Author: Travis E. Christian

Advent: A Message of Hope

Today is the first day of Advent—and I love Advent. Advent is that 4-week period of anticipation for the coming of Christmas; for the time when people all around the globe come together to remember the coming of the Light of Christ into the world, for that time when we are actively waiting for Christmas; for a time that has many different meanings to every one of us.

Each of the four weeks of Advent is centered around a central message, and this—the first week of Advent—reminds us of the importance of Hope. Google defines “hope” as a noun meaning “a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen,”—which seems very fitting for the Advent season. Alternatively, it can mean “a person or thing that may help or save someone,”—and here again we return to the Light of Christ, or to the Christ child. The third and final definition Google gives for “hope” as a noun is “grounds for believing that something good may happen,”—and once again, I think this perfectly defines the spirit of Advent, perhaps even better than the other two seemingly perfect definitions.

When we turn on the news or scroll through social media, or when we talk to others in our communities, it can be easy to lose hope and fall into a state of hopelessness. When people begin to lose hope, they stop “believing that something good may happen.” When this happens, we can rightly be said to have fallen into a place of darkness. But if we can get one small flame of hope, just one small candle burning in the darkness of despair, we can begin to see again. We can see that while things can be hard and the world around us may seem overwhelming, that there is a light of hope that can light our way. When we remember that “something good may happen,” we can strengthen our faith and regain the strength to work toward building a better world, one day at a time—one moment at a time.

If we allow the Light of Christ to shine in our times of darkness, we can follow that light toward a path of justice, of love, of mercy, and of liberation, but all of that requires us to find hope. Hope is that which keeps movements going through insurmountable odds. I believe that each of us carries within us that of God, and I believe that hope is what allows us to see that of God in the people and creation around us.

Advent is a time to hope for the coming of the Light in the darkness. Advent is a time to look forward to spending time with our families when Christmas gets here. Advent is a time of “expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen,”—hope for the coming of Christ’s Light into the world. Advent is a time for waiting for “a person or thing that may help or save” us—for our Christ Child, Emmanuel.

A Prayer
Holy and Gracious God, we pray that as we light this candle so, too, will a fire of Hope be kindled in our hearts. May we hold this Hope gently, as we are urged to stay awake and be ready for a most amazing event! As we prepare to receive the Christ Child, may we be ever mindful of our love for you, and Yours for us. This will keep the flames of Hope burning in this Advent season. We pray all this in the name of Emmanuel. Amen.

FREE Printable .PDF Hope Coloring Page

Jesus Identifies with Those on the Margins

This morning there was a worship service for prospective students at the Earlham School of Religion where I am currently a seminary student. The service was titled “What Did Jesus Do?” and I was honored to be invited to participate with a short reading and reflection called “Jesus Identifies with Those on the Margins.” My reading was from Matthew 25:31-46:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels;for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

The text of my reflection on this pericope from Matthew’s gospel was as follows:

In this reading from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is very clear that those who are hungry, thirsty, strangers, in need of clothing, sick, and in prison are, in a sense, proxies for God—for Jesus himself. Jesus tells us that those that gave the hungry something to eat, those that gave the thirsty something to drink, those that invited the stranger into their homes, those that gave clothing to those lacking clothes, those that took care of the sick, and those that visited those in prison were doing these things to and for him.

Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me,” and “…just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” We find ourselves today in a time when collectively, as a people, we are doing a terrible job of looking after what Jesus calls “the least of these.” To be fair, though, we have been doing a pretty bad job at that for all of human history but that does not absolve us of our responsibilities today, tomorrow, and forever.

In this reading, I don’t think Jesus is giving us a set list of specific circumstances in which we are to serve, but rather he is giving a short non-exhaustive list of some of the struggles experienced by those living on the margins and simple ways people can help alleviate the suffering these struggles cause. Yes, we need to do the things, because hungry people still need to eat, the thirsty still need water, immigrants certainly are in dire need of a sense of hospitality, there are still those in need of clean and functional clothing, the sick still need medical care, and prisoners still need visitation, but the list does not end there. All of these things are simply ways of giving life and dignity to those living on the margins of society.

When the LGBTQ people living in our communities—and recently especially our trans siblings—are having their very existence threatened, we are called to stand with them and let them know they are loved while rallying by their side to preserve their right to exist. When our Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh friends and neighbors are being violently attacked because of their faith, we are called to defend their right to love God in their ways. When our sisters who identify as female become prey to our rape culture, we are called to listen to them when they speak out, and to join with them in dismantling the system that allows men to continue to abuse without repercussions. When our siblings of color are being regularly executed in the streets by the police and sucked into a system of prison enslavement and poverty, we are called to do everything we can to bring an end to such a despicable state of being.

Jesus not only lived on the margins of society, he identifies himself with all of those living on the margins. Will we stand with God in the myriad of ways that God manifests in our world, doing what we can to alleviate suffering and injustice, or will we find ourselves, like the followers in the parable, saying “but Lord, when were you part of the LGBTQ community? When were you a Jew or a Muslim or a Sikh? When were you a woman victimized by abuse? When were shot down in the streets?”

In this passage, I believe Jesus is asking us to put aside our world’s emphasis on letting each person deal with their own issues on their own, to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, an emphasis all too present in the individualist society we find ourselves in today. He is instead, giving us the option to give life and dignity to those on the margins, to do what we can to make their hardships a little more tolerable. And when we do so, we’re doing it to help out another human being that is, like us, a child of God, but we are also doing it to that same God at the same time. For just as we choose to do or not to do for the least of these, we are choosing to do or not to do to Christ himself.

Psalm 137: A Personal Interpretation

  1. Sitting on the banks of the mighty river Euphrates, we wept as we remembered the Holy Mountains of Peace.
  2. We laid our instruments down by the poplar trees.
  3. For our captors tortured us and ordered us to be joyful and to play them our songs from the City of Peace.
  4. But how could we sing the songs of the God of Peace in the land of our oppressors?
  5. If I forget the City of Peace, may I never play my harp again.
  6. Take my voice and keep me from singing a song again if I should forget you. If I should set any thoughts above the thoughts of Just Peace.
  7. Remember, O God, the day our city was captured. How our oppressors mocked us, saying, “destroy this holy city of peace!”
  8. Our oppression shall come to an end. Blessed are those who return us to justice.
  9. Blessed are those who turn the children of the oppressors against their wicked ways and toward your Liberation.

Psalm 55: A Personal Interpretation

  1. Hear my prayers, O God of Peace; do not hide yourself from my petitions.
  2. Listen to me, and answer me; for I am overwhelmed with troubles
  3. brought on by my oppressive thoughts. My inner voice can be so cruel and vicious, leading me into a place of darkness.
  4. My heart is heavy and visions of death have become my companion.
  5. I am lost in fear and trembling; overwhelmed with horror and dread.
  6. I cry out to you for help! If only I had the wings of a dove, I could fly away to a place where I could find inner peace.
  7. I would fly far from this place of chaos and seek refuge in Your places of solitude.
  8. I would find a shelter to keep me safe from this storm of despair.
  9. Take away these thoughts, for I fear they will lead me to the ways of violence and strife.
  10. Day and night I am overcome by the ways of this world.
  11. But the ways of this world is the path to ruin. The markets are filled with merchants peddling oppression and fraud.
  12. It is not those who speak evil and untruths about me—I can deal with them; it is not my enemy that tries to bring me to ruin.
  13. No! It is that very light within myself which has dimmed.
  14. That which brought me close to you, O God, who taught me to know you and to walk with you.
  15. Take these thoughts away. Let them dwell alone in the place of darkness they love.
  16. I call upon the God of Peace to save me.
  17. Any time of day, God will hear my petitions; my liberator will always hear my voice.
  18. God will save me from the tyranny of these thoughts.
  19. The God of Peace is my ruler, he will free me from bondage and lead me back to the ways of peace.
  20. My darkness enveloped me, turning me away from Your ways.
  21. It convinced me of lies and tried to get me to do violence against God’s creation.
  22. Put your faith in the God of Peace, who will sustain you and lead you down the path of love.
  23. You, O God of Peace, have the power to dispel the darkness, to cast out the despotism of wicked thoughts, leading me back to the road to peace. It is in the God of Peace that I put my trust for all my days.

A Blessing and Commentary

A couple of weeks ago I had to write a blessing accompanied by a short commentary for a class I’m taking in seminary. This is the result of that process:

Blessed are you, God of Peace,

who commands us to work for Justice

and to be Your hands in repairing Creation.

