The Way of Hope


Image via /Shutterstock

Week after week, we can take on the biggest issues we face as a society — from continuing racism, mass incarceration, inequality, and poverty to gender violence and human trafficking, climate change, ISIS — and just try to be hopeful.

Or we can start by going deeper, to a more foundational and spiritual understanding of hope — rooted in our identity as the children of God, made in the image of God, as the only thing that will see us through times like this.

I believe we should start there. Because the biggest problem we face — the biggest enemy at the heart of many of the issues we must address — is hopelessness.

And perhaps the most important thing the world needs from the faith community is today is hope.

A Miracle of Resilience

MY GREAT-GRANDMOTHER, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Johnson, was born in 1890 in Camden, S.C., with a different last name from all the other people in her household. Three generations later, we have no idea where the name Johnson came from.

Lizzie grew up working plantation land owned by her grandmother, Lea Ballard. Lea received the land in the wake of the Civil War: We don’t know how or why, though one theory speculates that Lea, who was listed as a 42-year-old mulatto widow on the 1880 U.S. Census, may have been the daughter of her slave owner. He may have given the land to her after the Civil War. We don’t know. We only know that Lea owned it, that she had 17 children who worked that land, according to family lore, and that the city of Camden eventually stole the land from her by the power of eminent domain. This we know from records I hold in my possession.

Lizzie married a railroad man named Charles Jenkins. Lizzie and Charles had three children; Charles later died in a railroad accident. Lizzie had a choice: endure the brutality of the Jim Crow South alone with three kids, or move with the stream of black bodies migrating north. Lizzie migrated to Washington, D.C., and, eventually, to Philadelphia and took her lightest-skinned child with her.

Both mother and child were light enough to pass for white. My caramel-toned, straight-haired grandmother, Willa, and her brother, Charlie, were too dark. So they were left behind in the care of their elderly great-grandmother. Willa and Charlie joined others on the plantation and earned their keep working the fields.

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July 2015
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A Good Deal Worth Protecting

IN APRIL, eight nations, including Iran, announced an agreement for addressing Iran’s controversial nuclear activities. The Iran Nuclear Framework, supported by many Christian leaders in the U.S., is seen as an opportunity to “dramatically restrain the capacity of Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.” It could be one of the most significant nonproliferation achievements in history.

The proposed agreement significantly reduces Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium, closes the plutonium path to weapons capacity, and greatly increases international monitoring and verification of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. It allows for lifting sanctions against Iran and opens the door to the possibility of improved bilateral relations.

The multiyear agreement sharply curtails Iran’s enrichment program. Iran has agreed to reduce by approximately two-thirds its installed centrifuges, from about 19,000 today to 6,104 under the deal. And Iran has agreed not to build any new facilities for the purpose of enriching uranium for 15 years.

The agreement calls for redesigning Iran’s Arak heavy water reactor (so it does not produce weapons-grade plutonium), removing spent fuel from Iran, and banning reprocessing. Iran will ship all of its spent fuel from the reactor out of the country for the reactor’s lifetime. And Iran has committed indefinitely to not conduct reprocessing or reprocessing research and development on spent nuclear fuel.

THE AGREEMENT MANDATES intrusive international inspections, with unique provisions for prolonged transparency and accountancy measures. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will have regular access to all of Iran’s nuclear facilities and will install the most up-to-date, modern remote monitoring technologies.

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July 2015
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Sorry, Presidential Candidates: Hope Resides in Groans, Not in Your Rhetoric

Photo via Gutzemberg / Shutterstock.com

Photo via Gutzemberg / Shutterstock.com

It’s the season of hope.

We rely on hope as a force to inch us forward. No one wants to believe that our best days as individuals or as societies are behind us. Everyone wants to be a hopeful person. Or, at least, there are plenty of people out there eager to make sure everyone feels hopeful.

It’s a season when we’re urged to look for things — data, leaders, movements, promises, trends, exemplars — to provide the ground for hope. For others, it’s a time for sarcasm and mockery.

Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid. Oh … and Jesus.

"Hope" spelled out on a keyboard. Image via Stuart Miles/shutterstock.com

"Hope" spelled out on a keyboard. Image via Stuart Miles/shutterstock.com

Lately I’ve noticed that the “prayers of the people” at my church are beginning to sound like the sixth seal of the Book of Revelation has been broken and the world is about to implode. While I'm glad we pray about important topics in global affairs like Iran's nuclear program or ISIS, it’s easy to feel tense when folks start rattling off one shocking headline after another. I want to be engaged with the things in our world that need change, but I wonder to myself: Where is hope? Where is the good news? It seems like our message has become: “Be afraid. Be very afraid. Oh … and Jesus.” 

In “A Newsfeed of Fear,” (Sojourners, May 2015) Gareth Higgins writes: “Our culture has been hoodwinked by the idea that we’re living in the center of a crisis when actually we’re in the midst of an evolution of hope.”

Scandal and sensation are nothing new to the media, but I think Higgins is on to something: with our newsfeeds delivering a daily stream of scandals, shootings, and outrage to our pockets and wrists it seems easier to believe that our world is falling apart. And when these stories lack context, follow-up, or conversation, one crisis can just seem to flow into another.

In a recent conversation with my father-in-law, Elly Alboim, a veteran journalist and professor of journalism, he admitted that news media can paint “an unrelentingly bleak view of the world.” He noted how news outlets often focus on inexplicable tragedies (plane crashes), threats to health and wellness (U.S. fear over Ebola), and the bizarre (take your pick), all of which reinforce our sense that we’re living on the edge of global apocalypse.

Alboim also explained that people typically process the news in terms of threats. Each morning they perform their own kind of threat assessment, beginning with the most immediate threat — the weather — moving on to morning traffic and eventually, all the way to news of global terrorism.

The First Time Resurrection Mattered to Me

An empty tomb. Image via ehrlif/shutterstock.com

An empty tomb. Image via ehrlif/shutterstock.com

I’ve celebrated Easter before. My whole life I’ve dressed up, colored eggs, gone to church.  

But this year was different. This year, I realized resurrection.  

I’m not sure how the realization came.

Maybe it came because this was the first time I gardened. My mother once said, “Gardening is prayer.” I never believed her until I physically saw the transformation of dead earth into mustard greens and zucchini plants. I never realized how good the pulse of the sun felt on my back after months of gray. I never saw seeds push through the darkness of soil and become new life — until this year, when I realized resurrection.

Maybe it came because this was the first time I’ve ever felt depression. This winter was the first time there were no windows in the tomb. The first time I held myself crying in the shower wondering if the emptiness would stop. This year was the first time I saw Lent as a season to sit in deep sadness. The first time I realized that Mary Magdalene sat at the tomb simply because she was just so sad.

Maybe it came because this was the first time I’ve fully embraced a Christian community. The first time I’ve intimately walked through the liturgical season with the same people. The first time I shared the miracle of Christmas and the deep sadness of Lent in the eyes of other vulnerable humans. The first time I’ve attended an entire week of Holy Week services. The first time I sat in the dark on Good Friday after service ended and cried.

This year, I realized resurrection and I’m not exactly sure why.

Songs of Ourselves: Grief, Hope, and Sufjan Stevens

Sufjan Stevens. Black and white version of image via Tammy Lo/flickr.com

Sufjan Stevens. Black and white version of image via Tammy Lo/flickr.com

Sufjan Stevens’ newest album, Carrie & Lowell (out now), is a heartbreaking meditation on personal grief. It’s also joyful, baffling, and delicately mundane. 

In the spirit of a listening party, a few of us sat down to play through the album, sharing liner notes and meditations on the songs that grabbed each of us. Conclusion: it's really, really good. Stream Carrie & Lowell here, and listen along with us below.


