Review: The Advent Mission

A few weeks ago, my friend Omar Rikabi sent me my first Christmas present of 2018. Inside was a small book of 37 advent devotionals, one per day beginning the first day of advent and running through the twelve days after Christmas. It’s a simple enough gift–only 120 pages–and not terribly expensive–$12.95 on Seedbed’s website. I looked it up.

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Every author starts somewhere. On my desk, at least, Omar is at the top of the stack.

What makes The Advent Mission such an extraordinary gift, however, is the name on the spine. Omar Rikabi.

Any writer worth the oxygen he or she consumes will tell you that it’s a thrill to see a friend’s work in print. Those of us who write books–even books that remain unpublished on our desktops–know the effort and discipline it takes to order thoughts into sentences, then to hone each word so that it says exactly what you mean to say. When Omar finished his manuscript, that was cause enough to celebrate.

To see that manuscript published is more than just icing on the cake. It’s another cake on top of the cake. With ice cream. And the best coffee you’ve ever had. And someone else picks up the check and leaves you a $20 tip.

But there’s another inevitable response to picking up a friend’s book. You don’t want to even admit the fear, much less vocalize the question.

What if it’s terrible?

I’ve read enough of Omar’s work to know he’s a good writer, but a lot can happen in the production process. What if the printer got a few paragraphs out of order and turned the devotionals into nonsense? What if Omar accidentally turned in an earlier draft of the manuscript that called Herod a poopy-woopy dopeface and referred to Mary as momsies? It took a week for me to get the courage to crack open the book.

Thankfully, The Advent Mission holds up to the best of my expectations. Omar writes with   candor and insight that I expect from him, but that is still anything but typical. He never lacks for raw honesty–the New Year’s hangover that showed him the need for advent–and for interesting stories–Christmas at a mall in Mecca. He balances advent themes such as justice, redemption, action, and waiting. He acknowledges that the message of advent is personal, but does not allow the reader to be self-absorbed.

My first reading of The Advent Mission was a mixture of relief and admiration. I’m proud of the work Omar did and happy it made its way into the world intact.

My next reading is going to be more fun. I’ll start over on Dec. 2, the first day of advent and the beginning of the new Christian year. I’ll approach this reading slowly, a day at a time, less focused on craft and more on content. Because Omar is right–we need advent, more than we know. I’m grateful for the reminder The Advent Mission gives us.

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A Humble Reminder

The difference between humility and humiliation is choice.

I’m reminded of this every time I go to the polls to vote, proverbial blue dot that I am. This year was no exception. Whatever strides progressives made in other parts of the country, that once again got destroyed in South Dakota. I did not vote for a single winning candidate on any level–state, local, national. In retrospect, I don’t think I’ve voted for a winning candidate since 2010, unless you count Barack Obama in 2012, who won the presidency but lost the state in which I lived by 24 points.

By one measure, my losing streak is a humiliation, an electoral shouting-down of my political beliefs. I’ve encountered plenty of people willing to couch it in those terms. In the age of no-victory-but-annihilation, and with a barely literate man-child as president, it seems a natural thing to humiliate your opponents.

And feeling humiliated seems like a natural response, for those of us on the losing end. The taunts of Will McAvoy’s The Newsroom rant echo in my head. “If liberals are so fucking smart, how come they lose so goddamn always?”

Thanks, Will. Duly chastised.

Most days, I think Jesus is just as offended by all of this as I am. And I think I have pretty solid biblical ground to stand on there.

Where Jesus and I differ is on how to address the situation. I would really have liked to have seen an unequivocal repudiation of Trump and his ilk on election night. I wish my conservative friends would chase this band of militants and racists out of their party and back to the compound from which they sprang. I wish God would drop thunder from the sky–maybe send a few Exodus-style plagues–and say, “Enough!”

I have no hope that God will give me anything I wish.

I base my pessimistic assessment on God’s big intervention into human history (according to Christians, at least). The messiah showed up on the scene at a time when things were desperate for the Jews. They were subject to the whims and corruptions of Roman rule, and they wanted God to do something about it. Send a king. Send a general. Send someone with enough influence to make real change.

