resolving with others in mind

The ringing in of the New Year traditionally brings with it a natural time to reflect on the year behind and to think about how to approach the year ahead.  While this can be a time for excessive navel gazing, I think it also offers us a chance to think about the way we interact with each other.  As 2018 begins, we would do well to think beyond how each of us can personally resolve to improve our physical, spiritual or mental health; I am challenging us to also think about our collective health as communities.

What could be possible if we, as a people, moved from postures against, to advocacy for?

The weeks surrounding the New Year are fascinating to me because we acknowledge for a moment that our intentions and resolutions are worth paying attention to.  We understand that these lives we live are fleeting, and that we can do better.  That the way we treat ourselves, our families, and our communities powerfully influences the meaning we make in this life.  Changing that number on the calendar causes almost all of us to recognize that time is moving on, that each of us are aging, changing, surviving, one year at a time.  The loss of control we feel at the relentless progression of time creates a moment where we think about the things we feel we can control.  Thus, we resolve.  We resolve to care more, to create space, to be courageous, to be patient, to be present.  We resolve to actively produce good in ourselves and in our environments. 

The way we treat ourselves, our families, and our communities powerfully influences the meaning we make in this life. 

As we resolve to advocate for ourselves and our families in our thinking and practices, I want to suggest we take advantage of this same moment to observe the way we take stances for or against the people and policies in our greater communities.   In this season of obsessive reflecting and resolving, why not also think about the way we think about our place in society?  Do you have issues you care about?  Is the stance you take primarily negative or positive?  The New Year provides us with a built-in opportunity to resolve to be people who “advocate for” rather than people who “rail against” or, even worse, than people who roll their eyes and shrug their shoulders about the lives of others.

While many of us are committed to advocating for ourselves in our pursuits of emotional, physical and spiritual health, our default perspective in the public sphere is primarily negative.  When I reflect on the year behind, I observe that in small conversations and large interactions, many people approach others primarily through a stance-taking rubric.  I am against X.  The problem with my school/neighborhood/legislative body is the presence of Y.  These negative stances are the result of a paradigm of lack, of fear, and of blame, and they prevent possibilities of collaboration, destroying chances to improve through advocacy and cooperation. 

Many of us engage in the public sphere by being passively against things we don’t like, rather than being engagingly for things we find life-giving and good.  Allow me to be practical for a moment.  If you identify as a pro-life person, do you actually take action to advocate for life or do you demonstrate your stance FOR life mostly by being AGAINST abortion?  A person who resolves to be pro-life could advocate for life by educating themselves about rates of childhood poverty and food insecurity in their city, and then joining with the best non-profits to help lower those numbers.  They could find the best agencies in town who support and care for women navigating unplanned pregnancies, and walk with them as they try to care for their children after they are born and for the years that follow.  They could educate themselves about access to birth control, and work to make sure every woman capable of bearing children can prevent unwanted pregnancy.  They could educate themselves about the best organizations and government programs helping with early intervention and education for babies and young kids whose lives and opportunities are being slowly aborted with each benchmark they miss.  They could evaluate the other stances they take, and commit to align all of them with a perspective that values and affirms the dignity of every created being.  They could decide to be actively, productively, effectively for life.

The New Year provides us with a built-in opportunity to resolve to be people who “advocate for” rather than people who “rail against” or, even worse, than people who roll their eyes and shrug their shoulders about the lives of others.

In these days of the New Year, what if we began to notice the way we resolve to improve the health of the communities in which we live?  Are our resolutions focused on advocating for ourselves alone?  Do we primarily engage with our greater communities through rejection and negative stance-taking?  As 2018 dawns, I want to listen to the way I think about myself, my family, and my city.  It is worth knowing if the ways we think about others is negative and critical.  Those thoughts are not only toxic for our own psyches, they are eventually destructive to the people around us.

In this first week of 2018, as you resolve to create environments where your best self can flourish, join me also in resolving to think about the stances we take in the public sphere.  What could be possible if we, as a people, moved from postures against, to advocacy for? What could be possible if we rejected the idea that being anti-anything creates a positive trajectory? What if we resolved to be people who advocate for the things that engage our compassion and passion?  If we approach society with affirmative perspectives on the resolutions we make, we can move through the world on a foundation of possibility, abundance and hope. 

on advent: we need help admitting we need help

In the past month, I’ve had the privilege of sitting with two families as they said goodbye to their beloved, grandmother, sister, wife and friend.  These women lived gorgeous lives, loving and blessing and laughing all the way, each day until they were suddenly taken from us.  Funerals are terrible.  But they are also beautiful. A time to grieve and reflect and honor and remember and thank.  And sometimes, in the most precious of miracles, funerals are a place where deep sadness becomes hope.  Maybe that is why these funerals have helped me become an Advent person. On this, the first day of Hanukkuh, a holiday that remembers when God rescued and restored Israel, miraculously multiplying meager resources, I’d like to argue that Advent is a time to admit we need help, and that this acknowledgment moves us from despair to hope.

