religion

Why advent…and why maybe not. (maybe part of a series on liturgical seasons of resistance…or also maybe not)

I think it was the day after my father died, so almost exactly a year ago. With a lump in her throat, my mother said, “I might put out a few Christmas things this year, but I can’t put out anything that’s from the Advent box. I just think about your father making sure every year he didn’t get cheated out of an Advent tea if Christmas eve fell on a Sunday.”

Most liturgical traditions weren’t to be trusted in my mother’s Scottish Presbyterian upbringing: anything too liturgical was definitely Catholic, which was NOT Presbyterian. (For a very small country that loves their resistance stories so much, they seem to forget how much of their resistance was wrapped up in resisting the Church of England back when they were mostly Catholic.) 

So it was interesting that when my mother lost many of her family’s traditions upon being cut off by her parents for marrying my (brown) Hindu father, one of the family traditions that the three of us clung to even though it had no part in either of their histories was Advent. Not the historical Advent of fasting and penitence (don’t worry, I’m getting there) but the Advent of lighting candles, listening to Christmas music, and having finger sandwiches thick with margarine and filled with the special treat of tinned salmon, or homemade sausage rolls–greasy hot water pastry filled with tubed sausage meat and sliced into bite sized pieces, and tiny individual mince pies. (My mother grew up in post-war Britain. That’s pretty high end.)

It was a much beloved ritual my mother was stunned I didn’t keep rigorously myself when I moved out. (And when I had a partner, I did. And to this day, I try to host ONE advent tea a year if I can pull it off, to share the tradition as best I can as a childless single person whose family traditions will die with me.)


I’m an everything nerd, so it’s not surprising I turned out to be a liturgy nerd. I’m also a generalist–I’m too lazy to delve deep into any one subject, no matter how interesting. So over the years people who have learned this about me have performed the party trick of sharing little nuggets of history about Advent in particular, which I treat as valuable oral tradition and do not seek to debunk, because they are such good sermon fodder.

Over the years I’ve learned these things about Advent that may or may not be true; don’t take them away from me:

  • Advent was created as a season of penitence and fasting to provide dignity to people without resources. That was a lean season for serfs, and it sanctified–made holy– their struggle and demanded that those with more resources join their struggle if they wanted to see themselves as holy.
  • Advent was a six week season like Lent, offering mirrors of our journey and challenge as we approach the miraculous birth (and the hope of overcoming a tyrannical state) and our journey and challenge as we approach the devastation of death and then the miracle of new life (after the conquering of hell).
  • Gaudete Sunday/Rose Sunday/Joy Sunday (the pink candle, currently the third week of four Sundays, the other three being purple candles of royalty but also of deep reflection) was added because medieval folks would get so into the penitential aspect of Advent that by the Sunday before the Sunday before Christmas, people would be fainting from hunger in worship. (I know my Anglican friends will remind me every Sunday is meant to be a mini-Easter, but y’all know a Scottish Presbyterian by blood, no matter how liturgical, sees that as just cheating on the self-discipline.)

How is that not a SUPER COOL SEASON that we should all be totally digging? (OK, I get swept up in the hardcore bada**ery of folks in the medieval church, I admit.)


So here’s the thing. Every year in the US we get into lots of weird conversations and debates about whether the church is getting sucked into materialist culture by participating in Christmas before December 25. (It is.) We debate whether we should only sing Advent hymns (of which there are really only two that anyone knows–fight me) until Christmas Day, and then sing Christmas hymns until January 6, Epiphany, when everyone is sick to death of Christmas. (We should. And you don’t have to fight me cuz my mum will, every year. You’re good.)

I have friends who grew up in churches that don’t really have advent, who see it as very much a white thing or a mainline church thing or a Catholic thing. (They’re not necessarily wrong.) And yet as I’ve tried to practice Advent as faithfully as I practice Lent (which does end up getting a little too Catholic for my mother, no matter how hard she tries to overcome the sectarianism that damaged her homeland for hundreds of years), my relationship to Jesus and my political identity as a Christ-follower deepen. So I’m still fighting for it. Usually. Until this year.


My friends and I are what you might call “crispy.” We’ve called and mailed and protested and risked arrest and preached and marched and cried and vigiled and pilgrimaged til we have almost nothing left. We live in a nation that is caging babies and murdering sacred land. We live in a nation where hate crimes are on the rise and fascism is maybe creeping or maybe sauntering at this point. We live in a nation where everything tells us Black lives don’t matter but that saying Black lives DO matter makes us a threat to our government. We live in a nation where refugees are turned back to places we made dangerous and immigrants are deported but we continue to try to wipe out indigenous lives at the same time, reminding us that whiteness is the only real god we are meant to worship.

