Author Rebecca Solnit writes, “To hope is to give yourself to the future, and that commitment to the future makes the present inhabitable.” Where do we draw strength from when our dreams are so often of a world we won't live into and how is that future imagined? How do we, as Unitarian Universalists, recognize that vision is more than eyesight and hope is more than a wish.
Christopher Wulff, is a seminarian at Emmanuel College in Toronto studying for UU Ministry. A fifth-generation Unitarian Universalist, he is passionate about youth and young adult ministries, developing churches with mission, and building intentional communities.
The complete sermon can be read below:
I have to tell you, I feel like I've been confused about hope my whole darn life. And I'm pretty sure that it's George Lucas' fault.
Help Me Obi-Wan Kenobi, You're My Only Hope. Help Me Obi-Wan Kenobi, You're My Only Hope.
At the beginning of the first Star Wars movie, aptly titled A New Hope, that line of Princess Leia's gets repeated five times, a hologram cast on the dirt from R2D2's dusty memory banks. I find it funny that in this galaxy far, far away, they had mastered space flight and lightsabers but they hadn't quite figured out the problem of the skipping record player.
In my bedroom I had Star Wars sheets and pillows, action figures and comic books. I had a lightsaber that made that peculiar hum and a millennium falcon with the expanding cargo bay. And I would play with my friends and we would each imagine ourselves as that New Hope, come to the rescue of the world and the princess in despair.
But what does Lucas tell us about hope in this line? Hope is distant and isolated. Hope is rare and hard to find. Hope is in another, not found in ourselves.
Is this what hope is? Is hope a distant saviour who may answer the call of a desperate soul?
For some it certainly is. And they take great comfort in it. But that's a definition of hope that simply doesn't resonate for me.
In so many ways, this kind of hope lies at the center of what troubles lots of people with religion – because it's too much like a wish, too distant, too disempowering, too like a prayer for deliverance without the work of faith and service.
And still it gets consistently embedded in messianic figures. Thirty years after Star Wars, Barack Obama came on the scene, with the simplest possible slogan. The one word – hope.
I don't think it was hubris on Obama's part. I don't think his message was, I am the hope. He was trying to say, I have hope, I have found hope. His book the Audacity of Hope, a line he borrowed from his progressive religious upbringing, documents not his development as a figure in whom we might invest hope, but rather his desire to lift up what he saw as a countercultural trend, to hope rather than despair.
Responding to the emotion and anxiety of a progressive left that was leaning towards doomsday apocalypse, he chronicles the many, many places in which he has found hope in his life, the power that hope has to motivate and change.
In doing this he echoed Martin Luther King Jr., whose most famous speech was about vision (for he did have a dream), but he spoke ever and always about hope not just as a vision of the future, but present and active in the world today. He has been to the mountain, he has seen the people march, he has felt hope rise in him with the cries of protesters beyond his jail walls.
Hope lives not just in the promised future, but in the here and now.
But like King, Obama was reduced to an embodiment, not a champion, of hope. When Shepard Fairey, one of my favourite artists, produced that iconic three colour poster of Obama above the word Hope, the narrative had already been reduced to Obama = Hope, and our real hope was inevitably lost in the reality. Like Leia we (Americans and those of us who follow their politics) had a false concept of hope, and we threw it away.
I've been thinking a lot about Hope because it keeps coming up in discussions all around me. It's in the theme-based ministry calendars of many congregations; is in the title of one of my classes at school, and it sits at the centre of UU Theologian Kendyl Gibbons' work on spiritual maturity, which I spent a weekend studying with her in August. Resources for developing spiritual maturity, for going deeper in developing strength and clarity, for learning more about who we are and how we got there as UUs, is an important part of why we do church and what we offer to the wider world.
I can tell you too that it is the thing that young adults who have grown up in our movement are asking for all over the place. Not just the materials and the ideas, but what they represent. As Rebecca Parker, former dean of Starr King seminary, and John Buehrens, former president of the UUA wrote in their book A House for Hope, "Liberals and progressives need greater awareness that at the core of social and political issues lie competing responses to the classic questions posed by theology.
