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 Those of us who write books–even books that remain unpublished on our desktops–know the effort and discipline it takes to order thoughts into sentences, then to hone each word so that it says exactly what you mean to say.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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All Hallows

I’m finally starting to get Halloween.

For most of my life, I’ve been mystified by this quasi-holiday, in large part because I’m not naturally wired for it. I don’t believe in ghosts or vampires or immortal killers without faces. I don’t like scary movies or gore. I’ve never looked good in orange, and I detest the smell of pumpkins. Tell me, then, exactly what is there for me in Halloween?

Not much, truth be told. While every year brings some bright spots–fall cookouts, gatherings with friends, free candy–I still have to duck my head and grit my teeth. In a few days, all the ghoulishness will be gone. Even those who love Halloween don’t seem excited to let it linger.

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My children playing in the leaf pile. Although parenting teenagers is indeed terrifying, their version of Halloween fun is one I can live with.

Among the litany of baffling things about Halloween is how little we think of what’s on the other side of it. Its name–contracted from Hallows Evening–suggests that we are on the edge of something, but not there yet. Christmas Eve isn’t Christmas. New Year’s Eve isn’t the new year. Hallows Eve isn’t…what?

I’ve known for some time that the real answer is All Saints Day (formerly referred to as All Hallows), a Christian celebration of those who have died and, as the saying goes, joined the church triumphant. Many Christian tribes–including my own– take the first Sunday of November to read the names of those who have died since the last All Saints’ Day and to remember loved ones we have lost at any point in the past. For most of my career, this seemed like a nice and pastorly thing to do.

My feelings have changed since I came to at Dakota Wesleyan. On our first All Saints Day together, my new congregation and I were grieving along parallel paths–I for my friend Jason and they for their associate pastor Brian, both of whom had died far to young the year before. In the coming months, we would hold three more funerals–Hali and Beau, two freshmen students who died nine months apart, and Pam, a beloved professor.

Wisdom may come with age, but so does loss. I’ve talked with countless people in recent years about the deaths of grandparents and siblings, uncles and friends, classmates and neighbors. My father died in February and was incapacitated long before his heart stopped beating. I have friends with cancer, with diabetes, with dementia. I found out last night that the mother of two of my college classmates–a delightful woman who treated Susan and Nancy’s friends as her own kids–is preparing to enter hospice care.

I’ve decided that I’ll never quite get over most of these losses–that most of us don’t, and that’s okay. They remain part of my life’s canvas, and even though they take up less of the picture as the years go by, they will never quite go away.

All Saints Day gives me a chance–more than that, a mandate–to remember. It reminds me of my faith’s hope that a person who dies is not lost, but welcomed into the hands of God. It allows me to grieve, but leaves no room for despair.

So today I am in full Halloween-be-damned mode. The fascination with ghosts and monsters and unrequited suffering misses the point. Today I’m living in remembrance, and in anticipation. The two are not so far apart as I once supposed.

 

A Minority Report

Last weekend, the Area Community Theater opened a production of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, a murder mystery in which I portray a jealous innkeeper who plays host to a cast of oddballs and charlatans, all of whom are suspects. It involves a lot of deception and finger-pointing, sprinkled with a fair amount of righteous indignation, In this way, the play is not all that different than contemporary political or theological discourse.

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Here I am as Giles Ralston. Yes I had to shave my beard. No, this pose is not really acting.

Being onstage, though, is easy. The lines are scripted, the character interaction fixed. I have to try to embody what my character thinks and feels–including how I relate to other characters. But I don’t get to choose what I say or how I feel or who I offend. Those things are already set. I just have to bring them to life.

The difficult part is in the dressing room, where the dialogue isn’t set and the relationships are not defined. On show nights, actors and crew spend hours together getting ready before the curtain opens. We wait in close quarters, with plenty of time to talk. To paraphrase one of Detective Trotter’s lines, it’s great fun.

Mostly. This past week provided a few thorny conversation topics, especially around the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation. True to Midwestern Red State form, the four other men in my dressing room felt victorious, to varying degrees. They enjoyed the win for their political persuasion, and they enjoyed watching their opponents–or at least the most radical of their opponents–lose.

