I found myself in the public library in downtown Olympia this past week. It was one of these days we’ve had lately with skies wavering between off-again, on-again rain and sunshine, and I had Trygve for the afternoon. We’d huddled at home for too long—those of you with kids know how stuffy the house can get—and so I decided we’d take a chance and head downtown for a couple of errands.
No sooner had I gotten Trygve out of the car and strapped into his stroller than the skies got that look about them again, clouds forming and churning and threatening to burst. So we headed for the library.
The public library—in most cities, I imagine—is a pretty good place to get a snapshot of daily life in a community. At ours this past Monday afternoon, there were lots of parents rifling through picture books and filling tote bags to take home; there were senior citizens browsing the magazines and paperback novels; there were folks huddled around computers; there were kids studying at big, round tables.
It was a busy place on this ordinary afternoon when the sky suddenly opened up. Rain poured down on that roof; it splashed on the windows; it thundered on the skylight. And for a minute, everyone stopped what they were doing: the browsers stopped browsing, the readers looked up from their magazines, the web surfers ceased their surfing; the students put down their pencils.
It was magical, that tiny moment. We all looked at each other—people who were old and young, people who were studying and relaxing, people who had warm, dry homes to go back to and people who may not have had anywhere. The downpour was over quickly and everything went back to normal—but the rest of the afternoon was changed by that moment. The rest of the afternoon shimmered somehow.
While my fellow library patrons and I were waiting out the storm on Monday, our country was waiting to see what our leaders were going to do about the then-imminent government shutdown. It sort of feels like the culmination of a trend we’ve been watching—of political divides growing deeper and wider, of disagreements growing more and more bitter, and of dialogue becoming more and more elusive. People all across the political spectrum have been almost uniformly disgusted with our government’s inability to take meaningful actions toward the common good, and the news that the government had in fact shut down Tuesday morning simply confirmed what so many of us had been feeling: something is deeply wrong.
Blame is being tossed around everywhere. You’ve got your opinions; I have mine. But beyond complaining and pointing fingers and shaking our heads, what’s a person of faith supposed to do?
The prophet Habakkuk gives us one very faithful and biblical example of what to do when things are falling apart: lament. It’s not a word we use much in everyday conversation, but it’s part of the language of the Bible—a big part, actually. Many of the psalms are laments; there’s a whole book of scripture called Lamentations, which we read from this morning; and many of the prophets were wonderfully adept at this kind of speech. In biblical terms, lamenting means crying out to God. It means naming what’s wrong in your life or in the world around you.
Some people have said that country music picked up on the lament tradition pretty effectively—naming lost loves and lost trucks and lost dogs. That’s part of the story for sure—but lamenting goes farther than just complaining. It means admitting that something isn’t right and that you don’t have the ability or answers to fix it; and it means calling on God to notice and act.
Habakkuk does just that. He notices that something is very wrong in the world around him—he sees destruction and violence everywhere; strife and contention among his people (sounds familiar, huh?). Justice is being perverted, denied to those most in need, and the prophet can hardly stand it. “O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?” he says; “Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save?” (Habakkuk 1:2). The prophets do not bow their heads in the face of injustice and oppression of the poor: they name what they see, and they demand an answer from God.
Which is just what Habakkuk does. He makes his lament, and then he waits: “I will keep watch to see what God will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint” (Habakkuk 2:1). I know, it sounds very biblical and all—but think of how radical this is: not simply offering up complaints about what’s wrong, but trusting that God will answer and do something about it. That’s the leap of faith, trusting that the messes we find ourselves in—in our personal lives and in our society—in fact matter to God. Matter to God deeply.
So Habakkuk waits for his answer, and he gets one. And as is so often the case in scripture and in life, God points back to the pray-er as part of the solution. God points back to Habakkuk—he gives him a job: “Write the message I give you,” God says. “Make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it” (Habakkuk 2:2). “Make it big and bold, so that no one can miss the message: I have not given up on you. There is still a vision for this time.”
I wonder if the scary Bible-verse billboard people got their inspiration from Habakkuk. You know, the folks who pepper the sides of highways with signs proclaiming doom if you don’t have a religious conversion while driving that particular stretch of road. I suppose you could read God’s words to Habakkuk that way: make a sign big enough for anyone to read.
But what if that vision isn’t meant to be taken quite so literally. What if Habakkuk isn’t being told to make a fifty-foot billboard, but a community. What if we’re being told not to make, but to be the sign that God still has a vision for this time.
If you ask me, I think that’s a pretty good statement of what the church ought to be about. We’re to be a sign—big enough that anyone can read it—that God isn’t finished with this world. We’re living in a world slowly consuming itself by greed and consumption, and we’re called to be different: to be people defined by generosity. We’re living in a world where those most vulnerable are slipping through the cracks, and we’re called to be different: to be looking for solutions and advocating on their behalf. We’re living in a world where people who disagree politically can hardly stand to be in the same room, and we’re called to be different: we’re called to respect differences and seek the common good together.
Not an easy calling, living differently from the world around us, pointing to the reality that God still has a new vision for this time. This is the realm of faith, of course—of trust in God. In the reading we heard from Luke a few moments ago, the disciples ask Jesus for more faith. If you read the few verses before, you can understand why: Jesus has just finished telling them that they must practice radical forgiveness—not just once, not just twice, but seven times a day, if the offender repents and asks for it. “Increase our faith!” they cry out. They know it’s not an easy command: it takes faith—trust in God’s mercy and love—to live in a way that’s so counter to our instincts, so far from the beaten path. And Jesus responds that even a little faith is enough to begin living into a new reality: even a mustard-seed-worth is enough.
It’s small actions of faith that will help us to be that sign big enough for anyone to read. Talking openly about your beliefs and—even more importantly—listening with an open mind to someone whose beliefs are different. Praying regularly for our leaders, our community, our world. Consciously planning to live with generosity, deciding where you will give and making that giving a top priority in your life. All of these actions require faith: they require trust in God that though you may not see an immediate difference, you are in fact working toward that future God dreams of and cares about. You are in fact part of that sign God is busy making, a sign for everyone to see.
The actions may be small, but the sign is big, and it’s bold, and it’s beautiful, and God knows what it says already: there is a vision for this time. For this whole world—for the tired students and the frazzled parents; for the young and for the old; for the web-surfers and the sleepers and the magazine-browsers; for those with warm beds and those with nowhere to go. There’s a vision big enough for us all, and that vision is love.