It’s been a while, hasn’t it?

For the past year, I have been a wilderness season. This period is a conglomerate of happenstance and intentionality. While trying to decide some next steps for myself in a fluid world, I likewise recognized a need for me to take a step back to listen, reflect, learn. Part of that was to take time away from writing and speaking. 

And in this last year, I’ve been contemplating the question, What’s Next?

As I have walked through this in the past year, I’ve taken notice of our world, our country, our city, and our communities. The world is increasingly hostile. Words became more violent. And it seems actions too often have followed those violent words. Exasperations of hopelessness fill our screens and airwaves.

In response to this, I, like many, found myself in a cycle of arguing, which in part is why I need time and space to step back and rest in the quiet space. I recognized that much of this arguing I was doing with others, whether it over social or theological differences, that the schism that existed only widened. If I could only make the other – the intellectual other, the political other, whoever the “other” was in a particular conversation that flared up – then the world would be a better place. Have you ever tried to convince another person of something you both care deeply about, yet see that thing from opposite ends? It never works out. There is too much arguing, and not enough listening. There is too much ego, not enough vulnerability.

I like to think of this dynamic with circles. In this circle, we have what we know. Lots of things can fill this space. For me, it was represented by my evangelical background. And from that background that came a particular theology, a social construct, and so forth. And in my early-to-mid twenties, I began to shift. Ideas, values, and theologies changed. They became separate from what I knew. Another circle.

This circle filled with a new space I was in. It was a needed space. It was a space that allowed me the permission and freedom to explore and discover. Yet I eventually found myself reacting instead of acting in new and liberating ways. I fell prey to the temptation to try and make those over here join me in this new place. I was caught in a cycle of argumentation and deflection. Despite my best efforts to the contrary, I was just as embedded in the dualistic, separating rhetoric I found so unsettling about the “other”. I was engaging the same framework, just from the opposite angle. To me the former circle comprised the “them”. And to them, I was the “them”, the “other”. See how similar this is? Despite the many platitudes to the contrary, there is very little in regards to a deep connection with God when argumentation is our primary form of communication. Where the ego thrives, the divine is ignored, as if it were a winter coat stuff in the back of a closet during the summer months. Richard Rohr writes that the ego always has an “opportunistic agenda”, and that it is often “angry, fear-based.” Here lies hierarchies and classes, each battling for position and prize of being right. With this considered, the difference between these two spaces is minimal.

With these two separate circles was an encompassing, enveloping larger circle that binds us all together in the same fragmented mechanism. This is where I think many of us in our current society are. We’re stuck in a state of blame, fear, anger, aggression, and overall hostility while accusing each other of all wrongdoing. It’s not working. There must be something next. And I’m hoping something is next. So what’s next?

In preparation for a sermon last month, 1 Thessalonians 3 was part of our liturgy the week I spoke. It ends in a prayer. It’s one, I think, embedded in a hope for individuals and community, wrapped in the vision of what is to come. The vision is not specific, but rather it is a hope for who this community continues to be, and transform into. “Now may our God…clear the way for us… May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. May God strengthen your hearts…”

This reads as a hopeful vision for me. The future tense looks towards something new, indeed a continuation of the work that God is doing, but with the hope that love increases, and that love transforms. Kierkegaard once said that, “Love for God and love for neighbor are like two doors that open simultaneously, so that it is impossible to open one without also opening the other, and impossible to shut one without also shutting the other.”

Hope is more than a fleeting emotion. It ought to transcend our self-interested desires. Hope must be more than us wishing something to be true. Hope is grounded in the reality that we expect something to be true, that things can and will change, and that the resources can be made available. If the Gospel narrative of Christ becoming incarnate, which we celebrate here over the course of this next month, is the hope for creation, then we as a part of that creation have an obligation to continue forward the radical message of the Christ. Religion has been mutated into systems of dogma and stifling, when it should be, as Richard Rohr writes, “the most inclusive system of all, making use of every discipline, avenue, and access point” for people to become their true selves and communities flourish in love.

This is my hope for this third circle, that it’s something new, something dynamic. Where there is no us or them, but a beautifully bound WE.

I’m neither a prophet or tactician for what it will take for this to come to fruition. And it very well may be the case that there is not roadmap or blueprint for how to make this happen. But in the year or so where I’ve been asking myself the question What’s Next, my primary focus has been on my self. How do I fit into this? What is my hope? How can I learn to be more incarnational in my theology? How can I live this life and continue on this hope that the Christ has presented us? Here, I rely on some words from Ilia Delio. She writes, “In the life of Jesus a power of love emerged that challenged…(religion). Jesus showed a conscious love, one that sees, feels, and unites with others for the sake of life. Conscious love gives birth to unity because it is love for and with one another; it is the type of love that sees the world with new eyes and a new heart.”

She goes on to write, “Love is life, and the fulness of love is the fulness of life. When we learn to love, to love unto tears, then change and growth, new relationships and new explorations, become not a threat but an opportunity to expand our love. In love, life breaks through the limits of being onto new, undreamed-of horizons, forging a new future. That is why Jesus’ law of love is the law of Christian discipleship, for the one who loves will makes greater wholes.” And this love points to justice, as “justice is not an achievement, but an evolution in love.” 

The cynical side of me thinks that the hurt and injustice that we are see on a daily basis will continue for a while. If that is indeed the case, then what is it that we hope for? What do we hope for ourselves? What do we hope for those to whom we find ourselves in community? And perhaps most importantly, how do we, as a Christian community here in Cap Hill continue to provide hope for those who may have a sense of hopelessness? I encourage each of you to join me and encourage me in the mindset of not reducing advent to a few weeks on our spiritual calendars. Instead, lets embolden advent to be the opening and beginning a new year where we can love each other more deeply, offer hospitality more widely, and shoulder the anxieties of life together. What is it that you hope for for yourself in this next year? And from that, what is it you hope for the communities that you find yourself in? What is the hope that you can bring there?

Note: This post was adapted from a sermon given at Urban Mercy on December 3, 2018

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