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: