I need to start with a confession: I have really been struggling with my faith in humanity lately. I have been struggling to trust authorities. I have been struggling not to lash out and blindly rage against the machine. I have been struggling against making categorical judgments for or against different groups of people. I have been struggling with an increasing sense of unrest about what exists in my own heart and about what is going on around our communities and nation.
I wholly appreciate those of you who are willing to share in conversation with me, and ESPECIALLY those who do not necessarily agree with my interpretations of what is going on in our country. Those of you in the church who have engaged in conversations with me around race and injustice have kept me grounded and constantly remind me of my absolute need for relationships with people who may hold a rather different world view than me. I’m really glad that we can be friends and worship together and that you trust me to be one of your pastors.
What I write below is a reflection of my own personal struggle to find Christ in the middle of the violence, the anger, and the fear that is gripping our country. The struggle will continue long after the writing of this.
As I look around our country and the world today, and I see continued systemic injustice around race, a prevalent victim-blaming rape culture, exploitation of hard-working people at the hands of corporate greed, violence occurring in the name of God, warfare, and all the other pains and violences that exist, my unrest grows and I can’t suppress it. I shouldn’t suppress it. But my unrest turns to anger, and my anger turns to despair, and all too quickly, I feel overwhelmed by the immensity of the brokenness of things. And I know that in all of this, I, in no way, can truly comprehend what it is like for the majority of people who suffer at the hands of the powerful.
As I think about all of these things and I struggle not to let despair make itself at home, I am trying to grasp at what Christmas really means.
In preparing for Christmas, I’ve started trying to teach a song by Chris Rice called “Welcome to our World” to the kids in Children’s Church. A couple of the verses keep sticking in my mind: “Tears are falling, hearts are breaking. How we need to hear from God. You’ve been promised, we’ve been waiting…. Bring your peace into our violence…. Breathe our air and walk our sod.”
Oh, how we need to hear from God today. How we need to hear from God in our country. How we need to hear from God in our legislatures, in our law enforcement agencies, in our wealthy suburbs, in our neighborhood streets, in our public housing, in our military, in our schools, in our hearts. How we need to have Christ’s peace invade our violence, our hatred, our blame, and our fear! How we need Christ to breathe our air and walk with us, especially when a another child of God cries out, “I cant’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe!”
Right now, we are in the season of Advent; a season of waiting. We wait to celebrate the birth of Christ at Christmas. So often it is filled with waiting to celebrate with food and time off from school or work, and presents, lots of presents! But as I stumble through Advent this year, I am waiting for something different: for the kingdom of God, which is justice and peace.
Sometimes it seems like the kingdom is an impossible dream, a myth, a fantasy world. We are so far away. When I read the prophets of the Old Testament and I see proclamations of Israel’s and Judah’s repeated offenses, I often think, “how can they be so foolish to repeat the same sins over and over again?” But when I look again, I see that we are no different today. When God condemns Israel and Judah, much of the time it is over the oppression of the marginalized. Today, as things go, we are quite accomplished at systemically oppressing the vulnerable, even if we, as individuals believe that we don’t harbor any prejudiced views towards another person or people group. In my personal Scripture reading these last several weeks, I have been spending my time reading Amos, who speaks for God, condemning the abuses of the powerful. Hear these words from chapter 2:
“Thus says the Lord, ‘For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals– they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and push the afflicted out of the way….'” Amos 2:6-7a
In our state, in our country, and in our world, we see the abuses of the vulnerable that occur at the hands of the powerful. It happens in places like Ferguson and Staten Island. It happens on campuses like UVA. It happens in the coal fields of West Virginia. It happens in the slums of Mexico City. It happens around the world and in our own backyard.
As we approach Christmas, we need a word of hope, that things will not always be as they are now. We need a word that communicates the power to transform and be transformed. We need the Word, Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, to reach down into our reeking trash heap of violence and fear and turn it into something fertile and life-giving. And the Lord knows that we need Jesus because I surely have no idea how to do that.
This is what Christmas is about. It is about celebrating that God, in Christ, brings his peace into our violence, and breathes our air and walks our sod. It is about a brown-skinned baby born to unmarried parents on a dirty floor in practically the middle of nowhere, as far as the ancient world was concerned. It’s about a God who decided to walk in the world just as it is, as messed up and as broken as it is with people who, probably more often than not, could really not care any less about God or God’s kingdom. Christmas is about recognizing that we have God with us, and that God will never ever leave us or leave us alone. It is about God taking on the hurts and the oppression of the vulnerable.
The Old Testament lesson in the Revised Common Lectionary for this coming Sunday is from Isaiah:
“The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion– to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display his glory.” Isaiah 61:1-3
Jesus quotes this very passage when he is asked by John the Baptist’s disciples if he is, in fact, the Messiah. Jesus proclaimed his mission. He proclaimed why he came to walk with us. He lived as one of us, and then, at the hands of the law, he was unfairly tried, beaten, and hung on a cross, where he ultimately died because he couldn’t breathe. This is the meaning of Christmas. As we wait to celebrate the birth of Christ, may Christ be born in our hearts, and may his reason for breathing become our reason for breathing. Until we make our whole life about making Jesus’ mission our own, we will continue to hear the voices of the marginalized cry out, “I can’t breathe!”