As a society we are encouraged to rush into hope. We are well trained in the art of instant gratification where lamentations are often misunderstood as mere complaining. We are encouraged to rush through grief, rush through loss. If we are to meet the collective challenges of this time, it will not be through a cheap hope or a rushed Christmas. We need an Advent Kind of Hope, where we name the injustices, sit with their pain, and in the face of suffering prepare to reclaim our power and strive for the realization of justice.
This service was offered to the Unitarian Church of Quincy IL on Sunday, December 3, 2017.
Story for all ages
Do you ever get the sense that everyone is rushing to Christmas? Christmas decorations start showing up in stores right after Labor Day. When Hallowe’en is done, some stores start playing Christmas Music, two months before Christmas! And now that we’ve gotten past Thanksgiving, everyone is asking, “Are you ready for Christmas?” And I’ve never figured out what that means. Does that mean I’ve hung up all my decorations, or bought all the presents, or finished my grocery shopping for the meals I’m going to cook? Is this what is means when people ask “Are you ready for Christmas?” I hope it doesn’t, because I’ve always secretly thought to myself that being ready for Christmas should mean more than food, presents, and decorations. Being ready for Christmas should mean that you’re ready to welcome the special meaning of Christmas, which is hope.
Christmas is about hope, that there is always a reason to hope. But I’ll also tell you, if that’s what the question means, I still don’t know that I’m ready for Christmas. Because you can’t rush hope, just like you can’t rush Christmas. If you rush either one, you don’t actually get either one of them. Now why is this?
What’s the original Christmas story, about? It’s about the birth of a baby, named Jesus, that some Christians, not all Christians, but some Christians, believe is God. Can you rush the birth of a baby? How long does it take for a baby to be ready to be born? About 9 months. Sometimes less, sometimes more, but mostly it’s 9 months of waiting, and you can’t rush that. You can’t make a baby grow faster. You just have to wait. That’s just how it is.
But while you wait, all kinds of things happen. For women who are pregnant, they often have morning sickness, they don’t always feel well, you can get really tired really fast, your whole body changes as the baby grows and your body learns how to balance in new ways. Sometimes your feet swell, you want to eat different foods than you usually eat, and sometimes you want to eat more than usual, other times you just don’t want to eat at all. You have to accept all the changes, the fun ones and the not so fun ones, that are happening to your body. That’s the only way to get to having that baby.
And then you can’t rush the birth. For some women, it takes a long long time to have their baby, days. And sometimes it happens really fast. Boom, a few hours and you have your baby! And you don’t get any choice about whether it’s slow or fast. It’s going to happen how it’s going to happen. So through the whole pregnancy, you can either be impatient and unhappy, or patient and along for the ride. And truth be told, most women will do both because we’re just human. But just like you can’t rush Christmas, just like you can’t rush hope, you can’t rush a baby. You have to go through the whole thing.
So there’s this tradition in the Christian holiday of Christmas called Advent. Advent is the four Sundays before Christmas. Many people put out a circle of four candles. Every Sunday you light one more candle. Today, for instance, is First Advent, and so you light the first candle. Then next Sunday, is second Advent and you light two candles, then the 3rd Sunday 3, and the 4th Sunday, all four. And then you’re almost to Christmas and the birth of baby Jesus and what he symbolizes. But you can’t light those candles all today, because it’s still really four weeks to Christmas. If you light them all at once you miss a lot.
Advent teaches us to not rush. It helps us get to Christmas in the right way, with our hearts open, and our minds at peace, and our spirits ready for joy. Advent teaches us that getting to joy and hope sometimes takes some effort. You have to work at it. It doesn’t just happen on its own.
What we do in Advent, as we wait to light each candle, is think about all the things that happened to us this past year, the good things, and the not so good things. Life is sometimes really good, and life is sometimes really really hard. When Mary was pregnant with Jesus in the Christmas story, life was really really hard for the Jews. And you couldn’t pretend that it wasn’t. You couldn’t rush through the hard things just like you can’t rush to hope. You can’t get to hope if you try to rush through the things that hard.
The Advent candles teach us how to wait. How to be patient with ourselves. And how to name the good and hard things that happened to us. You can’t find hope if you can’t be honest about the hard things in life.
So this morning, in honor of Advent, we will light the first candle, and while we light it, we’ll take a deep breath, and spend one minute of silence, thinking about the good and not to so good things that happened to us this year, and in the silence, ask for patience and understanding.
So let’s take a breath, let’s light the candle…. And let’s us have a moment of silence, meditation, and prayer.
Solidarity with the Suffering: Why I Won’t Rush to Christmas. Terry D. Williams
Advent is the season of expectation & darkness—the time in the church year where we explicitly develop the discipline of opening ourselves to the grief, loss, pain, and struggle of those who silently suffer around us.
At Advent, we call out our collective memory to be aware that some people fight addiction every day, that some people are dying of horrible diseases that are no one’s fault, and that even amid the most tragic circumstances, compassion and human kindness can heal and bring light.
Rushing to Christmas without the discipline of Advent is like trying to force a happy smile on a cancer patient or deny an addict their well-earned tears all because we are too uncomfortable to sit with their pain and be real with them.
Rushing to Christmas without the discipline of Advent denies the validity of people who suffer, long for change, and die never having seen their hope fulfilled.
Rushing to Christmas without the discipline of Advent shortchanges the glory of Christmas—Christmas which is the final fulfillment of a longed-for promise that many hundreds of thousands of people never got to see, but which you get to live in today.
For most of our history as people of faith we have lived and worked and died in only the hope of change, never having the instant gratification of being able to eat from the trees we have planted in the journey toward justice.
Advent honors the darkness of our lives; the pain, struggle, and deep disappointment that we all share in the human experience is central to this crucial spiritual season.
While not all people on this earth have truly known joy—count yourself blessed and privileged if you have!—all people have known a measure of suffering.
Whether loneliness, grief, loss or physical pain; alienation, abuse, disappointment, or heartache; fear of tomorrow, fear of the past, fear of other people, or fear of Self; we have all known the darkness, my friends.
Let the darkness bind us together. Allow yourself to see the pain that others carry and to truly be in solidarity with the suffering this year.
Refuse to be satisfied by a Cheap Christmas—one where premature celebration denies the darkness experience of others and where insistence on holiday joy pushes the silent sufferers in our midst even further into their prisons of sorrowing soundlessness.
Let Christmas be.
For now, we wait for Advent.
And we will have the strength, and the grace to wait … in the darkness together
When Kim Crawford Harvie graduated from Harvard Divinity School in the early 1980s, she probably knew it would be a stretch to get a job. She was a lesbian Unitarian Universalist minister and back in the 1980s, LGBTQ rights was barely on the UU radar. Ministry remained an old boys club. So when Kim applied the Unitarian Universalist congregation in Provincetown Massachusetts in 1985, maybe she felt the odds might actually favor her. Provincetown was a destination for gay and lesbian tourists. In a time when where you could lose your job, your children and your family for being gay, places like Provincetown were paradise. You got to be relatively safe, have some anonymity, and be with people who were like you.
When the Provincetown church of 32 parishioners had called her, she also knew she had been hired to help the tiny church decide if they should disband. When she got there she found out the directory was out of date and half her parishioners were dead. So that left her with 16 parishioners. She wondered how long she would be there. At least she would have some fun living by the ocean and going to endless cultural events and lesbian potlucks!
But then, something happened. A young man went to the local hospital with these strange sores. Within days he died. Three more men went into the hospital for the same thing, and they died. The local mainline churches refused to officiate funerals for gay men and as a last resort friends sought out the new lesbian minister at the UU church. Would she would do a joint memorial. She said yes. For the first time in a long time, the church was filled to capacity. Little did anyone know that this was only the beginning. The men had died of AIDS and in the 1980s there was no cure and little understanding of how the disease was transmitted, only that was killing off gay men at an alarming rate.
So this tiny 16 member church, with their new fresh out of seminary lesbian minister was thrust into the AIDS epidemic. The question was, would they be able to respond as a religious community, together, to this epidemic. They decided that yes, they had no choice. This epidemic had landed on their front step and they would meet it.