And so this year, I’ve been letting Christmas trickle in anywhere it needs to in communities that are impacted physically or psychically by this evil. I’ve been letting the already part of the Christmas miracle (God is always, already and not yet) show up as strongly as the not yet among my activist and organizer and care taker friends. I’ve started seeing this season as one long and well deserved Gaudete Sunday of joy after so many purple Sundays of hope, peace and love in the face of hopelessness, violence and hate.

I used to serve in a church where most of us didn’t have much, and I preached the importance of a season of Advent anticipation and even spiritual discipline and temperance in the face of American capitalist exploitation of our holiday for the sake of making a buck. I’m not sorry for that, and I’d also give anyone struggling a pass to let a little Christmas leak into Advent.

So maybe it doesn’t need to be a line in the sand, a bright line, a line of purple and pink candles against a line of green and red ones.

 

But here’s the thing, though.

How do we assess if we’re self-medicating, erasing, avoiding the realities of the biblical moment leading up to Christmas by skipping the critical part of the story?

What if the part about Mary exclaiming that her Son would tear down injustice and literally withhold food from those who had grown fat while others starved…what if that part is in the bible for the people who are comfortable to be awakened to their role in addressing their fellow human’s suffering, not just as an act of charity but as an act of systemic restructuring?

What if the season of Advent is about people with stuff having to do without, to literally feel what longing and absence and need are, to cultivate empathy, the way our Muslim siblings are supposed to feel deeper empathy for the poor during their fasting season of Ramadan?

What if Advent’s point right now is to wake us up and shake us loose from the illusion that democracy actually addresses the needs of the poorest, the darkest skinned, the longest on this land when it was designed for the wealthiest, the lightest skinned and the newest arrivals of a certain type?


I have some deeply liturgical friends who get mad at the Good Friday sermon that says “It may be Friday, but Sunday’s coming.” I remember getting mad at my congregation for not catching fire about the miracle of Moses and the liberation of Israel, and when I complained to a pastor who worshiped at the church when he wasn’t at his own, he said, “that’s because we know God liberated US right here just two hundred years ago so we don’t need to get excited about that,” and I got mad at HIM.

As I get older I am better at recognizing that for my siblings who are in an eternal advent, in the occupied Jerusalem before that liberator baby had been born, a little sneak peak of Christmas isn’t a sin.

I just don’t want Christmas to be an anesthetic to the fact that we are all living in occupied Jerusalem before that liberator baby has been born, and some of us who are wounded spiritually by the occupation (and ALL of us are wounded spiritually by it) still have some work to do to show up alongside the folks who are being wounded physically and psychically by that same occupation.

It’s why my friends created the now notorious “F*** this S***” advent devotional several years ago at the height of the Movement for Black Lives, to remind us that the prophets waiting for a better day used REALLY strong language to convey the urgency of the moment, the desperate need for a savior, the desperate need for us to do the WORK of preparation, to put aside politeness and civility and “decency” when those things are perpetuating violence.

So I guess, to use my long-forgotten theological ethics terminology, I’m trying to make the argument that the right to Christmas before December 25 feels to me to be situational.

I get that I’m fighting a losing battle. I’m not 100% sure it’s a battle that matters anywhere near as much as the work I get to do with congregations and nonprofits seeking to institutionalize anti-oppression practices into the lives of their organizations. That said, as a deeper and deeper proponent of nonviolence, I also find myself moving more and more towards spiritual discipline as the way to remain grounded in my work, my accountability and my relationship to the divine in hard times.


I haven’t asked but I think my mother’s putting out the advent wreath this year. I’m not sure she’ll make sausage rolls for one, but she’ll watch all of the Christmas choral concerts on PBS. It might still be too sad one year later for either of us to do the joy-filled advent rituals that made my father act delightfully like a child even in the years when he was working so hard and often ran a little short tempered.

And when she’s with me on the fourth Sunday of Advent, we’ll go to church and then to the Dickens Christmas Faire at the Cow Palace because I’m not an absolute purist either.

A friend made a beautiful argument for why we as progressive Christians should embrace Christmas the way it’s being practiced in the secular world. If we don’t reclaim Christmas as a season of all the beautiful values we believe Christmas to be, my friend argued, we’ve ceded ground and are letting the corporations and capitalist interests define it.

That’s cool. I’m just going to wait to reclaim it til December 25th. And in the mean time I’m pushing Advent HARD, just like Sysyphus with the boulder, December after December, a rock made out of hope and peace and joy and love and two other substances I don’t know because we’ve reduced it by two weeks.

If it’s any consolation, my mother’s rolling her eyes right along with you, as she hangs up her Christmas decorations, and as I do, too.

