Rather than jump ahead to Christmas celebrations, Advent slows us down. However, we short circuit the potential impact of this season if we treat it merely as a kind of delayed gratification technique for enhancing our consumeristic pleasure. Advent is not about increasing the satisfaction of Christmas festivities by counting down with excited delight.
Last week I invited us to consider the groaning of the enslaved Hebrew people that moved God to be-there as a liberator. God came down in response to the cries that were lifted up. God’s people demanded God deliver them from the dominant reality of exploitation and injustice that oppressed them. Their cries, their groaning, played a critical role in their own deliverance.
As we walk through the second week of Advent, commonly symbolized with the lighting of the candle of “faith” or “trust” we lean further into the power of groaning by reflecting on the Psalms. Walter Brueggemann offers a framework for engaging the psalms I find very helpful, especially in, as he says, “showing how the ‘psalms of negativity’ may be understood in the life of faith.” He organizes psalms into three categories: orientation, disorientation, new orientation.
The composition of Psalms indicates that Israel’s worship often centered the expression of “dark” feelings, giving voice to the disorientation they experienced. For example, laments or songs of complaint total almost a third of the 150 psalms. Psalms of disorientation outnumber the other types. Yet, often in our churches and Christian communities, we ignore these uncomfortable and jarring songs of prayer. Our worship services prioritize music that feels happy, upbeat, triumphant, and strong.
Reflecting on churches’ propensity to predominantly and at times exclusively create “happy” worship, Brueggemann writes, “The problem with a hymnody that focuses on equilibrium, coherence, and symmetry… is that it may deceive and cover over. Life is not like that. Life is also savagely marked by incoherence, a loss of balance, and unrelieved asymmetry.” When we define faith largely in terms of certainty and positive feelings, then any articulation of doubt, any challenge of the status quo, any cry for change, any expression of pain is seen as the enemy of faith.
Brueggemann writes, “The point to be urged here is this: The use of these ‘psalms of darkness’ may be judged by the world to be acts of unfaith and failure, but for the trusting community, their use is an act of bold faith, albeit a transformed faith. It is an act of bold faith on the one hand, because it insists that the world must be experienced as it really is and not in some pretended way.” Though he distinguishes between the perception of the “world” and that of the “trusting community,” I want to draw attention to the way the church sees through the lens of “the dominant consciousness” and so, even if sometimes not intended, perpetuates “the dominant reality.” Advent is an opportunity to wake up to what is really happening, especially as expressed by those most marginalized, excluded and oppressed by the dominant reality. As noted last week, if we journey through Advent alongside the Hebrew people whose cries for liberation prompted God to be-there as Messiah, we are plunged into expectation and longing for God-with-us to set right all that is not as it should be in the world and in us.
The groaning of the psalms of disorientation model “an act of bold faith” that, as Brueggemann notes, “insists that all such experiences of disorder are a proper subject for discourse with God. Nothing is out of bounds, nothing precluded or inappropriate. Everything properly belongs in this conversation of the heart… Thus these psalms make the important connection: everything must be brought to speech, and everything brought to speech must be addressed to God, who is the final reference for all of life.” This “transformed faith” demonstrates radical trust in God. In the midst of disorientation, when it might make the most sense to turn to other sources of stability (those of the dominant reality – control, exclusion, violence, or ignoring, denying, numbing), the “trusting community” lift their groans to the God they believe “is present in, participating in, and attentive to the darkness, weakness, and displacement of life.”
God revealed their name to Moses as “I will be-there” and showed up as liberator, demonstrating what faithfulness looks like. This “One has promised to be in the darkness with us,” and so “we find the darkness strangely transformed, not by the power of easy light, but by the power of relentless solidarity… The Psalms are a boundary thrown up against self-deception. They do not permit us to ignore and deny the darkness, personally or publicly, for that is where new life is given.”
