Nov 26 2014
Building an Active Hope
by Rev. Nancy Palmer Jones
The day I answer the survey on our worship themes for winter-spring 2015, I must have felt overwhelmed by the world’s troubles. January’s theme, “Creation,” makes me think of the crises caused by climate disruption. “I feel like this theme could or should be called ‘destruction’!” I harrumph. For February’s “Love,” I offer a big Eeyore sigh: “Oh, Love …” I grump on through the next two months’ themes: March, “Brokenness”—“Well, this one should be easy!” April, “Transformation and Rebirth”—“Are second chances really available for everyone?”
To be fair, after these first gloomy reactions, I do offer some glimmers of hope, but nothing really shifts my perspective until I get to May, “Awe and Wonder.” To my surprise, what flies from my fingers onto the screen is this:
“I do love this world. The awe of pausing even for a moment to follow a butterfly flitting among the bushes outside the church, asking it to pause for a moment while I dig in my purse for my phone and come close enough to capture a good picture of its furry body and tweedy yellow wings with those two blue ‘eyes’ at the bottom … The wonder of making a new friend, like my Tuesday-Thursday-morning-walking-friend Jennifer … The awe of people’s courage as I witness congregants facing such difficult circumstances and finding their way to hope, strength, companionship, and perseverance. I love this world.”
What happened here? What caused my spirit’s move from hopelessness to a deep appreciation that embodied hope? It has something to do with moving from a generalized despair, which shut down my senses and limited my choices about those themes for January through April, to naming for May specific examples of my values embodied in the world: the beauty of all our diverse creatures; the importance of friendship; the strength and courage of the human spirit. Stories of hope.
Eco-philosopher Joanna Macy’s book Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy (written with Chris Johnstone) points out that if we only dare to hope for something that is likely to happen, we cut off the full range of our responses to the world. There is no guarantee that what we want will indeed happen. Does that mean that we do nothing?
Of course not! The other kind of hope consists of acting on our gut-level desire for constructive change—change that brings our deepest values to life. “Hope is not something we have,” Joanna Macy says with passion, “it’s something we DO.” It is an embodied spiritual practice, just like the gratitude-in-hard-times that we practiced in November.
Macy and Johnstone spell out three key moves that hope asks of us: First, we have to look honestly at what is. If we turn away from the depressing stuff, we numb our responses and limit our energy and creativity. Second, we must get specific about the directions in which we want our lives and the world to move. We need to name the values that we want to see tangibly expressed. We cast a vision that pulls us forward, even if don’t know exactly how we’ll get there. And third, we commit to the journey of moving toward that vision, taking the steps, one after another, that we discover together and that move us in the desired direction.
Every time we here at First Unitarian step toward our vision for a better life for all, we move through these three stages—looking clearly at the present reality, imagining the future we desire, moving forward one step at a time. Every time I walk toward our vision of making Love visible—with you, with my clergy colleagues and friends, with our partners in People Acting in Community Together (PACT)—I sense this active hope alive and at work in us.
Come to think of it, the December holidays, too, are built on stories of active hope. At the root of Chanukkah, Christmas, Solstice, and Kwanzaa celebrations lie visions of freedom from oppression, of love offered to all, of life cycles promising second chances, of community deepening a sense of identity and self-esteem. Such active hope moves us from a generalized despair that deadens our senses, to the energy and joy of embodying our values, moving toward our desires for the good, and discovering that we are not alone. Come, engage in Active Hope with us this season!
In hope and faith,
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