Trapped inside the caged walls of the Shawshank State Penitentiary, Red tells Andy words that might save him. “Hope is a dangerous thing,” Red says. “It can kill a man.”
Hope rattles us, terrifies even, especially if we’ve lived with our eyes and our heart wide open, especially if we’ve told ourselves the truth about the ache and the lament. One thing’s certain: if we love full throttle and don’t hold our cards close to the chest, we will absolutely face that brutal pain we’re so desperate to avoid: disappointment. Hope is a dangerous thing.
But anything that’s truly good always carries danger with it. If we’re playing it safe, no one’s having kids, no one’s getting married, no one’s going to write a book or a poem or dream of a new tomorrow or follow a carpenter who acts like he’s God. Love and hope and danger—another trinity.
“Hope is a dangerous thing, my friend, it can kill a man,” says Red. “[But] hope is a good thing, maybe even the best of things. And good things never die.”
Hope intrude everywhere. Dangerous hope. Consider these tulips by our mailbox. Every Spring, they insist on this same story. They’re “hopemongers,” as my friend John likes to say. Keep loving. Keep believing. Keep hoping. Good things never die.
We’re experts at taking the very best things and grinding them into the ground, hacking at them until we wear away all the life and the wonder. It’s no different with Advent.
Advent’s hope and unease arrive like a bolt of lighting. God catches us off guard. Advent disorients us, sends us reeling. Reading the thundering, weeping prophets (the readings assigned during the first weeks of Advent), every cliché melts. Here, we encounter God aflame. Our future relies entirely on the mercy of God’s sturdy promise — that God will dismantle evil, overwhelm sorrows, and once again speak light into the stifling darkness. Our hope rests in the furious love of God. But this encounter makes us tremble. We’re deluding ourselves if we think we can package or control the fury.
So how then does Advent sometimes feel like yet another intrusion of religious industry? The products. The quotes. And yes, the blog posts too.
Then the wrangling that kicks up every year, all the finger wagging around how we’re supposed to properly observe these Advent days. I have my opinions with these things, but Advent isn’t primarily a celebration to enjoy or a Christian season to “get right.” Advent is the cataclysmic story of God’s disruptive, creative action in human history. Advent renews our heavy souls by insisting that God does in fact arrive in the midst of our pain and worry, right in the middle of our despair and dismay.
In Advent, light pierces the darkness. Pierce — this is not a gentle word. The Light disrupts and scatters, and then the Light renews and heals. In Advent, God confronts us. God makes us promises. In Advent, we tremble and laugh. We lament, and we are overcome by wonder. Advent lifts our heart and rekindles hope’s fire. Advent offers more than we know to ask. Advent is gentle as a child, and Advent blazes like the sun.
Thank goodness, Advent is not what we make of it. I need something more than what I can muster. Advent pierces. Advent pierces the dark.
Merry 3rd day of Christmas. Perhaps, like the star atop our tree, you’re knocked sideways, holding tight but barely.
I love our tree, the little fire stove pumping heat next to it, looking out over the quiet carpet of white stretching under the pines behind our house. But this tree’s a quirkster. We cut it because it was the right height and velvety soft, a Michigan fir. But we’ve turned it and twisted it, screwed and re-screwed the base bolts so many times. It leaned to the right. When we fixed that, it leaned left. We straightened it again, and it dipped forward.
Miska finally said, “Well, I think that’s what we have this year.” We chalked it up to 2020 and embraced our little holiday tower of Pisa. And our tilting star. It’s cute, but the Magnolia folks aren’t heading our way for a photo shoot.
Thankfully, all the tree and the star need to do is stand here and evoke wonder. Every night, I unplug the lights, and for a moment, I take in the glow, the warmth, the grace. From this old limpy tree.
It’s genius that Christmastide is 12 days, not one. We couldn’t sustain the emotional high, the expectations, the push. But we can just stand here and lean. We can take in the warmth and wonder of our limpy, marvelous lives. We have 10 more days of joy and grace. Lean or limp, but make certain to laugh. Tilt as needed. Receive what comes. Be curious. Play, waste time. Make merry.
