Lectionary Link: http://www.lectionarypage.net/YearA_RCL/Advent/AAdv2_RCL.html
wishful thinking, and
and the greatest of these is hope.
The summer after 8th Grade
I went on a month-long camping trip out West
with my older brother and his wife.
This was no ordinary vacation.
My brother is twelve years my senior
and was flush with recent successes
in the Ivy League and Law School.
The trip had fingerprints of parents all over it, a desperate fantasy that an older sibling could provide life-changing positive influence on an increasingly wild and squirrely younger brother.
I smelled a rat of course
and did not want anything to do with it.
But I was trapped by my own fear.
The central feature of this road trip
was to be an overnight
to the bottom
of the Grand Canyon.
Over night…all by myself…all alone.
I was terrified by the prospect
but even more afraid to admit my terror.
Camping was not the issue.
I grew up camping in isolated places
and had lots of experience and know-how
with the requisite skills required.
But I was just plain scared.
I was scared of the dark for one thing.
I was scared to be alone for another.
I was scared of the unknown
and scared of whatever critters
inhabited the unknown.
I was scared of falling off a cliff.
I was scared of lightening.
Worst of all, I was scared of being scared.
As is true in many families,
fear was not allowed in mine.
It was NOT okay to be afraid.
The only appropriate response to fear in my family
I was ashamed of being afraid.
Even beyond family culture,
we all know that men,
especially large men,
are not supposed to be afraid.
So the idea that I was going to
walk down a hole
into a rattlesnake infested desert
all by myself
and spend the night
in total darkness,
scared the stuffing out of me.
But what scared me even more
was that someone might find out
I was terrified.
When the day finally arrived
my brother insisted that I travel light
so I could make it to the bottom before dark
and make my way back up the next day.
just a sheet of clear plastic
to place under my sleeping bag
or on top of me if it rained.
I carried minimal food rations
to maximize how much water I could carry,
and an old flashlight.
The first fly in the ointment
was that most adolescent boys
do not walk the shortest distance from A to B.
and lingered everywhere along the trail.
It was daylight
and so I was more curious than afraid.
I wandered more than hiked
which of course meant that I wouldn’t make it
to the designated camping area
Suddenly I realized it was getting darker
and I had no idea how far I was from the campground.
I picked up my pace
but had no idea where I was on the trail.
Off in the distance,
down a side trail I noticed a tiny light
and wondered who in the heck
lived down there.
I was jogging now
but dusk was thinning into darkness
and I knew that I had to stop
and make camp before night slammed shut.
I cleared a flat space of stones and debris
and put my humble plastic sheet down
with my sleeping bag on top.
I made a perfect circle of rope
all around my sleeping bag
because someone told me the fairy tale
that snakes won’t go over rope.
Inside my little circle of wishful thinking
I ate my cold dinner
stuffed everything back into my pack
and crawled into my sleeping bag.
There I laid awake
listening to every sound in the Grand Canyon.
There was no sound
louder than the pounding of my heart.
I have no idea how long I tolerated it
before sitting up like Lazarus from the dead.
I was simply too afraid
to lie there any longer.
Without thinking it through,
which is a by-product of fear,
I shoved everything in my backpack
and headed for the light I had seen a few miles back.
this is the Grand Canyon
and it is at night
with no visible moon above.
Only later, as an experienced adult backpacker,
did I realize how dangerous that panic was.
Finding and staying on a trail
in the desert
by means of a small, old-fashioned flashlight
was highly unlikely.
But of course,
even a small light
can be seen at great distance
across a deep darkness.
The light I had seen
was the only one for miles in any direction
and I moved toward that light…
as the Crow flies.
The ground beneath my feet disappeared
and I was falling.
I remember, even now,
that sensation of slow motion;
when your body is moving at one speed
but your thoughts are moving so much faster.
Time seems to slow down
and you can see everything as it is happening to you.
I was tumbling down,
down, down, down
in the dark.
I was watching it happen in my mind
and wondering about rattlesnakes
and what would happen if I landed in a nest of them.
I was wondering if any of that pain was a broken bone
and just how strong is my neck is anyway…
Even before the fall
my flashlight was so dim as to be useless.
Now it was lost in the dark.
I lay motionless
taking stock of my condition.
I was filled with dread
of other cliffs out there.
Now I was truly lost in the dark.
But there was that light.
I could see it.
I had no idea of the distance between us
nor of the topography I had to traverse to get there.
But I no longer knew the way back either;
and to what,
a little clearing off the trail?
