My God, my God
why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from the words of my groaning?
My God, I cry out by day,
but you do not answer,
by night but I find no rest.
In you our ancestors put our trust,
they trusted you and were saved,
in you they trusted and were not disappointed.
But I am a worm and not a human being,
I am scorned by everyone,
despised by the people.
All who see me mock me,
they hurl insults, shaking their heads,
“He trusts in the Lord,” they say.
“Let the Lord rescue him,
let him deliver him since he delights in him.”
Yet you brought me out of the womb,
you made me feel secure on my mother’s breast.
From birth I was cast on you, from my mother’s womb,
you have been my God.
Do not be far from me,
and trouble is near and there is
no one to help.
I am poured out like water
and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax,
it has melted within me,
a pack of villains encircles me,
they pierce my hands and my feet.
All my bones are on display;
people stare and gloat over me.
They divide my clothes among them
and cast lots for my garment.
But you, Lord,
do not be far from me.
You are my strength;
come quickly to help.
Deliver me from the sword,
my precious life from the
power of the dogs.
from the mouth of lions;
save me from the horns
of the wild oxen.
I will declare your name to my people;
in the assembly I will praise you.
Polly & Georgia Lee
In the early 1990s, when our boys were in grade school and we were living south of San Francisco, a 12-year-old girl named Polly went missing from her home an hour or so north of the city, in a little town called Petaluma. Because Petaluma was also Winona Ryder’s hometown, she helped galvanize the search effort for Polly which garnered nation-wide attention. Polly’s face was seen by millions, including Robert and I, who were caught up in her story—and who mourned her death weeks later.
About 4 years passed and again on the outskirts of Petaluma another 12-year-old girl went missing. This time, however, no one noticed. Like Polly, Georgia Lee was beautiful, intelligent, and loved by her friends. But that’s where the similarities ended. Unlike Polly, Georgia was poor. And Black. And without a father. She was a surrogate parent both to her little sister and her unstable mother – that is, until a male predator moved into the house, and Georgia began leaving it out of self-preservation.
On the day she didn’t come home at all, no one reported her missing.
Two weeks later, a neighbor saw a little blurb in the paper; an unidentified body had been found along the highway. It occurred to her that she hadn’t seen Georgia for a while, so the neighbor shared her fears with the police. Tragically, her fears were soon realized.
At Georgia Lee’s memorial service, Tom Waits and his wife sat in the back row. They were struck by the equal horror and sorrow—and the profoundly unequal attention and concern—that surrounded the lives and deaths and grief of these two young girls. So, they wrote the lament we just heard on Georgia’s behalf, crying out to God, and to us, from hearts tuned toward justice; justice, which, in Hebrew, is the word most often paralleled, even synonymous, with shalom, or peace.
Advent & Lament
During advent, peace is one of the four pillars – and candles – set ablaze in the light of Jesus. Here, in this shelter, we are also given safe space to lament, to cry out to, and with God, for ourselves and our wounded world. Because the feet of those who stand and shout God’s good news of peace are only lovely when they also stand against injustice; with the God who has come to us in the flesh, embodying our lament and our final peace in his own life.
Perhaps we need reminding that in the Hebrew Scriptures, shalom, or peace, is never the language of inner tranquility, or even the absence of trouble, or stress, or conflict. Rather, the true peace of God always concerns a deep commitment to justice. The Greeks may have used the word “peace” to mean internal equilibrium, but Jesus’ ancestors never understood shalom apart from justice enacted in social and personal relationships, starting with God’s relationship of intimate, indestructible covenant with his people.
Thus, the prophets who pined for a peace-bringing Messiah anticipated a shalom that had nothing to do with sentimentality and everything to do with hard-won deliverance from evil and oppression in a world of empires and tyrants and false shepherds. When they cried out for salvation, for shalom, they looked for the wholeness that came with the hands-on justice and righteousness of God. Hence, in Isaiah 40, God’s peace-bringing comfort looks like his strong, shepherding arm bound, handfasted, or wedded, to justice and righteousness. And so, Jeremiah decries the false prophets (of any era or politic) who dress “the wounds of God’s people as if they are not serious” and announce “peace, peace, but there is no peace.” Why not? Because there is no sign of God’s saving, healing justice (Jer 8:11, 15).
So too Jesus enacted the hands-on righteousness, goodness, and healing of his Father’s peaceable kingdom. Those in charge looked for their version of a Messianic conquering hero, just as we so often do, but thankfully they got Jesus instead, who upended the world with God’s peace by conquering through self-giving love, absorbing and healing injustice through his unjust death, and embodying permanent shalom by the resurrecting Spirit.
Justice, Peace & Jesus
To see what peace looks like, look at Jesus. Look hard. You see, for Jesus, peace is not something he has; it’s who he is, because it’s who God is. God has always been coming, bringing life as a gift from his own Triune life and in Jesus’s adventing, or be-coming, God has joined himself to our humanity forever. In cruciform justice and suffering love, the one whose being is to come has united himself to your suffering and mine, to Georgia Lee’s and Polly’s, to that of a world in a global pandemic, again, made so much worse by new levels of personal and systemic selfishness and inequity and fear. And, having never left or forsaken us, he keeps on coming so that we find our lives as God’s blessed, beloved, peacemaking children in him, who is our peace.
If we can’t see him, it’s not because he is absent, but because he is so close that we can barely distinguish his Spirit-breathed breath from our own. Or, it’s because he’s come to where we don’t expect him and don’t necessarily want to follow him. So, he comes again, to us, to invite us to come with him again, and thus become who we were meant to be, held patiently, tenderly, eternally, by outstretched arms that bear the marks of his wounds and ours.
