Sunday, December 18, 2016

Time is Short! - Thoughts on a Cosmic Nativity

I believe, it is decidedly unoriginal to say that something out of the book of Revelation is bizarre, but I’m going to anyway: the twelfth chapter of Revelation is really bizarre. Especially during Advent, people are often inundated with renderings and readings of the birth of Christ from the gospels of Matthew and Luke, but not often do we Christians flip our texts open to the back end of the New Testament to read the other nativity story. You know, it’s the one with a seven-headed dragon, a woman crowned with stars who is dressed in the sun, and an epic spiritual battle between archangels, angels, and demons!

There are many things that could (and have been said) about the meaning, plot, and theological nuances of the Revelation 12. Who is the celestial woman? Where and when did these events occur? Did they occur at all or are John’s words that he saw a “sign” mean they are to be taken metaphorically? To these and many other inquiries, I leave you to your own study. However, there is one thing presented in Revelation 12 that, to me, is not only the central message of the chapter but also encompasses within it a key aspect of the Advent season. That thing is idea of the in-between. 

Here is what I mean. In the last few years, when I ruminate on Revelation’s nativity scene, my mind often lands on a friend I had a few years back, whom I met working at a soup kitchen in Juarez. In homage to the season, I will refer to her as Mary. When I met Mary, she and her husband were expecting a child, and it was evident, with every encounter, that she was overjoyed to be having a baby. As we grew closer with Mary and her family, the group of friends we were a part of experienced many joys in anticipating the arrival of her newborn. There were baby gifts, a growing belly, complaints of achiness and morning sickness, occasionally one of our female friends would even probe Mary’s belly convinced the little tike was kicking her hand.

Soon, however, we started to notice that Mary was having some troubling interactions with some of the other workers at the soup kitchen, other ladies who had been working there for a while. At first, my friends and I just noticed some subtle things like when Mary would talk about her baby in front of certain people, there would be a huff or an eye roll or a head shake. It seemed a little rude, but I just assumed I was misunderstanding their reactions. Not long thereafter, we began to see instances where Mary, obviously distraught, would leave the soup kitchen early after speaking with some of these ladies. Eventually, one day, in the dusty concrete structure that served as our mess hall, we found Mary alone, crying, and angry. When we asked her why she was so upset, she would only tell us that one of the ladies had said something incredibly mean to her. My friends and I decided it was time to get to the bottom of this behavior.

So, the next time we were together working to prepare a lunch, we slyly tried to probe the woman who had supposedly said these things to Mary. She and some of the other workers said that they believed Mary was a liar who was manipulating people into buying her things. They recounted how Mary had claimed to be pregnant many times before and never had a baby! She would occasionally come to the soup kitchen with high hopes that she was with child, and for the first couple times, the ladies said they would celebrate and prepare with Mary. But, this pregnancy being the fourth or fifth iteration of her tale, the women had begun to believe her to be some grand grifter vying for the spoils of rich Americans who would come to serve in the soup kitchen.

None of this made much sense to me. Mary was not poor in the way others were so desperate in the neighborhood, and she never inquired about handouts or the like. Her husband had a steady job, they had a large comfortable home (at least in comparison to her friends and neighbors), and she was usually generous with both her time and money. In fact, in my memory, I was more often on the receiving end of her hospitality and generosity than the other way around. So, I was more than skeptical of what these women at the soup kitchen were telling me. I just didn’t see evidence that the pregnancy was faked. 

Nonetheless, when it came around the time for her to deliver, she simply disappeared. We could not get a hold of her. Maintaining hope, I convinced myself that she was simply recuperating from childbirth and tried to stave-off dread that something terrible had happened during the birth. After a few weeks, with a hung head, and a gaze that was devoid of eye contact, she came around to see us.

