“Are We There Yet?”

November 20, 2016


Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:2-3

II Corinthians 9:6-15


Are you ready for Thanksgiving?

Certainly the 70 degree weather last Thursday wasn’t of much help. I wondered: Can I ask the congregation to sing, “All it safely gathered in, ere the winter storms begin” when people are walking around in shorts? This morning’s chill seems a little more appropriate.

Are you ready for Thanksgiving in these days of uncertainty and anger all around? Are you ready for Thanksgiving in these days of reports of increasing attacks on immigrants and Muslims—or people suspected of being Muslim—and people of color and LGBT people, these days when white nationalism seems careening toward normalcy?

Do you read or watch news reports and find yourself, like Habakkuk, asking of God: “Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble?”  We’d like to turn away. Do you find yourself lamenting: “Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise…justice never prevails.”

How long will this continue?

In these difficult days, we prepare again for family gatherings and Thanksgiving travel.

When I was growing up, every year at Thanksgiving my family took what seemed to me an interminably long drive in the car to visit grandparents and other relatives in southern Illinois. Well before the days of minivans with DVD players, four kids and two adults were crammed into a six-passenger Chevrolet.

The road was familiar—two hundred miles, part of which was on the old Route 66 before we knew that was cool, before the interstate highway system led many to forget the small towns and back roads of this country, before we were left speeding up and down four anonymous lanes. We passed field after field of flat Illinois countryside—each one showing their post-harvest brown stubble. We traveled under November skies that were slate gray—the color I associate most with this time of year.

My father drove a lot on business, but we kids weren’t good travelers—really. We got bored easily. And we got motion sickness even more easily—some vestibular problem.

So the constant question from the back seat during our travels was “How long will it take to get there?”

Parents, you know what I mean, don’t you?

Are we there yet?

How much longer?

We didn’t realize it at the time, but during those holiday journeys we were asking one of the central questions of faith.

How long will we travel this highway?

How long until the destination is reached?

 “O God,” the prophet asks, “How long shall I cry for help and you will not listen?”

The theologian Dorthee Solle recalled a time when she was a child: “I saw three big kids jump a small boy, throw him to the ground, and beat him up. The little kid yelled and screamed. I had a helpless feeling inside, a feeling of rage in the pit of my stomach.”[i]

When we cry out in our pain, we are beginning to pray.

When we cry out in pain, we too ask, “How long, O God?” We join that line of men and women who have addressed God in this way: the prophet Habakkuk, the writers of the psalms, Jesus of Nazareth and many others who did not turn away from injustice or despair, but faced it fully and called to God. Prayer is the way for the hurting part of our lives to be fully present to God.

We cry out in the hope that we, too, will discover, perhaps to our surprise, that God is present in suffering, providing strength when we can’t take it, when it seems that the world can’t take it, when we can’t make it alone.

To pray is to bring our pain before God.

To pray is to be persistent.

I was told once of an order of nuns whose calling was to pray for peace. Twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year, this order prays for peace. When I first heard of this I thought, in my often cynical way, “Well, some good that does.” Like the rest of you I could point to war and violence throughout the world that seems unaffected by their prayers.

Climbing out of the abyss of faithlessness, however, I began to imagine what our world might be without their prayers. The new perspective changed the order of my speaking as I was compelled to say: “Well, that does some good.”

Prayer is not a onetime proposition. In our own prayers, too, we can continue, persisting to cry out and not loose heart.

To pray is to persist.

And yes, even as we speak of faith, we recognize that to pray is to doubt.

            Jesus crying, “My God, why have you forsaken me?

Habakkuk pleading, “O God, how long shall I cry for your help and you will not hear?”

We pray even when we question God, when we question God’s goodness—maybe especially then we pray.

In prayer we open ourselves to hear God’s answer. But that means that we must also be open to living in God’s silence. That silence, that very real, at times almost crushing silence, can cause us to doubt, to question the whole enterprise, to think that we might as well scrap all of this and move on to something more practical. The irony is that the more we bring our pain before God, the more we persist in prayer, the more we find ourselves confronting our doubt.

To pray is to be persistent.

To pray is to doubt.

And ultimately, to pray is to find faith.

