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An Advent Liturgy

[What follows is a Liturgy I created and which will be presented tomorrow at the church I have been attending since coming to Sarnia.  Five quick introductory points: first, in the story told by the second character (the so-called “Tax Collector”), I begin the story with an only very slightly modified letter taken from a website created by a feminist journalist, where men write about why they go to strip clubs.  Second, anybody is free to use this liturgy.  I can send the power point slides to anybody who requests them — which include the photo collections I put together, although you may want to sub out the pictures of people from my church and sub in pictures of people from yours.  Third, there are one or two lines that I edited at the request of the pastors in the story told by the first character (the so-called “Prostitute”).  I’ve gone back and included the lines I originally wrote here, because I like them better and think they are more honest.  However, if you use the liturgy, you are free to edit it.  Fourth, please note that the stories told are true, although each character is an amalgamation of people, and so I ask that they be treated respectfully.  Finally, I was working with a talented musician so all music was performed live.]

An Advent Liturgy
Opening Songs: The Transfiguration (Sufjan Stevens) and Oh Come All Ye Faithful
Kids Leave and brief opening remarks about the structure and style of the service. Participatory disorientation, confrontation, and reorientation. Warning re: images, content, triggers. Also, because the stories shared are sacred, minute of silent prayer and reflection will follow each one.
Opening “Parable” from the Philokalia [slightly amended]:
Abbot Lot came to Abbot Joseph and said: “Father, to the limit of my ability, I keep my little rule, my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence. I have set out my advent candles and have placed a new ornament upon the tree every day to anticipate the coming of our Lord. To the limit of my ability, I work to cleanse my heart of thoughts. I love God, love others, and tell the story. What more should I do?”
The elder rose up in reply, and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: “Why not be utterly changed into fire?”
Slideshow with Song – Images from Haiti, Tar Sands, Famine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Occupy, Greece Riots, Arab Spring, Japan, etc. [Song: “Hard Times” (Johnny Cash)].
First Litany
How long, now, have we been waiting for you to come back to us?
Almost eighty generations.  Almost two thousand years.
How long, now, have we been waiting for you to come back to us?
Countless wars.  Countless plagues and famines and floods.
How long, now, have we been waiting for you to come back to us?
We are bleeding.
How long?
We are suffering.
How long?
We are dying.
How long?
Our hearts are breaking.
How long?
Our minds are breaking.
How long?
Our bodies are breaking.
We are still waiting.
For salvation.
For healing.
For redemption.
For liberation.
For life.
For you.
Return to us.
Our voices have grown hoarse.
Return to us.
Our eyes have grown dry.
Return to us.
Our hands have grown weak.
Return to us.
Our hearts have grown hard.
We are lost without you.
O, come.
So lost.
O, come.
So lost.
Song: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
Read: The Magnificat (Lk 1.46-55):
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.
First Story (The Prostitute):
Whenever the Christmas lights first start going up, I always think of Becky. We used to party together back between 1999 and 2001. Then, in the Fall of ’01, she got clean. I’ve never been able to get clean for too long. A week here. A week there. A stint in rehab. A stint in a cell. That’s about it. Truth is, I can’t stand being clean. I can’t sleep. I start remembering things. Things I’m always trying to forget. Things that take control of me when I’m sober. And then I’m just left with the hurt, and the memories and the terror. I’d rather be high.
Anyway, like I was saying, Christmas always makes me think of Becky. After she got clean, she started pulling away from street life. She found a good man. A man who didn’t use and who wasn’t involved in the scene. They got a good apartment together. Small but no bugs. In December, she came downtown and I saw her for my last time. She was happy. She had gained her weight back. She looked good. Apparently, she was set to start a new job the following week. Good for her.
The social workers always tell us that us drug users are bad for each other. That we bring each other down and stop each other from getting out. I don’t know about that. Sure, I miss my friends when they go, but I’m always happy for them. Nobody wants to see their friends and sisters turning tricks in some lot off of Jarvis St. at three in the morning. We’re low track girls. No “Pretty Woman” scenario for us. Just lonely married men in minivans stuffed with baby seats, desperate fellows who can’t lay anybody else, and sadists and women-haters, who choose us because they know that nobody cares about a whore that gets beaten or a whore that disappears. Like all those girls who got killed on that pig farm near Vancouver. Or on the Highway of Tears. Or like Trinity. She tried to run from a trick and he cut her toes off. Dude was never caught. I doubt the cops even looked and the report never made the news.
So, yeah, I missed Becky when she got clean but I was happy for her. That’s why it made no sense to me when she jumped in front of that subway train a few days before Christmas. I guess they had to call in the fire department to spray what was left of her into a pile that could be tagged and bagged. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why she might have jumped… maybe she relapsed and couldn’t take the thought of losing what she had gained… maybe she’s like me and can’t face being sober for too long… maybe she started living the dream and found that it was just as meaningless as anything else… who knows. All I know is that it was Christmas time, the last time I saw her she was laughing, and then she died.
After everything that happened that Fall, she became just another statistic. Another Christmas suicide. Another person holding up trains full of commuters and shoppers, complaining about the minutes they are losing as the firemen hose down the tracks. I’ve lost lots of friends at Christmas. We’re bombarded with images of happy families, “holiday cheer,” and beautifully wrapped presents, and what are we doing? Sitting on a corner drinking cooking Sherry. Trying to stay warm. Trying not to think about the kids who were taken away from us. Pulling out dog-eared old picture of kids people haven’t talked with in ten years. It’s enough to make anybody stick her head in an oven.
Me, I don’t have any kids. Well, I had one kid but my old man beat that out of me when I started showing. Not because he was pissed that I had been sleeping around—he already knew I was sleeping around because he was pimping me out to his friends for beer money.  He had been doing that since I was seven years old, so long before my friends got their periods I already knew the secret of being a woman and I already knew that it involved bleeding. I wonder if Mary bled when God knocked her up. I know she bled in that stable when she was giving birth to Jesus. Bled like I bled. Screamed and cried and shat herself. Just like I did. Don’t see that much on the Christmas cards.
