Advent has always been my favorite liturgical season. I love being able to intentionally slow down and sit with all these readings about how God is coming to restore God’s people. I love the goth-y hymns. I love that everything is purple (sorry, Sarum Blue fans).
Advent feels a bit more real for me this year. Maybe it’s because we are all in this seemingly perpetual season of waiting for the pandemic to be over. Maybe it’s because we are all just tired and afraid and we need all the good news (see what I did there?) we can get. For me it’s also because this year has truly felt like something out of the book of Revelation, and I’m low-key wondering if maybe this is the year the heavens open up and lo, He will come, with clouds descending.
Far from being just the four weeks that precede Christmas, Advent a time for us to think about the person Jesus is, the hope he offers to all the world, and what it means for us that the many things Jesus stood for (like justice for the poor, including all people in God’s Kin-dom, loving your neighbors) are in direct opposition to the ways in which we currently live our lives (that is, oppressing the poor, discriminating against others, not doing right by our neighbors). In many ways, Jesus represents the end of the world as we know it, because he challenges us to give up power, riches, and prestige, and take on love, humility and compassion.
I’ve seen a lot of people talk about how they want to just “go back to normal”. For Advent this year, I’m inviting you to consider that 1) there is no “normal” to go back to – the world as we know it, pre-pandemic, is gone; 2) That “normal” – where we’ve normalized hatred and oppression, where we don’t question how our capitalist, science-denying, ignorant ways of living are killing our neighbors – is not worth going back to, anyway. Jesus would want us to go back to normal either. He would want us to aspire to the Kin-dom of God. And if the end of the world means the end of suffering and the opportunity to build a radically different world, maybe…just maybe, that’s not such a bad thing?
That’s why I’ve written this devotional. No Going Back is a journey through Advent with the lens of the apocalypse. I invite you to notice what 2020 is exposing in our world, to dream beyond the world we inherited, and to prepare yourselves to help bring that new world into being. It is meant to be read with on each of the 4 Sundays of Advent. You can do it alone, or with a group. I’ve made it available as a PDF, and each Monday, I will post the week’s reflection here on the blog, if you’d prefer to follow along that way.
You can download the PDF here. Please feel free to share your reflections and thoughts on social media with me as well!
This past February, I started seeing my first couple of clients for spiritual direction. Sitting with people for accompaniment has really been a point of joy for me, even on days when I have a lot going on and it feels like a client session is just one more meeting on my daily schedule. It is a real honor to sit with my clients, to hold their stories with care, to be present to both their joy and pain, and to lift them up in prayer. I love this work.
I do struggle with imposter syndrome, though. I sometimes feel as though I have to be a certain kind of spiritual director, I have to say deep, profound things, or that I have to dress a certain way (I do joke about needing to expand my collection of chunky jewelry). Occasionally I feel as if I’m “not good enough” because I have off days, where I’m stressed or tired and I know that I am not being fully present, which can already be a struggle with my ADHD.
I had one such session recently. I’m in the process of preparing for a big cross country move to Denver, to finally close the gap between my partner and I, as we’ve been dating long distance for about a year. During this recent session, I went into the time occupied with lots of thoughts about the move and all the things I had to take care of. I felt incredibly self-conscious because it took me a little bit longer than usual to form questions and be fully present, and afterwards I felt crummy about it. My inner anxious voice was *certain* that my client was probably so offended by this lack of spiritual profundity that they were going to fire me.
Then, I had another session with the same client that was a complete 180. I made time beforehand to simply pray that I could be present and in so doing, be the person that my client needed that day. I tried not to be hard on myself when I noticed my mind wandering and just gently brought myself back to what my client was sharing. I could tell that my client and I both left this session feeling renewed and centered, and that was an amazing feeling.
This experience reminded me that the work of accompaniment does not demand perfection. The work requires integrity, deep listening, and loving, attentive presence, skills that develop with time and practice. I am not asked to be a sage, ready with a profound answer or insight to every problem, but to just show up as myself, ready to listen and pray, and let God do the rest. My job is not to fix, but simply to witness. So yes, there will be some days where my imposter syndrome is loud and I have a lot on my mind, but that’s okay. In my sessions, I am there to be there, to bring my full self and in so doing, create a space to hold my client’s full self.
All of this connects to the ongoing human struggle of just being. So many of the world’s spiritual traditions speak of the need for mindfulness in our daily lives, the letting go of distractions, worries, and judgments and being attentive to what the Divine is doing in the here and now. Allowing our thoughts, feelings, our whole selves to just be present. I think of how Jesus told his followers that God takes care of every living thing, from the little birds to the lilies of the field, and that includes us. “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” (Matthew 6:34). God’s got you, so why worry about what’s coming tomorrow, what you’re going to eat, or the 12 things on your to-do list? Just focus on right now.
Easier said than done, Lord.
Every day we receive countless messages from our families, peers, faith communities, jobs, and society at large as to who we should be, what we should think, how we should feel or what we should be doing. All of these things take us out of ourselves and don’t allow us to sit in the present moment.
As I’ve mentioned, in a few weeks I’ll be moving to Denver to be with my partner, Chad. The moving prep is just about complete and now I’m just waiting for the day to arrive. I’m making lists of new restaurants and cafés to try. I’m thinking about all the dates that my partner and I will be able to go on. I’m ecstatic! I’m happy! I’m ready!
And at the same time, there is this nagging sense that I should be sadder than I am. Why am I not torn up about leaving so many friends? Why am I not grieving the end of my time in this place?
The reality is, I am ready to leave Philly. To be clear, I have spent most of my life here, except for a brief stint in Boston, so I have already said goodbye once, which I suppose makes things easier. My roots are here, I have developed a beautiful community of friends and confidantes here, and my church home here has been so nourishing and healing. And at the same time, I am ready to see new places and meet new people, I have hurt and trauma in Philadelphia that I would like to put behind me, and most of all, I want to begin building a future with the love of my life.
