Holy unpredictability

art 01Well, it’s been a quiet week in Lake Woebegone, and a normal week in the rest of America. Conversation at the coffee shop turns on when we’ll get our first snowfall. Retailers are speculating about the shift of shoppers from stores to the Internet. And on a sunny workday morning two young parents walked into a center for the developmentally disabled, killed fourteen people, and injured twenty-one others before being killed themselves. It was one of 355 mass shootings here this year (more than one a day) in which 462 people were killed and 1,314 injured, not counting the roughly 11,000 others killed annually by firearms.

A decade ago, perhaps longer, Black Friday invaded Thanksgiving, and major chains like Walmart, Target, J.C. Penney, and Kohl’s all started opening their doors on Thursday. Recently there’s been push-back. Two years ago a Facebook group of consumers pledged not to shop on Thanksgiving Day, prompting some retailers to stay closed on that day and to advertise the fact. “Family time is extremely important to us,” said a message on the DSW website, “and we want our associates to enjoy the holiday with their loved ones.” Some people seem determined to prevent consumerism from becoming normal on Thanksgiving Day.

Are we as determined to prevent events like the ones in San Bernardino, Chattanooga, Charleston, Newtown, Fort Hood, or the hundreds of others this year from becoming normal? Would someone tell me: What are we going to do?

First, we’re going to pray. In his letter to the Philippians, St. Paul urges us, “Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life” (Phil. 4:6-7 The Message).

We need to shake off the paralyzing shock and numbness and name the complaint that rises from our depths. We need to keen our grief and frustration. Like the widow in the parable, who beat on the door of the unjust judge until he was moved to grant her justice, we need to beat on God’s door in prayer until our knuckles bleed if that’s what it takes, until we get the relief this Advent-waiting of ours is about.

“How long, O Lord?” the psalmist cried, and it’s our cry too, “Will you forget [us] forever? How long will you hide your face from [us]? How long must [we] bear pain in [our] soul, and have sorrow in [our] heart all day long”(Ps. 13:1-2)? The first thing we need to do is pray.

Second, we need to realize that, while prayer can work wonders and move mountains, prayer alone is not enough. In one of the greatest political and social disasters of their nation’s history, their exile in Babylon, Israel’s leaders prayed earnestly for relief and restoration, to no apparent avail. “Why do we fast,” they asked God, “but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice” (Isa. 58:3). Why does the diligent practice of our religious tradition produce no good results? Why is it ineffective?

And God answered, Here’s why: “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist” (v. 4). You go through the motions of religious practice, God said, but you have divorced religion from social justice. You’ve lost the connection between your faith and the social order. You have forgotten that faith at its heart is essentially expressed in the social, political, and economic systems of your life together. And until you restore the social, political, and economic order of your nation to a state of equitability and justice, all the prayers you can muster will be just so much mumbo jumbo.

There’s a time for every matter under heaven, the Teacher said (Eccles. 3:1). There’s a time to pray and a time to act. There’s a time to press our complaint to God with bloody knuckles, and there’s a time to realize that God will not fix the problems we create and perpetuate by either our action or our inaction. We’ve got to fix the mess we created, and we’re not going to fix it by continuing the way of life that got us into it to begin with. We’re going to have to take John’s prophetic invitation seriously and repent for the forgiveness of our sins (Luke 3:3). We’re going to have to turn our lives around and live together in a radically different way if our brokenness is to be mended and our lives made whole.

And that’s the terribly difficult thing. How do we act, what do we do? Our church has these suggestions, among others: “support federal legislation . . . to regulate the importation, manufacturing, sale, and possession of guns and ammunition by the general public; call upon all governments of the world . . . to establish national bans on ownership by the general public of handguns, assault weapons, automatic weapon conversion kits, and weapons that cannot be detected by traditionally used metal-detection devices; call upon the print, broadcasting, and electronic media, as well as the entertainment industry, to refrain from promoting gun usage to children; [and] discourage the graphic depiction and glorification of violence by the entertainment industry” (Resolution 3426, 2008 Book of Resolutions).

Are those the right things to do? I don’t know. Is that where to start? I’m not sure – our brokenness is so pervasive, our sin so deep. Many years ago a wise character in the Memphis Commercial Appeal said the hardest thing about doing what’s right is you never know what’s going to come of it. More than once our best efforts to do the right things have turned disastrous.

Make straight the paths of the Lord, John says (Luke 3:4), and of course a straight path implies a clear vision and well-defined destination. But in matters of faith our vision is seldom clear and our destination hardly ever well defined. If the Christmas story teaches us anything at all, I think it ought to teach us that the fulfillment of God’s promise is always unpredictable, always catches us off guard, almost always reveals our clear vision as nearsighted illusion.

We look for a tender babe laid in a manger, only to be confronted by the Rex Tremendum with nail-pierced hands and sleepless eye. It reminds me we haven’t a clue what kind of Christmas God is preparing for us, and it makes me think we ought to be very suspicious about how we prepare for what is being born among us.

Agrarian philosopher and essayist Wendell Berry wrote, “It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey.” During this Advent especially, rather than sing the carols of the Christmas we’ve always known, we might be well served to sit with our not-knowing, fearful though it may be.

Can you sit with me and wait? Can we not rush ahead to what we knew yesterday, or what we think we know today, or what we know to expect tomorrow? But can we sit in this wilderness and patiently and expectantly await the new thing from God that even now is coming to birth?

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