Looking for Love Locks During Advent

No matter how long I spent at seminary or looking at calendars and lectionaries Advent always takes me by surprise. Not the kind of surprise where I didn’t expect it…I mean, the holiday decorations have been up since 12 minutes past Halloween. The kind of surprise I feel is the mood.

Every year, I anticipate the season of anticipation – preparing for Christmas, celebrating the coming of the Christ child, being awestruck by the incarnation. And every year the first Sunday in Advent comes and what we get is…

There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. (Luke 21:25)

Because Advent isn’t just anticipation of the coming that already happened in Jesus, it is also anticipating the coming again.

I don’t think it is an accident that I’ve suppressed this memory of what Advent is about. If you look around, I am clearly not the only one. More people are decorating their trees than worrying about the powers of the heavens being shaken. Those of us who are Christian are usually more focused on the manger than “people fainting from fear and foreboding.” (Luke 21: 26) As much as our faith is about that coming again, it is an intimidating concept – the visions we get from Scripture are dramatic and violent, frightening and mystical. It is much easier to anticipate Christmas because we have stories about it and we live in its aftermath. The celebrations we have built up around it are so comforting!

During Advent, most of us are looking for memories not prophecies.

And yet, here we are.

Jesus tells his disciples…”Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (Luke 21: 28)

No matter how intimidating the signs, raise your heads.

Recently, I had an experience that made me think a little differently about the coming and the second coming, about Advent. Last weekend I was visiting friends in New York. We were deciding what to do with our Saturday when I mentioned I’d never been to Brooklyn. So we decided to go there – but instead of taking the subway we walked over the Brooklyn Bridge.

The Brooklyn Bridge, as you may know, connects lower Manhattan (the emblem of American Capitalism) to Brooklyn (the capital of American Hipsterism) and is anchored by two enormous stone towers. The pedestrian way is crowded in both directions with walkers and cyclists. Thick cables stretch from road to tower and back again, holding the whole thing above the East River. Walking across the Brooklyn Bridge is like getting a snap shot of humanity – especially on a holiday weekend. There were people from all over the world on that bridge going in both directions. All ages, all genders, all beard styles. There were businesses set up along the route selling magnets, key rings, and Statue of Liberty hats – at one point on the walk you can see Lady Liberty in the distance.

At first, it is easy to get caught up in the crowd, making sure you keep pace, don’t block the bicycles. Then you start looking ahead to see if you’ve made progress – how far are you from the Manhattan side? Is Brooklyn any closer? About half way there is a frenzy of selfie taking and you really have to watch out or you’ll cause a pedestrian traffic accident!

At some point during the second half of the walk I noticed locks attached to the cables. They were all different colors so they couldn’t be “official.” Without breaking stride, I reached out to handle one. It was etched with two names and a heart. The next one was, too. These were Love Locks. 

Since that trip across the bridge I’ve found out that Love Locks are a “thing.” But I didn’t know it at the time, they took me by surprise. The idea is that you attach the lock to the bridge, then throw the key into the river as a sign of your undying love for your partner. It seems like a really sweet way to proclaim your love for someone that is both unique (each lock was different) and communal (they were all locks on a bridge.)

The idea of those Love Locks stuck with me after I reached the other side of the bridge and for the rest of the day. Actually, more than a day. I’ve thought about them all week and especially as I was mulling over the lessons for the first Sunday of Advent.

I think Advent is a bit like that trip across the bridge. The journey between Christmas (the first coming) and the time when we will stand before the Son of Man (the second coming) is one we make with all of humanity. It is a spiritual journey.

And as much as we are slogging our way toward our destination, there are a lot of distractions on the path. You can worry about how the cables are holding it all up or be tempted by the tiny NY taxi toys. You can worry about how close you are to the beginning or the end. You can forget where you started and where you are going. You can get distracted by how many people are there and which ones are making your journey more difficult.

The distractions on the Brooklyn Bridge are a lot like the ones we face every day, including the days of Advent.

Jesus tells his disciples – and tells us - “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life…” (Luke 21: 34)

I read a wonderful advent reflection that compares the distractions of modern life to the dissipation and drunkenness and worries Jesus warns us about. In his reflection, Randall Curtis writes,

In a world that is filled more and more every day with tempting distractions, like cell phones, tech gifts, and pop up advertisements everywhere, it is easy to fall into the trap of trying to consume the newest trend…These distractions are the new “drunkenness and worries of this life,” which means that as we prepare for Christmas and God breaking into the world, we will have to make sure we look up from our phones to see it.”*

Yet, sometimes among those distractions we find reminders of why we are on that path, where the journey started and where it is headed. We see things like Love Locks – evidence that among the confusion of life there is love. Among the crowds that are blocking your way are people made in God’s image on the journey with you.

