Rev. Elizabeth Michael
Preached at University Presbyterian Church, Chapel Hill, NC
December 3, 2017
The poet Christian Wiman writes about a night that his four-year-old daughter, Eliza, crawled out of her bed and emerged into his doorway to announce, “Daddy, I can’t sleep. Every time I close my eyes, I’m seeing terrible things.” Wiman, immediately sympathetic to his daughter’s insomnia and its accompanying images, suggested she pray. He acknowledges,
“This was either a moment of tremendous grace or brazen hypocrisy (not that the two can’t coincide), since I am not a great pray-er myself and tend to be either undermined by irony or overwhelmed by my own chaotic consciousness. Nevertheless, I suggested that my little girl get down on her knees and bow her head and ask God to give her good thoughts—about the old family house in Tennessee that we’d gone to just a couple of weeks earlier, for example, and the huge green yard […] the buckets of just-picked blueberries and the fried Krispy Kremes and the fireflies smearing their strange radiance through the humid Tennessee twilight. I told her to hold that image in her head and ask God to preserve it for her. I suggested she let the force of her longing and the fact of God’s love coalesce into a form as intact and atomic as matter itself, to attend to memory with the painstaking attentiveness of the poet, the abraded patience of the saint, the visionary innocence of the child whose unwilled wonder erases any distinction between her days and her dreams. I said all this—underneath my actual words, as it were—and waited while all that blond-haired, blue-eyed intelligence took it in.
“Oh, I don’t think so, Daddy.” She looked me right in the eyes.
“What do you mean, Eliza? Why not?”
“Because in Tennessee I asked God to turn me into a unicorn and”—she spread her arms wide in a disconcertingly adult and ironic shrug—“look how that’s worked out.”
It is the four-year-old version of a common dilemma. How to negotiate a relationship with the divine in the midst of grave disappointment? What to do with all the terrible things when the one said to be all-powerful proves strangely reticent to employ any power?
Isaiah’s is the grown-up version. Sixty-six chapters give us a sense of the terrible things he might have seen when he closed his eyes. Statutes passed at the highest level of government that rob the poorest and most vulnerable of their rights. Nation rising up against nation as changing patterns in military might make some the victors and others the vanquished. A worshiping community that claims to be the conduit of God’s presence on earth but that actually cares more about getting their liturgical seasons right than tending to the widows and orphans among them. All of it together working to tear apart the fabric of the people’s life together and leave them estranged from one another and from God. And while there are yet stories of God acting mightily and decisively on behalf of God’s people, most of them are from so long ago that they are like a box of pictures kept in the attic—black and white, dusty, curling at the edges—evidence of another age, but one with little relevance to the current day.
To the question of how to be in relationship with God in the midst of profound disappointment, Isaiah chooses the reliable and sturdy tool of lament. “Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” he cries out to God. He mourns for an age gone by when God’s awesome deeds shook not only the mountains but the thrones of the powerful. He mourns for a day when God dealt gently and intimately with the people, redeeming them and loving them and, with his presence, saving them. He bemoans the destruction of the holiest and most beautiful spaces in the Promised Land. He grieves the sin of the people, but he says clearly that God hiding God’s face did little to help. And having worn himself out with his grieving, he beseeches the Lord to keep silent no more.
I expect most of us know something of Eliza’s quandary, of Isaiah’s lament. Maybe for you it is a personal matter. Eliza might want to be a unicorn, but all you’re asking God is to be a parent, to finally live into a long and secret and surprisingly hard-to-actualize hope of nurturing life into the world. Or maybe you want simply to be a partner, to meet someone on whom you can lavish all this love that you have in abundance, to sign your names in plural at the bottom of your Christmas cards and enter the season of merriment without the pangs of loneliness. Maybe you’ve asked God to turn you into a particular professional. To put that degree to use for good in the world, and with it all the zeal and earnestness and knowledge you have in spades. Maybe you’re not even looking to be turned into something; you are simply asking God for relief from the aches in your body or the bills piling up in your mailbox or the drama in your family that will not stop. And maybe you envy those who even have the wherewithal to long or lament, because it just takes everything you have to make it through the day.
Or perhaps you know Isaiah’s pain, a pain for the wider world. You know it isn’t good for your mental health to constantly scroll through headlines, but neither can you stop doing so. You’ve taken in the contentious tax debate and the slew of sexual assault stories and the plight of the Rohingya; you’ve traced the arc of the North Korean missile and the route of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline; you know the stats on domestic violence and addiction and child poverty right here in Chapel Hill; and all of it together is too much for your heart to hold, but it keeps happening, so you keep watching and wondering what to do and when it will end and if there is any hope for our corporate salvation.
