Advent: Calling the Dreamers & Realists, Prophets & Pragmatists Alike

Advent, n.

  • The arrival of a notable person, thing or event
  • The first season of the Christian Church year, leading up to Christmas & including the 4 preceding Sundays
  • The coming or the second coming of Christ
An Advent wreath I put together for our community this year––one of my favorite symbols of the season, layered with meaning. In the shape of a circle to symbolize the eternal nature of God, in Whom there is no beginning nor end. Green to symbolize everlasting life and the exhaustless mercy of God. 3 purple candles that mark the weeks of fasting, mourning, waiting, longing. The 1 pink candle that marks our shift to rejoicing and celebrating the birth of the incarnate God. And finally, the 1 white candle in the center, the Christ candle, symbolizing the perfection and completion that is embodied in Jesus.

An Advent wreath I put together for our community this year––one of my favorite symbols of the season, layered with meaning. In the shape of a circle to symbolize the eternal nature of God, in Whom there is no beginning nor end. Green to symbolize everlasting life and the exhaustless mercy of God. 3 purple candles that mark the weeks of fasting, mourning, waiting, longing. The 1 pink candle that marks our shift to rejoicing and celebrating the birth of the incarnate God. And finally, the 1 white candle in the center, the Christ candle, symbolizing the perfection and completion that is embodied in Jesus.

And additionally...my favorite season of the year. Why? Maybe because it seems like the most realistic one to me. And I think that's a good foundation to start each new year on...a real one. Advent is the time when longing & unmet desires meet celebration & fulfillment, holding the 2 ends of the spectrum of our human experience in tension without denying either of them. Grief and hope, pain and joy together. Because honestly, how often are we not feeling both at the same time in some way?

Advent is a season of waiting, preparation, longing, and celebrating. Amidst the chaos that our Americanized, commercialized, consumeristic "Christmas" can pull us into, we're given an invitation as the community of God's people during Advent to say no to the noise. No to the busyness. No to the stress. No to the spending. 

We're invited to say yes to a counter-cultural quiet––silence even. Yes to slowing down rather than speeding up. Yes to spending less and in different places, so as not to feed the machine of unjust slave labor that our consumer culture breeds (especially this time of year). We're invited to prepare to remember in gratitude the first coming of Christ, to acknowledge the longings & struggles we need God to come for today, and to hope confidently as we wait for the second coming of Christ when all of creation will be restored and made right. Advent sets us in the past, present, and future all at once––in the fullness of time. Something about this helps us with the slowing of our paces, the realization of our smallness, and the wondering at a God who would choose to become human to prove to us we're not alone, that God is with us and understands, and to show us how to live in Love.

Advent is a time to listen to the prophets, to learn their language, and to adopt their eyes. A great Light has shown into the world, yes, but there is much darkness for it still to overcome. And there is much work for us to do in bringing the Light to bear on the places, people, and systems still desperately waiting on it. So we read Isaiah, Jeremiah, the Psalms of lament, and the Gospel stories to learn how to see and talk about what is still broken, what is still gruesomely unjust & wrong––all the while speaking hope & a better way into the people and places that need it. A better way of Love that leads us to hurt ourselves and each other less and that adds to the beauty rather than the brokenness. A better way that helps to make this world a home where every child, every person, every part of Creation can be safe and loved. We have good news...for our own hardened, hurting hearts. For our loneliness. For the light flickering inside us that we haven't seen or felt in some time. For the children in our neighborhood who are becoming parents so young. For the victims of hateful, non-sensical violence in Ferguson & all the other places around the world due to the lies of racism. For those trapped in the sex trade and other slave labor. For the child soldiers. For the adult soldiers. For those misunderstood or discriminated against because of their gender, sexual orientation, religion, race, etc. For those considering suicide. For the deceived. For the betrayed. For the addicted. For the migrants walking the desert into our country as I type, hundreds dying. For the countries they come from. For our country, and all we surely have to apologize for. For those on both sides of the imbalance of power in our world...both the oppressed and oppressors. For those who feel forgotten, alone, unseen, or unheard. And for countless others, we have the good news of a better way. We really can have peace when we remember that we belong to each other––that we make it together or we don't make it at all (as our new friend Pastor Randy, a modern-day Samaritan, says).

And the songs of Advent give us language to speak this good news of a better way to ourselves and each other. To sing of the beauty and wonder at it, trusting it to be true even if we can't imagine how that could be so at the moment...

Oh, come, Desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind;
Oh, bid our sad divisions cease,
And be yourself our King of Peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!
— O Come O Come, Emmanuel
Truly He taught us to love one another,
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother.
And in his name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
With all our hearts we praise His holy name.
Christ is the Lord! Then ever, ever praise we,
His power and glory ever more proclaim!
His power and glory ever more proclaim!
— Oh Holy Night
No more let sins and sorrows grow
Nor thorns infest the ground
He comes to make
His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found
Far as the curse is found
Far as, far as the curse is found
— Joy to the World
O ye beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow;
Look now, for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing;
Oh rest beside the weary road
And hear the angels sing.

