I sometimes wonder if we understand what kind of gifts we have to offer the world. And, if we are willing to name them and claim them, are we as willing to give them for the world to be a better place? One of the quotes from a Professor in seminary (and I’m sorry that part I can’t remember) that has stayed with me for 30+ years says that “pessimism is the height of arrogance.” It struck me then as it does now. At first glance I wondered how in the world having a dim or negative view of life could be considered arrogant. However, if you think about it from a faith perspective, of course it makes sense. Who are we, with the little we actually know, who are we to decide God does not have the creativity, the grace, and the wisdom to bring hope out of despair, peace out of frustration, and even life out of death?
All of that has been rolling around in my being in this 8th or 80th or 800th month of 2020. “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” (Psalm 13:1, NRSV). It makes me feel better the Psalmist has a touch of the drama as well. We human beings are not good at, nor have we had to practice very much, living in ambiguity. One of the theological frames with which we deal is living in the “now and the not yet.” We talk much about that in terms of our faith. That as followers of Jesus we live fully in the present moment embracing what it is God has invited and called us to do each day with our unique gifts of life and self to, as the prophet Micah would say, “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.” I’m sorta stuck on quotes today. So we live fully in this present moment, but in faith we believe that this moment, this day, even this lifetime for each of us, is not the end – and that is the “not yet” that we live toward. I suppose that’s a form of ambiguity, but it’s never felt as raw as the period we’re living in now.
The beginning of March threw us willy-nilly into a place we’d never been before in our lifetime. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross describes five stages of grief and I believe we have been and still are in those stages in varying degrees. The five stages in short are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. She made clear those are not clear-cut steps that always go in order and that there is no timeline that is the same for every human being experiencing any kind of loss. But in general, we can notice ourselves going through those places on our way to discovering what it means to be human in the face of things that happen that are not under our control. I don’t know about you, but I find myself in those various stages at different times dealing with very specific things that I have sadness about, and very general universal things that I can neither figure out nor for which I have an understanding of a timeline.
In the absence of control over the large things, I find myself knowingly pretending things are going to be the way I imagine them. I believed in March we would be back to some sort of normal by Easter which was the first week of April. Uh, no. Then I believed the likelihood was more middle of the summer, maybe like July 4 celebration that we would be free of the virus and we could have an Easter-like celebration in the sanctuary. Nope. Clear in the way back recesses of my youngest self mind, I now have Christmas Eve as my marker of things being my definition of “normal”. Somehow I believe that I can put together a plan for life and faith moving toward that cloudy picture that I keep trying to focus like I used to the slide projector which was our old-timey powerpoint back in the day.
Is that really the way to move into the future – to keep imagining when things are going to be the way I pretend they are? The way they were when, realistically or not, I felt some control and an almost subconscious sense of security and safety I believed because of that control?
All this is about faith, you know. Having it, losing it, finding it or actually it finding us, and understanding it goes far beyond our imaginations that we are in control. I don’t think control is really what a lot of the bible is written about for human beings. God makes pretty clear that when we think we’re in control is when it all tends to derail. Moses says he can’t be the one to lead the people to freedom from slavery by confronting Pharoah and gives 5 really great reasons. And God essentially says Moses is right, if it were only about him, he couldn’t do it – but with God, all things are possible. Mary the mother of Jesus, is not certain what to think of the appearance of the Angel Gabriel and the words that she is to be the mother of the Messiah, and Gabriel says, “For nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37, NRSV).
I know it’s not Christmas, and I also know in my grown-up self, that pretending everything will be exactly as I want it to be by then is not under my control. Maybe the Christmas lesson for this last month of summer is simply the 37th verse of chapter 1 of Luke. And maybe it’s not only a Christmas lesson for August, maybe it’s the answer to the paradox of pessimism being the height of arrogance. And maybe it’s the foundation of courage that might help us continue to walk, in stops and starts, through the stages of grief I believe we all are living in various degrees at various times. And maybe, just maybe, the 37th verse of the first chapter of Luke releases us from the need to control and reminds us that we are not in this alone.
We have gifts to give to the world, each of us. Gifts that go beyond Christmas or that can be wrapped up in a box and tied with a bow. We have the possibility of doing justice and loving kindness and walking humbly with God. We have courage through community, as virtual as it may have to be right now, to live into the reality we are facing without pretending, pretension, or the arrogance of pessimism toward a new day we can’t yet quite see with the commitment that that new day is in God’s hands. The overwhelming nature of reality right now is that we cannot escape living during a pandemic. It’s the hand we have been dealt in this season of our lives. It doesn’t and hasn’t gone away because we’re tired of it, because we’ve decided it’s a conspiracy, because no one in our own family has died or will have chronic lung or heart disease from it the rest of their lives. The virus doesn’t care about our politics, our stage or station in life, or our trouble with ambiguity.
Here’s the deal, God cares about all of that and all of us in the midst of this and every reality we’ve lived. And finally maybe the lesson of faith is the realization that we are not God. We can’t and don’t know or control all that is or ever will be. Our choice is whether to have faith that God is . . . generous, kind, mysteriously filled with blessing, and yes finds nothing, absolutely nothing, impossible – even loving the likes of you and me. May that be a minute, or maybe even two, of grace today.