Limping Into Advent (guest post)

Limping Into Advent (guest post)

(Today’s post comes by way of Alicia Davis-Porterfield, writing in the Ministry and Motherhood Blog. I gladly share this with her permission.)

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned . . . Isaiah 9:2

It was dark, in those days. Very dark. Rome ruled Israel, the latest in a long line of conquerors. David’s line seemed all dried up after a succession of useless kings who led a great people to ruin. Caesar had ordered a new census with an eye toward his coffers.

The more people he could account for, the more taxes he could raise; the more taxes he could raise, the more people he could conquer. And so on and so on.

There was no one to challenge him in those days, no one who could shake the grip of the Roman Empire. Israel was a conquered people doing the will of a Caesar they neither chose nor revered nor trusted.

And so it was that Joseph put Mary on that donkey to take the long trip to his ancestral home of Bethlehem. They were not going for a great family reunion, tables laden with favorite foods and local delicacies. They were not headed home for a religious celebration with its own time honored traditions and deep roots in their faith.

They were doing the bidding of Caesar, whose command had come at just the wrong time for their lives, just when Mary’s pregnancy was coming to an end. When she should have been home in Nazareth surrounded by relatives and neighbors who could help her through the trial of labor, she was far from home, alone with only Joseph to attend her.

There was nothing about this story that seemed right, nothing that felt warm and homey and comforting. Mary got pregnant too early and under circumstances no one could believe. Joseph, confused and angry, was ready to quietly un-engage her, until an angel intervened.

And if that wasn’t enough, Caesar interrupted the whole thing with his call for a census, requiring a trip to Bethlehem, a place far from the home and family they knew. They would travel all that way, endangering themselves and the baby, so their conquerors could collect more tax money. This is not a happy story. Not yet.

If you are hurting or angry or confused this Advent season, you are in good company, at least according to the actual Biblical story. If you are lonely or grieving this Advent season, your story is their story, a people who had been conquered for centuries, wondering if God had forgotten them. If you can’t be full of good cheer and cringe at the thought of crowded malls and gift extravaganzas and to-do lists longer than your arm, you are not being a Scrooge or a Grinch.

In fact, you may know better than most the real struggle in this story we know almost too well. Perhaps those with troubled hearts might just have the ears to hear the depth of pain and longing the “holly jolly” approach has written right out of the story. This is the quiet story, not the one of hustle and bustle and ringing cash registers.

This is the story that makes room for pregnant teenagers and confused husbands and people who wonder what God is up to—or even sometimes, if God is up to anything, but who go anyway. This is the true story, according to scripture, the story that has almost been drowned out by demands for good cheer and forced festivities that actually have little to do with the nativity.

The birth of Christ was as far from a Hallmark Christmas special as it possibly could be. Don’t be snowed by the hype. If you are hurting in any way, if your heart is troubled, if you are limping instead of leaping, this is your story.

Advent is a time to prepare for the light coming into the darkness, which means that there is indeed darkness in the story. It does not have the last word, praise be to God. But the darkness is there, the struggle, the loss, the grief, the disappointment and anger–no matter how hard the marketers push to convince us otherwise.

If you are searching for that light, longing for it amidst the darkness, limping into Advent, you are not alone. The Bible tells us so.

 

Alicia Davis Porterfield serves, mothers, and writes in Wilmington, NC. After the recent death of her adored and adoring father, she is definitely limping into Advent.

 

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Facing Evil

grievingLike many of you, the shootings in Newtown, CT have stirred lots of feelings… horror, anger, deep grief. I’ve thought of my niece who teaches in a school. I’ve thought of my great nephew who is almost six and proudly in kindergarten. I’ve thought about Christmas presents that will never be given and stockings that will never be explored. I’ve thought about my friends who have buried their children, for no matter the age of the child it is always an unnatural act. I’ve been angry at how easy it is to get a gun and how hard it is to get help for mental illness.

And I’ve thought about evil.

As I write, we know little of the shooter and so I cannot say he is evil, as easy as that would be to do. We do not know if wires were short-circuited in his brain or demons lay undiagnosed. We just do not know yet, if we will ever know. But I thought about evil because that is my point of connection.

While my blogs are usually personal reflections this one is more personal than most. Many things have conspired in service of my knowing that it was time to speak.

He was the proverbial stranger. I don’t really know how we met. I only remember where he lived because for many years and by whatever methods, I was a regular visitor to his house of horrors. From childhood well into adolescence he abused me in every way imaginable and in some ways that were truly unimaginable to me.

I don’t toss around the word evil casually but in this case the label fits. How else can you describe someone whose joy is inflicting pain and provoking terror in very small children? In anyone?

Shame and humiliation and rape and pain were his weapons of choice. But also guns and knives. I know what it is to have a gun at my head and why I didn’t die, I’ll never know.

I don’t know how I survived physically, let alone emotionally or spiritually. I don’t know why I was given a chance that those children in Newtown were not. I don’t even know if why is a terribly valid question.

One of the things that I do know is that in the midst of the profoundly dangerous hours in his basement I also had many safe places in my life.

Spirit was safe for me. Both at home and at church I was told stories of a God who loved me. The fact is, no child was ever welcomed into the world with more gladness, the rejoicing both of my mother who had prayed long and hard for a little girl and of a neighborhood who’d seen only the birth of boys for many years. I was the kid who broke the string.

