Last week, Vernon wrote in the weekly blog that God doesn’t come to us in the ways that we expect. The first step in accepting this is to set aside preconceived notions and accept that surrendering the control we believe we maintain over our lives will occasionally result in pain. This week, we will light the second candle of Advent, the candle of peace. Faith in Real Life discussed the effect that facing the realities of life has on our sense of peace. Even in the midst of some of the worst that life can dish out, it’s possible to find peace–truly a peace that passes understanding–by acknowledging the realities of life.
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
3 A voice cries out:“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.
5 Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
6 A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?”All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.
7 The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass.
8 The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.
9 Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings;lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah,“Here is your God!”
10 See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.
11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms,and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.
Last week I suggested that waiting for the Messiah requires that we give up our assumptions and expectations about who we think God is in order to be open to the God who comes. When you want and need relief from oppression, placing your hope in an infant is counter intuitive at best. In real life— we want particular outcomes; we want our partners and friends, our children and our God to love us and to be who we need. But, as is often the case, when that does not happen, we are likely to intensify our efforts to hold on to what we know.
Typically we do not handle our limitations well. We are trained to believe that focus and hard work is the pathway to a good life. Those are admirable traits but they can only carry us so far. There is a fine line between our obligation to be all that we can be and the belief we can do anything if we work hard enough. It is the difference between living within our humanity and the assumption that we can manage life (theologically, it is the assumption we can save ourselves). We cross that line often and at our peril. When we do, we are confronted with what we cannot do. It is a frightening place to live. Often, to our embarrassment, we will use any means possible to avoid that place. Sometimes, no matter how hard we work or how good we are, life takes nasty left turns. We have to face what we cannot control and often we have to face parts of ourselves, and others, that we do not like.
Facing the world as it is and facing our limitations leads to grief. At the onset, that grief is a dark space where there seems to be no way out. But that grief is the beginning of of new possibilities. Anyone who has had to go on after losing a loved one knows this space. Emotionally, this is where the Hebrew people found themselves after the exile. Their image of what it meant to be God’s chosen certainly did not include defeat and banishment. They felt abandoned by God and could not imagine going on. So they called out. You have been mighty. We have seen it. Where are you now? They could not bear the realities of their lives and wanted a God who would make things better.
In today’s scripture, Isaiah is trying to help his people deal with what is. There is a mixture of holding on to a familiar image of God who has been punishing his people and new image of God who calls us to face who we are and to trust God’s shepherding care. Something new may be emerging from the darkness. Comfort can be familiar and comfort can come in a most unexpected way.
Initially, comfort is found in the proclamation that the people have ‘done their time’. Tell them “she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” If you view God who punishes, it is a relief to know you’ve been punished enough. Every child wants to know how long the ‘timeout’ will be or how many days will they be grounded. No child wants their parent to be perpetually angry with them. I remember vividly the relief I felt when my parents came to comfort me after I had been punished. It is a profound relief to be told the punishment is over, we will not be outcast forever.
This is a familiar comfort and, In this context, the Hebrew people could rejoice. Their God was making the way home possible. Every impediment to returning from exile will be smoothed. “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5 Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
But please note, this view of God has troubled people for generations. Even though relieving, it still assumes a punitive God. It does not address those times when no amount of human thinking can ‘justify’ or explain the suffering of innocents. Omnipotence and the death of infants is hard to reconcile. And as one person in FIRL pointed out, this God is more demanding that the’ eye for an eye’ in the Hammurabi code. He was not satisfied with an eye for an eye. God extracted a double penalty for all her sins.
But then there is something new—a different kind of God is imagined and a different kind of comfort offered. Then the voice says: “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry? ”All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.”
Tell the people they are going to die. Tell them they will wither and fade. This is not usually how we think of comfort. Most of us know that this is true but we do not usually find the knowledge comforting. But it can be both comforting and freeing. My own experience is that when people face squarely what is, they have a much better chance of living and loving. That is what Isaiah is prophesying. It is hard enough to ‘wither and fade’ or to watch someone we love ‘wither and fade’ without adding to the pain by saying it ‘should not be happening.’ It is hard enough to be a defeated nation and an uprooted people without attributing it to some particular failing or sinfulness.
In the FIRL groups, two men told of the slow death of their spouses. This pain and loss was devastating. But, once fully faced, both used the time they had left. They chose to view their time as a gift. Their first reaction had been depression and despair over the unfairness and the impending loss. They still feel that loss acutely but they also found grace in the experience. You can not have that grace unless you see life ‘like it is’ instead of holding on to what we think life should be.
A truth we all know, is that we are grass is hard to hear—especially when it applies to those we love. It may be excruciatingly painful, but it is not an indictment. It is not explainable—but it is how it is. It must be spoken tenderly and in the promise that God will ‘feed his flock like a shepherd”. The ‘Word of God will stand forever’. We cannot arbitrate what happens to us but we can count on God to see us through. It was what can sustain us. There is hope beyond our deepest wants and sorrows.
There are many many such truths in our lives. Though most of those truths are hard, the paradox is that when we face them, we can use our energy get on with the life we have. It is part of the grief of adulthood. We used to think grownups got to do whatever they wanted. Then we discovered that the responsibilities never end. We used to think grownups knew all the answers and could protect us. Then we faced the ambiguity and uncertainty of decision making. In real life, being an adult is a lot more complicated than we imagined. It brings bills, responsibility, sleeplessness and uncertainty. The same is true of our faith.
Facing life ‘how it is’ shows up in the big struggles with our mortality and sinfulness and it shows up in the day to day struggles of family and church life. Here are a few grownup realizations we discussed in FIRL—there are, of course, many more. You might want to make up a list of your own. On the face of it, none of them are particularly comforting but knowing them frees us to live the life we have.
- If we love someone, we will hurt them. The question is not if, it is how often. Who wants to know that?
- Similarly, we will be hurt by the people who love us. Even at our very best we are frail and vulnerable. Again, it is hard enough to know that without thinking something is wrong with us.
- Parents are people. Even the best will be flawed and sometimes incompetent. The same will be true of us as a parent.
- If you can’t stand to be inconvenienced, do not imagine that you can love. Not only will you have to put yourself out, some of your most ordinary wants and needs will go unmet.
- There will be frustration and chaos when your church is renovated.
Better to know these things on the front end. Facing ‘life as it is’ is often difficult and disturbing. But that is what Isaiah is told to cry in the wilderness. You are not being selected for pain. This is how things are. But you need not be alone in the midst of it. “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.”
We are slowly shifting from reacting to a judgmental God to a God who knows us—a God who is acquainted with grief—a God we call Emanuel.
Neither life, nor God, is as we imagined or wished. But we are grass. God’s word endures forever. We are called to live ‘like it is’ trusting in God abiding presence.
May he be with you in every disappointment, every loss, and every uncertainty. Let it be so.