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Advent’s surprise for us

Shouldn’t we get it by now?

From the inside looking out, we’re aware of the dimming daylight even as we’re typing away, chasing children, on another Zoom. And then we check the time: only 5:15. Whoa.

We’ve observed “spring forward, fall back” our whole lives. We’ve made it through our share of winters. We understand the shortening of days and lengthening of nights. We know how this works. Don’t we?

And yet here we are, year after year, still surprised, still looking outside and saying, “Can you believe how dark it is already?!” (Or, in the words of a TikTok I still think about, “Bro, it’s 5:15! What?”)

When we think of Advent, the themes of darkness, expectation and (im)patient anticipation often come to mind. ’Tis the season to watch and wait. But there’s another element of this time of year that I want to dwell in: the element of surprise.

When we’ve grown up in the church, or even when we’ve simply attended for long enough to know the lyrics and liturgies, the story of Christianity can become a little too familiar. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, we may find ourselves droning along each Sunday, focused more on our lunch plans or what remains to be accomplished before Monday’s return. We may grow so accustomed to the mysteries of our faith that we throw around terms like “incarnation” and “ascension” in a way that strips them of any mystical meaning.

But can we back up just a few steps?

[He] was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary

and was made truly human.

Think about how you’d “translate” this into normal, everyday language. God chose to be like us, putting on our flesh forever. That’s a crazy, crazy story.

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again.

No wonder the early Christians got some weird looks (and, well, worse).

“Historically, [Christianity] was a surprise because Christianity was born and emerged and grew in a Roman world that had no expectations for it, didn’t know what it was, and couldn’t have anticipated it,” says C. Kavin Rowe, a New Testament scholar. “Christianity was something that the Roman world had never seen and didn’t even have categories for.

“Christianity was surprising also in its particulars,” he adds. “It introduced patterns of life into the world that caught people by surprise in a good way.”

It’s safe to say that at this point in history, Christianity — at least in the way most people conceive of it — is not much of a surprise. It’s pretty mainstream: no longer a fringe movement. But just dream with me for a second. What if the good news — in all of its particulars — became surprising once more? What if we were as astonished by it as by evening’s early arrival?

Yes, there can be plenty of comfort in familiar rhythms and words, but what might it look like to reclaim some of that wonder — not just for shock value, not just because we’re bored or distracted, but in a way that honors the story we have received?

Maybe it’s as small as reading the passages we know by heart in a new translation for a few days. Maybe it’s looking them up in the Art Search from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and seeing some of the creativity those passages inspire. Or maybe it’s simply changing the posture we take when we approach the old, old stories.

How might we be caught off guard?

We joke about the changing seasons surprising us, but the brief days and long nights still startle us each year — “How is it dark already?!” “The sun is already up!”

I hope the jarring reset of our clocks and microwaves and (non-smart) watches might nudge us to do a bit of an internal reset too. I hope the changing church seasons might surprise us as well— that, in some weird and wonderful ways, we might be amazed this Advent by the bizarre, glorious truth of the baby who was God-with-us, the God-man who sits at the right hand of the Father, still wearing his human skin and bearing marks of Roman nails.

I hope we never get used to it.

We were fumbling with the coffee maker.

Standing in our church’s newly renovated, post-pandemic-lockdown kitchen, we were thrilled by the much-needed additional space, by the thoughtfully repositioned appliances and fixtures, by the opportunity to open new cabinets and drawers on a treasure hunt for tablecloths and votive candles.

But on this particular morning, as our group prepared to set up for coffee hour, the process of how to do that with equipment we couldn’t recall stumped us for a moment. We had collectively prepped for this between-services social time on dozens of occasions before COVID-19 — tables, snacks, coffee, tea and a big jug of reconstituted lemonade powder for those who partake. Now, some parts of those rituals had changed.

Then someone stepped forward who had never made coffee in the old system before — someone who was comfortable following the directions because there was no comparative “not quite how I remember it” to block progress. Our group’s hosting of the weekly hospitality proceeded.

By combining the wisdom of those grounded by where things were with the ingenuity of one unrestricted by where they’d been, we were able to co-create several excellent pots of coffee.

Let the church say, “Amen.”

