Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘Advent’

The Power of Love: a Different Joy

Zephaniah 3:16-17; 19-20a

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You know it must be Advent if on the in later December we’re reading from another minor Hebrew prophet, in this case Zephaniah. It would be a stretch to say that many people know the book of Zephaniah well [Jewish or Christian alike].

Though, come on–I mean, he was the son of Cushi, son of Gedaliah, son of Amariah, son of Hezekiah, born in the days of King Josiah, son of Amon of Judah—and no, I didn’t make up those names, and yes, it sounds like something from Lord of the Rings, and sure, some of us who went to Divinity school memorized that.

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But all kidding aside, as with other Hebrew prophets of ages long past, I do think good ol’ Zephy has something to say to us today.

A little context please? Okay, yes.

The cliff notes version of what scholars say about this prophetic book: when was it written? Somewhere in the neighborhood of 698 BCE-586 BCE, depending on who you talk to. Where was it written? Jerusalem. What was going on? Well, lots. First off, the Israelites were being bad, apparently; they weren’t obeying Yahweh’s commands as they were supposed to. Maybe they were just settling back in after a few generations of exile? Whatever the case, Zephaniah’s author called attention to the Israelite’s behavior as making Yahweh mad. So the book’s tone is ticked off, and it’s spelled out with these sections: the coming judgement of Judah, the great day of the Lord, judgement on enemies, wickedness of Jerusalem, and the punishment of nations. Sounds great, doesn’t it?

The perfect prophecy to read on JOY Sunday…not.

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But Zephaniah ends differently. The book closes out with God/Yahweh being much nicer, less angry, and dare I say—loving and gentle? Yahweh is present, protective of Israel, and happy to welcome people back. Apparently, Yahweh has a lovely singing voice too and will be showing off the holy pipes.

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More important than the Holy Karaoke, people will be healed, the homeless will find places to live. People who were hated will now be accepted. Everyone comes home. It’s a celebration of great joy! Now that’s more like it, Zephy…

And that’s what brings me to why I think this minor prophet still has something prophetic to say to us today so many years later.

See, we’re living in a Zephaniah world.

Some of us have been exiled and know what it feels like to be marginalized or excluded. Some of us have lived though times of great suffering, loneliness, and despair. Some of us are going through that right now. Still others find very few reasons to live any longer. And many today are just tired—tired of a depressing and heavy news cycle that continues to make us aware of the great pain, suffering, and injustice in the world. A 7-year-old girl from Guatemala dies simply because she can’t get enough water to drink while detained by U.S. immigration enforcement. Large groups of humans sprawled out on top of steam vents all across Philadelphia, just to stay warm. Sikhs, Muslims, Jews, and others specifically targeted by violent people. Individuals still left out, refused jobs, discriminated against in hospitals and other public spaces, simply because of who they love or how they identify or express gender. The Christian religion on the whole, has become known more as a perpetrator of hateful rhetoric and alliance with political leaders and lobbying monies and ignorance of child abuse and discrimination than it is known for love, peacemaking, and service to others.

Yes, we live in Zephaniah’s world.

Yahweh might as well be the same kinda angry at Western Christianity and at society in general. We’re not really fulfilling our part of the bargain—to heal the sick, give homes to the homeless, gather in the outcasts, and love each other.

Sure, we can put up pretty lights and sing carols and talk about joy, but I would argue we can’t. Not until we admit where we are, in Zephaniah’s world, in this world. Not until we recognize the deep suffering going on. Not until we are incensed by the injustice in our world. Not until we talk about our own feelings of despair, heaviness, and apathy. We have to go there, if we truly want to get to the joy part.

Rumi, the brilliant Islamic poet, wrote of sorrow being the prerequisite for joy. Sorrow makes space for joy to enter in. Old roots are pulled up within us and new growth takes place. Only then will joy flow through us like a river.

We’ve been talking the last two weeks about the promise of inclusion, about what it looks like/feels like to be excluded and then finally accepted and invited in. And that this promise of inclusion is a powerful promise to believe in, because if we do, we will seek inclusion for those we see on the margins.

See, it’s a decision to believe in the promise of inclusion. And it’s a decision to think about joy as rising out of sorrow and suffering.