Living as advent people with Jesus, coming alongside him by the Spirit, requires reorientation away from faith as mental assent and toward faith as participation, which requires attention and practice; lots of practice. It takes practice to lament without it turning to self-pity because life is harder than we expected, and we expect a lot. It’s hard to lament the presence of injustice or minister Christ’s peace-making Presence when our sensitivity is sedated. It takes practice to see God’s kingdom on earth without racial, national, political, or class boundaries. It takes practice to suffer for the wholeness of the other, and thus participate in Christ’s suffering when we’ve been trained to race past the pain at full speed because we don’t know how to bear it, or we’re hiding too much pain of our own.
It requires a Christian imagination, a heart and mind exercised by Christ, to hear the Spirit, to say yes to justice that requires putting our bodies on the line and taking up crosses of all kinds. To let our Shepherd lead us out of our wolfish ways into the Way of the Lamb of God who holds us close to his heart (Isa 40), drawing out the evil coursing through our broken humanity, and pumping the lifeblood of forgiveness, uprightness and renewal. It takes practice to follow the one whose own Spirit guide our feet in his way of peace, exchanging dishonest sentiment with true comfort, letting sorrow and love flow mingled down into life. Advent is designed to help us practice this life with the God who has come to us, as one of us.
I find comfort in Jesus’ plea to our heavenly Father, “Abba, if you will take this cup from me.” That he both longed for his Father’s shalom and for an easier way to bring about our peace helps me remember that our Priest-King really is like us and gets how hard it is to be us. And that peace works as hard it must to make things right and true and possible. Hence Jesus finished that plea with “not my will but yours…” and then, gasping Psalm 22 in lament and hope, he died an unjust death for the life of the world, to absorb our injustice and violence and set us free to live life with God, life in which lions and lambs find their place together, enemies discovering that they are reconciled together as beloved children and heirs of God.
Advent peace comes into focus through Jesus alone. By looking at, with, and through him only, can we see in him the peace that passes the world’s understanding? He is our living, breathing shalom, and his existence requires us to choose between him and false peace of the world, between our immediate self-gratification and the kiss of righteousness and peace that makes things right and good on behalf of others.
“True peace, say Jesus’ scriptures, is “from the Lord” who reigns (1 Kings 2:23); it “is the Lord’s own work” of reordering and making all things right for the whole world; such is his salvation and healing shalom (Isa 52:7). We participate with the God who never stops coming precisely to be our peace; peace over against that which harms under the guise of false hope rather than heals and restores. Any peace, that comforts some at the expense of others, is merely injustice wearing a mask.
Advent reminds us to pay attention to what our King is up to and what he invites us to do. As children of peace, we have our work cut out for us, and that cutout is cross-shaped, so we do this work with him, as we pray the advent prayers he taught us – in his mother tongue: “Maranatha — Come, Lord Jesus” and “Abba, thy will be done on earth as in heaven.”
Lament & Healing
As we pray to Abba, and step out in the power of the Spirit, we will find darkness all around us. A darkness that doesn’t look like Jesus has overcome it. It will terrify us, precisely because it will remind us of the darkness inside ourselves. The temptation will be to switch off the news, to shut off our hearts and shut out the world’s pain, to shore up a painless world for ourselves. But praying and living the double vision of Advent and thus priesting Christ’s shalom, we can both lament the world’s pain and work to bring about its healing.
Jesus also tells us to pray to our Abba for deliverance from evil, resisting the temptation to hear only the din of despair, escapism, ignorance, neglect, or intentional disregard rather than to listen for the Shepherd’s voice and living in expectation of future Advent in our present lives. So, we do, and we will, as prophets and priests of that future life now. Through signs and wonders, and faithful endurance, we make costly deposits of peace in God’s beloved world, empowered by the divine down-payment of God the Holy Spirit.
Today, this third week of December, we desperately need the reorientation of advent shalom. In a season when peace seems almost unimaginable and justice beyond memory, we need help finding ways to lament the numbing numbers of lives lost to this coronavirus, numbers too large to take in. US numbers that belong overwhelmingly to black, indigenous, and Latinx persons who have stayed present to serve us all while trying to stay alive with their own families. In this wilderness, we need help making forward motion, let alone making straight the highway of our God. In these days when we can’t share breath with our extended family, we need help turning numbers into neighbors through acts of justice and peace-making.
And our help comes, again, to remind us of his last Passover conversation with his disciples, that includes us. He told them, “I leave my peace with you”; I do not leave flimsy, breakable, worldly peace, but my very self, my broken body and blood, restored forever in a new, eternal covenant of shalom. So, partake of me in this in-between time from Incarnation to final resurrection. Eat and drink my very life into your own and live my life of peace even now through the empowering Spirit. You will be set free to love with justice, whatever the cost. And don’t worry when it costs you everything. That’s how much life is worth. The world and death will take blood, and your bodies too. So, don’t be surprised, or afraid when it happens, and don’t get too comfortable when it’s not, because in this world you will have trouble. And don’t be afraid, because nothing, nothing, not even your doubt or despair, can separate you from me and my coming forever as your Prince of Peace.
So let’s finish with a prayer, led by our poet brother Malcolm Guite, asking that Emmanuel, God with us, would make it possible for us to receive his coming, yet again:
O Come, O come, and be our God-With-Us,
O Long-Sought With-ness for a world without,
O Secret Seed, O Hidden Spring of Light.
Come to us Wisdom, Come Unspoken Name,
Come Root, and Key, and King, and Holy Flame.
O Quickened Little Wick so tightly curled,
Be-Folded with us into time and place,
Unfold for us the mystery of grace
And make a Womb of all this Wounded World.
O Heart of Heaven beating in the Earth,
O Tiny Hope within our Hopelessness
Come to be Born, To Bear us to Our Birth,
To Touch a Dying World with New Made Hands
And Make These Rags of Time Our Swaddling Bands.