What Advent Isn’t

I have this sneaky suspicion that most Christians don’t really understand what advent is. Or, rather, it’s not that they don’t get what it is so much as they don’t get what it isn’t. Everybody – Christian or not – can tell you that the “reason for the season” is more than Santa and gifts for Christians, and a few will even point to what the word advent means – a “coming,” a hope that “God with us” will be a reality we experience. It serves as both a reminder of the birth of Jesus but also points to a future hope of God’s breaking into the world to redeem it from its brokenness.

In that sense, we seem to get that advent is about hope despite despair. And that’s an important message. The world is filled with reasons to doubt that anything good will happen for us, and advent seems to indicate that we still have reason to be thankful, encouraged, optimistic. But this is also where I think we get advent so dead wrong.

Advent is not about your circumstances changing. It doesn’t offer that kind of hope. But that’s the kind of hope we seem to be most hopeful for. Because it’s tangible. When we’re sick, we pray for a cure when there may not be one. When we’re alone we long for someone to fill that void, but they may not come. When we’re out of work, we search and search for something to come along and pin our hopes on a job coming through, but even if one does, that is no evidence of God’s presence in this world. Yet, we seem incapable of separating our material happiness from what God has done for us, and that couldn’t be more off.

God has not blessed you by giving you a job or a spouse or good health or money in the bank. To say as much is to suggest that for those who have-not, God has damned them. And it means when those things suddenly don’t work out for you, when your circumstances change, you feel abandoned by God. It’s a cheap understanding of God and how God works, and it’s a good reason for people to give up on God and on the Church if that’s the kind of hope the Church rests on.

Of course, we like to assume when we ignore the other side of that coin, the poor lot for whom things didn’t work out, that we would never suggest they’re damned in saying that we’re just happy for us and what God has done for us. That’s all we mean, we say. But, too often, I see that mentality playing out when I see justifications of why the poor are poor: that the have-nots didn’t work hard enough, that they must not have trusted God the way the haves trusted God or “prayed without ceasing” the way the haves must have. The people who believe this are many, and I’m convinced they’ve never spent any real time among the poor if they can believe that God works in this way.

Advent is a time to acknowledge the coming of “God with us” for Christians, but it is not an all-powerful God, like a super-hero, who has come to offer to change our circumstances or fix our material problems; after all, he didn’t even offer to change his own luck. He took it to the rood instead. That is, it’s a different kind of hope this God offers, one that says there can be joy despite how bad things are. That doesn’t mean we are to be content with our circumstances or give up trying to make them better. It means we understand them differently regardless of how they turn out. There may be no cure to the illnesses, the broken ways of life, but there can be acceptance and healing of wholeness despite whatever end they bring. And that’s near impossible to wrap our heads and hearts around. I think we may even have to be broken pretty badly before we learn to accept it, and I fear sometimes not all of us get there. But whether we do or not, I think we need to be careful about how we celebrate what we think “God” has done for us. I think we should check ourselves if we ever suggest others deserved less, didn’t work hard enough, didn’t pray hard enough or trust God enough. Christmas, at the very least, should be a time where the God with and present to us isn’t present to us because of what lot in life we’ve been dealt. Otherwise, it isn’t Christmas.

A Happy Eid from America

Today is Eid Al-Adha, and it’s the first one in three years where I wasn’t helping somebody slaughter a goat. Instead I spent most of the quiet Wednesday working on editing my novel while it rained outside. Maybe it’s the rain or the fact there’s a little cold mixed in with it, but it felt like Eid today. It feels like Thanksgiving and Christmas are just around the corner, and I’m already eager as all get-out to bring on the Christmas music. Funny how Eid would kick in the American holiday season for me. It’s a stunning realization, really, to recognize that a holiday that isn’t my own, perhaps because of the solidarity I feel toward the many Muslims I came to know and love, is now a holiday that carries a deep meaning to me. I marked it by firing off a few messages to some of my Moroccan friends and exclaiming, “Happy Eid!” or literally, “Mbrouk!” Congratulations!

