I was sorting through some left-over bulletins from the 11:00 p.m. Christmas Eve service earlier this week when I noticed where someone had made an entry at the top of the third page, possibly while the choir was singing "Christmas Night" after the reading of the Fourth Lesson. The time would have been somewhere around 11:30 p.m. The hand-printed words read, "Santa has just been spotted in the sky over Morgan Monroe Forest." What wonderful news! What a hopeful sign! And yet no one said anything to me about it!
I have tried since to put myself in the shoes, or the mind, of the author. Were these words penned during a particularly slow point in the service? Was the author eager to go home, to go to bed, so that Santa could come and not be delayed? Or perhaps the author was thinking that by the time they got home, Santa would have already come and gone?
Christmas is a season of memories and expectations, of traditions and surprises. It is a time when we play out in special ways the various hopes and dreams, the various sentiments and desires, the various demands and disappointments, that we carry with us along our way. Christmas is especially difficult for some, because it heightens memories of loss and feelings of grief. It is routine for others, because it reinforces in all-too predictable ways the patterns that define our relationships with others and underlines the tensions that limit our possibilities for life together. But Christmas may also be a comfort and joy if it reminds us of the sustaining realities of grace in our midst. And Christmas may be a surprising delight it is serves to open us up to new ways of thinking, new prospects for growth and change, new visions of hope.
I take the report that Santa had been spotted in the sky over Morgan Monroe Forest to be a bit of amusement and play. Whoever wrote these words had found something in which to take delight. My question this morning is, What do we find in which to take delight? What do we see that heightens our expectations? What is there is about our apprehension and appreciation of the world that gives us hope, as well as comfort and joy?
Yesterday I finished reading Scott Sander's latest book, HUNTING FOR HOPE. What is most striking, and perhaps most memorable, about the book is the way in which it began. Sanders tells of conversations with his two children, a daughter and a son, as well as questions that have been put to him by his students:
Suppose your daughter is engaged to be married and she asks whether you think she ought to have children, given the sorry state of the world. Suppose your own son is starting college and he asks what you think he should study, or why he should study at all, when the future looks so bleak. Or suppose you are a teacher and one student after another comes to ask you how to deal with despair. What should you tell them? [p. 1]
What should you tell them? Behind that question lies another: What can you tell them? What can you say in the face of a world that seems to be in deep trouble and dire straits?
Anyone who looks honestly at the human prospect realizes that we face enormous challenges: population growth, environmental degradation, extinction of species, ethnic and racial strife, doomsday weapons, epidemic disease, drugs, poverty, hunger and crime, to mention only a few [ibid., 185].
The question that becomes the focal point of Sanders' book is not the question of what to do about this state of affairs, however. It is the question of whether anything can be done, of whether anything matters, of whether there is any reason for hope.
As Sanders tells it, the question was put to him most forcefully by his teenage son while they were on a camping trip together, and the tensions between them were rising. Finally, after wrangling about their differences regarding music and cars and a whole lot of other things that Sanders objects to as sources of environmental degradation, his son comes to the heart of his protest against his father:
You look at any car, and all you think is pollution, traffic, roadside crap. You say fast food's poisoning our bodies and TV's poisoning our minds. You think the Internet is just another scam for selling stuff. . . Your view of things is totally dark. It bums me out. You make me feel the planet's dying and people are to blame and nothing can be done about it. There's no room for hope. Maybe you can get by without hope, but I can't. I've got a lot of living still to do. I have to believe there's a way we can get out of this mess. Otherwise, what's the point? Why study, why work--why do anything if it's all going to hell? [p. 9]
Usually it has been the task of youth to rage against the world as they have found it, to rebel, to call for change. And it has been the task of their elders, their parents, the society at large, to try to assure them that things are not as bad as they seem. But what happens when the elders, the mothers and fathers, share the rage of their children?--and perhaps possess an even greater rage, an even greater sense of urgency, an even greater uncertainty about the future? Then the question of hope arises with a special poignancy. Then it becomes clear that we cannot go on without hope. Then it becomes clear that without hope the resources for rage and for change may be depleted, and all that will be left is despair.
"Maybe you can get by without hope, but I can't," says Sanders' son. But can any of us get by without hope? Sanders' book begins be reminding us that children need their parents to have hope. They need their parents to possess a confidence that things can be changed, that study and work can make a difference, that there is a future worth struggling for. We must ask ourselves whether "there are reasons to live in hope not only for ourselves but for our children and our grandchildren" . Children also need their parents to possess a confidence in them, their children, as bearers of the future. Ironically, however, we who are parents also need our children to have hope. Our children are the bearers of the future. If the future seems bleak and hopeless to them, how can it seem otherwise to us as well?
