Saturday, August 29, 2009

Hope and Outcomes - Part One


Lord ... in your own time and for your own purposes, find us in our seeking, strengthen us in our relationships , abide with us in our restlessness, liberate us from fretfulness to serve your kingdom and care for our neighbors. Enchant us into becoming like children, laughing, asking, imagining, and trusting you as the God and Father-Mother in whose spirit we live and move, and have our being. Adopted from Loaves, Fishes and Leftovers: Sharing Faith's Deep Questions.

One of our great difficulties in life, and with God, is how often we don't get the outcomes we want, plan, pray for, work to attain, insist are good, and hope mightily will result from our virtues, convictions and efforts. So we become discouraged, disheartened, feel defeated, turn cynical and frequently act that way. The confusion of it causes many people, as it does most of us, to struggle with our faith, even abandon it. We ask what's wrong with the whole shebang when the outcomes we're sure are right keep getting trashed? Why does that happen? What is God doing, if anything? So, unless we're masochistic, we start wondering "Why care anymore?God doesn't seem to, or many others either?" Frustration, anger, blaming, hostility, doubt rise in us like spiritual acid reflux. Hope burns out.

Now hang on here. In my last blog, I quoted Bill Coffin's helpful insight: "Christian hope doesn't depend on hopeful circumstances." I added that Christian hope doesn't depend on particular outcomes either. After all, who are we to insist that other people, or the world, or God come up with the exact results we want and hope for so passionately, whether they are personal or relational or societal or global outcomes? After all, we're finite, limited beings. We don't have the might or mind or right to impose our hopes on others or expect that the world, or God, deliver on them. If we try to do that, we cripple ourselves because creation doesn't work that way. Life and faith don't either whether the outcome we hope for is about health care reform, or global warming. or pervasive poverty, or nuclear proliferation, marital problems or career advancement or raising kids or getting sick. Okay, so how do life and faith work?

Well, as I see it, at its core the truth is that Christian hope is not for something. It is in something, or better, some One, namely God. Hard as it is to make that distinction, it's a crucial and liberating one. For a moment, let's begin to consider this pivotal issue together. None of us can even clearly track how we got to this moment and place in our lives, all that's involved -- the choices, chances, influences, twists and turns, serendipitous encounters, mistakes, closed doors, open doors, risks taken or avoided, loyalties, betrayals, dead-end successes, open-ended failures, etc., ad infinitum (almost). Even our own daily, short term hoped for outcomes often elude our control. That much seems obvious about how life works, and faith as well. But don't miss the less obvious truth of it, that however differently from our hopes our lives turn out, we still hold them as precious because they are. And by and large, we are grateful for them and live them as fully as we can.

This is in no way meant to deny or dismiss the painful, terrible, horrific, heart breaking experiences we've gone through in the process. But somehow many of us learned profound lessons from these experiences and they changed our lives in unexpected ways. Somehow, we endured and went on, limping perhaps, but often understanding life differently and more deeply. Others did not. That, too, is how life and faith work. Beneath those painful experiences, or because of them or sometimes in spite of them, we endured and carried on because of some undergirding sense that it was worth it. And the world made it as well, without our outcomes being accomplished. So did the human family in spite of all its casualties. Despite our confusion and complaints, our hope was not really snuffed out, not totally or permanently. That, I think, is partly how life and faith works. It's a process we participate in, benefit from but don't control. The truth is, essentially it's all a gift. A grace.

So, who or what's in charge of all this complicated tumult and uncertainty of creation and life? Anything? Anyone? Where does the degree of order and structure of life come from? Let's get to that in an upcoming blog as those are really heavy questions.

First, let's deal with a more immediate, concrete question. How do we live with sustaining hope in the mostly out ot our control, churning process of life and the world? The simplest and toughest answer is that we do what Jesus did, or what other compelling prophetic and spiritual leaders did or do. We live out what we believe about God's kingdom as humbly yet freely and fiercely as we can. Then we leave the outcomes to Him/Her. As a Christian we live out the love we see in Jesus: love of self, of neighbors as our selves, love of enemies we don't have to like, just treat with respect as brothers and sisters. We work for justice which, as I often say, requires "love with its sleeves rolled up." We keep working even when we don't get far with it. We stay generous, compassionate, forgiving, courageous, creative and light hearted in our struggles and at peace with ourselves. We stay stubbornly, ridiculously, insistently, passionately, contagiously hopeful because our hope outruns outcomes. Our hope is in God and so are we, all of us, all the time.

The wonder is that our efforts to live out that hope do make a difference. After a worship service years ago, an old, nearly blind, former teacher living alone on a small pension came up to me in the coffee hour. Everyone knew her as Miss Miller. She said, "The gospel is about not being afraid, isn't it? Surely it is! I mean, when justice seems out of reach, or peace does, or life is hard, I kept working for it all my life because that was my way of being with God, you know? Don't you ever give up hope." Then as she turned away she gave me a tightly folded piece of paper: "Please read this at my funeral." she said.

Suffice it here to tell you the poem's theme is that while never presuming that our little efforts will change the world, each of us still has the choice and the responsibility, " ... to choose which side/ Shall feel the stubborn ounces of my weight." I never forget that. I smile and hope more deeply when I remember Miss Miller and her stubborn ounces. They embody what hope in God means.

The promise of it is in this: When my dear friend and colleague Joan Hemenway died a few years ago, there was a quote on her Memorial Service bulletin that I have on my desk. It was something Joan used as a kind of benediction at the final gathering of her classes of Clinical Pastoral Education students. It's the promise of Christian hope. "When we walk to the edge of all the light we know, and step into the unknown, we must believe that one of two things will happen: there will be something solid for us to stand on, or we will be taught to fly."

