Brian Crisp offered the following reflection during Pullen’s Advent Candlelight service in Poteat Chapel on Wednesday, December 18.
The person whose guidance is the God of Jacob
the person whose hope rests in God
is truly happy!
God: the maker of heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them,
God: who is faithful forever,
who gives justice to people who are oppressed,
who gives bread to people who are starving!
This God: who frees prisoners.
This God: who makes the blind see.
This God: who straightens up those who are bent low.
This God: who loves those who are decent.
This God: who protects immigrants,
who helps the fatherless and the widows,
but who makes mean ways writhe and itch!
This God will be with you from one generation to the next!
Thanks be to God!
At the risk of sounding like one of those people highlighted in an article in Forbes or detailed in the pages of Steven Covey’s latest do-it-all-by-yourself self-help book, I will confess that I_make_to-do_lists. I am a list maker. I compose daily lists that remind me to attend meetings, schedule clients, get gas, and pick up the dry cleaning. I construct other lists that ensure bills are paid, trips are scheduled, and teeth get ﬂossed. Yes, I write a reminder to ﬂoss my teeth.
My lists are essential during this time of the year:
- Order food baskets from Foster’s Market for out-of-town friends
- Send out client holiday cards
- Schedule an upholstery cleaning before house guests arrive
- Call the curb market in Hendersonville for cakes-in-a-jar
- Find an alternative since the Curb Market no longer makes cakes-in-a jar
- Call my best friend to describe the travesty of no longer having cakes-in-a-jar
- Meticulously track packages from various locations on the UPS website
- Search the internet from 5:00 -5:30 am for the wallet that my dad has constructed in his mind that, most likely in all reality, may not exist
- Call yet another store to search for the scarf from the company that refuses to conduct business on the internet
- Cross off another day on my calendar
- Floss teeth, read at least 40 pages in my book, wash face, set alarm, and fall asleep.
I nurture and revise the daily list making sure to prioritize remaining items, cross out tasks completed, and append new ventures demanding attention. Let me draw your attention to the aforementioned scenario about the cakes-in-a-jar. Often, I am smug about my efﬁcient nature and my design aesthetic that renders the list both accessible and beautiful. My friends and colleagues often laud my abilities to accomplish tasks and, most humbly, I usually reply with eyes wide and shoulders a little lifted while sighing into, “it’s just what I do.”
On December 9th, my list was greatly shaken when I received an email titled “Adoptive Family” from my friend, Ellen:
Hi Bri, I could use some help with my adoptive family. There is a mother with three children. Could you take the middle child, Jeremiah? He is three and needs socks, underwear, and undershirts. Jeremiah also likes cars, and ﬁre trucks. Can you help me?
Although I agreed to help Ellen, this e-mail produced a sole emotional and physical reaction: PANIC. The irony is that while I have spent a majority of my professional life understanding the development and educational options for children ages zero through six , I have gained no practical knowledge. This anxiety manifested in a multitude of questions: Little boys’ underwear? How do these sizes work? What is a “4T” or a “5T” and shouldn’t these two sizes correspond? Can I just write a check? Really, I have an ample list already and I am not sure if I have that kind of time. Angst coupled freely with self-absorption.
The Serenity Prayer, Reinhold Neibuhr’s 1943 prayer adopted ﬁrst by the Federal Council of Churches and then by myriad 12-step programs includes an often negated line that pierces me deeply. After encouraging us to live one day at a time and to accept hardships as a path to peace, Neibuhr closes the prayer with a promise, “So that I may be reasonably happy in this life.” Neibuhr’s use of “reasonably” strikes me and reminds me that my notions of happiness are rarely reasonable. Left to my own guidance, my happiness is ensconced in hedonistic pursuits, commercial satisfaction, and a very long list of accomplishments.
Neihbuhr’s vision of happiness is akin to the Psalmists who prior to launching into very familiar words offers a warning:
Hey, all y’all. Happiness ain’t in these kingdoms or the people who build these kingdoms or all that mess found within these kingdoms. That ain’t gonna help you one lick.
That would be my great grandmother’s Chester County translation. The passage, of course, continues and provides an alternative route to happiness that uplifts the poor, the prisoner, the widow, the immigrant, and the fatherless. Words we will hear Jesus echo in Matthew 25:
When I was hungry, you gave me something to eat, and when I was the thirsty, you gave me something to drink. When I was a stranger, you welcomed me, and when I was naked, you gave me clothes to wear. When I was sick, you took care of me, and when I was in jail, you visited me.
