Advent 2016: Be Still

Be still.

Advent is a time of expectation, so they say, a time of hopeful waiting. We light the Advent candles to guide us through the dark and hope for the coming of Christ at the end of it all.

That’s the theory. That’s the liturgical expectation. But Christmas is a busy time, pausing and waiting doesn’t feel possible because the festivities bear down on us like a freight train. We get so stressed out trying to find room at the inn that the stable is easily forgotten.

In the dark of a winter morning, I’ll be honest: these last few months have been hard. They’ve been stressful and frightening, the noise of hundreds of voices and demands all speaking at once. Details aren’t important, but it feels like a maelstrom, a whirlpool of emotion and fear, a babel of randomess that starts to feel conspiratorial. The storm rolled in, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.

The rational part of me knows that this storm is transitory, that it’s a downpour rather than a hurricane. But the rest of me sees the clouds, and the lightning, and the rolling, hungry waves.

Psalm 46 encourages us to be still, and in that stillness to sense and hear that God is present, that he is with us, that he’s on the throne. In the stillness we can find hope and start to trust. Maybe that’s part of the problem: knowing how to let go of it all and just trust. I’m still wedded and welded to the idea that there’s something I’m missing, some trick or hack or insight that would make everything right, that I’m just not smart enough to see.

I know that’s crazy. I know that’s not really the case. But I’m still scared of what will happen if I don’t figure out the secret incantation, the life goals ninja move that would make everything right. And that fear, that stress, that unexpected arrogance, keeps me from the stillness, keeps me from knowing that God is there, and that that’s enough. I want everything to change, to calm down, to stop being so damn noisy that I can’t hear God.

But that’s backwards, isn’t it? It’s hard to trust someone you don’t know. And knowing the theology and the dogma and the atonement theories isn’t a substitute for knowing God himself. Don’t get me wrong; I still follow Jesus, stumbling and fumbling along the way. It’s just that, when the rubber meets the road, he gets crowded out. Everything else looks bigger, more intimidating and imposing, even if it’s just an image of the Great and Powerful Oz rather than the conman behind the curtain.

And yet “Be still!” isn’t just a devotional suggestion; sometimes it’s salvation. “Be still!” is what Jesus commanded the storm when the disciples felt sure they were all gonna drown. And maybe that’s my calling throughout this Christmastide; to trust that the storm will eventually calm, and even if it doesn’t, to look into the eye of the hurricane anyway and see Jesus inside of it, letting him be the stillness in the squall, letting him drown out the words of the man behind the curtain.

Even when the man behind the curtain is me.

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Advent 2016: Hoping for Hope at the End of the Night

The nights are drawing in and getting colder; the morning commute is barely illuminated by fog lights cutting through the mist. Winter, if not officially arriving for another few weeks, is waiting in the wings and making sure we’re ready for her big entrance, and this year, perhaps more so than any other I can remember, it feels like a midnight of a season.

We started 2016 grimly joking that it was going to be a difficult year. After all, we lost David Bowie and Alan Rickman within days of each other, things weren’t off to a great start. From there on in, things seemed to spiral until we’re knocking on the door of December and the world barely feels like it’s holding together. We live in interesting times, so the saying goes, but “interesting” is said with hollow, humourless laughter and a gnawing knot of fear.

Advent starts today, the closest Sunday to St. Andrew’s Day on the 30th. It starts the liturgical year with a sense of anticipation and expectancy, a countdown to Christmas and the coming of Christ. Children eat chocolate hidden in calendars. It’s a time of fervent waiting, but in this earthquake of a year, I need to see Advent as a journey back to Bethlehem.

I suffer from anxiety. That’s not an easy thing to admit, here in public, but there you go; we’re sometimes helped by honesty and, being honest, my sense of hope feels like so much static, no signal cutting through the noise. The people living in darkness still wait to see a great light. Or maybe it’s not about waiting; maybe it’s about having the eyes to see what’s already there, to see the source rather than the reflection or the shadows of imagined absence. The Magi saw the star but they still had to make their way to the manger.