Our Advent journey will be cluttered with all kinds of distractions. Shopping lists and deadlines, family feuds and travel arrangements. Work parties, neighborhood parties, holiday dinners and special menus. Being left off invitation lists, missing those who’ve died this year.

Among all that craziness, raise your heads. Among those distractions are signs of love and reminders of our journey toward God. And God’s journey to us.

Look for the Love Locks on this path. Look for the reminders that we are on this journey because God loves us and sent his Son to us.

Look for the signs that we share God’s love with each other – those we know well and make public commitments to…and those we hardly know, but share the journey with.

On the first Sunday of Advent, along with the head-raising warning that the kingdom of God is at hand, we have this prayer from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. It’s a good reminder and summary of the meaning of oru Advent journey:

Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. (Thessalonians 3:10-13)

*from Living Well Through Advent 2018: practicing generosity with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, Scott Stoner

Here are links to the Bible readings referenced in this blog:

http://bible.oremus.org/?passage=Luke+21:25-36&vnum=yes&version=nrsv

http://bible.oremus.org/?passage=1+Thessalonians+3:9-13&vnum=yes&version=nrsv

Cairn

Rocks stacked on a trail mark a journey
Rocks stacked on a grave mark a memory
They are bonds between the ones who came before and the ones who come after

All paths and memories come from one rock
carrying our shared journey round the sun
We are each other’s mile markers
temporary reminders of a permanent Love

 

 

Autobiography

 

We stand on the shoulders of our ancestors…a statement so true it is attributed to multiple people and whole cultures. When you are the one standing on those shoulders, it can feel wobbly and perilous, as if at any moment you might come crashing down. You might be alone.

The shoulders that hold you up are autobiographical stones that make a wall of shared stories. They hold you by the feet whether you reach for the sky or hover close to the foundation.

Your fear is our fear, your triumph is our triumph, your story is our story.

And even as you grow into your story, another is standing on your shoulders, which are stronger than you will ever know.

Resurrection

Resurrection was not just on a Sunday
Resurrection is  50 days of mystery and joy
and then eternity figuring out what it means

One day a tree falls and becomes soil for new life
A witness to renewal and hope
Proof of connection between the old and the new
Renewal

I live in a forest of felled trees
Generations of lost loves and found loves
The lost is the foundation for the found
Making it possible for love to grow again

They are us

Last Sunday, Palm Sunday, my congregation had a conversation about violence.  Not the violence of the Passion story, but the violence that had terrorized our city for almost a month. The Austin Package Bomber. At the time the conversation was planned, the source of the terror was still unknown. By the time we met, the perpetrator had been identified and was dead. There was a lot of compassion in the room, and a palpable struggle to understand why it all happened.

In the time between terror and relief, there had been lots of discussion locally and nationally about how to characterize the crime and the criminal. We’ve had lots of practice and a formula has emerged – white males who commit mass murder are mentally ill lone wolves; men and women of color who commit mass murder are terrorists. This is a distinction that is obviously racist and xenophobic, problematic in just about every way I can think of.

The way we distinguish between mass murderers is an ongoing conversation. During Holy Week, I think about the way we characterize all of them, not just distinguish between them. It seems important to label them as Other. Whether they are ill or misguided or not-from-here the key point seems to be that they are not us.

On Palm Sunday and again today, Good Friday, we hear the account of Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, torture, and execution. Throughout the story, it is clear that the perpetrators of those acts are not “other.” They are friends, good citizens, religious officials, ordinary folk. They are us.

“They cried out, ‘Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!’”

They are us.

And that is the way I think about the perpetrators of mass murder in our communities today. As troubled or misguided as they may be, as much as I can say I’d never commit such acts – it is clear to me that they are us. They come from our communities. They come from families and congregations and schools. They are either living out or reacting against their perception of our social and political values, not acting outside them altogether. There is no holding them accountable until we hold ourselves accountable, as well. Not just as individuals – not many people commit those acts – but as communities, cities, nations.

As we struggle to understand what happened, our hope to prevent the next awful act is also not Other. It is within our power and within our ability to organize our common life in a way that is less adversarial, more collaborative. Less individualistic, more mutual. Less us-versus-them, more all of us together.

I’d love to know what hope you see for creating safer communities in a way that honors the fact that we ARE communities. All of us together.

Bending with the storm

A couple of weeks ago, I traveled to Port Aransas with family for a few days. It was the first time any of us had been there since Hurricane Harvey had passed over this small beach town. On every road we saw restoration and destruction side-by-side. The hurricane was in the far recesses of my memory, but there it was still immediate. Outside each rebuilt business, a pile of debris. Next to each repainted home, another still missing a roof.