Death With Dignity” — Tripp Hudgins, ethnomusicologist, Sojourners contributor, blogger at Anglobaptist

Tripp: I love the first song of an album. I think of it as the introduction to a possible new friend. “Where The Streets Have No Name” on U2’s Joshua Tree or “Signs of Life” on Pink Floyd’s Momentary Lapse of Reason, that first track can be the thesis statement to a sonic essay.

So, when I get a new album — even in this day of digital albums or collections of singles — a first track can make or break an album for me. I sat down and listened attentively to “Death With Dignity.” It does not disappoint. With it Stevens introduces the subject of the album — his grief around troubled relationship with his mother and her death — as well as the sonic palate he will use throughout the album.

Simple guitar work, layered voicing, and a little synth, the album is musically sparse. The tempo reminds me of movies from the nineteen sixties or seventies where the action takes place over a long road trip.

Catherine Woodiwiss: I was thinking road trip, too. There’s real motion musically, which, given a claustrophobic theme and circular lyrics, is a thankful point of release. It’s a generous act, or maybe an avoidant one — he could have made us sit tight and watch, and he doesn’t quite do it.

Julie Polter: This isn’t a road movie, but the reference to that era of films just made me think of Cat Stevens’ soundtrack for Harold and Maude, especially “Trouble.” (This album is one-by-one bringing back to me other gentle songs of death and duress and all the songs I listen to when I want to cry).

Daring to Hope in the Stress of Uncertainty

Rickety bridge over rapids. Image via Zastolskiy Victor/shutterstock.com

Rickety bridge over rapids. Image via Zastolskiy Victor/shutterstock.com

Many people fear death. It’s an understandable fear. And one that’s socially acceptable.

But shouldn’t we also admit that living can be scary as hell, too?

As any fan of The Walking Dead and other apocalyptic fiction knows, it doesn’t take much for the lines between order and chaos, between civility and mayhem, and between trustworthiness and falsehood to be exposed as thinner than advertised.

We aren’t given a choice. We navigate a world in which we exercise little real control.

Co-pilots aren’t supposed to crash commercial jets.

States can't just grant individuals and businesses the right to discriminate against under-protected groups under some squishy definition of "religious freedom," can they?

We may never learn where those two-hundred-plus Nigerian girls were taken, the ones kidnapped from their school — their school! — nearly one year ago.

Why does NIMBYism derail so many good-faith and promising efforts to help rehabilitate released felons and other at-risk populations?

What part of the world that I can barely locate on a map has my country decided to bomb for me today?

Confidence and fear travel through our veins, compelling us, as they act out their odd, entangled relationship. We rarely have the luxury to see where our choices will lead us. We’re swept along by others’ choices and barely detectable forces.

Anxiety is more than a devious marketing strategy in cable news channels’ portfolios; it arises from life’s uncertainties. It’s a way our bodies ask whether we can trust those yearnings that give birth to our hopes for a society that truly flourishes.

Who doesn’t live by some kind of faith? Such “faith” can be a reliance on effort and intelligence, a willingness to surrender to risk, a retreat into the security of privilege, a decision to live for others, or a resigned acceptance that at least we’ll have company when disaster strikes. What, finally, compels us forward?

The Beginners' Guide to the Sound of Sap

Photo by Timothy King

Photo by Timothy King

If you listen, each bucket has its own special sound. First are the empty buckets and their muted ting of dripping sap falling straight to the galvanized steel bottom. Next is the dop that reverberates from the slightly sweet drop running off the spile to a thin layer of liquid below. But it is the soft, and all too rare and timeless plop that I wait for. That quiet plop (or sometimes plip) signals that over half of that the three-gallon bucket is full and the tap is giving in abundance.

There is a slight quickening of the heart when the bucket is heavy enough to need two hands to pull off the hook. Then an involuntary smile to hear the pitch of the shwoosh ascend as the smaller bucket presents it’s offering to the larger. But sometimes, before I touch the bucket at all, I stop and wait to hear what it has to say. Ting? Dop? Plip? Plop?

I look at the tree and then its neighbors. I strain to hear the rhythm of the buckets around me and wonder, what makes one tap run so well when others are nearly dry?