By Gail Song Bantum, D’09 Worship Leader and Speaker Seattle, Washington
As the song goes, “it’s the most wonderful time of the year…it’s the hap - happiest season of all!” but is it? For some, it may be a dreaded and amplified season of a growing to do list. For others, it may be a burden, be it financial, familial, and/or social.
And yet for others, it may just be a relief that the year is almost over in hopes of a better one to come.
However, as we continue in the season of Advent, we are reminded of an anticipation that calls forth rejoicing--rejoicing in the knowledge that this Christ we wait for is indeed coming. So often, we spend much of our time anticipating this or that that we fail to live into the present moments. We are constantly consumed by the to do’s that we do not know what it means to be. We are so focused on what is to come that we lose sight of what is. What is, is the reality that Christ has already come, has come as us and for us. For Christians, Advent is a season of anticipation that allows us to fully live into the already. It is not a hope that is marked by angst or uncertainty. Rather, I like to think that we are invited to participate more as midwives than visitors in the birth of our Christ. It is an active call to be present and rejoicing at every stage of the way --in the news of conception, in the stretching of the skin, in the false alarms of labor, in the intensity of pushing, and yes, in the cheesy and mangled mess that a newborn really is. We have been invited into such a life of participation, embracing the gift of the present moments in hopes of what is to come.
Children are great at this. While my children know that Advent and Christmas are about Jesus’ birth and the celebration of Christ being present with us, there is something special about this season that draws out a particular kind of joy in them. The sheer excitement that they possess during the month of December is contagious and convicting all at the same time. The joys that they find in the little things like twinkling lights, mesmerizing Christmas villages, the many snowflakes folded and cut out on the windows and hung from the ceiling, their turn lighting the Advent candle, their cup of hot chocolate, and yes, the hourly chime of the Christmas clock is an anticipation that is marked by the embracing of the present moment. For children Christmas is something that is happening to them. Their excitement is participatory.
Children often offer us glimpses of pure joy and anticipation in ways that our tired and marred hearts sometimes fail to see. Such joy is a gift. While anticipation is marked by rhythms of momentum and energy in our lives that keep us hoping and looking forward, the beauty in such anticipation is that it allows freedom to enjoy and embrace the now. It is only when we choose to live into the seemingly small joys of being alive, of friendships, of laughter, of provision, of days off, or whatever it may be, that we are able to anticipate, live into and hope in what is to come.
I pray that our lives would always be pregnant with such anticipation and hope…. not an aimless hope but a hope that is found in a God who creates, breathes and forms our inmost being. May our hope participate in the gift of Christ and in the lives of one another. In this season of busy unrest, find joy in the little things – in the laughter of your child, in the love of your friends, in the smell of your tea, or in the rhythm of your favorite song.
Be full of hope and know that everyday is a gift.
Gail Song Bantum, M.Div, is a 2009 graduate of Duke Divinity school. A well-known worship leader and advocate for the arts, you can read her theology and arts blog.
By Enuma Okoro, D’03 Author and Retreat Director Raleigh, N.C.
It is the week of Christ the King. This past Sunday marked the first in Advent. The last few days have found me ruminating on the dialogue between Pilate and Jesus found in John’s Gospel 18:33b-37. I read the gospel this week and for the first time in a very long while I can imagine myself as disbelieving as Pilate. Not because I’m at any crux of faith but simply because every now and then, by the mercy of God, I am struck anew by the incredibility of the incarnation. When Jesus says, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews,” I can almost hear how “cuckoo for coco puffs” that would have sounded to anyone, and envision the guards behind Pilate just rolling their eyes thinking, “Here goes another one.”
Yet, it is not lost on me that somehow God has enabled me to believe in the absurdity of it all. And while God’s kingdom is not of this world, it is in the very mundane parameters of this world that I find myself continually caught off guard by the wonder of Christ. He breaks in randomly in the midst of my planning and fretting and hoping and achieving, and reminds me of the reality of an incarnate God, a looming Spirit, a returning Christ.
