Posted by: smstrouse | November 27, 2016

Advent 1: Amid Darkness, Hope Is Deeper than Optimism

 

maxresdefaultI am not optimistic about the state of the world. However, I have great hope for the state of the world. To anyone who doesn’t know about Advent, those two statements are diametrically opposed; one cancels out the other. But those who do know about Advent – and get its deeper meaning beyond opening up a little door in a calendar the month before Christmas to find a piece of chocolate – know a secret: amid darkness, hope is deeper than optimism.

Don’t get me wrong; I love opening the little doors of Advent calendars with chocolatesil_340x270-1023367290_h3j8 hidden behind them in the countdown to the day we celebrate the birth of Jesus. I’m not a Scrooge! But I also don’t want us to miss out on the profound message that is also hidden in this Advent time. It’s a message so counter-cultural, even counter-intuitive, that we do often miss it. Advent is a time we look with hope both to the celebration of the birth of Jesus 2000+ years ago and to the continuing birth of spiritual light into our lives and world.

So a little group of people comes together on a Sunday morning and lights a candle. Such a small, seemingly insignificant thing. Yet it is part of a much bigger movement undertaken by people of many different religions and spiritualities. We are not alone in our longing for light. Many spiritual traditions look to the natural cycles of light and dark, morning and evening, summer and winter as an invitation to consider the movement of our inner lives.

imagesHindus, Sikhs, and Jains have already had their festival of lights, called Diwali. One of the major festivals of Hinduism, it spiritually signifies the victory of light over darkness, good over evil, knowledge over ignorance, and hope over despair. The 5-day celebration includes lights shining on houses, around outside doors and windows, and around temples and otimages-1her buildings. This year, the 8-day Jewish celebration of Hanukkah – commemorating the time when the wicks of the menorah burned for eight days even though there was only enough sacredoil for one day – begins on December 25.

blessed_yule_1Of course, we in the northern hemisphere have inherited many of our Christmas customs from northern Pagans, for whom the Winter Solstice (or Yule) is a major festival marking the longest night and shortest day of the year. It’s no coincidence that this time of year heralds the beginning of the Christian calendar, the season of Advent. Winter darkness has descended. Night comes too early. Many, even in the relative warmth of CA, suffer from SAD, Seasonal Affective Disorder. We wait for spring. We wait for the light. Even the spiritual-but-not-religious can identify with the underlying need for Advent. Candles, wreaths, Advent calendars tap into universal deep feelings and ideals. Not the least of which is hope.

Our longing for light is not just a physical desire. The long night also symbolizes our fears: for ourselves, our families, our nation, our world. It’s become traditional in many churches to call the first candle on the Advent wreath the flame of hope. But hope is often elusive. And there are few things worse than feeling hopeless. As Swiss philosopher Emil Bruner wrote, “What oxygen is to the lungs, such is hope to the meaning of life.

But wouldn’t it be nice if hope were more clear-cut? It seems we can approach it, at best, only through metaphor. For example, according to poet Emily Dickinson, “hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.” She goes on to tell what this bird does (sings), how it reacts to hardship (it’s unabashed in the storm), where it can be found (everywhere), and what it asks for itself (nothing, not even a single crumb). But where can one find such hope in the midst of a dark night of the soul – whether it is in the soul of an individual or the soul of a nation?

This is where we have to remind ourselves that amid darkness, hope is deeper than optimism. It shouldn’t be confused with belief that everything – whether your own life or the future of the nation or the survival of our planet – is going to work out just fine. Hope is not just wishful thinking. The late Christian writer Henri Nouwen, emphasizing that hope is faith in something beyond our control, said “I have found it very important in my life to let go of my wishes and start hoping.” Adding, “Hope is always open-ended.”

But like faith, hope can be elusive. How does one get it? How does one keep it? Well, to be honest, sometimes it’s simply a matter of faking it, as they say, until you make it. Living “as if” you have hope can actually open up the spiritual space for that “thing with feathers” to build its nest. Other times, it’s a matter of carrying hope for someone who’s not yet able or allowing someone to carry it for you.

