Anime and the Biblical Narrative

I’ve been on anime kick lately. I tore through Durarara!!!, and ate up One Punch Man. Check them out. I stepped back from the medium several years ago but now I’m back in it. I’m not sure if anime had a dry spell or if only the lamest shows (except Gurren Lagann!) were imported from Japan after 2010. But now… it’s like I’m experiencing an anime renaissance. It’s pretty rad.

I was sucked into anime fandom at the ripe age of 6. Dragon Ball and Sailor Moon aired at 6am on Saturdays before the western cartoons such as Animaniacs and Batman: The Animated Series came on. I woke up that early just to cram CocoPuffs into my mouth while Goku learned to kamehameha and ride a flying nimbus. It was captivating. The art style blew my mind. And 6 years old, I learned that these shows were telling a long story that dictate I had see previous episodes to know what the heck was going on.

This stood in stark contrast to the western shows I was watching on Saturday mornings, or the shows I noticed my parents were watching. Those were all episodic stories. The narratives only lasted for the length of 24 minutes. Next time you’re perusing some of your old favorite late 80’s or early 90’s television, see how many stories carry from episode to episode. While shows like Friends or Cheers may have had larger seasonal arcs that culminated in 2-part season finales, the meat of these season were still composed of a series of plots that changed from episode to episode.

I’d argue that it wasn’t until J.J. Abrams brought us Lost in 2004 that mainstream network television began airing shows that required viewers to be invested in a season/series long narrative. Sure, the “will they/won’t they” Ross and Rachel plot beats of Friends kept many a fan intrigued and guessing. But if a casual viewer first watched an episode in season 4 rather than season 1, that viewer could still enjoy that particular episode’s plot even if he or she didn’t pick up on the subtler details of that season (Chanler and Monica are dating in secret, etc). Drop a viewer into the second season of Lost, and later Breaking Bad or 24, and he or she would only have the slightest inkling of what was occurring on screen.

Anime was ahead of the game when it came to this long-form story telling. And I soaked it up. The worlds were so large and the plots so thick with tension from week to week.

My interest in anime, and Japanese culture in general, continued well into high school. For over a decade, long-form narratives were what captivated me. Japanese RPGs offered a similar narrative structure.

Did you know the Bible contains a long-form narrative? I didn’t know this until I was in an Old Testament Survey class in college. Up until the age of 19, Scripture had never been taught to me as a whole. Rather, sermons and Sunday school lessons were like sitcoms: each week a different biblical episode. I could gather some distinguishing features (Jesus was in the New Testament, the kings and Moses were in the Hebrew Scripture). Yet most passages were presented as individual stories and they were almost never connected to the broader narrative at play from Genesis to Revelation.

Imagine my joy to sit in a college class and find that what I loved about anime was not only present in Scripture, but integral in understanding the weight and glory of God’s redemptive work in history.

Boom. Mind. Blown.

All of a sudden, the Bible turned into an epic; it became God’s epic. To truly understand Jesus, I had to understand the Old Testament. To understand anything the prophets said, I needed to understand Moses and the Levitic Law. If I really wanted to grasp half of what was at play in the four gospels, I needed to know what occurred in in those obscure (to a Protestant) books known as the Apocrypha and learn about this thing called the Second Temple period.

To this nerd, Scripture became alive! It was like a coming into Game of Thrones at the Red Wedding and realizing I had three seasons to go back and watch. Confused. Captivated. Thirsty for the rest.

Now most major networks having primetime shows that are season/series long narratives. Over the past decade or so, the west has really grown to love an complex and intricate epic tale.

And yet sermons that seek to tell the grand narrative of Scripture, in my experience, seem to be the minority, Stories of the Israelites, of Jesus, and of the Apostles are preached as if they occurred in some vacuum apart from Scripture as a whole. They often lacked any context or “Last week… in the Gospel of Mark”-style prologue.

Leave it to a National Geographic television mini-series, The Bible, to give many church folk their first real taste for the broad narrative of the biblical text.

When Scripture is portrayed as largely episodic, then many of these stories became more like fables preached from the pulpit. They become cautionary tales with a moral lesson, rather than a witness to God’s redemptive work in thousands of year of history.

So if any of my pastor friends want some anime suggestions, direct message me on Twitter or comment below. Or just watch Breaking Bad for one of the best long-form narratives in television history.

 

 

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The Week After Easter

I really didn’t have anything to write this week. This is the week after Easter Sunday, so I feel like I should have something profound to write about. Frankly, I don’t. No Easter reflections formulated to be typed in a coherent manner. At least not yet. We shall see what next week brings.

