Here we are again, back to the beginning, starting the story for a bujillionth time. Advent. Can we rouse the bones once more?
Advent surges with hope — that beautiful, beleaguered word. Some of us have lost so much in our world, and the tally of what we’ve lost grows by the day. We’ve lost compassion and goodness. We’ve lost our shared humanity, our faith in mercy’s long unfolding. We’ve lost respect. We’ve lost neighborliness. We’ve lost, if we ever had it to begin with, our sense of responsibility for one another.
But the grief that keeps me awake in the night, the sorrow I carry in my soul, is my fear that we’re losing the one thing we must never lose: hope. Some of us have lost heart.
And so here Advent arrives, belligerent and unyielding. She stands amid the rubble of our history, our heartache. She stands unflinching in the face of our cynicism. She receives our wounds, our fears. And she clears her throat, invites us near and begins to recount again the story of Jesus: a crucified man who bore the weight of evil alone before an empire, a religious machine, a circle of friends who abandoned him when everything was on the line. Jesus, though fully acquainted with grief, would never surrender hope, could never surrender hope. Jesus knew that God wins in the end.
If you want to know why I’m a Christian, it’s this: Hope. Advent tells me the story over and over. Advent insists that God is acting in the world and that goodness gets the final say. Have hope. Light the candles. Sing the songs. Push against the darkness. Rouse those weary bones once more. Advent on.
Do you, like me, have those moments that give you a soul-deep sigh, that lighten your heart, that keep you willing to bet your last dollar that the whole thing is for real and God is actually with us? These wisps of wonder aren’t nearly as often as I’d like, but often enough to return me to the center, to notice the light cracking through, to keep watching for the magic.
These flashes are rarely earth-bending, but ordinary graces. It’s spending most of the day reading letters and journals from a dear old soul who, in ordinary language and plain cadence, makes me know I’m not entirely insane, that mercy is abundant and most of the BS we know is BS actually is BS. It’s feeling that jolt of joy when our youngest walks through the door, me breaking out in applause, because he’s kicked middle school to the curb and I’m so proud of who he is. It’s hearing our oldest in his room, even in the late, late hours, belting out his tunes as he vigorously hits the licks on his guitar–realizing this is my favorite music and it won’t last forever. It’s watching Miska from the window as she tends to her garden, stunned yet again by the beauty, elegance and mystery of this woman who owns my heart. It’s a goofy gif text from a friend, or a note that says “wish you were here so we could throw steaks on the grill.” It’s a subtle pleasure, remembering every hour or so that tonight the family’s heading to Plaza Azteca to celebrate the end of the school year with tableside guac, fajitas and tacos. And laughter.
Don’t get me wrong: there’s plenty of sorrow, fear, trouble. But these graces, these plain, scattered mercies, are enough of a good word to lift the heavy heart and coax me on.
It’s something like Walker Percy’s lines: “It’s a question of being so pitiful that God takes pity on us, looks down and says, ‘He’s done for. Let’s give him a few good words.’”
These few good words prove enough to buoy us, to rouse us to our life. Though they are unexpected and unbidden — always out of our control — we live by these ordinary moments of divine kindness.
A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Isaiah
There’s a reason we must have Advent before Christmas. We must reckon with the dark if we are ever to be truly embraced by the Light. We have to know we’re in trouble before we have the good sense to cry out for help. We have to feel our aloneness in order to open up to the wide arms of grace. We have to know we’re lost in bad country before we gain the good sense to follow the God who leads us home.
Isaiah reminds us that God takes us through the wilderness, not around it. This is good news since life will, sooner or later, carry all of us into the rugged, isolated, despairing badlands. Eventually, all of us will have to walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
So here we are, waiting. Some of us are waiting alongside a grim diagnosis. Some of us are waiting while our family teeters on the brink. Some of us live in persistent anxiety, a low-grade fever of fear and tension. Some of us think where we are is all we’ll ever know. Some of us have surrendered hope. Some of us have forgotten the God who makes a way through the wilderness.
But God has come to us once in Jesus, and God will come to us in Jesus again. God has led the people through the wilderness once, and God will lead the people through the wilderness again. And again.