I’m holding on but my fingernails hurt and I need to rediscover hope, need to trust that hope is there, even if that feels like a pilgrimage through the dark. And I don’t have a map and it’s too cloudy to clearly make out the stars, but I need to keep moving and just hope I’m moving forward.

We stand on the cusp of Christmas, the celebration of God moving into the neighbourhood. And so I pray that I’ll learn to trust in the promises implicit in that, not in some eschatological way, but in the day-to-day. Nowadays, when the world we built on shifting sand seems so fragile, when everything seems to be mutating towards something toxic, that trust is more important than ever. But it’s hard to hold on with hands balled into fists.

We use the seasons as symbols, and Advent takes us through the longest night so that we can see the light start to lengthen at the end of it. Christmas is coming, that hope is out there swaddled in a manger. This year I grope towards it once again, beaten and bruised but still stumbling stable-wards. The stumbling feels harder this time, there’s more to fight through. But by grace we manoeuvre through the night, the star still burns above a stable as we move ever onwards in the direction of Bethlehem.

Autism Parents and the Church: Exile

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There are times when raising children with disabilities is like walking through a wilderness, like an exile from the communities around us, to use a biblical image.

That’s not because of the children themselves, nor is it the disability. Don’t get me wrong – things get tiring and frustrating and nerve-shredding – but it is what it is, and acceptance is the first step you have to make in getting your family through this. No, the Wilderness is something else.

The Wilderness is all those people who think you’re exaggerating your experiences, or even that your child’s difficulties are all in your head.

The Wilderness is filling in brutal government forms that ask you to justify every scrap of support you get while writing down, in black and white, every single negative aspect of your child’s life, balanced by none of the positives, the successes, the joys.

The Wilderness is reading of the desert experiences of people with disabilities who lost their support and saw no other option than to take their own lives.

The Wilderness is when people think you must not be praying hard enough for your kid to be healed.

I’m a step-dad, and coming into this late, these things have shocked me. I was naive enough to believe that support was there for those with disabilities, that people were treated with, if not respect, then with a sort of well-meaning bumbling empathy, the sort of clumsy sympathy I’ve found myself doing over the years.  I’ve learned the hard way that there’s a darker side to all this: when you’re stuck in the Wilderness, there aren’t that many people who’ll help you find your way out. Sadly the church isn’t always great at this either; some of you reading this feel like exiles from your local congregations, through no fault of your own, through no fault of your kids.

I’ve written about this a lot over the last couple of months, and I’m probably sounding repeating now. I think all these pessimistic posts, and the more positive ones sitting there in my notebook, are a way of dealing with the experience of exile.

See, there are different responses to being stuck in the Wilderness. Wandering around lost is one, and an understandable one. But it’s not sustainable; sooner or later you’re going to starve. So maybe the first thing you do is buddy up with others stuck in that same Wilderness to see if you can find a way out together.

Or you can figure you’re going to be there for a while, so you start to adapt to the terrain; the image of The Autistic Gardener team making a weird oasis in a desert wasteland is stuck in my head; creating something new is sometimes the only way to survive.

(One of the first things we learn about God is that he’s a creator.)

Or, by ingenuity and good navigation skills and sheer bloody mindedness, you figure out how to escape the Wilderness, how to find your way back to civilisation and convince those you find there to provide signs and fences and provisions and shelter to prevent others from getting lost in the desert in future.

But here’s the thing – whatever path you end up on, God’s always been in the Wilderness, wandering with his people. He may light the way out in a pillar of fire, or he may just pitch his tent next to us – either works. But he’ll be there. That’s one of the things that need to be accepted, even though it’s damn hard at times.

Still, the church isn’t just a monolithic organisation, nor is it just a bunch of local congregations singing and holding coffee mornings. It’s the Body of Christ and we’re all part of that Body – whether we’re disabled, whether we’re feeling lost, we are the church through our relationship with Christ.