But not this week. Holy week is a busy week that often leaves me relieved it’s over. Holy week is a emotional rollercoaster that doesn’t stop moving for seven days! Seven days of highs and lows, victory and defeat, life and death and life again! And that’s not including how intentional or disciplined one was about engaging in Lent (confession: I wasn’t).

We start with the joy and seeming triumph of Palm Sunday, then by Thursday we are reluctant and expectant as Jesus is betrayed by his own and arrested. And on Good Friday, if we are fortunate enough to be in a church community that is willing to dwell on and in Good Friday, we sit in mourning as Jesus is tortured and executed under the Empire. Saturday is full of ominous silence, for God may truly be dead. Finally, on Sunday we celebrate ten-fold that Christ is risen (He is risen indeed!) And we eat chocolate bunnies and fellowship with one another.

What. A. Week.

So it’s no wonder many of us, especially clergy, find the passing of Easter to be a relief. I wish it wasn’t that way. Yet here I am.

Although I’m sure the disciples were mighty relieved after Easter too.

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Messiahs… I’ve Followed a Few: What Movie Should You Watch on Good Friday?

Holy Week is upon us! Tomorrow, those of us who identify with the Christian tradition will contemplate the execution of Jesus of Nazareth by crucifixion, at the hands of the Roman Empire.
In 2017, we are quite removed from the world of first century Palestine. While many of us church goers are confident we know what the Roman world was like in Jesus’ day, there are some important political and social details that are often neglect in the average Sunday sermon. After all, it was 2000 years ago and half a world away.
But Fear not, friends! There exists a film that captures all you need to know about the history surrounding Jesus’ ministry, arrest, and execution. And no I am not talking about Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Forget that violence-and-gore glorifying movie with all of its historical inaccuracies and Anglo-looking first century Jews. Oh no, the film I suggest you all watch is so much closer to the realities of first century Palestine… with a slight flair of dry British humor.
Friends, before you attend that Good Friday service, I suggest you all watch…
The Life of Brian.
Monty Python’s The Life of Brian is a rich satire that follows the life of… well, Brian. Brian, born on the same night as a baby named Jesus, is a young man growing up in first century Palestine in the shadow of Roman occupation. Upon finding out that he is the result of his Jewish mother’s romantic entanglement with a Roman centurion, Brian retaliates by joining “The People’s Front of Judea,” which is not to be confused with the “Judean People’s Front.” Through various flukes and misadventures, Brian is mistaken for the Messiah, and a movement grows around him.
The film is full of the irreverent humor that is to be expected from Monty Python and I for one think it walks a very a delicate line. But the brilliance of The Life of Brian is rooted in the historicity of Brian’s mistaken messianic title. At one moment in the film, Brian is surrounded by his crowd of would-be disciples and protests vehemently that he is not the messiah. In response, character played by John Cleese responds “I say you are, Lord. And I should know, I’ve followed a few.” The line reflects Monty Python’s thorough knowledge of first century Palestine, which I suspect can be attributed to most of the troupe having received a classical education at Oxford and Cambridge. But for the rest of us, let’s get caught up to speed with Eric Idle and the gang.
During the first century, the Jews lived under Roman occupation. Romans were only the most recent in what had played out as six centuries of a rotating door of empires conquering and oppressing the Jewish people. The clearest representation of this oppression was that the Romans built Antonia Fortress immediately adjacent to the Temple. Not only that, but the walls of the fortress were such that Roman soldiers could observe what was taking place within the temple grounds. The Temple was the center of Jewish life, and three times throughout the Jewish year the Jews were supposed to make a pilgrimage to the Temple. With such a multitude of oppressed and disgruntled people all gathering at their holiest of locations on their holiest of festivals thrice a year, the position of Antonia Fortress was both tactical as well as symbolic. The towering walls seemed to proclaim “Remember who is really watching you, and it ain’t your god.”
As the Jews were conquered and re-conquered by the Babylonians, Persian, Greeks, and finally the Romans, there developed a notion amongst the Jews that God would send God’s people a divinely empowered leader; God would send them a Messiah (I should write on this development in later post!). While in the twenty first century, we instinctively attribute the “Messiah” with the Incarnation of God, the Jews during the Second Temple period (beginning in 530BCE with the reconstruction of the Temple) made no such association. For the Jewish people, the Messianic expectation meant looking forward to a powerful monarch and military leader that would rise up and rally God’s people, then kick the Romans out of Judea. This same Messiah would re-establish Israel to its glory days as an economic and military super power under Kings David and Solomon.
As this was the case, by Jesus’ day, there had been many self-proclaimed messiahs. These individuals were freedom fighters who sought to liberate their people from oppression. In Acts 5:33:-39, while advocating for letting the Apostles live, the Pharisee Gamaliel describes two such leaders who were executed and their movements scattered. Gamaliel says “If this plan or undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them.”
Self-proclaimed Messiahs were not uncommon, which is why I laughed until I hurt at Cleese’s remark “I’ve followed a few.”
Is it any wonder then why Jesus counted one Simon the Zealot (Luke 6:15) as a disciple? When the Jews heard Jesus of Nazareth proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven, they had a very concrete idea of what that kingdom was going to look like and how it would be brought about. There would be a revolution, and the Romans would get clobbered out of Judea! How glorious it would be!
Only it wasn’t.
Only, Jesus spoke of loving enemies.
Only, when this Messiah was arrested and one of his own drew a sword and cut the ear from one of Jesus’ captors, this Messiah rebuked his disciple and healed the wounded one who would arrest him. This Messiah was not the
On the first Good Friday, the Jews bring Jesus before the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate, and insist he be charged with treason for calling himself King of the Jews. “He stirs up the people all throughout Judea” (Luke 23:5). Jesus, they imply, is another messiah that is dangerous to Roman power.
Pilate gives them a choice: free Jesus or free Barabbas. According to Luke’s gospel, Barabbas has been thrown in prison for two things: starting an insurrection in the city, and murder. Insurrection? Could Barabbas be a freedom fighter, a patriot of Israel? Is he another Messiah? Could it be that on the first Good Friday, God’s own people were choosing which Messiah they wanted to lead them?
I think so.
It seems to me that when given a choice between a Messiah who insisted on loving and praying for His enemies, and a Messiah that would swing the sword in bloody revolution, God’s people chose a violent Messiah.
How often do we desire the same? How often do we want to forget that Jesus did not wage war as other revolutionaries waged war? How often do we want Jesus to be more like this messiah Barabbas?
Tomorrow, on Good Friday, I want to reflect Christ’s crucifixion. And I’m sure with many others across the Church, I’ll sing the words of that famous hymn “It was my sin that held him there/ until it was accomplished.”
While those lyrics are all well and good, I do not want to forget that 2000 years ago at a Roman trial, the specific sin that sent Christ to a Roman crucifixion was that God’s people chose violence. The people that were blessed to bless other nations chose a revolutionary carrying a sword and raising clenched fist over a servant carrying a washing basin and offering a healing hand.
Messiahs… I’ve followed a few. But only one told me to drop my sword.

