Sermon: Hope in the Dark

The Rev. Alison Cornish
service and sermon, Main Line Unitarian Church
July 31, 2016

flaming chaliceWe want more soul, a higher cultivation of spiritual faculties

We need more unselfishness, earnestness and integrity of high and lofty enthusiasm and beacons of light and hope,

People ready and willing to lay time, talent and money on the altar of freedom.
(Frances Ellen Watkins Harper)


The Peace of Wild Things, Wendell Berrydrake-wood-duck

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel about me the day-blind stars
Waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

SERMON. Hope in the Dark

A story from UU minister Chris Buice

Two frogs hop (as they do) along through their day … hop (as they do) into a bucket.  This bucket happened to be half-filled with cream, which made the sides very slippery – too slippery for the frogs to climb out, too deep to jump out.  One frog began to moan and wail ‘we’ll never get out, we’re doomed!’ but the other frog quietly thought about their predicament. While he thought, he moved his legs, treading ‘water’ in the cream – ‘we’ll never get out – we’re doomed’ moaned one – and the other, paddled, and to drown out his companion, started chanting ‘keep hope alive! Keep hope alive! And he urged his despairing friend to do the same – keep hope alive, keep hope alive – around and around they swam, croaking ‘keep hope alive! Keep hope alive!’ And, after some time, the most astonishing thing happened – what do you think it was? Butter formed from the cream! As the frogs swam round and round, they churned the cream into butter, enough to climb up on and hop out of the pail, on their merry way, still chanting to themselves – keep hope alive! Keep hope alive!

Keep Hope Alive.

Not to stretch this image too far, but I suspect most of us in this room feel as though we’re in a whole lot more than a big pail of cream these days.  I was reflecting on the events that have occurred just since submitting the title of this morning’s service in time for your newsletter deadline – the public and tragic deaths of two more young African American men at the hands of white police officers; the mass shooting at the Pulse, an Orlando nightclub catering to LGBTQ young adults, many of them Latino; the shooting of police officers, first in Dallas, and then Baton Rouge; a Bastille day rampage in Nice; a failed yet hugely disruptive coup in Turkey, which is still unfolding; stabbings in Japan, the murder of a French Roman Catholic priest while saying mass.  These are just the headlines. In the back pages there are the ongoing wars in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Sudan, among others. Refugees. Widespread injustice, abuse and violence.

Our bucket of cream runneth over.

How, possibly, can I even suggest we ‘keep hope alive?’ The temerity! What kind of rose colored glasses am I wearing? Or substances am I smoking or ingesting?  Honestly! The Dark Times, yes – Hope? That’s a lot harder to accept.

Well, this is my task this morning – to share with you why I not only think hope is warranted in these, yes, dark times – but more to the point, that hope is essential. Not optional. Essential, not optional.  Hope – as I understand it, and offer for your consideration this morning – hope must be created, and recreated – imagined, and re-imagined – in a continuous, never-ending process. And it is a task everyone can – and must – do. And, as Unitarian Universalists, while we may have some particular and unique challenges in creating hope, if faced with honesty and aplomb, our kind of hope may well serve ourselves and others in important, and life-giving ways.

I want to introduce a couple of ‘conversation partners’ for this morning – people whose work I draw on, who have been inspiring to me – Joanna Macy, whose root tradition is Buddhism, is the co-author of, among other works, Active Hope: How to Cope with the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy, and Rebecca Solnit, author of Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. While different in many ways, both women agree on this point: hope is not something external to be searched for, to be found; to get and to hold on to.  Hope is something we do, rather than have. Hope is a verb, not a noun. It is active, not passive.  It is internal, not ‘out there.’  Both Macy and Solnit agree on these attributes of hope, and they also agree on this: authentic hope always emerges from a full recognition of reality.  Hope is not blind to circumstances – in fact, hope is generated by a full immersion – so to speak, thinking of our frog friends – in reality.  I like the simple, straightforward way Joanna Macy speaks about what she calls ‘Active Hope’ –

a. Active Hope takes a clear view of reality
b. Active Hope requires something from us – a vision – a direction we want to move in, the values we’d like to see embraced
c. And then, Active Hope becomes the steps we take to move forward

A clear view of reality: we are in a bucket of cream

A vision of what we hope for: to live to see another day; to not have life end in this way