When I brought all of this up in a recent session with my spiritual director, she asked me, simply, “What would it feel like to just allow yourself to be excited? To just let the grief come when it comes, if it comes at all?”
(This is what I love about spiritual direction. The simplest prompting or question by a director can really unlock so much insight that we may not have allowed ourselves to access, even if in the moment it may feel like you’re being dragged.)
That question was a reminder to return to simply being who I am, and feel whatever I may be feeling, without judgment. I could get on that plane and cry the entire flight, or I won’t. I may not feel the grief until a month or two later, and when it does, I’ll embrace it and work through it. With these few weeks that remain, I’m just allowing myself to be excited when I feel excited, or sad when I feel sad, but not pushing myself to feel one way or another. There’s a deep sense of peace in that for me.
My work with my clients reminds me that what is required of me is integrity, deep listening, and loving attentive presence. In offering spiritual direction to others, I am learning to give the same gifts to myself.
I recently got a new sticker from Art of Marza for my laptop. It’s a depiction of the story of the Good Samaritan, with Jesus in the role of the latter. There is text around it that reads, “REFUSING TO HARDEN YOUR HEART IS A RADICAL ACT”.
This message is a reminder to me that it is so tempting to look away from the suffering all around me instead of doing the right thing. Our society tells us to just ignore our neighbors who suffer under the weight of white supremacy, poverty and discrimination. Or worse, we are encouraged to blame them for their own pain, rather than the systemic abuses that are the root causes of inequality and death. It’s easy to just look away. But Jesus calls us – all of us who consider ourselves his followers – not to. I’m reminded of an antiphon that we used to sing during Lent in the Roman Catholic parish I grew up in, based on Psalm 95: “If today you hear his voice,/ harden not your hearts.”
Good Friday is a day that, despite my best efforts, doesn’t always make sense to me – at least, not in the way I was brought up to understand it, in the penal-substitution-theory-kind-of-way. I do not understand the need for the cruelty, the blood, the agony. I don’t understand why it was all necessary. It makes me uncomfortable and sad and I often do not want to engage with this day, which is why this call to not allow for a hardening of heart feels particularly live for me. It is all the more easy for me these, when there is so much pain around, to keep scrolling past a call for action for a neighbor in need than to stop and think about how I can help. It can be so tempting to simply not make eye contact and keep walking past someone experiencing homelessness than reaching into my pocket and give them some money.
In the Episcopal Church, we often liken the arms of Christ stretched out on the cross as an embrace open to all. I love that image, because it speaks to the heart of who Jesus was and is for me: someone so full of love that death could not snuff out his life for good. Jesus, even in his last, agonizing moments, asks God to forgive the people torturing him and assures a man dying next to him that he too will receive eternal life. Even with hands and feet nailed to wood, even while struggling to breathe, Jesus’ heart did not harden.
Jesus told us that what we do to the least of our kindred, we do to him. We cannot look away from the suffering of our neighbors, for doing so is looking away from Christ himself. This is how I have come to understand Good Friday and enter into it.
“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” John 12:32
When he was lifted up on the cross, Jesus drew all marginalized, oppressed, dejected people to himself. He took on our pain. God, in the person of Jesus Christ, entered into full solidarity with those who fought and died for liberation from powers and principalities, with those wrongfully accused and sentenced to languish in prison, with those discriminated against for the color of their skin, their gender, who they love, their disabilities or their economic status. Turning away from the suffering of the “least of these” is turning away from Christ himself.
If we are to be an Easter people, we must enter into Good Friday and the silence of Holy Saturday. That requires something difficult from us: we must not allow our hearts to harden. We have to interrogate our own involvement in the systems that abuse and kill our neighbors. We cannot look away from the suffering around us, but must enter into it as Jesus did, and allow our hearts of stone to become hearts of flesh that break and mourn.
Midway through this year, I had the opportunity to enroll in a spiritual direction practicum course offered by Still Harbor. I’ve been discerning a ministry in spiritual direction for a little while now, but opted not to take this course last year because it involved traveling out of state once a month and I didn’t have the funds. However with COVID-19 and literally everything being made virtual, this year the practicum was offered entirely online and I figured this was the year to do it – and I’m loving it! Being on Zoom for several hours once a month can be a challenge (I make it work with lots of water and snacks), but the material is engaging, the fellowship with my fellow students and instructors is really life giving, and I feel really affirmed in pursuing this ministry.
In our coursework last month, we learned about trauma-informed spiritual accompaniment, that is, building a practice that supports and is accountable to folks with various kinds of trauma. Engaging with this training module helped me to become more aware of how my trauma has informed my spirituality, and also how some of the ways I discuss matters of the spirit can be triggering or harmful to other folks. What really hit home for me in the coursework was an interview that we listened to with the Rev. Laura Everett, in which she discussed mending as a spiritual practice. She explained that when she patches up her wife’s favorite jacket, that is both an act of devotion to her and to the person who made the jacket. It resists the idea that objects that are broken must always be discarded. She went on to say that mending, as a “lived theology”, reminds her that no one is disposable, and that mending ourselves, healing from our own pain, is an act of devotion to God.
2020 has not been kind to anybody, but if I’m being honest, 2019 was not all that better either. I went through a lot last year: I left unhealthy workplaces, I experienced sexual harassment, I faced lots of financial insecurity, and I was in a deep depression that I masked very well. I was able, at the latter end of last year, to begin working with a therapist who helped me address all those things, and things started to feel a little easier. And then 2020 rolled around, the pandemic exploded, I lost my job, and have been living off stipends and freelance work since then. Fun times.
