Does the Waiting of Advent End on Christmas?

The church historically has celebrated a season called Advent. For most of my life, I thought Advent was simply a month leading up to Christmas with a wreath of candles to light each week. But it turns out that Advent is more than that. It is a month of expectantly waiting, sort of like the woman who is 8 months pregnant and doing that final month countdown.

A lot of emotions and activities make up the four final weeks leading up to the baby’s birth, especially when it is the first child. The month is exciting but it is also nerve-wracking. I remember wondering if I was ready. What kind of mother would I be? Were we financially stable enough? How would our lives change? There was a lot of discomfort in my waiting, in addition to the excitement.

This Christmas I managed to get my shopping done early. I’m not sure how I did it. Thanksgiving weekend arrived, and I decided one quiet evening to organize my list. Next thing I knew I had made a substantial dent in my list. That inspired me to plan a little more, stick with my plan, and voila! Two weeks later my shopping was done and most of my wrapping complete!

I then unexpectedly found my mind stilled somewhat, no longer being bogged down by the usual preparations. While enjoying the space I was inhabiting, my nephew reached out. He was feeling down about the lack of peace in the midst of the season that proclaims “Peace On Earth!” I couldn’t argue with him. He was right. For a couple thousand years we have celebrated the arrival of the Christ child, the event meant to mark the arrival of God With Us. I couldn’t help but wonder… Is God with us?

I went to my bookshelf and found Richard Rohr’s Preparing For Christmas. On the “First Sunday of Advent” Rohr writes that we “live out of a kind of deliberate emptiness” because “perfect fulfillment is always to come, and we do not need to demand it now.” That immediately caught my attention because the general tenor of the christian faith feels like an ultimatum. Each side has the truth and demands obedience to it. Rohr says that the Christian faith, and Advent specifically, is about waiting.

Waiting can be about delaying action. But waiting can also be about readiness for a future purpose, like the 8-month-pregnant woman. The posture of readiness and preparation is what I think Rohr references. Rohr goes on to say that only God can bring perfect fulfillment, Peace On Earth. For those of us who long for that reality, we are to wait by preparing for what we hope will come. And we recognize our limitations in doing so.

Problems emerge when someone determines for others what those preparations are. Imagine if my Christmas preparations were to include telling my family how they could make Christmas perfect. My list would be my view and interpretation of perfection, and admittedly a bit self-serving in that I would gloss over meaningful things that are not necessarily as meaningful for me personally. I suspect we would all end up miserable.

Instead I need to focus on what I can bring to our family’s time together that is meaningful. And I need to give my family space to bring what they feel is meaningful. If one chooses not to prepare? Then so be it. Each of us has a choice when it comes to what we want and if or how we will prepare. And even if we all fully prepare, will it be perfect anyway? No. Because life is not perfect. No family is perfect. No holiday is perfect.

And so a paradox emerges: Christmas can be both wonderful as its meaning is experienced, and imperfect as the full reality has not yet come. Rohr says we are called to full consciousness, and forewarned about the high price of consciousness. In other words, the more good or God or peace we experience, the more aware we will become of the absence of good and peace, and our limitations of experiencing God.

When Christians assume the waiting is over because Christmas has already come, we miss something significant. Actually we might miss the whole kit and caboodle. Consciousness may have begun, but the cost of that consciousness becomes too high. And so we insulate ourselves from what is difficult or those who are suffering. We try to convince ourselves that the waiting has ended, though perhaps secretly, deep within, we know it is still not right.

As my nephew so rightly proclaimed, Peace On Earth has not yet come. And so we wait.