She admitted that she did not have a baby, was never actually pregnant, and that this was not the first time such a thing had happened (something she had never told us before). By her telling, every time she thought she was pregnant, she was really convinced that she was! Her body would go through the changes, she would feel that the baby was growing within her, and a sense of expectation would progress in her household. But each time, when birth pangs began, she would rush to the doctor only to arduously find out that her womb was empty. Then, her “symptoms” of pregnancy would slowly dissipate. I have often wondered how she could get so far along before she or any doctor realized that she was having a false pregnancy, but it is not uncommon for women in her area and economic standing to not have the best, or any, access to proper medical care. And although, as I mentioned, she and her husband were better off than many in the area, they would still be considered deeply impoverished by U.S. standards.

The truth is, I believed her. I still do. At the time, my heart ached for her. And now, raising my own children and having had the amazing opportunity to anticipate their coming, my heart actually breaks when I remember walking with her through this situation. I can’t imagine the pain she and her family must have felt when hopes for a child were dashed.

When I think of her now, in connection with Revelation 12, I cannot help but think that this situation poignantly illustrates what Revelation means to tell us and what a large part of Advent means to remind us – we are in the in-between! A large part of Revelation 12 is spent telling how Satan is repeatedly defeated until he is finally thrown to earth where he wages war against “those who keep God’s command and hold fast their testimony about Jesus Christ.” In Contrast, the chapter also tells us that the Christ child was snatched up to the throne of God, which is meant to show Jesus’ true reign in the post-resurrection/ ascension era. Revelation 12 also says that “now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of God” and that “[believers] triumphed over [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony! “ [it. added]. There is a real tension here that John highlights. On the one hand, we ought to expect the hardship that comes from an enemy who continually wages war against us, and yet on the other we have the hope and assurance that the victory is already won.

That is to say, there is tension because we live in-between two Advents. Christ has come, and He will come again; Christ inaugurated his Kingdom when He rose, and we will consummate it when He returns! In the meantime, 1 Peter 5:8-9 tells us, and I believe Revelation 12 confirms, that our enemy prowls around like a lion seeking to devour us! And, although we can rest assured in the power and salvation of the blood of the Lamb, we continually wait for Him to finish what He started. We wait for him to return. Advent is a season to remember what Christ has done and how the Presence of the Lord, in the form of Jesus, broke into our reality to offer redemption and salvation. But, maybe even more, Advent reminds us, as we anticipate Christmas Day, that we perpetually wait for Jesus to come again! 

Was my friend Mary’s ordeal a spiritual attack, a psychological ailment, or simply a by-product of a broken creation? I am not sure. Maybe, it was one or all of these things. What I do know, is that the “time is short.” I hope and pray that she sought and was able to find real healing in the wake of the tragic loss of her baby, even if her child only ever existed in her mind. I also prayerfully hope that she, like many of us in this season of hope, is able to cling to a different sense of expectation as she awaits the arrival of our Lord. In this, I am confident there will come a time when our damn-ed creation will breathe anew, when Mary’s pain will be replaced with joy and everlasting love, when the tears of loss she shed will be forgotten for He will have wiped them away, because then there will be no more mourning or crying or pain.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Advent Candle

The summer of 2013 was a whirlwind for Jaci and me. We had taken two amazing academic trips the previous summers to Turkey and Israel, and we wanted to continue our stretch of traveling during the Summer. So, we decided that we would take a more low-key trip to London, Paris, and meet up with friends in Switzerland. What made the trip even more memorable was that it was something of a “baby-moon” for us, because Jaci was pregnant with our first child, Desmond. We hopped the pond full of joy for the opportunity to enjoy one last soiree before parenthood and with a greater sense of expectation for the arrival of our first born.

The two weeks in Europe were a wonderful time, and we did a lot of the normal vacation-y things – we ate too much, we saw a couple of live shows in London, we saw a TON of beautiful historical sites, we went to the museums (I’m a nerd, so that was my thing), we navigated our first real use of Airbnb, etc. And, of course, it was all planned around the inevitable need of my wife’s pregnant body to crash hard around 3p.m. So, knowing that we needed to be back to our rented room in time for my wife to take a nap, we decided, one misty English day, to take the entire morning to visit St. Paul’s church in London.