And I think what bends us towards those decisions is an understanding that love itself is not an emotion, but an active choice as well.

In the world of Zephaniah, Yahweh made a love-deal with the Israelites. But the moment they started mistreating each other and oppressing people and manipulating, there was no more Mr. Nice Yahweh. Because love for Yahweh and for the Israelites has to be an active choice, not just a feeling.

And this is why love has tremendous power to create a better world—in ourselves, and on this planet. There is great power in sitting with someone in their grief, with loving patience and a loving ear with loving acceptance. There is power in standing side by side with someone who feels pushed down, choosing to love by standing with them. There is power in treating newcomers with loving hospitality, power in lovingly learning about someone’s culture or religion; power in mentoring children and youth with loving patience; power in lovingly lifting up or even carrying those who are experiencing extreme mental or physical challenges; there is power in choosing to lovingly care for the earth, the animals, trees, and ecosystems. Love as an action is powerful.

And this is what brings true joy into our lives.

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The Promise of Inclusion II

Baruch 5:1; 7-9  The Inclusive Bible
Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God. For God has ordered that every mountain and the ancient hills be made low and the valleys lifted up, to make level ground, so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God. The woods and every fragrant tree have shaded Israel at God’s command. For God will lead Israel with joy, in the light of God’s glory, with the compassion and justice that come from the Most High.

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It’s still Advent. Week 2. Got some more Hebrew prophetic literature in the queue. This time, it’s Baruch, not well-known, not in most Bibles, and not even considered a prophet!

Resultado de imagen para tell me moreBaruch ben Neriah (ברוך בן נריה) was is believed to have been the scribe, secretary, and devoted friend of the prophet Jeremiah. Think of Baruch as the one who put up with Jeremiah’s gloomy and doom prophetic babbling and actually wrote it down. Think of Baruch as the one who was exiled in Babylonia and then in Egypt, and wrote to all the Israelite exiles, as well as those who were still in Judah.

So why isn’t Baruch as a book in the “typical” Jewish and Christian scriptures? Well, it depends on who you ask. Short version: some didn’t believe [centuries ago] that it was “divinely” inspired. How they made that decision, well…up for debate. Anyway, some just didn’t think Baruch’s writings were prophetic enough.

But…Baruch is in the Septuagint, called the Greek Old Testament, because it is the earliest Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures. I’m not trying to prove anything here, I’m just saying that it’s Advent and the Hebrew prophetic literature is essential reading and this dude Baruch was with Jeremiah all the time.

And he knew what it felt like to experience the fall of  the Jerusalem temple and the exile of the Israelites to Babylon. He understood what it felt like to feel abandoned and excluded, even at the hands of Yahweh, the One the Jews looked to for help and protection. So Baruch, the so-called non-prophet has something to say.

And Baruch can help us embrace the promise of inclusion.

Resultado de imagen para inclusionWhat is inclusion? A reminder of what inclusion is not:

It is not saying that “everyone is equal and the same” and “can’t we all just get along?”

Let’s be honest, please. People are not considered equal in this world. Since the beginning, humans have created unequal societies in which some get mistreated and others get privilege. We must acknowledge this. If you’ve ever been on the side of the marginalized or the excluded, this is reality. If you’ve only been on the privileged side of things, it is more difficult for you, but not impossible, to recognize and acknowledge the inequality and exclusion of society.

So, for the sake of this conversation, inclusion is:

a transformative promise that someone who has been historically excluded/left out, will now be included/invited in.

I recognize, for example, that I am a person with privilege. I am Anglo-European, U.S. born, cisgender, male, straight, well educated, English is my first language, and I was raised a Christian. How many boxes did I check?

So inclusion for me is not about me feeling left out. I’m really not excluded. But many are. So inclusion for me is about using my privilege for good and helping those who are excluded gain their rightful place at the table. Inclusion.

But I say all that, not because I’m such a nice person or whatever, but because I have experienced that all other living beings around me are part of me and I of them.

See, I think the promise of inclusion is only made a reality if we consider all other human beings—and if animals and trees and even the very creepy, crawly creatures and insects are part of us and us of them—only then will the promise of inclusion be realized and the power of inclusion evident.

And I also am drawn to another Advent theme, that of Peace.

