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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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?
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?
It is Holy Week. And I must admit I’m challenged by it. I’m the kind of person who is much more comfortable in my mind, in words on pages, and in thoughts strung together. I am much more comfortable there than in my body, in my own feet stepping down the street, in my own hips, thighs, calves, swaying arms cutting air, swinging, bobbing, Reebok-ing anywhere.
This wasn’t always the case.
There was a stint in high school, and again in college, and again in grad school, and again in the other grad school when I believed in my body’s capacity to excel — and so it did. I sailed around that high school track multiple times without stopping! I dove for the ball in the students v. teachers volley ball tournament, and I danced: jazz, tap, ballet! In college I rode my bike everywhere. In grad school I did interval training and in the other grad school I did power-walking — and Jenny Craig.
Mind you, all of these periods came in short bursts that propelled me forward for a time and then I would slow down, go into myself, and come out again with another burst in a year or two.
But my last big burst was about eight years ago. I haven’t swayed anything or bobbed anywhere for any significant amount of time since.
I felt it coming on. I knew it was happening when it was happening, but I had no idea I would become consumed by it.
“I just don’t feel like getting up to go walking,” I’d tell myself at my normal walking time.
“What if today is the day I get jumped and raped in the park?”
So I stayed home, convinced I was safer in my bed. Then I moved to a city I didn’t know and the rationalizations took deeper root.
And so, for eight years I have lived like a dualistic gnostic — pushing myself toward spiritual renewal while allowing my body to grow stagnant, stiff, and bloated.
What triggered it? I’ve asked myself that question many times over the years.
A recent event in my life crystalized it for me: Loss had stifled me. A loss locked my feet and knees and would not let me move forward. This loss was loss of hope.
Most of us have that area of our lives where we struggle to hope. For me it is that space down deep where I hide the dream of a family: a loving husband and laughing children and a rockin’ writing and speaking schedule — yeah! It’s my dream.
Memories of Boko Haram’s murderous spree in his Nigerian hometown haunt Tom Gowon, 9, as he sits on a patch of grass at a refugee camp, sipping steaming porridge from a plastic mug.
“I was lucky because I was not killed,” said Gowon, recalling the assault on Baga, Nigeria, in early January.
“But they shot and killed my father. My mother was kidnapped by the militants.”
Children such as Gowon bear the brunt of Boko Haram’s rampage since its fighters kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls last year and conquered enough territory to declare a caliphate that covers one-fifth of Nigeria.
Where the militants have met resistance, they’ve torched villages and left piles of corpses in their wake.
“There are several camps around here housing many children who have lost their parents in attacks,” said Guy Nanhousngue, a Chadian relief worker who said children make up about half of the Nigerians coming to the Baga Sola refugee camp on the shores of Lake Chad, which separates the two countries.
“We’re registering more than 50 children every day.”
If you’re reading this, you probably already know that modern-day slavery is a thriving, lucrative, global business. There are more slaves alive today than during the entire 400 years of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Human trafficking generates about $150 billion in profits every year. And 1 in 3 trafficking victims are children.
The statistics are staggering.
For me, it was a single story that moved me through the numbers to a place where I could take action. I heard about Charina* when I joined International Justice Mission. She was one of the first girls we helped rescue in Cebu, Philippines.
Charina was 13 when she was sold for sex.
Her family was very poor, and she had dropped out of school in fourth grade. Her mother was the first one who sold her. For the next couple years, pimps took turns selling her from street corners and seedy piers. They earned extra because she looked so young.
Charina was finally freed from this harsh cycle of violence in 2007. She was addicted to drugs, pregnant and unable to trust the people who wanted to help her. The work of freedom was just beginning.
My colleagues started meeting regularly with Charina. She needed professional care and a customized plan to meet her unique and complex needs. She needed trauma-focused counseling. She needed to learn how to trust others and to believe in herself once again.
When I first heard her story and saw a photo of Charina—her bright eyes, her small frame—my first reaction was anger. This young woman should never have suffered in the many ways she has.
And that anger is right. It’s not fair.
Charina’s story has illuminated another reality for me, a more hopeful one. It doesn’t have to be this way.
A firm decision to do or not to do something — see: intention, resolve, plan, commitment, pledge.
The quality of being determined or resolute — see: determination, purpose, steadfastness, perseverance,tenacity, tenaciousness, staying power, dedication, commitment, stubbornness, boldness, spiritedness, bravery, courage, pluck, grit.
The action of solving a problem, dispute, or contentious matter — see: solution to, settlement of, conclusion to, “the peaceful resolution of all disputes.”
In a world of seemingly endless conflicts, I sure like the sound of that. We need more of all of these qualities just now. All three meanings of resolution are wonderfully attractive to me — and timely for this brand new year. So here are my 10 resolutions for this 2015:
Hope is not a feeling. It is a decision — a choice you make based on what we call faith or moral conscience, whatever most deeply motivates you.
I have said that for many years, but this Advent and Christmas season tests my words — even in my own heart.
This is not a time that many of us are feeling a great deal of hope. I hear that from many friends and allies as well.
