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Our bold “yes” this Advent

"The Annunciation" oil painting by Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1898. Philadelphia Museum of Art

Rather than viewing this season as awaiting a return to the past, we can embrace it as an invitation to transformation and action, writes the director of the Thriving Congregations Coordination Program at Duke Divinity.

Waiting is just the worst.

Whether it’s with joy (anticipating a vacation, an out-of-town guest, a new job), fear (a test result, a jury verdict, a conflict with a loved one) or aggravation (a delayed flight, a trip to the DMV, a parent-teacher conference), waiting robs us of being present. We miss what is happening in our lives right now while we’re busy making to-do lists or fretting or simmering.

It can be exhausting.

And yet here we are.

We are in the midst of our second pandemic Advent, and who wants to spend more time in intentional waiting? We are over it, as Episcopal priest Elizabeth Felicetti writes in The Atlantic — not just individually but collectively.

We’ve been waiting for the end of masks, the arrival of vaccines and the opportunity to sing. We’ve been waiting for the return of people to the pews, money to the offering plate and parties to the fellowship hall.

We’ve been waiting for the end of arguments about precautions, empty Sunday school classrooms and drive-thru celebrations. We’ve been waiting to move past the need to pivot with each new variant or surge.

We have been waiting to get back to normal.

Oh, church.

“Back to normal” might be familiar — but that doesn’t make it faithful. The waiting posture robs us of hope, curiosity and imagination. It is a privileged position that suggests that what we found comfortable was loving enough, liberating enough, just enough, healing enough for all of God’s people.

The Faith Communities Today report released this fall, “Twenty Years of Congregational Change,” summarizing findings from the largest-ever survey of U.S. congregations, makes plain that our churches were not universally thriving before the pandemic: “Overall, the portrait shows a majority of congregations are growing older, smaller, and, by many measures, less vital.”

Among the key findings: most churches are small, but most people are in larger congregations; attendance at most churches has declined rapidly in the past 20 years; and most congregations skew older than the national average, with aging participants and leadership.

Last month, the Hartford Institute for Religion Research released a report offering an early picture of how churches are navigating the pandemic. It suggests, from surveys this summer, that the pandemic is “exacerbating and accelerating” the declines detailed in the Faith Communities Today report. It also notes that the overall picture is “turbulent and chaotic,” though “not all churches are experiencing the pandemic equally.”

“Normal” before the pandemic wasn’t so great.

Maybe we need this Advent after all.

Advent is not a season for waiting to usher back in the old or get through with gritted teeth. It is an invitation to wonder about and actively work for transformation: What new creation are we invited to participate in birthing? As the Faith Communities Today report notes: “A time of challenge and upheaval can also be a moment of opportunity and revitalization.”

That is not to say that this work is easy or to suggest that we forget the trauma our people and our churches have endured for almost two years. We are called to what Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis terms a “chastened hope,” a hope that keenly understands our current suffering and dependence on God.

Choctaw elder Steven Charleston in “Ladder to the Light” offers a mantra for faithful activism: “Don’t look down, don’t look back, don’t look away.”

He goes on to urge: “Look up and be confident. Look forward and learn from the past. Look at life as it is, without editing it to look better. See what is really there.”

That practice, he says, allows us to “recognize darkness but trust in light.” Charleston urges us all to choose each day to believe and to hope. By doing so, he writes, “we turn what we believe into what we see.” That is fitting for the season of preparation we are in and the seasons of incarnation and revelation we are anticipating.

But how?

How might we unlock creativity in this season, grieving what has been lost while also holding some hopeful curiosity about the future? We begin with practices of rest, lament and remembering, alone and in community.

In “God and the Pandemic,” N.T. Wright writes that “fresh action” must follow our lament, that God’s kingdom is emerging through the “creative, healing, restorative work” of humankind.

“He sends in the poor in Spirit, the meek, the mourners, the peacemakers, the hungry-for-justice people. They are the way God wants to act in his world.”

Wright goes on to suggest three questions these Jesus followers will answer: “What needs to be done here? Who is most at risk? How can we help?”

These seem like good questions for church leaders to ponder in their contexts, as a way to stay true to who and where they are while also waiting for an uncertain future with energy and wonder.

They also gesture toward some of the characteristics researchers with Faith Communities Today have seen consistently in “spiritually vital and growing communities” — strong leadership, a clear mission, a spirit of innovation and openness to change, active engagement in the local community, significant lay involvement.