I can empathize with where they are coming from. Nearly twenty years ago, I was a political moderate and a social conservative myself. I voted for George W. Bush in his first term, mostly because I was worried about pending Supreme Court vacancies. When I hear my fellow actors stating their conservative views, I hear echoes of how I once thought.

I think differently now, of course. A thousand different factors moved me away from my young-adult assumptions–the most important and surprising of which was a shift in my understanding of the Bible. My theology and my politics have moved a great deal, and the transition has been neither neat nor tidy.

All of which leaves me as the minority among my dressing room colleagues, and as such left with a quandary. How do I hold my convictions authentically, express them genuinely, and still keep peace among fellow actors than I now consider friends?

One answer is that I can’t do all of that. Keeping peace is out of my control, not just in this but in any situation. We live among free individuals who get to choose their own responses. If someone wants to fight, it doesn’t matter how considerate I try to be.

But that’s not the way most of us want to live. We want to get along, to work together, to build a better world for everyone. Or at least not to punch each other in the face all the time.

I think many of my friends are wrong in their conclusions, but that doesn’t make them unworthy of respect. We need each other, if we are going to address big problems like climate change–the greatest current threat to human thriving by almost any measure. For that matter, we need each other, even for small things like putting on a play at the local ACT.

And it’s in such settings that national healing starts–not at caucus meetings or strategy sessions, and certainly not on the troll playgrounds that social media platforms have become. Our public discourse has no hope of improving until we humanize and converse with those who are so easily vilified for thinking differently than our tribes.

So the way I deliver my minority report matters. I don’t have to sacrifice conviction or content, but I do have to pay attention to other people’s feelings. If I want to be heard, I first have to listen. And when I speak as either the minority or the majority, I have to do so with understanding, if the show is to go on–and if the show is to go anywhere.

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The cast of The Mousetrap at Mitchell ACT. 

Praying Twice (for real this time)

Last week, I created an unnecessary problem for myself. I dove down a rabbit hole with rockets strapped to my feet, wondering for more than 600 words if something I knew to be true was really true, creating unnecessary insecurity that required a fair amount of intellectual meandering before I could resurface.

My wife tells me I overthink things.

She’s right, of course. But it’s not always a bad thing. I’m committed to intellectual and spiritual coherence. In other words, I want things to make sense. I don’t want to be duped by religious fairy tales, and I don’t want to ignore facts right in front of my face. Doing so is the path to all kinds of idiotic behavior, from denying climate science to thinking the president is somehow on God’s side. The last thing I want–and I mean literally the last thing–is to fall into that abyss of mass stupid.

But my tendency to overthink can be paralyzing at times. When you try to see the world from every perspective, you end up with a fly’s vision. You get lots of angles, and all of them fuzzy.

Every summer I end up trapped in overthinking hell. My job as campus pastor slows way down, which is a welcome relief at first. As the weeks drag on, however, I find that I have too much time in my own head. I think-think-think, and as I do I question everything from the meaning of the universe to my own mortality to the inevitability of the designated hitter coming to National League baseball (all of which are equally disturbing propositions to me).

In this state of mind, religious observance gets more and more difficult. Prayers become obligations at best and embarrassments at worse, litanies of worries recited to a God who may or may not be listening, if God is even real. There’s too much noise in my head to sort it all out, and I wonder if my being a pastor means I’m a fake. By the beginning of August, I’m usually pretty depressed.

What lifts me out of it is music.

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Students gathered in my back yard for WUTS–Worship Under the Stars. When we sing, we pray twice.

Each year when school starts, part of my task is to gather musicians to be part of a worship band. If I’m honest, however, that’s not really how it works. My students form the band. They invite their friends, arrange many of the songs, handle most of the logistics. I’m theoretically in charge, but that doesn’t do much for my soul. What brings me back to life is being invited into the music, included in the circle of musicians.

This year more than any other, I’ve been struck by how song and prayer are one and the same to me. So much of my life revolves around words, words, words–rooms of words piled upon words. A good song sweeps away words that are lazy or inconsequential. It gets at the essence of prayer–people and God, working in time, trusting the worth of the moment itself.