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Peace is NOT the absence of conflict, however. Don’t imagine peace as a serene scene, or calm waters, or quiet and calm. Peace can be loud, subversive, full of conflict, and can even stir the pot even more. It is Shalom.

Peace is wholeness. Peace is justice. Peace is balance. Peace is connectedness. Peace is inclusive.

If we are at peace with ourselves, at peace with one another, at peace with the animals, the plants, the natural world—we are by our own decision, inclusive.

By being at peace with ourselves and at peace with all living beings, we embrace the promise of inclusion. We recognize our deep connection to each other, a connection that is full of diversity and disagreement and teeming with contradictions and a beautiful mosaic of difference.

I wish to close this post with some profoundly relevant stuff from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during Advent in the 1960s. This is from The Trumpet of Conscience.

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Now let me suggest first that if we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective. No individual can live alone; no nation can live alone, and as long as we try, the more we are going to have war in this world. Now the judgment of God is upon us, and we must either learn to live together as [siblings] or we are all going to perish together as fools.

Now let me say that the next thing we must be concerned about if we are to have peace on earth and goodwill toward [all] is the nonviolent affirmation of the sacredness of all human life. Everyone is somebody because they are a child of God.

Excerpted from The Trumpet of Conscience, published by Beacon Press, 2010. Copyright © 1967 by Martin Luther king, Jr. Foreword copyright © 1968 by Coretta Scott King. All rights reserved. Foreword copyright © 2010 Marian Wright Edelman.

 

The Promise of Inclusion

Jeremiah 33:14-16

Resultado de imagen para one purple candleDuring this time of year for Christians, called Advent, Hebrew prophetic literature is what is often read leading up to Christmas Eve. I wonder, though, do most Christians know what they are reading? Do they know that these prophets were telling the story of the Jewish people? Do they know that none of these prophets were speaking about Jesus of Nazareth? It’s an eyebrow-raiser for sure, for Christians to step back during this season to realize that it’s not about them.

No, the stories in the Hebrew Scriptures are Jewish stories, and the book of Jeremiah is no exception. So why do Christians read the Jewish prophetic literature during this season? Because in order to better understand the teachings and life of Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew himself, Christians must have a context and a history and a story.

And that story is about the Israelites: their nation, Judah, was destroyed, conquered. Their rulers and religious leaders were taken away to a distant land. This happened something like 600 years before Jesus was born. The Israelites were taken to Babylon, this was their exile. The glory days of King David were long gone. I can hear Bruce Springsteen singing in the background…

And this is why Jeremiah as a prophetic book is just flat-out depressing, dark, and gloomy.

But oh, that’s what makes it work….

Because amidst all the darkness and despair and suffering there is still a glimmer of hope. And though Jeremiah is pretty heavy-handed, all of a sudden the prophet says that a better day is surely coming, and Yahweh is the one making the promise. The promise is to restore that which was devastated and broken, to repair and heal. The promise is for justice, and peace.

No doubt when you are ripped from your home and way of life you feel excluded from the good graces of life and from the possible love and care of a Creator who seems to have forgotten you. It is not until you are restored, until you are included when you were once excluded, that you feel whole again. That’s the thing about inclusion. It’s not just identifying who is “in” and who is “out.”

Inclusion is about a transformative promise that someone who has been historically excluded/left out, will now be included/invited in.

The hope of inclusion is a powerful one. It has driven major justice movements around the world. And inclusion drives the story of the Israelite people; inclusion drives the story of Jesus of Nazareth. And, I would argue, the promise of inclusion can move us past even hope, which can sometimes be fleeting or seem superficial. What if we didn’t hope for justice and peace in this world, and instead, we believed in the promise of inclusion?

What if inclusion shaped our thoughts and actions in our daily lives? It would change us. Think about it—if you’ve ever been party to a racist, sexist, homophobic/transphobic joke, and didn’t speak up because you were afraid of being excluded from that particular group, what if you weren’t afraid of exclusion? What if you believed in the promise of inclusion? You would speak up, not to paint yourself as any better, but simply to point out that inclusion is a promise to humanity.