The Provincetown UU Meeting House became known as the church that welcomed those with AIDs. Kim conducted hundreds of memorials. In worship services that used to have few in attendance, every pew was filled and there were pallets on the floor for those who had to be carried in. So many new members. Some had AIDS, some were friends and partners of those with AIDS, others wanted to be part of the church because of its bold ministry.
Members held support groups for partners and friends. Support groups for the dying. The center circle was for the pallets of those who could not sit or stand, around them were those in their wheel chairs, and behind them those who could still walk. As the ones in the center died, the ones in the outer rings moved in. It was a circle that spiralled inward as death claimed one after another and the outer rings welcomed the newly diagnosed.
In this time when AIDS patients were turned into modern day lepers, when politicians turned the other way, when families often abandoned those who were infected, when hospital staff refused to touch AIDS patients and quarantined them to die, the church rented apartments so that those with no place to die had somewhere to go. Members would visit and hold their hands, hug them, sometimes even lay next to them, listen to their stories, wipe their tears, help them to feel worthy of love and affection. Many of those offering comfort knew that soon it would be their turn. Everyone expected to die.
So in this time, oddly enough, the Provincetown Unitarian Universalist church found new life in a ministry of death and grief, and what Kim came to understand is that she had to develop a nuanced theology of hope that was beyond anything that she had considered. What did hope mean when you were in your 20s or 30s and you were dying? What did hope mean when your partner had no legal rights and when a homophobic society said you deserved this and when family members refused to acknowledge you? What did hope mean when health care providers wouldn’t touch you and most churches wouldn’t allow your body in their building for your funeral? What did hope mean when you might have a few months to get your affairs in order?
When Kim was interviewed years later, she emphasized that there was no way she could offer cheap hope. Think about it. How could she could in good conscience say, “It’s going to be alright,” or “Everything happens for a reason,” or “Look on the positive side.” Everyone that came through the doors was desperate for hope, but it had to be a hope that spoke through the reality of what had been unleashed, a kind of hope that didn’t leave the injustice and the broken dreams unnamed.
And although there was always the sense of urgency, this also couldn’t be a kind of hope that could be rushed. It had to be an Advent kind of hope.
In spiritual terms, Kim and the members of Provincetown Unitarian Universalist were called to practice a theology that was deeply interwoven with lamentation and hope.
Lamentation, in the Jewish and Christian tradition, is the sacred practice of proclaiming your grief, and all that accompanies it, including anger, bitterness, outrage, remorse, regret, sorrow. If you have read the book of Lamentations in the Old Testament, even a small portion, you see that it is book of sacred complaining about all the things have have gone wrong! You look up at that which is more powerful than anything on earth, and you say, “How dare you!” Sometimes I think that the book of Lamentations should be called the “How Dare You!” book. The Ancient Jews who wrote Lamentations accused their God of betraying them and permitting the injustices that wore them down.
Lamentations was written in the 60 years that the Ancient Jewish people experienced exile in Babylonia, from about 600 BCE to 540 BCE. The Babylonian Empire had taken over Ancient Jewish lands as part of their empire building and forced the Jewish people to live in exile. And this exile was messy and bloody. Lots of death, lots of suffering, lots of injustice, lots of oppression. It wasn’t like a neat little getaway through the desert to a new home. This exile was meant to hurt and humiliate. After they had been forced out, the scholars and priests became very afraid that they would lose not only their land but also their sense of peoplehood and their faith. Before exile, all the sacred stories had been largely memorized and transmitted through storytelling. During the Babylonian Exile they were written down to preserve them so they would not be lost, and this is what created what many of us know as the Old Testament. All those stories many of us had to learn in Sunday school, they were written down during the Babylonian Exile. And what the writers also did was document their sorrow, their fear, their outrage, and their sense of betrayal. And they railed against God. These writings became the book of Lamentations. Let me give you a short reading from Lamentations chapter 2 for a taste of what they wrote:
“The Lord has destroyed without mercy all the dwellings of Jacob
“In his wrath he has broken down the strongholds of daughter Juda; he has brought down to the round in dishonor the kingdom and its rulers. He has cut down in fierce anger all the might of Israel; hs has sent this bow like an enemy, with his right hand set like a foe, he has killed all in whom we took pride , he has poured out his fury like fire. The lord has scorned his altar and disowned his sanctuary; he has delivered into the hand of the enemy the walls of her palaces. My eyes are spent with weeping; my stomach churns; my bile is poured out on the ground because of the destruction of my people. …
“What can I say for you, to what compare you o daughter Jerusalem; To what can Iiken you, that I may comfort you? For vast as the sea is your ruin; who can heal you?”