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The More I Go to Cons… The Less I Like Church

The more I go to comic-book conventions, the less I like church. And it is not just because the best conventions conflict with Sunday morning services. No, I’m afraid it is much more essential than that. I like church less because these and similar cons seem to excel where many church communities in the U.S. miss the mark: they create a space where a wide variety of people feel at home in their own bodies.

Two weekends ago, I was one of 25,000 folks who attended Anime Boston 2017! And it was an absolute blast. This particular convention usually occurs on Easter weekend. Thus, it has never seemed prudent for an aspiring pastor like myself to skip Easter Sunday, which is arguably the most important day in the Christian calendar, to go to an anime convention. Since Easter is coming later in the spring this year, I jumped at the chance. For three days, thousands of otaku (anime watchers) like myself gathered over a shared love for this medium of story telling. It was quite special.

 

Nerd culture has come a long way in the last decade and a half. Thanks to Disney’s juggernaut marketing and an unfathomable budget, comic book movies are all the rage. Iron Man has ceased to be a lesser known, alcoholic Batman. The pervasiveness of video game consoles and mobile devices has turned nearly everyone into a gamer with slightly addictive tendencies. Even the popularity of Harry Potter and A Game of Thrones has made sword-and-sorcery fantasy fairly mainstream. It is a great time to be a nerd! The vast majority of U.S. Americans are wading in the shallows of comic book fandom and itching to visit the Wizarding World at Universal. The stigma that crammed many a geek into a locker, or made him or her miserable at the thought of crossing the threshold of a high school, has mostly been washed away. (Now teens have found new reasons to make their peers unbearably miserable. But I digress!).

Yet, even today, otaku have remained largely on the fringes of the nerd world. Anime remains a subject with its own stereotypes and stigmas, even in the medium’s native Japan. Somehow, in the heart of Boston, 25,000 anime fans gathered. Cosplayers, artists, YouTubers, bloggers (yours truly), and other Japanophiles sat in on screenings, met voice actors, or simply sat and chitchatted with new acquaintances. Wonderful.

It was a convention that insisted on perpetuating an environment of respect and safety. Signs such as “Ask before you take pictures!” and “Cosplay is NOT consent!” were prominently displayed. Here was a space where everyone was encouraged to be comfortable in their own skin, and to be comfortable that others were doing the same. Many cosplayers dressed as their favorite characters with varying amounts of exposed skin, both male and female. When I considered how many cosplayers did not fit the stereotypical body type of these characters, I found I was immersed in the most body positive environment I have ever witnessed.