The most recent inbreaking was while I was on the treadmill running to the music from my iPod. I had set it to shuffle mode and was running my last mile on the highs of Jay-Z and Alicia Keys, the raunchy duets of Akon and Snoop, and the invigorating girl-power of Beyonce. Then my iPod shuffled to “Picture of Jesus” by Ben Harper and as I listened to the words and to the beautiful South African voices harmonizing in the background I was suddenly overwhelmed by the idea of a God who took on flesh for love of creation, and by a God who still cradles the disharmony of a broken world. After the song played out I pressed the back button and found myself practicing the ancient spiritual discipline of Lectio Divinia to a popular funk artist’s tribute to the Lord of heaven and earth. I listened to that song three times for 15 minutes.
A version of Harper's "Picture of Jesus" set to footage of a Brazilian favela.
The picture of Jesus is mirrored to us through the ordinary people and things of this world. Everywhere we look there is the possibility of catching iconic reflections of Christ. There is the possibility of seeing that God’s kingdom though not of this world, is coming. But we have to be willing to be interrupted. We have to be willing to be reminded that even faith and belief is by grace. And adoration, praise, hope, and expectation, those postures are willed responses.
Advent reminds us that God has always been present, even before the visitation. It reminds us that God is accustomed to having arms full of prayers. It reminds us that God does not force God’s self upon us.
During Advent we keep watch for the random inbreakings, for the absurd in the mundane, for the opportunities to remember that belief itself is not of this world, but this is the world in which God has chosen to make God’s self known.
Find some time over the next few days and download the song, “Picture of Jesus” by Ben Harper. Listen to it several times. You might be surprised where it leads you.
“So Let us say a prayer For every living thing Walking towards a light From the cross of a king We long to be a picture of Jesus Of Jesus In his arms In his arms so many prayers rest I long to be a picture of Jesus With him we shall be forever blessed”
(Ben Harper, Picture of Jesus, track 13, Diamonds on the Inside Audio CD- 2003)
By Amey Victoria Adkins, D’09 Research Assistant, Black Church Studies Duke Divinity School
Let me be frank: Everyone should see the movie Precious.
I’ve talked about it, read about it, heard about it, prepared for it, and finally, after missing two sold-out showings, I’ve seen it. I sat in the unprecedented stillness of a full theatre as I watched Precious,; the story of a battered but resilient young woman originally characterized in the novel “Push” by Sapphire. The movie postures us in the world of Claireece “Precious” Jones, a dark-skinned, overweight 16-year old black woman enduring physical, verbal, emotional and sexual abuses unspeakable—she is already pregnant with a second child from episodes of serial rape by her own father.
**Please note that the preview below may contain offensive language.**
What I have not loved, however, is the way that a story like Precious seems to be so easily escaping us. With so many advocacy groups jumping on board to promote their cause via the conduit of the movie, it is difficult to discern the ways in which making this movie a “call to action,” be it against child abuse or growing illiteracy rates, performs a reduction of what is most profoundly at hand—even though Precious is a fictitious character, the people who do identify with her circumstances can’t be reduced to causes. For others concerned with painted pathologies and “inside” conversations being hung out to dry, therein also lies a tired tactic of evasion. I think that this narrative has something deeper to teach, particularly to those who claim to be Christians.
I found it no coincidence that God is not found in the places one might think in this story. By my count, there are only two explicit references to the divine throughout (at least asserted by Precious herself). Once, Precious throws off on the idea that “God or whoever” is looking down from above. No surprise seeing that she hasn’t seen salvation from the frying pans that her mother throws unrelentingly at her head. The other overt and inherently Christian reference occurs in a moment of desperation.
At one of her lowest points, Precious and her newborn son Abdul (an interesting choice of an Arabic name, meaning something akin to “servant of God,” given that her daughter with Down’s Syndrome is named Mongoloid. “Mongo” for short.) have barely escaped a violent death at the hands of Precious’ mother. It is Christmas, and she is afraid, exposed and running for her life. Holding the tiny baby in the wintry cold, swaddled in the blanket covered in her own blood, Precious walks past a church mission. An unmistakable cross looms above her and she peers through the gated door. Looking through the window, a fleeting daydream transforms the gathering inside into a warm holiday choir scene, with she and her newborn fully robed and rejoicing in praise, her light-skinned-curly-haired husband looking adoringly over her shoulder. They are clean, every hair is in place, her makeup is beautifully done, and her imagined partner even holds a small pet dog in his arms. It is the perfect nativity, and yet, the falling snow transforms us again to the painful fragility of the moment: for Precious, there is no room at the inn. Even the doors of the church are only unlocked by her imagination.