Effective work for social change requires people of faith who are theologically literate and engaged."
Sara Robinson, writing for The Campaign for America's Future in 2008 said, "Secular progressives don't seem to understand that while politics is all about how we're going to make the world better, progressive religion tells us why it's necessary to work for change… Liberal faith traditions offer the essential metaphors and worldview that everything else derives from – the frames that give our dreams shape and meaning."
Young adults who have grown up in our churches want to know more about these frames, these frames that give our dreams shape and meaning. They want a better explanation for why the hope they find easy access to in their lives, is a part of their progressive religious heritage, part of this community. Visitors to our congregations of every age are looking for this too, a lens for focusing our values, for understanding the world in a bigger narrative, for understanding where our hope comes from and
where to find more. Helping us to become theologically literate, to become spiritually mature, is at the heart of what our churches are called to do in this day. And it makes me hopeful.
And so, surrounded by all these ideas and inspirations about hope, there remains an important question. "What is hope?" I've found myself asking that a lot over the last few months. In my reading and my searching and my thinking, the thing that I encounter and return to again and again isn't what hope is, but what it isn't.
Hope is not the same as optimism. Hope is not the same as belief. Hope is not the same as faith (and that one will get you some angry comments online). And Hope is not a wish. Hope is also not Santa Claus. Oh, and Hope is not a stripper. That last one came from a letter between a son and his father about his new girlfriend, so it may not be relevant here.
But what then is it? What is hope?
I've been in seminary for a few years now, slowly ambling my way through while I continue to work and teach and pursue my other passions. While there are lots of theological concepts which interest me very little, I find myself fascinated by understandings of Eschatology.
This is one of those five-dollar words in seminary, but its meaning is really quite simple. It comes from the Greek, eschatos (last) and logos (word), and means the last word. The last word and the study of the last days, the end of days.
For Christians and Muslims, it might be seen as the day of judgment or the day of resurrection, depending which side of the judgment you're on. For Buddhists, it comes with Gautama Buddha's prediction that the Dharma will be lost after 5000 years, in an Armageddon text that mirrors closely that in the Christian Revelations.
These are unfortunately the themes that dominate eschatology out in the religious common – stories of end times and the ruination of the world; the saving of a few and the fiery judgment of the rest. The Left Behind books, which are being turned into a series of films starring Nicolas Cage, have sold tens of millions of copies with their tragic predictions of the coming rapture.
Hope in this context comes of course in believing oneself to be among the redeemed, the chosen, the saved. Hoping for the ascendant rapture and not the despair of being Left Behind.
A popular bumper sticker in the southern United States reads, "In case of rapture this car will no longer have a driver." It's companion, found on fewer cars but somewhat common in UU parking lots, reads "In case of rapture, this car will have a driver who is seriously reconsidering eschatology."
Amid all the eschatology that preaches an end of violence and judgment, there's another thread that appears, and in it is the seed of progressive liberal religion. Rather than preaching hellfire and damnation, eschatology for progressive, liberal religionists lies in the coming of the Kingdom, or better the kin-dom, of God when we are reconciled in covenant to one another.
The American puritans took the narrative of the Revelations armageddon and said, well that just doesn't make any sense to us. We believe that we are saved by our acts, that our job is to manifest heaven on earth. The end times is not an abandonment of the world, it is when the Messiah returns and the garden of Eden, the earthly paradise, is restored. The Kingdom of God is ushered in by the work of our hands, when we have made ready the world for his return.
Unfortunately, the Puritans understood the key to manifesting the Kingdom as ensuring that all people were Christians, and by that conviction converted or killed millions of America's indigenous peoples. Bad theology, and misplaced hope, has horrible consequences.
Thankfully, that wasn't the only redemptive eschatology, for our own heritage understood it differently still.