“In the midst of all the unsettledness,” the author writes, “now is the ideal moment to sustain the efforts toward innovation.”

Which got me thinking about Mary and her bold “yes” to a transforming and uncertain future. As pastor Isaac S. Villegas writes in The Other Journal, we are all like Mary: “Mary surrenders control; she welcomes the mysterious workings of God. She embraces God’s plan for the world, even though she doesn’t know how it will turn out. It’s a risk. And she says yes to God.”

We don’t have to know what the future of the church will hold. We don’t have to like waiting or uncertainty or change. We can be tired and annoyed about it.

But Jesus is coming anyway. Something new is birthing in the church.

Say yes.

It will be worth the wait.

Leadership Education at Duke Divinity logo

Faith & Leadership

This was first published in Faith & Leadership, the online learning resource for Christian leaders and their institutions from Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

The Thriving in Ministry Coordination Program is a service of Leadership Education, which designs educational offerings, develops intellectual resources and facilitates networks of institutions.

LightStock / Larry Dixon Jr.

The traditions of Watch Night — hymn lining, testifying and praying — are a reminder that life is often a struggle but we draw strength from one another, writes church historian Quinton Dixie.

On Dec. 31, 2019 — the last New Year’s Eve before the pandemic — I was on the phone with my sister talking about holiday plans. I told her I wanted to go to Watch Night service; she planned to join me.

“But wait,” she said, “who is even having Watch Night?”

Gone were the days when every Black church in town was holding worship on New Year’s Eve. Instead of wondering, as I had in my youth, why they didn’t get together and have one big service, I lamented that churches were now forced to collaborate just to draw decent attendance.

I sat there in church that evening as 2019 came to an end, reflecting on how much had changed about the Black worship experience. But that Watch Night service stood as one of the old landmarks yet to be removed.

I can hardly wait for Watch Night this year — to remember the suffering and death COVID-19 hath wrought, to say the names of those who were with us last year but now live on only in our memories, and to resolve to carry our sorrowful joy into a hopeful new year.

It may feel like more of the same as we take mask-muffled breaths, but 2022 nonetheless is another year pregnant with possibility.

My home church of Pilgrim Baptist in Fort Wayne, Indiana, was founded a century before that 2019 service, during the Great Migration. And for 98 of its now 102 years, it has had a pastor from Alabama. The congregation’s Southern and rural roots in the “heart of Dixie” run deep, and that has continued to set the tone for its worship, even today.

The service I attended in 2019 began the way my Watch Nights always have, with hymn lining. Usually some evangelical standard by Isaac Watts or John Wesley, a lined hymn reflects the call-and-response style that is a prominent feature of African American Christian worship.

As a youngster, I could not understand why a four-line stanza took five minutes or more to sing. The slow pace and mournful tone seemed to hark back to the pain and powerlessness of enslavement and segregation, experiences I believed were best left in the past.

But the older I got, the better I understood waiting as a spiritual discipline. When the Holy Spirit moved among the people, hymn lining eventually led to a crescendo of joyful shouts of praise and adoration. Change comes in God’s time, not ours — perhaps not initially, but ultimately, “for those who wait upon the Lord.”

I most look forward to the testimonies of the elders. At Watch Night, there are no pastors offering carefully crafted sermons but instead laypeople giving evidence of God’s goodness. Their stories aren’t interpretations of Scripture or sermons they’ve heard. They talk about what they know to be true through personal experience, about how they’ve been blessed since the last Watch Night service.

This is probably the most important part of the service to me, for I draw strength and encouragement from hearing others speak of struggles, defeats, trials and triumphs. It is most important because I am a glass-half-empty guy. My days are partly cloudy, never partly sunny. I think I prefer it that way so I’m never disappointed when the rain comes; I expect nothing less.

I am therefore always uplifted by people who “count it all joy” — and I do mean all. I recall a woman in 2019 who seemed to be wasting away from some illness that prevented her from digesting. She said her doctor was preparing her for the end and she and her husband were making plans to sell their property and enjoy their last days together.

“Then the Lord led me to a new doctor, an Indian doctor,” she said, “and the Holy Spirit guided him to the right answer. I thought I would be dead and gone, sleeping in my grave. But praise be to God, I’m here!”