As incredibly traumatic as these last two years have been, there has also been immense growth. Being underemployed and in quarantine this year has been stressful, but it’s also given me the space to put my healing first. Our capitalist culture demonizes taking time for sabbath, healing, or virtually anything that isn’t “productive”. When someone close to you dies, you’re usually only allotted a few days off, if any, to attend the funeral or homegoing service, and then you’re expected to come back to work. If you get sick, like so many folks did this year, and you don’t have enough sick days to cover a period of illness, you lose wages simply for taking care of yourself (and your co-workers, by not getting them sick). I, like everyone else, internalized so much of these beliefs. I felt lazy and selfish just for making time for myself, even more so when I was having a rough mental health day. This year, I gave myself permission to really address my mental and physical health in much deeper ways than I have before.
Being in therapy has helped immensely with my anxiety and depression. One big thing I’ve worked on with my therapist is changing the way I relate to myself and others. In addition to struggling with making time for myself, I find difficult at times to ask for help when I need it, and then I feel resentful – at friends, because I feel as though they should read my mind (spoiler: they can’t) and know I need help, and at myself for taking too much on. Or I don’t ask because I’m afraid of being told no. I’ve been working on pushing through that discomfort, asking for help in little ways and working my way up to the bigger asks. I also started identifying little bits of negative self-talk that pass through my mind – you’re a burden, you’re lazy and don’t want to do this yourself, no one wants to help you – and countering them with positive messages.
As I’ve been working from home this year, I began to notice that I had trouble focusing on getting even basic tasks done. I couldn’t motivate myself to do things. I initially thought this was simply pandemic anxiety – so many other folks in my life have expressed similar difficulties – but if I was being honest with myself, it was an issue that I’ve struggled with for a very long time and just never thought much of. Before the pandemic, I had trouble sitting still or relaxing. I would often have lots of ideas for projects, start them with all the enthusiasm in the world, and then I would lose steam and not finish any of them…and promptly feel like a failure. It wasn’t until a friend of mine posted on Facebook about their ADHD symptoms that I realized a lot of what I was experiencing lined up very well with someone who has ADHD. After some tests and doctors’ visits, I was officially diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 29. A very interesting way to end my twenties for sure.
My doctor and therapist helped me change my antidepressant and added an ADHD medication to my regimen, and I noticed an immediate shift in my mood and focus. It’s been a few months now since I made these changes, and I have energy to actually do things for the first time in a while, I can actually finish things that I start, I have a lot more mental clarity, and I found it easier to work through sadness. Perhaps most notably – I’m not overwhelmed by constant anxiety. It’s liberating. I feel happier and more at ease, and my outlook on life is much more positive.
I’m finding non-pharmaceutical ways to better my mental health too – making more time for things that bring me joy, drinking more water and eating regular meals, asking for help and talking to folks I trust, and being unapologetic in taking time to rest – if I feel tired, I take a nap. All of these changes have helped me work through moments when I get triggered, sad, or anxious about the state of the world, or my finances (still living off those stipends, you know). I have a lot more tools in my belt to handle those challenges, and I’m developing more kindness for myself. I see the fruits of this work, this mending of myself, in how I interact with those I care about, too. I’m now in a loving, joy-filled relationship with my best friend, my relationships with my family are improving, and I feel like I’m able to be more present to folks when they need support, whereas before, it felt like my well was running dry.
My favorite psalm is Psalm 139, which in the NRSV has the subtitle “The Inescapable God”. It speaks of the intimacy and closeness that we have with God, because God created us: “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Ps 139:13). Knitting suggests so much tenderness. Have you ever paid attention to someone knit? It’s something that, with a lot of practice, becomes almost effortless, and at the same time still requires patience and focus. So when I say that God created us, I don’t mean God simply snapped God’s fingers and willed us into being. God formed us. God knitted each and every one of us together, and as Rev. Laura Everett said in the interview I mentioned, when we choose to take care and heal ourselves, we honor the Creator who so lovingly took time to shape us into being.
Something folks may not know about me is that I have always hated showing my teeth when I had to smile in pictures. I found it hard sometimes to smile in the mirror, even. I could always think of a litany of reasons why I didn’t like my smile. But a little while ago I saw myself in the mirror, made a silly face and took the picture below to send to my boyfriend. It hit me that I feel so much more comfortable smiling now. Another place where there’s healing happening. 2020 has been immensely difficult, traumatic, and long, there’s no doubt about it. I had so many plans and dreams for this year before shit hit the fan – I wanted to travel more, write a book, get a tattoo. I didn’t get to do any of those things, but instead I was able to do something much more meaningful – to truly make time and space for my healing and well-being. I’m grateful that I’ve been able to work on mending myself, and in so doing, giving thanks to the One who made me.
I fully admit that I am not a very adventurous or spontaneous person. I like schedules and making detailed to-do lists, and, as someone who was diagnosed with ADHD as an adult, keeping myself on task is difficult – so I like to use as many supports as possible. I enjoy routines. Friends often tease me for watching the same TV shows over and over, but hey, it’s a lot of investment to get into a new show! For a long time, I didn’t really consider where that behavior in particular came from. But as I began working with a therapist and addressing my mental health in a deeper way, I realized that it’s actually a coping mechanism for anxiety. The unknown – whether it’s questions like, “Do I have enough money to get through this month?” or, “Do I want to meet this new person?” – triggers my nerves. Having experiences that are familiar and predictable is comforting and grounding for me, so yes, I will watch the same shows and listen to the same albums and go to the same coffee shop and not get tired. But, every so often I will push past my anxiety a bit and do something different. In 2018 one of my best friends asked if I wanted to go with her to Copenhagen, Denmark for vacation. While I was excited because I’d never left the United States before, my anxiety also had many questions – “How are we going to get around? Neither of us knows Danish. How will we pay for things? How will I keep in contact with folks if I don’t have phone service?” I decided to go ahead and go with all these questions. There was a lot of planning before we left of course, but a lot of unexpected things happened. For example, I wasn’t able to get a SIM card so I had to rely on free wifi wherever I could find it. One of my nightmare scenarios came true! Despite this, I was with one of my closest friends, and it was easily one of the best trips I’ve ever taken. Having to rely on free wifi also allowed me to be a bit more present, rather than checking my phone constantly. The trip was a risk in my mind, but one that paid off. That’s what living with my anxiety is like – balancing between routine and risk.
