As I've said before, I don't think life was meant to be easy or even necessarily happy. We are meant to grow, learn, love, live life fully, and perhaps to pursue happiness. But I'm not sure the American belief that it's all about happiness is accurate and I think believing that it is all about being happy makes it hard both to appreciate the good times, but also it becomes very hard when we are struggling and can't quite make it to "happy". None the less, in a society where we live much longer than people used to, working hard to survive the challenges of each day over weeks, months, years, decades, can be just plain exhausting. There’s a lovely Peter Garbriel song called, In Your Eyes that has the line - "I get so tired of working so hard for our survival". And there are times when I hear it that I find myself pausing,
My guess is that many of us feel this way at one time or another. The song continues, "… I get so lost sometimes. Days pass and this emptiness fills my heart. When I want to run away, I drive off in my car..." Do you ever feel like that? As you listen to what is going on in the world, or when you have struggles at work, or when you make mistakes – wherever and whatever they may be, do you then have times when you would just like to drive away, to leave it, to go elsewhere?
But the truth of it is, where would we go? Where would you go? Wherever you go, there you are. And no matter how far we go, we take our struggles and our challenges with us. We each struggle with something. Currently I'm truly and deeply struggling with where our world seems to be heading, with the increasing hatred and the fear mongering that seem to have become so popular. Sometimes I’d like to drive to Canada or Denmark (if that were possible). Just away. There are other times I struggle with more personal anxieties, worries and difficulties. But lately there are times it is hard to hold onto hope in the midst of what I’m hearing in the news: the killing, the vandalism, the attacks on others. Especially when things are happening in the world that I don't feel I can stop. I feel helpless in the face of what is going on. I can speak out, I can talk about love rather than fear or hate, I can promote ideas and suggestions for how to be proactive, I can sign petitions, join gatherings, conversations, marches.... But it doesn't feel like enough. My influence in the world is small, and today I feel that smallness. I am worried for the world. I am worried for my kids and what kind of a world they are growing into. When I was back in Ohio and would feel this way, I often went for a quick walk in the Metroparks, which would center me for awhile. In nature I felt renewed. And when I saw this Wendel Berry poem posted on a friend's page, I had to post it as well to our church page because it is true for me, too:
The Peace of Wild Things
When despair for the world grow in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
There are times and days when getting to nature is not possible. But I think there is a deeper truth in this which is that we really do need times of rest, of retreat from what is hard and challenging and demanding. Rest is necessary for all of us. Times away from work are crucial to our wholeness, to being able to process through what happens in our lives, for being able to continue to be grateful and creative and positive. Our Bible requires us to keep a Sabbath day. This isn't optional, it's listed as one of the big 10 things that we are supposed to do. But for some reason, this is the one of the ten commandments that I think we have the hardest time following, the hardest time taking seriously. How many of us actually take a day off to rest each week? Even our weekends get so busy with errands and other activities. Perhaps especially during advent it is hard, with all of our Christmas preparation, to find rest time. And yet, it is exactly during times like Advent, when we are called to wait and to watch that we need to set aside that time.
Today we heard the magnificat, Mary’s singing out of joy and praise to the God who has brought her this child. We hear that her joy begins with gratitude for what God has done. And we hear what we discussed two weeks ago, that once again God’s coming to be among us is an even-ing up of the playing fields, a raising up of those who have not had, and a lowering down of those who have had. Most of the time when we read this passage I focus on the beauty and call of her song of praise. But there is a small line in this text that we usually ignore and that is the very last sentence, “she stayed with her cousin Elizabeth for about three months.” No sentence in here is accidental. So what is the message in that one sentence? Why tell us that she stayed with Elizabeth for three months? It is a comment again about taking time away.
In the midst of the challenge of being a pregnant teenager, she did not just keep pushing through what was hard. She stayed. With her cousin. For three months. Two pregnant females, supporting each other, nurturing each other, caring for each other. And, no doubt, resting, as is often necessary for pregnant women to do. They supported one another with love, they expressed joy, and they found peace together.
Both were doing amazing work, and would continue to do that for many years – carrying, birthing and raising the two boys who would become John the Baptist and Jesus. But before they continued the work, they took time out, to be with one another. To renew, to refresh, to strengthen for what was to come.
As a people of faith, as people who are on the way, as followers of Christ, we have work to do. We are called to be actively working for justice, for change, for empowerment. We are called to actively stand up for the voiceless, for those towards whom hatred, fear and condemnation is being espoused. We are called to care for people in concrete, real ways and to lift people up out of their poverty and oppression. But once again, Advent, and Moses through the ten commandments remind us that this work must start with God. That means taking time to pray, to rest, to listen, to strengthen up for the work that is to come.
Christmas is right around the corner. And we may feel we just don’t have time to pray, or rest. But Martin Luther is famous for commenting, "I have so much to do today that I'm going to need to spend three hours in prayer in order to be able to get it all done." We must learn to see prayer as the most powerful and efficient use of our time. It is not a waste of time. It is time that centers us so that we can do what needs to be done. By prayer in this context I also don’t just mean blabbering to God. I mean talking, yes, but also taking time to listen, to focus, to be led by what God calls us to do in this moment and at this time.
This week we will celebrate Christmas. And like many of the signs and posters and memes out there, it is true that as a culture we have taken the Christ out of Christmas in many ways. When Christmas comes we will need to be about the work of Christ – feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, forgiving the guilty, welcoming the stranger and the unwanted child, caring for the sick, loving our enemies. We will need to be about that because that is the Christ we are called to follow and called to serve. Doing Christmas is welcoming Christ in all of those people who make us uneasy, in all of those whom we would rather not see, in all of those whom we fear. But we are not at Christmas yet. And while Advent can be incredibly busy, it is NOW that we are called to take time to wait, to watch, to center our hearts, to pray, to listen. It is through that time of prayer, waiting, watching that we will find hope, peace, joy and love in our midst.
There was a man who complained that he wasn't able to reach his pastor by phone one day. When the clergy replied that it had been her day off, the man snarled: “well, the Devil never takes a day off.” The wise pastor smiled and replied, “true enough and if I don't take a day off I will be just like him.” Take that to heart. Take time. Wait, Watch, Pray. And rest in God. Amen.