This promise of inclusion would drive us in our city councils and local governments to get rid of the boundaries and regulations that keep certain people out of certain boroughs and neighborhoods; we wouldn’t block immigrant caravans with soldiers and police and signs saying “go home, you’re not welcome”; churches and other places of faith would stop excluding gay, lesbian, bi and transgender people, not because it’s becoming a social norm, but because they believe in the promise of inclusion.

Being included when you’ve been excluded before gives you the ability to feel and believe:

“I’m valued, I have a place. I am equal. I am affirmed as I am.”

If inclusion drives us, and we believe it is a promise, then we will see ourselves differently. Those who have been made to feel lesser will be transformed by the welcome they receive. Those who have been left on the margins will enter the open circle, as they are. It is more than a hope, which can fade. It is more than a dream, which can be forgotten.

It is a promise.

 

LOVE Incarnate in the Upside Down

Luke 1:39-41; 46-49; 52,53  

Let’s get this out of the way from the start. I know that for many, the stories about the birth of Jesus of Nazareth carry with them some pretty strong emotions and nostalgia. For some, this story can be confusing, maddening, and perhaps oppressive—depending on how religion [and your family] treated you growing up. I say that right off the bat so we can have an honest [and hopefully healthy] conversation about this story and avoid the common pitfalls around Christmastime. I do my best to present to you facts and background about the Gospel stories so that you can come to your own conclusions. But the main point of all this is not to say which interpretation of a story in the Bible is true or more accurate.

The point of any sacred story is to inspire us to be better people—to love ourselves and to love those around us.

Otherwise, the story has no meaning.

Now that I got that out of the way, let’s dig in to Luke’s story, and remember that I’ll be also discussing the series Stranger Things as part of our reflection. The theme is Love Incarnate in the Upside Down. Incarnate, as a concept, is not some untouchable holy idea, like a shiny white baby with a halo who doesn’t cry or ever commit a sin.

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Incarnate means something embodied in flesh; something personified or typified, as a quality or idea; or something represented in a concrete form. So, in this case, we’re talking about two women in Luke’s story [Miriam, called Mary in Greek, and Elizabeth]. Both women were pregnant. The idea, or the thing personified in them is the love and presence of God. Metaphorically, Luke’s story is focused on how the Divine is represented in the lives of the marginalized. In this case, two women—one of them who couldn’t have children [Elizabeth], and one who wasn’t supposed to, Mary.

maryElizArtwork by He Qi 

Luke’s Gospel, written at the tail end of the 1st century in Israel and Palestine, is focused on the theme of God’s salvation story, Divine love in action. Luke’s author focuses on the marginalized of society, specifically, women, the poor, and those stricken with disease or disadvantages. Mary and Elizabeth’s story is the center. Mary/Miriam had little worth according to society. She wasn’t rich, she wasn’t married, she was the last person an angel should visit.

anunciationAnd yet, in Luke’s story, Yahweh values Mary’s life. She’s inspired by this and sings about the stories from the Torah. Yahweh had helped her people the Israelites escape Egypt and oppression. The same would happen now for the poor and lowly, including her. Mary was favored, not because she was pregnant, but because in Luke’s story, the last of society are made to be the first.

Elizabeth’s context is not as humble and certainly not as poor. Was Elizabeth marginalized? Sure, because up to that point she was not able to have children. Sadly, this made her feel isolated and lonely. Of course, that isn’t to say that Elizabeth needed to have a child to have worth. But society sure conditioned her to think that.

I see in Elizabeth and Mary’s story the stories of others who have been told that they don’t have value because of who they love or because they don’t get married or have children. I hear the stories of transgender people who are pressured to conform to their family’s or society’s palatable version of themselves, and if they don’t conform, they are shunned. I hear the stories of children and youth from other countries whose parents came to the U.S. without documentation. The children are called “illegals” and told to “go back” to a country they have never even visited. I hear the stories of the working poor who are called “lazy” while they work three jobs and still can’t pay their bills on time. And I hear the stories of the many people who suffer from mental illnesses and are told by others to “get over it” and yet, every day is a real struggle for them.

And where, in all those stories, is love?

That is the right question to ask.

