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The Opportunity to Tell a Story

March 3, 2014

by Michael McRay

In September 2012, I moved to Northern Ireland to pursue my Master’s in Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation at Trinity College Dublin’s Belfast campus. When I walked out of the Belfast International Airport, a curly-haired, lightly bearded Irishman named Pádraig Ó Tuama stood in the rain, waiting to give me a lift into town. Having reached out to Pádraig via the recommendation of mutual friend David Dark, I was most grateful to have a friendly face there to meet me upon arrival to that strange and beautiful island. Before dropping me off at my new residence in North Belfast, Pádraig invited me to attend Ten×9, a monthly storytelling event he and his partner Paul Doran had started some time before. After the first night, I was hooked. When I left Belfast, I asked them if I could bring Tenx9 to Nashville, and in September of last year, the first night of storytelling sounded in Cafe Coco.

Ten×9 Nashville, then, is a monthly community storytelling night where nine people have up to ten minutes each to tell a real story from their lives. Ten minute stories by nine people—thus, “ten by nine.” This storytelling event is all about us, our stories, our lived moments. Each month has a theme, particular enough to structure a night of storytelling but broad enough that anyone should be able to find a life story that relates.  For more on the “what” of Tenx9, visit our website. Here, I will focus on the “why.”

Pádraig introduced me to this beautiful Irish proverb: “It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.” For me, this captures Ten×9’s purpose: it is an attempt for us to live in each other’s shelter—through food and drink, presence and narrative. As we often say, we are strange people telling our strange stories to strangers. In an age where we live so dependent on and addicted to our screens and social cyber networks, Tenx9, for many, has been a way to live liberated from those prisons and experience communion and true human connectedness, even if only for a few hours. Standing on stage with a microphone, storytellers invite listeners to enter into pieces of their lives and feel—to penetrate into the undiscovered continents of each other.

In some ways, Tenx9 is like a flash mob. For brief moments each month, the human communion of storytelling appears and captivates. And then, just as quickly, it vanishes, as if it never was. But you leave knowing that it did exist, and that such connection is possible, even in this age of such tragic impersonality amidst such extreme connectivity. Rachel Naomi Remen has said that stories are the flesh we put on the bones of the facts of our lives. At Tenx9, our lives’ dry bones spring to life, enfleshed by the art of narrative.

Make no mistake, Tenx9 is not designed to provide a night of professional storytelling. It will always be a place for the nervous and unsure, a place for new storytellers to “give it a go.” We welcome a range of humans onto the stage—some polished tellers, others most certainly not—but all embodying the messiness of human stories. In just six sessions, we have heard tales of childhood imagination as well as childhood abuse; longing for the love of a father as well as the long love of a 57 year marriage; first kisses leading to awkwardness as well as first drinks leading to addiction; breaking out of the prison of shame as well as the breaking of hearts at losing a loved child. Indeed, to paraphrase my brother’s line, the stories told at Tenx9 illuminate the holy damned mess of the world’s suffering and beauty.

I have also brought Tenx9 to a more isolated area in Nashville: Riverbend Maximum Security Prison. Behind the walls of the men’s prison, incarcerated storytellers bring a fascinating diversity of life experiences into spoken narration each month, as the audience sits on the wooden pews of the prison chapel communing through coffee, cookies, and attentiveness. After the first night of storytelling, one of my incarcerated friends came up and hugged me tight, saying, “That’s the first time I’ve ever had the opportunity to tell a story about myself in public.” I told him, “And that’s why Tenx9 exists.”

Our next event is March 24 at 7:30pm at Café Coco. Our theme is “Things My Parents Never Told Me.”

Michael McRay, in addition to organizing and hosting Tenx9 Nashville, teaches at Lipscomb University as an adjunct in reconciliation, restorative justice, and international conflict. He also volunteers as a prison chaplain and mediator, and is the author of Letters from “Apartheid Street”: A Christian Peacemaker in Occupied Palestine.

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Merton’s Life and Holiness,
a review essay

February 17, 2014

Merton’s little book was an excellent read. He takes the reader through the journey to becoming a saint, saying, “The saint…seeks not his own glory but the glory of God. And in order that God may glorified in all things, the saint wishes himself to be nothing but a pure instrument of the divine will. He wants himself to be simply a window through which God’s mercy shines on the world” (26).

Obviously, this is much more attainable than official “sainthood.” Still Merton notes that we act against our desire to become a saint, acting selfishly and obscuring God’s goodness. What are we to do? Participate in the sacraments of the church, says Merton.

Our perfection is therefore not just an individual affair, it is also a question of growth in Christ, deepening of our contact with him in and through the Church, consequently a deepening of our participation in the life of the Church, the mystical Christ. This means…a closer union with our brethren in Christ, a closer and more fruitful integration with them in the living, growing spiritual organism of the Mystical Body (55).

If one can excuse the talk of “brethren”—personally, I think of this word fondly, as a reminder of the warmth of the church in which I grew up—I think Merton’s focus on participation in the life of the church is important. Through baptism and Eucharist, Christ is at work, drawing us to himself so that we can go forth to be Christ to others. Merton, however, cautions:

[W]e must be careful not to give the impression that sacramental mysticism is a kind of magic. …The sacraments produce no fruit where there is no love. …[A sacrament] is not fruitful unless one means thereby to receive new life in Christ and to give himself forever to Christ. And this means renunciation of sin and dedication to a life of charity. It means living up to the dignity of our new being in Christ. It means living as sons of God (63).

And this sort of living can be challenging for us humans.