Take steps: swim, chant, and see what happens

Those steps – Activated Hope, if you will, lead us to another characteristic of hope:  hope is not about outcomes, it’s about desire.  One of those frogs had a desire to live, but the happy ending to the story certainly wasn’t guaranteed.  Maybe the cream didn’t have enough fat content to turn to butter. Maybe ‘hoping frog’ couldn’t persuade his despairing friend to swim, and so the butter didn’t form before he exhausted himself.  Maybe the butter formed, but the frogs were still too far down in the bucket to jump out.  There were no guarantees. But, in Joanna’s words, if that’s what we need before we act – if we need an assurance of a particular outcome we have in mind – if we require this kind of hope before we commit ourselves to an action, our ability and willingness to act is likely to get blocked as we weigh the chances – and come out wanting. In her words, ‘Active hope is about becoming active participants in bringing about what we hope for – while there is no guarantee we will succeed in bringing about what we hope for, the process of giving our full attention and effort draws out our aliveness.’  You might say the ultimate end is to die hoping, because that means one is fully alive – until death.

If hope means being fully cognizant of reality, and active participants in taking steps toward a future we envision, hope is also an intimate with powerful emotions such as grief and anger, despair and fury.  Take, for example, these words from Patrisse Cullors, on the purpose of the social justice movement, Black Lives Matter – ‘to provide hope and inspiration for collective action, to build collective power to achieve collective transformation, rooted in grief and rage but pointed towards vision and dreams.’  This is no small task – and yet, without hope – an active, engaged, ever changing sense of hope – the whole enterprise would truly unravel.

Paolo Freire writes, ‘without a minimum of hope, we cannot so much as start the struggle. But without the struggle, hope dissipates, loses its bearings, and turns into hopelessness.’ The vision and dreams of Black Lives Matter are vast and encompassing – to realize true justice, so long frustrated and delayed – is a far horizon. We have already seen how even small steps of progress get knocked back, and different outcomes from what was planned. Unitarian Universalist congregations across the country have seen their ‘Black Lives Matters’ banners vandalized and stolen; have wrestled with both internal and external voices of dissention and conflict; and received threats and taunts. And yet, these experiences have also made congregations stronger, and more effective allies.  Struggle and hope are two sides of the same coin.

We don’t know what will happen – this is vital when we are dealing with hope.  Virginia Woolf wrote ‘the future is dark, which is on the whole, the best thing the future can be, I think.’ Dark here means inscrutable, unknown – or – in the words of Rebecca Solnit, ‘the spaciousness of uncertainty.’ As a species, we are generally uncomfortable with uncertainty – it tends to make us more anxious than excited.  So it’s interesting to note, for ourselves, as individuals – and for our society, too – how we fill in the ‘blank of the unknown future’ – is it a place where our worse fears will surely be realized? A future of certain doom and gloom? Change is inevitable – and with change comes a certain degree of uncertainty and instability – but these very conditions can offer hope fertile ground, should we choose to respond in that way. As Solnit writes, ‘hope is not about what we expect. It is an embrace of the essential unknowability of the world, of the breaks with the present, the surprises.’

If we look at hope in these ways – fully accepting reality, engaging our agency as human beings who choose to act, and a full embrace of the essential unknowability of the world – I think we can begin to see some of the challenges we, as Unitarian Universalists, have with hope. But I also think we have something quite important to bring as well.

As Unitarian Universalists, we pride ourselves on facing facts. We see the value in fact-based research, the scientific method, the full and real story. We believe in applying reason to all aspects of life. So in light of this, hope might seem to not apply – seen as engaging with fantasy rather than reality. But facts combined with hope can lead to transformational change – facts alone can’t do it. Hope connects facts with values – so, for example, when our UU publishing house Beacon Press chooses to publish the Pentagon Papers, or The New Jim Crow, these crucial decisions to act are more than simply putting the facts in front of people – it is truth-telling bonded with a hope for transparency, and for justice to reign.  It is keeping hope alive.