The subtext of her testimony was significant, for it said something about the way she believed God works. God didn’t heal her so that she could see another year but so that she could give all glory to God. Also, it wasn’t the half-dozen or so white doctors but a brown man from the other side of the world that God chose to use to cure her. God can use anything or anyone to accomplish God’s will. Therefore, we should look for blessings in unexpected places as well as in the familiar.

The prayers of the righteous are interwoven in the fabric of Watch Night. Indeed, the start of the new year at Pilgrim always found somebody praying — for themselves, their family, their church, the world.

And while to some degree the content was standard, these prayers were extraordinary, in part because of their form. Prayer leaders didn’t stand but approached the throne of grace on their knees in humble submission. Somebody prayed; the rest sang. Of course, this meant no one could hear the prayer. Right, I know. I didn’t get it either.

I remember, as a child, asking my father about this practice, and he said we were helping the person pray with our song. That might have made sense to him, but it didn’t help me hear the prayer any better. Sensing my dissatisfaction, he said, “We don’t need to hear. God hears.” That, I get.

Whether in hymn lining, testifying or praying, the message of Watch Night for me is clear: life is often a struggle, but we draw strength from one another. We are to walk together, rejoice in each other’s victories and be mournful when others are full of sorrow. It is in community that we learn the blessings are not in the things we accumulate. The blessings are in the journey.

God has brought us from a mighty long way, and we don’t know how far we’ve got to go. But we can take comfort in knowing that God will be there every step of the way.

Leadership Education at Duke Divinity logo

Faith & Leadership

This was first published in Faith & Leadership, the online learning resource for Christian leaders and their institutions from Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

The Thriving in Ministry Coordination Program is a service of Leadership Education, which designs educational offerings, develops intellectual resources and facilitates networks of institutions.

iStock / Painting by Daria Zaseda

Through passages like Acts 6, the Bible makes clear how privilege must be recognized and addressed — and the benefits of doing so, writes an author and leader in racial righteousness and reconciliation.

Within too many congregations, privilege as a topic is denounced, minimized or ignored because it is misunderstood.

Many churches see it as divisive — a concept rooted in condemnation, used to shame or guilt one another into coerced remorse.

Some congregations reject it on theological grounds, claiming that the concept is unbiblical. Other Christians decry it on grounds of individualism, refusing to apologize, take responsibility for, or strive to make amends for the sins of their ancestors or something they personally did not do.

Still others deny the notion of privilege because they believe it insinuates that they did not earn what they have through their own efforts.

Consequently, conversations about privilege in the church generally end in one of three ways: churches and members deny that privilege exists, declare the topic too controversial to address, or lament that they feel immobilized by its weight.

However, when privilege is understood missionally and our lives are guided by the Spirit, it becomes a subversive tool we can leverage to further the kingdom and sacrificially love our neighbors.

The gospel offers us a faithful, liberating way to think about and exercise privilege. Acts 6:1-7 is one of many passages that illuminate this generative opportunity.

As Acts 6 opens, the disciples seem to have been functioning as a healthy, missional, interconnected body of Christ. They were actively making disciples, fulfilling the Great Commission and welcoming new members into God’s family.

However, they were oblivious to the injustice happening along the margins of their community, unaware of the discrimination in their midst.

In accordance with God’s expectation, the disciples were striving to sacrificially love their neighbors, particularly the most vulnerable. Throughout the Old Testament, Israel did this via gleaning laws and the practice of Jubilee.

In Acts 6, the disciples were sustaining this tradition by operating a food distribution program for vulnerable widows. A challenge ensued, however. The food program served widows of two different cultural backgrounds, and those two groups of widows had divergent experiences within the program.

The Hebraic widows were cultural insiders, with direct access to the city’s and church’s dominant culture, customs and language.

The Hellenistic widows were Jews who had lived most of their lives in Greek-speaking locations; now, in Jerusalem, they were cultural outsiders. The Hellenist widows felt as if their outsider status was causing them to be overlooked and marginalized in the church’s distribution of food.

The Hebraic widows had advocates at the table of power, as well as cultural, linguistic and relational advantages, all of which led to their receiving superior treatment. They had privilege.

Meanwhile, the Hellenistic widows lacked representation at the decision-making table; they were without advocates in leadership who saw their suffering and identified with their marginalized experience.

As a result, the church did not care for Hellenistic widows with the same intentionality and love that it showed for Hebraic widows. The exclusively Hebraic leadership had a blind spot, and the distribution disparity went unacknowledged until Hellenistic Jews brought a formal complaint. This matter was one of the earliest challenges the church faced as it started becoming multicultural.