Indeed, the charity that Merton speaks of requires all of our selves to be given away to others and to God. Merton writes,

Of what use is it to hold seminars on the doctrine of the Mystical Body and on sacred liturgy, if one is completely unconcerned with the suffering, destitution, sickness, and untimely death of millions of potential members of Christ? …It is not enough to reach into our pocket and hand over a few dollars. We must give not only our possessions but ourselves to our brother. Until we regain this deep sense of charity, we cannot understand the full depths of Christian perfection (90).

We must be aware of what is going on around us. And it is not enough to watch our News Feeds. Indeed, Merton notes that “responding automatically to words that are fed” to us creates a state in us that “is not really capable of divine faith without a process of radical healing and restoration” (82-83).* We must get our hands dirty. A tough call for us moderns with our 9–5 jobs.

(This makes one think of Pope Francis’s exhortation, in which he says, “No one must say that they cannot be close to the poor because their own lifestyle demands more attention to other areas. This is an excuse commonly heard in academic, business or professional, and even ecclesial circles. While it is quite true that the essential vocation and mission of the lay faithful is to strive that earthly realities and all human activity may be transformed by the Gospel, none of us can think we are exempt from concern for the poor and for social justice” [The Joy of the Gospel, 201].)

For Merton, church attendance cannot suffice as the entirety of the “Christian Life” (93). Thus, Merton points us to Pope John XXIII’s Mater et magistra, which speaks about the Christian life in terms of work and claims that work should not be primarily a transaction between employee and employer but “an expression of the human person” (94). On the other hand, work must not be primarily about making money (95). Merton therefore claims, “The task of restoring work to its proper place in the Christian life is then more than a personal, interior project for the individual. It is a cooperative and objective obligation of the Church and of human society” (96). So Merton returns to Mater et magistra, which “gives one fundamental theological principle on which rests the Church’s teaching of the spiritual value of work. Since the Word of God became Incarnate, the common task of the human race to build a just and truly productive society can be endowed with a more than human character” (97). Through our work, as through our charity, we can be at work redeeming the world and making ourselves into the likeness of a saint.

Again the path to Merton’s simple sainthood is difficult. It requires love; it requires work. But it also requires abandoning ourselves to the divine will of God. Merton concludes his book, saying,

The final step on the way to holiness in Christ is…to completely abandon ourselves with confident joy to the apparent madness of the cross. …The madness, the folly of abandoning all concern for ourselves both in the material and in the spiritual order, that we may entrust ourselves to Christ, means a kind of death to our temporal selves. It is a twisting, a letting go, an act of total abandonment. But it is also a final break-through into joy. The ability to make this act, to let go, to plunge into our own emptiness and there find the freedom of Christ in all fullness—this is inaccessible to all our merely human efforts and plans. We cannot do it by relaxing or by striving, by thinking or not thinking, by acting or not acting. The only answer is perfect faith, exultant hope, transformed by a completely spiritual love of Christ. This is a pure gift of his: but we can dispose ourselves to receive it by fortitude, humility, patience, and, above all, by simple fidelity to his will in every circumstance of our ordinary life (119).

May we all have such fidelity!

___________

* Clearly, Merton had no concept of what a “News Feed” was, having died in 1968. But I think his words speak to our condition. Here’s the full quote: “It is true that man’s spirit has been degraded and debauched by the cynical abuse of means of communication. He has been reduced to the condition of a machine responding automatically to words that are fed to him. Such a machine is not really capable of divine faith without a process of radical healing and restoration. The task of Christian renewal in society is therefore vital if men are going to recover their capacity to believe.”

Craig D. Katzenmiller is Tokens’ social media editor. A version of this review appeared on his website.

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Beginnings

January 1, 2014

by Ben Rawlins

Last time I wrote for the Tokens blog, I discussed how art can serve as a token of the resurrection, leading us to see differently everyday experiences. Likewise, interruptions in time also push us to change the way we see our everyday life. A couple of months ago, I heard someone speak eloquently on how the liturgical calendar offers the modern world a different way of conceiving of time. While most people view each day, each minute as the same, the church places profound emphasis on certain days. These holidays serve as holy interruptions to the monotony of time. By participating in these liturgical interruptions, we can begin to view time in a different manner, allowing us to recognize the Divine in our time. In the liturgical calendar, every major holiday seems to be preparing for or celebrating a beginning. During Advent, we wait expectantly for the birth of Christ, which prepares us for the celebration of the incarnation. Lent prepares us for Easter, the ultimate celebration of re-beginning. These liturgical events reveal the significance of beginnings in the Christian life that are only made deeper in other Christian actions.

But, beyond the liturgical calendar, our lives are littered with beginnings. The sun rises each day, we wake up, we begin our lives again. This is a mystery of human life; our life is the same, but each day is new. We begin anew again and again. In the wake of Christmas, we also celebrate New Years, a time to remember the past year, but look forward to the new one. For many of us, we see the New Year as a time to begin something new, whatever resolution we happen to decide upon. The New Year has become a time of fresh beginnings.

As the Christian calendar celebrates beginnings, both the incarnation and the resurrection, we too can view New Years and new beginnings as remnants of these original beginnings. Beginnings, then, are tokens of the resurrection, mirroring Christ’s actions in this world. If we view our beginnings as a token of the resurrection, we can perceive something sacred in our most commonplace activities. It is true that we celebrate the New Year, but do we fully grasp the significance of this beginning? Do we recognize what a gift it is to begin again? Even something as simple as turning the calendar to January means we are involved in a type of resurrection, imitating Christ’s actions in our own lives.