For the Columbus weekend, I took a hurried trip to Nashville to see a couple of friends, and on my way into the city, right around Charlotte Pike on I-40, I filled with this sense of excitement I haven’t felt in a long time. It was a sense of belonging, really. Nashville: This is my city, I exclaimed to myself in the car. Kinda silly in hindsight, but having been born there, I feel I can stake a claim to it. I suppose when I lived there, I probably had some things to gripe about, but there’s very few places I’ve ever returned to where I got that excited to be there. I can think of three besides Nashville – Lakeshore, Rabat, and San Diego.

I guess it’s funny to me how a place can get under our skin and make us feel so at home, even to the point that later on in life there’d still be remnants of those places, such that I’d give a quiet little nod to Morocco on Eid or shout with joy when I saw the Batman building in Nashville or just be excited my plane – on its way to Seattle a few years back – made a pit stop in San Diego. In a way, I think, we become the places we go. And we leave our little mark on those places while we’re there, as briefly as we may grace that little spot. That’s why it’s so important to be mindful of where we’ve been and where we’re going and to never forget that one informs the other. It’s like my mother’s insistence to “never forget where ya came from.” I think it’s just as important to never forget where you’ve been.

So, to my Muslim friends out there – and to my other friends, too – happy Eid. It’s a good day to be thankful.


More than Just a Song, Part Two

This should be obvious, and it’s been pointed out recently, but a little over a hundred years ago, if you wanted to hear music, you went to the symphony. You might have heard one great piece once and then never heard it again. Contrast that with today. We carry our own personalized symphony in our pockets. A song that could be heard only once in 1880 can now go with us no matter where we go. Technology has enabled us to make music an everyday part of the human experience. More than that, music is something that connects us. How many times as a teenager did you seek out someone with “similar music preferences” as a friend or romantic companion? Did you ever dance with someone to “our song”? Did you ever have a song that got you through a breakup?

The emotional drama of music pulls something out of us that we may not be able to speak or word. But we’re able to hear it in the sounds shared by others. We can play it so many times through our headphones that we bore ourselves with it, tire ourselves of it. That’s pretty fascinating, you know, that we can essentially carve a song into our lives.

And so, as we live those lives, our musical tastes and preferences change with us. What we listened to in high school is something that can hear to conjure up nostalgia – throw us back to a specific place or a specific time. I can’t listen to REM’s “Night Swimming” and not think about working as a camp director where I would lifeguard at night always playing that song for my camp. I can’t hear “Christmas in the Room” and not think about the year I fell in love with Christmas spending a cold, snowy few days in the heart of America with the first girl I really loved. That’s what music is about to me. It does more than just provide background noise to our lives; it tells our history. I could catalog my life in song.  And in a way that’s what these last two blogs have been about.

And yet, I couldn’t even really begin to do that. In Part One of this post, I set out to highlight some of the really meaningful songs of my life, but as I started to do it, I realized that list was too long. There’s just too much music that has spoken to and moved me to the core of who I am.

But I figured to close this blog out, Id pick three songs that have deeply affected me in the last few years – a song that had a hand in propelling me to Morocco, a song that, in so many ways defined my experience in Morocco, and a song for where I am now. The first is a song I obsessed over in the wake of my grandfather’s death. The second is a song that defined life living in a desert. And the final documents what the last few months of the job search have been to me. Of course, if you’d like to hear all the music from both blogs, here is a link to that, too.

So, here ya go. I hope some of this music will touch you as much as it has me:


Jesus and Adoption: Some Surprising Facts in Light of the Recent Debates on Gay Marriage

Those in favor of traditional marriage argue that marriage exists for the sole purpose of procreation and to maximize the likelihood that a child is raised by both biological parents.  Whether you agree or disagree with gay marriage, the idea that any marriage exists solely for procreation is anti-adoption.  This argument suggests that straight, single parents or sterile parents shouldn’t raise children.  And it’s just a little scary hearing the Christian right trumpeting blood relation as the “ideal.”  But let’s face it: they wouldn’t be making this argument if it weren’t for the way they have historically read their Bible.