For my readers who are protesting my condoning of cosplay and want to discuss modesty at cons, let’s please have that conversation. But in that conversation, let us to agree to refuse to body shame young women who have developed according to their biology, and instead tell young men not to ogle. Convincing a 15 year old girl that she is responsible for the leering eyes of her hormonal male peer who can’t bring himself to look at the floor or ceiling is unjust and nothing short of body shaming.

As I embarked on my 6-hour drive home after spending three days knee-deep in Japanese cartoons, colorful costumes, and J-Pop, I found myself frustrated with one thought: I have never been present in a church community that was as safe or as welcoming as this anime convention. I had never felt as relaxed and vulnerable in a church as I did for those three days. And I’m sure I’m not alone in that experience.

For those of us who grew up in the Church (and I for one had a largely positive experience) telling someone in our faith community that we avidly viewed anime was often met with fear and concern. The assumption that we must have been watching animated pornography was also not uncommon. If you want expose the ethnocentrism of your fellow church members, I know from experience that sharing your interest in Japanese culture and media will do it. “Well if they had Jesus, they wouldn’t have a culture based on honor and shame!” Well if U.S. Americans had Jesus, they wouldn’t have a culture that thrives on the myth of redemptive violence. 1-1, game is tied.

I am not writing this post to advocate for an outreach ministry to an otaku subculture. Rather, what I am trying to illustrate is this: A community that has gathered over a shared love for a format of film and television may very well be a safer environment for people to be themselves than a community that professes to have gathered over a shared love for Christ. This is the same Christ who did nothing short of creating safe spaces for prostitutes and lepers, and such a disparity should convict us. We who believe in the transformative power of the Holy Spirit and the role of Christ’s Church should actively pursue the nurturing of such an environment.

But if my brothers and sisters in the faith decide, through their actions and their fear of the strange and unfamiliar, that the community of faith is not about creating places of safety and vulnerability, then our churches will continue to decline and die. And rightfully so. If churches, whether evangelical or progressive, continue to tell the communities they inhabit that they are not concerned with fostering spaces that allow individuals to feel at home in their own skins, then they will find other communities that are. How do we expect people outside of the Church to be open to the transformation and mystery that only the Spirit can bring when we are not open to them? Honestly, I would rather spend my time at conventions praying to find other Christ-followers who, like me, have found more comfort surrounded by costumes and cartoons than choir robes or worship teams.

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Silence in the Theaters… And in the Pews: Minor Spoilers

In honor of the 89th Academy Awards, let’s chat about movies.

Last week, I wrote a pseudo-syllabus for my series Imagination for Resistance. While I have this week classified as Minor Spoilers, I also hope this will be something more than a film review. Several weeks ago I saw Academy Award-winning director Martin Scorsese’s latest film, Silence, which was based on the novel by Shusaku Endo. The film, first announced by Scorsese in 2007, has been the director’s aspiration since he first read the book decades ago. A film adaptation from one of the most renowned filmmakers of our time of a novel about the persecution of Christians in feudal Japan, featuring a talented cast including Liam Neeson, Adam Driver, and Andrew Garfield, should be the makings of a cinematic success.

Certainly Christians alone should have turn out in the greatest droves since Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, which reflected the director’s tendency towards graphic violence more than it perpetuated the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Yet the Christians in the U.S. were the ones who brought the silence. With a budget of over $40 million, Silence was a bust at the box office where it only grossed just shy of $6 million over the course of its limited release. So do Christians just not go to the movies?

If the release of a film like God is Not Dead is any indication, Christians will turn out to certain faith-oriented films. God is Not Dead grossed over $60 million! What’s happening here? Why did Christians not buy tickets for a film about the struggle of missionaries in feudal Japan, but seemed to pack theaters to watch a college freshman have a philosophical throw-down with the actor who is most famous for playing a B-rated Hercules?

Tyler Huckabee wrote an insightful article for The Washington Post concerning the irony (dare I say tragedy?) of conservative evangelicals insisting that Hollywood ignores them, while evidently ignoring a film like Silence.

However, my hope is to go beyond yet another sign of the futility of this secular-evangelical culture war.

My friends, Christians and non-Christians alike, I am convinced that this is a symptom of a far greater spiritual condition. Christians in the USA have spoken with their dollars, and they have shown the world of cinema that they do not want to engage with the complexities, ambiguities, and downright painful agonies of reality, let alone faith. God is Not Dead equates a spirited philosophical debate between a smug college professor and a faith-minded student with enduring persecution. U.S. Christians would rather watch that film than be immersed into a cinematic world that forces them to witness real persecution.