Once the complaint was raised, the disciples assessed the institutional structure and program and then demonstrated their maturity in Christ through their response. Instead of being defensive, denying the problem or trying to cover it up, the disciples conducted a sober assessment of the program and determined that the discrimination claim was legitimate.

They did not try to explain away the problem or cast the Hellenistic widows as being divisive for bringing it up. Not only did the church’s leadership acknowledge that there was a problem; they also confirmed that it was systemic. Then they took proactive steps to address it.

To ensure that the discrimination did not recur, church leadership called a communal meeting to discern collectively how to address it. After identifying the need for a council to oversee the food distribution program, the apostles tasked the community with selecting seven men known to be wise and full of the Spirit to oversee the work.

Notably, all seven men selected by the overwhelmingly Hebraic community were, by virtue of their Greek names — Stephen, Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolas — likely Hellenist. These seven leaders resolved the problem and became an ecclesial model for confronting privilege, addressing discrimination and sharing power.

As a result of the church’s maturity, Acts tells us, “the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7 NIV).

The church’s willingness to confront privilege and address discrimination led to the spread of the gospel in Jerusalem and beyond. The newly constructed Jerusalem council, led by Hellenists, became a crucial bridge that expanded the kingdom, enabling the gospel to reach the Gentile world. Acts traces this progression “from Cyprus and Cyrene” north to Antioch, where members of the council were the first to preach the gospel directly to non-Jewish Greeks (Acts 11:19-21).

This beautiful story illustrates why we must humbly respond to discrimination complaints and address privilege in our midst, and how we must equally prioritize the Great Commission and the greatest commandment — called as we are to fulfill both, not just one or the other.

Naming privilege requires spiritual maturity. It feels threatening because it reveals our sustained complicity with broken systems, structures and laws that deface the imago Dei inherent in our neighbors and infringe upon the shalom God created us all to experience.

Scripture affirms that privilege is real and declares that while we have the option to exploit it for selfish gain or to passively benefit from it, we are called to soberly acknowledge and faithfully steward it.

We will never learn to leverage privilege to further the kingdom and love our neighbors if we continue to deny its existence. Addressing privilege offers us a discipleship opportunity. When we are guided by the Spirit, privilege becomes generative and liberating, compelling us to participate as ambassadors of reconciliation in innovative and subversive ways.

Building from this foundation, Christians should understand privilege as a unique opportunity for us to bear witness to who and whose we are. When we leverage privilege instead of exploiting it, we function as the leaven in the loaf, the moral compass and accountability in spaces and places of distinction.

The church must become courageous enough to address privilege, because when we do not, when privilege is unbridled, it distorts the communion God intends for us to enjoy with our Creator and with one another. We are commissioned to understand privilege as something to be leveraged to further the kingdom and sacrificially love our neighbors.

Leadership Education at Duke Divinity logo

Faith & Leadership

This was first published in Faith & Leadership, the online learning resource for Christian leaders and their institutions from Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

The Thriving in Ministry Coordination Program is a service of Leadership Education, which designs educational offerings, develops intellectual resources and facilitates networks of institutions.

iStock / Timothy Riley

In Advent, we are reminded that Jesus came to us, and stays with us, in times of trial.

“What do you see?”

That was the question I posed last year during the Advent season. Now, as Advent begins again, I’m still curious: What do you see?

May I be honest with you? I see fatigue. I see lament. I see exhaustion.

Despite our collective greatest hopes, I see a community that is still living through a pandemic that none of us anticipated would ever last this long.

What do you see? I see congregations that have reopened but church leaders who still hold their breath week to week praying there’s no COVID-19 outbreak. I see communities arguing over whether we should be vaccinated. I see people with masks in their glove compartments, pocketbooks and briefcases — wearied by the mundane duty of masking up daily after nearly two years of this new normal.

I see pastors who pivoted to prerecording services and preaching to empty sanctuaries now pivoting once again to meet the needs of our current moment, reengaging physical touch points with congregants.

What do you see? I see people rushing to business-as-usual, hoping that if they behave as though things are safe again, they somehow magically will be.

In the words of public health epidemiologist Jennifer Nuzzo, articulating the current challenge: “It [the pandemic] doesn’t end. We just stop caring. Or we care a lot less. … I think for most people, it just fades into the background of their lives.”