Years ago, when I was a hospital chaplain, I was visiting a patient who told me that he didn’t have any hope. I don’t remember what the situation was, but I do know that I wouldn’t have encouraged unrealistically optimistic medical expectations. So it wasn’t necessarily about hoping for a cure. Before I left, I told him it was OK that he wasn’t able to feel hopeful just then, but that I was going to be hopeful for him. I’ll never forget the huge smile on his face when I said that and his appreciation of my offer. I don’t know what happened to him. I can only hope that the open-endedness of “things hoped for” made some difference in how he saw his life and his situation.

Oddly enough, apocalyptic writing in the Jewish bible and Christian scriptures – those passages about the end times – were all about hope in times of deep darkness and persecution. We usually read them today as threats. For example, the gospel warned: “Be vigilant! For you do not know the day your Savior is coming.” In other words, “You better watch out, you better not cry, Jesus Christ is comin’ to town.” Or, in the old Bob Hope quote, “The good news is that Jesus is coming back. The bad news is that he’s really pissed off.”

But we too can think about apocalypse in a hopeful way. Everything in the New Testament, from the teachings of Jesus to the letters of Paul, is informed by the anticipation of the arrival of the realm (commonwealth, kin-dom) of God. Jesus was very specific about what that kin-dom would be like: the thirsty receive water, the hungry are fed, the naked clothed, repentance and humility are practiced, the poor are lifted up, the rich are brought down from their thrones. This kin-dom is not necessarily a time in the future, but happening now. In other words, apocalypse is really about revealing, showing forth the signs of God’s commonwealth right here and now. It’s happening all the time and all around.

And this is where another big Advent theme enters in. If we’re going to notice these in-breakings, we have to pay attention. As Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, “It is now the hour for you to wake from sleep.”

I’m also partial to the poem by the Sufi poet, Rumi:875661
The breezes at dawn have secrets to tell you. 
Don’t go back to sleep!
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep!
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch,
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep!

The Buddhists call this mindfulness. Don’t sleep through your life. Don’t let a holy moment catch you unawares. Don’t miss God moments occurring throughout the day. The Divine comes to us in every encounter. A pivotal life event might be happening right now. Pay attention. Don’t go back to sleep. Creative transformation – awakening to God and living in God’s commonwealth – is available to us all the time. We need to prepare moment by moment to experience God’s provocative possibilities. Advent living isn’t just a month-long thing that ends on Christmas Day. It’s our training exercise for a lifestyle of expectancy. We’re to live as if God is with us, precisely because God is with us.

Is it hard for me to remember this when I pick up a newspaper? You bet it is. Am I feeling optimistic about the state of the world? Not by a long-shot. But if there is one thing I know, it is that amid darkness, hope is deeper than optimism. And Advent calls us to exercise and develop our spiritual muscles so that as followers of Jesus, we can be light to the world: bringing water to the thirsty, food to the hungry, clothing to the naked, forgiveness and hope to those in deep darkness, lifting up the poor, and bringing down systems that benefit only the rich.

One little candle symbolizes it all. Better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness, as the saying goes. This quiet lighting of a candle can help us nourish our hope, deepen our resolve, draw strength from the fertile darkness and bear witness to the community we long to become and are working to create.

I’ll close with a blog post I received from Rick Morley, Episcopal priest in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. It’s been a source of inspiration for me this week – even though it contains a Game of Thrones reference that I have no clue about what it means. But it has been reminding me to stay focused on what is of ultimate importance and reminding me to be prepared.