Now, there are too many (and mostly boring) things one could drone on about when talking about St. Paul’s. And, like I said, I’m a nerd, so I could easily fill this post with random factoids I learned on my tour of the monstrous building. However, one kind of mundane thing occurred that has actually had a lasting impact on my family’s spiritual walk during Advent. That thing is that the gift shop was having a Christmas sale in the Summer! Apparently, the middle of July is the best time to visit St. Paul’s to stock up on Advent necessities.

As we perused the random oddities of mostly stale English religious items, I noticed a small box of ornate cream colored taper candles. Normally, I would simply and eagerly pass by such obvious tchotchkes, but I picked it up because I realized that it had numbers on the side that coordinated with the days of Advent. In truth, the candle counted down from December 1st, but Advent begins on the Sunday closest to the Feast of St. Andrew, which is on Nov. 30th. So this year, for example, Advent will actually begin on Nov. 27th.

Growing up, my family bounced around denominations, but my strongest connection to a church tradition was Conservative Baptist. And, though this is not universally true of all Conservative Baptists, in my particular church culture an attitude of anti-legalism and iconoclasm was paramount. Such leanings were often taken to (in my mind) unhealthy extremes. For example, anything that smacked of liturgy or had something to do with any sort of object in the act of worship was more than shunned, it was considered heresy. So, simply the idea of participating in Advent was a mostly foreign idea in my spiritual walk, let alone using an object like a candle to aid in my daily spiritual walk during the season.

In my adulthood, however, I softened to the idea that such things as liturgy, prepared prayers, and certain objects can help focus a mind for worship and coordinate a community’s hearts and minds around a central subject. So, I decided to get a couple of the decorative candles from St. Paul’s to see if I could incorporate them into my fledgling practice of the Advent Season.

When we returned home from our European vacation, I began looking into how to employ these candles, but couldn’t actually find any traditional way for them to be used nor any liturgical, symbolic, or theological standard for thinking about them (if you know of something, please comment). My best guess is that they were simply meant as festive, decorative items for the Anglican home. So, what I decided to do was create my own tradition for Advent using the candles. I found a Lutheran based daily Advent liturgy, and adapted/expanded it for my family’s particular theology. You will find this resource attached.

In the years since we bought the candles, we have had to create our own candles (I only bought two), and the process looks something like this:
  • I measure the candle out into quarters, and I mark the bottom quarter out. My family likes to let the candle burn out on Christmas Eve. So, it is nice to reserve the last quarter for this purpose.
  • Then, I take the length of the remaining three quarters and divide it by twenty three – one for each day beginning on Dec. 1st. It is easiest to do this in millimeters as you can just make a straight division without having to work with fractions of inches, which can get confusing.  
    • As I mentioned, Advent doesn’t always coincide with Dec. 1. So, feel free to adjust your measurements for the true beginning. The liturgy I have attached begins on Dec. 1, and we like to start there.
  • Then I mark out the measurement for each of the remaining 23 days (remember the last quarter is for Christmas Eve). One could find a decorative pen that writes on the wax, make clear notches in the wax, or she could even use a crude sharpie, if she didn’t care about the look of it. 
  • Every night, we read the appointed liturgy and/or scripture and let the candle burn down until it reaches the top of the next day’s marking. We like to do this before a meal or right before our kids start getting ready for bed. If you have a bedtime devotional with your kids, this is a perfect way to start it off.

For us, the practice of the Advent candle has given our family a sense of intentionality in what often otherwise can turn into a season of being “too busy;” a season of excuses; a season too readily focused on materialism; a season devoid of true meaning and which is steeped only in cultural and secular representations of festive cheer. For both my wife and me, the practice also reminds us of a time when we ourselves were in a season of expectation as we awaited the birth of our son. The candle reminds us of a time when the world awaited the birth of its Messiah. This reminder of how we felt in anticipation of our son’s new life also brings us closer in worship to the reality that we ever anticipate another Advent – the return of our Lord to make anew this broken creation.

