answered King’s call on short notice.. 

But then something strange happened. He “stopped and asked them to kneel and pray.” You can only imagine what was going through his mind. Would he be leading all these people into another “Bloody Sunday”? Or would they finally break through this stronghold of whiteness in the south? We know the end of the story: 

After prayers they rose and turned the march back to Selma, avoiding another confrontation with state troopers and skirting the issue of whether to obey Judge Johnson’s court order. Many marchers were critical of King’s unexpected decision not to push on to Montgomery…” 

Indeed, I’ve noticed in my own life that waiting does not feel like courage when I’m actually being attacked. No, it feels like permission, like a trauma waiting to happen. We are physiologically set up for this response. Our heart rate increases, we breathe faster and take shorter breaths, our eyes dilate, peripheral vision increases, our hands and feet get colder as blood rushes to our major muscles. We humans are biologically primed to fight or to escape or to freeze. Of course, this response also may occur at unhelpful times, when there is no discernable threat. Traumatized people, in fact, are often simply triggered by thoughts or memories, loud noises, a song, a smell, and even colors. As a therapist I know that chronic trauma, especially during childhood, may require years of mental health care and practices to integrate and feel safe again in one’s body. So given this reality, how do we even stand a chance against the traumatic social injustices and personal threats we face? How would you respond to this waiting? 

For the Selma to Montgomery marchers, it unfolded in unexpected ways. First, President Johnson was moved by the trauma he and the whole world witnessed. He issued a public statement condemning the violence and promised to introduce the Voting Rights Act in a matter of days. This, however, would not be the end of the story. No, a happy ending was not unconditionally promised for those who waited. Here’s how to account reads: 

That evening, several local whites attacked James Reeb, a white Unitarian minister who had come from Massachusetts to join the protest. His death two days later contributed to the rising national concern over the situation in Alabama…

Of course we know, on the other side of this story, that the National Guard eventually protected marchers as they completed their pilgrimage to Montgomery. But maybe we do not remember how the waiting continued, even then, and would keep an unflinching account of every loss, of every person living and dead who had no other choice but to keep moving, to keep waiting. Even when they reached Montgomery, another loss was waiting there. The account continues: 

That night, while ferrying Selma demonstrators back home from Montgomery, Viola Liuzzo, a housewife from Michigan who had come to Alabama to volunteer, was shot and killed by four members of the Ku Klux Klan. 

Advent Reflections On The World Without Jesus (Act I)

This part one of a sermon I preached for Advent at Church of the Sojourners on December 11th, 2020. You can also watch the video or listen to the audio.

Act I: The Prophecy

The Isaiah and Luke scripture readings for today are two of my favorite passages in the whole Bible. They speak to God’s justice and form the center of Jesus’ Gospel truth: we all receive good news and favor for the hungry and oppressed. Many of our cultural prophets today get paid when they prophesy wealth and privilege, but these Advent prophets came from a different source, through an oppressed people, right as they struggled to breathe, right when someone’s knee was on their neck. Their bodies longed for the day when righteousness would prevail and justice would sing. They wanted to enter that song for themselves in “garments of salvation” and a “mantle of praise.” These prophetic witnesses shared their reason to rejoice. As Mary proclaimed, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…” (Luke 1:46b). But what happens when hope is a luxury you cannot seem to afford? What happens when the promises of justice do not seem real or when evil continues without any recourse? How do we actively wait? 

I recently re-read a journal entry where I recorded a dream Gaby told me about in late October 2017. This is what she said her dream was about: “There was a volcano right next to the White House and it burned Donald Trump and he died, but it didn’t burn the White House and nobody else got burned.” Now I’m not sure if she would qualify as a biblical prophet, but her dream has that same wild and giddy-eyed tone that I feel in Mary’s song: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

I’m also re-reading Revelations with new eyes right now, the big prophecy at the end of the New Testament. I finally see it in a different light. Instead of it being a triumphant story about an all-powerful God torturing and crushing weak and disobedient humans, I now see that while it indeed tells the story of a war, the actors and violence are mainly between humans. On the one side, you have the most weak and vulnerable: the poor, the enslaved, and the faithful minority who saw their powerlessness as integral to their faith. On the other side, you have the most powerful and violent: the rich merchants, the kings, the generals who saw their destruction and oppression as integral to their supremacy. 

On the surface, without the vision of this prophetic story, the weak and vulnerable cannot win. They will lose every time, no questions asked. They always have. But with the prophetic story, the faithful minority (who would be called atheists by the Roman governmental powers) has the spiritual vision to rise up and fearlessly face the storm that is coming, and to be witnesses against all who do not believe that God is (and has been) drawing a line around them, claiming them, and also placing them in the midst of a war. They catch The Revelator’s vision. They see those self-legitimizing powers give way and self-destruct within their own promises of freedom. The propaganda falls, along with Babylon. When the seals and woes are released everything from agriculture to entertainment to Wall Street to congress must indeed change. These realities will not and cannot be ignored. 

And yet only the faithful few who see the prophetic story will recognize that the war against mighty heavenly powers is being fought on their behalf. That God has not abandoned them and will take them all the way through. That they are now an integral part of his mission to save and rescue. That they will be protected, even as some of them will die. That they will execute a new story from within the ruins of a destroyed community. 

This is because they have a source of power that is hidden in their forgotten, discarded, nobody, poorest of the poor, discredited status. Indeed, instead of shame, God has given them garments of praise, beauty for ashes. The masses may not repent of their dependencies on exploitation, racism, exclusion, homophobia, greed, global capitalism, violence by the sword and smart bomb and drone attack. They may not turn away from sexual idolatry or ruination of this world. But the ones who know the story are seeing God’s universe being set right again. And this is a cause for celebration, even while action is taken under duress, for their salvation is closer every day. 

This fight is happening without them becoming another oppressor. This is also a cause to rejoice. They choose a new way. They announce that the cycle of violence is over, it stops with them. Because they will not fight back, but instead entrust themselves into the hands of a Creator who has not left their children or their children’s children defenseless. His action on their behalf “is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” to address the injustice, the failures, the perpetual violence, the slavery, and to bring about the freedom and shalom we all need right here in this moment. God herself will answer and it won’t be a disappointment, no matter how desperately long we must wait.