Both at home and at church I was told of a God who loved me, no matter what. No one ever used fear or intimidation as messengers of the gospel, as if such a thing could be possible. If they had… if I had somehow gotten a fear inducing God mixed up with a fear inducing abuser, I don’t know what would have become of me.

But it didn’t. And I survived. I survived with enough intactness to do things like school and career, to develop deep and intimate friendships. To laugh. To appreciate and join in my family’s propensity for puns. I don’t take such things lightly. And I survived with enough courage to do the grueling work of healing.

I sometimes tell clients that stubbornness can be a virtue and in this case, it has been for me. Somehow my stubborn self found a way through the horror and walled it off from the rest of my life so that I could indeed be a silly sixth grader or be giddy about my date to the prom. As an adult, my stubborn self kept me going even when I had every excuse for stopping my healing. When money was tight my stubborn self made sure money for therapy came first. When no cell in my body wanted to walk into the therapist’s office because I knew what I would have to confront when there, my stubborn self pushed me out of the car and through her door.

There is much work that needs be done in secret and that is how it should be and how it needs to be. But there comes a time when keeping the secret means colluding with our abusers, holding onto the shame they so freely passed on to us. Sometimes we survive and we heal, and those of us who have been granted both of those graces owe a responsibility to use our voices in whatever way is right for us.

From time to time I am reminded – or have to be reminded – that the light is more powerful than the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. It’s a hard word to write right now, knowing that the darkness has indeed snuffed out the light of so many. But we who survive, be it surviving the dangers of our own particular worlds or simply surviving on this planet while others are killed, we who survive are entrusted with the responsibility of carrying their light forward.

Over the last twenty years, every decision I have made about my work has been made in the context of my survival. The fact of my life is a gift and I am bound to be good steward of that gift.

While it is more dramatically true for some, in reality it’s true for all of us. Are we good stewards of the lives we have been given?

We have been entrusted with the light, and by our lives we reflect its shining or contribute to darkness. The light is in the causes for which we stand and for which we work, even when they are neither easy nor expedient. It is in the hundred odd choices we have each day as to whether or not we will walk with kindness, love mercy and do justice.

I cannot bring those children back. I can do what is mine to do to help create a world where other children are not targets, where division is not celebrated and violence is not glorified.

At my church this morning, in addition to the chaos of a services altered at the last minute we were were faced with a power outage in the sanctuary. No organ, no sound system and no lights. As the guitar choir played the prelude and the choir gathered for the processional, suddenly the lights came on and we all caught our breath. And so it is.

Darkness makes an appearance, so impudent to come breaking into this season of light. We mourn and grieve and shake our fists at the heaven for the profound wrongness of it all. But sooner or later we who survive come around, we must come around to remembering the light that shines even in this darkness.

May we who live commit ourselves to being light and to shining light and to creating spaces for light in this world, even in this world that sometimes falls into the deep darkness.

Learning From Lennox

Some of us who are animal lovers have been greatly saddened by the death of Lennox, who was euthanized by order of the Belfast City Council. The short version of the story is that Belfast has Breed Specific Legislation outlawing pit bulls. Although Lennox did not have any pit in his background, authorities decided he did and that he was dangerous. Many things didn’t add up in the story. Well-known dog trainers in the US offered to take Lennox and provide him a new home. The City Council refused, saying that he was too dangerous to place in another community. Lennox’s family included a child, and they had never had a single incident of biting, attacking or other aggressiveness.

Lennox plays with handler who deemed him the most dangerous dog he’d met.

Every professional who evaluated him found him to be loving, except for the one police officer who deemed Lennox to be the most dangerous dog he’d ever met – and whose report was the only one accepted by the council. (Here’s a picture of Lennox dangerously licking that warden.) Lennox’s family, who’d fought a two-year legal battle to save his life, was denied the chance even to say good-bye to their beloved pet. (You can read more about this story here.)

As I followed the story I felt sadness for the family and the dog and outrage at the City Council. The more I thought about it last night I realized that I was also sad for the men who were making this terrible decision.

How hard does your heart have to be to deny a chance to save a life or to let a family say good-bye? How fearful do you have to be to look at what was by all accounts a loving dog and see only danger?

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross used to say that one of the ways that we combat evil in the world is by doing our own work. When we have not healed our wounds and faced our own fears we project them onto other people – and animals. When we have not dealt with the dark places and hurt places in our own hearts we have to close off our hearts, making them small and hard and fearful. When we are fearful we resist change, for if we stop holding on so tightly for a even little bit it may be the end of us. We cannot listen to another’s point of view – we can only defend our own point of view. We see the world in black and white because it feels safer that way.

I know that as a therapist one of the most important things I can do for my clients is to do my own work. I have to keep checking in with myself (or perhaps better said, with my Self.) Am I carrying hurts around? Am I letting fear have too much of a say? Are there things I need to let go of in order to grow or are there changes I need to allow into my life? Only if I keep my self clear can I be clear for my clients.

Where are the places in your life that need attention? Tending to them isn’t self-indulgent. In fact, the world pretty much needs you  to face them and deal with them. We battle darkness in this world by first allowing our own light to shine.