As much as I know that binaries destroy our ability to love ourselves and others with the nuance demonstrated by God and required of us, I kinda love them.  I often think of myself as reasonable, and many others as uber-biased, or at least uninformed.  I often think of myself as a person loving people well, while I see selfishness in others.  I often see the vulnerabilities—deficits even—in others, while I see the nobility in my own efforts, and the efficacy in my actions.  These perspectives are utter bullshit, of course.  I am unreasonable, uninformed, selfish, vulnerable and deficit-laden.  In that way, I am human, just as you are human; we should recognize binaries as the toxic delusions that they are. 

Those who know Jesus have a choice this Advent: Will we continue to live as if we neither need nor know the Messiah described in scripture, or will we get to work—vulnerabilities exposed—building the Kingdom of Christ this world is surely becoming?

Advent is a season that knows this, although a person could be forgiven for thinking it is a thing designed for comfortable people living in cozy homes, not for people who desperately need to be rescued.  Many of us have sanitized not just the birth of Christ, but His own stated reason for coming.  The truth is that Mary and Joseph were very poor, and very alone, and very far from comfortable people having thoughtful conversations in important places. The truth is that Mary was very pregnant, they were very young, and they were so desperate for rest that they accepted an offer to sleep in a barn.  The truth is that she could have died delivering Him, and it was not at all clear in that moment that this was the protected and predestined moment designed to save the world.  Joseph probably felt the same sense of helplessness and pride that most partners feel when their wives are entering the ring of fire that produces precious life.  It was probably terrible.  And it was probably beautiful too.

I so often act as if Jesus came, angels sang, sheep and cows and horses were super not-terrifying, and the king of the universe became a human.  I add to that misunderstanding of the historical narrative the blasphemy that God sent His Son so that comfortable, American evangelicals could be super clear about who God doesn’t approve of.  That the Messiah came so that awesome self-sufficient people could have awesome quiet times, or so awesome people could attribute to God their remarkable ability to hoard wealth.  When we read the early stories in Luke and Matthew, we know that this understanding of Advent is a deep misunderstanding. 

If we look at the prophecies that predict God’s advent, it becomes clear that the Messiah comes for those who live in darkness, for the burdened and oppressed, for the grieving and captured.  He comes to bring light and ease and comfort and freedom for them.  He comes for those who are ignored, marginalized and abused by the systems that benefit me. 

I need to believe in a God who comes after me with rest and healing when I pretend I need neither.

When we sanitize the Christmas story and the life Christ lived, it is not just hurtful for those whose vulnerabilities define them to the world.  That outlook also incentivizes the rest of us to act like we are not vulnerable, not in need of rescue; as if we regularly embody our best selves, and our moments of need (stressed, screaming, frantic, cussing, harried, insomniacal gluttons who just want to rest) are few and far between.  But this is not who I am.  

I very much need rescuing, from myself and for myself.  I need to believe in a God who allows me to be a mess, and deeply loved.  I need to believe in a God who comes after me with rest and healing when I pretend I need neither.  An honest look at Advent begs us to remember the way of Christ—from the beginning—is the way of broken, obscure people who long for recognition and rescue.  The beautiful arc of Christian doctrine tells us that Christ came once into the world to provide an eternal avenue to belonging, and that Christ will return to fully establish the earth as a place where all flourish, where all is made right, where the table is big enough for everyone.  In the meantime, followers of Christ are tasked with joining the child born unto us in His work of justice and righteousness; we live to establish a world where the dignity of every person is assumed, where vulnerabilities are met with compassion, and the grace we all live under is obvious. 

That is the wonder of all wonders, that God loves the lowly…God is not ashamed of the lowliness of human beings.  God marches right in.
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer

In Handel’s Messiah, nestled in the middle of the greatest chorus ever written, lives the line, “The Kingdom of this world, is become the Kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ, and of His Christ.”  This world, this beautiful-ugly place, has been redeemed, is being redeemed and will be fully redeemed by Christ so that all of us will belong.  Margins will not exist, and people will not hide in shadows.  It seems to me that people who know Jesus have a choice this Advent: Will we continue to live as if we neither need nor know the Messiah described in scripture, or will we get to work—vulnerabilities exposed—building the Kingdom of Christ this world is surely becoming?

Funerals offer us the unique chance to celebrate a well-lived life.  The chance to make meaning out of our attempt to live with others.  The chance to recognize the best in another.  The chance to collectively acknowledge that we are all barreling toward the end of ourselves.  The chance to acknowledge we need each other to flourish, and that caring about each other actually matters.  Perhaps Advent offers us a similar chance to remember our own deficits, to thank God for coming toward us when we are needy, and to align our actions with God’s approach to humanity.   Advent offers us a chance to hope.  If we are not moving toward hurting people with that hope, we are not following the Messiah.