Those old guys used to line up outside of my room at night, waiting their turn. Talking and laughing and drinking beer or the home-brew we used to make on the reserve. So, when my dad found out I was pregnant, he made sure to beat me bad enough to lose the baby so that the doctors or nurses wouldn’t find out what was going on. I saw the baby’s arms and legs but they took it away and buried it somewhere in the woodlot before I could find out if it was a boy or a girl. How about that, eh? I couldn’t even name my baby because I don’t know if I had a son or a daughter.
Becky was kind of like a daughter to me. She called me her street-mom, but she died, too. I got drunk the other day and sat on Santa’s lap and said I’d like to hear from her, or maybe from my other baby, but Santa never came through for me. All he did was fondle me. So it goes with gods and men and Santa Claus.
Jesus never came through for me either. It’s all real nice and it sure looks pretty in those nativity posters, that Jesus came all those years ago into that stable – even if the posters don’t show all the blood and shit and don’t let you hear the woman screaming or smell the smells of birth mixed with the smell of barns – but why hasn’t Jesus come to save us? Why didn’t Jesus come and save Becky? Why didn’t Jesus came and save me, when all those men were lined up outside my door? If not then, why doesn’t he help me me out on the days I try to go clean? Why won’t Jesus help me sleep?
Every Christmas, these Christians celebrate Jesus coming to earth – God with us, they call him – but every January the weather gets colder, there’s always somebody who freezes on the street or in an apartment with no heat, and every year I lose a couple more friends. January is always hard because everybody did all their giving and all their spending in December and once the new year starts everybody seems resolved to forget about us for the next eleven months. I don’t know, maybe God is in those warm and well-lit homes but he sure as hell ain’t with us.
So, tonight I’ll get high again because I don’t want to fall asleep and I don’t want to hear the thoughts that go through my head when I lay down in bed. Better to stay awake. When I can’t take it anymore, I’ll pound a two-six and pass out with the TV blaring. It’s hard enough to sleep in general, but unbearable to lay down on a silent night. Every noise, every creak, every voice that passes in the hall or rises from the street, brings me back to those men lined up outside my door. I need a lot of booze and a lot of noise to sleep. The silence terrifies me.
But I guess that makes me a statistic too, eh? Abused girl goes on to become an addict and sex worker, what a boring played-out story that is.
Minute of Prayer and Silent Reflection
Song: Silent Night
Read: The message from the angels to the shepherds (Lk 2.10-14):
Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!”
Second Story (The Tax Collector):
Every guy has his reason for going to a strip club. Poor guys go because they want to feel powerful. On the way to the VIP section, I see them sweat as their carefully hoarded dollar bills dwindle. Bald guys go because they can’t get a date. Insecure types go because they never learned how to talk to a girl. Lonely guys go because they have nothing else to do and nowhere else to go.
Why do I end up in a strip club every couple of months?
In a word: therapy. The girls there will listen. I know they don’t care about my life. That’s not the point. A girl is sitting next you totally naked. You don’t worry if she is judging you. You can say anything.
Who else can you talk to?
Your business partner? Can’t afford to show weakness.
A friend? His wife is friends with your wife so you have to be careful.
A therapist? I’ve been trained to walk off a heart attack. I never go to a doctor much less a therapist.
But the pressure builds and builds. You lose a big contract. Your junior partner gets arrested for drug possession. Your wife keeps pointing out how all her friends went on another vacation to Dubai. Your daughter crashes another Mercedes. Whatever. You have to unwind or you start punching holes in the drywall.
That’s where a strip club helps. Of course it’s all fake. The sugar-sweet smiles. The fake boobs. Watered down scotch.
But on another level it’s as honest as can be. You pay a fee. For this, a naked girl sits on your lap and listens.
It’s ludicrous. I’m forty, drive a Bentley, have traveled the world, and am fully clothed. The girl is half my age (at least), drove her mother’s Hyundai to work, hasn’t been out of the state since a trip to Disney World when she was ten and is stark naked.
But she listens for a bit and all is right with the world. That’s why I go.
Don’t get me wrong. I love my wife. She’s beautiful and stupid and makes other people jealous of me when I go out. Exactly what you want in a wife. But can I talk to her? No. I need to relieve the pressure that is building, and all she wants to do is talk about fashion, and food, and the latest art films coming out of Europe.
Because, here’s the truth: most of the time, all is not right in the world. Sure, I’ve got it all – the investment banking job, the trophy wife, the house, and car, and boat – but something’s missing.
It’s not even that I feel bad for the backs I’ve climbed over or stabbed to get to where I am – that’s life. It’s a game, and that’s how it’s played. We all know that, and if you don’t know it, then you don’t deserve to play in the first place. This is the real world. In a fantasy land, maybe we could live differently, but we’re not there and so we do what we have to do.
So, yeah, I know that I’m a good person. I work hard, I look after my family, I sit on the Board of a couple of charities, and I give a lot of money away. Goodness isn’t missing from my life.
So what’s missing? I’ll tell you:
A few years ago, I was walking from Union Station to my office in the Scotia Tower when I saw a young fellow holding a sing that said: “Are you free?” I got thinking about it all and I realized that what’s missing is my freedom. It’s as though I’m running down a mountain and what started as a snowball has turned into an avalanche and I need to just keep running otherwise I’ll be smashed. How can I be free with all this weight behind me, chasing me, hurtling towards me? Just keep running. Never stop running.
Are you starting to understand why I go to strip clubs? For a moment I can sit. For a moment I can talk honestly. For a moment I am free.
I was thinking about this the other day when my wife and I were at church – Christmas is a wonderful time of year to go to church, isn’t it? Carols, and candles, and hope. Remember what it was like to feel hopeful? When you were young and the world seemed infinite, along with your possibilities? Those were the days.
So, at church, one of the carols we sang had this line about Jesus: “Chains he shall break, and in his name all oppression shall cease.” I don’t know how that can be. Look at the world we’re living in. Jesus came. Jesus went. Who is free? Am I free? Is my wife? My daughter? Is the priest free? He’s not even allowed to marry, let alone touch a woman’s body!
Are you free? Are any of us?
