It’s been an eventful week in the life of this blog. The post I wrote in response to those seeking to “explain” what happened in Newtown, CT nine days ago received an exponentially higher amount of traffic in a shorter period of time than anything I have written here in six years. Which was kinda cool—what writer doesn’t people to read what they write, after all?—and kinda not cool, because, well, I perhaps rather immodestly think that I’ve written better, more interesting stuff than this here before. Stuff that has received, quite literally, a fraction of the traffic. Such is life in the hold-my-attention-if-you-can-hey-look-something-else-looks-interesting-let’s-click-on-that world of social media.
And, so with the blog having made the inevitable and rapid descent to more customary traffic numbers, I find myself thinking about desire today. Even though my big day or two was still pretty tiny in the wider world of blogging, it felt good to be kind of popular, even if only for a moment. It felt good to see that little stats bar climbing so high and fast and proud. And I wanted more. More hits, more views, more visitors, more shares, more re-posts, more.. whatever. More, more, more.
What is true in the relatively trivial world of blogging is true of all of life. We have a hard time enjoying and appreciating good experiences without either trying to find a way to reproduce or enhance them somehow. A beautiful sunset must be captured digitally and preserved for our screen saver. A worship service we found particularly meaningful must be replicated weekly. We have a conversation with someone we love where we feel a deep sense of connection and shared purpose, but are disappointed when the next one is unimaginative and prosaic. A song on the radio moves us to unparalleled heights of rapture spurring us to buy everything the artist has ever produced, and are disappointed to discover a few average songs. We so often want more. We aren’t good at receiving the good gifts of life in the moment they arrive and not demanding more. At least I’m not.
On Saturday, I attended a Buddhist ceremony marking the ten-year anniversary of my wife’s grandfather’s passing. I did my best to follow along with the English translation during the parts recited in Japanese, and was feverishly scanning my mental hard drive throughout for that course on Buddhism I took way back in university to see if/how the service would reflect the themes that I learned once upon a time. We lit incense and chanted beautiful words about the transience of life, the impermanence of evil, of a future without fear. The sensei spoke movingly of the centrality of wisdom and compassion in a life well-lived. I found myself nodding and smiling a lot throughout.
The sensei also talked about desire. The problem, he said, is that we reach and grasp for what we want in life but it is always passing away. Nothing is permanent. We are doomed to frustration. The problem is in the wanting. We must break free from desire if we are to move into the realm of Enlightenment.
This morning, with the chanting still in my head and the smell of incense still in my nostrils (not to mention the sushi we ate afterward still sitting heavy in my stomach!), I preached about longing. I spoke about how the prophets were always pointing ahead to a hopeful future, to the coming of one who would usher in a new era of justice, security, and peace. I talked about Mary’s exuberant praise in her Magnificat—about how the coming of Christ represented the great and longed for reversal where the mighty were brought low and the lowly lifted up. I rehearsed familiar Advent themes of the hope of wrongs being righted, of promises kept. And about desires being fulfilled. It was, in many ways, and not altogether unsurprisingly, a very un-Buddhist message.
I’ve been thinking about these two apparently contradictory themes—the Buddhist call to extinguish desire and so mitigate suffering and the Christian conviction that our truest and best desires will be fulfilled— throughout the afternoon. They are perhaps not as contradictory as they might seem on the surface. I agree with the sensei—we do cling too tightly to desire, we do grasp and stretch and strain in the attempt to greedily hoard experiences and possessions and relationships. We do need to recognize that these things are all impermanent and break their hold on us. We do need to discipline our desiring and wanting.
But the solution is not, cannot be, to extinguish it altogether. The problem is not desire in and of itself, in my view, but properly ordered and chastened desire. From a Christian perspective, desire always points beyond itself to fulfillment. Even when our desires have been perverted and reshaped according to our own preferences, even when we have wandered down the fruitless and destructive paths of gluttony and lust and hedonism, human desires have always been understood as signs pointing toward what we were made for.
During Advent, in particular, we are reminded that our desires for justice, for peace, for joy unending, for love, for the very presence of God among his people are little tokens of eternity. Desire is corruptible, certainly. God knows desire can be damaged and defaced. But desire is not itself the problem. Desire can do much that is good, as well. It can sharpen our hope, intensify our longing, and motivate our action in the present.
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. We sing these words each year at this time of the year, and this year I am inwardly adding the word “desires.” The Christian hope is that the coming of God to be with his people, to rule and to reign, is the fulfillment of all desire. The desires we understand and nurture properly, the desires that find only fitfully incomplete and inadequate expression in our lives, and everything in between.