In addition, the flame, like the star atop our tree, on the one hand brings to life the story of the magi following the star to Bethlehem.  When I see the flame, in fact, I can often even imagine a torrent of spiritual light at once resting on the place of the child and also brashly invading our earthly reality. On the other hand, the light of the candle reminds us of the burning flame of the Holy Spirit who is yet ever present and indwelling in us even now, even while we await return of Christ and the consummation of his Kingdom.

DeHarte Advent Liturgy.docx

Monday, October 24, 2016

Pursuit of Righteousness

Like most, I have been troubled by the heightened media surrounding race relations, recently. As a Mexican American, I have been particularly aghast at the rhetoric that I believe demonizes my race of people by certain wings of certain political parties (you know whom/what I am talking about). Truthfully, however, I am not surprised by it. My adolescence was spent in a predominantly white and affluent suburb of Denver, and neither of these descriptors are ones I could have used to speak about myself. So, as a teenager, I experienced the ways some aspects of systemic and cultural racism and elitism can persist in such an environment.

When I went to college in Northern Colorado, I faced a political climate that was much more active for both sides of the debate on immigration, a town that had a diverse population with many more Mexicans Americans, and a community that was more often at the front lines of dealing with race relations than my previous community.  For an example, in the mid-oughts my collegiate city had to endure a serious and large-scale immigration raid that highlighted, on the one hand, the prevalence of illegal immigration in our city/state and, on the other, how COMPLETELY DEVASTATING mass deportation can be. This raid was crippling primarily because it fractured families and then communities and local economies (this is a great article looking back on that fateful Tues. ). In addition, if you have spent any time reading through my blog, you know that after college, I spent some years working in Mexico and subsequently El Paso, TX, which has a predominantly Mexican/Mexican American population.

I say all this as a little back story to help demonstrate how the trajectory of my life, in the last fifteen years or so, has taken me away from some of the more in-your-faces instances of racism that I experienced in my adolescence. But, I have recently began working for a church in the suburbs where I spent my youth, and I am very excited at the opportunity that I have been afforded in joining this truly welcoming and supportive church body. Earlier this month, however, I witnessed something in our community that I was not prepared for.

In part to aid in my pastoral training, I had the opportunity to attend a conference, called Q Commons ( ), at another local church where, hearing from both nationally renowned and great local speakers, crucial topics were discussed. These topics included the heightened political divide of this election season, the recent tensions in race relations between the African American communities and police, systemic racial biases, and other sensitive topics. Entering the seminar, I was unaware of the interactive nature of the conference. For those who don’t know. One thing Q Commons does is have their speakers address the audience in 9 or 18 minute speeches in order to, hopefully, be a bit more concise and to the point. These short talks allow time for people, seated at a round table, to discuss the issues being presented without going over the time limit.

The seminar was held in one small foyer of a massive local church. So, although I expected there to be thousands filling a grand auditorium, there were actually less than 150 folks, I would guess. Since I did not realize how interactive the seminar would be, I entered the time trying get a few tasks done – email, organization, etc. That is to say, I was determined not to interact with anyone I did not know, and I made that CLEAR by fully engaging my tech. Perhaps, this made what was about to happen all the more jarring. At the very least, it made me realize I need to do a much better job reading the “what to expect” portion of my ticket for these things!

Although trying my hardest to completely ignore everyone, people began to fill in the spots around me. I noticed them, acknowledged them, and continued to read emails. After what seemed to be hours, the evening began. We heard from some memorable speakers including my former teaching pastor Michael Hidalgo ( ). Michael had a very impactful speech on the idea that we as individuals need to recognize the biases within ourselves and own up to the ways in which we perpetuate cultural and social racism. After Michael’s speech, we had a round of discussion.

One man at our table absolutely did not like or agree with Michael’s topic and so began what I would call a rant for the next ten minutes. This man, a white and older middle aged man who mentioned he lived in the affluent neighborhood where the church was situated, began to pontificate on how racism was simply a “smoke screen” for the nation’s lack of piety. According to this man, racism isn’t a problem in the United States but rather unrighteousness, ungodliness. He mentioned how he believed bias based on color was an absolutely inevitable social construct that was inherent to human nature and so racism could not be anything but an illusion based on human nature. And, I even seem to remember him mentioning something to the effect that fighting racism was simply a demonic distraction on the nation’s mindset. In the heatedness of the moment, I did not know what to do, though I fear my response was probably hugely inadequate. I simply sat there and listened. I did nothing.