Chatter

“Stop trying to protect, to rescue, to judge, to manage the lives around you . . . remember that the lives of others are not your business. They are their business. They are God’s business . . . even your own life is not your business. It also is God’s business. Leave it to God. It is an astonishing thought. It can become a life-transforming thought . . . unclench the fists of your spirit and take it easy . . . What deadens us most to God’s presence within us, I think, is the inner dialogue that we are continuously engaged in with ourselves, the endless chatter of human thought. I suspect that there is nothing more crucial to true spiritual comfort . . . than being able from time to time to stop that chatter . . . ”
Frederick Buechner’s words resonate deeply. The chatter is exhausting. Maddening. Deadening. We are a culture of chatter; chatter that chirps day and night, chatter that chips away at humanity – yours and mine. 
I do not even realize the toll it takes until I am so tense every muscle aches, or so utterly depleted that I want to sleep for days.
“Unclench the fists of your spirit,” Buechner says.
I do not think this means to abandon one’s convictions. On the contrary, this is what might enable one to live out deep convictions without losing one’s mind. Or all of one’s friends. What a novel idea.
Once in a great while, I meet a person who embodies what Buechner names. I know it almost immediately – faith, integrity, grit, a calmness that resembles the eye of a storm, and love. He or she embodies convictions without shaming another. He or she inspires change, not demands it. He or she has a full life with relationships that have been tended to and meaningfulness that goes beyond work.
The chatter pulls us further away from what so many of us seek: peace, salvation, purpose. We long for an affirmation that we are on the right path but spend most of our time criticizing the “wrong” path. We fear wasting our lives, yet we waste so much time. We want to be part of something greater than ourselves. But we put much of our energy into breaking things apart.
I think it is scary to ease the chatter. What will the silence bring? What do I not want to hear? What if I hear nothing at all? And so we chirp away. We speak even when we have doubts. We speak regardless of who is listening. We speak until we cannot stand the sound of our voices anymore. And we speak some more. Until eventually our souls wither or something shatters, forcing us into silence. Then, if we have an ounce of consciousness left, maybe we just might hear the collective sigh of heaven.

America’s Beatitudes

Blessed are the powerful, for they will dominate the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for the righteousness of others, for they will be filled with self-righteousness.

Blessed are the theologically merciless, for they will be merciful to themselves.

Blessed are the sure in heart, for they will think they are seeing God.

Blessed are those who wage war, for they will call themselves children of God.

Blessed are the powerful who consider themselves persecuted, for theirs is the kingdom of The End That Justify The Means.

.

 

What Is Normal Anyway?

normal |ˈnôrməl|

adjective

conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected: it’s quite normal for puppies to bolt their food | normal working hours.

I think the idea of what is normal or what should be normal messes a lot of people up. “Normal” gives the impression of certain guarantees. As one prone to analytical thinking, I recognize predictors of outcome. But I rarely see a solid 100% guarantee on any outcome. When an expected outcome doesn’t occur, it can cause a person to question who is to blame for what went wrong. After all, wasn’t the person entitled to a normal outcome?

If I love a certain way, I will be loved in return.

If I save a certain amount of money, I will retire the way I want.

If I parent a certain way, my kid will become the kind of adult I hoped s/he would be.

If I work hard enough, my efforts will be acknowledged and rewarded.

I could go on. Maybe some come to mind for you?

There are several religious systems that support this kind of thinking. In my faith tradition it goes like this: “If I obey God, God will bless me.” Even if that is true, I don’t know that we do much work to wrestle with the ideas of what it means to “obey God”, and what “God blessing us” means. Rather we tend to define it in ways that suitably fit us. If or when they don’t, we go somewhere else.

Normality makes dealing with anything perceived to be abnormal as difficult or worse yet, a failure. The goal tends to be to pull or push or force or squeeze or shove what was happening into some kind of “normal” explanation. For example, when my friend died tragically, I couldn’t reconcile her death. “It shouldn’t have happened!” I cried out to God. Her death had no part in my perception of normalcy. Part of my journey through the grief was having to face the reality that there is no normal. I became increasingly aware that tragedy exists everywhere. I started to see how sheltered I had been from it up to that point. It didn’t make my loss easier, but somehow it made more space for the loss and all my feelings that went with it. Instead of judging whether or not it should have happened, I learned to deal with what had happened.

Believing in a norm can provide comfort. However I find the people who have deeply immersed themselves in normalcy to be fragile. They wall themselves off from anything or anyone that might challenge their norms. Their worlds get smaller as their voices get louder regarding what is acceptable, or what is right, or what should be normal. The thicker their walls, the more demanding of others they become. This is where their fragility becomes most obvious. The demand isn’t, as they surmise, for the betterment of others but rather an ongoing “Hail Mary” attempt to protect themselves. The problem is, superimposing one’s norms onto another can be ignorant, and even quite hurtful at times.

