The thrill of hope

Out of all the Advent and Christmas songs I’ve been swimming through this season, the one line that has jumped out at me is the title of this post, from the carol “O Holy Night.” I’ve been hearing the line and thinking, “Huh. The THRILL of hope? That’s not how I would describe it!”

As a pie-eyed optimist by nature, hope has never felt thrilling to me. It’s more of a default posture. Maybe that’s what happens when your name is Joy. Or maybe that’s simply how I was knitted together in the womb. I don’t know which came first, and I’m pretty sure it’s irrelevant.

I do know that as I’ve slogged through the sticky, sucking mud of being a middle-aged person looking for a meaningful job – or any job at all – during the insidious “jobless recovery” of this recession, my hope has felt increasingly like a gimpy, recalcitrant pack mule: incapable of carrying its fair share of the load, incredibly expensive to feed and care for, and balking at all the wrong times.

I don’t think I fully grasped the amount of energy that my gimpy, recalcitrant pack mule of Hope was demanding these past nine months until I went to Emmanuel Church’s “Blue Christmas” service last week.

Near the entry to Lindsey Chapel, there was a basket of rocks that PW and I had culled from our rock collection at home. The ushers asked each person to choose a rock to bring with them to their seats. PW offered a lovely meditation on rocks, and asked each of us to assign some measure of the heartache and hardness we were feeling to the hardness and weight of the rock in our hands. At the offertory, rather than taking up a monetary collection, PW invited us to bring our rocks to the front of the church and lay them on the floor at the base of the communion table. Our community offering would be our rocks, which held a portion the hardness and heartache we were feeling.

My rock

When I looked over the rocks before the service started, I was drawn to a tan-colored rock with an igneous intrusion along the top. PW and I both love igneous intrusions – in concept AND appearance – so most of the rocks we’ve collected over the years feature the ribboned look that distinguishes igneous intrusions.

As I looked at my rock during PW’s homily, I realized that what I wanted to assign to the rock was my dang pack mule of Hope, the one that, more often than not this year, I feel like I’ve been carrying on my shoulders. I squeezed my rock with both my hands until it got very warm. Just before it was time to bring our rocks forward, I rolled my warm rock around in my hands and suddenly noticed that if I held my rock at a certain angle, the igneous intrusion looked like a smile. My rock had taken on the heaviness of my burden, and not only had it gotten no heavier, it was smiling up at me, as if to tease, “That’s all you got? Bring it ON, girlfriend.”

My rock -- smiling

If you’ve been to as much church as I have, I’m sure you’ve heard God referred to as “Our rock and our redeemer.” This metaphor goes back to the Psalms, which explains why I’ve heard it in both Jewish and Christian liturgies. Until Blue Christmas last week, I had never really paid much attention to those metaphors for God. Until Blue Christmas last week, I don’t think I’d ever had the experience of God as both rock and redeemer. But there I sat, surrounded by the stone walls of the Lindsey Chapel, holding my warm and smiling rock, and feeling the first of several thrills of hope.

When it came time to offer up our rocks, I was sitting in my usual spot near the front, so I was one of the first people to lay down my rock. I propped my rock on the pile so that if anyone bothered to look, they would see my rock smiling at them when they leaned forward to offer their own rock of heartache and heaviness.

With about 80 people at the service, our rock offering took awhile. When the last person had placed her rock on the pile, I looked at how small the pile was and felt jolted by another thrill of hope.

Each of us lugs around our burdens and heartaches – if only the inherent heaviness of being one human in relationship with others with whom we’re not clicking, or whom we don’t understand, or who doesn’t understand us. The weight and/or size of our emotional freight sometimes can feel all-consuming, and measurable only in tonnage. This seems especially true at this time of year, when there’s such pressure to be all Ho Ho Happy and Fa La Laughy and filled with Glo-o-o-o-o-o-o-rias.

The thrill of hope I felt when I looked at our little rubble of woe was like those fireworks that explode in stages. First, I felt a low level jolt at the smallness of the pile of stones. They offered a simple and stunning visual testimony to what preachers and teachers have been telling me for years: there is no burden too great to offer up to God, or the gods, or the universe in general.

The second burst of my thrill of hope was the reminder that when we share our burdens, they’re so much easier to carry. Our gathered community’s small pile of rocks reminded me that this is especially true when we pool our heartaches together: you tell me yours and I’ll tell you mine. I don’t fully understand the math or physics of how exchanged burdens can lighten everyone’s load. I think it’s beyond science, beyond weights and ratios, beyond comparing the lengths of the cracks in our hearts or the gallons of tears we have poured out.