There’s been so much writing on the issue of homosexuality and the Bible, that I’ve no interest in dragging that dead horse out and beating it over the head one more time.  But adoption and the Bible is a topic not many people have discussed, and it’s an important topic surrounding this debate.  I thought I would take a moment to ask, “What does the New Testament have to say about adoption, or similar forms of fictive kinship?”  So, here’s five interesting topics you might not have known about Jesus and adoption fittingly timed with Easter:

1. Jesus, the adopted savior.  Jesus is adopted not once, not twice, but three times in the Gospel of Matthew (and Luke).  The first one is an easy one: when Joseph learns that Mary is pregnant and it’s not his kid, he plans to divorce Mary (Mt. 1:19) until an angel instructs him to take the child as his own and name him Jesus (1:21).  So, Jesus’ birth begins with a scandal and questionable origins.  Keep that in mind.  Later, when Jesus is all grown up, God descends upon him at his Baptism and says, “This is my son, whom I love; with him I am well-pleased” (3:18).  This heavenly and public declaration takes the form of a naming ceremony where God “chooses” or “adopts” Jesus as his own.  And this happens again at the Transfiguration as an exact repeat (Mt. 17).  This time Moses, also a Biblical adoptee, and Elijah appear in a bright cloud, and a voice booms out repeating the naming ceremony from Ch. 3 with the emphatic addition, “Listen to him!” (17:5).

Admittedly, the adoption stories are a bit oddly-placed.  If God made it clear to Mary and Joseph that he was the biological “baby-daddy,” why also adopt Jesus later?  Biological parents don’t usually need to adopt their children.  One possibility, however, is that the adoption becomes a public display of Jesus’ sonship, like a proud parent saying to everybody on the football field after the great play, “Heck yeah, that’s m’boy!”  Thus, while biological parents don’t need to partake in the legal process of adopting their children, they do regularly “claim” their children in a proud moment, which can be regarded as a metaphor for adoption, a term that is often interchangeable with the concepts of being “chosen,” “claimed,” “called,” “placed,” “named,” etc.

A different perspective that I like is that the adoption story (of Jesus’ Baptism) was written first, as it appears in the Gospel of Mark, and the Christmas story (which is missing from Mark and John) was a later, embellished fabrication written to drive the point home that Jesus was God’s literal son in the flesh, not just a special helper God called “son.”  In fact, if the adoption story is taken to be true, the Christmas narrative may be an attempt to take the scandal of Jesus’ beginnings and turn it into something good.  However, scholars are not in agreement which was written first – the adoption story or the Christmas story.

If we’re to believe anything historical about the Christmas story, I think it’s also worth noting here that Jesus’ earthly family wasn’t your typical, or ideal, adoptive family.  One parent, Mary, is Jesus’ biological mother.  However, some scholars believe that Joseph could have been the biological father, as well.  After all, when the text says that Joseph and Mary were “betrothed” to be married, this was different from engagements today.  In Jewish betrothals, it was expected that the wife moved in with the husband once the two were engaged.  Thus, sexual relations were not exactly unheard of during this part of the marriage process.  If we are to take Matthew or Luke at their word, there is a third parent – God – who is both a biological and an adoptive parent of Jesus.  It’s a complicated family, to say the least, and I’ll say more about that later.

2. Adoptionists and other Adopted Gods.  There is ample evidence suggesting that there were some early Christians called “adoptionists” (also called “dynamic monarchianists” or perhaps even “Ebionites,” though this distinction is complicated) who rejected the birth story and who were therein labeled heretics.  These Christians would have rejected early concepts of trinitarian theology (that Jesus, like the Father and the Spirit, was fully divine), because they didn’t equate Jesus with God.  Instead, they saw Jesus as a special prophet, appointed and adopted by God but not necessarily divine.  This shows that even in the 1st and 2nd centuries, people were trumpeting blood relation and did not like it when someone suggested that Jesus wasn’t related to God by blood.  Sound familiar?