I have seen walls obliterated with one tragic event though some have the luxury of maintaining those walls for a lifetime. And honestly, I guess we all build walls to a certain extent. But for most of us, walls eventually fall down or get torn down. The conclusion I have come to is that “normal” is entirely overrated. Instead of building more walls or repairing old ones, maybe we could pour that energy into what is actually going on in us and around us. Rather than spending time wishing for what we have defined as normal or telling others what should be normal for them, we can spend time navigating what is meaningfully and healthily. That, for me, is the “new normal” or in other words, there ain’t no such thing as normal.

A Great Divide: Challenge or Impasse?

There is a lot of arguing going on lately. We feel deeply and find offense quickly. The thing is, most of us know which side of an argument we will stand pretty early on, and that rarely changes no matter what evidence we hear. And yet we keep trying to convince others to join our side, our cause, our “right side of history”. Instead of seeing change, all we seem to do is stoke the fires of our own side and further the divide from those who disagree.

I have little tolerance for an impasse. I don’t mean a challenge; I love a challenge. A challenge is when the road from where one is to where one wants to be is difficult, or is non existent and needs to be built. An impasse is when every inch of progress is countered with destruction. It takes time to determine whether one is experiencing a challenge or an impasse. But eventually that impasse becomes clear. Most successful individuals will tell you that learning to recognize failure is essential to success. Remaining in the impasse is guaranteed to be continued failure. Most of us, with our views and convictions, remain at an impasse.

As I read and watch the latest divide, the #TakeAKnee/NFL/National Anthem controversy, I find myself tired. Not of the issues I believe in, but in the engagement with others over those issues. I am tired of trying to find meaningful dialogue. I am tired of the nasty dismissals of differing thoughts and ideas. I am tired of everyone talking and no one listening. I am tired of the ignorance, the lack of respect and love, the self-preservation. I am tired of being those things and I am tired of encountering those things. I am tired of the divide that seems to deepen and widen in this country.

This morning I took my coffee to my back porch. It is a beautiful fall morning, significantly different from yesterday’s nearly 90 degrees and very humid weather. The birds sang and the sound of leaves from the breeze blowing soothed my tired soul. How does one move from impasse to progress? As I sipped my coffee, I began to think about how my mind has been changed over the years. It wasn’t solid arguments or clever soundbites that I thought of. It was some of the people I have gotten to know and their stories I have heard. That is what has changed my mind, my opinions, my beliefs time and time again.

I thought of Dana, my friend with metastatic breast cancer (MBC). Through her journey, I have learned how little has been spent on stage 4 research. We celebrate the progress we have made with treating breast cancer. But there is significant and serious work we aren’t doing enough of. The progress we have made has been largely in the shallow end of the pool, so to speak. We have much work to do in the deep end of the pool and can’t claim victory until we navigate those deeper waters. Those with MBC are dying in the deep end. The pink ribbon campaign isn’t venturing out there enough yet gets most of our attention and funding. I now give differently because of Dana.

I thought of my friend Terry. As he shared the story of teaching his son to drive, which included how to safely be pulled over by the police (my friend is black), a bubble that I was living in burst. I had recently taught my son to drive and never once did I worry for his safety if pulled over by the police. Terry was one of the kindest men I knew. If he experienced injustice because of the color of his skin (and he did often) then I knew the world wasn’t quite as evolved as I thought it had become. I now see my privilege because of Terry.

I thought of John, a pastor and friend I knew years ago. When he told me he was gay, I expressed love for him and gently reiterated my position that I didn’t agree with his “lifestyle”. I didn’t hesitate in wanting to continue my friendship with him. And I felt it was my responsibility to be clear about where I stood on the issue of homosexuality. A few weeks later I received a letter from him. In it he said, “Do you think a moment goes by that I am not aware of what most Christians think of my being gay?” Navigating different convictions is difficult. Making someone feel loved shouldn’t be. What we do with our convictions is as important as the convictions themselves. I now see my self-righteousness because of John.