Playing and singing with these young adults gets me out of my own head. It forces me to listen to what’s around me–to tuning and voices and instrumentation. It calls me to stop worrying so much about the physics of harmony or the transient nature of sound in our temporary universe. It reminds me that my faith is intellectually plausible, but not dissectible. I can’t know everything. I don’t need to know everything.

Except that we love and are loved, which is reason enough to pray and to sing.

 

 

Attention Where It’s Due

When I talk to my student leaders in our campus ministry, I tell them they have two jobs: show up and pay attention. It turns out I needed a little help with the latter.

Not that I’m unaware of my surroundings. If anything, I’m hypersensitive to the conditions of mood and weather and comfort. It’s important for me to know the various aspects of the climate in which I live.

Unfortunately, that commitment to knowing has made me at times hyper-focused on the politics that define so much of American life right now. And while conflict and disagreement don’t bother me–how else are we supposed to come to agreements if we can’t be honest?–the sheer idiocy of our time has cost me more than one gray hair. Even as we mark the death of John McCain, the conversation inevitably seems to turn away from the late senator and toward the president’s childish response to his passing. I’m continually baffled by the intellectual dishonesty and spiritual cowardice that enable our commander in chief to make it all about himself.

I get pretty worked up.

Luckily, my friend Boyd knows this about me.

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Boyd was also my son Zachary’s confirmation mentor. They occasionally met in our treehouse.

Boyd is the kind of old man I’ll aspire to be, if I live long enough. Determined, curious, sometimes irreverent but always caring, Boyd has lived many lives in his nearly nine decades. He’s been a pastor, an author, a district superintendent–a job he still sees as inflated, if not ludicrous–a maintenance worker, a professor, and a self-appointed security officer.

When Boyd makes his security walks around campus, he stops in at various departments, doing covert pastoral checks on his often wayward flock. A couple of weeks ago, he came by the campus ministry office to talk about an idea he’d first mentioned to me in an e-mail.

“Why?” he asked, raising his hands in righteous bewilderment. “Why on earth do we pay so much attention to Donald Trump when the Apostle Paul paid so little to Emperor Nero?”

It’s a great question, and one Boyd has the pedigree to ask. Aside from his life experience, he is a careful observer of politics. He’s also a New Testament scholar, having taught Life and Letters of Paul at Dakota Wesleyan for several years. He knows of what he speaks.

And like many great teachers, he makes his point in the form of a question. When I go to answer it, I can’t help but feel a bit chastised.

History is filled with Neros and Trumps, men of great influence but weak character who loom over everyday life. They crave power, and they derive it from attention. The more we talk about them–even in opposition–the more we play into their hands.

For Paul, however, the emperor was barely worthy of mention. He could cause problems, of course. In fact, he could and did inflict real suffering. But in Paul’s perspective, he was nothing but an annoyance, a fly buzzing across the field of vision, a minor distraction from the real scene before us.

For Paul and for Boyd, that larger scene is Jesus–his life and death, his teaching and his disciples. The spectacle of resurrection and the God-infused life that followed are, in this view, the only things really worth talking about.

I’ve taken Boyd’s observation to heart lately. I spend less time reading the news–a healthy lifestyle change for any political junkie–and more time on the positives around me. And when I get caught off guard by the president’s latest atrocity, I remember Boyd’s question and shoo him away with the disinterest he deserves.

I’ve got bigger things to focus on, and I’m happier for it.

Interruptions

If my count is correct, I began a new blog post four times yesterday. This morning, as I type my second sentence, I’m already further along than I got on the previous four.

Lack of focus? No. Writer’s block? Not this time. The clear and undisputed reason why my Monday blog is waiting until Tuesday to go up is interruptions. Dozens of people dropped by my office yesterday, sometimes knocking on the doorframe–my office door usually stays open–and sometimes just standing there until I noticed them.