Sermon on how to make life easier for folks on the margins

It was a real gift to preach in Redding, CA in July. What a great community, with a history of LGBTQ+ inclusion. After preaching this sermon, I was told by a couple in the church that they were ready for my sermon because they had watched the Netflix stand up special Nanette by Hannah Gadsby the night before. “She talked about the same thing as you: self-effacing comedy when done by oppressed people is not humility; it’s humiliation.” What a cool connection to have made. Go watch Nanette. Seriously.

“Mothers of Islam” — a sermon preached at First Christian Church of Concord, CA

Sermon can be found HERE.

A description from the church’s website: “One of our favorite guest preachers, Rev. Sandhya Jha, preaches on the story of Hagar and weaves it in with the story of Khadijah, the prophet Muhammad’s first wife.  She invites us to stand with our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters, living in true community.”

Could your church help your community find hope in the wake of the election?

Last weekend, people started reaching out to me because they were afraid, and they didn’t want to stay that way. They didn’t want to rage or burn things down; they wanted to find a way to contribute to their community, to help others overcome fear.

So with the help of a PHENOMENALLY gifted intern, the Oakland Peace Center created a resource fair. The goal was simple: to help people feeling a sense of urgency discover that they have a power to make a POSITIVE contribution in their community, that they need not dwell in anxiety and fear but can overcome it by coming together.

The reason I’m writing this is that within four days, we had thirty organizations agree to table and four hundred people attend (in the rain!!!). Check it out!

crowdcrowd2

What this tells me is that people are hungry for positivity, and that people are hungry right now for a sense that they are not alone.

Now, the Oakland Peace Center is made up of forty organizations who are working to create equity as the means of creating peace, so we had a good baseline. But our partners are mostly small, scrappy organizations working to help people at a local level. We wanted folks to connect with them, but we also wanted to provide resources for people looking to get engaged in work we didn’t have covered: advocacy with Muslims, health care access, learning how to intervene when someone is being assaulted (verbally or otherwise), women’s rights, environmental justice. So we needed to reach new organizations as well as new people.

Here’s how we did it:

We listened and we checked in: On the Friday and Saturday after the election I got several messages from people saying “what do I do to engage in protecting people’s healthcare?” or “a lot of people are asking me what they can do to protect immigrants’ (or refugees’ or LGBTQ people’s or Muslims’) rights. Where do I point them?” Then a facebook friend shared an event happening in LA that weekend and asked if anything like that was happening in Oakland. I said no, but it might help me field the questions I was getting. I was at an OPC partners’ retreat so asked them what they thought, then spent another day or so asking organizations what they thought. We began to sense that people were hungry for the opportunity to do something pro-active. Youth were walking out of school; people who had never marched were marching; whole congregations were wearing safety pins so they could express their solidarity with people for whom they feared. We had a sense that this could be meaningful and helpful to the community. In our community, we felt a need to capture the energy of the present moment, so we moved quickly (four days!!!! whew!), but we might do another one in January or February. Another listening we did was during the event: we thought our next event would be more about training people, but what we heard was people wanted another of these resource fairs so that their friends could come and so other organizations could be in the room. So we’re shifting focus from what we thought was best to what the community has told us would be best.

Our message was positive: In both our email blast, our flyers and our facebook messaging, we didn’t focus on hostility or negativity or anxiety. Truthfully, many of us feel those things, and they are valid feelings. But we believe at the Oakland Peace Center that what we are building is even more important than what we are tearing down, even though there are things that need to be torn down in order to build. Our facebook message read “If you feel a drive to do something about the environment, immigrants’ rights, healthcare, Black Lives Matter, indigenous rights, reducing bullying, increasing a culture of peace and inclusion, or any other issues to make this community better, please come to this gathering and learn about the ways you can participate! Whether you are a long time activist or have never attended a rally in your life, your contributions matter!” My sense is that right now, people are feeling negative, powerless and isolated. So our message was positive, reminded people of their power, and reminded them that they were not alone. And the event reinforced those themes.

We Honored Multiple Ways of Creating Positive Change: The other beautiful thing that emerged out of who the Oakland Peace Center is (and which I believe churches and faith communities can create for the same reasons) was that we had multiple dimensions to how people could be engaged. “Get In Where You Fit In” was a slogan our intern Virginia used, and it was true: we had organizations working on policy issues national and local, we had organizations engaged in community service work (who were not afraid of the organizations doing policy work), and we had organizations connecting people to inner peace so that they can take care of themselves in order to take care of others. The OPC is committed to creating peace-filled communities, and we need different policies, and we need people engaged in service and solidarity with each other, and we need people who are able to heal from trauma and find peace within themselves. All of those resources were available, and some of them even got taught right there during the event, like intervention during assault and the basic skills of HeartMath and anti-bullying techniques.