At some point during the man’s bombastic tirade, I silently took stock of the people in the room and realized that I was one of only two people who were not white. It was me and one other black man who gave me a reassuring and knowing nod when I inadvertently made eye contact. It was a glance that said, “me and you, pal…me and you.” Again, having grown up in that neighborhood, I knew that sort of ratio was not uncommon for the area, but it seemed to make the situation worst because it added a palpable sense that the others at the table probably felt embarrassment FOR ME because of this other person’s ignorance. It was at this point I noticed that the man would not make eye contact with me. I realized that he was saying the things he was saying, discrediting any incident of racism I or anyone has ever encountered, knowing and not caring that it flew in the face of both my opinion and my experience as a Mexican American.

I usually try my hardest not to label people, but it has been a while since I have heard such ignorant rabble from someone who could easily be a caricature of white privilege in America. Eventually, as the rest of the line-up was introduced for the evening, this man not-so-quietly grumbled to his wife that he wasn’t going to sit through the rest of the race and political related speeches. And though she pleaded with him to stay (likely to save herself from embarrassment), he stormed out and left his wife sitting there with a table full of strangers. As he was leaving, he said he “didn’t care” and was going to walk home. She would eventually go after him, as soon as the only African American speaker took the podium.

I’m not sure what happened to the man after he left, though I’m sure he had a leisurely if not annoyed walk home in the chilled air of that Autumn evening. But, I also had the sense that my gut reaction, which was to completely write him off as a Trump-ian psycho, was not the response the Lord had to his child nor the one he wanted me to have; as my brother in Christ, I should I not hope for the Holy Spirit to continue the hard work of sanctification in him? Needless to say, I left the seminar more than slightly disturbed at what happened but also challenged by Michael Hidalgo’s speech and the Holy Spirit to understand what bias looks like in myself.

Later that week, I found myself reading Proverbs 15:9, which reads:

       The Lord detests the way of the wicked
       But he loves those who pursue righteousness

And, I began to think that it would be easy for me to project God’s judgment onto this man and to think of him, in his ignorance, as one who is that person who is wicked. I could easily rest in the notion that God’s wrath is all consuming and He would “take care” of this clearly crooked individual. I could have thought, “shame on him!” for being so bull headed, for having such a hard heart, and for perpetuating a culture that allows real hatred against young black men to persist and which led to such terrible vitriol against my own race in the current election cycle.

Instead, I heard an oft familiar, still and quiet voice gently remind me that Proverbs 15:9 has a second half – that God’s detestation of the wicked is not where that verse ends. Indeed, the Holy Spirit patiently reminded me that the truth of the gospel is no longer defined in damnation but in grace; that God “loves those who pursue righteousness.” I know, that this man’s opinion of me, of non-white people, and of racism in general is false and detestable. However, I also know that the Holy Spirit’s work is not finished in him. I have to believe that the Holy Spirit means to continue to mold him into Christ-likeness and that his love for God and desire to see others love him only evokes God’s love, based on what Proverbs tells us about the pursuit of righteousness. God knows his flaws, but loves him not because he already is righteous but for the chasing of righteousness. I have to hope, though he seemed not to want to confront his own bias in a meaningful way, that the Holy Spirit might push him to repentance in reflection of his erroneous remarks. I have to believe that if God’s grace is big enough for me, then it is big enough for him.

So, in the end, I have to say shame on me for not being more prepared that night to engage a brother who truly needed direction and fellowship with another Christian who does not have his same skin color. Shame on me for not confronting him with words that were salted with grace. Shame on me for not recognizing my own bias in assuming, if even for a split second, that this man was categorically outside the sphere of God’s grace. Shame on me for not immediately recognizing in my interaction with this man that sanctification is a process and for not remembering that “God loves those who pursue righteousness.”