What Keeps You Awake at Night?

There’s a Norman Rockwell painting called “Freedom from Want” that I associate with the image of a traditional Thanksgiving. Eleven people of all ages are gathered around the table: a little girl of about 7, a teenage boy, young adults, middle-aged, and elderly. A couple who look like the grandparents stand at the far end of the table. Grandmother is setting an enormous turkey down on the table for Grandfather to carve. Everyone is smiling and looking happy to be there. A man at the bottom right corner of the frame looks welcomingly over his shoulder toward us, as if to say we are welcome to join this feast, too, and in fact here’s a place for us right at the other end of the table. We are invited to this feast, this happy family.  


This looks like the Thanksgiving of rosy memory, or perhaps the Thanksgiving we imagine hosting someday. It is never the Thanksgiving of reality. It is an idealized image, happy happy happy, everyone getting along, life is grand. These people all care about each other, are glad to see each other, and are about to have a fabulous meal.


If this were real life and we could peek beyond the frame, we might see bills piling up on the desk in the study. We might learn about the cancer diagnosis for Aunt Jean, or this being the first holiday for Uncle John since his wife died, or that little Betsy may need a tutor because she’s still not reading at grade level, or that these two brothers fight about politics every time the family gathers, and on and on. All of that is outside the frame of this happy portrait. And of course there is no hint of people of color, or that anyone is other than straight and able-bodied.


That’s kind of what’s happening in our reading today from Isaiah. We hear a promise of what God is going to do in days to come. The holiest ground shall become the highest ground, and everyone will so yearn to know God’s wisdom that they will come from all over the world to be there. God will settle all wars with arbitration, justice, and judgment. Peace will be so prevalent that the weapons for taking life will be refashioned into tools to grow food and sustain life.


This is the image to which we aspire when we say, “Let there be peace on Earth.” Peace breaking out all over. Soldiers throwing down their weapons or turning them into planters. Does it ever, ever happen? Sometimes we get a glimpse of it. But in reality, anyone who says there will never be conflict between nations—or between individuals—has been smoking something interesting.


There are so many ways in which our society and our world are not peaceful. At the individual level, all of us bear scars from past traumas. We may find ways to be at war with ourselves, to beat ourselves up, to work against our own self-interest and wellbeing. We may hate ourselves and find ourselves unlovable. Girls are often pressured to live up to a standard of beauty that just isn’t right for everyone. Some are so down on themselves that they resort to cutting themselves. Boys are likewise under pressure to “man up,” to swallow their emotions. If we are dealing with health issues, addictions, financial woes, it can be hard just to get out of bed in the morning, much less feel happy happy happy and loving and peaceful every day.


We may not have peaceful relationships with the people around us—family who want us to be the perfect son or the successful businesswoman who is also a fabulous mother; coworkers who are antagonistic, bosses who go off on power trips and mistreat their workers. Perhaps we are like the two brothers I mentioned who always fight about politics every time they get together. There’s a lot of that these days.


And then there’s the lack of peace in the world. Ukraine and Russia, of course. Afghanistan is still a mess. Israel and Palestine. Somalia, Ethiopia, Iran. China and Taiwan. North and South Korea. We could go on. Can we even begin to imagine what life would be like if all these conflicts were not only resolved, but resolved with justice in a way that all parties could accept? That’s the olive branch that Isaiah is holding out: that promise of peace everywhere.


All of this war is enough to keep a person awake at night. We may lie there in bed thinking about what losers we are, or how our relationship with a spouse is not healthy, or the job is oppressive. If we lived in Ukraine, we might lie awake at night wondering if we will be bombed, or if our children who have become soldiers will ever come home again, and what kind of PTSD they will be dealing with if they do. Here in the U.S., just in the past week or so, we’ve seen five people get killed at Club Q in Colorado, six people in a break room at Walmart in Virginia, three football players shot dead, four university students in Idaho killed in their beds. We may lie awake at night wondering what this world is coming to.


The reading from Matthew does not offer much comfort. Two men are working in a field; one is taken, the other remains. What? Two women are grinding meal; one is taken, the other remains. What?! What is this? What are we to make of this reading?


There are some who see this as the rapture: the worthy ones being swept up to heaven in an instant at an hour that we cannot know in advance. Or it may be a time of judgment at the end of each person’s life, and the hour of our death is not to be known in advance. So we may go off to our Walmart job one night and never come home. Or send our children to school in Uvalde Texas, or Sandy Hook, Connecticut, or Columbine, Colorado, and countless other places, and never see them alive again. Several hundred people are dead this week after an earthquake in Indonesia collapsed schools and homes. Or a boat of immigrants can capsize. Or a hurricane or wildfire or whatever. One minute they’re there; the next, they’re gone.