In truth, none of us can get by without hope. In truth, Sanders has an abundance of hope. If he did not, he would not have the resources to care about the world, or to rage against its degradations; he would not believe in the possibilities for change; he would have no reason for going on. So the question becomes one, not of creating or manufacturing hope that is not there, but of finding it, of calling it to mind, of bringing it to light. The task is one of speaking of hope, of giving an account of it, of pointing to the grounds for hope.
Hope is essential to old and young, to parents and children, to keep us at the tasks of living. But hope may also be essential for moving on, and letting go. Hope is the capacity for change, for growth, for making that transition to what is future from what is past, for relinquishing the old as well as welcoming the new. As Luke tells the story, when Mary and Joseph go to Jerusalem for her presentation of Jesus in the temple, they encounter an old man, Simeon, and an old woman, Anna. Simeon is a devout and righteous man, who is said to be looking forward to the consolation of Israel. He is looking for the One who will deliver his people, Israel. Indeed, he has been promised by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death until he had seen the Messiah. Anna is a prophet, who spends her days in fasting and prayer. She is eighty-four years old. If it is not possible to live without hope, Simeon and Anna represent the truth that hope is also what makes it possible for us to consent to let go of this life, to leave the future to others in confidence, without distress. When they see the child, Jesus, their prayers are answered, their hope fulfilled. Taking the child in his arms, Simeon exclaims to God, "Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation . . ."
What does Simeon see? He sees but a child. But in that child he sees a future, he sees a hope, he sees a life for his people, he sees a light to all the world. Now there can be closure to his life. Now he can depart in peace, for now he can envision a future through the blessing of that child.
This past week I had the privilege of holding in my arms two infant children, both born to parents in this congregation in recent months. One of them was Conor Michael Crittenden, who made his arrival this past Tuesday at Bloomington Hospital. It occurred to me that in this congregation we have been blessed with at least four children born to member parents in the past ten months, and that there are two more on the way. This means that within just over a one-year period, we will have welcomed six new infant children into the life of this congregation. For Presbyterians, that is exceptional these days!
Is it a sign of hope? It is certainly an occasion for hope. It is hard not to believe in the future when looking upon a little child. It is hard not to have hope in the face of someone so innocent, so unassuming, so new. The decisions of the parents of these children to bring new lives into this world is a testament of hope. It is an evidence that they believe the future still holds promise, that all is not lost, that it is worth the challenge--the struggle and the sacrifice that they as parents will meet and the risk and uncertainty that their children will face. At one point in his book Sanders writes, "In order to live in hope we needn't believe that everything will turn out well. We need only believe that we are on the right path" .
Perhaps this is another way of saying that it is good and right to have hope. Hope is not an illusion, it is a necessary ingredient of life. It is one of the three Christian virtues. And it is a token of an enduring and persisting grace. It is part of our job to see the evidences of grace in our lives, to pay attention to the beauty and strength and order and goodness that bless our world, to revel in all forms of loveliness and excellence and kindness by which we are blessed. It is part of our job to discern and call attention to the signs of hope in our midst.
Hope shows up in all kinds of ways. Every time I preside at a wedding, I think about those wedding vows that I ask the couple to make. Despite what we know about the marriage and divorce statistics, no couple in my memory has ever protested that they do not want to promise "so long as we both shall live." There is no way they can know whether they will be able to keep their promise, but the promise reminds us that the very possibility of such a commitment lies in hope. So also those promises that are made with every baptism, whether of a child or of an adult. So also with those vows of ordination and installation that elders and minsters take.
Not only with every promise we make, but with every invitation we extend, every meal we prepare, every journey we take, there is an implication of hope. Hope resides in all our efforts to befriend another, to extend hospitality, to help someone in need, to forgive. Without hope we would have no reason to learn a new skill, to try to understand the way anything works, to find some way to express the thoughts or feelings that make us who we are. Hope is present in every act to preserve a living thing or to protect whatever is from ruin, to appreciate every expression of beauty, to treasure every intimation of wonder or meaning, to cherish every memory that holds purpose or joy. Hope is also present in anger, in grief, and in shame, when these arise because we see something important being threatened or damaged or destroyed. There is hope in every act of righteous indignation, in every act of rebellion against cynicism or complacency or despair. There is hope in every gesture that looks beyond the present moment. Only without hope is there no future, no longing, no desire, no life worth living or dying.
A new year has begun. The memories and joys of Christmas still linger. In this propitious time, what is there about your apprehension and appreciation of the world that gives you hope? What is there of promise and expectation? Where are the evidences of grace? What is it that gives you comfort and courage, that animates your spirit, that turns you off or on but gets you going, that calms your fears, that restores your confidence that life is worth living?
Think about these things. Think about them in the larger scheme of things. Consider whether they are ways that seem right and just. Consider whether they hold in prospect a future to be desired, not just for you but for your children or your neighbor's children and for the children of the world. If so, then take them to be signs of hope. And heed them as a calling, for we are called to be a people of hope. And pursue them to your heart's delight. AMEN.