For lo! the days are hastening on,
By prophets seen of old,
When with the ever-circling years
Shall come the time foretold,
When the new heaven and earth shall own
The Prince of Peace, their King,
And the whole world send back the song
Which now the angels sing.
— It Came Upon a Midnight Clear
And in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.”
— I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

Beauty.

1 of 2 Advent paintings that I made last year.  Click  to see/read more about them.

1 of 2 Advent paintings that I made last year. Click to see/read more about them.

The language of Advent is rich. It is real. It is raw. It is good news for all people. It is our past, our present, and our future. The Story invites us into itself that we would be compelled to participate and play our part in it. And it calls for all of us...the dreamers & prophets, realists & pragmatists alike. It is a time to look at the world and ourselves and be painfully honest about what we see. But we're not to stop there. We're to dream for the world with a holy imagination guided by the Spirit, and to put our hands to making those dreams reality in practical, tangible ways. If we accept the invitations of Advent, the season can be such a centering and generative one. Here are some things that folks are making/doing as they open themselves to the discipline of observing this season:

In closing, I'll just say that I've used words like "discipline" and "tension" for a reason. The ways of Advent are not easy amidst a culture set up for such a different way this season. They're not easy, but they are worth it. The way of freedom via limitations...saying our no's in the right places so that we may say our yes's rightly as well, experiencing the fruit that follows. I don't write as an expert or as a champion of these ways. If you notice, I'm only just now posting this on the 4th Sunday of Advent. Because even with the plan to slow down, prepare early, and listen during this time things can get out of hand. And they did for me this year. Unexpected problems with my apartment left me pretty mobile this month...hopping from house to house, pushed back deadlines on recording projects, last-minute packing and present-making before travel, and of course a sickness to fight in my body worn down from the frenzy. But even amidst the unexpected instability I've kept the Advent way in sight in small ways whenever possible, and am taking today to intentionally recenter as fully as possible. And I have to remember that my load, however awkwardly carried, is so light compared to what so many in the world are carrying at this time.

In the name of the One who is Mercy and Mystery, the One who comes with goodwill to earth and peace again for us all,

I wish you all a deep sense of that peace in this last week of Advent and a Merry Christmas in the days that follow.

-sd.

The 12 Marks of What?!

“Some have become domestic communities and are eventualizing in what we now call “the new monasticism,” a way of being in which Christians, bound together under vows of stability, living out their private lives together in radical obedience to the Great Commandment...

Life on the margins has always been the most difficult and, at the same time, the one most imaginatively lived.”

— Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence

As some of you may know, I'm part of a New Monastic community that has put down roots in the Highland neighborhood of Shreveport, LA. A new mona-what? If that's your question...no worries. It's a common one. And while it's not the easiest question to answer adequately, I write today in hopes to do it some justice. 

WHAT IS MONASTICISM ANYWAY?

Let's start with the word monastic. Think of the communal life that has been shared by the monks, nuns, & mystics throughout history. I'm not exactly talking about Friar Tuck from Robin Hood or The Reverend Mother singing "Climb Every Mountain" from The Sound of Music–though they are both awesome characters. But I've digressed. Back to reality...

Monastic movements have sprung up throughout history as a means by which to preserve the character of the Church in the world, to remind the Church who She is in times when Her sense of identity is in jeopardy. The New Monasticism is no different in this basic premise. However, the world is different today than it was in the 4th century for the Desert Mothers & Fathers, in the 6th century for St. Benedict his fold, and even in the 16th century for the Reformers. 

OK, SO WHAT'S NEW ABOUT IT NOW?

Monasticism today in many ways looks different. Many exciting ways. Most notably, the New Monasticism goes into society–relocating to the abandoned places of imperial culture to embody the kind of life we hope to preserve, rather than retreating from society to do so. Put simply: Same goals for the Church and for the world. Different geographic starting place & execution strategy.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer–20th-century German pastor, martyr, and expert on Christian community–wrote in a letter to his brother in 1935:

“The restoration of the church will surely come only from a new type of monasticism which has nothing in common with the old but a complete lack of compromise in a life lived in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount in the discipleship of Christ. I think it is time to gather people together to do this…”

— Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Prophetic.

Perhaps one of the simplest ways to describe the New Monasticism would be "Sermon-on-the-Mount Christianity." However, we've abstracted and complicated (or worse, ignored) the Sermon on the Mount so much in the American church that we hardly have a picture in our minds of what exactly "Sermon-on-the-Mount Christianity" looks like in the real world anymore. (To read Jesus' Sermon on the Mount see Matthew 5-7, and the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6:17-49.)

OK, SO WHAT DOES IT LOOK LIKE?