Our celebration of beginnings in the Christian calendar also illuminates that God’s story is one of constant beginnings, of renewal and restoration. Perhaps it is just my perception, but sometimes it seems we view God as one who exists in the past, working in the world only in history. But, God is a God that keeps working, keeps initiating, keeps creating. In “Letters to a Young Poet,” the poet Rainer Maria Rilke challenges his reader to view God not as one who could be lost, but one who is in a process of constant beginning: “Why do you not think of [God] as the coming one, imminent from all eternity, the future one, the final fruit of a tree whose leaves we are? What keeps you from projecting his birth into times that are in process of becoming, and living your life like a painful and beautiful day in the history of a great gestation? For do you not see how everything that happens keeps on being a beginning, and it could it not be His beginning, since beginning is in itself always so beautiful?”[1] Rilke’s statement is a call to envision God as existing in a constant present, one who transcends our conceptions of Him as in the past. Our lives, our beginnings, are a participation in God’s perpetual beginning. As we wake each morning, we participate in God’s first act of beginning—creation—and God’s continued act of creating. To see ourselves as participants in an eternal beginning will move us to see our lives differently, allow us to see tokens of resurrection in our own beginnings. In this way, too, Jesus’ resurrection is a reflection of God’s narrative of perpetual beginnings.

Yet, beginnings are not always easy. As we approach a new year, we realize that worries and troubles from the past year will not go away. Irish writer John O’Donohue says, “Sometimes the greatest challenge is to actually begin; there is something deep in us that conspires with what wants to remain within safe boundaries and stay the same.”[2] But, if we view our beginnings as participation in the divine narrative of constant beginnings, we can see that God may have more beauty, more love, more faith for us than we could ever expect. O’Donohue writes of beginnings as an “invitation to open toward the gifts and growth that are stored up for us.”[3] A beginning is an opportunity to engage with a token of the resurrection.

As we begin a New Year, I hope we can view beginnings as invitations, not challenges. I hope that we can look at beginnings as a token of the resurrection. If we do so, we can take seriously Wendell Berry’s call to “practice resurrection.”[4]

———

[1] Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, trans. M.D. Herter Norton, (New York: Norton, 1954), 38. 

[2] John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings (New York: Doubleday, 2008), 3.

[3] O’Donohue, 2.

[4] Wendell Berry, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”

Ben Rawlins is a Tokens Blog contributor and an MTS student at Vanderbilt Divinity School. Origianally from Kansas, Ben never thought he would go to divinity school because he studied literature as an undergraduate and graduate student. But, recently his work has focused on the intersection between art and Christian theology, specifically how God is revealed through contemporary literature. Ben also works as an adjunct instructor of English and hopes to use his interests to help students think more deeply about faith through the arts.

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Discerning the (Holiday) Spirits: On Prophecy in the Negative Mode Only

December 19, 2013

In lieu of a new podcast this week, we’re pleased to feature this piece submitted by Tokens Blog contributor Brad East.

by Brad East

The Christmas season in the U.S. is a vexing time for Christians. Not because there’s too little Christmas, but because there’s too much. Too much shopping, too much purchasing power, too much scribbling down lists of stuff you’d like other people to buy you. Imagine watching Fox News continuously on a loop for four weeks straight, except there’s a single topic (“BUY MORE STUFF”), the anchor is an old bearded white guy (you know who), and everything is colored red, white, and green—that’s what the American experience of Christmas is like. (Come to think of it, that’s just like the rest of the year, only no beard and blue instead of green.)

Accordingly, if you have friends like mine, since Thanksgiving week your Facebook feed has been littered on a daily basis with articles and blog posts decrying consumerism and related evils. (Perhaps you thought you were reading one of those now.) And that’s as fitting as it is necessary: the spirit of Christmas in America is without question “shop till you drop.” Families spend hundreds (often thousands) of dollars they do not have to buy gifts for family members and friends who are in turn spending hundreds (often thousands) of dollars they do not have to reciprocate. This is insane. And it manifestly bears no relationship to the advent of God the Son, born in a backwoods barn, with animals for bedmates and the smell of dung and slop to keep him company. We needn’t even mention Jesus’s relentless rhetorical attacks on the rich, for the manner of his longed-for coming—king in a cave, God in a feed trough—was and is itself a judgment on all those who have more than they need while their neighbors go without. This one, we may be sure, does not take pleasure in our cumulative attempts at amassing the most stuff.

And yet. As fitting and needed as such prophetic reminders are, I worry that American Christians vexed at the holidays quickly find themselves with nothing to do but to throw up their hands and critique from afar—in this case, via little surgical e-strikes launched indirectly at their online neighbors. But is this all followers of Jesus have to say about the American holiday season? Is being anti-consumerism the exhaustion of faithful witness? Is prophecy reducible to the negative mode only?

I want to make the gentle suggestion that prophetic, conscientious, even (whoever these may be)[1] radical Christians in the U.S. need not be Scrooges in order to be faithful disciples at Christmas. Further, I think that an overweening emphasis on the critical actually detracts from the larger message Christians want to communicate, which is not finally judgment but good news, the content of which is sheer grace, total gift: God’s giving of Godself to us in Christ.

Let me make the negative point first. When our sight and speech—that is, what we notice and talk about—are ordered primarily or entirely by and to negative realities—what is not, what falls short, what fails—we start to become ignorant of the good, of what is in fact undeniably good right before our eyes. We begin losing the ability to see, and so cease spend our time talking about, the good and lovely things all around us.[2] But by what standard do we judge the bad in the first place? And do we mean to deny the reality of the good in focusing so much on its absence or corruption? If not, we have to take the time and develop the habits necessary to spot goodness in a world that does present us with so many occasions for lament and rebuke.[3]

Put differently, prophecy is not complete in the negative mode only.[4] Prophets have a word to say, have a vision to cast, and even as these sometimes consist in judgment, or at least entail it, they are not limited to it, for what they have to say is, ultimately, grace. What they see is a world beyond the ills of this world, but not another world, rather this world mended and remade by the only power able to do so completely: God’s. Prophecy’s judgment is contained within the good news of God’s gracious will for us, yesterday, today, and forever.

