“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down….”
– Isaiah 64:1
Last week, Jessica and I helped lead a mid-week Advent service at Erb St Mennonite Church focused on the theme of hope.
And as we prepared for evening, I realized how little I understand hope. Actually, I realized how little I have really even considered the idea of hope.
So perhaps like anything that is unexamined, my sense of what this word hope might be is pretty limited. I tend to keep hope constrained to the realm of positive thinking.
Being hopeful simply means pushing the doubt, the fear, and the pain aside; trying to maintain a positive outlook on life. And while I am not opposed to cultivating a sense of optimism, I get a sense that hope is much more profound than this.
A few weeks ago, I was at a gathering of the Burning Bush Forest Church (a group that meets monthly to worship and prayer in the context of Creation meeting at different forests throughout the city).
It was the trees that began to deepen my ponderings on this theme of hope.
Trees are my most cherished companions in prayer. They are powerful spiritual guides.
And of course, at this time of year, the deciduous trees have a particularly stark invitation.
As I prayed in the forest, I began to connect with the bareness of the trees. I began to get a sense for the profound vulnerability at the heart of this season.
As I witnessed the naked branches of the maple and the birch, I felt the exposure of my own heart. I felt the rawness of grief, the downward pull of despair; I noticed the depth of pain that I carry.
And in that moment, I thought,
Thank God for the darkness. Thank God for this dark embrace.
Thank God for this womb of black and blue with only the occasional hint of light.
I need this holding, this waiting.
I need to stay here for a while before I am ready for more light.
And as I prayed from this place of raw vulnerability,
I noticed a nugget of hope arise and God drew my attention to the trees again.
But this time, not to the branches, but to the roots.
I noticed that the trees, while bare, are still deeply rooted, they are still alive.
I could see that the bareness, the vulnerability, is not synonymous with death,
That new life not only returns in the spring, but life continues right now,
in the darkness.
Perhaps hope is what allows us to receive God’s gracious gift of life even in the midst of what might feel like death.
Thomas Merton writes that:
“Christian hope begins where every other hope stands frozen stiff before the face of the Unspeakable”
The community from which the prophet Isaiah speaks, and where the quote at the beginning of this blog comes from had experienced standing before the face of the Unspeakable.
It was a community still ravaged by the experience of a violent, forced exile.
Still reeling and wounded from the fall of their kingdoms.
The words we hear read from Isaiah in this Advent season (check out the full text here) demonstrate a beautiful intermingling of intense vulnerability, of suffering, even despair alongside the search for hope, alongside the desperate longing for God and some sign of life in the midst of it all.
So perhaps this is what Advent invites us to embrace.
This season challenges us to be honest about those places where we find ourselves standing frozen stiff;
where our vulnerability and pain just stops us in our tracks.
This season challenges us to have the courage to look right in the face of the Unspeakable,
in our world, in our hearts,
and to cry out to God:
“Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”
Tamara Shantz is a pastor with Pastors in Exile.
In addition to working with PiE, Tamara is a spiritual director and Enneagram teacher. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.