If any of these people is you, the church has a gift for you today. It’s the season of Advent. It is, admittedly, a rather understated gift. Our simple purple candles lack the wow-factor of wall to wall icicle lights and inflatable Santa Clauses. Our songs are more likely to be meditative and minor in key than peppy and spectacular. And the words around which we gather may sound out of sync with a world that has been stamping comfort and joy on shopping bags and coffee cups since mid-November. But there is a spaciousness to this season that welcomes all who ache, all who know everything is not yet right, all who crave not the coming of Christmas, but the coming of Christ.
Hear how the preacher Sam Wells puts it. He talks about what it was like in days gone by to go into a tailor’s shop for material for sewing dresses or trousers. There the salesperson might push some cloth into the shopper’s hands and seek to distract her from its quality by drawing her attention to how much of it there was. “Never mind the quality — feel the width!” [such a salesperson would say.] In other words, “Who cares whether the material comes from the very best fabric? See how much there is of it, for such a bargain price!”
Wells says this image is a parable for our modern lives. He writes about how easily we distract ourselves from the depths of our pain by setting our attention on trivial things. Never mind the deep desires, the salespeople of the world’s agenda urge; focus instead on this pretty thing which will keep your mind occupied and spare you too much distress. Do not trouble yourself about things that really matter—look, it is so easy to get your hands on things that don’t!
“It’s perfectly possible,” Wells writes, “to turn your whole life into a distraction, a whole enterprise of feeling the width. [But] in Advent, we dismantle our elaborate defenses and, for a few weeks, or days, or moments, face up squarely to our deepest yearnings, our unresolved longings and our rawest needs. [And in] Advent we find a confidence deeper than our needs, a hope more far-reaching than our desires, a future more comprehensive than our most poignant yearnings.
In our self-protection, we habitually say to ourselves, to one another and even to God, “Never mind the quality; feel the width. Let’s just make ourselves busy and perhaps we’ll forget about it.” In Advent, God says to us, “Never mind the width. Your life isn’t about quantity of activity or length of days. Let go of the width. Feel the depth.”
The answer to [whatever pain we are carrying this season] isn’t width. It’s depth.”
One last thought from Christian Wiman, father of the would-be-unicorn and pursuer of depth, on his own experience of God:
“[Once] while watching some television report about depression and religion—I forget the relationship but apparently there was one—a friend who was entirely secular asked me with genuine curiosity and concern, “Why do they believe in something that doesn’t make them happy?” I was an ambivalent atheist at that point, beset with an inchoate loneliness and endless anxieties, contemptuous of Christianity but addicted to its aspirations and art. I was also chained fast to the rock of poetry, having my liver pecked out by the bird of a harrowing and apparently absurd ambition—and thus had some sense of what to say. One doesn’t follow God in hope of happiness but because one senses—miserable flimsy little word for that beak in your bowels—a truth that renders ordinary contentment irrelevant.”
I won’t presume to speak for Wiman in what he finds that truth to be. But his language resonates with me. I do not know many who have found an authentic practice of the Christian faith to be a road to happiness. But I do know those who have found in our faith something far deeper and eternal. Those who reside in that place where deep calls to deep and find there the story of Word made flesh and light of light and blood poured out. They are those who long for meaning and ache at beauty and thirst for justice and they know that beak in the bowels and name him Christ. They are here, in this space. They are you.
Isaiah ends his lament and leaves the next move up to God. And it will be some centuries yet before the heavens part wide enough for a baby to slip through and tumble into a manger. But I like to think that even then, as the heavens received Isaiah’s cries, that deep in the darkness something new was being knit together with love and tenderness, a strange but beautiful interweaving of human and divine, a mystery of all mysteries, a word that was source of all words, a power above all powers, a depth that would hold us all. May it be so even now. Happy Advent, my friends.
 Christian Wiman, “I Will Love You in the Summertime,” American Scholar, Essays Spring, 2016. Accessed 12.2.17 at https://theamericanscholar.org/i-will-love-you-in-the-summertime/#.
 Isa. 10:1-2
 Isa. 1:14-17
 Isa. 63:8-9
 Samuel Wells, “Never Mind the Width,” Faith and Leadership blog Nov. 17, 2014. Accessed 12.2.17 at https://www.faithandleadership.com/samuel-wells-never-mind-width.