Unitarian Universalists are realists, to be sure, which can cause a certain amount of skepticism in things unseen; like faith, and yes, hope as well. If Unitarian Universalism were a state, we would be Missouri, the ‘show me’ state. I appreciate the ‘let’s be real’ sentiment.  And yet, when it comes to hope, this attitude can easily morph into ‘show me where this going – and then I’ll decide if I’ll come along, too.’ Which is another way to squelch hope – to require a pre-determined version of the future. But think of all the surprises – wonderful and challenging both to be sure – we could not have predicted or choreographed, but were instead products of imagination and active hope. What if … we welcome LGBTQ people – just the way then are? And then, what if we ordain LGBTQ people as our clergy? And, what if those clergy performed marriages of same gender couples, as if it were normative, an everyday occurrence? Could our dreams of equality become the law of the land? Hope answers to ‘what if?’ not to ‘show me, prove it.’

As you know from my introduction, my ministry now is about responding to climate change as a moral issue, especially from a faith perspective. Those who work on the front lines of this issue most definitely know we are living in bleak and dark times. Science delivers increasingly dire reports – hard enough to bear – which then seem to fall on deaf ears or run up against obstructionist power-brokers and policy-makers.  It is scary, frustrating, and sometimes overwhelmingly dispiriting.  So for me to suggest the movement not only needs hope – but must create it – well, even after all I’ve said this morning, I can understand if you would say ‘that’s malarkey!’ But don’t just take my word for it.  None other than the esteemed Worldwatch Institute wrote in one of its annual State of the World reports ‘… the biggest obstacle to reinventing ourselves may be simply a kind of paralysis of hope.’  Let me repeat:  ‘… the biggest obstacle to reinventing ourselves may be simply a kind of paralysis of hope.’

A paralysis of hope. I actually find that statement to be – incredibly hopeful! Because it’s something I, and you, and every person can actually do something about – especially the kind of hope we’ve explored this morning. Hope that is born of a clear view of reality. Hope that is grounded in desire – a love of life, really – that makes use of our gifts, and leaves us feeling more alive. Hope that is invested in the great unknown – and unknowable.

This is the hope which has already created so much good around climate change.  Solar co-ops developing in under-resourced communities. New, ‘blue-green’ alliances between environmentalists and labor unions. Youth and young adults finding their voices and power to say ‘no’ – to oil trains and coal ports and pipelines. A pope who firmly weds faith to economic, social and environmental justice. These are signs of hope. Signs that somewhere, someone, has looked at the hard facts; dreamed of a brighter future, and moved forward towards it.

Make no mistake: the news is still grim. Climate change is killing far more people than terrorism – and, in fact, according to a new report, may be one of the triggers for increased terrorist activity.  To say the U.S. congress is obstinate on the issue is a gross understatement – and the situation in our own state of Pennsylvania is hugely frustrating and alarming – our GHG emissions are the 3rd highest of all U.S. states, and still, the state senate and assembly dither.

So it’s a good time to remind ourselves, again: hope cannot come from hopelessness, nor does it come from outside of ourselves.  Vaclav Havel wrote:

The kind of hope I often think about … [is] a state of mind, not a state of the world.

Either we have hope within us or we don’t. It is a dimension of the soul; it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation … it is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart.

Congregations involved with Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light know that when they lower their own carbon footprint by insulating and weather stripping their buildings, or lower the planet’s release of methane by hosting a meatless potluck, or help neighbors lower their energy use and emissions by giving them CFL or LED lights, or bless a new compost pile, or knock on the doors of their state rep, or write a letter to the editor – they are working on climate change – and, when they do these things as people of faith, they are also keeping hope alive – for themselves, and for their communities. When it comes to climate change, the effect of thousands of individual and collective actions is an unknown – we don’t know when, or even if, there’s a positive tipping point.  But we do know the effect of collective hope – an active hope that brings out our full aliveness, draws on our values and imaginations, and brings us together to act in solidarity and love.

It was our Unitarian ancestor the Reverend Theodore Parker who said ‘I do not pretend to understand the moral universe: the arc is a long one … from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.’ The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. often used this quote, as has our current President, Barack Obama – but he added to it:  “ … but here is the thing: it does not bend on its own. It bends because each of us in our own ways put our hand on that arc and we bend it in the direction of justice…’ May our contributions to that arc be as much about keeping hope alive as any other steps we can take to bring about a more just, loving, and sustainable world for us all.

We extinguish this flame but not the light of truth,
the warmth of community,
or the fire of commitment.
These we carry in our hearts until we are together again.

Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy (Novato, California: New World Library, 2012)

Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (Chicago, Illinois: Haymarket Books, 2016)