That is a simple (but real!) example of where I think churches are right now. Headed into the first Advent in three years with few to no restrictions anticipated in most houses of worship, faithful people have been drawing on the experience of the pandemic years to reevaluate our communal life. The last few months in particular, as programming has picked up and more activities have returned in person, we have been remembering what we’ve forgotten while discovering what we still need to know.

Which keys have been changed, and who needs replacements?

When did we start using this church school curriculum, and why?

How do we regather when we are still frayed, frightened and in some cases irritable? How do we reclaim the soft skills required to be together?

In response, our first instinct might be to create something new. There is little that church people love to do more than to “fix it,” whatever “it” is. (There are also folks who don’t mind breaking things, and we’re seeing some of that too.) But that first instinct, often out of a combination of love, responsibility and discipleship, is to create what is needed.

That raises challenges. First, too often in our Western culture, creating is seen as a solitary endeavor, an “I’ll fix it myself!” mindset that focuses responsibility and concentrates authority in the hands of one (or a very few). There are obviously times when we create alone, sometimes because the work is personal or because the medium doesn’t lend itself to the task of an eager committee.

But the hierarchical models of many institutional churches can perpetuate the pattern in which a single person takes over work that would be better done by a group.

Second, we’re often focused on re-creating. When we set out to re-create what we had — another option for making the coffee, planning the mission trip or leading the meeting — we presume on some level that nothing has changed and that our way is still the best.

Same pot and brewing system, except it’s not.

Same number and types of kids going on a mission trip with the same checklist of needs, wants and concerns, except they’re not.

Same format of dear faces gathering at a conference room table with a pile of mints and chocolate candies to share, except the tables are our own, separately, and the faces are on our screens. For reasons of convenience, safety and efficiency, the meetings will continue this way indefinitely.

Re-creating ignores these realities. It glosses over what we’ve all been through with COVID-19, racial pandemics and political disruption and ignores what remains ahead of us. Rather than building on the hard lessons of the pandemics, it assumes that we’re gearing back up to do what we’ve always done, much as we always have.

But our world has fundamentally changed.

Maybe, just maybe, this kin-dom season is calling us instead to co-creation — the beautiful, intentional, messy and incremental work of envisioning and growing together. Indeed, it’s already happening! One of the delights of my work is that I get to see the wonder of co-creation all the time.

Even in COVID’s darkest moment, even as our nation was shaken to its racist underpinnings, the stories of faithful people working in spaces of collective liberation and collaborative wonder were flashing across my screen.

Every two weeks, my colleagues hear me say that this story or this issue of Faith & Leadership is my favorite, and I mean it every time. Many of the efforts we have highlighted started before March 2020, but what they accomplished in a time of great uncertainty has only reinforced their work in partnership with others and with an openness to what newness offers.

Maybe, just maybe, this kin-dom season is calling us instead to co-creation — the beautiful, intentional, messy and incremental work of envisioning and growing together.


Sometimes they knew that what was next needed to be different. Sometimes they listened, open to what next might be.

Just before COVID shut down churches for Lent 2020, for example, we posted the story of stained-glass windows that New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church has installed over the course of years to more fully represent the community, its history and its present.

From Nashville, the story of former churches that became boutique hotels and now provide funding for agencies working with the unhoused. From Minneapolis, how New City Church and Holy Trinity Lutheran Church were alert and responsive after the murder of George Floyd.

When leaders in Black churches assessed COVID’s impact in the communities they serve, the response was significant and successful. When a Massachusetts congregation wanted to do right by the debt owed to the creators of Negro spirituals, they put their money where the music was.

The work done by and with young people has been astounding, from feeding their community to building a community beyond ministry walls.

From big, multiyear projects to slow, intentional internal work to community-inclusive crisis response, co-creation is a worthy model for generating growth and renewal. The examples we see at Faith & Leadership so often embody a deep commitment to beloved community and to collective transformation.

A new church year is upon us, and this liturgical season is marked by watchful waiting and anticipation. It is also a time for reflection. Our regathering with intentionality is a counterbalance of sorts to the pandemic’s forced isolation.

