Advent is, at one and the same time, our annual journey toward Bethlehem and the birth of the Christ Child, and time to anticipate a Kin-dom that is already unfolding but not yet arrived in its fullness. This Advent journey begins with Hope.
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This year, our four Sundays of Advent will follow the traditional pattern of Hope, then Peace, then Joy, then Love. In the 13th chapter of 1st Corinthians, the Apostle Paul names all the Spiritual Gifts but when he distils it down to three that will remain even after all the others have lost their necessity, the last three standing – the three which give us confidence that there is life that continues beyond this life – are Faith, Hope and Love or in the KJV, Faith, Hope and Charity. Local lore tells us that Hope is the name of one of the Three Sisters, those iconic sentinels that watch over us.
Recognizing that the past couple of sermons have been pretty heavy, today I want to lift up that wonderful thing known as HOPE. In doing so, I recognize the breadth of writings about hope. Some of the writings I found were either very technical regarding the mechanics of hope, or approached it in a disturbingly utilitarian way, treating hope as a factor that increases productivity. Others, though, were right on point with the task at hand, and I will quote extensively from them this morning.
When I first bring to mind hope or hopefulness, I think of it as a feeling. A number of authors I found were writing during the pandemic, when people needed to have hope lifted up. One example of this was in the Waterloo Region in Ontario, where much work had been done to build a structure to promote and coordinate efforts toward wellbeing. After three years of study they launched WellbeingWR, a project which ran from 2019 until March of this year, and shortly after they began, in March 2020, one part of their mandate stepped forward: “bringing hope in difficult times.” And here is what they wrote:
“Hope is that feeling we experience when we see—in the mind’s eye—the possibility of a better future. Hope acknowledges the obstacles and pitfalls in front of us, but is unwavering in its resolve, unbreakable in its foundation, and stronger than we can comprehend. We [the Finding Hope initiative] invite you to look around and find your reason to be optimistic…to look for and acknowledge where you find hope… to be hopeful.” In order to keep this from being merely conceptual, they then invited people to share homemade videos of where they found hope during the pandemic.
Hope. A feeling when we identify the possibility of a better future. Something that acknowledges the challenges. And without putting words in their mouth, something we can train ourselves to notice in our selves and our surroundings. Hope, as a feeling, is not a static thing, nor is it merely something we try to talk ourselves into. No, the building blocks of hope are around us, we can learn to identify things that can contribute to a hopeful feeling, now the task is to put those things to work, and, where possible, immerse ourselves in things that help hope to thrive.
Zoe Weil is the co-founder and president of the Institute for Humane Education, which links human rights, environmental preservation, and animal protection. For her, citing influences from Joan Baez to Greta Thunberg, the way that we engender hope for ourselves and especially for youth, is to develop “a positive feedback loop” which has three parts: “engage in systemic change; ground oneself in realistic assessments of progress; [and] balance exposure to persistent problems with positive achievements that lead to engaging in systemic change”.
I appreciate in Zoe’s suggestion that the best pathway into hope might not be thinking good thoughts but rather, engaging in positive, constructive actions. When I am the least active, when I am the most sedentary, when I am the most isolated, I create the perfect soil for despair to thrive and hope to not even germinate. But these three engagements named by Zoe Weil – getting involved in systemic change, realistically assessing progress, and making sure that we balance social media cynicism and media headline negativity with places where headway is being made – are actions and intentions oriented toward hope. I recall being at a gathering a few years ago led by Aurora Borin, who opened the gathering by saying, “tell us your name and something that happened recently that you perceive as a ‘win’”, and its that kind of perspective that I see as a true hope-builder: get involved, notice what’s going on around you, and learn to identify things that give you hope.
Long before she ran for the Democratic Presidential nomination, Marianne Williamson is someone whose writings brought positivity to many of us. On the topic of hope, she wrote,
“Hope lies in having more faith in the power of God to heal us than in the power of anything to hurt or destroy us. In realizing that as children of God we are bigger than our problems, we have the power at last to confront them.”