Some of us have surrendered to irreparable despair, a vortex of exhausted gloom that’s drained us of everything good, leaving only hopelessness and resignation as we withdraw into isolation. Some of us have succumbed to a swift-burning rage, an incinerating force that’s consumed our perspective on our common life and fueled an inferno charring every vestige of our joy, faith and goodwill. God knows there’s justification for either. These are troubled times. More senseless killing. More entrenchment. And the saddest thing: I could write this on almost any Monday; little would need to be altered.
Both of these responses, different as they are, seem to be the wounded responses of those of us who are overcome by futility. Are we so lost we will never be found? Are we, as a people, so collectively infested and diseased that we will never be healed? Perhaps we have crossed our Rubicon. Perhaps it is indeed the time to throw up our hands and retreat into our cultural silos and just finish out best we can. Or perhaps it’s time for the final, desperate measure: maybe we should light the torches and burn the whole thing down. Perhaps.
But surely you know me well enough to know I don’t believe that at all. I may flirt with capitulation and despair for a day or a week, but I’m a man of faith. I’m a man of hope. As Wendell Berry says, “The word ‘inevitable’ is for cowards.”
This is the hour when we need poets and storytellers and seers and wisdom-seekers, women and men of fresh imagination and steely courage, to walk out in front of us and show us another way. When we are locked into an intractable spiral of death, God inevitably sends us (and often from the margins) people who see a possibility we could not imagine, who envision a future that seems ridiculous. Their words pierce like a hot iron. Their life disrupts our certainties, reveals our foolish vision or commitments. Of course, we do not always listen or follow. Sometimes we refuse to see the new future as anything but a threat. Sometimes the One Who Shows Us The Way gets crucified.
Trekking through the airport las week, I saw grey-headed couples walking slowly, carefully, maneuvering those treacherous moving walker ramps and navigating hordes of oncoming crowds but holding hands tight, as they’ve apparently done for many decades. I saw multiple women with swollen bellies, patting their bump as they walked and chatted, a subconscious gesture of hope and blessing. I saw a dad holding his tiny, sleeping daughter in his arms, cradling her with her head buried in his chest, her blue pacifier in place; it seemed this young daughter of his was his only care in the world. I saw a woman wearing a hijab preparing to roll a wheelchair for someone who would never, ever wear a hijab.
Best of all, on my flight, I saw a middle-aged man (of one color) stand his ground firmly, yet kindly, with an airline stewardess until the young woman (of another color) seated near him, the woman who was terrified of flying, got the window seat she needed in order to feel a little safer. Then I saw this same young woman, at each lurch or shake from turbulence, look behind her, desperate for assurance, to the man who had become her fierce guardian. And I saw him learn forward, gently pat her shoulder and say, “It’s a little rough now, but you’re gonna be okay.”
We’re struggling friends, and all that’s wrong may seem to overwhelm what’s good. But that’s not the deep story. As my new friend said: It’s a little rough now, but we’re gonna be okay.
In these heavy days, sometimes I find myself tempted by despair, wondering if maybe we’ve finally experienced our culture’s Andreas Fault. Maybe the cracks really are too deep and the destruction too crushing. Maybe the whole thing will break apart and we’ll just have to watch everything crumble and then pick through the rubble. How will we find our way back to one another? How will we mend all that is broken?
But I tell you the truth, when all the despair and the disintegration have played their oppressive hand, I inevitably find my way back to hope. I’m a goner; I do believe that goodness gets the final say, I do. I’m a man of faith. It’s the easiest thing in the world to wear the cynic’s hat, to finally give myself to suspicion of my neighbors (especially the ones I most dislike). It seems foolish to stand amid the raging furnace, insisting on kindness and gentleness, the courage to push against the evil even while maintaining an open heart to all of this world’s complex beauty, to each and every of this world’s beloved creatures. It does indeed seem foolish. But then, call me a fool. Like I said, I’m a man of faith. And being a man of faith and playing the fool are, at least in my experience, often close to the same thing.
So many words and actions on Saturday, so many words of repentance and sorrow and yes–hope on Sunday. But today I have no words. I’m trying to listen to God, and I’m listening to Mother Teresa. I do want to give the light of Christ.