In fact, many events this year feel like they have sucked the hope right out of us.
And yet, even in the midst of terrible events and stories, the possibilities of hope still exist depending on what we decide to do for reasons of faith and conscience. In fact, people of faith and conscience are already making a difference in the most difficult situations and places.
And that gives me hope. This season of Advent, in the Christian tradition, is a call to patient waiting.
Christmas is the celebration of God literally coming into the world in order to change it.
The first time I really got it, I was 16 years old.
I had traveled by myself to visit distant relatives in Paris, with the hope of improving my French. Somehow, a weekend visit to the beach ended up with me on an unaccompanied trip on a train from a lazy seaside town back to the city. “I’m lonely here, God,” I thought. “Would you show me you are with me?”
Looking out the train window, there was a brilliant sunset hanging over the fields of canola flowers. There was my reminder of God’s love! As the train curved away from the sunset and it fell out of view, I sat back in my seat, satisfied with the gift I had been given … only to start up again as the train took a sharp curve to the left, the sunset back in full view.
“Oh,” I thought, “that’s what they mean by love being abundant and our cups overflowing. I get it.”
The first time I really got it, I was 18 years old.
On my first winter break back from college, I was driving in my parents’ car, listening to the radio. On air was a county executive discussing why a curfew might be a good idea for the county’s youth. According to him, instituting the curfew would help police arrest young people they suspected of other crimes. The implication was that it would only be enforced against those people who looked suspicious. Another voice on the show expressed concerns that what this meant was that the curfew would only be enforced against black teenagers.
“Oh,” I thought, “this is what they mean when they say the police target people they instinctively assume to be suspicious, even if they haven’t done anything wrong. I get it.”
This is my first Advent as an ordained minister, and I am attempting to quickly learn so many things. Including: what Advent means in different cultural contexts; how to determine the "accurate" themes represented in each Advent candle on the wreath (I've come across at least 4 or 5 different versions thus far); preparing our first discussion series informed by our devotional readings; creating children's worship lessons for the season; writing liturgy and sermons to reflect the mood of the season; and crafting a Christmas Eve service to include children, musical numbers, poetry, and stories.
All this while also correcting 35 final essays, grading 35 final presentations, and finalizing semester grades for my delightful students.
So what's the irony, you ask? Well, in addition to preaching on signs of hope last week, I also spoke about Advent as a space carved out in our church year to wait in eager anticipation of a promise not yet realized. To be still and contemplate the movement of the spirit in the midst of the bustle all around us. To think on hope even when so many are simply thinking of shopping and trips to the mall to snap a photo with Santa.
And yet what do I find myself doing? Anything but waiting, being still, and taking time to ponder hope.
Advent is a time for stories. In my childhood, these weeks were filled with Sunday school pageants, beautifully illustrated children's books, and swapping out Legos for the figurines in my mom’s Nativity collection. My favorite part of the Advent story was always the gathering of unlikely companions — magi, shepherds, angels, and a menagerie of farm animals. This year, I find the Advent story accompanied by another, and it starts like this:
Gold, frankincense, myrrh: precious gifts carried by three magi for the King of kings and Lord of lords. Gold, coltan, diamonds: precious gifts of Creation held in the earth of Congo, taken by the "kings" of powerful nations for the commodities of their people. Coltan alone can be found in the cell phones, hearing aids, and prosthetic devices we use in the West every day. These gifts have become a curse with the massacre of over 5.5 million Congolese, numbers nearly equal to the Holocaust. Yet Congo’s conflict remains mostly silent.
I currently serve as Pastoral Associate at a Catholic parish in Buffalo, NY, where our pastor decided to hold monthly Prayer Hours for Peace in response to the violent outbreaks in Syria, the uprising in Ferguson over Michael Brown’s death, ISIS, gang violence — to name a few.
Our November Prayer Hour for Peace offered four rounds of Scripture passages and ten-minute reflection and prayer time, followed with an excerpt from a Pax Christi USA prayer called “Just for Today.”
I read this excerpt aloud:
“Just for today, I will believe that world peace is possible. I will remember that hope is the most important gift I can give my world.”
The next Scripture verse was from Psalm 122:6-8.
“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: May those who love you be secure. May there be peace within your walls and security within your citadels. For the sake of my family and friends, I will say, Peace be within you.”
For the next ten minutes, I inhaled “belief….possible” and exhaled “hope most important gift.” Physically, my body relaxed, and I watched my hope flow out into my immediate surroundings.
Wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking,
“Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?
For we have observed his star at its rising,
and have come to pay him homage.”
They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea;
for so it has been written by the prophet.” (Matthew 2:1b, 5 NRSV)
Waiting, preparing, journeying, hoping.
Unless you’re newborn yourself, you may have experienced it before, many times over. Christianity’s rhythm is cyclic, repetitive. Still, in the same way that we can continually find new gusts of loveliness and truth in old Scriptures our eyes have taken in before, each Advent is a fresh encounter. Not because the story is new, but because the cosmos has changed – we have changed. The Word is new because the world is new.