The only Jesus I know is a naked twenty year old girl. If it weren’t for her, I don’t know where I would be. Maybe you think that makes me a terrible husband or father but I’ll tell you this: if it weren’t for that naked girl, my marriage would have ended years ago. Maybe that’s not as black and white as you want it to be, but that’s life in the real world. Not life in some beautiful story book about a god who came and went. A god who is supposed to be coming back, but here we are two thousand years later, and I’m not going to hold my breath waiting. Just gotta make the best of it and you better believe that I’m gonna make the best of it. If that means things are a little worse for you, sorry about you’re luck. Like I said, it’s all a game, and games always have winners and losers. I intend to win.
Minute of Prayer and Silent Reflection
Song: O Holy Night
Read: Simeon and the Sword (Lk 2.25-35):
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was just and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.’
And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
Third Story (The Church-Going Christian):
Dear Jesus,
Thank you for providing us with another beautiful day. Thanks that the visit with family went so well—it sure is nice watching all the kids play together—and thanks for providing us with good weather and clear roads. Three generations together and, boy, have we turned into quite the mob. Since we’ve all had children it’s as though we’ve become as numerous as the sand on the seashore… thank you, Lord. It’s a beautiful thing. Christmas dinner on the table, presents under the tree, lights in the window, stomping the snow off our boots and having a hot glass of apple cider—everybody is just kinder this time of year.
But, you know Jesus, sometimes I have a hard time understanding how to identify with any of the people in your story. I’m not like the shepherds – I’m not poor and marginalized. I’m not like the kings from the East – I’m not wealthy and privileged. And I’m not like anybody who has been visited by angels or visions or dreams from God or anything like that. I’m just me, Lord. There’s nothing “extreme” about my life. And your life did seem pretty extreme. You were homeless, there were all those miracles, you were hanging out with a whole mix of people – from revolutionaries, to poor day labourers, to prostitutes and tax collectors – and that doesn’t sound anything like my life or my friends. How am I supposed to be a part of your story?
Still, we get by okay, I guess. I pay my taxes, I’m never late for work, and I tithe my ten percent, plus that other ten percent I give to international NGOs. I get up. Make breakfast for the kids. Go to work. Come home. Eat dinner with my family and do the dishes after. I read my son a bedtime story and listen to my daughter talk about boys and pop music. If I’ve got any energy left, I’ll read a chapter of a book before I go to bed and then I’ll fall asleep and do it all again the next day.
But here’s the catch, Jesus: I’m not sleeping too good these days. My wife and I don’t seem to be connecting all that much, kinda just going through the motions, and sometimes I feel like we’re passing like ships in the night. Reaching out and trying to love each other in ways that don’t mean the same to me as they mean to her. I don’t know… maybe it’s just having kids. People say it’ll get easier when the kids get older. Maybe we need to just keep on keeping on.
But sometimes I’m so lonely at night when I’m awake that I think about turning on the computer and looking at things I shouldn’t look at. Or I think about that woman at work who has been awful nice to me, who is always laughing at my jokes, and who touches my arm a lot when we talk. I’ve started bringing her little presents sometimes – harmless presents, you know? – but sometimes I wonder about her. I wonder if I would be happy with her. I wonder what it’s like to kiss her. She seems to understand me and my wife seems to be more and more of a stranger.
I know those are terrible thoughts, Lord, and I’ve been praying for you to take them away, I’ve been praying for your help to reconnect with my wife, but I still can’t sleep and I still keep ending up here. I don’t know what else to do. Sometimes I think I should talk about it with a few of the other fellows at church – maybe even go for coffee with the pastor – but I can’t seem to bring it up. Everybody else seems so happy and put together. And, while I’m sure they wouldn’t judge me for anything, I don’t think they would really understand anything either.
I don’t know, Lord, I lay here and I lay here and I lay here and I start thinking thoughts I can’t put away again. Like, really, Jesus, what are we all doing here? Living our little lives, working our little jobs, loving our little families, paying a mortgage on our little house? Is this the “abundant life” you promised us? Putting away money so that we can take the kids to Disney world next summer? Shouldn’t there be something more going on? Shouldn’t there be something more to all of this? Work forty hours a day, five days a week, for fifty years (if we’re lucky, what with the way the economy is going), and then retire, watch the kids do the same thing and die surrounded by loved ones (again, if we’re lucky). Is that abundant life? I mean, it’s nice and all, at least on more days than its not, by it doesn’t seem like “new creation” or “abundance” or “Spirit-infused” or whatever else you want to call it. Sometimes, it just feels so mundane. So boring. Sometimes it even feels pointless.
Besides, isn’t everybody else living the same way, whether they know you or not? Isn’t that a little strange to you? It is to me. Forgive me, Jesus, but when the lives of your followers look just like the lives of others, then it kinda makes me wonder if you’re hanging around at all. What difference does it make? Why am I not out there getting drunk with the guys from my work? Why am I not going out for dinner with that lady I mentioned to you? Why don’t I just turn on the computer at night to look at websites while my wife is sleeping? Why do I follow all these rules and take all this time being careful for the sake of others, when it doesn’t make my life look or feel different than the lives of anybody else? Is this all a joke? Forgive me, Lord, but sometimes I feel like I got scammed.
Because I lay here on the couch and I talk to you, but you never talk back. You never say anything. No “still small voice,” no dreams, no angel choruses, no signs. Nothing. What kind of relationship is this? If my daughter was dating a guy who treated her this way I would tell her she was being abused and I would tell her to leave him! How does this make any sense? I don’t want to leave you, I don’t want to walk away but it’s almost like you’re trying to push me away. Can’t you say or do something? Anything?
Because the days and nights are starting to bleed into each other, on and on they go, and I just feel further and further away from you. Not that I want to be away from you, it just feels like we’re in two separate currents and I’ve been trying to hold onto you, but the currents are pushing us in different directions, and I don’t know if I can hold on forever. One more day, maybe. I can hold on today.
Help me, Jesus. I don’t want to hurt anybody or let anybody down. Lord, have mercy. I just want to be a good person and love others. Christ, have mercy. It ain’t easy.
Minute of Prayer and Silent Reflection
Song: O God Where Are You Now? (Sufjan Stevens)
First Discussion Session:

  1. What does all of this have to do with Advent?
  2. Does it seem odd or out of place to hear stories like these at this time of year? Should it?
  3. Should we hear stories like these or see images like these in church?

Second Litany
 What comfort can you give us in our longing?
Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.
 What comfort can you give us in our places of godforsakenness?
Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.
 What comfort can you give us as we wait?
Christ has died.
 What comfort can you give us – the beaten, the weary, the raped?
Christ has risen.
 What comfort can you give us – the widowed, the lonely, the visitors at our children’s graves?
Christ will come again.
 What comfort can you give us – those who are dead yet still alive?
Christ has died.
 We are alone.
Christ… has died.
 Like Simeon and Anna we grow old waiting for the Messiah.
Christ… has died.
 Will Christ come again?
 And if he tarries, what will he find?
 A wasteland. A valley full of bones. A world once full of innocence and life, now defiled and dead.

 What comfort can you give us in our longing?
Slideshow with Song: “We Wish you a Merry Christmas/Jingle Bells/Joy to the World Medley” with similar images to the opening now interspersed with images of people from the church.
Quotation displayed during discussion:
By the way, a prison cell like this is a good analogy for Advent; one waits, hopes, does this or that — ultimately negligible things — the door is locked and can only be opened from the outside. [Bonhoeffer; Letters and Papers from Prison.]
Second Discussion Section:
1. What do you think or feel when you see images from this community juxtaposed with other images from around the world?
2. Do you identify with the other people shown? Why or why not?
3. Have you ever felt godforsaken?
4. What do you make of that quotation from Bonhoeffer?
5. If we have been abandoned by God, or if others have, how can we come together to survive that experience?
Minute of Silent Prayer and Reflection
Eucharist and Closing Song: [I Will Survive (Cake version)]; people can go up for the Eucharist while the song is playing but they will serve themselves and there will be no one to hold the bread and wine or serve for them.