We’re all going to be lying awake tonight if I keep on in this vein. So where is the Good News?


Well, we are all going to die . . . sometime, at an hour and day that we do not know in advance. (That is not the Good News.) The Good News is that all of life is a gift, and we are invited to be fully present and alive to the possibility of love and God’s presence every day until that ending. Advent starts by sounding apocalyptic, by talking about judgment and end times. We start with endings in order to clear the way and prepare for a new beginning. And the promise that Isaiah holds out to us is a new beginning grounded in God’s just peace.


How can we practice peace in our lives and in our world? Because this vision of peace in Isaiah isn’t coming anytime soon unless all of us start seeking it. It’s a peace we can aspire to and work toward every single day.


First, we learn to make peace with ourselves. We learn to stop beating ourselves up, to give ourselves a little grace, to ask for God’s grace and forgiveness, and to seek to live with God’s love in our lives, both for ourselves and for others. Easier said than done. It’s a lifelong process. We aspire to it, we get glimpses of it, and we keep working to get better at it.


We can practice mindfulness, being fully present in the world, attuned to the wants and needs around us, responding in love.


We can learn how to have intentional, loving conversations with those who see the world differently. We can try to listen without judgment, ask questions, seek to understand, find places of commonality and agreement, and only then offer reasons for why we are making different choices from the other person. We don’t all have to be the same; we don’t have to agree; but we do need to work on getting along.


Isaiah says the nations come to learn God’s ways and to walk in God’s paths. They study war no more; instead, they study peace. God’s peace.


We study peace when we prioritize education of girls worldwide and give women reproductive resources so that they have choices about family planning.


We study peace when we listen to our neighbors, know their needs, and challenges. Our neighbors near our church building are asking us to listen to their concerns about people sleeping on our front stoop. So we are listening and responding. When our interim conference minister, Courtney Stange-Tregear, came to our congregational meeting a few weeks ago, she suggested that we all go out and ask people in our community what they want and need, and then see how that intersects with what we want to be doing in the community. So in a week I’m going to walk over to Stevens Elementary and meet with the principal to hear about what’s happening there. Many of you live in this neighborhood. What do your neighbors want and need? How might Prospect help? If you have ideas about this, let’s talk.


As a nation, we study peace when we help people transition off fossil fuels and lower our carbon emissions. At the recent climate meeting in Egypt called COP 27, the nations agreed to set up a fund to help the poorest, smallest countries that are being clobbered by climate change. Pakistan had unprecedented flooding this year. This fund would help them recover.


In that same vein of climate resilience, a few weeks ago I invited you to write to your Seattle City Council members in support of a budget amendment that would fund a Resilience Hub at Bethany UCC in South Beacon Hill. This hub would provide people with a safe place to gather during power outages, heat waves, and cold snaps. It creates climate resilience in a lower-income community of color. We are a part of that effort through Green Buildings Now, which helped organize meetings with city councilmembers to get this amendment proposal in the works. And I am happy to report that, so far, the amendment is moving forward in the City budget. If it passes, $455,000 will go to turning Bethany UCC into a community Resilience Hub. This is how we listen to the needs of our neighbors and respond. Thank you to all who wrote those letters. They make a difference.


When I googled “Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving” to find an image of the painting I described earlier, I came across another Thanksgiving painting that Rockwell did during World War II called “Home for Thanksgiving.” A soldier in the Air Force (according to the badge on his shoulder) is sitting knee to knee with his mother, and they are peeling potatoes for a big Thanksgiving dinner. The table behind them is overflowing with fruits and vegetables. A basket of onions, an enormous pumpkin, and a pot of cranberries sit at the mother’s feet. The son sits with his feet up on the rungs of the chair, as I imagine he did as a kid. He’s looking down at his potato, smiling, talking maybe. I imagine he’s telling his mom stories about the war. She is peeling a potato and stealing a look over at him. In her face I see so much love, how proud she is of her son, how much she’s listening to try to understand what he’s experiencing as a soldier. Perhaps she knows that, like the man in the field or the woman grinding meal, her son could be gone in an instant. But in this moment, peeling potatoes together, before all the others come for dinner, she has him right here, and she is holding fast to that. This is her moment of peace—and love, joy, and hope—all the qualities we celebrate in Advent. Peeling potatoes—so ordinary, and so profound. Let us hold onto those glimpses of peace as we wait for the coming of the Prince of Peace. Amen.

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