Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Advent Risk: Exposing Ourselves to the Light of the World

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. 

Oh Little Town of Bethlehem

There is a song that has spoken volumes to me recently.  It is called "Exhale" and is written and sung by Plumb.   I have sung the lyrics frequently as I take my morning run through my neighborhood with my two dogs.  Of course a song that talks about breathing is a natural fit for running. I literally am praying to "breathe in" oxygen and "exhale" carbon dioxide to sustain me as I keep running along the path.  But, in addition to the physical practice is the spiritual practice.  There is a deeper "breathing" that I need, a deeper longing that I express.  I pray that I would be granted spiritual sustenance to keep running with perseverance the race marked out for meHebrews 12:1.

The chorus of "Exhale" goes like this:

Just let go… let His love wrap around you
And hold you close
Get lost in the surrender
Breathe it in until your heart breaks…
Then exhale…

One thing is clear to me: there are a lot of strong feelings right now.  Depending on whom you supported in the recent election, or even if you supported no one, chances are you feel something deeply.  Maybe, after this election season, you feel hopeful, happy, misunderstood, angry, frightened, or even combinations of several of these?  We all need to time and space to "breathe in" and feel whatever we feel without being rushed to exhale.  The fact is, that while some hearts rejoice other hearts are broken—and we need to sit with that uncomfortable tension.  We don't like to feel other's discomfort for too long; there is a very human tendency to want to smooth over and differences.  The problem sometimes in our desire to have unity we rush to say, peace, peace, when there is no peaceJeremiah 8:11.

The fact is, many don't feel "peace" right now.  We need to acknowledge that reality and give one another time and space to feel the dis-ease in our souls—and in our land—before we can "move on" together and seek to heal it. 

More than ever, we need places where the lyrics of verse one are true:

It's okay to not be okay.
This is a safe place.
Don't be afraid.
Don't be ashamed.
There's still hope here... There's still hope here.
No matter what you've done or who you are.
Everyone is welcome in his arms.

I think this verse names an inconvenient truth.   There are huge amounts of fear and shame operating both in our personal lives and in our corporate expressions of who we are as the people of God.  

It's not easy to admit these feelings within ourselves.  It's easier to deny them and keep on keeping on as we've always done in the past.  The problem is that until we do admit the fear and shame within us, they hold power over us, eating away at us from the inside out.  They hold us back from being all we have the potential of being in Christ.  These negative emotions put barriers between individuals and between different communities.  They have a tendency to pit us versus them—with God supporting "our side" and opposing all opposition by any means necessary.

Unacknowledged fears and shame in our midst make experiencing the kind of unity Jesus prayed for in the Church in his final prayer with his disciples—John 17:20-23—all but impossible to achieve in practice. 

As long as we keep our fears and shame hidden inside and refuse to acknowledge them, they will continue to thrive in our midst—the unnamed elephants in the room.  These emotions try to convince us that bringing these things into the light would just be "too painful".  So when we are confronted with them, rather than acknowledge them and experience liberation from them we often do anything in our power to prevent them from being exposed.  We get angry... we get defensive... we lash out at people we love to protect ourselves from having to "go there".

Sadly, the twin spectres of fear and shame hover over church families just as much as they hover over biological families and over our individual lives.  

O how we need places where it's really safe to be vulnerable and reveal who we are—even if who we are is different from the majority of others.  If Christian communities can't be such "safe places" then what hope is there to find them in the world?  

Advent is the season when we prepare our hearts to receive the Light of the World coming into the darkness of our world in the person of Jesus—John 1:1-18.  Followers of Jesus believe God came and dwelled among us; Emmanuel, a common name for Jesus, literally means "God with us".   But John also speaks another "inconvenient truth" with which we must grapple: the people preferred darkness more than lightJohn 3:19.  (Note that this verse comes just three verses after the famous hopeful and uplifting words of John 3:16.)

That's why I think the lyrics of verse two of "Exhale" should become our daily prayer:  

Spirit come, tear down these walls.
Like only you can.  
Like only you can.
Reconcile this heart to yours. 
Right now God... Right now.

We need the peace that Christ made possible through the blood of the crossColossians 1:20—to come and tear down the dividing walls of hostilityEphesians 2:15—that keep us trapped in darkness, afraid to acknowledge who we really are—and how we really feel.  But we can't just keep it general, we also need to make it personal.

We need to ask God to work on the only heart we ultimately have control over—our own.  

One of the traditional Advent themes is peace.  In a commonly read scripture during Advent, Isaiah speaks of the coming a strong ruler who, among other titles is called Prince of PeaceIsaiah 9:6. The prophet Micah speaks of the coming of One who will be our peaceMicah 5:5 A letter attributed to Paul says Jesus is our peaceEphesians 2:14.  In other places, Paul speaks of the peace of Christ [God] that surpasses our human understanding—Colossians 3:15; Philippians 4:7. 

I believe the key to experiencing true Advent peace is being honest about the things within us that keep us hiding in the darkness.  That is to say, we have to name our fears and shame...  

Now, a word of caution: tread carefully into this area.  Be sure you are ready to "go there".  As I hinted at earlier, this business of naming fear and shame is volatile; things can get ugly—fast—if you do it.  (Trust me on this.) Having the courage to name a fear or shame that exists in your community might just get you run out of town—kind of like people tried to chase Jesus out of town when he spoke the truth in the synagogue in his home town—Luke 4:14-30.  You see, we human beings have become comfortable in our darkness and would just assume stay there.   We've adjusted our eyes over the years and figured out how to function in the dim light. Shining light into the darkness hurts our eyes; we recoil at its radiance.  In fact, we can get downright nasty defending our darkness, lashing out at any and all light bearers.   We can't really imagine the world being better without our fear and shame being present so we aggressively defend the status quo.

But Advent reminds us that if we would experience healing and wholeness that birth of Christ promises, we "the people sitting in darkness" must risk exposure to the Light of the World.  

My hope for this Advent season is that I (that we) would become a person (people) through whom the Light of Christ can shine more fully.  I hope we experience the peace (and hope, joy, and love) of Christ in our midst that leads to the experience of unity in Christ with one another. Let us each pray to discover the role that is uniquely ours to play as we work together to create a Christian community that sets individual disciples free from the twin spectres of fear and shame and allows us to shine like a stars in a dark placePhilippians 2:15—as we proclaim the message of Jesus wherever we go.

During Advent ask yourself: What darkness (i.e., fears and shame) within me do I need to acknowledge and risk exposing to the Light of the World in order to more fully reflect Jesus in my life?

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