The problem with Advent is that it comes around every single year. Again. And again. And then yet again. As best we can tell, Christians have kept some version of preparation for Christ’s appearing among us–days of repentance and longing and holy stillness–since the late 400’s. Generation after generation, names and stories mostly forgotten, have fasted and prayed and lit candles and set their hope on One coming who would make the world right, who would tend to every tear, snuff out every injustice, and lift every weary heart.
But of course there hasn’t been a single Advent in all these centuries when evil men did not stalk the innocent, when disease did not steal the young, when our heartaches over our broken relationships, broken dreams, and broken promises did not crush and maim. This Advent is no different. Sadly, by all accounts, next Advent will be the same.
And yet we press into these days with steady hands and a faith that seems almost belligerent in its audacity. We touch flame to wick, and we hum those haunting hymns. We bend in prayer, and we steel ourselves for our night-watches. We return again to this story, enacting once more the long, hope-filled narrative–not because we have certainty that this Advent (or any hour before we breathe our last) will finally make all the promises come true. We do not embrace Advent as a kind of elaborate denial, a way to play-act that the harshness or sorrow are not so bad as we’ve feared.
Just the opposite. We return to Advent again because of exactly this problem, an inescapable predicament as old as humanity. No matter how hard we try, no matter how ingenious our leaders, no matter our advancements, no matter our triumphs, no matter our very best intentions–we cannot ever, ever undo all the harm we repeatedly do to one another, all the pain we have set loose in our world.
In a dinner conversation recently with someone I love, we shared our heaviness and disappointment. There was fear of the future, regret over the past. After we finished our bowls of soup, we sat quietly, realizing that words failed. There were only tears. Tears over what we could not fix. Tears over the helplessness we must own, and tears for the grace we must cling to as our salvation.
This is the problem of Advent, and this is why we again light the candles and sing songs of hope in the long, long night. We do not need to “feel” Advent–that is not the point. Rather, we allow ourselves to be embraced by Advent’s true story. We trust the One who promises to be God with us, even amid our many searing pains. We relinquish our life into the hands of the One who promises to hold us near–and to one day undo every sorrow, mend every wound, and make the whole earth aflame with love’s fire.
I’m awake in the wee hours of the night. The house is dark. I walk gently so the creak of these old floors won’t rouse those I love. I step onto our back porch and gaze at the starlit sky, breathing clean air. For weeks, this weeping world has writhed and groaned with the wounds of violent history and raging pandemic and a thousand shades of anguish.
But the world’s quiet now, for this one moment, with only the sound of crickets and frogs and the distant rumble of a train. I stand on the porch, wanting to know that this beautiful, aching world holds fast, that she’s still here, that we have not finally destroyed her—and each other with her. I need to know that she remains held by the mercy that has watched over us all from the beginning, cradled by the love that has carried us through so many toils and snares. I need to know that we are still nurtured by the kindness that—in spite of our persistent ignorance and foolishness and wickedness—refuses to let us go. Relentless mercy and love and kindness…in spite of us. It’s a wonder, isn’t it?
And here I sit, and I see that the hour is Lauds—that ancient, before-dawn office of prayer. Maybe all this has been a prayer. A groaning prayer too deep for words. But I’m searching for words now.
Help us, God. Some of us are unable—or unwilling—to see the evil we’ve done. Some of us despair, no longer believing the evil can be undone. Some of us turn cold toward those who weep. Some of us can’t stop the tears. Some of us have abandoned justice and righteousness. Some of us have abandoned mercy and hope. Some of us fear what repentance might ask of us. Some of us fear what love might require.
But all of us—all of us—are in desperate need for the mercy. God, hold us and renew us and show us our foolishness, the destructive ways we do not want to acknowledge, the clear-eyed freedom we’d know if we’d just relinquish whatever we hold with our iron grip. Teach us that we need not fear. Show us how to live whole and free and joyful. We’ve proven absolutely incapable of doing any of this on our own. I’m going to try to sleep now, again. I trust that the world will keep breathing, the stars keep twinkling, the crickets keep chirping, that the three I love in this house remain under your care, that this world I love, and all my sisters and brothers, rests under your care.