“We need to find God and God cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence…Is not our mission to give God to the poor in the slums? Not a dead God, but a living, loving God. The more we receive in silent prayer, the more we can give in our active life. We need silence to be able to touch souls. The essential thing is not what we say, but what God says to us and through us. All our words will be useless unless they come from within—-words which do not give the light of Christ increase the darkness.”
At times, it’s tempting to believe that the sadness has finally drowned out the joy, that all the rage or the disillusionment or the despair that overwhelms the soul has silenced every simple and beautiful song. But then you hear your two sons and their guitars, plucking their way through an old tune. You hear their attempt to find their voice, to make the words their own. You see their intensity, the way the melody gives them a language they have not accessed before. And your heart returns home again. You still know the despair and the sorrow, you’re no fool. But you know something else more: there’s still the music in the world.
Our church has an Easter tradition. After affirming with zest (multiple times): Allelulia! Christ is Risen! and after our raucous music and after recounting how the angel appeared like lightning and scared the holy bejeezers out of the Roman guard and after hearing that preposterous, heart-swelling story where Jesus tossed the dead man’s clothes and strolled out of the tomb and after gathering around the table of Resurrected Jesus to feast on mercy — after all that, we eat donuts. Piping hot, organic apple cider donuts from the Carpe Donut man. We invite all the neighbors to join us, and we go hog-wild. We’ve done this every year since our church began. Is there any better way to say Jesus is Alive and the party’s just getting started than locking down on a hot apple cider donut?
Only this year, as I was making my way over to the donut truck, I received a text: The donut machine needs a resurrection. Jesus is alive, but apparently the devil is still alive and well too – because through some mishap, the donut fryer was deader than a doornail. Let me tell you how big a downer it is, after the Easter high, to go down the long line of folks, all bright-eyed and brimming with Easter joy, and tell them the promise of donuts has been rescinded. Of course, we all survived. Easter’s bigger than donuts. Way bigger.
Even after encountering again the Ultimate Story, we move back into the world-as-it-is, where donut fryers go caput, where marriages waver, where hopes flicker, where friendships go sour, where doctors deliver dreaded news, where Syrian children and Coptic children die awful deaths. Easter doesn’t tell us that our troubles are no more. Easter tells us that the God who raised Jesus from the dead will raise us out of all the deaths we know. So we keep walking, on Easter Monday just as we did on Easter Sunday. We keep walking into the love and the fury because we now know how this story ends.
As I reflect on the legacy of those who led our nation through the early decades of the civil rights struggle, I’m struck by their courage, their tenacity, their profound love, their unflinching conviction. However, I’m perhaps most amazed by their joy. I think of giants like Fannie Lou Hamer, the sharecropper who Chris Myers Ash (in his book The Senator and the Sharecropper) describes as the force “who rose to become the spiritual leader of the Mississippi Freedom Struggle.” I think of Dr. King’s bone-stirring oratory. I think of John Perkins and how his words, even now, resound with such weight and open new terrain inside me. I think of all the music those steadfast marchers sang, the haunting and hopeful melodies. Laced throughout all their appropriately sharp words, their calls to action, their naming of evil, you’ll find a swift current of joy. This was not giddy joy or easy-won joy. It was not a joy ignorant of the wrong that must be righted or the monumental work that needed to be done. But it was a real joy, a steely-eyed joy; and I believe this joy fueled their hope.
It’s normal, necessary even at times, for fear to prod us into action. When a rattler’s about to strike, a good jolt of fear gets the body moving pronto. However, we can’t (healthily) operate on fear long-term. Over time, fear leaks a poison into the soul. But joy – there’s a power large enough to fuel a life. Joy (our joy and the joy of others) opens up possibilities fear never will. Fear lures us into a shrinking circle, but joy moves us outward with boldness. Fear warps our sense of things and, like acid, eats away at our humanity and at our ability to honor the humanity of those we fear. More, fear draws absolute lines, with “the enemy” dominating our imagination. The trouble of course is that whatever or whoever we fixate on slowly shapes us. It’s one of those strange cruelties that we often become a mirror reflection of that thing or person we oppose. But joy – joy throws a massive wrench in fear’s runaway wheel. Joy helps us shed fear and move forward with abundant faith, tenacious hope and vigilant love.
No wonder our Scriptures tell us to pursue joy always.