I thought of Kim, Jocelyn and Angie, women I went to seminary with who are lesbians. They are serious about their Christian faith. They challenged my views of homosexuality simply by living out their faith meaningfully. I had been taught homosexuality was a sin. These women (and many more friends since) taught me that their being gay is as much a part of who they are as being christians. And I wouldn’t want them to be anything other than who they are. I now see my ignorance because of Kim, Jocelyn and Angie.

I could go on. So many examples of people I got to know who by their being who they are challenged my ideas and perceptions. This is how we move from the impasse. We get to know people who are different from ourselves. If I have made any kind of impact in this world, it hasn’t been through my blog or Facebook status update or Instagram photo. Hashtags don’t change lives. If I have had the ability to make any kind of difference, it is because I am a better person having learned what I have learned along the way and am interacting meaningfully with others who differ from me.

I love to engage in conversations with diverse opinions being expressed. The point in doing so isn’t to convince others to see things my way. My hope is that each of us participating leave that conversation having taught something and having learned something, not with that as an agenda but with that as the outcome. But that is a choice we must make. And that is how we bridge the divide. When was the last time you learned something that surprised you? When was the last time a conviction changed, even slightly? These questions will help to determine whether you are up for the challenge these days require, or are part of the impasse that is getting us nowhere.

 

Gently Woke

After four days at the beach, my husband, daughter and two dogs were heading home. I have the luxury and privilege of staying behind for a few more days all by myself. My husband wanted to get on the road early in hopes of avoiding as much holiday traffic as possible. Before my daughter got in the car, we hugged and said our goodbyes. She then added, “You may as well stay up and watch the sunrise.” I watched them leave and waved, then headed back into the house looking forward to a few more hours of sleep. I am not a morning person and in the nearly 30 years I have been coming to my mom’s beach house, I don’t remember ever getting up to watch the sunrise. I think what my daughter was trying to say was, “The only way you are ever going to see the sun rise is if you are already up. So stay up and watch it.”

I went into the house and checked my phone. It was just after 6 and the sun was supposed to rise at 6:44. That felt like a long time away. I filled my cup with coffee and checked the view from the deck. I wasn’t 100% sure where the sun would first appear, but I have seen plenty of sunsets here and assumed it was 180 degrees away from that point. That means I would not be able to see the sun from the deck due to shrubs and trees. I would have to venture to the dunes. I put on some shoes and headed down the path. It was dark, but not pitch black. I got to the walkway which goes over the dunes, and stood with the house behind me and the ocean in front of me. Crickets were still chirping. My coffee tasted good.

Slowly light began to appear.

As it did, birds began to chirp. Dragonflies began to flit about. The light was soothing. I was grateful for being eased into its presence. I thought of how often waking up is rarely a gentle process. Waking feels more often startling with my mind trying to rationalize how to get out of my morning obligations and my eyes squinting, longing for the darkness to return.

The light continued to grow, slowly and softly.

Birds began moving to the waters edge, looking for their breakfast. The crickets were beginning to quiet down. I noticed a few people on their deck a few houses away. I looked in the other direction and saw a man on his deck with a camera. “Do people get up every morning to watch this?” I wondered. I found my heart beating a little faster as I began to anticipate the arrival of the sun.

And then it appeared.

What beauty! It was magnificent and bold and stunning. No wonder ancient civilizations worshipped this big ball of burning gas. Its appearance was a religious experience. My eyes teared up. This actually happens every morning? Of course people get up to watch! Perfectly orchestrated in every way imaginable.

As my heart rate returned to normal, I continued to process what I had just witnessed. I was struck by the lack of fanfare leading up to the sun’s appearance. It was gentle and sweet. I could have missed it if I was lulled back to sleep, which was my first instinct. But I stayed, waited and watched. I was moved by how simple it was to witness an event that felt nothing short of miraculous. I found myself feeling particularly hopeful that each day begins this way, whether or not we are awake to bear witness.

These days, very little seems subtle. In our efforts to be heard or validated, we scream and cry. Sometimes we bully or dismiss or ignore those who are different or who disagree. Even our piety and humility are feeling larger than life lately, in a way that seems to counter these qualities. I hope I have the fortitude to get up for a few more sunrises while I am here this week. I think there is a lot more to learn about being gently woke.