I’ve been asking this question personally during this past year: where is love personified, incarnate in this upside down world where one tweet can trigger millions and people’s lives are treated like slot machines? An upside down existence when rich and disconnected politicians gamble with the lives of the poor and marginalized? Where is love?

upsideDownteeThis is the question posed in my favorite show of the year, Stranger Things. One of the show’s protagonists is a girl named Eleven; later called by her friend Mike “El,” which means “God” in Hebrew. El’s parallels to Jesus are there.

ELsmilingShe has a mysterious birth story and her true father is never mentioned. El possesses miraculous telekinetic powers. While a prisoner in a government laboratory, she is tempted to use her super powers to kill a cat; she refuses. Later on in the story, El spends time in the wilderness and is sustained only by her manna which is actually Eggo waffles.

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And finally, El visits the Upside Down dimension and discovers a monster, the Demogorgon. She lays in a cruciform position, arms spread, in a pool of water.

ELcrucifixShe descends into a mental state where she faces the monster and death. She cries out for God and then hears Joyce’s voice [Winona Ryder], saying: “I am here with you.”

You see, in the story of Stranger Things, love can be found even in the Upside Down, even in the midst of darkness and horror. Where is love incarnate? In the presence of those who accept us as we are and in those we can truly call friends. Mike, Dustin, Will, Lucas, El, Joyce, Sheriff Hopper, Jonathan, Bob, Max, Kali, Steve, and Nancy become friends, but not out of convenience or sameness. Their unlikely community forms out of marginalization, suffering, and uncertainty. They form bonds of self-sacrificing love and stand with each other when it is unpopular and inconvenient.

And that’s just it, isn’t it? We can ask this question: where is love? Where is God in this upside down world? And we won’t find the answer in a religion or in money or in power or in isolation. We find love incarnate in each other, when we truly accept each other and stand up for each other on the margins. We discover love incarnate when we help others realize their value, when we don’t give up the fight against oppression and injustice, when we take risks for others out of love.

May we be love incarnate in this, the Upside Down. And may you discover love in others.

Joy Rising Out of Trauma

In the brilliant sci-fi/fantasy Netflix series Stranger Things the main characters all go through trauma:

Joyce loses her son, Will. Jonathan loses his little brother.
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Eleven/Jane is experimented on, deprived of parental care, tortured, and manipulated psychologically.
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Dustin, Mike, and Lucas lose their friend and think he’s dead.
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Will is taken by a creature to another dimension and no one on the other side knows he’s alive. He is called “zombie boy” by his peers and haunted by nightmarish visions and flashbacks of the Upside Down.
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Kali was experimented on and given a number, like Eleven.
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Sherriff Hopper lost his child to cancer and his marriage ended.
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The list goes on. Trauma. PTSD.

Life in the Upside Down.

Stranger Things 2 also explores the heritage of trauma, and how it can be passed from one person to another. Consider Billy, a bully and the older stepbrother to Max.

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Billy is pretty much your standard jerk, screaming at Max, pushing around Steve on the basketball court, and warning Max to stay away from Lucas. But the show reveals eventually that Billy is tyrannized by his own father, physically beaten, emotionally abused, and is now repeating what his father wants.

What the show does well is to give us an opportunity to talk about/deal with something that is often very difficult to handle. Anyone who has suffered great trauma in life knows just how hard it can be to address it. Time and time again, the characters of Stranger Things are in a back-and-forth state of post-traumatic stress. They are neither in the moment of trauma nor fully isolated from its effects. This is the Demogorgon.

demoAnd it is extremely difficult to defeat.

In one scene, Joyce, Bob, and the boys are looking for the location of vines that are growing beneath the surface, in the upside down.

mapBobBob’s puzzle-solving skills come in handy, as he is able to draw a map using Will’s seemingly random drawings. This scene is a metaphor for navigating trauma. It’s beneath the surface, but it can be difficult to find a map to heal the lingering emotional wounds.

This is why a sweet kid like Eleven feels like both girl and monster. This is why Will feels like a zombie or a freak.

So how does Stranger Things offer a path to healing?