And yet, there is an unmistakable salvific community for Precious—just not the kind of community most of us would imagination. Moved to an alternative school after her second pregnancy, Ms. Rain’s classroom becomes a kind of “church,” a place where she is affirmed and encouraged, a place where her gifts are stirred, a place where her promise is called out. It is a rather motley crew of outcasts who gather each day in the tiny classroom on the 11th floor. Immigrants, teenage mothers, minority women facing the harsh realities of a world where they don’t quite fit, all led by an amazing teacher who happens to be black and lesbian. It is here that Precious finds worth, community, dignity, support, and most of all love.
After yet another unrelenting blow of tragedy, Precious sits in the classroom vacantly. She is at the end of her words; she has nothing left to write. Precious laments, “Nobody loves me.” She begs of her teacher, “Please don’t lie to me.” Everyone in her life who was supposed to love her failed. And only in that space, in that community, is Precious reminded of real love. And perhaps for the first time, someone she can trust has told her: “I love you, Precious.” When there was no where to go, when the doors of the church were locked, Precious went to school, and waited for her family—not that by birth or blood, but that by a deep kind of other bond—to come for her.
I think that this brings us closer to the point. In a conversation with beloved sister-theologians of color the other evening, we began to discuss the way that Katie Couric struggled to maintain her bearings while interviewing Sapphire a few weeks ago about the story. At one point, her worlds failing, she stutters “I just can’t imagine.”
I realized, in that moment, that Couric’s efforts represent our problem precisely. The Church maintains a tenuous theological imagination, one that often asks the wrong question. Because I don’t think that our deepest call is to finds ways to imagine ourselves inside of the horror, experiencing the trauma of Precious’ story. Far too many women and men already live inside of this intimate space of negotiation day in and day out—and there is too great a chasm that will either cheapen the very real experiences of so many people in the world, or further distance us away from one another. Imagination, in that instance, is a luxury.
But perhaps what is critical for us, is the question of whether or not we can imagine ourselves living with, journeying with, being present with, working with, and loving with someone who is marked by such intense suffering. I read an interview online where Lee Daniels, the brilliant director of the movie, stated that prior to this work he had a negative stereotype himself of fat black women. He was disgusted by it, but his confession was true. Precious was a mirror into his own thoughts. Precious challenged him. Perhaps, then, if Precious can challenge Lee Daniels, Precious should be challenging us in the same kinds of probing ways. And for the church, perhaps Precious can be a kind of mirror to who we say that we are. To who we say God is. And to how we live into the unimaginable grit of a tortured but risen Lord.
Do we see Precious? Can we imagine ourselves kissing her on the forehead? Cleaning the blood off of her young baby? Letting her stay in our homes? Not reducing her identity (read: her badgering school principal’s irresponsible teenage mother stereotype) to a problem of ethics? And for those of us who navigate the spaces of pain that remain far too often as silent realities in our midst, can we imagine facing the lies we’ve been told? Can we imagine the continued perseverance and grasping for hope even when it seems senseless?
I think so, but not if we are alone. Not if churches don’t see their need of the Precious living on their block. Not if we realize that our single garment of destiny has no hem without her. Not if we miss opportunities to have truth-telling break the demonic silences in our midst. This movie is one that bears theological weight upon the issue of real presence in the world, and the one scene featuring the inadequacy of the church-as-institution is one worth mulling over. For if we refuse Precious, have we not refused the gift of our Lord?
Note: This movie is too graphic for children and young teens. And, you shouldn’t go alone.
This is the blog of the Office of Black Church Studies at Duke University Divinity School. We are excited to provide a space where we can reflect together on issues of theology, scripture, congregational life (past, present and future), Christian identity, racial and gender identity, faith, and life together as God’s people. This is also a space where Duke Divinity School faculty members and colleagues elsewhere can reflect on their work and their thoughts on topics at the intersection of these issues. Some of the regular commentators on this blog will be black faculty members and alumni working on the frontlines of ministry, mission and scholarship. They will be sending us their dispatches from the trenches! We also invite you into this conversation. Feel free to reply and respond to what you read.