Of course, we need not think that adoption was always given a negative portrayal in the Greco-Roman or Jewish milieu.  To the contrary, being called a “Son of God” was pretty common in the 1st century, so there was nothing revolutionary about Jesus referring to himself as God’s adopted kid.  You even see this today in churches where people refer to themselves as “God’s children” or a “Child of God.” You also saw it among the Emperors.

Upon the death of Julius Caesar when Octavian becomes the new Emperor through posthumous adoption, the Latin “Divi Filius,” “Son of God,” is used not to highlight Octavian as divine but to highlight his adoptive father, Julius, as a god.  Thus, blood relation was, by no means, the only way to attain divine kinship, and it’s worth asking whether the author of Mark (et. al.) was interested in drawing connections to Jesus’ imperial contemporaries.  Roman citizens who heard that Jesus had been adopted by God would have, no doubt, been reminded of the adopted, divine Emperors, Octavian and Tiberius.  Whether a non-Greek author would have gotten the reference is less clear.

3. Paul’s interest in adoption.  Of course, while Jesus is adopted by Joseph and by God, there is no legal language in the Gospels indicating adoption.  The Greek word for legal adoption, huiothesia, doesn’t show up in the text until you begin to read Paul’s epistles.  Now, this is a curious thing.  Paul rarely mentions Jesus as an historical guy walking around Galilee.  When he talks about Jesus, he’s usually just talking theology: he’s talking about Jesus as God, not Jesus as a human.  On a few rare occasions, he refers to Jesus’ biological brothers (1 Cor 9:5) and to Jesus as having Davidic lineage (Rm. 1:3), so one of the big questions surrounding Paul is this: what did he know about the historical Jesus? Or more specifically, for the conversation at hand, what – if anything – did he know of Jesus’ adoptive origins?  Could those origins have influenced his theology?

Paul mentions legal adoption five times in his letters (three times in Romans and once each in Ephesians and Galatians).  All of the references are pretty similar and they usually sound like this one from Galatians: “But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.  Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father.’  So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir” (Gal 4:4-7).

So, Paul knows Jesus was “born of a woman” and that he was born “under the law” (meaning he was a Jew) and then turns to say that Jesus’ purpose was to legally adopt his followers.  So, he makes two historical statements about the life of Jesus, neither of which clarify paternity, and then suddenly jumps to a lofty theological statement about Jesus’ ministry in terms of adoption.  Perhaps Paul’s commentary about Jesus’ role in “adopting” his followers is another historical statement about Jesus as an adoptee who rejected biological kinship to instead favor kinship formed out of obedience to God. To understand that, we need to consider what, exactly, Jesus had to say about kinship.  Was Paul right when he suggested that Jesus wanted to “adopt” his followers?

4. Jesus tells us to hate our family.  Jesus was known for saying some pretty radical things.  It’s worth noting that he didn’t think too kindly of biological kinship: “Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.  And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple'” (Lk. 14:25-27).  It’s become pretty common to dismiss such hard sayings as hyperbole.  Some Christians will suggest, “Oh, Jesus didn’t really mean you should ‘hate‘ your family.  He just means don’t put your family before God.”  Other Christians look at this text and argue that Jesus is only interested in highlighting role reversals (e.g. later in the chapter, he favors inviting strangers to your wedding instead of your friends).

I’d like to suggest that Jesus’ commands to “hate your family” may have been related to his biological’ origins.  I told you to keep the scandal in mind, didn’t I?  I mean, look at what we know: Luke tells us that Jesus wasn’t welcome in his hometown (Lk. 4:24); at an early age, one of the only stories of his childhood in fact, Luke also tells us that Jesus runs away from his family.  When his mother admonishes him from running away, Jesus responds that he went to his “Father’s house” (Lk. 2:49).  Can you imagine being Joseph and hearing your son say, “I went to my real Dad’s house.”  This could indicate tension between Jesus and Joseph, a character who drops out of the Biblical narrative almost as soon as he was first mentioned.