What I understand anew is that the gathered burdens of a community, in the form of stones piled on the floor of a room, can somehow be transformed into a cairn of compassion that we can use both to mark the occasion of our shared Blue Christmas, and to navigate our ways home and back to each other again.

The thrill of hope – the weary world rejoices. Happy Christmastide.

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7 responses to “The thrill of hope

  1. Hey, was that an ebenezer? Bah!
    Geologist that I am, I really appreciate that you did not just refer to a white stripe across the rock! “Igneous intrusion” says a lot about what this poor stone has been through. (And by the way- the photo of the tortured outcrop at the top of your block pleases my eye every time I come here to read a new posting.) I’ll continue to watch for allochthonous terms in your blog!

  2. The pile of stones was amazing–infinite and infinitesimal at the same time. Really glad I didn’t miss that experience.

  3. I’m SOOO sorry I missed the Blue Christmas service. It greatly moved several folks I’ve talked with this week, as is again evident from your wonderful piece. So here, in return, is an essay from several years back on roughly the same subject — diminishing our grief and multiplying our joy in community.

    “It was odd how happiness unshared was only half as great, and yet any kind of misfortune alone was doubled.” Anne Perry, The Whitechapel Conspiracy

    Not long ago, someone asked me what I’d been reading lately. The last couple of books I’d read were by Anne Perry, so I said so. She said, “No, I meant real reading.” I was so thrown that I could think of nothing I’d read recently that was more ‘real’ than this gripping genre – the English detective novel. I sometimes apologize for spending so much of my time reading what I generally refer to as trash, but in the wake of this conversation and in light of the quotation above, I’m tending these days to make no such apologies. I spend my days reading medical writing; if I chose to spend my nights, T rides, and lunch hours reading trash, so be it. I take lessons from whatever I read, and revel in finds such as this from the likes of Anne Perry. She is a woman who has led an interesting life, to say the least, and I’ve no doubt – without reading too much autobiography into her fiction – that she knows the truth of this statement. It’s clear from the tales our stewardship folks have told in their pledge pitches this fall that one of the things so precious to those who walk through Emmanuel’s doors and stay is this sense of community, of never having to be alone with our happiness or our misfortune. The gift of a community such as ours is that, no matter our individual circumstances outside Emmanuel, we can double our happiness and halve our grief simply by being here, together. Advent and the Christmas season are difficult times in many lives, times when loved ones are most sorely missed and unpleasant holiday associations conspire to halve our happiness and double our misfortune. The gift of Emmanuel, then, is sharing – sharing happiness to double it, sharing misfortune to diminish it by half at least. This season and every season. Merry Christmas!

  4. First: Jaylyn, Wonderful to find another English detective reader who finds spiritual direction in the mystery. Yes, right on about Anne Perry, and no apologies. She is FANTASTIC. I’m so grateful Joy and Pam are privileged to be in the Emmanuel community. They are blessed and are blessings. That’s what happens in a great community. The Blue Christmas has been particularly meaningful to us as we’re involved in two funerals this holiday season. This happens often at our age in life, but the meditation on rocks sent me to my collection of rocks, to find one, to sit with it, and to find hope and strength from it’s energy. Thank you beloved daughter whose presence in my life is counted as one of the great gifts. You continually amaze, thrill and delight me. Blessings.

  5. Barbara. I’d say the Howard/Werntz household is truly blessed to have such a parental unit. I’m looking at a marble bowl of rocks gleaned from the Devon (England) coast — they’re composite stone with soft sandstone cores, so most have holes worn thru by the tides. I’d love to bring some next year for Blue Christmas and see what we can make of our cares having been worn away to nothing by the ocean.

  6. nicely done. plus, i learned what an “igneous intrusion” is which, apparently,
    most of your readership already knew. i think your followers are all MENSA members. i’m here to represent the rest of us.

  7. Joy,
    This made me wish that even though we had to get up at 3:30 a.m. the next day, we’d come to the Blue Christmas service. It sounds like a very special service at a time of year when sometimes I want to scream if I hear another dreadful rendition of “O Holy Night” (or any other “holiday music”). I’ve always loved rocks, but on most of my travels, I have been strongly discouraged from bringing them home. So I have a collection of small ones, generally about half the size of my thumb, that don’t take up too much room or weigh too much. But after reading this, I think I will start picking up serious rocks on the shore next summer.

    Thank you again for another wonderful meditation. Happy New Year!

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