I returned to States for Christmas to discover that my friend Bruce Fisher had passed away while I was out of the country these past couple months. I am sorry I was not able to be here to remember his legacy with you all. I am reposting this edited reflection from last year in his honor.
“You have performed a mitzvah.” At the time I had no idea what a mitzvah meant, but as I served a Christmas turkey in a tarp covered tent by the light of a menorah – no one needed to define the word for me to get a sense of the meaning.
It is now two years ago, that a group of young adults from Grace Church and I carried the turkey, and all its fixings, down to the Occupy Delaware campsite. I had been drawn there because something in me needed to understand how this movement was so effective in capturing the hearts and commitment of so many in my generation; and also because part of me sensed that there was something of the teachings of the Hebrew prophets that I loved being incarnated in that space. Yet, as we trudged down there that night, there was no way we could have known what a sacred moment we would witness as the devout Jewish couple, who lived on the site and taught at the local college, led the group in lighting the menorah candles. Now when I hear that phrase Occupy Advent, that we bandy about on social media, all I can think of is those flames lighting gentle faces at our own Occupy Advent celebration in the midst of its convergence with Occupy Chanukah.
I knew that there was something special about these people since the moment I met them. I had been drawn to the site my first week in Wilmington in the same manner that the Israelites had been drawn to the Jordan River to watch John the Baptist holler at the religious leaders that he called “a brood of vipers.” And I’ll admit the first young man who greeted me as I wandered into the campsite alone that first night responded to me in much the same manner when he discovered I was clergy, falling backwards over himself at the sight of “The Man.” Not sure why I always fess up to being clergy so quickly, but I think it has something to do with the fact that Jo Bailey Wells once told me that she was questioned by a priest in Sudan who was confused regarding our modesty about clerical identities in the United States. He did not understand why we were bashful about our identities when it caused us no danger, when for him the cross and the collar that he daily wore could easily mean death. After hearing that appeal for solidarity, I have not found a reason why I am willing to hide my vocation – not the fear of feeling awkward at a party; not the likelihood of creating a buzzkill on a date; and not even the certainty of raising the heretic alert and inducing pitying, condescending vocal tones from acquaintances who disapprove of female clergy. So I fessed up, as usual, and sent the young Occupier scurrying to mock-hide behind a friend.
Within a few minutes, however, I was deep in conversation with a kind Presbyterian man who reminded me of Forest Whitaker, in one of his more gentle roles, and was there to stay awake and sit watch all night for the safety of the vulnerable. “Welcome home,” was the first thing he said to me as he enveloped me in a big hug and made me a part of that family during my first week in a new city. Then he settled down to begin his long night of waiting and watching over his flock. “And lo, there were shepherds in the streets keeping watch over their flocks by night…”
I learned a lot about waiting and a lot about Advent from these gentle, loving people – even from the rough ones, the friends with an occasional foul mouth – “Sorry pastor!” – maybe not just occasional. I don’t think they’d appreciate it if i sanitized this description too much and made our life together look too quaint and Christmasized. Even while I did not always agree with all the methods or signs that each person took up, that was not the point, because they did not necessarily always agree with each other either. The point was that despite their different opinions and methods, they were united by a common faith that things could and would change and a willingness to sacrifice and suffer to await the advent of a new day. I found myself wishing the Christian movement contained as much determination, solidarity and willingness to live simply. There are many of us who long for that, which is what I think inspires movements like Occupy Advent, The Advent Conspiracy, and Rethink Christmas. We cannot help but long to see for ourselves the words of Mary as we celebrate the birth of her son, “God 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.”
What these Occupiers really taught me did not hit home until a year later, however, when I was watching a video from “The Work of the People” at a church where I preached. I was a little surprised to see good old Stanley Hauerwas from my Duke Divinity days pop up on the screen; but I was even more surprised when he explained, in his slow Texan drawl, why it was that my Advent at Occupy had been so powerful. It was because much like the many amazing Jewish leaders that populated the Occupy community, the movement contained hope that was powerfully and terribly determined. I watched them as people with graduate degrees and people with or without high school diplomas slept side by side as equals in the rain and sleet and snow – and all because they believed with fierce determination in hope and equality. All because they believed that no matter how hard things looked and no matter how heavily the deck was stacked against them – they could make a difference, things could change, and justice was possible.
Over the course of the year, as we celebrated shabbat and Passover together, Ash Wednesday and Easter, they became much more to me than “protesters” and I became much more to them than “clergy.” They even occupied my ordination, coming to Philadelphia from Delaware to stand in support of me as the Bishop laid her hands on my head and said, “take thou authority.” One of the most powerful parts of my ordination, the part that will always linger in my memory, is their presence, their support, their love and their belief in me. They were willing to come to a place where none of us imagined they would be when we first met, because of the power of community and solidarity and trust. Part of why I came down there that first night was to make sure they knew they were loved, but it was I who learned about love, about hope, about patience and about long-suffering from them.
They taught me what Advent means and how it should feel – in the end it was they who performed the mitzvah.
So when you think of Advent, when you see “Occupy Advent” stream by in your Twitter feed, do not take it lightly – reflect on the change it requires of us; think of my friends that slept out in the cold and rain and snow because they believed in a vision of justice where everyone had enough. Think of the Israelites waiting and waiting through persecution after persecution, many which Christians committed against them, because of their belief in the promised Messiah. That kind of waiting takes more faith, takes more trust, takes more endurance than I think I am capable of mustering on my best day. I don’t want to live with such a flimsy faith, I want to have a heart prepared to welcome my Messiah. I want to Occupy Advent – to live as if God’s promises are true – to live as if God was serious in all of those prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures – not just the prophecies that required something of God, but also the prophecies that required something of us… require something of us.
“Now this is the commandment that The Lord your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and Occupy…
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, The Lord alone. You shall love The Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” -Deuteronomy 6:1-9
In other words, live like you mean it.
Bruce did, now may he rest in peace.