Finding hope in the wilderness

I wore a neon green polo shirt with the collar turned up and a little alligator on the chest. Under it, I wore a neon orange polo, also with the collar tipped up. Yes, I layered the absurdity because, after all, it was the 1980s and that’s what cool looked like. Layers of manufactured colors radiated from beneath feathered hair chemically juiced and hairspray-hardened. Yikes. There was nothing real, nothing authentic about that time. Rayon suits, shoulder pads, BMWs and MTV — everything was about projecting a perfect image.

This was the era during which I graduated from high school, went to college, chose a career path, met my wife and got married. A myriad of life-shaping decisions was compressed against a cultural backdrop that was always one whiskey shot away from being a carnival funhouse. All the images were distorted reflections obscuring a dark inner truth. Underneath the Members Only jacket quaked a marginalized mess of self-doubt and confusion. I felt hopeless. Would my path ahead lead anywhere?

In 1981, Sr. Mary Michael had assured me it would not. She was my high school English composition teacher who, upon learning of my desire to become a writer, publicly flushed the dream, “You have no talent. Give up that silly notion right this moment! You have no future as a writer.” I started college as a computer science major.

For the next several years, I was a lost sheep living in fear of a wolf named failure, never sure if or where I fit. Even as Michelle and I started our family, I lacked faith in my own journey. Through it all, I clung to words carried with me since high school, words from the Book of Sirach (2:5-7): “For gold is tested in the fire, and those found acceptable, in the furnace of humiliation. Trust in him, and he will help you; make your ways straight, and hope in him.”

Actually, the translation I had at the time expressed the passage just a bit differently, and these are the words forever burnished in my mind: “As gold is tested in fire, so are the worthy in the crucible of humiliation. Trust in the Lord, and he will be your help; make straight your ways and hope in him.” At the time, the world certainly felt like a crucible of humiliation.

Still, the kindling of an awakening stirred within. Meditation on that passage illuminated two realities. First, the humbling discomfort, the awkward anxiety and the cloud of self-doubt were, in fact, fires in which I was being tested. Second, and more importantly, I became aware that my faith was in the wrong place. I was trusting the circumstances of the moment rather than in the wisdom of the Holy Spirit. The final line of the Sirach passage provided all the strength and direction needed to forge ahead: “make straight your ways and hope in him.”

The heavy fog of this Covidian dystopia we’ve been navigating for 10 months brings me back to those words again and again. Indeed, where have we been placing our trust? In the circumstances of the moment or in the wisdom of the Holy Spirit? Perhaps 2020 is gifting us with the crucible of humility in which the character of our faith is proven. Can we, will we, emerge from this furnace with more compassionate hearts and more gentle souls?

Like the Hebrews enslaved in Egypt and the apostles cowering in the Upper Room, we wonder where we can turn for hope. The answer, of course, is in the words of Sirach, “make your ways straight and hope in him.” This same idea is heard in Isaiah (40:3), “Make straight in the desert a highway for our God,” and echoed by John the Baptist (Mk 1:3), “The voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”

So here we are in the COVID-19 wilderness, hearing an Advent call to believe in the hope of a promised Messiah. Indeed, what a gift awaits us, the joyful gift of love, mercy and joy! We have been humbled in the crucible of the past year, but the way forward is straight, and we hope in the Lord.

Deacon Meyer is the author of three books: “God Plays a Purple Banjo,” “How to Talk Catholic and Still Get Lunch Invitations” and “Jesus Wears Socks with Sandals.” His latest book, “How to Give a Homerun Homily,” will be released next spring. Deacon Meyer is the co-founder of Whatsoever You Do Inc. and serves at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Green Bay.

ADVENT, WEEK 2:

Welcoming others with love and openness, by Sr. Laura Zelten