In 2004, a group of New Monastic communities came together to articulate some of their primary common threads–something like a summary of the "rule of life" that was guiding them and a starting point that future communities in the movement would be shaped by. There is much diversity among the communities all over the US (and the globe), but these are 12 values generally upheld by most communities associated with the movement. You can read the official 12 Marks here, and the following is our particular community's current adaptation of the language to best translate into our context:

1. We make sure we are located in an abandoned place of the empire. If we are not, we relocate. 

2. We share our economic resources with fellow community members and those among us who are in need.

3. We make our homes and our lives hospitable to the stranger, maintaining a willingness and preparedness to open our door to friend, foe, neighbor, and traveler alike. 

4. We lament for division within the church and our communities, combining that with the active pursuit of a just reconciliation (for the hate and division concerning race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, gender, and all types of othering that isolate and dehumanize those made in God's image). 

5. We humbly submit to Christ's Body, the Church, dedicated to always pursuing unity and seeking to be the church we dream of rather than complaining about the church we do not see. 

6. We are committed to intentional formation in the Way of Christ and the community's agreed upon lifestyle (common rule) along the lines of the old novitiate–valuing the depth and freedom of discipline as we embody a new way of being in the world. 

7. We nurture the common life among members of intentional community by following the rules of relationship (eat, play, study, grieve, share, celebrate together, etc). 

8. We support celibate singles alongside monogamous married couples and their children, committed to coexisting as one family. 

9. We live in geographic proximity to community members who share a common rule of life, understanding and promoting the wisdom of stability. 

10. We care for the plot of God's earth given to us along with supporting our local economies. 

11. We make peace in the midst if violence and practice conflict resolution within the community along the lines of Matthew 18, committed to the nonviolent enemy-love exampled by Jesus. 

12. We are committed to a disciplined contemplative life of prayer, agreeing to silence ourselves in a busy world that we might free up the space to listen to God and respond. 

I can't help but be a little overwhelmed by writing those out, uncomfortably aware of how far we have to go before our lives fully reflect these statements. But we know values shape our lives, so we stay committed to aspiring to live in line with these values–trusting that we'll be molded into a people that embodies them at some point. And trusting that the mere but earnest attempt is the willingness to which we are called that can make us better little by little, in turn making the world around us better little by little.

OK, SO WHERE'D ALL THIS COME FROM?

The New Monastic movement's birth is hard to pinpoint, but stirrings of what is now a global movement seemed to take shape in the UK in the 1970's & 80's, following soon thereafter in the early 1990's here in the US. One of early leaders and articulators of the movement here in the US was Jonathan Wilson, who proposed 4 characteristics of the New Monasticism in his book Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World, published in 1998:

  •  it will be "marked by a recovery of the telos of this world" revealed in Jesus, and aimed at the healing of fragmentation, bringing the whole of life under the lordship of Christ;
  •  it will be aimed at the "whole people of God" who live and work in all kinds of contexts, and not create a distinction between those with sacred and secular vocations;
  • it will be disciplined, not by a recovery of old monastic rules, but by the joyful discipline achieved by a small group of disciples practicing mutual exhortation, correction, and reconciliation; and
  • it will be "undergirded by deep theological reflection and commitment," by which the church may recover its life and witness in the world (p72-75).

...4 statements that, I think, are proving themselves to be prophetically accurate in characterizing the movement.

OK, SO WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR ME?

In short, I don't know. 

But I suspect it means something, and I hope you'll consider what that might be. And remember, the invitation is always open to come & see...

This writing was largely theoretical, I know. That was intentional, as I hoped to provide some foundational understanding of what motivates those of us pursuing this sort of life-together. However, there are plenty of places to read stories about the day-in-and-day-out practicalities and experiences in New Monastic life, which surely get closer to the heart of all this.

Here are a few of the many places you can find those stories:

  • britneywinnlee.com Gandhi Got Out Again: A Blog About Intentional Community (Stories from neighborhood life here in Shreveport)
  • jonathanwilsonhartgrove.com New Monastic Leader, Founder of Rutba House & School(s) for Conversion
  • redletterchristians.org Red Letter Christians' Goal: To take Jesus seriously by endeavoring to live out His radical, counter-cultural teachings as set forth in Scripture, and especially embracing the lifestyle prescribed in the Sermon on the Mount.
  • The list of books we read as part of the Yellow House internship. Great stories. Great resources.
  • Reba Place Fellowship, a community in Chicago, IL
  • The Simple Way, a community in Philadelphia, PA

Note to the reader 

I've grieved the lack of understanding &/or the misrepresentation of this movement lately, and it's moved me to share some words from my very small perspective, from our very small corner here in Highland to attempt even a brief overview of the New Monasticism–one of integrity, one that might make a little sense. One that I hope at least sparks curiosity, clears up a few things, &/or opens a mind or 2 to the possibilities that such a lifestyle holds for the Church and the world, for families and individuals, for adults and children, for people and environment, for neighborhoods and cities, for countries and the world.

Thank you for reading,

sd.