This was some heavy duty sacred complaining.
When the Jews were able to return home, they brought the book of Lamentations with them. And when their next conquerors came, the Greeks, and after them the Romans, Lamentations helped the Jewish people to name their suffering without apology, without shame, to claim the truth of their suffering.
In the roughly 2500 years since the Babylonian Exile, Lamentations has used by many different groups of people to name their suffering as a collective unit. This is not about complaining about individual suffering or random suffering. It’s a way to give voice to collective loss, grief, anger, and injustice so that you can claim hope out of that shared experience.
If you look at the words of the hymn “Lift every voice and sing,” which is the black national anthem and the hymn that opened this worship service, it is a song of lamentation moving into hope.
Listen to the words of the second verse:
“Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod, felt in the days when hope unborn had died; yet with a steady beat, have not our weary feet, come to the place for which our fathers sighed? WE have come over a way that with tears has been watered, we have come, treading our path thru the blood of the slaughtered, out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last, where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.”
This song was written first as a poem in 1900 by James Weldon Johnson, and 1900 is a significant year because it was a time of deep disappointment. The Reconstruction after the Civil War was being undone by white terrorism through the KKK and Jim Crow. Blacks were fleeing north into exile and bringing with them stories not unlike the ones in Lamentations. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was a lamentation of what was happening, a lamentation that lifted up the 20th century terror as akin to that of the Babylonian exile, and proclaimed that freedom would come.
So when the people of Provincetown touched the legacy of Lamentations, they connected to a very old tradition. The collective suffering they were experiencing was the suffering of an oppressed people. Ignored by politicians, abandoned by families, judged and mocked, tormented by law enforcement, deemed untouchable by health care providers, watching their beautiful young strong bodies waste away. They had been exiled out of society and left to die.
What kind of hope could you possible claim without naming the reality of what was happening?
And in the lamentations, there was a hope to be claimed. Not the hope of a miracle cure, or families that suddenly welcomed them with open arms or governments that would suddenly start giving a damn. The hope came in the community that formed out of the epidemic, in families that you chose, where you were loved unconditionally, bonded with people who would remember you after you died.
Out of the lamentations of a constantly grieving and traumatized community came a claiming of who they were as a people. Out of their lamentations grew a political activism that has changed this whole nation. The fight for gay equality was born in the AIDS epidemic, when it became clear what the ramifications were of having no legal rights, no way to protect your loved ones, no rights for your partner, and no politicians who would fight for you. They transformed their lamentations into hope through activism. And this hope couldn’t be pushed, there wouldn’t be instant legal successes, but rather a slow changing of hearts, court decisions, and legislation. The pain of that time, galvanized through lamentation, became the hope that brought us to today.
We live in a time of lamentations. The foundations of our democracy are being undermined. There is a lot to lament.
And, as a society we are encouraged to rush into hope. We are well trained in the art of instant gratification. We are encouraged to rush through grief, rush through loss, where lamentations is often misunderstood as mere complaining. If we are to meet the collective challenges of this time, it will not be through a cheap hope or a cheap Christmas. We need an Advent Kind of Hope, where patience in the face of suffering prepares us to reclaim our power and strive for justice.
So on this first Sunday of Advent, let’s not rush into Christmas or be tempted by cheap hope. We can anchor in our lamentations, anchor our hope in community, in compassion, in our yearning for justice, with truth, honesty, patience, and understanding.
May it be so.
Source: The recorded interview with Kim Crawford Harvie on the Pamphlet Podcast: http://www.pamphletpodcast.org/at-the-meeting-house/