The key is timeliness, fittingness, discernment. As 1 John 4 has it, we are to test the spirits to know which are of God. Instead of limiting ourselves to the annual diatribes against the evils of American consumerism, we should commit ourselves to the more demanding task of discerning the holiday spirits, testing which are of God and which are not. To the latter let us apply the full force of our prophetic indictment; but as for the former, why not give thanks? Why not shout for joy, celebrate with friends, throw a feast for the happy discovery of beauty and truth and love in this world?—this world that is, says the gospel of Advent and Christmas, abandoned neither by God nor by us.

One year ago I was walking in a mall with my wife and our newborn son, looking for gifts for our family. Apropos of nothing, I offered the devastatingly insightful comment, “Malls are the most depressing place on earth.” This is inarguably a true statement. To no one’s shock but my own, however, my wife did not appreciate the comment. Here we were, having trekked out on a snowy New England day, our new family of three, searching for gifts to give to those we love, amidst a bustling lot of smiling faces doing the same—and all I could see was a great swirl of –isms incomplete without my ironically detached censure. This wasn’t a case of righteous prophetic judgment. It was much more boring than that, just your regular old immaturity mixed with some ingratitude and topped off with a bit of rudeness. Why leave Susie Derkins in a good mood if you can pass your dark cloud on to her?

The worst fate for a supposed prophet is persistent unsmiling grumpiness. That’s where prophecy in the negative mode alone leads (and many of us know victims of that unfortunate metamorphosis). But if what Christians say is true—if the world is not all darkness, if all is not lost, is God is not dead but alive in Bethlehem—we’re not doomed to the gloomy drudgery of perennially sentencing the world and its –isms to hell. To be clear, this doesn’t mean the world’s problems and its rampant injustices are any less pressing or any less demanding of our time and energy and, yes, speech. Nor does it mean that the holidays need to be “happy” rather than “sad.” We have to be true to whatever the case may be and to that to which God is calling us. For example, I know folks in Nashville who are, as we speak, advocating for persons without homes or beds to have shelter in the bitter winter weather.[5] God bless their efforts and God judge our willful neglect; let’s not pretend that December in America always means family and eggnog and sitting by the fire. What we call the holidays can be an especially painful time for many people in this country.

What I mean, then, is not that we should elide the bad in favor of the good. Rather, we should resist the temptation to have eyes for either bad or good to the exclusion of the other. The wisdom of discernment comes in knowing what to look for, and when, and how. God is not absent from even such places as shopping malls and Amazon carts. So, let us “test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). If many prophets are false, then some will be true. Not only should we be among them, but we might be surprised to discover which of our neighbors is also.

That is to say: God’s Spirit is out and about, even at the holidays. When we catch wind of it, let’s say so, and with unhesitant joy.

———

[1] Because ‘radical’ is the single most overused and therefore meaningless word now in theopolitical circulation.

[2] For an excellent and, as ever, balanced example of this, see Richard Beck’s recent post titled “Do Not Judge the Christmas Shopper.”

[3] For an eloquent articulation of a different but related point, see Rowan Williams, Christ on Trial: How the Gospel Unsettles Our Judgement (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 2000), pp. 85-87:

I long for the Church to be more truly itself, and for me this involves changing its stance on war, sex, investment and many other difficult matters. I believe in all conscience that my questions and my disagreements are all of God. Yet I must also learn to live in and attend to the reality of the Church as it is, to do the prosaic things that can be and must be done now and to work at my relations now with the people who will not listen to me or those like me—because what God asks of me is not to live in the ideal future but to live with honesty and attentiveness in the present, i.e., to be at home.



What if the project in question is myself, and not some larger social question such as war? At the end of the day, it is the central concern for most of us. We long to change and to grow, and we are rightly suspicious of those who are pleased with the way they are and cannot seem to conceive of changing any further. Yet the torture of trying to push away and overcome what we currently are or have been, the bitter self-contempt of knowing what we lack, the postponement of joy and peace because we cannot love ourselves now—these are not the building blocks for effective change. We constantly try to start from somewhere other than where we are. Truthful living involves being at home with ourselves, not complacently but patiently, recognizing that what we are today, at this moment, is sufficiently loved and valued by God to be the material with which he will work, and that the longed-for transformation will not come by refusing the love and the value that is simply there in the present moment.



So we come back, by a longish detour, to the point to which Mark’s narrative brought us: the contemplative enterprise of being where we are and refusing the lure of a fantasized future more compliant to our will, more satisfying in the image of ourselves that it permits. Living in the truth, in the sense in which John’s Gospel gives it, involves the same sober attention to what is there—to the body, the chair, the floor, the voice we hear, the face we see—with all the unsatisfactoriness that this brings. Yet this is what it means to live in that kingdom where Jesus rules, the kingdom that has no frontiers to be defended. Our immersion in the present moment which is God’s delivers the world to us—and that world is not the perfect and fully achieved thing we might imagine, but the divided and difficult world we actually inhabit. Only, by the grace of this living in the truth, we are able to say to it at least an echo of the ‘yes’ that God says, to accept as God accepts.

