So many competing emotions in Advent 2015! Consumerism has almost ruined the holiday season for me in a “normal” year, but the epidemic of fear fed by the recent wave of terrorist attacks makes it especially challenging and necessary for me to dig deep and find the bedrock of faith and gratitude in 2015.
I struggled for days with what, if anything, to say about the attacks in Paris on November 13, partly because so much has already been said, both wise and foolish, but mostly because I have been very depressed about the state of the world and not sure what to say that can make any contribution. I finally gave up and said nothing.
That Friday the 13th for me was a metaphor for the tug of war between hope and fear. One of our beautiful grandchildren spent that day at our house. I’m very biased, of course, but little things she did that day made my papa pride swell for what a sweet, caring, smart little girl she is.
Shortly after I took her home I heard the first reports about the attacks in Paris on a TV in a fast food restaurant. Unlike 9/11 when the world stopped to watch the horror unfold, I seemed to be the only one in the McDonald’s paying any attention to the news. Everyone else was chatting and carrying on as usual because these kinds of events have become chillingly commonplace.
That evening I went to a meeting to watch a film entitled “Climate Refugees,” which in painful detail describes how millions of people have been driven from their homes by storms, floods and draughts related to climate change. The whole film, which was made long before the current refugee crisis in Europe, was alarming, but one segment especially so given the chaos in Paris that very evening. That segment talked about how desperate, frightened refugees are easy prey for sex traffickers and terrorist organizations looking for new recruits. I was so overwhelmed by the scope of the problem that I couldn’t bring myself to stay for the discussion after the film.
The level and frequency of violence in our world since then has shaken the foundations of my faith. I am questioning my long-held belief in humans being created in the image of God. I am afraid for my family and for the future of the planet. And my first reaction to that fear and anger was to join the chorus of politicians who want to bomb our way out of the ISIS problem and arm ourselves and close our borders. I know better, but it scares me even more that some of our “leaders” or wannabes don’t. Instead they see these tragedies as an opportunity to sell more guns and generate more fear and fan the flames of their own political fortunes with abhorrent ideas borrowed from Hitler’s playbook.
On the bright side there have been wonderful statements of faith and hope from those with a greater understanding of human history and a better vision of human potential. One of those reminded me that love is ultimately the victor over hate. I believe that’s true in the long run, but for now hate has a big lead and the clock is ticking.
The paragraphs above were written during Thanksgiving week, and wisely, I believe, I chose not to share them then because they felt too hopeless and negative. Then yesterday came news of the biggest U.S. mass shooting since Sandy Hook. I was still wrestling with depression and feared this latest killing spree would only deepen my despair. Much to my surprise I am not as pessimistic 24 hours after San Bernardino as I have been for 2.5 weeks. I am very sad and determined to do more to be the solution to the dis-ease strangling our nation and world. But I am not depressed, and that feels very strange.
On the one hand I feel a bit guilty for not being discouraged, and on the other I am afraid to analyze my hopeful feeling for fear I will awaken from a dream and it will be gone. But unlike Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh in my favorite baseball movie “Bull Durham,” I am cursed with self-awareness. And most days that’s a good thing – and today is one of those.
I had noticed ironically yesterday that the last thing I posted in this blog was a piece about being “content in whatever state I am in” based on the words of St. Paul in Philippians 4. I posted that 4 days before the Paris terrorist attacks. How quickly I forgot those words to live by when the chips were down.
But tonight, several mass shootings later, some other words from that same 4th chapter popped into my awareness as I was pondering why I was not as depressed by these latest killings much closer to home. In particular verse 7 came to mind, and I had a warm feeling because what had been just words and ideas 3 weeks ago was actually a reality for me. I was experiencing the “peace that passes all understanding,” and it was very good.
So I revisited Philippians 4, and here’s the context for verse 7: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”
How relevant and practical those old words are for this particular Advent. Rejoice, in spite of our fear. Be gentle to everyone, including ourselves. Know that Emmanuel (“God with Us”) is near. Replace worry with prayer and supplication and thanksgiving. Prayer is not enough in our struggle with death and destruction and violence, but it is the foundation, the source of strength that sustains us when “our arms are too weary” to be carriers of hope to a frightened world.
And Paul gives attitude adjustment advice better than the best self-help guru. He says to focus on what is good and true and excellent and worthy of praise. Because even in the dark days of Advent 2015 there is much goodness in the world. We may just have to work a little harder to find it, but it is more necessary than ever to find it and share it.
One such image for me that is stronger than the non-stop horrific news coverage from California is that of a simple gesture by my granddaughter that Friday the 13th. She came down to my office that morning with two juice boxes in her hands that she had gotten from the lunch box she brought with her. When I asked her if she was going to drink them both she said, “No, this one’s for you.” A simple pure act of caring and sharing, unprompted and natural. It was the best juice box I’ve tasted in a long time!
She was doing in her six-year-old way what the final advice is in that passage from Paul. It says, “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard in me, and the peace of God will be with you.” Don’t abandon the ways of love and peace. Don’t fall into the temptation to fight fire with fire. Be forgiving and compassionate, even when those things make no sense and seem impossible. There is no peace in following the ways of King Herod, another mass murderer. The peace of God came “not with swords loud clashing, nor roll of stirring drum, but with deeds of love and mercy” in a helpless refugee child born in a barn.
No matter how loud our leaders and our hearts want to shout fear and hate, the still small voice of God says, “Fear not, I am still bringing you good news of great joy.” Don’t miss it!