I love how Luke describes Mary in this verse as “pondering what sort of greeting this might be”. If I were in Mary’s shoes and there was a literal angel in my home, I would have absolutely said, “Um. Hold up. Wait just a minute. What are you saying to me right now?” Isn’t it funny how angels always have to reassure people to not be afraid whenever they show up in the Bible? Maybe it’s because they have a tendency to just show up without so much as a knock! But I digress. Gabriel senses her apprehension and offers her more information about his sudden appearance. God wants her to be the mother of the Son of the Most High. Mary, understandably, has a question about how exactly that will happen. Gabriel assuages her anxieties: “Nothing will be impossible with God.” That’s a phrase I often respond to my own anxious worries with. Nothing will be impossible with God. It doesn’t mean everything will be magically taken care of and wrapped up in a bow for me, but it does mean that it will work out, somehow. And I’d like to imagine, based on her yes to God’s plan, that was enough for Mary’s anxieties too. She may not have known all the specifics – she didn’t yet know about the kind of life her son would lead – but she was willing to take the risk to see what God had in store for her, and she knew that she and her family would be taken care of. So she makes her preparations by visiting her cousin Elizabeth and getting ready to travel to Bethlehem for the census with Joseph, and then her son is born. The first Christmas. Of course, we know that Mary’s life, and the life of her newborn son, was anything but easy. But I imagine as she rested in that stable waiting to give birth, she knew and accepted the risks.
As we’ve journeyed this Advent, I have been pushing and prodding you, dear friend, to think about the world we live in, the way its systems harm us, and what it would be like if we let these old ways of being die and let something new take its place. And I’m sure you probably have many questions, like Mary. We all have to consider if it is all worth the risk, right? Because this world is all we’ve ever known. But think about what we’ve held onto for the sake of our own comfort: We’ve accepted the falsehood that some people are poor just because of their ‘life choices’ and not at all because the systems are rigged against them. We’ve accepted that war is fine if it means it will bring prosperity. We don’t seem to think anything is wrong with people drowning in medical debt or avoiding doctor’s visits because they cannot afford them. We ignore the unethical labor practices under which our products are made because they’re so cheap and can be delivered to us next day. We deny our own needs and health for the sake of not wanting to be a burden to our families or workplaces.
So if what we’ve known is harming us all – physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually – and in many ways is antithetical to God’s dreams for us, why continue? Why not take a risk and dream beyond what is familiar? As you enter this last week of Advent, think about what you would need to be willing to agree to take that risk and help give birth to a new world: Do you need to rest and take more time for yourself? Do you need to do more internal work? Do you need to learn more about the oppressive systems that are harming your siblings? Do you need to build better relationships with your neighbors and communities? All of these are valid questions. Remember that as you sit with them, God will answer, and God will provide for you. For nothing is impossible with God.
A question for you:
What do you need in order to help bring about a new world?
A prayer for this fourth and final week of Advent:
God of strength, you exalted Mary to be the mother of your beloved Son and supplied her every need. Bestow upon us the gifts of your Holy Spirit, that we may prepare our hearts and minds for the coming of your Son and your Kin-dom. Amen.
I am always amazed at how life finds a way to flourish even in the most difficult of circumstances. I contemplate this when I’m walking through my neighborhood and I see a dandelion sprouting out of the sidewalk. Even with a layer of concrete to contend with, a seed took root and grew up toward the sun. It’s a potent image of resistance – that life will adapt and make a way forward.
There is much to be sad and frustrated about with this year but what has given me immense hope is seeing the many ways folks have been supporting their neighbors during the pandemic. I think of the many friends who, with the news of mask shortages in hospitals, made masks out of fabric for healthcare workers. Across the United States, “community fridges” have popped up in cities and towns to support those experiencing food insecurity. These are fridges that are stocked with donations, and folks can simply walk up and take what they need. There’s also a greater awareness of mutual aid, and more mutual aid funds have been started and continue to support people who need to pay bills, buy food, or take care of other expenses. I think too about how churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship invested time and money into learning how to livestream their services so congregants could worship and pray from home. Strangers saw other strangers in need and instead of waiting on the state or nonprofits to help, stepped in and did what they could.
The events of this year have also allowed us to question our collective ways of doing things. For example, as companies allowed more employees to work from home for safety, employees began to question why such accommodations weren’t made before for folks with disabilities. My Facebook feed has been filled with posts from friends wondering why it is that we are all expected to be productive during a pandemic, instead of taking the time and space necessary to ensure the spread of COVID-19 is stopped – and to give ourselves space to properly mourn our dead and the world we once knew. There have also been renewed energy and conversations, after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor this year, around dismantling white supremacy and the need for defunding the police. What I see in these expressions of solidarity and this larger questioning of systems is a yearning for a world other than the one we have been given. What if we actually had a society where everyone had their needs provided for? What if we spent time and money investing in underserved communities rather than simply responding to every issue with more surveillance and policing? What if we didn’t have to spend so much time working and more time with our loved ones? What if we could actually rest deeply without worrying about our lives falling apart? What if? What if?
I love the book of Isaiah for many reasons, but this passage especially is a favorite of mine. It feels especially resonant now. We are in the third, “pink” week of Advent – traditionally when we joyfully look forward to the birth of Christ in the next couple of days. With this year being as long and painful as it has been, it may have been hard for you to find joy. I know it has been for me. This passage is a reminder that our God is one who wipes away our tears. The prophet says God will turn our mourning into happiness, our grief into praise. We are told that after the devastation, the people of Israel will rebuild and restore what has been lost. When I see people setting up community fridges, sharing mutual aid funds, or advocating for their mental health needs, I think of this passage. This work of restoration – what our Jewish siblings call tikkun olam, repairing the world – is holy and blessed by God. Our yearnings for a better, more loving world made manifest.