Messy Relationships

I am frequently reminded of the fragility of life. I am often reminded of the fragility of relationships too. I came to a crossroads with a friend, someone who didn’t like what I had to say about how it felt being his friend. My words had been carefully chosen because I cared deeply for him and for our friendship. It was because of my care for him and the hurt I had experienced from him that I felt I had to say what I was seeing and feeling, and what was causing me concern. He didn’t want to hear my words.

A few weeks after that incident, I wrote the following about my work as a pastor:

My dream of a church came from my desire to be part of a community that goes deep. It is in the depths that relationships are forged that can last a lifetime and withstand the storms that can come with life. I also believe that it is in this depth God is most profoundly experienced. The heart of The Other Church’s vision is connection. Connection is fun, but in ways it can feel painful too at times, because in the depths we are most vulnerable, most human. Our flaws are laid bare along with our hopes and dreams and disappointments and hurts. I have felt this pain, along with great joy in these last few years as I have done a lot of my own work as a pastor, spouse, mother, chaplain, friend.

I wrote these words because maybe I needed to remind myself. To be deep, it will be messy. And painful. But it will also be healing and hopeful and sustaining. This is the kind of community I have been called to serve. This is the kind of person I am called to be.

Sometimes when we stumble upon a wound, we touch it and feel pain. I realize now that this is what I did to my friend. I didn’t look for a wound. I didn’t know I was touching it. I didn’t intend to cause him pain. But in my passion of connecting deeply, I did just that. We have a choice whether or not we want to tend to our wounds. My friend had a right to walk away, and he did.

I know the pain because I have felt it frequently in my own work of healing. And I will feel it again. I am thankful to have some people in my life who, when they touch my wounds, stay with me as I work towards my healing. All relationships are messy. But not all relationships are healthy. It is worth the work to find those who will take this journey with us. Jesus is quoted several times saying, “Follow me.” But he didn’t walk ahead of people like the leader of a parade. He journeyed with people. He ate with people. He got to know people. And he touched their wounds. He didn’t judge those wounds or shame the wounded. He offered healing. I think this is why I have so profoundly experienced God in this work. It is about connecting honestly, deeply, meaningfully, sometimes painfully, certainly safely and joyfully too.

I hope my friend is doing okay. I still sometimes feel my own tinge of pain when I think of him. But the pain is my reminder that I connected with him.

Good Isn’t Good Enough

If you are ever looking to have the last bit of hope sucked out from you, just read the comments section on nearly any article, post, or picture that has been largely circulated. You will find some dialogue of differing opinions and perspectives. And you will find a lot of mean, angry, name-calling responses. When I make the mistake of reading comments, usually under the guise of thinking “How could anyone have anything to say about this that isn’t nice?” I am quickly reminded that there are plenty of people out there who are always ready to insult, verbally assault, and destroy my faith in humanity. These exchanges don’t fuel an introvert, at least not this introvert. It makes me want to take my family and move far away from all of civilization. M Night Shyamalan’s idea of The Village begins to sound like a good idea, monster and all, because that monster seems manageable.

I wish silence was an option. I know many people are choosing silence these days. And I don’t blame you. Really. I get it. The problem is, staying silent is as much of a problem as bullying. Neutrality is a lie because being neutral just gives more space for the bullies. You cannot watch someone being beaten up and say, “It’s not my place. They need to work it out.” Good people regularly look the other way. But good people don’t change the world. They maintain status quo. We need courageous people who are loving and invested. We need thoughtful people who will step into the tension and attempt to navigate it. Those are the people who help bring healing. Those are the people who bridge the divides.

I suspect part of the problem is that many of us had the luxury of not getting involved in anything too messy, up until now. Many of us got by with being good people. We found little ways to make a difference. We were surrounded by people who got along and were on the same page. But today, being good isn’t enough. If we are going to see and be and experience healing, we need to do more. I wonder how many of us are simply stuck because we don’t know where to go. We have inhabited the Land of Good for so long. We don’t want to go to the Land of the Divided or the Land of Lost Hope. And so we don’t go anywhere.