[4] Note well, if there be academics reading, that I am not making a historical claim. That is, I am not talking about what certain Israelites were up to in and around Israel/Judah before the exile.

[5] See this recent post by Lindsey Krinks, who works as a street chaplain in Nashville.

Brad East is a PhD student in theology at Yale University. His research interests include ecclesiology, theologies of Scripture and its interpretation, and the ethics of peace, war, and nonviolence. You can find his blog at http://resident-theology.blogspot.com.


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The Season of Pregnancy: Advent, Ambiguity, and Longing for God

December 17, 2013

by Lauren Smelser White

Last week, Tokens blog contributor Chris Haw shared a lovely piece that he wrote on Advent. As I read it, I found myself deeply appreciating that Chris used the image of an expectant mother to plumb the depths of Advent, this “season of pregnancy.” His doing so provided a refreshing read, and not only because we don’t hear enough from men about pregnancy beyond scientific analysis. I more so found his piece refreshing because, for Chris, the pregnant woman’s body as a spiritual symbol is ambiguous—it acts as a “glorious icon” of divinity’s “dazzling fullness,” and it evokes the cosmic travail of Romans 8:22, reminding us “that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now.”

This week, I’d like to press into that ambiguity a bit further, continuing to think about what pregnancy can teach us as we wait on the Lord.[1]

Let’s admit, first off, that humans are lousy at waiting on God. While every society has its own iteration of this lousiness, I’m guessing most of this blog’s readers belong with me to a particular culture, one wherein—thanks to our smartphones and tablets and e-blasts—we don’t have to be good at waiting on much of anything. And our non-waiting apparently affects our experience of the present in some telling ways. Douglas Rushkoff has recently diagnosed us as suffering from “present shock” due to the multitasking our media technologies afford, and I think he’s onto something: If we participate in the digital universe of multi-presence, our sense of the present moment does seem vulnerable to becoming an “always-on urgency,” leaving us feeling “distracted, peripheral, even schizophrenic” as we try to track and contribute to the never-subsiding information wave.[2]

To my mind, the spiritual danger of living with “present shock” is that we may become too comfortable seeking and producing accessible answers, images, and entertainment, without expecting any of the tedium of getting to know one another in person…of pursuing answers hard come by…of mystery. Consequently, we are left with false illusions about the way things really are.

I’d suggest that living under those illusions is akin to what would happen if we saw a pregnant woman only as a glorious symbol of Advent waiting. There are lines of thought in the Christian tradition that so construe the expectant mother: namely, they proclaim that humanity’s capacity for submission to God is fully typified in Mary’s receptive posture at the Annunciation. According to this teaching, because of her receptivity Mary became both literally and archetypically Christ-bearing; her pregnant body, tranquilly waiting to give birth to the Savior, was rendered a pure form whereby Christ became comprehensible to the world.

It seems to me that this talk of Mary’s expectant body being a “pure form” symbolizing “quiet waiting” before God begs a practical question: Did the men (and they were men) who drummed up this teaching think to run it past some women who had actually experienced pregnancy? Because I doubt that those women would have affirmed that they felt like embodied archetypes of obedient tranquility during those nine months…and I doubt that Mary’s experience was much different.

Take it from me: As I write this post I myself am pregnant for the first time, preparing to welcome a child into the world in the late spring. And, at around twenty-one weeks into the forty of pregnancy, I can already testify to a different kind of reality than that which paints pregnancy as a picturesque symbol of submission.

For starters, my pregnancy has not been a time of serene acceptance, as if it were simply washing over me. Rather, to quote from Iris Marion Young, I’ve found that “pregnancy has a temporality of movement, growth, and change,” and I agree that this is because “the pregnant woman experiences herself as a source and a participant in a creative process.”[3] I both desire and fear this process in which I participate—sometimes I experience the growth of the fetus inside me as a lovely, wondrous miracle; other times I react to it as an alarming, grotesque distortion. Young offers an example with which I identify: “In pregnancy my prepregnant body image does not entirely leave my movements…yet it is with the pregnant body that I must move,” she says. “I move as if I could squeeze around chairs and through crowds as I could before, only to find my way blocked by my own body sticking out in front of me. …In attending to my pregnant body in such circumstances, I notice its borders with interest”—sometimes with aesthetic pleasure, sometimes with embarrassment, because of the stares it draws from others.[4]

In pregnancy I feel absurd yet graceful, disoriented yet powerful. I am constantly in flux. The point is: I think any childbearing woman would tell you that the pregnant body experiences anything but a pure, conflict-free process—its discomforts and enchantments go hand-in-hand.

And isn’t it much the same with waiting on God? Those of us with “present shock” are drawn to easy answers, photo-shopped images, and a stable story of humanity’s uncontaminated goodness and God’s clear-cut providence. But that telling of reality is an illusion, like an interpretation of the pregnant body solely as a figure of spiritual tranquility.

Phyllis Chesler testifies that, in the labor and birthing process, it is as if “Time no longer exists. Always, Time holds steady for birth. There is only this rocketing, this labor.”[5] Advent waiting isn’t for a cozy Christmas morning; it’s for the second arrival of Christ, for the apocalyptic non-time for which “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now.” There is much to celebrate on Christmas morning: Emmanuel has come; God is with us! But Advent waiting isn’t defined exclusively by that delight. It also walks alongside Christ into adulthood, through the horrors of Golgotha. It marvels at the appearance of his resurrected body, glories in reception of the Holy Spirit’s burning fire, and it groans, as in labor pangs, for the risen Lord’s return.

———

[1] It is important that I note that, in this piece, I’m thinking particularly of the experience of women who have had the luxury of choosing pregnancy, either by explicitly trying to become pregnant or by positively accepting a pregnancy even if it is unplanned. 