Yet we can’t simply stop caring. We must continue our vigilance — even in our exhaustion.

You might be thinking that this isn’t a very hopeful picture of where we are as a nation right now.

My response would be, “Look again! Hope is there!” The first glimmer I see is that we are wrestling with different questions than we were this time last year.

For the most part, our doors are back to being open. We have been given the opportunity to be vaccinated. Our children are back in school. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has offered guidelines for safe travel and gathering during the holidays. Many of our congregations now have viable streaming and online options for worship.

Beloved, we are in a different place than we were 12 months ago. I see hope!

I see hope alongside our troubled hearts. I see duality. We’re exhausted because we’ve endured much, yet we’re hopeful because we’re still here. We’re hopeful because we’ve learned a lot about ourselves and we’ve seen that we have the capacity to adapt. We’ve proved that we can change. And that realization can bring hope to our wearied souls that we can still expect something better, even in times like these.

Beloved, we are in a different place than we were 12 months ago.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it this way in a Christmas sermon delivered Dec. 2, 1928: “The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come. For these, it is enough to wait in humble fear until the Holy One himself comes down to us, God in the child in the manger. God comes. The Lord Jesus comes. Christmas comes. Christians rejoice!”

So what do I see? I see a nation of leaders troubled in soul yet ready for something more. I see people who have given the best of themselves all year, completely spent yet ready to be wowed by something greater than they are.

We’re troubled in our souls because we’ve been fighting so many battles simply to exist, operating daily in crisis management mode. We’re troubled in our souls because the physical and spiritual well-being of those we serve is directly connected to the public health and public safety decisions that we make.

We’re troubled in our souls because we’ve been putting out fires, working through vacations, juggling back-to-back Zoom meetings, home-schooling our kids, skipping date nights, performing virtual pastoral care, testing ourselves regularly for fear of spreading the virus, comparing the decisions we make with the decisions our colleagues make in their contexts, and so much more.

We’re troubled in our souls because more than 770,000 Americans have lost their lives to COVID-19, and more than 5 million people worldwide, and those numbers do not even include people with near-death complications who have survived the initial illness. Those numbers aren’t just numbers. They represent our communities and the people we have lost.

If we are honest, we must name our weariness. Yet that very weariness lifts our eyes toward hope. Being troubled in our souls sets us up to receive Advent hope and Advent possibilities more fully. It empties us of false platitudes and requires us to truly opt in to the belief that new possibilities come before us with Christ. Restoration is before us. Healing is before us. Miracles are accessible. Beauty is possible. Newness is possible.

Let us not forget — when our Savior became incarnate in human flesh and was born in a manger, God’s people were troubled in soul. God’s people felt out of options. They had done all they could to fight against empire. They were weary. They needed something greater than themselves. They needed someone to advocate for them.

Christ came in crisis. Never assume that being in crisis means you are apart from Christ. My lived experience tells me that Christ is always present when I’m in crisis.

Can I get a witness?

I experience Immanuel — God with us, God with me — in some of my lowest moments. When I’m at the end of my rope. When I’m trying, as Tupac would say, to make a dollar out of 15 cents. When I’m weary and heavy-laden, Jesus walks into my situation.

This is the character of God. In our despair, God sent God’s son to remind us that we would be delivered from the horrific conditions of our present. God has not forgotten, and God has chosen to fight our battles.

In the midst of a genocide of baby boys, Jesus comes. In the midst of oppressive conditions from empire, Jesus comes. In the midst of Mary and Joseph’s state of housing insecurity, Jesus comes. And with Jesus comes new hope.

So what do you see? I see a society in crisis. I see a people who have collectively exhausted our inner capacity to keep going. But just before we give up, our liturgical calendar reminds us that the Advent season is here. We have something new to look forward to. Christ is coming. Christ is here. New hope and restoration are here. Christmas miracles are here.

What do I see? I see leaders of every race and creed ready to receive Advent hope. I see revival. I see replenishment. But most of all, I see that we have been seen by God. Advent hope is here. Receive it. I still see hope.

Do you?

Leadership Education at Duke Divinity logo

Faith & Leadership

This was first published in Faith & Leadership, the online learning resource for Christian leaders and their institutions from Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

The Thriving in Ministry Coordination Program is a service of Leadership Education, which designs educational offerings, develops intellectual resources and facilitates networks of institutions.