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  1. Thanks for revealing the identity of Daniel Imburgia over at the other blog. And to Daniel (Jesus)–thanks for pressuring Dan to put this up (and for dying for our sins and all that…).
    Thanks for posting, Dan. Somewhere before on your blog you mentioned how you treat the stories of the disinherited (you didn’t use that word, I don’t think) as sacred–just like you do in the liturgy above. I am not entirely sure how you parse that out, but it has stuck with me. The context of my work at a community clinic down here in Texas allows me to hear many stories of the marginalized in a somewhat intimate setting. In hearing these stories, I am not sure “what to do with them” if that makes sense. I am wondering how you came to describe stories–like the ones offered above and ones that you may have shared elsewhere–as sacred.

  2. I appreciated your liturgy. Thank you. The world seems to be predicated on suffering without reason. Subjected to futility. And I can’t say personally that I feel saved by hope. Alive through fear, perhaps… I suppose that most of all I appreciate your open tabling of being godforsaken. I don’t think I am, but I don’t want to go to hell because I considered it a possibility. (I don’t know if there is a hell, but I don’t want to find out by turning up there). And, equally importantly, even if I’m not, but others are, where does that leave God? What kind of God is that? Where is God? I hope he is coming.

  3. Godforsakenness is a big theme of yours, but aren’t we bordering on the downright heretical here? Just because most of us can’t seem to have a satisfactory “relationship with Jesus” as defined on our terms does not mean that God’s not around or involved.
    I personally think that this idea is weird. I once read John Cleese spell out that thinking we understand God is like our cat thinking she understands us. So therefore a relationship with Jesus isn’t a straighforward affair like hearing his voice in our head or something like that. To me it’s more a foggy trust in someone almost wholly unknown and unknowable.
    I wouldn’t worry about spelling this out if it wasn’t for the number of people who think they are Godforsaken just because they can’t seem to hear back from God. I’m not immune to this, but I’m trying to graduate away from this mindset.
    I suppose that this is the strenght of someone who grew up a catholic (although I suspect that Eastern Orthodox are the same). We’re not overly familiar with these eveangelical tropes and so they don’t haunt us as much.
    Okay, I’ll get off my soapbox now and stop hogging your blog.

  4. If this post is bordering on heresy, then the prophets were heretics.
    I don’t know… maybe some of my thinking in this regard has been influenced by my Evangelical childhood, but I reckon it has been more influenced by my identification with certain “mystical” streams within Christianity (streams that are not foreign to RCs or EOs, I should add — Mother Teresa knew a thing or two about it, and about godforsakenness as well, just to pick one recent example). More than that, however, it is influenced by all the folks who I know and have known who are and were quite literally dying because (in part) God was not saving them.
    Maybe as one successfully pursues upward mobility it becomes possible to “graduate away from this mindset”, and I’m glad that the idea of godforsakenness is “weird” to you — may it always remain that way — but, sister, you’re not gonna make it any less real for others by talking that way. A God who is “wholly unknown and unknowable” may be all well and fine for folks who are doing alright, but for those who are dying another kind of God is needed.

  5. Sorry about the delay. Life’s been busy taking services to a gazillion little bush churches and avoiding hitting the roos at dusk on the way back…
    Maybe my answer is a bit sybilline but the prophets were not heretics because they were preaching before the advent of Christ. After the events of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection I don’t think that we are permitted to think that God is anything else than Emmanuel, God with us.
    Therefore to my mind, going on and on about being abandonned or forsaken by God borders on heresy because there are heaps of sayings and metaphors in Jesus’ own words that constantly affirm that God is with us and will remain with us until the end of the times in lots of different ways.
    Thus God is around, always, and God is involved, always. It’s just us who are not very good at perceiving this because we are waiting around for our own understanding of who God might be or what God might do or how God might choose to relate to us.
    In a sense then, Christianity is almost oppressively positive and joyful. We do believe that God is with us and loves us no matter what. There is a cool novel that was written about this called Friedemann Bach by Albert Emil Brachvogel. It’s a work of fiction but it basically depicts the misunderstanding between the resolutely joyful J.S. Bach and his angst-ridden son Wilhelm Friedemann. It reminds me of how oppressive upbeat Christianity can be to someone who’s not in that place.
    The mystical streams you are talking about refer to the “dark night of the soul”. I’m not a world expert but I think that most mystics who write about this would not say that God had ceased to be with us, but that it felt that way to them. I think that most Christians have experienced that at one point or another. It’s great stuff because you never realised how incredibly huge your longing for God is until such times. And as Calvin’s dad would say in the Calvin and Hobbes’ cartoon, it builds character.
    I’m not a huge fan of Mother Theresa. I’ve had a browse through memoirs written Colette Livermore -formerly of her order- and she seemed utterly deranged. She would not let her nuns hang out with nuns from a different order at conventions, would send out super scary pictures of Jesus with a million bleeding wounds for the nuns’ devotion. There are reports that the conditions in her orphanages and hospice were atrocious (the wikipedia entry on her is quite detailed and well referenced btw).
    In relation to the recently published letters in which she expresses massive spiritual dryness over years, I personally think that she should have taken a break and learned to be on the receiving end of human love. I may be mistaken but it seems to me that at times she was not in a place to minister to others and shoud have been ministered to.
    The tone of your above comment makes me wonder if you’re going to deem me worthy of your time for much longer. I am not graduating from this mindset because I am pursuing a path of upwards mobility. In fact I’m starting to look at cheap trailers because I might very well end my life there. I don’t want to set aside massive amounts of money to buy a house. It doesn’t feel as good as giving it away and so I’m a useless saver.
    But then again, I’m relatively young so who knows whether I’ll be content with the lilies of the field for the next 50 years or so. Just recently I was visiting one of my Christian mentors in hospital. He owned nothing but a nearly empty bottle of cheap store cologne and some 20 year old jumpers. I think that he is my mentor even in that. The rest of that story is so dear to me that it is not for public consumption.