Maybe you believe “this too shall pass.” You stay put and hope for the best. I have two problems with that. First, who gets hurt while you opt out? Second, what will be the collective cost? Jesus never opted out of the difficult. Jesus never ignored the problem. Jesus never chose superficial bullshit over substance. Jesus never turned away from what needed to be done. Jesus entered right into the fray with conviction and compassion, depth and substance.

We need a lot less people to be followers of Jesus in their comfortable way and people who will follow Jesus right into the thick of this mess. We need people to stand not for a party or ideology, but to stand for and with and alongside those in need. We need people who don’t support causes but support people. Where are the people whose faith costs them something? Where are the people who not only believe God will one day bring peace but are willing to advocate for and live in that peace now? Where are the people who have the audacity to believe that the Kingdom of God is at hand, which doesn’t mean “Hey you folks who’ve got your home, car, 401k, and health coverage: Welcome to the Kingdom of God! Now live it and enjoy it!” “The Kingdom of God is at hand” means that we have the guts to believe that every person has value, that every person deserves respect, that every person should be fed and clothed and cared for. Every person. And so we live it, breathe it, work towards it.

That is our work, yours and mine. And there is much work to be done. I don’t know what it is going to take or how we are going to get there. I imagine lots of mistakes will be made along the way. Many people are needed for this work – people who will roll up their sleeves, take risks, have the difficult conversations, face their own assumptions and fears, listen to and know and maybe even love someone who is different. And why, you ask, would anyone agree to this? Because this is where God is already at work. This is where life and meaning and purpose are found. This is the Kingdom of God.

Oswald Chambers says it beautifully:

The greatest enemy of the life of faith in God is not sin, but good choices which are not quite good enough.

May we who have been lulled into comfort become dissatisfied.

May we who know God be shaken by the Unknowable.

May we who dismiss those who are different from us see Jesus in those faces.

May we be brought to our knees by our own self-centeredness.

May we truly believe that the kingdom of God is at hand, and then live as if it is true.

 

 

“Magic Mirror on the Wall, Who is the Fairest One of All?”

I imagine Lent for you and for me as a great departure from the greedy, anxious antineighborliness of our economy, a great departure from our exclusionary politics that fears the others, a great departure from self-indulgent consumerism that devours creation. And then an arrival in a new neighborhood, because it is a gift to be simple, it is a gift to be free; it is a gift to come down where we ought to be.

 

“Oh,” I thought, “So-and-So could really benefit from these words. If only (s)he could read them and let them really sink in…” And then began my strategic thinking of how to get these “helpful” words into the minds of those who, in my humble opinion, needed to hear them. Perhaps I could share on Facebook as “words that meant so much to me this morning.” I went from feeling inspired to convicting others within seconds, and without giving much thought to my own learning or shortcomings.

And therein lies a significant problem in the Christian faith today – the desire to use my convictions to convict others. It is not a new concept. And in fact it plagues probably all religions for as long as those religions have existed. “I know what is right/best/true/needed, and you need to follow me/my understanding on how to live that out.” Even those religions that claim not to tell others what to believe spend ample time complaining about those that do. It’s inevitable. It’s human nature. And I think it can kill a life of faith that is meaningful and transformative. Or at least seriously maim it.

I started thinking about Snow White’s stepmother who regularly consulted a magic mirror to confirm her wonderfulness. Or her fairishness. She wanted affirmation of what she thought was fabulous about her. And when the mirror gives an answer that contradicted what she sought, she plots to destroy who is in her way of being the fairest of all. She doesn’t seek to learn why Snow White is more fair. Instead she assumes that by killing Snow White the stepmother will once again be on top. Blame. Destroy. Discredit. Remove. Discount. Distance. Pointing fingers does that, doesn’t it? It makes me feel better because at least I’m not like her. It affirms me because I’m not part of the problem like he is. 