Blessed are you, God of Peace

The first part of this blessing nods to the formula used in blessings in the Jewish tradition and is directly offered to that aspect of God that is the God of Peace. The phrase “God of Peace” is one that is used several times throughout the Pauline epistles (see Romans 15:33, Romans 16:20, 1 Corinthians 14:33, 2 Corinthians 13:11, Philippians 4:9, Hebrews 13:20, and 1 Thessalonians 5:23), but the idea that peace comes from God and that God desires peace is an ancient idea which transcends any single religion. In Judaism, שלום (Shalom), meaning Peace, which is used as a common greeting, is considered a name for God, so much so that the Talmud discusses not greeting another in the bathroom as not to desecrate the name:

It is forbidden for a person to greet [shalom] his friend in the bathhouse because Shalom is one of the names of God, as it is stated: “And Gideon built there an altar for God and he called Him Lord Shalom” (Judges 6:24). Therefore, it is prohibited to utter the word shalom in a dishonorable place…. the name of God Himself is called Shalom, as it is written: “And he called Him Lord Shalom.” It is not an adjective, but a holy name in and of itself.(n.d.)

Likewise, Islamic tradition holds that there are 99 names for God which can be found in the Qur’an, and one of those names is السلام (Al-Salaam), Peace, and is also, like in Judaism, commonly used in greeting others.

Who Commands Us to Work for Justice
There are innumerable passages in the sacred texts of the world’s religions commanding people of faith to work for justice. For me, personally, these are all priceless treasures, but they do not stand alone. The scripture written on my heart and the instructions made clear to me when I listen to that still small voice of the Light within, command me to work for justice. I cannot understand how someone could read the Bible seriously and not take away from it God’s call for the people of Israel, and later for all of humanity, to work for justice. The apocryphal book of Susanna even speaks of neglecting their duties to work for justice, when two elders begin lusting after Susanna and “suppressed their consciences and turned away their eyes from looking to Heaven or remembering their duty to administer justice.” (Susanna 1:9).

This commandment to work for justice is, in my view, the core of the message of the Hebrew prophets, who were crying out for the establishment of a just society centered on the love of God; of Jesus, of the early Church, and of countless saints and prophets from times of old up through our current day.

And to Be Your Hands in Repairing Creation

To act as the hands of God is a concept that has deep meaning to me personally. It reminds me of the poem by Teresa of Avila which states, “Christ has no body but yours, No hands, no feet on earth but yours…. Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.” Indeed, if we are to work for justice as our traditions hold we should, we must recognize that we are the ones that must act to create that just world in the shell of the old.

No tradition that I am aware of explains the need to repair creation better than Judaism. Rabbi Julie Schwartz, speaking one Yom Kippur morning, stated clearly:

…[O]ur Jewish tradition doesn’t give us the option of deciding that we should end this world because it is just too messed up. Our Jewish tradition simply, incessantly, commands us to better it. As so many of you know, that call to better the world has an official theological term, Tikkun olam — repair of the world.

 The late Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, the founder of the Breslov Hasidic movement writes in his magnum opus, Likutei Moharan:

Since each man must say, “The whole world was only created for me.” (Sanhedrin 37) — hence, insofar as the world was created for me, I must at all times see and look into tikkun olam/rectifying the world and to fill the lackings of the world and pray for them. (5:1)

I believe that this commandment to repair creation is, although best articulated in the concept of tikkun olam, a universal one, and one which is more important now than at any other time in human history. As our climate changes, our forests disappear, our oceans rise, and as our unprecedented technological advancements have been used to inflict unimaginable pain and suffering upon all levels of creation, it is imperative that we each do whatever we can to repair the world, to bring love and compassion to all sentient beings, to find ways to use technology for the betterment of creation instead of using it to inflict torture and death upon the inhabitant of this earth.

In a time when it often seems more likely that a nuclear war will break out than nations beating their swords into plowshares; when our fellow humans mock and belittle those working for social justice or to decrease suffering; when politicians and wealthy elites convince their followers that the destruction of the earth is a positive thing, it is clear that things are very, very broken. At the same time, things have been broken for a long time. In the biblical narrative, since Adam and Eve were given their eviction notice and thrown out of the Garden of Eden. In Lurianic Kabballah — where the idea of tikkun olam reached it’s apex, the brokenness goes back to creation itself. But the prophets, sages, mystics, and saints have never accepted that brokenness but have worked to do their part to repair creation, as we are called to do our part.

References:

n.d. “B. Shabbat 10b:2-3.”