[2] Rushkoff qtd. in Tom Montgomery Fate, review of Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, ed. John M. Buchanan, Christian Century, December 11, 2013. 41.

[3] Iris Marion Young, Throwing Like A Girl and Other Essays in Feminist Philosophy and Social Theory (Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1990), 167.

[4] Ibid., 163-64, 165.

[5] Phyllis Chesler, With Child: A Diary of Motherhood (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1979), 116.

Lauren Smelser White is a Tokens Blog contributer and a Ph.D. student in Theological Studies at Vanderbilt University. Lauren’s work at Vanderbilt focuses on the transfiguration of desire in the event of Christian revelation and the self-offering activities that sustain cruciform faith. She is also a fellow in the Program for Theology and Practice, which seeks to form groundbreaking scholars who connect their academic work to the practice of ministry and will be outstanding teachers of people preparing for ministry.

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Lament and Hope, Grief and Expectation

December 10, 2013

by Chris Haw

To the extent that people know Advent exists—that is, as anything other than the post-Thanksgiving stampede toward Christmas—they know it is the season of expectation. (I need not remind readers that it subverts the “gotta have it now” consumer holiday, thus endangering our economy but inviting Black Friday shoppers to safety.) My beloved Sacred Heart Church in Camden, NJ, blesses expectant mothers at the start of advent. The priest says pregnant women are the most glorious icons of divinity available to humanity’s gaze. The week prior to such dazzling fullness, the parish memorialized those murdered this past year (referred to as “the Murder Mass”), calling out victims’ names, ages, and how they were killed. This year is at 51 so far, in a town of 78,000 (putting its murder rate on par with Medellin, Colombia). This is the season of pregnancy; but the slaughtering of innocents bodes ominous on our horizon.

Combining lament and hope, grief and expectation, both grounds us in “reality” and pushes our minds towards its edge—toward imagining an end to our violent era, known as “the fall.” Grieving at the loss of human life and sanctifying its expected entrance into our world is not a self-evident form of hope. I have found it quite telling to hear of how Nietzsche despised such sentimentality:

Through Christianity, the individual was made so important, so absolute, that he could no longer be sacrificed: but the species endures only through human sacrifice. . . . If one regards individuals as equals, one calls the species into question, one encourages a way of life that leads to the ruin of the species . . . The species requires that the ill-constituted, weak, degenerate, perish: but it was precisely to them that Christianity turned as a conserving force.[1]

In other words, Nietzsche hates Advent. He wants us to “accept the mixture of strife, suffering and beauty of human life as it is, as it always will be.”[2] There is no end to this era of the fall; all is sea; there is no land. “Get used to it; in fact, celebrate it!” he insists. Feel at home when the weak and degenerates perish. It will recur until the sun eats our planet. What you see is what you get.

But, to pray, with messianic expectation, “come, God!”—which is the prayer of Advent—is to reconstruct time itself. It is to remember a point in recent history when we saw the innocence and forgiveness of God shine through our thick clouds of violence, declaring in forced agony: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” All who have heard this good news proclaimed now imagine a future without such violent ignorance hidden in our hearts—when the glass we see through dimly now will in fact be no more. Part of Wendell Berry’s poem, “The Mad Farmer’s Liberation Front,” has all such tones of Advent:

Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Even if taken literally, this passage would perhaps sufficiently convert the human race unto God’s majestic gentleness. But, taken cosmologically, the poem ushers the mind unto the depths of Paul’s image of waiting: the universe itself is pregnant and in the midst of birth pains. It groans, even inside us. Can you not feel the expansion of the universe, even from within yourself? Paul speaks of expectation even after the “awaited Messiah” had already come; but, even he has gone, and we must eagerly wait again.[3] Chesterton saw this eternal gaze of hope as a contradiction to merely seizing the day:

The carpe diem religion is not the religion of happy people, but of very unhappy people. . . . Great joy has in it the sense of immortality; the very splendor of youth is the sense that it has all space to stretch its legs in . . . moments are filled with eternity; these moments are joyful because they do not seem momentary . . . People cannot love mortal things. We can only love immortal things for an instant.[4]

It also seems quite a paradox that Advent’s eager expectation—just like the still moments of waiting during a baby’s delivery—is something that quiets the mind. It is a glorious combination, then, to have Advent as the time when the days—if you can avert your gaze from the streets and malls, to our planetary setting—are growing more calm and dark. Some folks anoint these days with the trembling stillness of using only candlelight.

Thomas Merton, I think in this very spirit, wrote a poem that, when spoken slowly, in the twilight of a candlelit advent vespers, brings chills of God’s mysterious absence and presence to my spine:

Time falls like manna at the corners of the wintry earth.
We have become more humble than the rocks,
More wakeful than the patient hills.

Charm with your stainlessness these nights in Advent,
holy spheres,
While minds, as meek as beasts,
Stay close at home in the sweet hay;
And intellects are quieter than the flocks that feed by starlight.

Oh pour your darkness and your brightness over all our
solemn valleys,
You skies: and travel like the gentle Virgin,
Toward the planets’ stately setting,

Oh white full moon as quiet as Bethlehem!

May you walk through Advent asking, “Will this satisfy a woman satisfied to bear a child? Will this disturb the sleep of a woman near to giving birth?” May all hostilities cease for the coming of God.


[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals: A Polemic, trans Douglas Smith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 19.

[2] Robinette, Brian, Grammars of Resurrection: A Theology of Presence and Absence (Crossroad, 2009), 274.