An excerpt from Looking into Darkness by essayist Rebecca Solnit “Causes and effects assume history marches forward, but history is not an army. It is a crab scuttling sideways, a drip of soft water wearing away stone, an earthquake breaking centuries of tension. Sometimes one person inspires a movement, or her words do decades later; sometimes a few passionate people change the world; sometimes they start a mass movement and millions do; sometimes those millions are stirred by the same outrage or the same ideal and change comes upon us like a change of weather. All that these transformations have in common is that they begin in the imagination, in hope. To hope is to gamble. It’s to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty are better than gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous, and yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk.
“I say all this to you because hope is not like a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. I say this because hope is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency; because hope should show you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal. Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope.” Looking into Darkness by Rebecca Solnit
I know that in my life I have rarely struggled to have hope. Without being able to define it I still feel its presence. Even in the midst of depression, in the dark nights of my soul, my deepest certainty is that "it gets better". If not always in my own life, certainly in the world overall.
And for me, this has been hope.
It gets better. We progress. We are after all, a product of a progressive religious tradition. This sense of hope as progress, getting better, is sometimes the problem though. Tattooed on my wrists are the words patience and fortitude. More and more I see them as a product of our social gospel heritage and I wonder about their place in my own understanding of hope.
The social gospel was a movement that exploded in the late 19th century, largely through the thinking of a Baptist Minister named Walter Rauschenbusch who deplored the idea that the purpose of one's life was to escape hell and gain heaven simply by "taking Christ as our personal lord and saviour." For him it was selfish to be concerned only with our own fate, ignorant of Jesus' actions in the world.
We internalized that ourselves, adopted it strongly as Unitarians and Universalists, as liberal, progressive people. We are here to make Eden real, to make paradise real, to fix everything that is wrong – to make the dream of justice, abundance, and peace real on earth, for all people. Like the prophets of old. In my parents generation it was marching in the streets for racial and gender justice, it was building a church where religious freedom was unassailable, it was settling and hiding draft dodgers, and it was the burgeoning anti-nuclear movement. In my generation it has been gender identity and sexual orientation, the environment and climate change, sectarian violence and globalizing industry that constantly expands economic inequity.
But upon my wrists, those words again – patience and fortitude. Be patient, the eschaton is coming. Have fortitude, be resilient and steadfast, the eschaton is coming. The Kingdom or Kindom of God is approaching, the revolution is coming, equal rights are coming, climate justice is coming. Just work harder, just work longer. The social gospel still alive in Unitarian Universalism demands, as Rebecca Parker says, the "liberation of the oppressed, food for the hungry, peace for all people, and reverence for the earth. These are exalted and exalting hopes, and I believe in them." Like Parker, I believe in them too. But like her I have come to see them as roots that are strangling the new seeds we plant.
When all we have to hope for is an imagined future, the gap between what is and what could be is suffocating. The hoped-for future always condemns the present, and now is never enough. We haven't tried hard enough, haven't researched smart enough, haven't organized widely enough, haven't lived purely enough. Taking a break, enjoying the moment, finding the grace in nature or in our companions – these lead to overwhelming guilt because they are moments in which we should
have been working to make heaven on earth real. Taking a break is a moral failing.
I think about these words on my wrists and I think about adding new ones. I think about adding words like mystery, like compassion and inspiration, like hope. Because I have come, like Buehrens and Parker to the conviction that a social gospel narrative doesn't work for me anymore. It doesn't work for me anymore because it fills me with nothing but anxiety and disappointment, and a perpetual sense of guilt when I smile, when I enjoy the company of friends, when I take time in the
woods to hike among the holy trees. In the narrative upon my wrists, I am ever living only in the shadow of my failure, and hope is hard to find there.
Tom Schade, a UU Minister from Ann Arbor Michigan, was skewered recently for naivete in sharing that same certainty of mine, "that the world is often unfair, but that it gets better." To borrow from Theodore Parker, that the Arc of the Universe Bends Towards Justice. Schade was accused of naivete by those who said his hope was simply optimism.
