Archive for April, 2009

When Hope Is Hard To Find

When Hope is hard to Find
By Reverend Tom Goldman of First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City

Easter 2009
We had a ton of snow this winter up Emigration Canyon. My wife, Mary, thinks this is a beautiful pristine sight, but our opinions differ mainly because only one of us is in charge of snow removal.

We have virtually no yard but a patio instead. So for us the signs of spring rest not with the defiant crocus signaling the waning days of winter. Our sure marker of spring is a garden Buddha who sits in lotus position surveying the grounds. And the other day the top of his head finally re-emerged and his Buddha smile communicated that he was really glad to be out from under.

We were glad to see him, and although we knew he was there all the time, like the crocus which we know is just waiting to burst upon the scene once the snow finally recedes, its easy to forget while waist-deep in snow, that things will be different. But like hope, sometimes it’s hard to imagine new possibilities when mired in a bleak reality. A new opportunity, a new chance, indeed even a new life gets easily obscured when inundated with winter. When the snow level exceeds what my snow-blower can reach, despair settles in pretty quickly and I forget that my Buddha sits a short twenty feet away.

If we look up the etymology of hope, we discover that hope is related to having trust and confidence. On a good day, although I can’t see my little stone Buddha buried by winter, I trust he’s there.

Easter’s message is that we trust and have confidence in possibilities not easily discernible. The crucifixion serves as a great metaphor for the notion that just because you might think the story has a bad ending, it ain’t over until it’s over. Or as Gracie Allen once told George Burns, “never put a period where God has placed a comma.” The Bible is all about images of hope; that it’s not ever over just because you don’t see a way out and so you want to place an inappropriate period. There’s David meeting up with Goliath, the Jews held in captivity down in Egypt, and of course most relevant to our times today: Ezekiel’s vision of the field of dry bones.

Ezekiel, as a prophet, was able to behold a panoramic view of the historical nation of Israel, and the dry bones were a brutal reminder that even in those times, nation states and kingdoms would rise and fall. But the dry bones carried the hope of Israel’s future restoration and spiritual renewal. God asked Ezekiel: “Can these bones live?” And Ezekiel knew his task.

Our difficult recessionary times at present, one might say of Biblical proportions, convey much hopelessness as jobs and homes and health care are lost and the dreams of people swallowed up in winter of great despair. Can this nation be restored? Of course we have hope and trust and confidence, but – – – as stimulus packages and bailouts deal with toxic assets and other bizarre economic terms collogued almost daily, President Obama would be wise to recall the most significant message in Ezekiel: the bones were so dry in the field because the people in the failing nation of Israel showed an utter lack of concern and sympathy towards each other. The task exceeded just a physical resurrection of a nation…getting the economy flowing once again. The dry bones signaled the need for a spiritual renewal, and this is what makes me uneasy about the times in which we dwell today.

I have trust that the right economic formula will restore our nation, but you don’t have to be a prophet to see the dry bones scattered on the field of America. The hope that is hard to find is the renewal of concern and sympathy for one another. The hope that is hard to find is that hearts will actually change and a new compassion take root; that the hardship we faced as a nation will temper the zealous drive for personal excess. What will our nation look like when the Dow crosses the threshold of 10,000, and credit flows freely again? Will executive bonuses be restored to figures disconnected from reality, and the gap between haves and have not’s continues to widen?

In trying to paint an accurate picture of the problems we face, Obama has been criticized by many for not infusing enough optimism into his handling of the crisis. He was dwelling too much on what was wrong with America and not what was right. I think a distinction needs to be made here between hope and optimism. The cynic Ambrose Bierce, in his Devil’s Dictionary, defined optimism as:

“The doctrine or belief that everything is beautiful, including what is ugly; everything is good, especially the bad; and everything right that is wrong…an intellectual disorder, yielding to no treatment but death.”

Voltaire, writing in Candide, spoke of optimism as “The madness of maintaining that everything is right when it is wrong.”

Oh how Americans want everything that is wrong to be right, making us naively optimistic, and totally ungrounded in comprehending the meaning hope. As the Methodist preacher Halford Luccock wrote back in those dreadful years when Norman Vincent Peale and Dale Carnegie were exposing our nation to the power of positive thinking and a general cheery religious attitude…Luccock tempered the saccharine message with reminders that Christianity did not come into the world with a fixed and silly grin. At its center was a cross.

His reminder makes clear, as does the central message of all religions makes clear, that human beings, like nation-states, rise and fall. That is the nature of things even when trying to force a rosy disposition. Hope accompanies the cross just as spring follows the winter and dawn the night. And when hope is hard to find, one’s faith, confidence, and trust will carry you forward.

My esteemed colleague from Harvard Divinity School Peter Gomes mentioned in fact, that the direction of hope is always forward, and thus hope always makes holy the future. That’s why inscribed over the doorway in Dante’s Inferno are the words: Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here.” Hell means no possibility of new life, renewal, or moving forward. Once you enter through the doorway of hell, even Gracie Allen would say, “It’s okay to put a period down right about now.”