God tells us over and over in the Bible what God’s vision for the world is like: one that is based on justice, compassion, and love. We hear in Isaiah’s opening verses some of God’s priorities: liberation for the oppressed, healing for those with broken hearts, freedom for captives and prisoners. Much later on, in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus reads these words when he visits his hometown’s synagogue and proclaim that, with his arrival, the verses have been fulfilled. Although the people present didn’t care much for his proclamation (they proceeded to run him out of town, actually), the Gospels show us that Jesus embodied these words in the way he advocated for the poor and forgotten and by his desire to bring all people into the Kin-dom of God.
People often dismiss “radical” policies like universal health care, loan forgiveness or accountability outside the criminal justice system as too idealistic. They are “pipe dreams.” Some may even say “un-Christian”! But God’s desires for our world are not simply spiritual – they are tangible: food for the poor, release of prisoners, forgiveness of debts. Are God’s calls for justice “pipe dreams”? Or have we simply deluded ourselves into thinking that our systems of oppression are not at all in contradiction with the Kin-dom of God? We have to dream bigger, because God’s dreams and longings for us are brighter than we can ever imagine. This week, consider: What is your vision of an ideal world? Is it one based on love and equality? What do you wish your community had access to? How could your life and the lives of your family, friends, and neighbors be different if we changed our societal priorities?
God of defiant joy, you break the bonds of oppression and lift your people up from their despair. Inspire us with your dreams for your children, that we may make them manifest in this broken and suffering world. Amen.
It doesn’t take much to imagine that John the Baptist was probably a “controversial” figure. He did, after all, live in the desert, eat bugs, and call the religious authorities of his day a “brood of vipers” (Mt 3:7) to their faces. But it was more so because he told people the Kingdom of God was coming and they needed to change their ways – and it was for this reason that he was ultimately beheaded. We’re told in the Gospel of Luke that crowds of people came to John while he was alive to be baptized – but we can assume that just as many crowds saw John, didn’t like what he had to say or the way he looked, and ignored him. Jesus was treated in much the same way. He was maligned by the religious and political authorities of his day so much that he had nowhere to truly lay his head.
There is this common trope in disaster TV and movies of an anxious scientist trying to warn public officials of an impending catastrophe, such a volcano that’s going to blow or an asteroid hurtling toward earth. Sadly their warnings are ignored until it’s too late. You might see that storyline and think, “Politicians would never do that!” Yet in 2020 many elected officials, particularly in the highest levels of the United States government, said that COVID-19 was a hoax or asserted that it wasn’t that much of a threat to public health while hundreds of thousands of Americans have died – and continue to die – from the virus. And before the pandemic, they said the same things about climate change despite the fact that scientists have been warning us about it for decades.
The reason why Jesus, or prophets like John, or scientists and doctors in our country are ignored or outright attacked as ‘liars’ is the fact that their warnings challenge people’s worldviews; they threaten to disrupt the way we’ve always done things. Jesus’ whole adult life was centered on turning the status quo upside down – he healed those considered untouchable and disposable, he told the rich to give away their possessions to the poor, he spoke openly to women and included them in his ministry. Above all, he preached love, forgiveness, and compassion, especially for “the least of these” – the most marginalized. These teachings are still sorely needed, and they still fly in the face of the status quo today.
St. Paul tells us, “the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.” (1 Cor 3:19) The ‘wisdom’ of this world suggests that the elderly should sacrifice themselves for the economy, while Jesus says the rich should give away their wealth and take care of the most vulnerable among us. The ‘wisdom’ of this world is that companies should not pay their workers adequately for the sake of preserving their profits – but God says do not steal, give your employees their due. The ‘wisdom’ of this world proclaims, “Time is money!”, but God says, “Honor the Sabbath.”
When I think about who is doing the holy work of disruption today, one person who immediately comes to mind is Tricia Hersey (aka the “Nap Bishop”), creator of The Nap Ministry. Tricia is an activist, artist, and theologian who, through social media, workshops, and “napping experiences” beckons all of us to (re)discover the power of rest. Her posts on social media remind me that taking time for rest is not only sacred and vital, but it also makes room for me, and all of us, to picture the world differently: “If you cannot imagine or envision a way for you to rest for 15 to 30 min a day, how will you be able to imagine or envision a world without police terror and equality for all? Our lack of imagination is intimately tied to our liberation. Our DreamSpace must be cultivated.” This centering of rest and self-care is a rebuke of capitalist “grind culture”, and it also gives me space to think deeply about what life would be like if I didn’t live paycheck to paycheck – what if had more time to spend with my loved ones, more resources to take care of both my and my community’s needs, more energy for leisure and creative pursuits? What if we all had those things, not simply the rich and privileged few?
The ideologies that hold our world up – individualism, productivity at all costs, profit over people, nationalism and fear of our neighbors – are so firmly entrenched in our minds and ways of life. The pandemic has exposed this in very visceral ways: people’s refusal to wear masks, companies not paying workers hazard pay, racist attacks and remarks directed at Chinese folks because of where the virus was first reported. We must listen to, and also share the work of, disruptors – folks who are telling us there is another, much better world to live in if we are willing to dream.
Some questions for you:
What are some of the ways your worldview has changed this year? Are there internalized, toxic messages in your mind that need to be disrupted?
God of mystery, your prophet Elijah found you not in strong winds, nor earthquakes, nor fires, but in a still, small voice: attune us to discern your words amid the noise of this life. Help us to be present, that we may hear the soft cries of your newborn Son and the choirs of angels announcing his coming.