We made sure that as many of the communities potentially impacted by upcoming policy changes were in the room as possible: we reached out to Muslim organizations, disability rights organizations, environmental groups, women’s groups, LGBTQ+ organizations, organizations supporting the Movement for Black Lives, immigration organizations, and so on. There are usually organizations doing both advocacy and social service around these communities in every state in the nation as well as in most major cities.

We created an air of celebration: People who came wanted to experience hope. And part of how hope gets crushed is by replacing joy with fear. So we created a festival atmosphere: popcorn and fun, high energy music, and a kids’ table with children’s books representing both themes of inclusion and justice (which we promoted in advance so people knew it was a family-friendly event). Joy is an underutilized tool of creating justice! We even had a woman who creates justice-oriented children’s coloring resources volunteered at the kids’ table! (Here are some of the pages we provided the children.)img_6597childrens-books

We didn’t create anything new: With any issue we are concerned about, there are folks doing really good work who are underresourced. This is a moment to connect, not necessarily re-invent the wheel.

We created spaces for people to cast vision, share their commitments and offer words of hope. We had poster board where people wrote what they were committing themselves to and what their hopes were. We didn’t create a physical space for grief, although one restorative justice partner gathered people who wanted to really let their feelings out and feel heard, and that was beautiful. One of the organizations, Faith Alliance for a Moral Economy, invited people to cast a vision for a moral economy when people visited their table: fame

We learned some really inspiring things:

  • People were so excited about this that even without asking for them, we ended up with phenomenal volunteers!
  • There were a lot of young people who came because they want to become activists. But there were also senior citizens who felt that they could no longer stay uninformed or unengaged. I believe that is true of church folks as well: as OPC intern Virginia White reflected to me after the event, “people have care about these issues but haven’t known how to engage, or didn’t think they should. This is not about convincing people to do something new.” That’s who our event was for, and they came in the rain by the hundreds.
  • Some people were puzzled by why we would do something like this until we explained that part of the mission of the OPC is to connect people to each other’s work. And they were also puzzled by the fact that the church (in our case, First Christian Church of Oakland) played a role in this gathering as the folks who created the OPC. What a beautiful moment of puzzlement to help the community realize that the church can and should be engaged in this work of standing with indigenous and Black and LGBTQ+ and environmental and civil liberties organizations. What a teachable moment.
  • This event created hope. Let me say it again: at a time people are experiencing fear, we created a space of hope. Participants thanked us, and so did the organizations, some of whom have been in this work for decades and feeling a little out of hope themselves. At our best, isn’t that what the church is supposed to be about? Hope conquering despair, not just in the abstract, but in concrete ways.
  • Over and over, people said they felt a sense that there really is a community dedicated to supporting each other. During my introductory announcement, I reminded people that “we need us. We need to have each other’s backs. In the coming days we will need to be able to trust each other, and that happens when we really show up for each other.” So I told them to talk to all of the tablers but also to talk to each other, because we have each other’s backs best when we know each other, and that can start here. And people did. And it was transcendent.

I was asked to share our methodology so others can borrow from it. I decided to write it in a way that I hope churches in particular can borrow from it. It took a lot of time and effort, but it was not difficult logistically to manage. Once our facebook numbers started looking good, some of the organizations that had never heard of us before suddenly thought this would be a great opportunity.

 

Nonviolence, privilege and grief. Thoughts on South Carolina and a child I love.

Art by Demar Douglas, found on pinterest

Art by Demar Douglas, found on pinterest

This morning I sat down to write a letter to a beloved recent teen in my life, a newly minted thirteen-year-old. We go to protests a lot, and museums where we learn about farm workers and the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement.

This beloved recent teen has been to hell and back, and the amount of resilience that is demanded of her is, to my mind, stupid. By which I really mean unjust. By which I mean I wish I could protect her and it makes me furious that I can’t. And by furious, I mean helpless.

I debated whether to mention the shooting in South Carolina. I debated it because she may not be watching the news these days and I don’t know that it is helpful for her to know about more suffering in the world. Mostly because I don’t want her to have more to be sad about or to be scared of or to hate the world for.

I’ve been reminded recently that it is hard to talk about any issue in a way that speaks to everyone’s lived experience, and when talking about anything related to race, it is that much harder, because we do have the same amount of skin in the game, but the way the game goes does not affect us the same way. (That is, even White people who HATE racism benefit from it, and Black people don’t, and the rest of us have a very complex terrain to navigate.) A great illustration of how privilege and oppression shape our responses to racial issues is that popular Facebook meme about police brutality and Black Lives Matter that reads “Black people are saying ‘STOP KILLING US!’ and White people’s response is ‘But…'”
blackpeople
More recently, though, (more…)