What might this next year hold? Can we be open to the possibility of newness rather than tethered to the ways that worked (or perhaps really didn’t), given the existential reset of the last three years? How might the coming year be different if we faithfully enter into partnerships and collaborations that draw on the experiences and wisdom of many rather than a few?

What will happen if we take the time to build what’s next together?

Jennifer struggles to find hope for a new life and a home for herself and her two children after her release from prison. Carl learns to communicate and experience love after his life in a gang. Theo learns to feel joy and connect with other former gang members. Christina discovers a peace that allows her to stay sober and be present with her daughter.

These are the stories that form the core of the Rev. Justin Coleman’s new Advent study, “Home for Christmas: Tales of Hope & Second Chances.” Each of the four chapters features the story of a person involved in Homeboy Industries, a ministry that helps former gang members. Following the themes of hope, love, joy and peace, the study combines Scripture and a meditation on the hymn “O Holy Night.”

Home for Christmas book coverThe four-week “Home for Christmas” resource includes a book, a DVD and leader guides for youth and adults.

“Hopefully, [these] stories will bring us closer to the story of Christ in the midst of this Advent season,” Coleman said. Readers will find “a mix of Bible study and narrative theology that begins to emerge through story.”

Coleman, who is the senior pastor of University United Methodist Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, drew inspiration from the Rev. Gregory Boyle, the Jesuit priest who founded Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles.

Coleman is a graduate of Southern Methodist University and Duke Divinity School. Before taking his current position, he served as the chief ministry officer for the United Methodist Publishing House in Nashville, Tennessee, and as lead pastor of the Gethsemane Campus of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Houston, where he helped create Houston reVision, a ministry for under-resourced and gang-affected youth in that city.

He spoke with Faith & Leadership about his experience learning from Homeboy Industries and what he hopes people will get out of the Advent study. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: Why did you write an Advent study based on gang members in Los Angeles and their stories?

At our church, we really focus a lot on the themes of hope, love, joy and peace; those are our themes on the four Sundays of Advent. I kept thinking about hope and how much Homeboy Industries really is a source of hope.

I thought, “Here are a bunch of folks who don’t have great Christmases.” They’ve actually had pretty awful Christmas experiences, many of them, given their families of origin and the fracturedness and the great brokenness.

But if I were to think about hope, love, joy and peace and say what place, what space, what environment most represents each of those to me, Homeboy Industries immediately comes to mind.

How is it that people who have experienced so much fracturedness, particularly around that time of year, express those themes of hope, love, joy and peace in ways that are more vivid than I usually encounter?

I was in conversation with Abingdon Press, and they said, “Hey, would you do an Advent resource with us and just pitch a few ideas?” So I thought this would be a perfect Advent resource, because it’s making the power of the incarnate gospel come to life. I pitched the idea, and they loved it.

Q: Why Homeboy Industries?

The connection with Homeboy arose when I was a pastor in Houston. In southwest Houston, we found ourselves in the midst of a very highly immigrant, multicultural, multinational community, where economics were a real strain. There were a number of working poor in our community as well, and quite a bit of neglect from other parts of Houston.

So what you get when you have a community that has been under-resourced and in some ways neglected — it’s just a breeding ground for something like gang life. What we found was a group of largely teenagers, kids between 13 and 17, who had found their way into juvenile gang activity.

We were determined to reach them, and we had no idea how. We felt a sense of call and responsibility, because we felt that part of what caused juvenile gang activity was a lethal absence of the church. I even wrote an article about this called “Reclaiming holy ground.”

We were looking for someone who knew how to do gang intervention in a religious space, and we couldn’t find anybody until we happened upon Homeboy Industries.

With a small group who was discerning with me what we might do to impact our neighborhood, we read Father Boyle’s first book, “Tattoos on the Heart.” And we read another book, by Celeste Fremon, named “G-Dog and the Homeboys,” about the early history of Homeboy.

We took a group of people to LA from a couple of different local churches, and through that experience, we really began to feel strongly that this was a calling for us. What came from that was a ministry called Houston reVision. It centers around an intervention for gang-affiliated kids, kids who are affiliated with the juvenile justice system and generally what we call “kids who are on the edge.”

So we would go to Homeboy Industries almost quarterly to learn and glean from Father Greg Boyle and the other staff there. It’s from that experience that Homeboy’s ministry of mission has become very close to my heart.