For many years now, the poet Christian Wiman, has struggled with faith in the face of the cancer that nearly killed him and may yet do so. In one unfinished poem, he calls out to “My God my bright abyss…” In asking about the meaning of faith in these days, he arrives at the sense that faith “means no more than, and not less than, faith in life—in some tender and terrible energy that is, for those with the eyes to see it, love.”[ii]

The witness of the prophets, the witness of Jesus, the witness of those around us today is that God is faithful, that is God will respond, God will vindicate, God will—often in ways unexpected—speak. Out of our pain, through our persistence and our doubt—in other words, in prayer—we find our cries, our questions are, if not answered, then honored, embraced, and loved.

A cry from a cross.

A shout at an empty tomb.

The good news that God is with us honors our troubled spirits, embraces our sinful selves, and loves our finite lives to an eternal extent beyond our imagination.

The faithfulness of God then becomes the foundation of our own faith—our own ability to trust in God and to live in good faith with one another.

We respond to God’s love with a faith that shows compassion and kindness, that feeds the hungry and welcomes the stranger, that visits those who are sick and in prison. The faith that is the bond between human beings is the faith that works as we wait for God.

We know that some realities require slow development and silent blossoming: love and fidelity, mutual understanding and friendship, marriage and family life. Much that is important flourishes only in the slow pace of deliberate, tended care.

The promise of your life asks for patience as it moves toward fulfillment.

We ask, “How long?” And we live in faith.

We ask, “Are we there yet?” And live with thanksgiving.

My family’s holiday journeys did, of course, end. We arrived at our destination. Amid that peculiar combination of love and tension that is called “family” we sat down to eat. The meal always seemed to speak of bounty, of abundance. I guess it spoke of what we hoped for as much as what was.

The novelist Andre Dubus, who lost a leg in an automobile accident, writes about gratitude and its connection with other people. “My crippling,” he says, “is a daily and living sculpture of certain truths: we receive and we lose, and we must try to achieve gratitude; and with that gratitude to embrace with whole hearts whatever of life that can remain after the losses. No one can do this alone, for being absolutely alone finally means a life not only without people or God or both to love, but without love itself.”[iii]

Those words help me with this season of Thanksgiving. They remind me that a spirit of thankfulness grows not only out of what we have but also out of what we have lost. Perhaps the dried bittersweet branches that decorate many tables are fitting symbols of this time when we are invited to “embrace with whole hearts whatever of life remains after the losses.” Other people are essential to a life of gratitude, which perhaps explains why the highways and airports are so busy this week.

Thanksgiving is a feast of fulfillment. We give thanks for what we have. We give thanks for those at the table—and for those who have left the table.

And yet, Thanksgiving is also a feast of anticipation. We look ahead in the hope that there will be new faces at our tables in years to come. And we are aware in some way each year that we aren’t there yet.

We move forward. We trust in God for the present day—with all its trouble and opportunity—and look toward God’s promised redemption in the future.

Our task is to live courageously in the present and with hope toward the future because all of time is held in God’s hands.

Last Wednesday I walked around downtown Iowa City and there was a change. The “Not My President” signs were no longer on the kiosks around town, replaced by positive messages chalked on the sidewalks: “You are inspiring.” “You can do it.” At the corner of Dubuque and Washington Streets, people called for a halt to the Dakota Access Pipeline, gratefully shaking my hand when I told them what the Congregational Church was doing at Standing Rock.

Perhaps the spring-like weather helped my attitude. Or maybe it was the copy of the Daily Iowan that I picked up on the way to the church earlier in the day. There on the cover was a picture of our own Sandy Boyd in a gold “Iowa” T-shirt. And how can you not feel good when you see Sandy. In the newspaper article, he even mentions being a Congregationalist, which he says, “means I have very broad ways in which I can think.”

There are times, when, contrary to what we feared, something good happens. And in the midst of times of trial we are perhaps better able to see in Jesus Christ the God who brings life out of death, who makes all things new. A profound joy is possible even in the most difficult of times.

As we open our lives to this God, we discover the abundance of life given to each of us that we might use it, share it, and expand it for ever increasing numbers of people and all creation.

We give thanks as we move forward into God’s future.

Listen to your children in the back seat. They are asking an important question. Remember those times when it was asked of you, those times when you asked: “Are we there yet?” No. But we think, we hope and pray, that we’re traveling in the right direction. We keep coming together here week after week in an attempt to stay on the path that leads to life.

We’re not there yet. But as Sandy said at the end of his interview: “As long as you’re alive, there is a new frontier.”

As we travel, as we celebrate, as we live each day, in all things, let us give thanks.

[i] Dorthee Solle,  Not Just Yes and Amen

[ii] Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss, pg. 36.

[iii] Inspired pg. 40.