Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without the words, and never stops at all.Emily Dickinson
It is late August, 2020. I don’t need to remind anyone of the forces of despair that are in the air around the world. The pandemic is still raging, creating uncertainty and fear, especially around sending our kids back to school. The economy is struggling, with millions out of work and businesses hanging on by a thread, or not. In the US, there has been yet another shooting of an unarmed Black man by police and protestors going unheard. And, to cap it all off, we are facing the most unprecedented, divisive, potentially explosive US Presidential election in modern times. Hope seems to be in short supply.
Hope can seem naïve in times like these. Painting pie-in-the-sky, kum-ba-ya dreams that are too good to be true. Telling ourselves and each other, “Look on the bright side!” But that is not hope, that is optimism. And hope, in times like these, cannot be blind optimism. Optimism is rooted in sentimentalism. Hope is steeped in realism. Real possibilities.
All of the major world faiths lift up hope as central to their beliefs. For people of Abrahamic faiths, God is a clear source of all hope, whether it is divine destiny or a future on earth. Hope leads to greater faith and faith leads to greater hope. “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” (Hebrews 1:11)
But what do they mean by that? Surely, it doesn’t mean ignoring reality. After all, every major world faith has faced incredibly bleak and despairing realities. From the pogroms and the Holocaust for the Jews, to the ancient Roman persecution to modern Chinese oppression for Christians, to the Crusades and post-9/11 discrimination for Muslims, it would seem like we all have reasons to abandon hope.
And yet, hope remains. What is hope in the face of terrible despair? Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, ‘Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” Hope means being able to imagine a future that is different than the present. It is a choice to believe that what is now, is not always. And, it is the belief that individuals have a role to play in creating that future.
As Barack Obama told the 2004 Democratic convention, “I’m not talking about blind optimism here — the almost willful ignorance that thinks unemployment will go away if we just don’t think about it, or the health care crisis will solve itself if we just ignore it. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about something more substantial. It’s the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores; the hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta; the hope of a millworker’s son who dares to defy the odds; the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too.”
Hope is such a powerful force that millions have been spent by scientists to study its effects. To date, there have been over 2000 empirical studies of the effects of hope, optimism and resilience. Studies have found that patients with more hope experience less pain and heal quicker. The presence of hope leads to greater resilience and outcomes for survivors of domestic abuse and child abuse.
So how do we cultivate more hope in ourselves, our congregations and our children?
First, arm yourself with the knowledge that others have gone before you and found hope in the times of greatest despair. There are so many role models, in our spiritual literature and in the “real world.” Role models such as the Biblical figure of Joseph, who never lost hope even when abandoned and imprisoned, and who used his gifts (of divining dreams) to rise above his circumstances. Or Black Elk, the Native American medicine man who, at one of the lowest points of American history for his people, gave them a vision of restoration and pride. Or Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor, who believed that memory would create hope and spent his life making sure that the stories of survivors were never forgotten.
Second, recall times in your own life where you were able to make a difference. Remember that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Where can you make a difference today? Who can you invite to join you?
Thirdly, create the vision of what the future can look like. Be concrete. Don’t just think about it. Write it down. Draw a picture. Tell others. Let others share in your vision. The power of Martin Luther King, Jr. resided in his ability to create a vision of a future that we all could see together. Theologian Cornell William Brooks says about MLK’s famous mountain top speech, “Dr. King noted the enduring moral agency of his people. The sermon was a hopeful proclamation of the life that he expected us to live in the future, that “we, as a people, will get to the promised land.” He reminded us that hope is not empirically demonstrated; it’s morally chosen. We choose to believe that which scripture, our tradition, our history as God’s people — says about us and what it says about our future. And in the same way that he hoped, we yet hope. I yet hope. (interview w Harvard Gazette, Jan 18, 2018)
Hope is a source of spiritual strength – it tells us that we are not alone and that we have the power to create a new future.
Hope is possibility – it envisions a future that is different than our present.
Hope is creative – it actively creates possibility.
Hope is action-oriented – it requires us to be a participant.
Hope is positive – it sees potential and goodness in the future.
Hope and fear cannot occupy the same space. Invite one to stay.Maya Angelou