Sunday, November 13, 2022
By: Kilpy Singer, Associate Rector
The other week, I got home from work and saw my neighbor in their front yard with his kids. I went over to say hello and ask the usual “How are things,” but our relationship is beyond the evasive, “fine thanks, how are you”. We usually cut straight to it, the good and the bad, wasting no time on pleasantries. So, I asked, “How are things,” and he said “Ehhh, not great. I don’t really know what my relationship with Christianity is anymore…” Huh. I figured I had two options. Lean in, or lean out. Ask the follow up question, or pretend to suddenly get an important phone call and scurry away. I love this neighbor so much, and am invested in their general wellbeing, so I leaned in with a gentle “Tell me more,” a phrase I learned from the brilliant author Kelly Corrigan.
He went on to share that he was so overwhelmed with life, the constant grind of paying the bills and raising the kids and keeping food on the table and balancing a demanding job with a difficult personal life. And when he tried to look outside himself for some signs that things weren’t all that bad, all he saw was a world at war, mistreatment of immigrants and refugees, continued refusal to acknowledge that our society treats people differently based on how they look or where they live, and this deeply unsettling division growing between political parties.
He said, Why does it feel like the world is getting worse? And how can I believe in a God that lets this all happen?
On the one hand, some of you might be thinking “How depressing. Life’s not that bad.” On the other hand, others of you might be thinking “How wonderful. I’m not the only one!” Whether you are in that place right now or not, I think we’ve all asked these same questions. I know I have. Most days we might be able to push through and focus on the here and now, but every once and while, we all reach that point of overwhelm with our own circumstances or the condition of our nation and our world, and, like my neighbor, are left with the paralyzing question: God, how could you let this happen? Is the world really going to hell in a handbasket, as grandma always said? Do you even care?
With these questions and that conversation with my neighbor in the back of my head, I’ve sort of stumbled around the past ten days, beginning to wonder if we are a part of some crazy new phase in the world’s timeline. Are things are finally getting so bad that Jesus is like, “Alright alright, alright, I’ll come back now.” I joked about it with a wise, old friend, and she responded “Oh honey, we’re not all that special. This isn’t anything that hasn’t happened before”
At first I was like “you’re not hearing my pain or being attentive to my truth and you’re really just making excuses so you don’t have to be a part of the work to make this world a better place”. Why yes, I am a millennial, if that sentence didn’t give it away. But in all seriousness, I did keep thinking about her response, it challenged me in some unexpected way, and then I fell into the gospel passage for today in which Jesus essentially just says to some of his followers “Bad things are coming”.
He goes on to describe what that might look like. For instance, wars, and uprisings, and divisions, and widespread sickness, and natural disasters, and hate. Sounds familiar. And on the one hand, that could seem unsettling, Jesus sort of listing the exact calamities ahead, like he’s predicting them. But it actually felt like a huge comfort to me, and maybe to his followers, to see Jesus acknowledging that life comes with some big, scary things, to hear him naming that reality, and moreover, that he wasn’t all that surprised.
And with my friend’s comment and Jesus’s words I realized the profound gift of remembering that no, we are not special and no, the things we’re facing aren’t anything new. God has seen everything under the sun. There’s literally nothing that could shock God.
And there is such relief in this, because we can acknowledge that yes, life can get hard. Bad things happen. But while we might be largely unprepared to handle them, God is not. God is a seasoned pro, at the ready, sincere in his understanding of us and unwavering in his presence with us, right? God can relate to us in our difficulties with solidarity, because God actually lived a life as one of us. God came to us as Jesus and took on flesh, and in doing so God also took on pain, and suffering, and a human death, God lived a life and in doing so said,, “I’m experiencing this with you, and I understand you. And I will always be here with you.”
There is this video by Brene Brown that I just love and sent around to our pastoral care teams recently. Brene talks about the difference between having sympathy versus empathy. At one point she says empathy is when someone’s kind of in a deep hole, and they shout out from the bottom and they say “I’m stuck, it’s dark, I’m overwhelmed,” and then we look and we say “Hey, I’ll come down, I know what it’s like down here and you’re not alone”. Whereas sympathy is like peering over the edge of the hole and saying “oh its bad. Yeah, no. you want sandwich?
This is such a helpful way of orienting how we approach others who are in hard times. As I spoke with my neighbor, I tried to channel Brene and remember to climb down in the hole, not peer from the outside with unhelpful and distanced comments. And the more I’ve thought about Brene’s video this week, and her genius perspective on how we can orient ourselves to others, the more I’ve realized that it’s not all that unlike how God orients Godself to us. Instead of peering at us from above, thinking “oh yeah, that’s bad. I’m out.” God climbed down to us, breaching the distance between us, by becoming a vulnerable human like us.
So when we are faced with life’s tragedies, and we reach the point of overwhelm, and we question if God even cares, we can rest assured that God is with us. That is the mystery and the beauty of the incarnation. And maybe it’s not only about how God is oriented towards us, but it can serve as a model for how we are oriented towards one another. Leaning in, not out. Climbing down into that hole, not simply peering from above.
Now is there more going on here than just God being with us in hard times? Absolutely. Don’t hear me wrong and think I’m limiting God’s involvement in our lives to just that of a good friend. And we are turning the corner towards Advent and will get to cover lots more about all the implications of God coming to us as a baby and that baby being Jesus, the savior of the world. But for today, maybe it’s enough rest in the simple yet radical reality that we have a God who fully understands us, fully loves us, and promises that we never have to be alone.