These words lead me directly into the scripture Cathy read for us this morning, from 1st Corinthians chapter 1 (v 3-9). In the same letter where, in chapter 13 he waxes poetic about Faith, Hope and Love, Paul begins his letter wishing ”grace and peace” to the Church in Corinth “from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”, thanking “God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus”. Masculine pronouns aside, Paul, writing to a Church that had great opportunities and great problems, puts everything in the context of grace and peace, gifts of God intended for the wellbeing of this faith community. The community of Corinth two thousand years ago was nearly as divided as our world is in 2023, and Paul, not ignoring that for a minute, calls them to own the grace with which God has gifted them, and to let that grace be stronger than their divisions. And so I repeat what Marianne Williamson wrote, within that context of God’s full support of our best efforts: “Hope lies in having more faith in the power of God to heal us than in the power of anything to hurt or destroy us. In realizing that as children of God we are bigger than our problems, we have the power at last to confront them.”
Hope, then, is a feeling – it is an action – it is something that is supported both by the power of God and by the power of a faith community that recognizes it and embraces it and supports one another in hopeful ways no matter what challenges are being faced.
With all that in view, I wanted to hear a voice from somewhere else in the world, to double-check that this portrait of hope isn’t just coming from a North American perspective. I checked in with a few Asian and African authors, but where I landed is a place that has needed to rely so much on hope, and that is Ireland.
Two years ago, in November of 2021, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Dublin released a report entitled “Building Hope.” Facing head-on the abuses conducted in the name of God by the Church, and the resulting suspicion of the Church by younger generations, they wrote (pp.4-5):
“Hope orients Christians towards the future in a way that is neither naïve nor fatalistic. It demands a real honesty about past failings and scars…. In a changing culture, where God is no longer considered central… Hope as realism, faithfulness and imagination counters nostalgia, denial, and conformity, all of which distract us from a brighter future.
“True hope is best experienced when we support each other. For it to flourish, it requires solidarity which expresses itself in life-giving communities where everyone can participate in decision making; [it] becomes real when taking on the challenges of a suffering world through actions of care, especially for the most vulnerable.…
“Hope is the great hope based upon God’s promises that gives us courage and directs our action in good times and bad…Hope is ultimately found in God.”
In the same way that Paul writes “Love is patient, love is kind, it is not envious or boastful or rude” – I find that these honest words of the Irish Catholics bring a similar eloquence and elegance to our exploration of hope: hope is honest, hope is courageous, hope is supportive. Hope is neither naïve nor fatalistic, but is realistic and faithful and full of imaginative energy. In summary, Hope is a gift from God exercised in community.
And that last line is one I wish to end on. When imagining myself speaking about hope, I started from an individual perspective and focused mostly on the feeling of hope or hopefulness. But as I opened myself to what others have experienced about hope, it drew me out of myself, and my occasional forays into hopelessness, and suggested that hope is not so much a feeling as an action… and not so much an individual thing, as something that we inspire in each other within community… and not so much a personal thing that I try to manufacture, as a true gift from God. Hope is God’s gift to the Church and to the world, to powerfully face all that would inspire us to despair and suggest “a more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31). In the same way that I have heard it said that God is not a noun but a verb, so might we embrace hope, as something that is not merely a state of being, but a powerful, positive motivator and guide.
May this gift of God, exercised in community, embrace and energize you and us and all who seek the wellbeing of this world, now and always. Amen.
Building Hope Task Force, Diocese of Dublin. https://dublindiocese.ie/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/Building-Hope-Task-Force-Report.pdf
Weil, Zoe. “Becoming a Solutionary” https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/becoming-solutionary/201903/3-ways-engender-hope-among-youth-who-fear-the-future
Williamson, Marianne. Everyday Grace. Cited at https://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/book-reviews/view/5281/everyday-grace
Colla, Williams, Oades and Camacho-Morles. “’A New Hope’” for Positive Psychology: A Dynamic Systems Reconceptualization of Hope Theory. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2022.809053/full
Snyder, C.R. et al. https://teachingpsychology.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/hope-theory.pdf
© 2023 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church