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Marty Troyer lives in Houston Texas, which is still recovering from one of the worst natural disasters in United States history: an August hurricane named Harvey. He is pastor of Houston Mennonite Church and the author of The Gospel Next Door: Following Jesus Right Where You Are.
Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails,
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold,
and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
and makes me tread upon the heights. Habakkuk 3:17-19
Three years ago I discovered mystery detective novels. I’ve always read fiction voraciously but it took my group of theologically nerdy pastors to get a mystery into my hands. My first book, Still Life by Canadian Louise Penny, proved that good psychologically deep literature can hide in a popular genre. Have you read P.D. James or Henning Mankell? All the best authors seem to be international for some reason.
There’s a scene in Still Life that illustrates how good theology can function in the face of trauma and pain. Clara Morrow’s emotional health was unhinged when her dear friend Jane died. Her grief erupted at her husband, Peter, when he consoled her. “Where’re your tears? Eh? You’re more dead than she is. You can’t even cry. And now what? You want me to stop?It hasn’t even been a day yet, and you’re what? Bored with it?”
Peter reminds her she believes in the afterlife and that Jane is with God. “There. There it was. Her mainland. That’s where she could put her grief. Jane was dead. And she was now with God. Peter was right. She either believed in God, or she didn’t. Either was OK. But she could no longer say she believed in God and act otherwise.”
Today’s Advent text comes from the Hebrew prophet Habakkuk. Like so many Scripture authors his emotions burst from the text. Reality for him was hard. And he named it straight to God. “Lord, how long shall I cry for help and you will not listen?” (1:2) He said what was real for him and didn’t cover up the truth. In his short book, he lamented violence, incivility and consumerism that plundered the poor. He seems resigned to crop failure and horrified by expected food shortage. (1:3 & 3:17).
And yet, he chose to direct his mind from famine to faith and from hardship to hope. “Yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exalt in the God of my salvation.” (3:18)
And no, I don’t think that was an easy choice. I imagine him grasping for faith like a climber on a cliff’s edge; like Clara Morrow grasping for her mainland. Where is God in the midst of trouble? What good is faith, anyway, when reality comes unhinged?
Like it was for Habakkuk, reality for us is hard. Global problems like climate change and endless war mix with personal problems like debt and shame for a toxic psychological stew. It’s easy to give in to despair and stop grasping at all. Reality can feel so overwhelming that we deny it, pretend it’s not as bad as it is, or Netflix-binge ourselves into blissful escape. “The trance of denial” is what author psychologist Mary Pipher calls our need to deny reality. “Our problems are made even more alarming by our inability to face them. Actually, that is our main problem.”
A uniquely American defense mechanism is what Canadian novelist Douglas Coupland calls our “culture of perkiness.” Going in the other direction entirely, Kathleen Norris identifies emotional shutdown as “a kind of spiritual morphine: you know pain is there, yet can’t rouse yourself to give a damn.”
Sociologist Brene Brown studies the reasons some people are wholehearted and others are overwhelmed by life. She says honest transparency is foundational for emotional health. The opposite is also true: refusing to name reality has a profound ill effect on our physical and emotional health.
The detective in Still Life is Chief Inspector Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec. He says what I think Habakkuk is telling us this Christmas. “We can choose our thoughts. We can choose our perceptions. We choose our attitudes. We may not think so. We may not believe it; but we do.” Scripture gets that. It’s why we’re constantly told to think right thoughts, to consider ourselves theologically, to meditate and marinate and renew our minds with capital ‘T’ Truth.
Faith doesn’t numb us to reality or cover up the truth. It’s what gives us the emotional bandwidth to embrace it. Faith isn’t public perkiness and constant ‘Hallelujah’s.’ Faith is facing the truth with God on our side.
For all of us some of the time and some of us all of the time, life is hard. That’s not going to change. We can either believe in God or not. Either is OK. But we can no longer say we believe in God and act otherwise. All evidence to the contrary, choose belief.
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