The show does a great job, I think, of demonstrating shared trauma: many of the main characters stand with each other in solidarity, encourage each other, and find deeper connections as a result. They construct a “new” family. The honesty and connectedness of shared trauma and acceptance can lead to realization, aha moments, personal growth, and even joy/gratitude. Examples from the show:

Kali “grew up” with El in the lab but they had not seen each other for years. When they reunited Kali shared: “I just feel whole, like a piece of me was missing and now it’s not.” Kali also understands El’s pain and protects her. She offers her a new purpose and encourages El to develop her special abilities. Sadly, Kali chooses to use her powers to get violent revenge. Because of this, El decides to return to her original place of trauma.

And in spite of Kali telling El that Going back to Hawkins and her friends is pointless and empty, El cones to the realization that what and who she was searching for was there all the time. She wasn’t a monster or someone to blame for the upside down. She didn’t have to be an outcast either.

She could help her friends.

Stories like this one can offer us a way of communicating what can’t always be said out loud. They provide a chance to experiment with emotions that society often demands us to keep hidden. But stories can also make the intangible fears into literal things; in other words, indistinct kinds of anxiety can be channeled into flesh-and-blood enemies like the Demogorgon or Shadow Monster.

The darkness of trauma [the Upside Down], Stranger Things explains to us, is always there, in this dimension and in others. But there is a path to surviving it—not a quick fix, but a slow, arduous path to healing and recovery. And along that path are people who share our trauma, sit with us in times of loss, pain, and suffering. We find solidarity with them, friendship, and the kind of joy that goes far beyond surface happiness. It is the joy in knowing that your seemingly messed up, freakish existence is more than that. The trauma that you have suffered doesn’t tell your whole story. You are writing your story each day, right now. And others are interested in your fresh and unique narrative.

So friends, wherever you are on your journey today—whatever trauma you have suffered or are suffering, remember that you are not alone. Keep on writing your story anew. Much love to you in the Upside Down.

Life in the Upside Down II: Friendship as a Catalyst for Peace

If you haven’t seen the Netflix original show Stranger Things, I highly recommend it. I won’t give a full synopsis here, but even if you are not familiar with it, I think what follows will still be relevant and hopefully meaningful.

Let’s talk about friendship.

CinePOP-Stranger-Things-7-1-750x380In Stranger Things, friendship takes center stage. It is set in 1983 in a small town in Indiana and follows the lives of Mike, Dustin, Lucas, Will, and El, 12-year old kids. Mike, Dustin, Will, and Lucas have been friends since early childhood and they have their own club with secrets, pacts, etc. Something shakes them to their core, however, when one of their group, Will Byers, gets trapped in what’s called the Upside Down, an alternative dimension. The whole town of Hawkins starts the search, but to no avail. Everyone fears the worst, including his closest friends.

And then, a mysterious girl shows up. She is first called “Eleven” because of the number tattooed on her wrist. Mike eventually calls her El and despite the suspicions of Dustin and Lucas, El becomes part of their friendship club. It is El’s unsettling arrival into the lives of the three boys that is the catalyst for the writers of Stranger Things to define what the story is all about—friendship, and to define what that means in this tale.

We first get a glimpse in a scene with the three boys [minus the missing Will] and El, in the basement of Mike’s house one day after school. Lucas is upset that Mike hasn’t told his mom about El–that she’s living in his basement and probably has escaped from somewhere bad. Mike refuses to tell and so Lucas decides to take matters into his own hands. He opens the door to go upstairs to tell Mike’s mom. But the door slams shut by itself. Lucas tries again. It slams shut again. Then, the boys look at El.

ElmindbenderHer stare could cut through solid steel. Her nose is bleeding. All she says is: NO. It’s the first time that the boys recognize El’s mysterious powers and what she can move with her mind. They are in awe of her, afraid even.

“We never would have upset you if we knew you had superpowers.”

Dustin is really honest. And though they all seem to fear El at this moment, their fear doesn’t prevent them from seeking to form a bond of friendship with her.

Problem is, El doesn’t know what “friend” even means. So Mike explains:

“A friend is someone you’d do anything for…friends tell each other things. And…
A promise is something you can’t break — ever. A friend is someone that you’d do anything for … and they never break a promise … that’s super important because friends tell each other things; things that parents don’t know. Friends tell each other the truth. And they definitely don’t lie to each other…”

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This definition of friendship drives the story of Stranger Things. After all, El is someone who has no experience with trust. On the surface, Mike’s very dogmatic definition of a friend is very twelve-year-old cut-and-dry. But if we look closer, the friendship of this group of kids is really based on trust, reconciliation and self-sacrifice for the sake of love. This idea is demonstrated again and again, like when Will first goes missing and all the boys’ parents tell them it’s too dangerous to join the search party, but of course they go and look anyway. When El tells them that the Upside Down contains a monster, they still pull out their compasses to try to find the portal to that world.

