When I discovered that I was pregnant with my first child, my immediate sense of happiness was quickly pushed aside by consternation at my lack of forethought. If the pregnancy went as expected, I would be giving birth in December—perhaps even on Christmas. For someone who is a “planner,” this seemed a remarkable lapse in my skills. That time of year is not exactly a great time for a clergyperson to be having a child.
Having a child in December was not the only concern at the time. My husband was near the finish line for his Ph.D. and on the job market for a tenure-track academic position—with prospects that could be best described as “skimpy.” I might have expected an easier time in securing a position, but clergy positions came with compensation packages that also might be described as skimpy.
We could squeeze another year out of our resident tutor status at Harvard, so we were not in dire straits, with unemployment and homelessness looming. The small voice of concern and worry in my head was easily suppressed by the larger voice in my head that assured me that everything would be just fine.
I wish that I could conjure that feeling now.
I begin this season of Advent yearning for a little hope.
The news feels so unrelentingly grim. While I force myself every morning to keep to my usual routine of checking the same sources of news in the same order—New York Times, Boston.com, and finally the local Morning Sentinel—I’ve found my scanning of headlines to be about as much as I can handle most days. And, even that can be too much.
There’s the President, of course. I am particularly angry and depressed at his continual attitude of bullying, pettiness, and meanness. If he were a student at the local high school, where my son goes to school, he would likely have been suspended by now. Or certainly disciplined and punished.
The barrage of stories about sexual harassment and misconduct is also terribly unsettling, although it is a good thing that this wretched problem is getting some much-needed attention. The “apologies,” though—for anyone who “might have been hurt”—push me further away from anything resembling hope.
On the world stage, the news is difficult, with warfare, chaos, the targeting of ethnic and religious minorities, etc, etc, etc.
And, then there is church, the church I serve, Old South in Hallowell, Maine. It’s budget season and while we may get through this season without too much in the way of dramatic change, change is on the horizon—clear as day. And, also clear: a reluctance to talk about what we are going to do. We have two buildings, each of which is significant to the life of the church community. But with our church community getting smaller, we will not be able to maintain both buildings into the indefinite future. Yet, there’s a sense that we won’t be “Old South” without the buildings, and a very real concern (for me, anyway) that the church may decide to cut away at everything else, including staffing, before allowing any talk about selling a building.
At the start of Advent, I find myself bereft of that thing that usually defines the start of Advent: hope.
Last Sunday, my homily probably spoke to me as much as, or more so, than the congregation. The stark language of the lectionary passage from Mark (13:24-37), calling us to “beware,” “keep alert,” and “keep awake,” is not spoken in the spirit that many Christians would prefer. That is, that many Christians have the tendency to believe that God acts, “God will provide,” and that all we need to do is to sit back— waiting, watching, receiving.
But, I don’t think that’s what’s going on in the passage.
Instead, I think the passage reminds us that we are a part of how God acts in the world. We are not simply beneficiaries of God’s work. We are part of it, offering our hands, feet, hearts and minds to what God is up to in our midst.
Hope, then, isn’t a passive thing, something for which we wait and watch until God decides (or not) to offer it to us. Hope is a choice. It is an invitation.
Back when my husband and I were actively trying to figure out what was next, we discovered that we had to open ourselves to possibilities that were not what we had in mind—or we would surely end up in a hopeless place. Moving to Maine was not exactly on my list for where I wanted to settle down. In fact, I didn’t even look at the clergy openings available in the state before we moved here.
While our move to Maine (twenty years ago) hasn’t been perfect (nothing is, after all), it has offered almost everything we could possibly want—good jobs; a great place to raise a family; wonderful friends; good community; and, meaningful faith communities.
Part of the waiting and watching is to know that God’s hope is often found in places where we prefer not to go, places that feel uncomfortable and alien. Yet, we are called to follow, and in the knowing that God is with us, there is hope. Yes, there is hope.