I did not know how to go back,
I did not know what lay ahead,
I did not know where I was,
and I was afraid.
I got up and literally, not proverbially,
walked toward the light.
I imagine that every single one of us here
has had that kind of a moment.
Can you conjure up
a moment in time
when you did not know how to go back,
and you did not know what was ahead,
and perhaps you didn’t even know where you were,
and you were afraid?
We have all had moments of being lost,
and of being alone in the dark,
and of not knowing which way to turn.
It is a difficult and dangerous place to be
and when it is filled with fear
then it is an even more hazardous place to be.
If we are unfortunate enough
to also be afraid of being afraid,
then it is as dangerous a place to be
as any on earth.
There are all kinds of events
that rain down upon us
with swift and random force:
a threatening diagnosis,
or sudden health catastrophe;
the rupture of a relationship
or terrible divorce;
the loss of a parent
or their separation;
Depression or other destabilizing mental illness;
job loss or demotion;
bankruptcy or crippling debt;
the loss of reputation
or isolation from community;
and even death.
The litany is long
So many things can send us into a dark night
surrounded by uncertainty
with no hint of which direction to move
or where we might re-emerge.
The question for us
in such moments as these,
is whether we will be frozen in fear
or drown in despair
or be able to move in hope.
I do not mean to suggest
that we can live without fear or despair;
the question is whether or not
we can be held in hope
EVEN as we experience fear
And believe me,
my little story is NOT an example
of living with hope,
rather, it is an example of flailing in the dark
and led by fear.
So here is the thing:
we need to be honest
about the distinction between
and wishful thinking,
and between hope
is naïveté at best and denial at worst.
waits around to be rescued,
believing in deliverance by a White Knight
or the Woman of my Dreams
or a God that will protect me.
masquerades as hope
but it hopes for particular things,
and usually, for things of its own choosing
which are inevitably the wrong things.
Idealism is similar.
arrogant enough to believe
it knows exactly what to hope for
in any given situation.
has a vision
and it believes that ITS OWN vision
is the very thing to hope for
and then becomes bitter
if ITS OWN vision goes bust.
Fanaticism is fueled by idealism run amuck.
or political extremism
or the extreme dogmatism of Secular Humanism,
or any ISM that claims it is the one true reality…
is usually a form of idealism
may begin as a fledgling hope
but when it comes to see its own vision
as the only solution,
as the absolute end toward which we need to strive,
then it becomes something very different from hope.
It takes on a kind of narcissism that corrupts it.
Hope is different.
is that quiet chamber of peace
that is deep enough
and broad enough
and firm enough
to hold fear
and not tremble.
can hold despair and not become morose.
can hold failure and not become cynical.
Unlike Wishful Thinking and Idealism
does not know which way to go.
When we are alone in the desert night
and we do not know which way is back or forward,
Hope does not
and cannot show us the way.
and Wishful Thinking
will point to a happy ending
and tell us, ‘That Way!’
does something different.
takes our small and tender hand
and places it
in the vast and waiting hand of God.
That is all.
No promise of safety.
No strategy for success.
No guaranteed outcome.
our hand held by God,
we know with a kind of peace
that surpasses all understanding,
that whatever happens
will be okay
simply because we are in the presence of God.
That is all.
and reminds us with gentle stroking,
who we are
and whose we are…
and touches us with the peace
that comes from that knowledge.
Advent is a season of Hope,
not waiting for something in particular
but held in peace.
A season of hope
in which we are held,
even with our fear
and even with our despair,
but not disabled by either.
So I found the light that night
and it was over the door
of a corrugated metal pump house
that I entered with great relief.
As loud and as hot as it was inside,
it was light
and I fell asleep.
At dawn a young Mormon kid my age
appeared to do whatever daily maintenance
is required of such things
and we talked for quite some time.
When I made it back up to the rim of the canyon
I never said a word about my experience
or my fear.
I don’t recall
that my brother and I ever mentioned
that trip in all the intervening years.
I still get afraid sometimes,
and I can feel despair from time to time too.
I continue to get lost in desert nights
when I least expect it.
But what I have come to depend upon
is that sensation of hope –
that experience of hope –
when I place my hand
in God’s hand, and…
with a peace that surpasses all understanding,
that it will be okay no matter what.
Without solace of a known outcome
and without expectation of a particular ending,
the knowledge of
who we are
and whose we are
will deliver us
to a place of peace
that we call hope.
©R Cameron Miller