  6. Continued from the above…
    The thrust of my initial comment above is that this idea of “having a relationship to Jesus” is dangerous because a lot of the time Jesus does not feel like a buddy that is like your best friend that’s always around to answer all of your questions and you can have beer and pizza with. Well, he doesn’t feel like that to me anyway.
    He’s God incarnate, the same God who created the whole entire universe, so a bit of decorum is in order. I don’t adress him lightly with my everyday issues and I don’t expect God FM to be running nonstop in my head.
    Thus, while the concept is initally attractive for pastoral purposes (“you have a friend in Jesus”), it is destructive when people realise that Jesus is not always much of a day-to-day friend in the way we would understand it. Consequently, they feel abandonned because Jesus does not seem to be that for them. And this per se is very destructive!
    You could reply “well if that’s what people need then that is what God should be for them, and I can’t understand why God isn’t that for them”, but my point is you shouldn’t have taught such dodgy theology to start with.
    I agree with you though. It’s harder to talk about a God who is “almost wholly unknown and unknowable”. It’s couched in terms that are too far removed from daily life. And so I need a readily understandable way of explaining it as a matter of urgency. And yes, that God is of relevance to those who are dying. More than the seemingly absent God-the-best-buddy.

  7. I don’t buy it. Everything you’re saying simply sounds like obfuscation and a way of avoiding a full confrontation if not with your own sufferings then with the sufferings of others as narrated and experienced by those others (and your exegesis smells like Marcionism and remains weak even based on the NT alone).
    I remember you once saying that, due to the devastation and death involved with the Holocaust, it was inappropriate to speak of it at all (or something like that). Where does your oppressively joyful Christianity fit into that? “Oh, hey Ms. Camp Survivor, God isn’t your best buddy or anything but, you know, God is always there even if God makes no discernible difference in you life.” To which the appropriate respond is: “Fuck you” and maybe even “fuck God” if you’re right. Or, if you remain silent in the face of the Holocaust, what makes you play so fast and loose with the sufferings of others like Becky?