I think much of the appeal of Stranger Things is the friendship theme. After all, we too long for honest, loving friendships with others. If we can say that we have only 1-2 friends like that well, then we are lucky, no? And I also think it’s a story worth telling and embracing during this season and any season for that matter, because friendship of this quality leads to acceptance and inner and outer peace. Friendship of this level, just like in Stranger Things, can be salvific, resurrecting, healing.

For Christians, the season of Advent is mean to be a time of deep reflection, service to others, and development of spiritual practices. The Scriptures people read tend to be Hebrew prophets like Isaiah, authors who paint a pretty bleak picture of humanity that is full of war, corruption, greed, and fear.

Tucked within that negative narrative, however, is the belief that light breaks through it all—that we and this world are meant to be so much more.

That there are voices crying out in the wilderness telling us to prepare a way of peace and reconciliation—a way forward in the middle of an endless desert. Thus, while the world around us and the people filling the earth can often cause us to fear or to isolate ourselves, we can count on one thing being constant. The Creator God of Isaiah is mighty and powerful, shaping the beauty and majesty of the natural world. And yet, this God/Elohim is also a gentle friend to humanity. The prophet flips the world upside down as the valleys are lifted up and the mountains made low. The uneven ground is leveled, and the rough places are made plain. This is God’s doing and all of humanity sees it together.

Like the kids in Stranger Things who fear El’s mighty powers, we too can come to fear this Divine Elohim. But if we look closer, we can soon realize that fear is not what our relationship should be built on. No, in a world that is dangerous and alienating enough we long for connections that build peace and trust–including any relationship we have with the Divine. Some of us feel like outcasts, strangers, or someone on the outside looking in. We seek belonging and people who we can trust. Thus, finding a true friend can mean that we find a home or a family. Discovering friends who form bonds with us of acceptance and understanding, who are willing to recognize our suffering and share our love, make life worth living.

El was not to be feared, but loved and accepted. So too are we made to seek out friendships with others who choose to hear us, who encourage us to fully be ourselves, who love us as we are.

Friendship of this kind can move us towards peace. It’s not easy, to be sure, and peace does not mean the absence of conflict. In the Judeo-Christian scriptural tradition, peace is shalom, and this means “universal flourishing, wholeness and delight…a rich state in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed…a state that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in. Shalom is the way things ought to be.” [1]

So kudos to the friends in Stranger Things. May we learn from them. May friendship open doors for you and welcome you in. May bonds of love and acceptance drive you forward. Make shalom reality.

[1] “Shalom: The Real Utopia”.

Living in the Upside Down

Isaiah 64:4-6; 8, 9b   
Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for Go.
You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways.
But when we continued to sin against them, you were angry.
How then can we be saved?
All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.
Yet you, Yahweh, are our Parent.

We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.

Most likely you have at least heard the Netflix series Stranger Things, created by the Duffer Brothers. Or, if you are like me, you cannot WAIT for season three…

Stranger Things takes place in a small town in Indiana [full disclosure, I spent part of my childhood in a town in Indiana], and the story begins with the disappearance of a 12-year-old boy named Will Byers. Over time, we learn that a group of scientists has been experimenting on a girl with telekinetic abilities [she is called “11” because that is the number tattooed on her wrist], and Eleven eventually makes contact with a monster-creature that inhabits an alternate dimension, ripping open a gate between that world and ours. The creature crosses over and is able to take the aforementioned Will and another character, Barbara. I won’t go into any great detail, because I don’t want to spoil it for those of you who haven’t seen it yet.