Q: Do you think it’s a particularly powerful theme for the Homeboy stories, or is it resonant for everyone during the Advent season?

I think for everyone. One of the things I experienced as a pastor is that across the spectrum, people are wondering and having questions about their self-worth. Do I matter? Am I making a difference? What kind of legacy will I leave here on this planet? Does anyone love me? Would anyone miss me? All these different kinds of questions people are asking.

Even people I encounter who I feel like have it together, who seem to be doing well. They seem to have wonderful families. They’re upwardly mobile. They’re living a version of the American dream. And then to look them in the eye and say very pastorally that Jesus came into this world and that Jesus suffered, died, rose again — all of this is because you’re worth it. God so loved the world that God sent God’s only Son because you’re worth it.

All of this restorative action of God in the world is because God believed that God’s creation is worth it. It’s worth the sacrifice, worth the love, worth the work. I think that resonates with everybody, honestly — the sense that we are worth it. Because there are days, I think, when many of us at our weakest moment doubt it.

Q: What is your intended audience for this? Is it a resource for former gang members, or are you bringing their stories to less-stressed congregations?

Hopefully, their stories will bring us closer to the story of Christ in the midst of this Advent season.

The idea is to bring their stories primarily to less-stressed congregations in order to help them gain a sense of empathy for those who are stressed. I hope that in the midst of these challenging stories, people will come close to their own pain, their own struggle, and the pain and struggle of those in their local communities.

[I hope] it will stretch our imaginations and say this whole idea of the advent of Christ is Christ coming into a world in the midst of our brokenness, in the midst of our darkness and pain, and transforming us and restoring us.

I hope the folks at Homeboy Industries will grab copies and the homeboys and homegirls who participated in this project and are around people who participated in this project will give it to their friends.

I would love it if that happens, but I think primarily we imagine congregations buying these and people reading them either as individuals or in small group studies. We’ve got resources for youth groups as well as adult groups.

Q: The resource is structured on the themes of hope, love, joy and peace. What’s the journey that you want to take people on through these stories?

It’s a mix of Bible study and narrative theology that begins to emerge through story.

The core of each chapter is focused on the particular theme, so we hear stories from homeboys and homegirls, hear stories from my experiences as a clergyperson, and then interwoven through those narratives are scriptures that are common to these Sundays in Advent.

Q: There are a number of short stories of people’s experiences as gang members, as addicts, being in prison. How did you gather those?

We went to Homeboy and had some great conversations with many of the amazing people that you find there. In the video resource, we capture some homeboys and homegirls just telling their stories, and in the book as well.

Q: Talk about how you use the hymn “O Holy Night.”

Years ago, when I read “Tattoos on the Heart,” I was very moved by Father Boyle talking about how he had gone with his [siblings] and found this recording of his mother singing “O Holy Night.” She was long past her singing days, and so this was a treasure for them. He mentions this part of the hymn, “and the soul felt its worth,” and that has always stuck with me. That’s what it is about.

I thought, “As I preach through this at our church, I really want to incorporate bits and pieces of this hymn.” Because as I looked at the hymn more closely, I found that there is hope, love, joy and peace in it. All of these themes are captured in ways right here in this hymn, and so I had fun unpacking the different parts of the hymn throughout the book and throughout the sermon series.

Q: In what way would you hope Christmas might be different because folks meditated on these stories and these scriptures?

I hope that within each of these Advent themes, they will treat them as four separate pools, or four separate wells, and they’ll dive in. The hope is that they’ll come in touch with how those themes really work in their Christian lives, not just during Advent or Christmas.

I hope they’ll emerge from it knowing how deeply loved and cared for they are by God, and I hope they’ll have been able to articulate ways in which the Christian community has deeply loved them as well. I hope that at the end of all of this, they will feel like they’re worth it — and that that will carry them well beyond the Christmas season.

Q: Is there anything we haven’t covered?

A portion of the proceeds from the sale of “Home for Christmas” products goes directly to Homeboy Industries. I encourage people to consider making a gift to Homeboy Industries or Houston reVision. I think those are wonderful ministries that are making a difference in people’s lives every single day of the year, and it’s saving work.