Moreover, it is very likely that, growing up, the scandal of Jesus’ birth followed him around everywhere.  Even after his death, the scandal of his birth never really goes away.  For example, Origen tells us of an anti-Christian writer named Celsus who was arguing as early as the 2nd century that Jesus was the son of a Roman soldier named Panthera.  While many scholars have dismissed this claim of Celsus’, it’s worth mentioning because it demonstrates the difficulty Jesus could have had shaking the claims of bastardy.  After all, being a bastard – or a mamzer in the Hebrew – would have delegitimized not only Jesus origins but also his ministry, as the mamzer was forbidden from entering the Temple, according to Deuteronomy 23:2.  A mamzer, by the way, was not simply someone born out-of-wedlock but also born from a sinful sexual act, particularly prostitution.  Perhaps the reason isn’t welcome in his hometown, and the reason he enters Temples where his origins are unknown can be connected to this history. At any rate, if Jesus ever struggled with his adoption or with questions of illegitimacy at all, it would be no surprise that he would eschew biological kinship to instead favor kinship formed with God.  So, while his statement may, indeed, be a form of hyperbole or of displaying role reversals between the “least of these” and the “greatest,” it stands to reason that we should also consider how Jesus’ own family life affected his views of family values.

5. Jesus’ family values aren’t always hateful.  While on the one hand, Jesus tells us to hate our family, he also redefines family: “Then his mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him because of the crowd. And he was told, ‘Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, desiring to see you.’ But he answered them, ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it'” (Lk. 8:19-21). Of course, one way to read this is to view it in light of what I already said about Jesus’ potential disdain for his family. Perhaps not letting Mary and James (or another brother, perhaps) near him is just one more jab at the biological family. Was he suggesting, then, that his mother and brothers had not heard or followed the word of God? (Also, where is Joseph?).

Regardless of whatever ill-will Jesus may have held toward his family, I suspect that he is more interested in redefining the family as a unit based on obedience to God. On the one hand, that’s not exactly adoption. On the other hand, it’s so starkly against blood relation that it’s a heck of a lot more like adoption than it is being born into a family. It’s kinship based on choices, after all.

In any case, Jesus’ family values should really raise some serious questions about the importance conservative Christians today place on blood relation.  Jesus did not think of a family as existing for the sole purpose of procreation with a biological father and mother always present.  His own family didn’t even meet those standards.  It was, instead, a complicated family with only one clear biological parent, and two, if not three, fathers whose paternity was disputed to say the least.  If we’re going to construct modern legal language around the Bible, let’s at least be clear that the Bible isn’t exactly clear on what the family should look like.

Why Being a PCV in Morocco Matters

To my friends still there, I came across an article this morning about six Fezi youth who were recruiting for Al Qaeda in the Maghreb.

It’s Christmas Day, and I know not all volunteers are with family or friends.  It can be a rather lonely time to be a Peace Corps Volunteer.  I know when you read this, you’ll think of some of the faces of the youth you know and work with and how much we come to care for our friends there.  There is no better fight against terrorism than the good work volunteers do.  There is no better fight against terrorism than simply loving our neighbors, and it’s sad to see guns and militarism unraveling the good work being done.  There are some of us who are still dreamers that for every bomb dropped or gun fired, we might double our efforts to provide aid where it’s needed and welcome.  Keep up the work you’re doing, the simple work of just caring for someone for the sake of caring for them.  It matters.

You’re all missed.  Happy Christmas.  M’brouk l3id dyalna.

Silence of the Lambs, or what I like to call, Abdelqader Day

“Fouaaad.  Fouaaad,”  Soufianne chanted my name from his bike as I walked up to the gate of his house.  Calling it a ‘gate’ makes it sound like a nice, walled-in community of some such.  It’s technically the gate to the local fish market, of which the house is just conveniently connected.

I yelled at Soufianne that it was time for the sacrifice and entered the house.  I was greeted by his mother and two clobbering little footsteps running toward me with a giant cheesy grin.  Abdelqader.  This five-year old is seriously nothing but footsteps and baby teeth.  I haven’t mentioned him before, mostly because he drives me up the wall every time I visit my landlord’s.  I mean, seriously.  He’s an imp.  He’ll get in my face and just start yelling, or he’ll steal my phone and try calling people, like the time he called Peace Corps.  Most of what he says I cannot for the life of me understand, and I finally realized today that it’s at least partially because he has a lisp.  Which is also why the whole family laughs at half the things he says.