Jesus was none of that. He never even tried. Jesus was playing a different game altogether, infiltrating small spheres with big messages of love and forgiveness and healing. His powerlessness wasn’t an obstacle to overcome. It was an essential tool in his work, a way to model how the kingdom of God comes to us, how we get in on it.

All of this has unnerving implications for those of us who want to face down a tyrant, from Nero to Trump and each of them in between. We can resist and sometimes revolt. We can speak against them and vote against them. But our best approach is not to try to beat them at their own game. It’s to love our neighbors in tangible ways, to think big and act small.

Seen in this light, no defeat–electoral or otherwise–is really a humiliation. A setback, to be sure, but also a reminder that God chose to fight the tyrants of Jesus’ day not with power, but with humility.

If that’s good enough for Jesus, then I suppose I should trust that it’s good enough for me as well.

 

Old Stuff

Few things will chip away at your happiness than the thought that you should be happier.

This morning I moved a Word file from my “In Progress” folder to the “Old Stuff” folder. Most of the time, when I move such a file to such a place, it’s an occasion for mourning. It means the project has been abandoned, along with an idea that I’d once been excited about–one that I’d spend hours trying to shape into a coherent narrative that other humans might derive meaning and pleasure from. But whether by my own judgment or by a a string of rejection notices, these pieces have been deemed lacking and so relegated to Old Stuff. Alas, most of the words I write end up in this file, never to see the light of day. Most of them never should.

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The first page of my essay in Sport Literate. It’s a thrill to see your work in print, but also a reminder of all your work that sits unused in the files.

Today, however, I had a much more auspicious reason for opening Old Stuff.  I moved an essay called “St. Anthony and Buddha Bike Through the Desert” into a tiny subfolder labeled “Wins.” With its appearance in Sport Literate‘s fall edition, it joined a dozen or so non-church related pieces that I’ve published in different venues. The Wins folder is my modest literary trophy case, and “St. Anthony” is the newest and highest quality entry to date. I should be ecstatic.

I’m not.

The problem is that my Wins folder pales in comparison in both size and scope to the rest of Old Stuff. The other subfolders represent various categories of failure. Novels ranging from partially written to fully polished but not in print. Columns published as a pastor, dating back to the era when I thought–naively, as it turns out–that determination and well-formed ideas were enough to steer my religious tribe away from self-destruction. Short stories and essays that were never any good to begin with, but which help me trace my maturity as a writer, such as it is.

If my estimations are close, I think I have in the neighborhood of 500,000 words of material in the Old Stuff file, representing about 25,000 printed pages and untold thousands of hours of work. When I add up the old church-related columns with the Wins folder, I can see that about 10% of the words I’ve written have been read outside of my immediate circle.

With numbers like that, no wonder most of the writers I know focus more on their failures than their successes. I’m no better. But I’m trying to be. Ironically, the clan that has made me more determined to celebrate the wins is not literary, but athletic.

As it does in much of American life, sports has an outsized place at the university where I work. Since most of my students are also athletes, I’ve had to learn a fair amount about what makes them tick. And one of the clearest and most overwhelming lessons is that athletes on almost every level hate to lose more than they love to win. This trait, called the Krauthammer Conjecture by the late columnist of that name, is every bit as evident in an NAIA cross country runner as it is in Max Scherzer or Lebron James.

In fact, I’d go so far as to postulate that most of us spend far more time thinking about our regrets and failures than our successes. If I tell a student she did a great job at the choir concert, she’ll talk about the notes she missed. If I tell an actor he nailed a role in a production, he’ll inevitably mention the lines he dropped. Something in us is wired to remember the negative and to confess our failures, even in the face of success.

So it’s my mission today to let the Old Stuff go. The failures of the past will collect their dust whether I mind them or not. In the meantime, I have a new story out in the light of day. That may not represent wild success, but it is an accomplishment. The Old Stuff isn’t going to get in the way of my enjoying this victory.

I hope you can find a similar happiness today in your own successes. And I hope you are surrounded by people who care more about those than any failure you might also carry.

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