[3] A hat tip to John Caputo who has championed the hopeful philosophical structure underneath the Judeo-Christian horizon of time. He says, “the ‘to come’ shines a white light of urgency on the present. It exposes all the faults of the present. It is not off in the future. It is the thing that traumatizes our narcissism; it prevents us from congratulating ourselves on what we have accomplished. It gives us a sense of urgency about the imperfection of the present . . . Everything that takes place in prayer is contracted into ‘come.’”

[4] Heretics, “Omar and the Sacred Vine.”

Chris Haw lives in South Bend, IN, with his wife and two kids, and has started his PhD work at Notre Dame in theology and peace studies. He is the co-author of the best-selling book Jesus for President with Shane Claiborne. And he recently released a book about his joining the Catholic Church, From Willow Creek to Sacred Heart (Ave Maria Press). For more information, visit his website: chris-haw.com.

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Home for Christmas

December 4, 2013

by Makoto Fujimura

I find myself, as I am sure most of us do, the busiest during pre-Christmas days. Somehow, I choose those days of Advent to initiate major projects! I’ve lead two major cultural projects in Tokyo, one after 9/11/2001, and another after 3/11/2011 to bring music and art toward restoration. Two years ago, I brought a team of choir members from Cairn University to sing at a major exhibit I was having in Tokyo and to go up to northern Japan to encourage the homeless citizens there after the devastating Tsunami.

The following excerpt is from an essay I wrote a year ago, remembering that time. In that essay, I spoke of our journey as “Ground Zero” citizens—we lived three blocks from where the towers stood. We stayed to see our children all grow up there, facing the ashes of Ground Zero. I spoke of our efforts to love New York City as God has called us to love our “Babylon” through Jeremiah 29: “Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

But, paradoxically, God moved us to a farmhouse—where my wife and I now reside as empty-nesters and where I work in a barn converted into a studio—still seeking that “city.” You will see a glimpse of our new life there and what Christmas morning felt like two years ago, with God’s Kingdom and God’s City invading into the horse barn. May our journeys inhabit such a Christmas morning miracle, and may we create toward that light.

Thus I landed at Newark Airport on Christmas Eve. I had not been inside the farmhouse, except one time to see the house and to speak to the real estate agent. Judy had diligently arranged for the move and bought a car. My children had all gathered. My eldest, Ty, and his wife, Priscilla, had a baby boy, Theo, in the summer months. We all slept on air mattresses among the boxes on Christmas Eve in Belle Mead. The next day, we awoke to the morning sun rays beaming in from our northern windows.

At our home, we celebrate Christmas by first reading Luke 2. When we gathered, I suggested that we all go out in the barn and read, using the Four Holy Gospels Bible.

The barn, similar in size to the famed Jackson Pollock barn in the Hamptons, smelled of fresh hay and the pungent remains of horses. Horses named Bunny and Harley lived there only a week ago—before their owners took them to Vermont. Bunny was a white horse, very frail and old, and rarely came out of the barn. But apparently the day they moved, she came out and walked about the acres, dragging her bad leg around the cold, hardened soil of winter.

Lydia, our youngest, opened the Four Holy Gospels Bible to read from Luke 2. Priscilla had wrapped Theo, as it was very cold in the barn. “This is how our Lord entered into our world—in a cold, dark place full of horse manure,” I said before we prayed. Theo cooed. We prayed to thank God for taking us there, for all of our journeys of grace. Like Bunny, we carry wounds from the past, visible or not. A few months later, I would be painting large paintings for a new series of works intuiting those wounds into the world. In a painting, these painful markers can be integrated into the whole of nature and turned into a glimpse of a Christmas morning miracle. Yes, I said to myself, we are empty-nesters, but children, like the bluebirds, return once in the while to survey the field of the farmland. And in those moments, I do see a glimpse of the whole, woven like the bluebird’s nest—a vision of iridescent splendor refracting in a new home that we call Fuji farm.

Reprinted with kind permission of the author from http://www.makotofujimura.com/writings/refractions-37-from-ground-zero-to-fujimura-farm/

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Thanksgiving: A Liturgical Conundrum

November 25, 2013

by Drew Denton

What must they think of us, those briny, bright-souled Calvinists who washed up on these shores like disoriented escapees from a Renaissance Faire gone wrong? They fled in part because they found religious holidays—even the few that remained in England’s eviscerated liturgical calendar—to be idolatrous and distasteful, pious excuses for excessive revelry. They fled in part because they thought the Stuart monarchs too permissive of sporting events, especially on days appointed for prayer. Yet they remain with us now, when remembered at all, as the mythical founders of the holiest Feastday on our federal calendar, the one that, under a veneer of reverence, inspires the heaviest drinking, the most determined gluttony, and the most instinctive devotion to a dehumanizing sport. I make it a policy, professionally and personally, to eschew generalizations about this spectrum of “precise sorts” of Christians whose collective moniker obscures more than it illumines—who remain, like the God they served, obstinately mysterious despite the superfluity of their literary remains. I think it safe to suggest, however, that any quorum of Puritans plopped down in our midst would before long be petitioning Congress to do away with Thanksgiving.

