My sermon to the UUFB today:
There are a lot of words we use every day,
that we don’t really pause to consider.
“Hope” is one of those words.
What do you think of when you hear the word “Hope”?
For most of us, “hope” will conjure up images of fantastical satisfaction and happiness- or maybe the iconic images of a certain presidential campaign.
Maybe almost trite images.
And yet, there’s an allure to the word “Hope”
In that presidential campaign, the opponents made fun of the word, made light of it- and I would submit- that may be why they lost.
They underestimate the human gift of optimism.
And I do think it’s a gift.
It’s very easy to look around and see the evidence of malignancy and evil around us- and far away from us- thanks to the miracle of instantaneous global communication. It’s not hard to find stories of death and destruction, exploitation and pain, suffering and greed, disease and addiction.
It’s not hard at all.
In fact, it’s so easy that our society suffers from all sorts of ills because of it- depression being ubiquitous in this day and age.
I think hope and optimism have a bad rap. It’s easy to make fun of the word “hope”. Realists say that it’s fantasy.
I think it’s completely and perfectly human.
Take Winter. It’s no accident that the early Christians of the Northern Hemisphere chose the solstice for the celebration of the Savior’s birth.
The Advent wreath, the greenery, the Christmas tree- none of them originated with Christianity. Some maintain that Germanic tribes placed candles in a sacred circle of greens to symbolize hope in the return of the sun and the promise of Spring. We know Scandinavian people placed candles on a wheel to honor the cycle of the seasons. We know that midwinter- again in the Northern Hemisphere- is around December 21- when days are at their shortest and night is at its longest.
I can imagine that for primitive people whose lives depended on the return of warmth it was good to remind themselves that winter won’t last forever. And I can imagine that it was very hard centuries ago- without antibiotics and polar fleece and refrigerators and Costco- in a harsh climate when those who were weak would often die- I can imagine that some would find it hard to believe that the winter would ever end- especially during the time that night became longer and longer and colder and colder.
But those who knew- those who had lived through the winters before- they were the strength of those who weren’t so sure.
They held out hope.
They knew that in the midst of the longest night- it was important to tell stories of the approaching spring. To hold out hope- to remember optimism when it was at its most elusive.
As always, our lives our shaped by those who have gone before us.
Hope is in our genes- if we care to think about it.
The basic instinct of survival is a mechanism of hope, isn’t it?
Even the limbic system that shuts down our reason in the face of danger and makes us flee, fight or freeze to enable our survival- even that is a sign of hope. It’s in our biology.
That’s probably why the pessimists never win in the long term. Hope isn’t just a trite term for people who can’t handle reality. It’s an attitude for living.
I like to tell my clients that the only difference between excitement and fear is the projected outcome.
The energy is the same- it’s just the projected outcome that’s different. And that projected outcome starts with us.
In our minds, in our hearts, in the way we choose to interpret the world around us. Excitement and curiosity- or fear and dread? It’s our choice- at least more than we think.
One of my favorite stories is this one:
Two boys who were twins, one an incurable optimist, one a pessimist.
The parents were worried about the extremes of behavior and attitude and finally took the boys in to see a psychologist.
The psychologist observed them a while and then said that they could be easily helped. He felt they just needed to adjust to the world by encountering things that would counteract their strong tendencies of optimism and pessimism.
He said that they had a room filled with all the toys a boy could want. They would put the pessimist in that room and allow him to enjoy life.
They also had another room that they filled with horse manure. They put the optimist in that room. They observed both boys through one way mirrors.
The pessimist continued to be a pessimist, stating that he had no one to play with.
They went to look in on the optimist, and were astounded to find him digging through the manure.
The psychologist ran into the room and asked “What on earth are you doing?”
The boy replied “With all this manure, there HAS to be a pony in here somewhere!”
I love that story.
But I know that sometimes i’m not looking though the manure for the pony. Sometimes I’m just sitting in the manure, disgusted. Because, well, you know, it’s manure.
That’s when I forget myself. It’s when I forget my biology.
It’s when I forget that the energy I feel in my body is often harnessed by the projected outcome I hold.
So, yeah, I can sit in the manure, or I can haul the manure back to the garden where it’ll do some good.
Our ancestors have chosen to celebrate the return of the light for millennia- it’s why the early Christians chose the bleak midwinter- to link the returning light to the birth of Jesus. Smart, eh?
They’ve chosen to believe that the dawn follows the darkness, that life will continue.
And so do we.
I’m betting that it’s why you’re here today.
And I’m also betting that you’re interested in learning to become skillful at living life with hope.
I believe that the first step in living a more skillful life
is to become more aware of living an UNskilled life.
And by that, I mean living by habit-
not with awareness, not with wonder, not with hope-
but by automatic pilot- habit. By numbing perhaps- or lying to ourselves.
It’s ultimately unsatisfying.
Habits are things we do without thinking. That’s very unskillful.
Skill means bringing awareness and creativity, attention and intention into our endeavors.
I think it’s only by paying close attention that we live skillfully in this world.
And by paying attention to the possibilities is the way we live hopefully in this world.
During his days as president, Thomas Jefferson and a group of companions were traveling across the country on horseback.
They came to a river which had left its banks because of a recent downpour.
The swollen river had washed the bridge away.
Each rider was forced to ford the river on horseback, fighting for his life against the rapid currents.
The very real possibility of death threatened each rider, which caused a traveler who was not part of their group to step aside and watch.
After several had plunged in and made it to the other side, the stranger asked President Jefferson if he would ferry him across the river.
The president agreed without hesitation.
The man climbed on, and shortly thereafter the two of them made it safely to the other side.
As the stranger slid off the back of the saddle onto dry ground, one in the group asked him, “Tell me, why did you select the president to ask this favor of?”
The man was shocked, admitting he had no idea it was the president who had helped him.
“All I know,” he said, “Is that as I thought of asking the question, on some of your faces was written the answer ‘No,’ and on some of them was the answer ‘Yes.’
His was a ‘Yes’ face.”
(C. Swindoll, The Grace Awakening, Word, 1990, p. 6.)
That, my friends, is the face of hope.
So, dare we hope?
If biology and the human spiritual history of millennia have anything to say about it, we dare not.