In doing so, we (as a church) ignore the reality of the cost of following Christ. Not only that, but we functionally refuse to engage with the very questions that ache in the secular world around us. Silence became so entrenched in Scorsese’s mind and imagination that the director of films such as Gangs of New York and Goodfellas struggled to adapt it to the big screen for over 25 years. Why did we not rush to the box office, desiring to grasp whatever was in this novel written by a Japanese Roman Catholic?

I think we have lost touch with the mystery of faith. When faced with the ever-present questions “Why do bad things happen to good people?” or “If God is good, how can evil be permitted to exist?” our answers have become pithy idioms and bumpersticker slogans. They have become no more than cheap words that grate like sandpaper on the wounds of parents who slowly watch their child die of leukemia, or like gasoline on the fiery anger of a boy whose father was killed by a drunk driver.

When we ignore a film like Silence, we ignore the human experience of living and breathing, of merely existing in a hurting world. We ignore the very questions that an aching world is asking.

At the start of the film’s second act, Andrew Garfield’s character is writing to a priest back in Portugal about the torture he has watched the Japanese Christians endure in Christ’s name. He hears their prayers, their songs, and the gasps of agony. Concerning whether or not God hears them, he writes “You’ll say He heard their prayers, but did He hear their screams?”

Do we hear their screams? Can we hear our own screams clawing out of our souls for answers? Are we so afraid of mystery or of suffering that we dare not go see a film portraying the agony and crisis of faith in the face of pain and persecution?

Can we hear the screams within our own sacred text?

“Why have you forgotten us completely? 
Why have you forsaken us these many days?
Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored;
renew our days as of old—
unless you have utterly rejected us, 
and are angry with us beyond measure.”
-Lamentations 5:20-22 (NRSV)
“Go on, pray. But pray with your eyes open.” Ft. Ferriera (as played by Liam Neeson).

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Imagination for Resistance: An Incomplete Pseudo-Syllabus

My goodness, friends, it has been a good while since I last posted. And much has happened. Here we are in a new year with a new president and administration. And like everyone else, I have thoughts, opinions, and furious tirades. And we may get to those in the coming months. But today, I have some cool news.

If you check out the side menu to the right of this post, you’ll find… wait for it… a subscription box!!! That’s right folks! You can now subscribe to Noggin Squall and get the latest posts sent right to your inbox! Exciting stuff. Go get yourself subscribed.

As I look towards 2017, I am not filled with much optimism. I do not have any inspiring words about new beginnings, resolutions, or existential sentiments about what the future may hold. No, dear readers, I have some concerns.

The Trump administration has sat in the White House for several weeks now, and in that span, Time.com released a list of the federal agencies which the Trump administration is hoping to defund. At the top of the list are the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (the entity that funds PBS and NPR). And as recently as February 3 (the Friday prior to this post going live), the new Chairmen of the Federal Communication Commission Ajit Pai halted investigations concerning net neutrality violations on the part of AT&T and Verizon.

From where I sit, these are signs of an administration that is determined to impede the masses’ access to information, free educational resources, and the means for each individual to think for his or herself. Such announced intentions on the part of an administration that insist we swallow “alternative facts” is disconcerting at best.

In light of this potential disempowering of the populace, Noggin Squall will largely be concerned with sharing the resources that help us see the world differently. A public composed of individuals capable of seeing the world beyond political polarities is thorn in the side of those who walk the halls of power. To put a finer point on it: Imagination breeds Resistance.

With that in mind, I would like to introduce you all to…

Imagination for Resistance: An Incomplete Pseudo-Syllabus

Over the course of this year, I will be interacting with books, films, and people that (I hope) will prompt us to expand our perceptions, feed our imaginations, and appreciate how folks from the margins have interpreted their context and experience through genre. If you’ve taken a college course, you’ll soon realize that the syllabus I am assembling is flexible, incomplete, and not necessarily a true syllabus. C’est la vie. But let me take a crack at it.

Purpose: To provide fodder for the imagination through alternative perspectives. Let’s learn together to think critically, creatively, and passionately.

Textbooks: These texts are divided into two sections. First are sci-fi/fantasy books written by folks who are not white men. And the second section are different theologies within the Christian Tradition that are largely outside the mainstream theologies of Protestant churches.

Section 1:

Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed, 2012; science-fiction from a Muslim perspective.

God’s War: Bel Dame Apocrypha by Kameron Hurley, 2011; science-fiction from a feminist perspective.

King Maker by Maurice Broaddus, 2010; fantasy from a black perspective. (Specifically, this is retelling of the Arthurian legend in the context of inner-city Indianapolis).

The Book of the New Sun and Urth of the New Sun, both by Gene Wolfe, 1994/1997; (while Wolfe is another white male fantasy author, he is phenomenal. I’m compelled to include him because his perspective as a convert to Catholicism informs arguably one of the most well-crafted works of sci-fi/fantasy in existence).