  8. Hey DanO, I am looking fwd to that post on how folks ‘at church’ responded to your liturgy! (what kind of church was this again?). Oh, and also your review of “The Tree of Life.” Btw, have you seen he movie “Babe,” yes the one about the little pig and the sheep etc., I think it is a most profound reflection and critique of culture/god/humanity/late-modern-commodity-capitalism etc. I would never let children see it of course, unless they first had a thorough grounding in Marx, Althusser, Foucault, and Heidegger. My own kids still remember how it took us a week to get through the movie with my constant pausing and interjecting boring didactic diatribes (they mostly won’t watch movies with me anymore). When we were recently watching the “Tree of Life” together and the Dad (Brad Pitt) would act like an tyrannical asshole i would squirm a bit and not look them in the eye. Babe is more Calvinist than RC but it’s still worth a look.
    Eventually I want to share with you some Dalit poetry since you mentioned that you don’t often find non-Rilke poetry interesting etc.. I have been working on a project for some time exploring the relationships between and comparisons with ‘Liberation Theology‘ and ‘Dalit Theology‘ (you are probably familiar with Dalits and their liberation movements etc.? they are the “untouchables” in India). The kind of god-forsakeness you speak of DanO often sometimes resonates in Dalit writing. At the same time it also has an affinity with the kind of perspective about God’s being in the world that Dany writes above as well, as least as much as I understand you both. The following is from Arundayam,“Some Stray Thoughts: Where is God?”
    “There was heaviness in my heart, A loneliness cut me through, Have I put my trust in God in vain? Have I placed my feet on slippery ground? Vain was the faith in a caring God. Vain was the trust in a loving Father, For God is with the wicked in their pleasures, A slave of them of them that seek for themselves, He prepares a table for them anywhere they want, And spreads a carpet for them wherever they walk, He makes them shine like holy men, And gives the honoured places in His Church, and in His Heaven, palaces decked with jewels; But for these, they must fade and fall, Like flowers in the forest, With not a soul to watch, nor a tear to mark their end; Form dust they came, and to dust they return…and no God cares. …But then thought I.
    The sun had set and it was dark, All around was silence — The silence of Death; And while I looked, I saw a flickering light far off; I made for it; a man was digging a little grave; Thought I, who must this man be, who has strength enough to dig a grave for his little child? He was weeping as he dug; his sighs were deep, and his sobs loud, And he was alone, amidst the corpses that lay all around.
    With fear in my heart, I approached the man digging the grave, in the flickering light, He turned his face to me; Lo, it is Christ! His eyes were red with weeping, and his face wet with tears, Jesus wept; He said to me in a low voice, through sobs, Why dost thou do this to me? I thirst, I starve For in as much as ye did it not to these, ye did it not to me. I am dying. Why dost thou break my heart? For in their afflictions am I afflicted, In their deaths I am crucified.
    Then was my heart grieved and I was pricked in my reins, I had almost said in my heart, Thou dost not Care, So foolish was I and ignorant, I was a beast before Thee.
    Ye who praise him in the sanctuary, Ye who call on him with doors all shut, Open your eyes and See your God is not Before ye, He is there in the land of desolation, Alone, In The dark Amidst the corpses, Starving with the millions that starve, Dying with the millions that Die”
    I am hoping that speaks something to the both of you. I haven’t shared the experience of the Dalit untouchables (yet). And I don’t think that I can impose or insist that experience on someone else and judge them for not being as wretched as many Dalit are (or as miserable as I am!). “Despair is the absolute extreme of self-love. It is reached when a person deliberately turns his back on all help from anyone else in order to taste the rotten luxury of knowing himself to be lost.” I think Thomas Merton has a point here, and he addresses one kind of experience of despair. But there are others kinds of despair that are not solipsistic, but caused by crushing sorrow that is not chosen and may not be bearable and for which the possibility of love has perished, and the self has become such a site of ruination that to speak of God’s love is to be a blasphemer…almost. But if we ourselves, when our faith is gone, and God’s presence is lost to us, and our will is broken, will even then go down, all the way down, and take up a stinking shit covered near corpse into our own arms, then we may whisper of the love of Jesus to him or her. And no matter how deranged or eccentric we might be, God will either find us both there or we are as good as dead already.
    We comfortable compromisers that are dwelling in peace and plenty need to be forcefully confronted about *our* heresies of privilege, self-righteousness, gluttony, mythologies of god-given entitlement, and willful ignorance of the truth, etc., and that is what I think DanO’s extraordinary liturgy does. Damn, a great quote from Hans Jonas just occurred to me but I have taken up way to much space already, so next time. Great to meet you Dany, DanO, always a….well interesting challenge, obliged, Daniel.

  9. Again, sorry for taking a bit of time to think about all this. I’m not certain that my answers in the heat of the moment are always the best (in fact I’m not certain of my answers at all, at any one time…).
    I’d like to say that health, peace, plenty are good things. It’s so obvious to me that I can’t believe I’m spelling this out. Health, peace and plenty is what we desire for everyone, but we should not be prepared to achieve it for ourselves on the back of the suffering of anyone else. That’s our issue and it is both a global one and a local one.
    I was just thinking about Dan’s recent piece on nonprofit organisations, and the way in which they allow the wealthy to hoard goodness as well as goods. I think that unfortunately we are also allowing the wealthy to hoard the comforts of religion while the people dying on our streets can’t relate to it.
    And in this sense Dan Imburgia’s quotation above is just awesome and our responsibilty is very directly involved.
    In response to Dan’s comment above. I very much hope that I am not playing fast and loose with anybody’s feelings, and certainly not with Becky’s or anyone in the same situation. I was only attempting to show that a certain culture has created expectations about the ways in which God is present to us, and that these expectations let people down.
    I still believe that God is present to us always and at all times. But God failed to stop what was going on in the concentration camps, God failed to stop Becky from jumping under a train and God failed to be present to the cognition of millions of people undergoing horrendous experiences. So our reaction can be either to hate God, to doubt God’s goodness or existence, or to seek to ensure that human beings receive the kind of solid grounding in faith that doesn’t let them down even in such instances. We can remain silent in stunned horror at the mention of the holocaust, and still be thankful for the Maximillian Kolbes who handled them as well as they could, by presencing God as much as they could for themselves and for others.
    I don’t walk around offering glib answers to “ms camp survivor” and neither does anyone here. This is a discussion in pixels that involves no real life camp survivors. But for the sake of argument, I’d be interested to know what Dan’s two lines answers would be:
    “Oh, sorry you believed in the words directly ascribed to Jesus Christ that he would be forever with us. As it happens, God has left the picture and has abandonned us. So now we’re all sitting around deathly sad and brotherless, clamoring for God to come back”.
    Again I don’t believe that Dan would ever use any lines remotely similar to this, but I’d be genuinely interested to hear about his approach to handling the godforsakenness he encounters in others.