What I do wish to focus on are the characters of Stranger Things and the two worlds that exist side-by-side and simultaneously: our dimension, and the alternative dimension, called the Upside-Down. First, let’s focus on a few of the characters, all of them friends: Mike, Dustin, and Lucas, and the missing Will. Eventually, a fifth member of their party is added, Eleven. These young friends are the main focal point for the narrative and end up acting as our eyes and ears throughout the series. For example, they give a name to the creature-monster from the Upside-Down—the Demogorgon—based on a creature in their Dungeons and Dragons gaming. They figure out with the help of their science teacher that the alternative dimension is an upside-down version of their world. Eleven, their new friend, becomes “El,” as Mike deems it the best way for her to blend in. These friends interpret the story for us as they assign meaning to all the that happening.

And what is happening is definitely strange and sinister. Not only is their friend Will missing; not only have they encountered El who is gifted in ways they could not have imagined; but also, there is not just one Demogorgon monster loose in their town—for the secret government facility on the outskirts is up to no good and holds the gate to the Upside-Down.

upsidedownSpeaking of the Upside-Down, it is a mirror image of our everyday world, but corrupted, toxic, gothic, and heavy. Thus, Stranger Things presents to us a reality in which the natural and supernatural coexist; a seemingly idyllic world of a small Midwestern town in the 1980’s contrasted with the death and danger of the Upside-Down.

SPOILER ALERT: as the story unfolds, we are presented with the mind-blowing and unsettling fact that the Upside-Down is not separated from our world. In fact, the Upside-Down can even be in us, around us—and if we look closely enough, we can spot the toxicity of the Upside-Down creeping into the roots and foundations of our lives.

Clearly, Stranger Things draws from a variety of mythological, spiritual, and religious traditions. The dualistic idea of two worlds coexisting is nothing new in many traditions around the world. Likewise, the contrast between a beautifully-imagined divine creation and a terrifying, fallen world may sound familiar to many of us. In Judaism and then the Christian religion that came out of it, these ideas were commonplace, that Elohim/God created the whole earth, universe, waters, creatures, etc., as beautiful and good. And yet, creation was capable of falling into a state of isolation and death, called Sheol or sometimes Hades.

During the season of Advent [four weeks leading up to Christ-mas], Western Christians read the Hebrew prophets like Isaiah with the recurring theme: though Elohim made the world good, people aren’t seeing this good and aren’t seeing God, for that matter. People wonder if God is absent or missing. The beauty of the world and of humanity has faded and crumpled up like fallen leaves.

The Upside-Down has become reality.

Yes, it’s true that the season of Advent is really not supposed to be candy canes, mistletoe, sleigh bells, and so-awful-that-they’re-good Hallmark holiday specials. Advent is a bit Debbie Downer; it’s gloomy; it’s too honest about the world; it does really feel Upside-Down!

But that’s the point, really. And that’s why I’m grateful for the great storytelling and wisdom of Stranger Things. We ought to be more honest about the state of our world and the state of us. We shouldn’t ignore the completely Upside-Down ways we follow in society and how we let people we don’t even know tell us how to live, who to love, what to eat, what to believe, how to express ourselves, how to think.

What is more upside-down than that?

No, if we learn anything from this upside-down season we are all living in, it is that we must let our curiosity doors be flung wide open, re-imagining a world in which all people are valued as they are and where violence is not the answer to anything. And indeed, that we are living in the balance of at least two realities—the one being the world we are conditioned to see and the rules we are told to follow. This world can of course trick us into thinking that everything is “normal” and “okay” when in fact it is just the opposite. For under the surface there are people crying out for justice; right inside our walls are voices begging for acceptance; lurking in the shadows are true monsters who only seek to control, manipulate, and destroy; our bucolic, nostalgic worlds are only surface worlds.

For behind every wreath, Christmas tree, and stocking is an Upside-Down reality.

And waking up to this is to embrace the Upside-Down hope of Advent. For the story of Advent isn’t some religious hocus-pocus or some doctrinal creed to swallow down your throat. This is a season of actively waiting—waiting and working for a better world, a kinder humanity, a peaceful existence. This season invites us to embrace the dark and the light as one reality in the world and in us all. For all the Demogorgons out there, there are just as many Els. And for any moment when we feel like Will, trapped in a toxic, lonely place all by ourselves, there are people who still can hear us. They are listening. They are looking for us. We are not alone. Peace to you this season in the Upside Down.

 

 

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