We have a pup in our house, a floppy-eared, mop-haired, black and white bundle of 1/2 Tasmanian Devil, 1/2 vivacious joy. Though Miska is the dog-whisperer in our family, on Fridays I’m responsible for Gus’ early morning walk. Two weeks ago, Gus and I strolled an empty, leaf-strewn street in our neighborhood, silence and the slow dawn our only companions. With sudden insistence, Gus yanked back on his leash, sat his rump firmly on the cold sidewalk and sniffed the air with resolute focus.
We sat for a moment. Then two. Gus sniffed, turning his head slightly to the right, then slightly to the left. I called him, but he wouldn’t budge. I tugged his leash, but he held fast. If I’d thrown a fresh ribeye next to his mammoth paws, he wouldn’t have given it so much as a nod. Gus was on to something.
I looked across the street, in the direction his big, black nose pointed, but all I saw was a red brick house with black shutters, a row of old, caved-in pumpkins lining the steps to the front porch, an empty white truck parked in front. Not a soul. Not a creature. Not a sound. Not a smell. I couldn’t see a thing, but Gus had caught the scent.
Advent encourages me to take a Gus-like posture. Advent provides a stretch of days where we catch the divine scent. Advent’s promise is not that we see God, in this precise moment, exactly as we wish. Rather, in Advent we hear that ancient-yet-always-new promise of God’s sure action, God’s cosmic healing. And then with the eyes (and maybe the nose) of faith and wonder, we brush against that awakening scent of hope and generosity and righteousness.
Advent reminds us that we’re waiting for God. The holy ache in our soul is for God. Our broken heart, our forlorn future, our fears and anxieties and shattered stories and those cannibalistic lies that play in our head day after weary day–these are all signals of how desperate we are for the Adventing One to come and save us. Even our Advent practices, our good attempts at attentiveness (and they are–mostly–good), are not the point. God is the point. After all, my true cry is not for a religious regimen but for the Voice of Love. My fierce need is not for a spiritual discipline but for God.
And in Advent, by sheer mercy, we catch the scent of the One in whom our hope and salvation lies.
It was a brisk February eve, and I had planned to walk to a neighbor’s house to meet up with a circle of friends. The three other Colliers who live under this roof with me were feverish and coughing, puffy and red-eyed. They sounded like they’d gargled Drano. After tending to supper and making sure everyone was comfy and settled, I strapped on my headlamp and went tramping through the dark neighborhood. It’s an eery, beautiful, calming thing to walk in the night, after everyone’s pulled in and closed shop. On these winter eves, no one’s out on their porch, no one’s walking the streets. The place is still, even as you know you are surrounded by homes filled with laughter, bountiful tables, more than a few heartaches, folks glued to CNN or Bird Box or Homeland.
On King Mt Road, I passed a two-story house with a row of large, wide windows stretched across the ground floor. Even if there hadn’t been so much illumination radiating out of those windows into the black night, I still would have peered in. I’m nosy like that. There was a wide circle, a couple couches with old Windsor chairs interspersed between. There were 5 or 6 people in that circle, a forty-something fellow, I’d guess, with several grey-headed women and men. They sat in the warmth and the light, having what looked like fine conversation. Of course, I have no idea what they were actually doing. They could have been having a family fisticuffs for all I know. But from the looks on their faces, they were doing something good. They were doing something together.
With my headlamp on full blast, I eventually made it to the house where I was supposed to be, where there awaited another circle of friends, another circle of couches and chairs in a room filled with light and warmth. We shared coffee and slices of some kind of spectaculous apple spice caramel cake that must surely be illegal. We talked about where we are, where we hope to be. We talked about what worries us, what we pray for God to help us be and do. We were doing something good. We were doing something together.
There are lots of things that I’m sure are necessary as we walk through these tumultuous times and navigate the night that presses upon us. But I’m convinced that these kinds of circles, this being-and-doing together as friends, in the warmth of light and laughter and joy, are absolutely essential. This has always been true, I believe; and will continue to be true. Find your circle. Find your people. And whatever else you do, stick with them.
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.