Advent Hope

Sunday Worship at Black Forest Community Church
Black Forest, CO
November 30, 2014 – First Sunday of Advent
© Rev. Diane Kay Martin

                                                                                    Advent Hope

Scripture Reading – Romans 8:24-27

For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

Hope. Peace. Joy. Love. Those will be the themes of our four-Sunday journey through Advent. I get to preach on hope (today) and peace (next Sunday). On Joy Sunday (December 14), our choir will present its cantata, and I’m sure that will be a joy. On Love Sunday (December 21), our children and youth will present their Christmas program, “A Piece of Christmas,” which I’m sure we will love. Then we will gather on Christmas Eve and celebrate the completion of our Advent journey and the birth of the baby Jesus who forever altered the course of human history. I hope you will join us for as many of these services as you are able. …

Did you notice how naturally the word “hope” fit into that last sentence? Hope—the essence of human desire, the language of the unspoken longings of the human heart—and I would take that a step further and say that hope is the very foundation of human life. The Dalai Lama said, “No matter what sort of difficulties, how painful [our] experience is, if we lose our hope, that’s our real disaster.” … If we lose our hope, that’s our real disaster. …

I discovered how very true that statement is a few years ago when I worked as a chaplain at Penrose and St. Francis hospitals in Colorado Springs. Time and time again it became painfully clear to me that when a person loses hope, she or he is at the greatest risk of suicide. That’s because we humans need that one thin thread to hang onto—that one fine fiber of hope that some part of life is better with “me” in it, or that if it’s not better now, someday soon it will be. We have to know that we have a purpose—that we mean something to somebody, even if that somebody is a dog or a cat or an iguana.

Indeed, hope is the foundation of human life. Hebrews 6:19 describes hope as the “sure and steadfast anchor of the soul.” Notice that: hope; not faith. Interesting. Hope is a sister to faith, but they’re very different. Hope is general—an optimism about life and our place in it. We might say we hope for something, but as soon as we say we hope in something, then we are really talking about faith. Because faith is more specific—directed at something: God, myself, you, our country, the inherent goodness of humanity or nature. And “people of faith” are usually called that because of their faith in God.

But I love that the traditional themes for the Sundays of Advent include hope but not faith. I think in that way the tradition acknowledges the true essence of hope—the true inclusivity of Advent—the reality that some people who have been so beaten up by life cannot always make the leap to faith, but many are still able to cling to some tiny thread of hope. And that tiny thread can carry us through a lot of heartache.

But recall the Dalai Lama’s words: “If we lose our hope, that’s our real disaster.” Do you ever think back to moments in your life that really drove home a point for you—times that really changed what you knew to be true about something? Well, I’d like to tell you about one situation that drove home for me the importance of hope.

In September of 2003, I became a licensed minister and began serving as Acting Associate Minister at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Longmont. In my first week there, I received a greeting card in the mail from someone named Brenda Brockish. In the card, Brenda stated that she was a member of the congregation, and that we were pretty close in age—our birthdays were even in the same month—and that she would like to come in and get to know me sometime soon. But, she warned, I should ask the senior minister about her first, so I wouldn’t be shocked when she walked in.

I heeded Brenda’s advice and asked Anne about Brenda. Anne said, “Oh! Well, here, let me show you,” and she took me to the room where the photos of all of the recent new members were posted. She pointed to a picture of a very stocky, balding, masculine-looking woman dressed in pink pumps and a very frilly pink dress. “That’s Brenda,” she said, “known as Tom to her family. Brenda is a man,” Anne said bluntly.

I gulped. What was I supposed to do with this? This person wanted to meet me, and I was supposed to be her/his/her pastor. How would I regard this Brenda/Tom person? I had no idea, but I was her pastor. And I needed to meet with her. So I called her, and we set it up.

A few days later, Brenda came into my office, dressed to the nines. Shiny pumps, pantyhose, skirt, blouse, beads, handbag. I invited her to sit down. She did, and we started to talk—awkwardly at first—but that soon wore off. Brenda was a sensitive, caring, considerate person with a wonderful sense of humor, two cute dimples when she laughed, and a mischievous twinkle in her eyes when she teased—and she often teased. Before she left that day, we shared a time of prayer together, hand in hand, two fellow Christians in parallel turmoil about roles and identities and how to “be” in this world.

Over the next few months, Brenda and I got together several times. She told me about her struggle—how, even as a young boy, she/he used to go to bed at night and pray, crying, “God, I’m supposed to be a girl. Please, before I wake up tomorrow, make me a girl.” Disappointed, he/she would wake up as Tom.

But what an amazing person this person was! I found myself really liking this person. Nathan did, too, and we invited her to accompany us to important events, like my meetings with my Church & Ministry Committee when they reviewed my Ordination Paper, my Ecclesiastical Council when I was approved for ordination, and my Ordination itself. Of all the friends I made in Longmont, Brenda was among the most special. Ironically, she was one of the people who made me feel the most comfortable in my skin.

I struggled deeply with this. I was especially puzzled when she told me that she/he had once been married—to a woman—and that when that woman later had a child, fathered by another man, Brenda as Tom had acted as that child’s father—still did, now that the boy was 21 years old. Brenda didn’t share that information with many people, but she shared it with me.

And I shared some of my insecurities with her. And she understood.

I lived in Longmont for just a year, until I received my first “real” call, to a UCC church in Wisconsin. I visited Colorado a few months later though, and I had coffee with Brenda. No dessert, because she was on a diet and had lost nearly 30 pounds. We had a nice conversation and said goodbye.

Brenda was always so thoughtful. She remembered my birthday, a couple of months after our coffee date. On March 14th, a week before my birthday, she wrote me a lovely birthday card, thanking me for being her friend and for all that I had done for her, and on March 15th, she took her life. … I learned later that she had sent similar cards to several people who meant a lot to her—who had accepted her as she had come to them. But life was just too difficult for Brenda. She couldn’t change the way she was, the way she felt—transgendered individuals never can—and she didn’t feel she had the strength to live that way anymore, so she lost hope and found solace in a bottle of pills.

If we lose our hope—the sure and steadfast anchor of the soul—that’s the real disaster. That’s when it becomes impossible to tolerate the here and now. Brenda escaped the here and now to gain whatever relief the hereafter might bring, but what a great loss to this world (and to me) her passing was.

The Apostle Paul writes in the passage that is our scripture reading today that in hope we were saved. Then he goes on to say that we only hope for things we don’t already have. What is the implication here? Could it be that while in one sense we are saved—we have partaken of God’s mercy and grace and love—in another sense there is part of our “salvation” that we are still waiting for—that part of our salvation that delivers us from the struggles and pains of this earthly life? Could Paul be acknowledging here that for all of us, life on this earth is hard—very hard at times—and we all need a lot of help just to get through it? Paul writes here, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” I believe Paul is saying that sometimes life is too tough for us to even know how to pray, but God’s Holy Spirit prays for us—God’s Holy Spirit whose name means breath, prays for us, on our behalf, in sighs that are deeper than words. Because God knows that sometimes the wait is so long, so difficult, that words cannot express it.

During this Advent season, let us be particularly mindful of those among us for whom hope is an elusive anchor and faith may be also slipping away. Let us handle all people with tremendous care, realizing that anyone can be pushed to that edge. During this Advent season, let us also ourselves cling to the hope that someday, the longings of our hearts will be fulfilled. And above all, let us cling to God’s love, which makes possible all hope, joy and peace in our lives.