Among the reasons for stopping by:

  • “Can I leave my backpack in here while I go to lunch?”
  • “Did I miss anything? I’m nervous about missing something.”
  • “Check out my new iPad.”
  • “Why is it never simple? Why can’t things just work the way they’re supposed to?” (this was unrelated to the iPad)
  • “I left my backpack in the chapel. Have you seen it?” (apparently backpacks were a thing on Monday)
  • “Do you have any candy?”
  • “I have nothing to do, so I decided to come in here and talk.” (three of these)

There were others–more than I bothered to count, ranging from the very trivial to the very personal. All told, the interruptions took up almost my entire day.

Through the lens of good ol’ American productivity, Monday was wasted. I didn’t produce a single tangible artifact to justify my paycheck–no reports, no sermons, no meeting notes. If, as one of my former bishops suggested, outputs are the only things that matter, then I started off the week with a colossal failure.

Fortunately for me, however, my vocation is viewed through a more personal lens. If we pastors are to reflect the life and teachings of Jesus, then we have to take seriously his style of working. Rarely was Jesus too focused on a goal to stop for someone who needed help or healing or hope. If you want examples, read Mark 5 or Matthew 14.

Oftentimes, interruptions were his work.

I don’t think this principle applies just to religious endeavors. The annals of science, literature, politics, and a host of other disciplines are filled with stories of discoveries made because someone stopped to pay attention to what might easily have been classified as an obstacle to their goal. Interruptions aren’t necessarily impediments to the creative process. In fact, they may be necessary parts of it.

And so I’m trying to view my interruptors not as drags on my time, but as co-collaborators in our life-sized project. After all, it’s the intersections with one another that make our lives interesting.

 

Friends

Slowly but surely, the campus outside my window is coming to life, although not everyone realizes it. The fall sport athletes–they won’t really be students until next week–move more like zombies, beaten down as they are by minor injuries and conditioning drills. Imagine watching Rudy, only with the cast of The Walking Dead.

Ice packs and ankle boots notwithstanding, the return of undergrads to campus brings a tide of good feelings, carried by the sounds of conversation and laughter that once again fill the student center. Almost none of them realize that I’m watching, much less how vital their relationships are to my own well being. But their friendships are more than just a way to enhance their own student experience. They’re a witness to the best things about my work in higher ed. Without friendship, college ministry would be impossible.

I would say a similar thing about Christian discipleship.

Last Sunday, I spoke to our church about one of my more odd possessions–a copy of an icon known as “Christ and Abbot Mena.” The original, on display now at the Louvre, dates back to a Coptic monastery in Egypt sometime in the 8th century. The older man, identified as “Apa Mena superior” by the inscription near his halo, holds the rule of the monastery in one hand and raises the other in blessing.

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“Christ and Abbot Mena,” also referred to as “Christ and His Friend.”

What’s most striking about the icon, however, is the figure of Jesus. He is not distant, not some theoretical savior or far-off ruler. Rather, Jesus stands next to Mena, his arm draped over the abbot’s shoulder. It is not a transactional gesture between lord and underling. It’s a sign of friendship, of intimacy. No surprisingly, the icon is often referred to as Christ and His Friend.

I received my copy of the icon at an academy for spiritual formation I was part of about ten years ago. Trevor Hudson, a United Methodist Pastor from South Africa, emphasized the importance of friendship as part of a cycle of grace: acceptance leads to sustenance, which leads to significance and ultimately to fruitfulness.

Unfortunately, the larger part of American culture gets the cycle backwards. We seek and reward fruitfulness–results!–and derive our significance from there. But the cycle doesn’t work in reverse. For grace to be grace, it has to come first–before we’ve done anything worth putting on our resume.

I’m not a particularly sentimental guy, but this icon is among the few possessions that I truly value. I don’t always know who God is, and it’s hard for me to wrap my brain around who Jesus is sometimes. But I know what it is to be and have a friend. I’ve been blessed with many of them over the years. They make me a healthier person and a better human.

The picture of Christ with his arm around his friend helps me think about Jesus not as an abstraction or concept or idea, but as a person–as a friend, someone who embodies love and acceptance and sustenance. Someone who helps me believe in my own significance, before I have anything to show for my work.

This, I think, is how the world gets transformed for the better–not by coalitions implementing ideas, but by people who put themselves on the line for one another as friends. Such friendships give us hope. They bring us back to life. And who can say how much good they do for the people we didn’t know were watching?