One thing was unchanged about Port Aransas: the palm trees. I learned long ago, that these plants thrive along the coast in part because of they way they survive storms. When the winds whip, most rigid structures shatter. Palms bend.

Then they stand again.

Today is Palm Sunday. I’ve written about this day before, and about the palm as an emblem of it’s meaning for Christians. (You can read it here.) Seeing those survivor palm trees presented me with a new twist. What does it mean that the sign of hospitality laid down for Jesus is from a plant that withstands such force, that springs back from destruction?

This time of year, there are symbols of resurrection all around. When Christians observe the resurrection of the Christ, we use springtime images to help us grasp it’s meaning – eggs, butterflies, lilies. Seeds that die in the earth and rise through the soil. Among these symbols rises the palm. I’ve now seen it standing as a witness to the resurrection of a community. For those of us who have experienced or are still going through personal storms, it is encouraging to imagine the possibility of surviving. It has been done before.  The one greeted with palms and who faced destruction, stands again with us and for us.

 

Of Men and Statues

There is a bewildering confusion plaguing my social media and news streams. It’s a perplexity of mistaken ideas about what constitutes history, legacy, and the difference between a person and a cause. In short, there seem to be a lot of people – far too many people – who cannot tell the difference between a human being and a statue.

As a public service, I will attempt to clarify this issue, explain the difference between a person and a public monument. The example of Robert E. Lee is timely – let’s take a look at this historical person who is also depicted in statues. Now, Robert E. lee was a real person who lived and died. Like all human beings he had characteristics that were both worthy and unworthy, lovable and disgraceful. I am sure he loved his children. He also owned human beings as property, like many other people in his time and place.

There are statues of Robert E. Lee throughout the United States, not just in the South. They depict the man, but (and this is a key point) they are NOT the man. These statues are public monuments placed in carefully selected sites to make a public statement. The purpose of statues of Robert E. Lee is to honor and represent not merely the individual portrayed, it is to hold up the cause and values for which that person stood.

A statue  of Robert E. Lee is a public monument to the cause in which he was a leader -  the Confederate States of America – and the values of that cause, two of which  are separation from the United States of America and protection of the  institution of slavery.   In other words, public monuments to the Confederacy honor treason and racism.

This point seems achingly obvious to most people, but completely opaque to far too many. “The statues are historical markers,” they claim, “if we don’t have them we will forget our history.” Or, “if we get rid of Lee statues because he owned slaves where will it end?! Will we have to tear down statues of all slaveholders?”

If you understand a public monument as a tribute to a cause and to shared values, these questions are irrelevant. For clarity, look to the purpose that public monuments serve in the life of a community or nation. For instance, most Confederate monuments were erected well after the Civil War and many in locations and at points in time that reinforced racist ideology. For instance, the statue of Lee in Lexington, Ky is located in a former slave auction site. The location of the statue sends a clear message to the community that the Confederate cause has more value than the lives bought and sold there.

When New Orleans began removing public monuments to the Confederacy, Mayor Landrieu give an succinct and eloquent explanation of why it was the right and patriotic thing to do. About the statues he said,

“They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, ignoring the terror that it actually stood for,” he said. “They may have been warriors, but in this cause they were not patriots.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center has a report showing the history and location of America’s Confederate monuments – statues, schools, parks, roadways, etc. Of the more than 1,500 such monuments and tributes, a significant number were dedicated around the time Jim Crow laws were put in place to disenfranchise African Americans (from about 1900 to the late 1920s) or as a response to the Civil Rights movement starting in the 1950s. The dedication of 20th century Confederate monuments was intended to reinforce white supremacist laws and principles.
Still, you may say, if you take down a statue of one slaveholder, why not all the others? Where will you stop? Don’t be silly.
Let’s consider some of those statues. George Washington owned slaves, it is true. However, the statues and other monuments that depict Washington honor the cause – the founding of the United States – and values – freedom and democracy – for which he was a leader.
When people gather at monuments of Washington they remember and celebrate the foundational principles that unite the nation. In fact, the cause for which Washington fought ended up being the vehicle by which slavery was eventually ended.
What community or national purpose do Confederate monuments, particularly statues to Confederate leaders, serve today? They are rallying points for racist ideology, sites where white nationalists, white supremacists, and Nazis gather to promote their cause and values: racial homogeneity and obliteration of their opponents.
A public monument should enshrine the common cause of a nation and the values that build up community. Tributes to the Confederacy do not meet this standard; they rend rather than mend the fabric of our country and our common life.