Section 2:

The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel by John Howard Yoder; 1985.

A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation by Gustavo Gutierrez; 1971.

Heart of the Cross: A Postcolonial Christology by Wonhee Anne Joh; 2006.

There’ll be some films and books beyond this list. Some posts will be specifically designated as Imagination for Resistance, while others will be Minor Spoilers or Slice of Life, Salt of the Earth. Yet I hope all of my posts will be that imagination fodder.

If any of you have any suggestions, reflections, or comments, I would appreciate hearing them all. I will be reading these books throughout the year, and then some.

Thanks for reading.

P.S. Maurice Broaddus’ Buffalo Soldier is being released in April of this year, and it is his take on the steampunk genre. Sound intriguing? I think so too.

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Let’s Be Done with One Night Stands: Christmas and Our Divine Love Affair

Confession: I am a Christmas music junky. Halfway through November, I begin to patiently wait for Black Friday when it becomes socially acceptable to blare the season’s tunes ad nauseam for a month, including the occasional Hanukah jam (shout out to those Maccabees). I really love Christmas music, whether it be cheesy crooner songs about being snowed in with a lovely companion, or the richer, more vibrant hymns, like “O Holy Night.” If there is one thing that causes me to stumble through contemplating the sober Advent season, it is all that cheery Christmas music.

So imagine my disappointment as I climbed into my truck to leave my in-laws’ house at 10:34pm on Christmas Day: I turned on what had been my Christmas radio station for over thirty days, only to hear a late 80’s pop song that wasn’t WHAM!’s “Last Christmas.” That’s right, folks. December 25 wasn’t even officially over and the radio had moved on to its normal programming. How quickly we rush past Christmas…

It is almost as if the Advent season acts as four weeks of pent-up, Yuletide foreplay in which we try to open presents early (but not too early!) because we just can’t wait for Christmas morning! Then comes the climax of Christmas morning and with a flurry of wrapping paper and spilt coffee, it is all over and all we want to do is go to sleep. As my dear Grammy used to say every December 25 around 7:30am, “You wait this long, and it’s all over in 20 minutes.”

Our one night stand with Christmas is sad. For those churches in the Christian tradition that abide by the Western liturgical Church calendar, there are 12 Days of Christmas (go on, sing it to yourself). Christmas morning is only the beginning of a longer celebration. After all, if we’ve spent Advent waiting in contemplation and anticipation, why burn up all of Christmas in a half hour?

Not only does the Christian Tradition celebrate Christmas for twelve days, but Advent marks the beginning to the Church calendar. That’s right–Christian New Year begins with contemplation and longing for four weeks. Yet Christmas marks the end of that anticipation and the new beginning of God’s indwelling in Creation, physically present in the Cosmos in the person of Jesus Christ!

Christmas isn’t a one night stand with prolonged waiting and climactic release. Christmas is the beginning of a year long love affair with the Divine! And that love affair brings with it the stillness of Lent, the pain of Good Friday, the joy of life and reunion at Easter, and the invigoration and passion of Pentecost! The incredible beauty of the Church calendar is that it encompasses the rhythms of our relationship with God. Not only that, the rhythm is a seasonal glimmer and reminder of all the redemptive work that is soaking and permeating all of Creation, from planet Earth to the farthest unknown reaches of the universe and beyond.

Yet if this rhythm is a reminder of God’s redemptive work in history, why do we experience or witness so much pain, suffering, grief, and horror? Is this rhythm detached from the way the world is? Is God good or is the rhythm a lie?

For those of us of the Christian faith, I think the Church calendar from Advent through the Ordinary Time is structured to remind that God is good, and that God is at work. It isn’t there for us to evaluate if God is fulfilling His promise, but to prompt us to return to the movements of Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love that occur in spite of the trials and tribulations of our lives and times.

Maybe Advent introduces us to these essences over four weeks not because Christmas means the end of anticipation. Maybe Advent walks us through Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love because Advent is a summation of the rhythm that we move to, well beyond the season of Christmas. It is a prologue for the whole of the Western Church calendar!

Christmas is only the start of our journey with Christ. Nurture the Divine love affair.

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Advent(ure) Thoughts: I Wanna Know What Love Is

It’s almost here. In fact, by the time you read this, Christmas Day may already be upon us! (Is this week a double feature? Mayhaps!) And now our Advent(ure) of the last several weeks is near its conclusion. On the fourth Sunday of Advent, if your tradition adheres to the church calendar and practices Advent, you and your community lit the last candle. It was probably purple, and it is sometimes referred to as the Angel candle and it is for Love. From Hope to Peace, Peace to Joy, and now from Joy to Love.