Hope has as its object a future good. It may be difficult but possible to obtain.

I’m drawn to the anecdote about Alan Paton who wrote, “Cry The Beloved Country,” a novel about life during South Africa’s Apartheid. He was a white man who wrote about his nation’s racism before Nelson Mandela. After giving a lecture in the States, during on of those infamous Q&A periods, an elderly American woman rose to her feet and asked: “Given all you have said, are you optimistic about the future of your beloved country?” And he answered, “Madam, I am not optimistic, but I remain hopeful.”

Does that not describe, perhaps, what we are feeling about our own nation today? We’re hopeful, but optimism is another matter. I’m thinking of hope as a future good, difficult to obtain, but my trust and confidence…my faith says it is not impossible. I will not place a period at the end of the image of America scattered with dry bones. I may not be optimistic about a spiritual renewal, but I have enough hope that fuels me with the energy needed to go about my tasks. Nobody here is a prophet, but sometimes the message is writ large, and we know what we must do to bring the dry bones back to life.

The trouble with Easter is that it links hope with the supernatural. And then it’s used to frighten people: a formula for salvation galvanized upon the blood and sacrifice of Christ. And then churches place restrictive rules called doctrine on how people must act and think and whom to include and exclude from their little tribal community. Some of the belief system is very positive, like at General Conference last weekend when Mormon apostates, I mean apostles, (must be a typo here), continuously reiterated the centrality of Christ because of His unconditional love. Just when I think they get the story and the meaning, the LDS faithful, this certain “tribe” is commended for their opposition to same-sex marriage. Either “unconditional” is a word not fully understood by many Christians, not just LDS, or the story of Jesus and the meaning of love and the cross or even resurrection is interpreted merely for the sake of reinforcing power and prejudice in the church hierarchy.

The story from virgin birth to cosmic ascension, the vicarious savior who absorbs on the cross our punishment for being sinners, robs Christianity of its essential message of hope: To lift the vision that humanity can enter a new mode of existence and awareness and consciousness. Rather than being reduced to a system of rewards and punishments that scares people to death, is not the Christian message the same as in all world religions, which John Shelby Spong calls: “Growing into human maturity.” [So the point is not to achieve righteousness or divine favor but merely to grow into maturity as a human being. Stop thinking of yourself, love your neighbor, and grow up, already.]

That is the message of hope, that the dry bones of indifference will be resurrected to a new life of human care. Imagine overcoming human differences by virtue of loving our enemy. Hope inspires the faith that we can step beyond the tribal boundary of race and culture and class and nationalism into a new and fuller human identity.

My faith in hope is restored, that indeed endless possibilities abound, is carried in the Good News that the State Supreme Court of Iowa…Iowa, mind you, voted unanimously to extend the human and civil rights to all its citizens to marry, with no exceptions made for the GLBTQ community. I am filled with hope when both houses of the Vermont legislature overrode the governor’s veto thus making Vermont the fourth state to uphold marriage equality. The vote was 23-5 in the senate, and 100-49 in the house. A sure sign that we are growing into human maturity. One cannot be human and reject those who are different. And one cannot limit that which is holy to the rules imposed in tribal worship.

The Easter message is about hope and new life. The new life extended to the leper when Jesus touched him. The leper got back his humanity. Jesus welcomed the touch of a woman whose menstrual discharge labeled her “unclean.” She got back her full humanity. The disciples were ready to kill this woman who broke all rules by touching Jesus. And he welcomed it. (I was thinking about that story when Michelle Obama touched the Queen of England, wrapping her arms around that tiny fragile royal woman. The queen, to her credit, stepped outside her little tribal group and welcomed the embrace).

Jesus stood between an adulteress woman and her accusers. The point being – the radical notion being – -nothing can make another person ultimately rejectable. Therein lies the hope. I have no doubt that had anyone asked Jesus: “Are you optimistic about the human race?” He would have answered, “I am not optimistic in the least, but I am hopeful.”

When Jesus was going about his ministry, hope was hard to find. When proposition 8 went into effect in California, hope was hard to find. When I was trying to blow snow atop and ten-foot snow bank, hope was hard to find. When we lose someone we love, hope is hard to find. When we despair over life in general, prepared to place a period right there at the end because we believe it is the end with no new possibilities in sight, the unexpected can grab us by surprise. We call them miracles.

New life emerges from the cross we bear. Of course that’s a miracle. And without those miracles that dot our lives, there’s no hope. We forget all too easily that things can be different. When I saw the re-emergence of my patio Buddha it felt as though it was a miracle. The spring has returned, the Buddha reigns over the grounds once again, life is good. And then I tell myself, what miracle; I knew the Buddha was there all the time.