When I was in high school, I watched a lot of “docuseries” about natural disasters and world-ending catastrophes. These shows catalogued the many scenarios in which life on earth could be completely annihilated: from the probable, such as an asteroid collision, to the outlandish – such as robots becoming self-aware and deciding to kill us all. This was a few years before 2012, too. Doomsday prophets and New Age thought leaders predicted that, based on their interpretations of the ancient Mayan calendar, the world would end on December 21, 2012. Of course, that day came and went, the Earth was not sucked into a black hole, and furthermore, indigenous Mayans and scholars affirmed that the whole idea was ridiculous and just a ploy for white people to sell books.
2020 feels different though, doesn’t it? There were no doomsday prophecies made about this year, yet it feels immensely apocalyptic. The coronavirus pandemic has completely upended our society. Healthcare systems are overwhelmed, and a collective failure to take mitigation efforts seriously has only made things worse. Millions have lost their jobs. The risk of infection has robbed families and friends of the opportunity to properly mourn the loved ones who succumbed to COVID-19. We also saw collective uprisings across the United States and around the world over the murders of Black people at the hands of police and how these protests were met with more police violence and repression. Wildfires raged across the western United States and Australia, bringing death and destruction. This year’s hurricane season, worsened by climate change, brought storm after storm, devastating Central America and the American South. Oh, and let’s not forget about the literal murder hornets – remember those?
It’s hard not to see the events of this year and not think that we are in the “End Times”. In the scripture for this week, Jesus tells his disciples to pay attention to the signs that the Son of Man is coming and prepare for his return. It’s a message Jesus repeats in many places in the Gospels, either explicitly or in parable: “Keep awake.” Be present. Stay focused, or you might miss it. In his book on climate change entitled We Are the Weather, Jonathan Safran Foer writes, “Encoded into our language is the understanding that disasters tend to expose that which was previously hidden.” When you think “apocalypse”, you think of a world-ending catastrophe – but the ancient Greek root of the word means to “uncover” or “reveal”. The chaos of 2020 has taken much from us – but it has also exposed the ways in which the systems upon which our world is built are actively oppressing and killing us all, with the most marginalized taking the brunt. The pandemic has shown Americans how deeply neglected our healthcare system is and how many Americans simply cannot afford to get sick and miss work. Coronavirus showed us too, how our capitalist economy allows some to work from home but forces predominantly Black and Brown people to work essential jobs and potentially get sick, or risk losing wages. The killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor showed us that white supremacy continues to thrive in all of our institutions, particularly among police forces. The wildfires and hurricanes of this year reminded us that climate change will only make these natural disasters even worse – and we are running out of time to adequately address it. Crisis lays bare the things we may not have seen before, or more likely, chose to ignore.
Jesus reminds us to be alert and pay attention to what is going on around us. I invite you to notice what’s happening internally as well. Are you stressed? Sad? Anxious? Are you eating enough? How’s your sleep been? For me, I know that for much of this year I’ve been operating on auto-pilot – trying to stay afloat with all the chaos, trying to keep myself occupied so I don’t think too much – that whenever someone would ask how I was doing, I’d simply say, “Oh, you know…just tired.” It wasn’t until recently, as I began really addressing my mental health needs in a deeper way that I could go deeper with my feelings. I am happy that I have time to contemplate and can still connect with friends despite being socially distanced. I’m mourning the many people who’ve died from coronavirus. I’m missing the many things I used to do without worrying about potentially getting sick. I am stressed about finances, but feeling assured that God will take care of me. I am grateful to have a home and enough to eat. I am tired. Know that all of what you’re feeling is valid, and deserves to be acknowledged.
Is our world ending? Well, yes, the world as we knew it before the pandemic is gone, as much as we would love to “go back to normal”. But also because we are seeing the death throes of unsustainable, violent systems and ways of life. Our old habits and routines have dramatically changed as well. If we are paying attention, if we stay alert, we can actually take action to ensure that the world we rebuild – and the lives we create for ourselves – are more life-giving and more just than the ones we had before.
God of truth, awaken our senses to the truths you want us to see. Help us to stay present and alert, that we may watch for the coming of your Son in our midst, just as the shepherds watched and followed the star in the skies above Bethlehem.
“How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.” Psalm 84:1-2
In this strange and scary time of quarantine, a lot of us Christians are struggling with being isolated not just from our family and friends, but from our church communities. While many churches have quickly adapted to live-streaming services on Facebook and YouTube, you may feel, as I do, that it just doesn’t feel the same as being physically present in church. So then, maybe this is a good time to set aside a spot for prayer at home if you’ve never done it before.
For as long as I can remember, my abuelita has kept a little home altar in her apartment, with statues and pictures of Jesus and Mary and the saints, bottles of holy water and her rosaries. She would light candles there every morning before doing her prayers as a way to ground herself for the day ahead. Keeping such a space is a practice found in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, the idea being that this little home chapel is an extension of one’s parish church. Inspired by my grandmother, I have long kept a practice of keeping a dedicated spot for prayer in whatever living situation I’m in. Borrowing from my Roman Catholic roots and practices from our Orthodox siblings, my space is a little of both, a little Anglican too, and uniquely my own.
What follows is a basic guide to creating your own prayer space at home, based on my practices that have, in turn, come out of research and guidance from clergy and friends. Call it an altar, a prayer nook, icon shelf, whatever you’d like. I’ve also included pictures of my own space as well as friends’ for your inspiration.
A table, desk, or shelf with some space for you to stand, sit or kneel in front of it. Choose a space that you pass by and see every day. A nice place might be your living room, but if you live with roommates, family members, or a partner, you may have to talk with them about whether or not they’re okay with this kind of space in a common area. It would be nice to choose a room or space together! Once you’ve picked a spot, decide what kind of surface you want to work with. Do you want a low table you can sit in front of? Or maybe a shelf? It’ll depend on your preference and the size of the area you’re working with. Now that you have the table or shelf, you can keep it plain, but you may choose to put a nice tablecloth or piece of fabric on it. Personally, I like to swap the fabrics I use according to the current liturgical season, but I’m a little extra, so you don’t have to do this. You also don’t have to buy new furniture if you don’t want to! You can easily convert the top of a book case or a corner of your desk into a prayer space.