I have stumbled through several ideas and partial drafts for this final edition of Advent(ure) Thoughts. What can I say of the Love of God regarding Christmas? We cling to Hope in desperation. We let Peace settle in our guts. And it seems that Joy gives us cause to celebrate. Then what of Love? Do we speak of the Incarnation? Do we speak of the Divine loving the created so much that God poured God’s self into humanity and mortality to be in community and fellowship with the created, only to be executed by it? Or offered up as an atoning sacrifice? To go there in the last week of Advent seems to me like jumping the gun.

After all, Advent is about the waiting. So what of Love in the waiting?

In Matthew 1:18, Joseph is planning to dismiss Mary in private. As far as Joseph is concerned, the woman he is supposed to marry is suddenly pregnant with someone else’s baby. Yet since a public dismissal may very well lead to Mary’s execution under Jewish law, Joseph decides to protect her from such a fate.

And then he has a dream. He has a dream where God’s plan is laid out before Joseph. The angel in the dream makes it clear that Mary hasn’t been sleeping around.  “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” (1:20). And now I only have questions. Did Joseph publicly claim the unborn child as his own, even though he and Mary weren’t yet married? Did he attempt to explain to everyone he knew “It’s not what you think. That’s God’s baby?” Surely Joseph and Mary hadn’t dodged the rumor mill entirely. How much scandal was Joseph being called to immersed in? Whatever the case though, Joseph is in deep and now will only press deeper into his love for Mary.

How much of the Love of Advent is reflective of Joseph’s love for Mary? “Joseph, just wait and see how I will deliver on my promise!” says God. “Your love for Mary pales in comparison to my love for my people!”

What if the Love of Advent is anticipating what Love is in store in Christ through examining, pondering, and cherishing the Love we already experience? I don’t know about you, but I often experience Love far more directly from my wife, parents, sister, or friends than I do from God. But when the Love of God is made known to me in ways that are unconventional and unexpected, sometimes to the extent of seeming supernatural, it’s overwhelming.

So maybe that’s what Love in Advent is about: Anticipating God pouring out Love in a way we can only remotely fathom.

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Advent(ure) Thoughts: On Joy (or)The Simpsons Meet Santa’s Little Helper

Tis the season for Christmas movies and television galore! Whether it be How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Jingle All the Way, A Christmas Story, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation or It’s a Wonderful Life, starring Jimmy Stewart, many of us have our seasonal staples and classics that we burn through between Black Friday and New Year’s Day. But have you ever noticed that these films and television specials are often more like Advent stories building up to Christmas? They all bear the weight of anticipating that glorious Christmas morning, and the characters inevitably suffer many trials as they move closer and closer. Ever notice Christmas Vacation uses an Advent calendar to mark off the days until Christmas amidst the hijinks and mishaps of the Griswold Family Christmas? Surely Ralphie’s wait and anguish over that Red Rider BB gun in A Christmas Story is riddled with the hope that he will unwrap it, the peace that he can be okay without it, and the joy of finally getting to nearly shooting his eye out in the back yard. Of course, the Love is the family gathering around a peking duck for Christmas dinner while being serenaded with some heavily accented carols. But let’s not rush to Love yet. This is a time for Joy. Go light your Shepherd candle for Joy. It’s probably the pink one.

On December 17, 1989, the world was introduced to one of it’s new favorite television families in an episode call “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire.” The inaugural episode of The Simpsons tells the tale of a family who, like many, are financially cramped during the holiday season. Marge has scrimped and saved for gifts, while Homer anxiously awaits his Christmas bonus. However, the bonus never comes thanks to his boss Mr. Burns, and Marge must use all of her savings to have an unfinished tattoo removed from her 10 year old son, Bart. Lacking the heart to tell Marge that he will not receive his bonus, Homer becomes a mall Santa to earn some extra cash, only to make it out with $13 (after taxes, social security, costume costs, and Santa lessons). Homer’s last thread of hope of giving his family a Merry Christmas leads him and Bart to the race track where they bet it all on the promising grey hound, Santa’s Little Helper. The race is highly contested by all racers, except Santa’s Little Helper who comes in an embarrassing dead last. Homer and Bart are left with nothing. And yet they end up taking Santa’s Little Helper home. And inadvertently, they save Christmas! Marge describes it as the greatest gift because the dog is “something that can share our love, and frighten prowlers.” It is a touching scene. And it has something to teach us about the Joy of Advent.

As does Mary the Mother of Jesus. The Magnificat of Mary can be found in Luke 1:46-55. The mother of Jesus sings this wonderful song that proclaims the wonders of who God is and what God is doing in this miracle.

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,

my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;

for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant…

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,

and has lifted up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things,

and the rich he has sent away empty.”

