Hope & Hopelessness - John Bergen, October 4, 2020
Every year, the second Sunday in September is “back to church” Sunday. This year, our Sunday School teachers and I logged on at 10am to set up the breakout rooms. It went smoothly. I said to myself, “Wow, this is way easier than being in person!”
Then all at once thirty young people entered the waiting room, and I had to put them in breakout rooms. In the furious scramble to remember everyone’s ages, Zoom decided to stop letting me see the names of breakout rooms. I didn’t know which classroom I was sending which kid to.
And, so, unsurprisingly, after the chaos had died down, I realized I had missed a message in the chat from one young person. It read, simply, “I think I’m in the wrong place.”
I stopped, stunned by that existential truth. I think I’m in the wrong place.
Don’t I feel that every day? Don’t most of us think that we are in the wrong place, the wrong time, the wrong world, most days for the past nearly seven months?
I soon realized that this child was saying they were in the wrong Sunday School class. But I couldn’t shake the feeling I had been left with.
On Saturday, March 7th, I joined Reem for Shabbat morning services. As the fear of COVID, this unknown dread, hung in the air, the Rabbi remarked that the one thing that Judaism as a spiritual practice does better than anything else is weave together grief and joy. I asked myself, what is our Christian spiritual practice particularly skilled at weaving together?
The Hebrew Bible, the first three-quarters of our Bible, the law, the histories, the prophets, the psalms, all in some way revolve around a question: “Where is God when our people are conquered and our Temple destroyed? What do we do when we think we’re in the wrong place?” Psalm 137 and Jeremiah’s letter are two very different answers to this question, one hopeless, one a practice of hope. We need them both. If you weren’t sure what to say to God when Trump tested positive for a disease he has allowed to kill 207,000 people, the Psalmist holds one extreme, Jeremiah the other.
The Christian Testament pick up these same questions. The Gospels are always clear-eyed about the reality of suffering. And yet, again and again, Jesus and his disciples weave together the truth of suffering and the truth of hope. Paul, living with chronic pain, writes to the church at the heart of the Empire, “Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” [Romans 8]
This weaving continues for two thousand years, in the early church’s practice of mutual aid and the their deep belief that the lives of the oppressed do matter to our God. In the Anabaptists whorefused to succumb to the hopelessness that comes from relying on the state for our security. And they were killed for it. In the black church tradition, born out of enslavement, which calls out to the God of Exodus and reminds us that yes, today may feel like Good Friday, but Sunday is always coming.
Our history reminds us that stability and permanence are a myth. That Empires fall. That, “If the abolition of slave-manacles began as a vision of hands without manacles,” then this can be the year. I have been reading this 750-page Philadelphia: A 300-Year History. I’ve only made it to 1920 so far, but I have learned that the history of our city is one of ongoing violence in elections, voter suppression, and instability. Calm stability is the myth.
As we were preparing earlier this week, Cate and I reflected to each other that we don’t need to do much work to access hopelessness. It’s right there, all the time, for so many of us. I will not tell you not to feel hopeless. Not to feel overwhelmed. But you are the descendant of someone who felt just as lost, and who kept going. And in a year of isolation, violence, and despair, the stakes are too high not to practice the discipline of hope.
Hope is a cycle of practices. I’ll offer a few here. You are probably already doing some of them, maybe without even realizing they are spiritual practices: Discern, look back, imagine forward, connect, and act.
First, discerning. Mariame Kaba, abolitionist and world-renowned expert on alternatives to policing and prisons, was recently asked how she practices hope. Kaba has taught thousands of people strategies for transforming violence and harm without relying on systems of state violence. How does she keep going while holding the weight of all this suffering? She said that every time she is confronted by some piece of news that might drive her to hopelessness, she asks herself four simple questions:
What resources exist for educating myself?
Who is already working on this?
Do I have capacity to offer concrete support and help?
How can I actually be constructive in this moment?
Hope begins by knowing who we are, where we are, and what we can do. It says, I am in the right place for doing what I can do. No more, no less. No wonder so many of Jesus’ miracles were about restoring true sight.
After we notice, we look back. We gather strength from the stories of ancestors, biological or spiritual, that give us strength and fortication. We meditate on the stories that challenge us not to give up. The prophets and early disciples, the Anabaptist radicals who built community amidst oppression, the enslaved African-Americans and white accomplices who forged new pathways for freedom, the refugees and immigrants who built a new life while never forgetting the old prayers and recipes. Take time this week to draw them closer, to write to them, pray to them. Remember that they too, felt dislocated and did not give up. Today, we celebrated one of our ancestors, St. Francis, who calls us into solidarity with all of creation. Spend time with the story of St. Francis and St. Clare, let them challenge and encourage you.
Looking back helps us to imagine forward. You may not be able to imagine a world where the cancer never comes back, where the depression is completely gone, where your parent or child is still alive. Imagination is not an intellectual exercise, it happens in our hearts and in our bones. It is an act of artistic creation. And the role of the artist, as James Baldwin reminds us, “is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest...to make the world a more human dwelling place.” Take time this week to create art, to draw, sing, dance, write, renovate your kitchen, anything that shows you there is a future worth hoping in.
Imagination is strengthened by connection. In her reflection back in August, Beth Sutter reminded us, “The best antidote to anxiety... is thinking of others.” So if your pen is stuck on the page in the act of creation, call someone. Or if your mind is so full of despair and you can do nothing else, text someone else in church. Maybe get off social media. Maybe get on social media, and bask in the brilliance of your friends and the absurdity of their cats, and don’t worry about the number of likes.
Facing our hopelessness with clear vision, reaching back, imagining forward, and connecting with others, now, we act. We schedule that appointment. We bake bread and share it with our neighbors. We create art and share it even if we’re embarrassed about it. We vote. Yes, we vote—not because we have hope in a candidate but because we know we are connected to all that happens in this world. We pick up the phone and we call the our representatives to ask them to support Carmela. We pick up the phone and call our friends. We pray, turning to the Divine to give us clear-eyed hope to hold onto. We do not give up the fight. We keep practicing, day after day, this weaving together of hope amidst hopelessness, right in the place we are. We put one foot in front of the other. We tell ourselves, over and over again: I am in the right place.
I am in the right place.
I am in the right place.