I don’t like Howard Thurman’s “The Work of Christmas”. You know the poem.
When the song of the angels is stilled/When the star in the sky is gone/When the kings and princes are home/When the shepherds are back with their flock/The work of Christmas begins…
It is my least favorite Christmas poem, because it calls forth my least favorite part of Christmas. When Christmas is over. When the decorations need to come down. When the long, cold winters of my Western Pennsylvania childhood still loomed before me.
While my least favorite, it is also, arguably, the best Christmas poem. Because a faithful understanding of the Incarnation (“God with us”) espouses that Christ Jesus comes to bring forth the kingdom of justice and peace on earth. And so, we who follow Jesus are called to make the world more just and compassionate. There are plenty of other religions and faith traditions who reach this same ethical conclusion by different means, but it is with this theology in mind that Howard Thurman continues:
The work of Christmas begins: To find the lost/To heal the broken/ To feed the hungry/To release the prisoners.
Christmas, this year, was a muted affair. There was nowhere to go, and not much to prepare, so I was slow to rise. Perhaps it was the way that Christmas ought to be – contemplative and quiet, more Holy Day than holiday. The holiday came about a month later. When I woke up the morning of Inauguration, the energy was thick in the air. The “lock” screen on my phone was already densely populated with text messages from friends on the East Coast. Nothing of substance – just jokes and accompany screen shots. But also, in the background, there was a persistent claims. Text exchanges, phone calls, and social media posts all ended with an acknowledgement that there was still so much more to do. The work of Inauguration was just beginning.
More than two weeks later, Inauguration feels like the missing shepherd from a Nativity scene found behind the sofa on Groundhog Day It was from a lifetime ago, when the launch codes were held by someone who did not even bother to feigns concern for the state of the world. The frenzy of the threat to democracy and its subsequent survival has given way to something more aphonic. At first, I thought it was simply the exhale after holding our breath during that four-year trip down a dark tunnel: The relief that we might turn back the clock to 2015. (This is a delusion, but for upper/middle-class white liberals, it’s a welcome one.)
Now, I realize, it is also collective exhaustion. At the end of a recent outreach commission meeting at one of my congregations, I assigned a little homework. I invited the group to brainstorm other ways that we might better serve unsheltered folks and invite more folks to work with us toward ending homelessness in Sonoma County. Only two came back with the homework. Three people resigned from the group. And these are people who care. These are people who have been committed to the work of social change since long before Donald Trump told us that America used to be great, but wasn’t anymore.
I confess. I was flummoxed. It was a good moment for me to step back (for a moment), and refocus my efforts.
I realized that I had framed the conversation all wrong. When folks are exhausted, it’s not the time to look out and dream about everything that can and ought be done. It’s too overwhelming. I should have asked them, What is one thing we can do that will have an impact in the lives of unsheltered people? What is one thing we can do that will help end homelessness in our county?
In times of exhaustion, people need help staying on track. And I had failed at that: Not just with this one commission, but also in my covenant discipleship groups. These weekly small groups are intended to be an accountability structure for folks who are committed to their own spiritual growth in devotion and prayer and living out their faith in works of compassion and advocacy/justice. (Our groups had committed specifically to focus on the work of anti-racism.) Leadership is to be passed from person-to-person around the group in a highly methodical format. But in recent weeks, I realized that I had been faithless in keeping these groups on track. The groups had lapsed into talking about racial justice, and I’d happily taken up my role as permanent discussion leader, spending most of our time offering book titles and suggestions.
Why had we gotten so off course? Setting aside the reasons attributable to my own personal leadership weaknesses, I think the answer is: Because we are human. Because human begins talk about things. We are hard-wired to exchange stories, ideas, and memes, because in so doing, we create a common experience, a common entity, around which we can connect. Ala our ancestors encircling a fire, this is impulse is instinctual.
The work of social change – the work of Christmas and of Inauguration – is the opposite. I have come to believe that the best way to do this work is in the format (or one similar to it) of the covenant discipleship group. We need to do a fearless inventory of our actions and our lives. We need to make commitments to live differently, and then we need to hold ourselves and each other accountable for these commitments.
While most people I spoke with on Inauguration Day said there was still much to be done, they didn’t go as far as to say what the “much” was. And, for my part, I didn’t ask. We kept the idea of social change out there, beyond ourselves, as if it was an entity apart from us, rather than something that we would commit to doing in our everyday, ordinary lives. For some folks, it might because they actually don’t want to do the work. But that’s not true for those who participate in my small groups. Among the individuals who I meet with on a weekly basis are the most motivated and big-hearted folks that I know. And so, I think that this proclivity to distance ourselves from the work of social change something more akin to fear than fallacy.
When we talk about something, especially with those who are in agreement, we find security in community. When we make specific commitments related to our own lives, we are make vulnerable as individuals. If others know that we have fallen short, will they still love us? What if others are doing more or better work than we are?
And – this is the big one – what if, in so doing this work, we realize that we need change the aspects of our lives with which we are most comfortable?
I am reminded of Jesus’ conversation with the rich young man (Matthew 19, Mark 10, Luke 18). The young man is eager to connect with Jesus by asking good questions and giving the right answer. Then, Jesus says, If you want to follow me, sell everything and the money to the poor. That is, if you want to be a co-creator of this kingdom of justice and compassion, it starts with upending your entire life.
Far from a nostalgic return to seemingly simpler time, say 2015, this is a call to move into an unknown future. The work of Inauguration, like the work of Christmas, is work that requires a fearless look at where each of us is now, and the vulnerability to say, I will do something different, come what may. In covenant discipleship groups, I try to remind folks to make highly specific commitments. (If you say, I’m going to be a better person, you probably won’t be. But if you say, I’m going to stop engaging with trolls on Facebook, you might have a chance.) I also invite them to make these commitments in ongoing increments that both make change feasible, but also challenging.
So, what’s your work of Inauguration going to be?/Are you going to feed the hungry, to free the prisoners, to advocate for greater equity?/And what’s the first step you can take in doing this work?/Who are you going to tell about this commitment?/How will you go about holding yourself accountable?
This could be my least favorite Inauguration poem, and not just because it’s terribly written and pales in comparison to “The Hill We Climb”. But because such daily, difficult work is what it means to follow Jesus. And in doing the work of making the world more just and compassionate, we may find that it is not just the world, but our very lives, that change.