It was still pretty early in the morning, around 8:00 or so, and Rakia brought me an egg sandwich, which I scoffed down hoping to fill up before I had to eat liver and stomach fat.  When it came time for the slaughter, it happened pretty quickly.  There are, I guess you would say, slaughter-specialists who walk around town with a knife going house-to-house killing sheep and goats.  Sounds like something from a horror film, but it’s actually pretty smart considering you want the death of the animal to be quick and painless, and not everybody knows how to do that perfectly.  Basically, folks wait for the King, Mohammed VI, to do the first sacrifice, and immediately after, it’s goat genocide city.

We had one sheep between six of us today, which should be enough meat to last the family for a good while.  I “helped” raise the sheep up onto a hook in the fish market where we tore it up and pulled the insides out, but I wasn’t near as eager to help with this year’s slaughter as I was two years ago.  I was fine standing back and taking pictures.  At one point, I even took an hour-long nap and woke up to Abdelqader punching me and yelling my name repeatedly.  For some reason, I could not bring myself to be annoyed with the kid today.  Maybe it has something to do with it being the end of my service, but even with him trying his darnedest to drive me up the wall, I just thought he was absolutely adorable the entire time, so my album ended up being mostly pictures of Abdelqader doing ridiculous things.  At one point, in fact, I opened the gate, and Abdelqader was running toward me with an axe half his size, yes running with an axe, that he was bringing to his father so they could cut up the meat.  At first I thought, “Aw, he’s helping his dad.”  Then, I thought, “That can’t be safe.”  Then I thought, “Yup.  You just let a five year-old run around with an axe and didn’t even bat an eye.  stime to go home.”

I’ll spare you the details of liver kabob, twenty glasses of sugary mint tea, and an incredibly awkward conversation with one of my former students who is now engaged.  Today was really just Abdelqader Day, so I’m gonna stick with that.

At lunch time, I turned to ole Abs and said, “Alright, have you packed all your things, so I can take you to America next week?”  His mom laughed – “He doesn’t have anything except the clothes he wears.”  His eyes just wandered around as he listened with them while munching on our sheep tajine.  Give this kid some food, and he’s immediately silenced and focused.  After lunch, everybody just sort of lounged around doing nothing.  I got that food coma feeling you get around Christmas or Thanksgiving, you know, when everything just feels nice and comfortable, and everyone is finally for just five minutes able to relax with the background noise of the Macy’s parade or some holiday movie playing lowly in a dimmed room.  There’s nothing to get too excited about, and that’s what makes everything truly exciting.

As I was resting there on a wool rug with sheep belly in my belly, I started thinking more about Abdelqader and the fact that he didn’t have anything but the clothes on his back.  But then, when I looked around the room at this wonderful family and their close ties and love, I realized we weren’t all that different when it came to holiday traditions.  Our reasons for celebrating and the ritual itself may be world’s apart, but like any American holiday, it all came back to family and the sacrifices family are willing to make for one another.  My joke about taking Abdelqader with me to America might have gotten a laugh from the family, but in all honesty, he has what matters right here in Morocco, right in that little house next to fish souq, and I can say that as someone who is thankful to have experienced that kind of love as I was growing up, and as someone who would trade all my silly belongings to keep it.  Because it’s what matters.

As I go my way and leave Abdelqader behind with his lovely family, I do wonder what he will make of life here in this beautiful Kingdom.  I meet so many Moroccan youth who often tell me that they long to go to another country or to America.  I get why.  You hear all these great stories about the “land of opportunity,” and I certainly understand the struggles of a developing country.  I realize I’m incredibly privileged to even have the opportunity to view both worlds and comment on them.  But when I hear some of those cynical concerns, I always hope a little that they don’t have to traverse a whole ocean to see how beautiful Morocco can be.

So, there you have it: Abdelqader Day.