No, if we know anything these days, it’s that we know so very little.
Our confidence can wither in moments, and everything that we once thought was “up” will be found to be “upside down.”
For the pundits and the pollsters try and lull us to sleep with their braggadocio. They hypnotize us with their numbers, and plans, and historical perspectives. They have their canon laws, their proof texts, and their little prayers that we can read at the end of a gospel tract and rest confident that we are going to be part of that number when the saints go marching in.
But then you’ll be grinding meal, and in a flash your partner will be gone.
Or, she’ll be left at the grinding stone by herself, wondering where you went when there was so much work to be done.
If there is one thing that we know, it’s that we have no idea what’s going on.
But, that’s ok. We don’t need to be in the know.
All we need to be is awake. Prepared. Ready.
For what? God knows what.
You know nothing, John Snow.
Maybe we’re getting ready to shoot up into the sky. Maybe we’re ready for that little mustard seed in us to sprout suddenly into the greatest of trees.
Maybe we’re waiting for something as silly as a child being born in a manger.
Who knows? I don’t.
But, I can be awake.         http://www.rickmorley.com/archives/3471

I am not optimistic about the state of the world. However, I have great hope.
Wait with me and watch. Don’t go back to sleep. For the light – this little light and so many like it – shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.   Amen 

hope-is-the-thing-with-feathers-andrea-oconnell

 

Isaiah 2:1-5
Let us walk in the light of God, so says the prophet Isaiah. With darkness descending in the Northern hemisphere and fears of darkness politically and globally, these words are good counsel. The dark night – whether in terms of weather or the social order – challenges us to embrace God’s enlightened paths. Open to the light, we can see growth within darkness. We can also find our way through perilous personal, congregational, and political pathways. Isaiah proclaims the impossible possibility.    It is written . . .

This is what Isaiah ben-Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem:

In the last days, the mountain of YHWH’s Temple will be established as the most important mountain and raised above all other hills – all nations will stream toward it.

Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us climb YHWH’s mountain to the Temple of the God of Jacob, that we may be instructed in God’s ways and walk in God’s paths.”

Instruction will be given from Zion and the word of YHWH from Jerusalem. God will judge between the nations and render decisions for many countries. They will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation will not raise the sword against another, and never again will they train for war.

O house of Leah and Rachel and Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of YHWH!

Romans 13:11-14
The time to wake up from sleep is now. This passage acts as an alarm clock. It is not the unpleasant kind that wakes you up for another day of time famine, when you feel inadequate, overwhelmed, lost, or meaningless. It is instead an alarm clock that wakes you up for a day of adequacy, preparedness and meaning. Let us use this Advent season as a time for our own growth and the growth of our spiritual community.  It is written . . .

You know the time in which we are living. It is now the hour for you to wake from sleep, for our salvation is closer than when we first accepted the faith. The night is far spent; the day draws near. So let us cast off deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us live honorably as in daylight, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual excess and lust, not in quarreling and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourself with our Savior Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the night. 

Matthew 24:36-44
Jesus’ words complement the counsel of Romans 13. Although there is an implicit threat in the unexpected coming of God, ultimately this passage is about mindfulness. Stay awake. Holy moments may catch you by surprise. Creative transformation – awakening to God and living in God’s realm – is available to us all the time. The future is in our hands as well as God’s and we need to prepare moment by moment to experience God’s vision of Shalom, God’s provocative possibilities embedded in every encounter.   It is written . . .

“No one knows that day and hour – not the angels of heaven, nor even the Only Begotten – only Abba God.

The coming of the Promised One will be just like in Noah’s time. In the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, having relationships and getting married, right up to the day Noah entered the ark. They were totally unconcerned until the flood came and destroyed them. So it will be at the coming of the Promised One. Two people will be out in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two people will be grinding meal; one will be taken and one will be left. Therefore be vigilant! For you do not know the day your Savior is coming.

Be sure of this: if the owner of the house had known when the thief was coming, the owner would have kept a watchful eye and not let the house be broken into. You must be prepared in the same way. The Promised One is coming at the time you least expect.

 

 

 

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Responses

  1. I love what you’ve written here. Thanks for quoting me… Even if you don’t get the GoT reference.

    Like


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