Psalm 12 is one of the psalms of disorientation. The one praying laments the breakdown of the way the world is supposed to work. Conventional wisdom, like that found in Proverbs, teaches that the faithful – those who “Trust in the LORD with all your heart… In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight” (Prov. 3) – will prosper, and the wicked – those “who speak perversely, who forsake the paths of uprightness… who rejoice in doing evil… whose paths are crooked” (Prov. 2) – will be “cut off… rooted out.” As we all know and have experienced, this kind of faithfulness = life and wickedness = death paradigm does not always hold true. In fact, our experience may prove the reverse to be true more often than not in many seasons of life.
Help, O LORD, for there is no longer anyone who is godly;
the faithful have disappeared from humankind.
They utter lies to each other;
with flattering lips and a double heart they speak.
May the LORD cut off all flattering lips,
the tongue that makes great boasts,
those who say, “With our tongues we will prevail;
our lips are our own - who is our master?”
“Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan,
I will not rise up,” says the LORD;
“I will place them in the safety for which they long.”
The promises of the LORD are promises that are pure,
silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times.
You, O LORD, will protect us;
you will guard us from this generation forever.
On every side the wicked prowl,
as vileness is exalted among humankind.
Psalm 12, NRSV
Again, it may be easier to draw us (the church) vs. them (the world) lines, identifying us as the faithful one who is suffering and them as the wicked unjustly prospering. However, my focus this Advent is to help us see the ways in which the church is both us and them.
I, like many other white ex-evangelicals, looked on with disbelief on November 8, 2016 as it became clear that Trump was going to be elected the 45th president of the United States. When I first heard that he was even running, I thought it was a joke. When he won, I cried. When I heard that 81% of white evangelical Christians voted for Trump, I was horrified. That disbelief and horror have only grown over the last five years. The way so many self-identified Christians have bowed at the feet of Trump is deeply disorienting. For many, this phenomenon was their final breaking point: how many have left the church and can no longer in good conscience identify as Christian?
Some of us have found ways to hold on to faith, but so many others would sacrifice their integrity by doing so. I still resonate with and find a vision for justice that fuels hope in the biblical story, especially as understood through Jesus as God-with-us. But it can be incredibly difficult to untangle the ways the dominant reality has co-opted even the gospels. Reading Wes Howard-Brook’s book, Empire Baptized: How the Church Embraced What Jesus Rejected – 2nd-5th Centuries, early this year reminded me that the Christian tradition has always consisted of “the faithful” and those who have baptized Empire. Even a cursory reading of the Old Testament reminds us that this struggle was ever present within Israel’s story. Those who cried out for justice under Egyptian oppression were later urged to remember how God liberated them from slavery by loving one’s neighbor, especially by caring for the vulnerable. Yet, prophets then and now expose our injustice, the way we have become oppressors under which others lift their cries to God.
Inspired by Psalm 12, I offer my groaning, wholeheartedly trusting the God who hears, shows up and saves us (even from ourselves).
O God, help! Has the whole church bowed down to the dominant reality, the Empire way?
I look around and ask, “Are there fifty righteous anywhere to be found? What about forty-five? Thirty? Twenty? Ten?”
Are you listening, God? Do you hear what these Christians, these churches, are tweeting and commenting and sharing? Do you see their signs, their statements?
Or, do you hear the silence of those who wash their hands claiming innocence in the face of all this violent noise?
Lord, come down, show up, be-there!
Burn down the hate, the abuse, the exploitation!
If fire is the great refiner, set ablaze the gas-lighting, the traumatizing, the bait-and-switching.
Expose the lies of everyone propping themselves up as “bible believing Christians” and those who speak “peace, peace” when there is no peace.
“I will be-there howsoever I will be-there,” promises God.
“Look, a woman shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel. God-with-you will liberate you. Your cries will be answered. Rejoice!”
O what good news, that God enters into the darkness with us - the great self-emptying solidarity that inaugurates Life!
Watch out - for the loser now will be later to win. Your old road is rapidly aging - choose now to prepare the way for the Lord, or get out of the way!