A cushion or chair. If you cannot stand for extended periods of time, definitely get something you can sit on. It doesn’t have to be fancy. If kneeling is part of your worship practice, you may also want a cushion for this. You may want to go extra ascetic and kneel on your floor, but I guarantee you that your knees will ache after about 5 minutes.
Devotional objects, such as icons, statuettes or crosses. You should have an image of Jesus front and center, as a reminder that he is the center of your life. This can be an icon, print, or a standing cross. Personally, I have an icon of Jesus Pantocrator (Jesus Almighty, sometimes called “Jesus the Teacher”). Use whatever depiction speaks to you. You can also swap it out according to liturgical season, perhaps using an icon of the Nativity for Advent and Christmas and a print of the crucifixion for Lent and Holy Week.
From here, you may want to add an image of Mary and/or of saints that you have a connection with. If you can’t think of anyone, this might be a good opportunity for you to research holy people! You have so many options here, friends. You could also start with an icon or picture of your parish patron saint, as a reminder that this prayer space is an extension of the church.
At home, I have many icons of Mary and the saints, but unfortunately, not all of them fit in my prayer space, so I occasionally rotate them based on how I’m feeling. Currently, I have an icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help which I got, in all places, at a thrift store (I have a knack for finding icons in places like this); a statue of St. Francis of Assisi, my patron saint; a picture of St. Moses the Black, one of the Desert Fathers; as well as a larger statue of Our Lady of Grace.
Candles. A flame, whether it is the light of a candle or the new fire of the Easter Vigil, is a physical reminder of Christ’s light in our lives. It is also a visual cue – when you light a candle before an icon or a statue, it immediately conveys a feeling of sanctity. It sends a message to your mind that you are in a sacred space and it is time to pray, so you should have at least one candle in your prayer space. I have one main vigil lamp – a simple tea light in a glass votive holder – in front of my icon of Jesus that I keep lit while I’m at home. The tea light lasts for around 4 hours so it needs to be replaced if I want it lit all day. I have recently ordered an Orthodox style vigil oil lamp with wicks that I can replenish throughout the day so that it is a true vigil and also a bit less wasteful than using tea lights. I also use two tapers that I light whenever I’m saying the Daily Office or if I’m watching a livestream service from my church, but you can keep it simple and just stick with one candle if you want. If you can’t light candles in your space, use battery operated candles. Yes, I know, “They aren’t the same!” But you have to use what you can in your circumstances and God meets us where we are. I assure you that your prayer will not be less effective if you use electric candles.
Prayer aids, such as Bibles, prayer books, rosaries or other prayer beads. As a Good Episcopalian, I need my Book of Common Prayer within reach when I’m praying. I also have a small, black leather bound copy of the Bible nearby, though I am more drawn to reading from my bilingual Spanish/English edition these days. If your spiritual background includes praying the rosary, have one on your table or shelf. You don’t have to put every prayer aid you have on the table, but keep your more heavily used ones on it or at least within reach.
PUTTING IT TOGETHER
Once you have your space selected, it’s time to assemble. As mentioned earlier, put your image of Jesus front and center, and have other images and items arranged around it. Place candles so they don’t obstruct the images – you want to be able to see them during prayer. There’s no right or wrong way to arrange things, so let the Spirit move you. You may want to open and close this time with prayer and listen to some appropriate music while doing so.
Incense.“Let my prayer be set forth in your sight as incense” (Ps 141:2). In addition to smelling lovely and reminding us of the sweetness of our Lord, incense provides for another visual cue – our prayers ascending to heaven. If you’ve never burned incense before, you may want to start simple with incense sticks and a boat rather than fiddling with charcoal and a censer. I serve as a thurifer in my parish, so I’m a bit more comfortable using the latter and prefer the smell of incense grains over sticks. It’s totally up to you! If you can’t burn incense in your home or apartment, try using a wax warmer with a scent that reminds you of church.
Flowers. Adding a small vase or vases with fresh flowers from time to time adds a really nice touch to your sacred space. I like to put flowers on my prayer desk for major feasts as well as when I’m feeling thankful for a particular blessing or prayer answered. My friend Jimmy keeps potted plants in his prayer space (pictured here), which I love! They can be wonderful reminders of the beauty of God’s creation and our duty to preserve it.
Blessed objects. Things like palm branches from Palm Sunday or blessed chalk from Epiphany. I also have a bottle of holy water that my priest gave me.
Other decor. Be creative! I have seen folks use string lights, rainbow fabric, and prints with scripture verses. Choose decorations that make the space inviting and inspire your faith. One item that I keep central is a small dish that my friend Sarah gave me a few years ago with a simple message: “Pray more. Worry less.” Fitting for the times we’re in!
Use the space for prayer. This should go without saying, but use your space for prayer. Don’t check Facebook after saying the Daily Office (which I am *totally* not guilty of doing) or use the space for mundane activities like eating. Prayer doesn’t have to be restricted to just the Daily Office, of course – if your church has been livestreaming the Eucharist, put your laptop or phone next to your prayer table while you watch the service and light a candle or two. You can also take time for lectio divina and read scripture or devotional books in your space.
Respect the space. As I mentioned earlier, if you live with roommates or family, you’ll want to talk to them about this prayer space, especially if you decide to put it in a common area of your home or apartment. If your partner, roommates, or guests aren’t particularly religious, take the opportunity to share why having this space is important to you.
Ask them to respect it by not disturbing your items or putting non-sacred things like food or drink on it. If you have kids, involve them in the process of constructing the prayer table or nook! This will teach them its importance and help them to practice reverence in front of the space. You’ll also want to set some rules for kids with regard to the prayer space as well, especially when it comes to fire safety if you’re using candles or incense.
