Advent 2: Hope vs. Optimism

“Nevertheless,” Bob Ryder

Fire and Ice– Robert Frost
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

“Hope is a State of Mind”Vaclav Havel, Disturbing the Peace, 1986
“Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. Either we have hope or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul, and it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons…. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. The more propitious the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper the hope is. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the faith that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

Luke 3:1-6
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilia, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out, “In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill made low.  The crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all creatures shall see the salvation of God.’”

It used to be I struggled with Advent.  The chronological structure of Christianity seemed to me such that, Christ having come and accomplished what needed to happen through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, observing a season in which you adopt the perspective of waiting for that to happen again is just “make believe.”  That approach to Advent felt artificially nostalgic – an exercise in pretending we don’t know something we really do know, as if we’re Matthew’s wise men searching for the manifestation of a vague prophecy, or Luke’s shepherds being astounded by news of the messiah’s birth just down the road.  “What,” I wondered, “is there to be gained by feigning naiveté?”  We all know Christmas is right around the corner, and we know what it means.

Well, my relationship with Christianity has changed over the decades, and now Advent makes much more sense to me.  I’m still all for transcending naiveté, but it’s the idea of human redemption as an accomplished fact that calls for reinterpretation.  It’s the notion that we have Christmas in our back pocket that seems quaint to me anymore.  Spiritual virtues such as kindness, justice, compassion, courage and generosity, mutuality don’t ever seem to achieve stability – no matter what religious tradition they’re packaged in.  Goodness doesn’t ever seem to self-perpetuate.  Charity and selflessness don’t ever seem to achieve default status.  It’s always losing traction, always playing catch-up. Mike Spears shared this prayer with me, written by Dan Brown who authored “The Da Vinci Code” series. “May our philosophies keep pace with our technologies.  May our compassion keep up with our powers.  And may our love – not fear – be the engine of change.”  Well that’s a beautiful vision – as good a description of what God’s reign might feel like as any – and well worth striving for.  But if God’s commonwealth becoming firmly established in human society can be considered realistic, it’s still much more “yet to be” than “here and now.”  Advent, the season of anticipatory longing, makes sense to me.

I’m haunted by cruelty and violence lately.  Probably it’s as much coincidence and that I’m paying more attention as I grow older as it is that racism and tribalism and just plain mean-spiritedness are on the rise in recent years.  Whatever the reasons, I’ve felt more discouraged by ugliness lately than I used to. Tear gas sprayed on desperate refugees seeking asylum at the border; a woman in the parking lot of a motel we stayed in recently beating her tiny dog with a leash because it was scared and barking at a stranger passing by; a client of mine lashing out at me and I think coming close to physical violence when I casually leaned on his sports car; neighbors killing neighbors because they’re Jewish or Muslim, because they’re African or Latino, because they’re gay or bi or transgendered.  The dark side of humanity has been leaving a bad taste in my mouth for the last little while now, it’s not lost on me that I’ve barely seen the least of it.  I live a sheltered existence.  I’ve never been a victim of serious crime, never been to war or even served in the armed forces, never been imprisoned or persecuted for my race or gender or faith. My goodness, there are those who’ve survived assault, survived sexual harassment and human trafficking, survived withering bigotry and racism, survived refugee camps, survived war.  If the relatively small amount of ugliness I’ve witnessed gets to me, what must it do to your soul to be exposed to something really horrid? I’m humbled to ponder how I might struggle to cope with real trials and tribulations.

When I say it gets to me, that it’s left a bad taste in my mouth lately, I mean partly that it’s eroded my optimism.  I like to believe humanity enjoys good odds for a bright future, that our best days are still ahead, that eventually we’ll develop clean renewable energy; eventually the need for nuclear weapons will be obsolete, eventually we’ll cultivate both the insight AND political will to appreciate our differences and share the earth’s resources fairly.  I like to believe that, but it isn’t my default mindset like it once was.  There’s a line of thought that suggests two social skills are needed for human civilization to survive and prosper: one is that individuals need to be able to defer their own needs for the needs of the group, and the other is that the group needs to set aside their own needs for the good of the population.  When you say it like that doesn’t it seem like we have a long way to go.  I see people lowering themselves to bad behavior now when it doesn’t even seem to confer any practical benefit beyond a trivial ego boost, being mean or selfish just because they can.  It makes me wonder not only about our prospects, it makes me wonder whether it’s even worth trying sometimes.

And that’s the crux of what I find valuable about Advent – it helps me recognize the difference between optimism and hope.  Optimism is a prediction.  Hope is a conviction.   Optimism is a prediction – however well or poorly informed – that things are likely to turn out alright, at least in the broad sense.  Hope is the conviction that justice and peace and mutuality are worth working for even when the cause seems lost.  Consider that passage we heard from Luke.  When I first chose it for this morning, I nearly edited out the portion that lists the rulers and their jurisdictions to get to the inspiring part about John’s exhortation “Prepare the way of the Lord!”  Then it occurred to me, that’s the point.  Context is everything.  The word of God came not just at some random point in history – not when things were going along well enough – but when particularly oppressive men held sway over Israel.  “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilia, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah…” We zoom in from layer to layer of political geography noting the political wilderness in which Israel was held captive.  Life for the people of Israel was grim under Roman rule, and it was precisely within those very dark circumstances that John was inspired to speak.  In these circumstances, in this God forsaken wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord. Rather than despair, rather than capitulate, John summoned the people to attention and service preparing for God’s reign to become a tangible reality in their lives.

The metaphor benefits from a bit of translation.   I love wilderness.  I’m restored when I can spend time near rivers and canyons and mountains that aren’t developed much yet.  That’s not what John’s talking about. What John means is probably something more like wastelands.  It’s the landscape of civil dystopia, issues of politics and economics and justice that have been devastated by corruption and xenophobia, stupidity and laziness and greed. Within those ugly, seemingly irredeemable human conditions the word of God shows up and says don’t quit.  Don’t lose hope.  In the wastelands, prepare the way of the Lord.

Realistically I don’t know how likely it is that the human epoch will have a happy ending on the planet.  We’re capable of inspiring visions and terrifying nightmares and I just don’t have a strong sense of which way things will end up for us.  I’m not as optimistic as I once was, and who knows – maybe that’s for the better.  But I choose not to abandon hope.  I choose to continue striving for kindness and honesty and education.  I choose to teach compassion.  I choose to contribute to charities that serve the poor and advocate for justice.  The more I consider the season of advent as it comes around and around, the better I understand the hope it’s meant to instill.  At least one thing we can take away from the very realistic and repetitive nature of the season is importance of continuing to try to make the world a better place, even when the prospects for humanity seem dim.

Serenity Prayer
God grant me serenity to accept things I cannot change,
Courage to change things that can and ought to be changed,
and wisdom to discern the one from the other.

September 1, 1939– W. H. Auden (excerpt)
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.