Daftly, the disciples ask, “when?” When Jesus? When? We are still waiting.
Mistakenly, for too many years I have observed advent as a time of waiting and expecting. Easily and freely, I have sung “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” or “Watching, Waiting, Longing.” I am content waiting. I am waiting for the happiness of Christmas; waiting for the gathering of family; waiting for the over-sized ham to cook to perfection; waiting for the packages to ship; I am waiting, waiting, waiting. Equally, I rejoice in my expectations. I am expecting party guests to RSVP; expecting the parsnips to be exceptional; expecting others to recognize the great toil I have exerted into making their holidays close to perfect; and expecting my ever-growing to-do list to be accomplished.
Today, I cherish advent as a call and, in doing so, read the whole bible as advent. It is a text that beckons me to cast away my plans, and my expectations, and my happiness, my comforts, and my lists. It is that great mystery that reaches down into my being and connects me with the Omni — you know, The Omni, The Omni-Omni Omni. And brothers and sisters, it is in the connection that my insipid ideas and rigid nature of “it’s just what I do” melt and those words become ﬂesh and dwell in me, around it, and among us and it sounds a call. It screams like the prophets, “Hey you! Wake up!” and it beckons for a response as if to whisper a subtle, “now what?”
After my initial panic about Jeremiah, I settled into my week and began to listen to these callings. When David asked about a substitute tutor for the Wiley Program, I simply said, “yes.” Josi, a ﬁrst-generation Latina, had an appetite for math as infectious as her smile. Sunday, I ate bagels with Diane and Ricky, two people who stumbled into Pullen seeking solace from the cold, their hunger and a world that pretends they are, at best invisible, but more commonly, an annoyance. I was moved to tears following the death of Shon McClain, the prisoner in Wake County detention center who was repeatedly body slammed onto a concrete ﬂoor by what appears to be an unprovoked guard. I spent a moment or two in wonder reading the Christmas list of Kash and Walker and their requests for football stuff, a cheetah (yes, a cheetah), and things that glow in the dark. I saddled my fear and made a trip to the mall to buy little boys’ underwear and trucks for a three-year old from the Hope Center. It is actually easy to buy a wooden truck or a ﬂeece shirt without the safety of a list. Knowing that Jeremiah will face the inadequacy and inequality of the school system or that he could have more in common with Shon McClain than Kash and Walker is the thing that makes me writhe and itch.
My gifts are still unwrapped and my list has been set aside. Instead, I am harkening to the the words of the Pullen prophet, Suzanne Newton. To paraphrase, Grace comes to us in drag, taking on looks and dress and ideas that are strange, unfamiliar, and, at times, seemingly dangerous. Grace draws us to the prisoner, the immigrants, the starving, the neglected, the parentless, and it shows us the lines between us and whispers, “now what?”
Now more than ever, Pullen church needs creativity, rigorous intellectual capacities, and compassion to deeply affect our world. Most importantly, we need courage and vision. The noted Baptist theologian and founder of the Social Gospel, Walter Rauschenbusch, reiterates the critical nature of such courage and vision in his 1914 call Dare We Be Christians:
But it [Christianity] clearly needs active personal agents who will incarnate its vitalities, propagate its principles, liberate its undeveloped forces, purify its doctrine, and extend the sway of its faith in love over new realms of social life. Dare we be such men? Dare we be Christians?
Last week I received another email. This also graciously disturbed me and was titled, “Mandela Tribute.” Set in a South African Woolworths, our global modern manger for justice, The Soweto Gospel Choir pays tribute to Mandela with the protest song, Asimbonanga (We Have Not Seen). In the form of a ﬂashmob, this all-black choir dressed as grocery workers breaks forth in song in a predominantly all-white grocery store where the remnants of apartheid are still heavily represented. Their voices swell and swell, calling to all who listen:
Asimbonang ‘umfowethu thina
Hey wena nawe
Siyoﬁka nini la’ siyakhona
We have not seen
We have not seen this one, in the place where he is; in the place where he does
Hey you, and you, and you, and you as well.
When will we arrive at our destination?
Although the singing is most resonant, the mostly-white audience refrains from the well-known tune and instead reverently captures the moment on their smart phones. The singing ends with choir members raising their ﬁsts into the air signaling the struggle of the anthem. The silence creates a noticeable chasm between the shoppers and the workers, the black and the white, the rich and the poor, the them and the us. Oh, Pullen Church, the advent call has sounded, now what? Now what?