But optimism is a disposition, while Hope is a conviction. As Schade says, "Hope is a much more substantial emotion. Hope is the conviction that things will improve. It is a belief about the nature of the world and progress." For Schade, our hopes must be rooted in some understanding of a real process, beyond our will. He goes on to say, "While I do not think our hope for justice is
inherent in the movements of the stars above and the tectonic plates below, I think that our hopes have a material basis in human beings and in the process of human cultural evolution."
He finds hope in human history, where oppression breeds resistance. The more oppression the bigger the resistance. The bigger the resistance, the bolder the revolution. The bolder the revolution, the greater the correction to that earlier oppression. Our consistent response to oppression, of ourselves and others, (even if it sometimes takes a while to come about) is a seed of hope.
Schade is evincing a progressive religious understanding of hope. He's part of a movement towards a radically realized eschatology, one that affirms that this is the world, this is the garden of beauty, the place of life. Ignoring this world and obsessing over what another one might be, about an imagined other, is a self-fulfilling prophecy of neglect and despair, of spiritual exhaustion.
Parker notes, "Radically Realized Eschatology shifts our religious framework from hope for what could be – for a 'better' world to come – to hope that what is good will be treated with justice and love and that what has been harmed will be repaired. It is a shift towards a responsive hope, hope grounded in respect for what is here, now. Hope begins with compassionate attention to this world, rather than imagining an ideal other world. Instead of waiting patiently for the arrival of the next world, or pushing hard to make some imagined vision real, let us fully arrive and greet each day of life with gratitude and engage the suffering and injustice that call for active response.
Hope is a thing that I have or that I don't. But I am blessed in knowing where to find it. I find it in human stories. Stories of how we love one another, stories of how we care for one another, stories of how when we authentically seek justice, we become as Merton suggested, less tied to the abstract future hope and instead to the hearts and minds of the people around us.
I wanted to tell Kish's story to the kids this morning because for me it resonates with both hope and vision, and how each is both tempered and inspired by the other. Kish was born with an aggressive form of cancer called retinoblastoma, and to keep the cancer from spreading beyond his retinas, his eyes were removed at 11 months. In a couple of years, he'll turn 50 and he still hikes and bikes and is a gourmet cook.
I find hope in stories like Daniel Kish's not because of how outstanding he is, but rather how ordinary. He wanted to move in the world like the people around him, he wanted be among the trees in the place of the holy, he wanted to share the things he had learned with the people around him, not hoarding what hope he has found but rather giving it freely. For he knows, as we all do, that hope grows in us when we encounter it in others. Daniel Kish's story is about hope and his story is about vision too, not the kind that he has lost but the kind he has found.
I look back to Leia's plea and the hope that coloured my earliest years and rejoice in how it has changed. I look at the tattoos on my wrists that tell of the years when I measured every day my own worth by how much I had done to bring closer heaven on earth. And every day that I felt lacking and inadequate.
I rejoice that I have found new convictions. I have learned that hope isn't a wish, because hope requires action. Hope must be made, it must be sought, it comes not unbidden. Indeed you have to look for hope and tie it not to specific vision, not a single promised land, not a single mountaintop, but instead to your own conviction about the nature of the world and our call to act
in it and express gratitude for it.
Give up that hope that is like a lottery ticket clutched in your hand, and pick up the hope like an axe that breaks down doors. Let the love you feel for this world, for its people, for the beautiful sunsets and the tiny miracle of echolocation – let it fill you to the brim, and let it bring you to respect and grace with the good and to challenge and change with the bad. This is the world, and it has both hope and despair, but hope is the more powerful by far.
Hope comes to those who seek it, not those who deny it. If you have found hope before you can find it again and you can share it with others. Every day, I see things in this world that give me hope.
May the same be true for you.
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