You could argue, of course, that the Puritans are indirectly responsible for the ritualized indulgence that we now celebrate each November. Indeed, you could get vindictive about it—as, I must admit, the part of me that’s’ spent the past several years forswearing my Puritan patrimony sometimes does—and conclude that they had it coming. That their dismantling of the Christian calendar left only the state (and in these latter days, the almighty consumer market) to rush in with their secular pieties and declare a monopoly on appropriate ways of keeping time. That feasts, with their attendant excesses, will be kept and Days of Obligation, with their rote invocations, observed; that if this social instinct is removed from the Church’s purview, then it will be harnessed toward more idolatrous ends by the Convention or the Politburo or whatever Civil Religion happens to have taken hold. The “Puritan heritage” of the United States has often been overblown and misconstrued, but if such a thing does exist, it surely helps account for the curious fact that so many American Christians now unthinkingly structure their lives around a set of Holy-days instituted for the purposes of nation-worship or contrived for the benefit of the mass sentimentalization industry. It was this lamentable state of liturgical misdirection that provoked Stanley Hauerwas, in one of his more legendary pontifications, to warn a group of youth ministers that their salvation was “in doubt” if they belonged to churches that commemorated Mother’s Day, the Fourth of July, or Thanksgiving.[1]

I’ve witnessed some remarkably crude forms of adherence to the Hallmark lectionary in my time. I’ve heard a preacher discount Easter as an unbiblical concept and three weeks later dedicate an entire worship service to the more venerable ecclesial tradition known as Mother’s Day. I’ve watched another pastor plot out his summer schedule and happily note how easy it was to plan this stretch of the year, since Mother’s Day, Memorial Day, Father’s Day, and the Fourth of July left only a few Sundays to scramble for sermon topics. I didn’t issue any Hauerwasian anathemas on these occasions, but I did quietly marvel at the degree to which the imaginations of these ministers had been secularized, at least when it came to keeping time. And as I continued to acclimate myself to more traditional rhythms of Christian worship, I began to question the premises of the pseudo-religious solemnities that I had been taught to observe.

Thanksgiving was clearly the most religious such solemnity in our household. Christmas was, to be sure, a “higher” holy day for me than for many of my free-church peers: my parents preferred “Gesu Bambino” to “Jingle Bells,” took us to Christmas Eve masses more than once, treated the redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge as a deutero-canonical parable, and introduced me to It’s A Wonderful Life, with all its Catholic undertones. But our domestic celebrations included no special prayers or devotions or explicit acknowledgments of the day’s significance to disciples of Christ. Nor did our more muted egg hunts or ham dinners at Easter—and how special could Easter be anyways, since, with the exception of our three-year stint in San Antonio, it never included any time off from school? Only Thanksgiving was understood to entail a religious obligation, and only Thanksgiving prompted a domestic ritual of prayer and scripture reading each year.

In my adult life, I’ve sought to redirect my pious inclinations toward Christian holidays rather than civic solemnities. I continue to wonder, however, whether such an effort requires me to question the legitimacy of the Thanksgiving celebrations that have proven so meaningful in the past. Grant that it is a creation of the U.S. government rather than first-millennium Christianity: still, what could possibly be objectionable about a day set aside for giving thanks?

The long answer, I think, is that days of thanksgiving bear a tendency toward grandstanding and divine manipulation. A day of overeating and compulsive shopping must seem to outsiders like an eccentric way of expressing humility in the face of God’s blessings. Thanksgiving prayers can at times veer dangerously close to becoming congratulatory inventories or, worse, comparative judgments—the Pharisee too gave thanks that he was not like other men (Luke 19:11). Moreover, civic rites of thanksgiving have often been employed to court God’s favor or bargain for future blessings on a particular group of people. Puritan days of thanksgiving functioned explicitly in this manner, as did their state-sponsored successors in the early national period. Southerners were right to suspect that Lincoln’s wartime enshrinement of the Thanksgiving holiday was an attempt to corral God into the Union cause; they of course marked their own separate day of Thanksgiving to ensure that God would not venture north of the Potomac. One might argue that this history of tribal pandering–oriented more toward the capricious deities of pagan times than the God of Christian scripture—renders our Thanksgiving an inherently idolatrous feastday.

But the short answer is…well, nothing. Once due precautions have been taken against crass materialism or manipulative idolatry, there is nothing wrong with observing a ritual of thanksgiving on Thanksgiving Day. This assertion is admittedly informed by personal considerations. I’m still running from Puritanism, you see, and it would be awfully Puritan of me to discredit a day of reverence simply because of its pagan origins. Much of the liturgical calendar that I now cherish was born out of faith that Christ’s grace could transform the cycle of civic idolatry. I’m not arguing that Thanksgiving should become a part of the Christian calendar—much less than it ought to eclipse the beginning of Advent, which often occurs, almost an afterthought, on the same weekend—but I do believe there’s hope for a properly Christian reclamation of the holiday. Despite their baffling conclusions, those anti-Easter polemicists do have a point.[2] Every Sunday eucharist is a Feast of the Resurrection, just as every Sunday eucharist is a Feast of the Incarnation. Every Sunday eucharist is also, tautologically, a Feast of Eucharist, that is, of Thanksgiving. It does not follow, in any of these case, that a special annual celebration is fundamentally misguided. So if a time-bending shipload of “precise sorts” should show up next year and seek to strike Thanksgiving from the books, this twelfth-generation defector from their ranks is going to root for them to fail—not out of spite, mind you, but simply because it seems that we ought to embrace any occasion for giving thanks. It is, after all, our duty and our salvation.

[1.] See Stanley Hauerwas, Working with Words: On Learning to Speak Christian (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2011), 116–7. Also available online at the Princeton Seminary Bulletin.

[2.] A couple of points actually, the other being that “Easter” is a non-biblical and woefully inadequate word. If you should happen to hear me slipping into Romance languages during Holy Week, it’s not because I’m trying to impress anyone, but because Pascua or Pâques actually provide some clue as to what we’re about, namely, celebrating our Passover.

Drew Denton is a Ph.D. candidate in church history at Emory University and a catechist at his local parish.

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