  10. In part, my answer is silence. The point of those experiences is that there is no answer — certainly no joyful answer, oppressive or otherwise.
    Therefore, when I break my silence, I choose to echo the cry of godforsakenness that arises from others. This liturgy is, in part, my answer although it is delayed and not spoken to the first person who asked me the question. When confronted with such experiences and such questions, what can we do but echo the questions?
    Perhaps in that way, our groanings will become loud enough to reach heaven so that God will hear and remember his covenant with us and come down to act on our behalf (just as occurred prior to the exodus, when the groans finally build up enough to break through to God — like the cry of the Whos in “Horton Hears a Who”… been watching more kids movies these days — and God is then said to “remember” and take action… I know, I know, another story from the OT, sorry to keep referencing that godforsaken part of the Bible!).
    And, yes, until that time, we are sitting around “deathly sad” but we are not “brotherless.” We can be brothers and sisters to one another until the time when God returns to us. Besides, isn’t that the call the ends the part of the Bible you like? Maranatha, come quickly, Lord Jesus! This is a cry that arises not from a backpacker in Cyprus, but from a survivor and a member of a small community of people who are being violently persecuted and killed. That changes the tone of that cry, eh?
    Until the coming of God, we can refuse to forsake one another and we can also refuse to forsake the forsakenness experienced by others. That, I think, is a part of what “solidarity” means. Not only with “the poor” but also with Christ whose cry from the cross and whose descent into hell sets the trajectory for those who are willing to follow him. After all, Christ threw open the gates of hell not only so that the captives could get out but also so that we could get in.
    I appreciate the conversation, Dany. Don’t take my tone or strong language as a sign that I think any less of you in all of this. xoxo

  11. Yes there is a place for echoeing the felt Godforsakenness which we encounter, and I agree with everything you say in that last comment. But isn’t there also a place for some solid cathechesis that can build people’s resilience a bit.
    In the goulags, Russian peasant women who could not read or write refused to work on Easter day. They told their masters to get f*cked pretty much. As they put it, they were ready for death or the parousia, whichever might come first, and in the meantime they’ll be serving God, thank you very much. They were forced to stand barefoot on ice for the whole day and sang hymns. It was the gulag masters who gave in.
    Now this is quite different to echoing the felt godforsakenness that people feel and in my mind it is at least as good a response.

  12. OK. Kind of late to the game here.
    I gotta admit, in reading some of the comments between yourself and Dany, I find myself saying “Amen” to both of you at times.
    Can we not distinguish between the objective and subjective here?
    Objectively, God has not forsaken anyone and is present there in the midst of whatever sort of suffering and torment a person or community may be experiencing. Trite comments about God being with people in their suffering aside, this is true, and objectively so. Right?
    Subjectively, of course we often feel Godforsaken and rightly so some of the time. Fuck, I don’t know.
    All I know is that God speaks. That in Jesus we see who God is (as Mary shits herself in the stable, as Jesus freely suffers and dies in agony, as he rises up from the grave etc). Of course, God’s presence isn’t obvious. It’s hidden. It is not easily discernible.
    Because honestly, could you point to any of the folks in the stories you told above and say conclusively, “God has forsaken you.” I hope not, because then you’d be a fucking asshole and I’d be more inclined to believe God has forsaken your sorry ass. So, where does that leave us?

    • Hey JT,
      Good to hear from you. I would say two things in response:
      One: I don’t think we can know anything as objectively true. All our knowledge is subject — which is not to say that objective truth does not exist, it’s just to say that we cannot know such truth objectively.
      Two: For the person who undergoes the “subjective” experience of godforsakenness, the “objective” hidden presence of God doesn’t really matter all that much… if at all. When all you feel is forsaken by God then, in that moment, whether or not God is actually there behind the scenes is irrelevant. Or, perhaps, is relevant only to the extent to which a person making the choice to believe in this blind leap of faith finds his or her sufferings to be alleviated in some manner. I think I touch on that in this post on trauma:
      I’ll get to your Paul email soon (been away from home visiting the wife’s fam).

  13. Dan,
    I am in agreement with you on your first point. However, I would simply want to note that the tension we experience in our subjective experience of the objective only lends, in my opinion, to the legitimacy of the objective. Of course I agree that we are grounded in particularity, and yet this objective reality seems constantly to be impinging on us in our subjective experience of it.
    On your second point I am in less agreement, although I agree with you to an extent. I agree with you that we truly do experience godforsakenness and that this should not be short-circuited with the promise of God’s presence. I would want to say though that faith, hope, and love serve as a foretaste of that reality which is breaking into the present. That it is breaking in suggests that it is not yet fully here (perhaps this is where feelings of godforsakenness arise?) but we must agree that in one form or another this is already a present reality, albeit one that is yet to be fully realized. So then, that God really *is* present with us is anything but irrelevant in the face of godforsakenness.
    Anyways, I shall read the post you linked to.
    Hope you and the family are well.
    Peace to you.

  14. In other news, I finally got around to viewing “The Tree of Life” (at the insistence of Daniel Imburgia) and I’m debating on whether it is a much better statement of this liturgy or a rebuttal of it or both.

    • Next may I suggest “The Apostle” with Robert Duvall and then to round things out “The Shoes of the Fisherman,” which I am watching through again and writing an essay on. blessings on your new journey.


  • God is just not “there” for me. « turtology December 28, 2011

    […] of the Christian faith. A while back Dan posted an interesting liturgy he wrote during Christmas on the theme of godforsakenness. While I disagree with Dan that we are indeed godforsaken I understand that, subjectively, it is […]