Clean the space regularly. Make time to clean your prayer table or shelf. Dust the surface itself and any icons or statuettes you may have. Remove dried flowers, used tea lights, wicks, charcoal dust, etc. This space is an extension of your church – treat it as such! You may find it helpful to recite Psalm 84 while cleaning, as I’ve recently started doing.
I hope you find this guide useful and I pray that it inspires you to create your own prayer space or add to your existing one. Please remember, this space is your own, it is already special and pleasing to God. Don’t judge your space as inadequate because you don’t have x, y, or z or because your friends have loads of icons and lamps. If having just a simple table with candles and a cross is what speaks to you, that’s enough. This is a devotional space for you to come to God with your joys, sadness, thanksgivings, fears. Make it feel as such, and let the Spirit guide you.
“Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God.” Psalm 84:3
I preached this sermon at Connexion on March 24, 2019 (Third Sunday of Lent). The texts referenced are Exodus 3:1-15 and Luke 13:1-9.
This past week, I got to see one of my personal idols, Laverne Cox. Some of you may know her as Sophia Burset on a little Netflix show called Orange is the New Black. Her career is made of many notable ‘firsts’ – she was the first transgender woman to win a Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Special Class Special, the first trans person to appear on the cover of Time and Cosmopolitan magazines and, fun fact, the first openly trans person to have a wax statue of themselves at Madame Tussauds.
Laverne was at the University of Pennsylvania as a guest of an LGBTQ student group. The house was packed. Laverne shared quite a bit of her story with us- the pressures of fame, her journey of entering therapy and finding healing for herself. There is one statement that she made that has stuck with me all week.
Laverne told us about how when she first moved to New York to launch her career she thought she would be famous within two years. In reality, it took twenty years before she landed her role on Orange is the New Black. She learned after patience, rejection, and frustration that the work she felt called to would happen “on God’s time, not my time.” It ultimately wasn’t up to her, and she learned to trust that everything would work out – and it did, several times over.
“God’s Time. Not my time.”
There’s a persistent belief in our society that if we are patient and work hard enough, we will get everything we want, and we have a lot of platitudes in our culture around patience. We say things like, “Good things come to those who wait.” But in reality these statements have been used to continue people’s unjust treatment and silence dissent. The powerful and privileged can tell the oppressed that they’ll get their slice of the pie if they just work hard and be patient, all the while continuing to hoard a whole bakery’s worth.
But I think Laverne was getting at something much deeper than this. In Christian belief we have a concept called kairos – this idea of God’s appointed time for something. Scripture says, “Only the Father knows the hour.” This idea of God’s time subverts our expectations and stubbornness. An ideal time to us isn’t necessarily the same to God.
We have today the story of the burning bush, and I want to focus on the latter portion of the story. Moses is awestruck by this bewildering sight and also terrified at realizing he was in the presence of God. The Lord says to Moses, “The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”
Moses is suffering from imposter syndrome. Have you interviewed for a job, gotten the position and spent the first week or month wondering if we were actually qualified for it? Or if you’re a new parent, perhaps you’ve held your baby and thought, “Am I really ready for this?” How many of us have felt the burning call of the Holy Spirit in our very bodies and yet doubt that it could be real? How many of us make excuse after excuse to deny what we feel in our souls? How many of us have asked that very same question at some point in our lives, “Who am I to do this?”
Opportunity and challenge come and find us whether we are ready for them or not. That is kairos. It is God’s time, not ours. God has orchestrated a magnum opus, and we are playing our part in the symphony. You may have wanted to be in another movement, but God wanted you where you are. Your part is critical, because the music wouldn’t sound the same if you were in a different place. Kairos reminds us that we may insist that we aren’t ready when our part comes, but God has been preparing us.
The Gospel reading today is a very interesting choice. I want to turn your attention to the parable Jesus shares with the people in this passage. We hear about a landowner with a vineyard who comes upon a tree that hasn’t borne fruit yet. ‘So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’
Now based on the all of the judgment and bloodiness that comes before this passage, we are inclined to think of God as being in the position of the landowner judging his crops, and the trees are a stand-in for us. We all have to get right with God and bear fruit, or else we will be cut down and thrown into the furnace.
But I want to offer you another interpretation of this parable. What if instead of playing the landowner in this story, God is actually the heroic gardener? The gardener sees potential in this tree, sees it worth, and wants to save it. So he says to the landowner, give it another year. Let me give this tree some fertilizer. In due time it will bear fruit. It’s not about when the landowner believes he should have fruit, but when the tree is ready. Just in case you were wondering, it actually can take up to five or six years, not three, for a fig tree to bear fruit.
Our capitalist society values productivity. We are told that our worth is bound up with our position in society, the amount of money we make, our material possessions. If you aren’t successful by a certain age or station in your life, you must have failed. This thinking doesn’t take into account that our society also denies people resources they need to survive, and it refuses to acknowledge that some people’s successes are built on the pain and oppression of others. (But I digress.)
God operates on different standards and measures. God looks upon the lowly and says, they are not worthless, because I made them.
God sees potential in us that the world doesn’t see, and God places us in different parts and scenes of the grand performance of life. That is why God chose Moses, despite Moses wondering aloud if he was the right choice, despite his hesitancy. That was themoment, and Moses was theperson. That is why the gardener says, Give this tree the chance it deserves. Give it time. God’s time, not your time. It is up to us to discern the movement of God in our lives, and to rise to meet the opportunities presented to us.
In this Lenten season of preparation, we move closer to Holy Week and the shadow of the cross. We see God’s time playing out in each painful step of the walk to Calvary. Lent makes us very aware that there are things we may not want to face. With the universe running on God’s time, we will have to face them whether we want to or not, like Moses witnessing the blaze of the burning bush and being called by God to lead his people to freedom. But, like the gardener, God is preparing us to meet the challenge.
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