Advent 3: Hope vs. Complacency

“Hope vs. Complacency,” Susan Ryder

Isaiah 61:1-4
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.

John 1:6-9
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

Hope; An Owner’s Manual by Barbara Kingsolver
Look, you might as well know, this thing is going to take endless repair: rubber bands, crazy glue, tapioca, the square of the hypotenuse. Nineteenth century novels. Heartstrings, sunrise: all of these are useful. Also, feathers.

To keep it humming, sometimes you have to stand on an incline, where everything looks possible; on the line you drew yourself. Or in the grocery line, making faces at a toddler secretly, over his mother’s shoulder.

You might have to pop the clutch and run past all the evidence. Past everyone who is laughing or praying for you. Definitely you don’t want to go directly to jail, but still, here you go, passing time, passing strange. Don’t pass this up.

In the worst of times, you will have to pass it off. Park it and fly by the seat of your pants. With nothing in the bank, you’ll still want to take the express. Tiptoe past the dogs of the apocalypse that are sleeping in the shade of your future. Pay at the window. Pass your hope like a bad check. You might still have just enough time. To make a deposit.

Frequently over the past couple years I have been asked what gives me hope, how I remain hopeful in such dark times, as people share their fears and feelings of vulnerability with me. They are afraid for the planet, for their future and those of their children and grandchildren, for our very democracy – and worry that everything they’ve worked so hard for is now at risk. I share those same concerns and fears, believe me. When asked how I hope or what gives me hope, I prefer to reframe the question because I think it can be misleading in terms of what hope really is. To ask what gives us hope implies that hope comes to us like some sort of unexpected gift from the universe, all wrapped up and ready to go. It’s as if we are all just supposed to sit around and wait for hope – whether it’s news to drop from the Mueller investigation that will end our current national nightmare or finding a secret key to a hidden door that will magically sprinkle us with the hope we so desperately seek.

But that’s not my experience of how hope works. What I’ve observed from my own struggles and those of others is that in order to be hopeful we must constantly work at it. We can’t become complacent – we must make hope a lifelong spiritual discipline, an intentional practice. In this way, hope is like love. It’s a verb; it takes action. It’s not a once-and-for-all cure; it’s one of the most important ongoing spiritual projects of our lives. Hope is a journey, at times a difficult path through a beautiful and broken world. Like any journey, we take it one step at a time. We don’t become paralyzed by seemingly insurmountable problems; we get involved. We do the good that we can, when we can, where we are. We find concrete opportunities to engage in the work of redeeming our world.

For instance, there are more refugees in our world today than at any time since World War II, and the stories of families who’ve given up everything to escape violence and poverty are heartbreaking. That heartbreak is now being multiplied when they reach our own southern border and are tear gassed by Immigration officers. If they do manage to make it onto US soil, children are separated from their parents, and some don’t survive. When seven-year-old Jakelin Ameí Rosmery Caal Maquin died of dehydration and shock last week a mere 24 hours after being taken into custody,DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said that her death “is a very sad example of the dangers” migrants face when they try to illegally enter the U.S. On Friday night on Fox news, Former Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz said that her death should be a message to other migrants not to make the journey to the U.S. because “it will kill you.” When that’s the kind of response we get from current and former government officials, it’s easy to lose hope. Yet it’s in these very moments that it is important to remind ourselves that hope is a journey. We cannot become disillusioned or paralyzed – we owe that and more to Jakelin Maquin.

So we get involved. We do the good that we can, when we can, where we are, like when members of our congregation began a partnership with others to help support a refugee family in our community, soon after the first immigration ban was implemented. That’s just one example. We use our votes to make changes in personnel and policies, as new members of congress are sworn in in just a few weeks. Or we give to causes that aid refugees. Or we raise our loving voices in the midst of racist and hateful rhetoric. The list goes on and on. Hopeful people take action to make a difference, even if it’s a small difference. As we are reminded from the gospel reading, we may not be the light, but we can testify to the light, we can reflect the light. And we can take to heart Isaiah’s words that WE can bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the brokenhearted, and comfort those who are mourning.

For us to be able to withstand what lies ahead, we also need to cultivate hope as a spiritual practice. We need a perspective in our lives that is larger than the day’s headlines, or the trending hashtag, or the latest “breaking news.” We need to open up our horizons, blow our world open a little. We need to get our heads out of our smartphones and enlarge our perspective. We do that through spiritual practice. Your practice might be taking yourself out to a nearby park for a hike. Or it might be a mindfulness mediation that grounds you in the present moment. Or it might be listening to music, or creating art. There are lots of practices. What they all have in common is that they add a little eternity to the relentless temporality of our lives.

Finally, we need to remind ourselves that we are not on this journey alone. Sufi mystic Rumi writes, “There is a secret medicine given only to those who hurt so hard, they cannot hope.” It is this: “Look as long as you can at the friend that you love.” We need companions for the journey of hope. Family. Friends. Neighbors. “Look as long as you can at the friend that you love.” Of course there are times when it’s necessary for us to retreat and do our own personal work. But the hope journey can’t be made alone.  The hopeful people are the together people. We’re on this journey together. David Eaton said, “The church is that institution whose primary purpose is to help people discover, create and maintain hope in their lives. When people have no hope, they discover hope together. When they cannot discover hope, they create hope together.” The operative word is “together.” Together we’ll sing and pray. Together we’ll organize and march. Together we’ll light candles in the dark. Together we’ll offer compassion to the vulnerable. And together we’ll find our hope.

Last week Bob observed, “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 the importance of continuing to try to make the world a better place, even when the prospects for humanity seem dim.” That’s it, in a nutshell.