 

Mary’s whole song overflows with the Joy of the unexpectedness of God’s ways. Because God being born as a baby, into poverty, to a single teenage mom is exactly that: unexpected. The God of the Most High becomes human through the lowly.

And it is this inversion of our expectations that should cause us great Joy. The Joy of Advent follows the Peace that comes from Hope, because the Joy should take us off guard. In Peace, we find ourselves susceptible to the unexpected. In the Peace of God’s promise, we are overcome with Joy when we realize that this Hope is coming from what the world desires to cast aside. Even Joseph desired to divorce Mary, albeit in secret, and needed the assurance of God to see the Joy in what was happening inside the woman he loved.

The Joy of Advent lies in that God is providing for the whole of the cosmos out of the lowliest of circumstances, much like the Joy the financially-broke Simpsons find in a race dog that can’t finish a race. If you’re a fan of the series, you know that Santa’s Little Helper is there to stay, and that the joy he brings to Bart, Lisa, and rest of the family is persistent. The Joy of Advent is persistent. And out of that Joy, we soon find Love. But that is for next week.

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Advent(ure) Thoughts/Minor Spoilers: The Peace of Dr. Strange

I know I am several weeks behind the film critics’ reviews on this one, but this past week I finally saw the latest installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe… Dr. Strange. And it was good; easily one of my favorite films in the MCU, besides Guardians of the Galaxy, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Yes, this post running double duty as… Advent(ure) Thoughts/ Minor Spoilers!

Dr. Stephen Strange is one of the world’s most talented neurosurgeons, and he knows it. The esteemed doctor lives the life of a New York City socialite, while having the privilege to pick and choose which patients to operate on. The result is that Dr. Strange has a perfect record because he never takes on patients that he believes he can’t successfully stitch up. Most importantly, the man cherishes his hands. His hands are what have made him the legendary surgeon we are introduced to in the film. But, when a car accident, brought about by his own hubris, results in severe, irreversible nerve damage to his hands, the reality sets in that he will never be able to perform surgery again. Strange exhausts every experimental treatment he can find. When he is unable to requisition the funds for these treatments, Strange embarks on a mystical journey to Nepal in search of an ancient miracle cure. Instead, he finds himself caught on a journey into deep mysticism, multiple realities, and immersed a war that threatens an entire multi-verse. Cool, trippy stuff.

Strange’s hands are the tools of his profession, the vessel of his prestige, and the fount of his pride. Once they are damaged, his whole life is thrown into uncertainty and chaos. The Doctor’s journey is to find peace. And at the outset, it seems the only thing that will bring him peace is reestablishing his identity as a supreme surgeon. But under the tutelage of Tilda Swinton’s superbly acted, Ancient One, Strange finds peace as he grows into the Sorcerer Supreme.

The second Sunday of Advent (by the time this is posted, it will have been two Sundays ago) is commemorated with the lighting of the Bethlehem Candle, or the candle of Peace. For those of you keeping track at home, we are in Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary, and the Old Testament passage for Second Advent is Isaiah 1:1-10. If you’ve ever seen those cheesy water-colors in the church office of lions and lambs having a cuddle in the grass, that image is derived from Isaiah 1. Personally, my favorite bit is about a toddler playing with over the den of an asp or cobra. It’s loaded with connotations of the serpent in Genesis 3. Not only that, in antiquity, the “asp” was associated with the power and royalty of Egypt, from whom God liberated the Israelites. A Hebrew baby will play carefree in presence of those who oppressed and enslaved his or her ancestors. Crazy. And the crazy continues as the passage closes… “In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.”

My last Adent(ure) Thought elaborated on why Hope was the first essence we take with us on the Advent journey, moving towards Christmas and the birth of Jesus. So why is Peace the next essence on the journey? I think it is because it is only through internalizing the Hope of Christ that we find Peace. If Hope is what spurns us forward with each weary step, then it is Peace that allows us to take those steps with composure and a sense of serenity. Isaiah’s image of peace should feed Hope, as it was intended to feed the Hope of God’s people in the face of impending exile. As Hope is fed, perhaps peace grows out of it. Not the cosmic Peace of reconciliation between oppressed and oppressor as witnessed in Isaiah, necessarily, but maybe it’s the inner peace of recognizing ourselves reconciled to God in and through Christ.
Dr. Stephen Strange only really starts to find the peace to his chaos when he becomes oriented outside of himself. While training and studying under the Ancient One, Strange’s world expands beyond his profession and prestige, beyond his hands. It becomes oriented to the needs and hurts of the cosmos. Spoiler alert: his hands are never restored to what they were. Yet he is more at peace than he was at the film’s start.

Perhaps this is what Paul means in his letter to the Philippians when he encourages them with “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (4:7).

Take Hope. Go in Peace.

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