Looking in the mirror to see how I am part of the problem? That takes time. That is painful. Yet that is exactly where change begins. Real change. Lasting change. And not just the change within me but the change around me.  So back to that initial quote. If I’m going to take it seriously and really give it its due, that means I’ll need to read it, digest it, and ask myself how I am greedy, how I can be antineighborly or exclusionary or fearful or self-indulgent. If I actually want to experience a better world, I need to live better in it. It means not  moving past those questions too quickly or passing them on to others for their edification. It means assuming that there are probably a number of areas where I can learn and grow and do better. Be better. Ugh. Not comfortable questions. And yet if I begin to figure out how to truly live simply, freely, lovingly and generously, that just might begin to change the world – the world for me and those around me.

Oh what a lenten season this will be…

(The quote is from Walter Brueggemann’s A Way other than Our Own, page 5 of the 2016 paperback edition.)

 

Being Rescued by an Ark

What to do when one doesn’t know what to do? For me, the answer often is to read, process, pray, read, pray, listen, read, respond, pray, read… You get the idea. I try to both find my footing and discover my next steps. The more overwhelmed I feel, the heavier my feet feel. Today I turned to a sermon by Frederick Buechner, who writes more like a poet than a pastor, titled A Sprig of Hope.

In it, Buechner talks about humanity’s insatiable lust for doom. “Despair and destruction and death are the ancient enemies, and yet we are always so helplessly drawn to them that it is as if we are more than half in love with our enemies.” While reading, I affirmed that this certainly seems to be true as I thought of people who embody this lust. (If you are thinking that I am pointing fingers rather than looking within, you are correct.)

Woven in his sermon is the tale of Noah’s Ark, the dark and foreboding story of the destruction of virtually all of the earth. With our penchant for doom, Buechner poses the hypothesis: Perhaps the story of Noah isn’t about how God destroyed the earth with the exception of those on the ark, but the story of our own destruction. Maybe it is not that God doomed the people, but that the people had already doomed themselves. In other words, the flood was not God destroying the wicked, but cleansing what had already been destroyed. It is a subtle but significant theological difference.

Buechner doesn’t gloss over the destruction, but neither does he pretend to understand it. He sees the ark as God’s small provision in the midst of significant despair. “God knows the ark is not much…” I stopped reading with these words and said out loud, “It is not enough, God.” I sat at my kitchen table feeling overwhelmed by the lust for doom these days, and I found God’s offering of an ark to be unacceptable. You must do more, I thought. There are women, children, refugees, immigrants, wildlife at risk… Do more, God. An ark is not enough.

Then I returned to the sermon. “But the ark was enough, is enough.” I stopped and wept. I wept for my lack of faith. I wept for my own lust for doom. I discounted the ark, whatever that ark might be. I was so busy focusing on the doom, I nearly missed the opportunity for hope.

After a good cry, I went back once again to the sermon.

“The ark is wherever human beings come together as human beings in such a way that the differences between them stop being barriers…”

“The ark is wherever people come together because this is a stormy world where nothing stays put for long among the crazy waves and where at the end of every voyage there is a burial at sea.”

“The ark is where, just because it is such a world, we really need each other and know very well that we do.”

“The ark is wherever human beings come together because in their heart of hearts all of them dream the same dream, which is a dream of peace… and thus ultimately a dream of love. Love is not as an excuse for the mushy or innocuous, but love as a summons to battle against all that is unlovely and unloving in the world. The ark, in other words, is where we have each other and where we have hope.”

Thank God I went back to the sermon.

My lust for doom wasn’t in my desire for it. My lust for doom is giving in to it through a lack of faith. The ark isn’t for someone else to choose or reject, with me to live out that choice’s consequence. The ark is my choice. Every day.

What may not feel much like good news should not be surprising news at all. Of course we choose self-preservation. Of course we choose fear. Of course we choose to close our eyes to what seems to be beyond our control because ignorance feels easier in the moment. This is the story of humanity, time and time again. But in the midst of this narrative is an ark. We have a choice: to drift in the water of doom, or to jump on that ark and choose hope, to choose life, to choose peace, to choose love. Even when we have jumped back into the water again and again and again, the ark is there.

May we who seek peace, find each other. May those of us who feel summoned “to battle against all that is unlovely and unloving in the world” keep doing that work. May we not grow weary. And may the sea be filled with arks.

(Note: To read this sermon in its entirety, check out Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons by Frederick Buechner.)