And so I have to believe there’s a way out. Because we’re part of the Body not brcause someone gives us a membership ticket but because Jesus says we are. Because while I’ve had many doubts in my life, and been eaten up by resentment, I’m sure that God loves my kids, and I have to trust he loves me too. And while his church may sometimes, either by mistake or through willful ignorance, be silent, the God who camps in the desert won’t be.

 

 

Reclaiming Easter 3: Holy Saturday

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(This is one post in four parts… Part 1, Part 2, Part 4.)

Part of reclaiming Easter, of following Jesus, of crucifying the sins of Christendom, is honesty.

Honesty about what’s going on in our lives, honesty about our weakness (and our strength), honesty about our failings (and our triumphs), honesty about where we stand with Jesus and his teachings. You can’t lie to the omniscient, so let’s imagine that’s a feature, not a bug.

Holy Saturday is a great place to start this. You’ve got to be honest on Holy Saturday. Liturgically, Jesus is in the tomb, Sunday hasn’t got here yet, we’re sitting with the grief and doubt and pain of Good Friday and sunrise over the garden seems so far away.

There are many people sitting in our congregations who have seen the light of Sunday, but right now it seems like Saturday. They’re suffering bereavement. They’re suffering depression. Their addictions or their debt or their stress is overwhelming. She’s punched on a regular basis but people are trying to keep them together. He’s putting on a brave face but he can see how easy it would be to start the car engine but not open the garage door. The bills keep piling up. The cancer is aggressive.

There is hope. Of course there is, we have to believe that Sunday’s coming. But sometimes starting with Sunday just reduces everything to platitudes. Sometimes it’s a disservice to do anything but sit with the grief and the pain for a while, to acknowledge it and cry out to God and walk with people in their suffering.

Job’s friends, in the midst of catastrophe, rock up with ‘answers’ and make the whole thing worse. It’s the honesty that leads to healing. There are times when we need to check our privilege, throw away the sanctified self-help books and be honest about those agonising pauses when it feels like Jesus is still in the tomb. We reclaim Easter when we’re honest about the pain rather than pretending it’s all chocolate and bunnies.

It’s a dead end to stay with Saturday though. There is hope. There is a future. And when we’re weeping in the graveyard, we might just hear a familiar whispered voice behind us….

(Continued tomorrow.)

Holy Saturday 2014: Desolation

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It’s quiet.

The chaos and horror of Good Friday are over; Jesus is buried in a borrowed tomb and the mourning now begins. Those who had gathered around the cross return to their homes wracked with tears and grief and trauma. It’s a Sabbath – no opportunity to distract themselves with work, just space to weep and to wonder where they go from here.

Traditionally Holy Saturday is a time of waiting, but we’re only waiting if we know what’s coming next. After all, Easter Sunday casts a long, bright shadow, a source of hope born from knowing how the story ends. But what about those who lacked the benefit of hindsight? To them, Holy Saturday must have been less of a pause and more of an end.

Something has to die before there can be a resurrection. But death feels so final, and if you’d seen the broken and bloody body of Jesus taken down from the cross, there may have been no question that death was permanent. To John or Mary or Peter, hope must have felt far away, absent even forever.

Maybe we need this time. Maybe there’s a reason that Jesus came back from the dead on Sunday rather than Saturday. Maybe there needs to be a time of hopelessness built into our calendars to provide some sort of solidarity with all those who struggle to see a tomorrow. Even if we know what happens in the morning it’s still easier to relate to Saturday rather than Sunday.

That’s not to deny the reality of the resurrection, but Holy Saturday gives us space to examine the places where death and grief and absence remain a present reality. Sunday is coming, yes, but after that faith is often an ongoing series of smaller resurrections. We have to work through doubt and despair and abandonment because they’re present realities in a fallen world.

So maybe the quiet of Holy Saturday gives us an opportunity to confront our doubts and fears, to be honest with ourselves in the quiet spaces before tomorrow’s celebrations. Maybe it’s a space of grace given to us to gather our thoughts and prayers, no matter how raw and primal they are, and take take them to the entrance of the the empty tomb, awaiting the dawn, awaiting resurrection.