By Tommy Airey
Advent is almost here. As always, she sends us signs from the sun, the moon, the rising seas and the leafless fig tree. This season, she is speaking to me through a cough that won’t give up. The sinus pressure adds insult to injury. I am now convinced that these chronic symptoms stem from my inability to just say “no.” As it turns out, I have long been addicted to “becoming all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some” (I Cor 9:22). I share the codependent affliction of the apostle who confessed that his life was unmanageable too:
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate (Romans 7:15).
What is this demonic power that continues to propel me to not only pencil in more on the calendar, but to pursue it? There is a familiar restlessness within me that won’t go away. I’m learning that the secret to my spirituality is that I must come to terms with this truth. I am powerless. Mastery will remain a mystery. But acceptance is the first step to recovery. Only a Power greater than myself can bring healing and liberation. Only when I am broken can Steadfast Love spill out:
But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. (II Cor 4:7)
The fragile state of my soul chalice makes it contingent that I face the Fact of my finitude. I simply cannot do all things through Christ who strengthens me (Phil 4:13). This is the apostle’s do-all-things disease. It is the superhero banner flown high. The truth is that there simply are some things that I cannot do and many things I should never do.
Ministry is about heterodoxy. My mission to give my most to the least starts and ends with the dual proclamation that I am never alone.
1. There are other members and other bodies working contextually and creatively and consistently on the corners and borders and middles of the Big Puzzle too.
2. There is a crucified-and-risen Power greater than the Puzzle itself—and only She can see the picture on the front of the box.
Forty years ago, Walter Brueggemann chronicled a prophetic imagination committed to both criticizing the dominant consciousness and energizing it with a newness that composts what is dead within us and all around us. This vocation completely hinges on a God of Steadfast Love who is completely free from imperial claims of “in God we trust” and imperial demands to remove our caps and place our hands over our hearts to honor something counterfeiting Steadfast Love. This Power refuses to be strangled by the imperial leash. According to Brueggemann, God is
free to come and go,
free from and even against the regime,
free to hear and even answer cries of the oppressed,
free from all proper goodness as defined by empire.
This is the same Power that led Moses and the alternative community out of empire into the wilderness of Manna. This is the divine dream of one-day-at-a-time, the Sabbath release from debt, from obligation, from consumption, from power. This is a Presence beckoning me to put down my bricks. I’ve been piling up shame and sorrow, untended and unending. I’m slowly learning that my feelings are far more important than speed bumps on the road to building my brand and legacy. They are smoke signals arising from my soul.
Brueggemann exhorted readers that the beginning of the prophetic consciousness is the capacity to grieve. Things are clearly not as they should be. As they must be. My own confession today is that my congestion is not just about my chest and sinuses, but about my conscience and soul too. Radical discipleship digs to the roots. From the Latin “bringing together” or “heaping up,” congestion unveils the source of my spiritual sickness. Shame and sorrow join up to form a mucus that strips me of my voice and my energy and my clarity. I am living in a fog.
Shame is the false belief that I am never enough. It coerces me to earn my value and worth. To turn the eternal inheritance of Steadfast Love into an hourly wage. Sorrow reminds me that I will lose everything I love. I’ve already lost so much. Dead relatives. Broken relationships. Ditched dreams. Unprocessed trauma. And yet, sorrow is one of the secrets of the cross. Outwardly I am wasting away, yet inwardly I am being renewed day by day. I embrace this secret by grieving, which is the opposite of denying or numbing. It is the spiritual practice of actively breathing and letting go. With Lindsay. With a few precious others. With Nature. With my writing.
As I prepare for Advent, the season exhorting me to stay awake and alert to signs of Steadfast Love’s return–in the sun and the moon and the fig tree–I feel Her pleading with me from wheezes within. My congestion is met by a conspiracy (from the Latin “breathing with”) that reminds me I am never alone and that I have deep, inherited worth. No matter what. Just because. This is a game-changer, the good news that conspires against an epidemic of shame and sorrow. These will not have the final word. Advent is a timely reminder that the final word, Steadfast Love, is available to me right this second. Not by earning, but through breathing. Only this will relieve my chronic congestion.
Tommy Airey is a retired high school teacher and once-upon-a-time Evangelical pastor. He is the co-editor of RadicalDiscipleship.net and the author of the recently released Descending Like a Dove: Adventures in Decolonizing Evangelical Christianity. He and his wife, Lindsay, are blending a vocation of “soul accompaniment:” one part pastoral-counseling, one part spiritual-directing, one part advocating-for-the-most-marginalized. They live in Ypsilanti, Michigan.