Friends, every day we step into the unknown with God. Step with hope because either of those two things are outcome enough.

Think about it. Despite the length of this, I hope it's worth it. Ted

As I promised, a little more about how it works will be my next blog.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Where's Hope

Where's Hope

O God, you are the beginning and end of all things, and in your sight a thousand years are like an evening gone. Still, you have assured us that not even one sparrow is forgotten in your sight. In our sight, then, that makes our evenings at least as precious to you as they are to us, and we even more precious to you than we are to ourselves and each other. In that assurance is our struggle to grow in awareness, trust and love. And in that assurance is rooted our courage, peace and hope for each day and night of our lives.

Hope seems to be a scarce commodity these days. With all the turbulence and conflict generated around health care reform, global climate change, economic shifts, pinches and uncertainties,the seemingly intractable challenges in the Middle East, shadows of fear and despair stretch to every corner of our days and nights. We wonder if anything will change for the better, whatever that is. Are we to continue to be plagued by the hostility and distortions (read "lies") of narrow, self-interest partisan political jockeying? Is fear our primary if not only fall back position when faced with complexity, change, challenge, uncertainty? A lot of pundits claiming "scientific" evidence insist that fear, the "fight or flight" reaction, is the strongest, most elemental human response to perceived danger. But whether they are right in that claim is always an open question because we aren't totally defined by biology. We aren't destined to be stuck in terminal fear. We have choices.

My dear departed friend Bill Coffin refined Vaclav Havel's writing about hope into one memorable sentence: "Christian hope doesn't depend on hopeful circumstances." There is a great freedom in that truth. That kind of hope isn't about our personal dreams, or our career objectives, or even our passionate ideologies, any or all of which might be thwarted without loss of hope. Our deepest hope, which I believe is at least as deep as our fear, refers to there being another Power than our own at work in human affairs and history. It's a Power with its own purpose which always outruns our own purposes and motives which however well intended are still tainted by our limited vision and persistent self-interest.

But is it really true that another Power is at work in life? Well, we're still here, aren't we? And we still have choices, don't we? But proof by scientific measures? No, we don't have that and never will, pro or con. But proof by living in that hope, Yes. We do have that, some of that, at least, enough to make a difference in and for ourselves and even in the world because that other Power can use our mustard seed faith and efforts for His/Her own purpose. We are free to work for justice as we understand it, to be compassionate, to love our neighbors and ourselves and our enemies, to sacrifice something big for something true and just. That keeps us free in the face of fear. That keeps us wildly, irresponsibly, creatively, joyfully hopefully.

This last word for now. Just as "Christian hope doesn't depend on hopeful circumstances" neither does it depend on particular outcomes. More on that soon in my next blog.

For now, think about this one. Ted

Thursday, August 6, 2009

What's the Point?

A Prayer
Renew now our vision
of who you created us to be,
and what you call us to do,
of wild goodness and disruptive faithfulness,
of cheeky risks for justice,
of hearty inclusion of the rejected,
of death-defying insistence that are enough
riches of bread, of things and truth and beauty,
more than enough of the riches of grace and you,
for us all to gladly share and live in peace.

I wrote earlier that there are few certainties in life and that words can't do much to change that, intently as we try to force them to and intensely as we wish they could. But words can do something more crucial. They can help us "renew ... our vision of what (God) created us to be and ... calls us to do." Such words often begin in prayers when they emerge out of silence in the presence of life's mysteries and out of the depths our own reflection. Words also do that if and when they challenge unjust and dehumanizing situations in life. Not to respond out of our depths and lift a voice against those situations is to miss the point of who we are created to be.

It was Thomas Carlyle who said, "Speech is silver, Silence is golden." My friend, Robert Raines, used to say, "Sometimes silence is golden, but sometimes it's just yellow" - an old word meaning cowardly. Most of us have felt the shrivel of our "yellow" moments, haven't we? We may have tried to justify our cowardice, explain it with arguments about a "good" reason for not taking the risk of speaking against the injustice or cruelty being done. "What good would it have done?" we insist; "What would be the point of it?" Exactly the right question . What would be the point? Who knows whether it would have made a difference to anyone else or stopped an injustice at that moment? But it may have made something different at least possible and that small a chance would itself be enough. And it would make a difference to you if you'd raised your voice rather than chosen the yellow, shrivel of silence. You might have felt, at least momentarily, the exhilaration of being aware of who you were created to be and to do.

Elie Wiesel, who emerged from the Holocaust as a holy and prophetic voice, said, "Words are deeds." I haven't plumbed the depths of all he means by that but I have experienced some of the truth of it. Words can lead to severely damaged psyches, impoverished relationship, broken families, holocausts, terrorizing, brutalizing people because of their race, religion, gender, nationality, destroying communities, exploiting and ravishing the planet.

And yet, even more crucially, words can lead to healing, creating beauty and truth, embracing the forgotten and downtrodden, oppressed and ridiculed, reconciling enemies, summoning justice, nudging nations toward peace because words can lift a vision, make a witness, become an opening for more deeds. more hope, more compassion and a little more of who we're created to be and do. And that is to be a community in which all human beings, all creatures, are a cherished part and the "me first" mentality of private pursuits and personal privilege does not keep tearing us apart.

So what does this have to do with issues like personal integrity, intimate relations, family life as well as health care reform, or climate change, or renewable energy, or nuclear disarmament, or reducing poverty, or saving kids from curable diseases or ....

Well, isn't that the point we have to decide? Who are we?

Think about it. Ted