“Living Inside Hope”
© By Rev. Lora Brandis
Preached March 31, 2013
Conejo Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship
I tried giving up hope for Lent once. It was harder to give up hope than to give up sugar for Lent, which I often do. More often than not, I do not observe a Lenten practice. Although Lent tugs at me anyway, pulling me towards some ancient memory of wandering in the wilderness towards the promised land of Easter, that moment we arrive after we drag our weary bones back from the dead, back to liberating life.
I tried giving up hope for Lent as an exercise to counter all the criticism we get as liberal religionists. Our faith is too hopeful, so unrealistically optimistic that we ignore the evidence. We ignore the deeper truths of the Passover and Easter stories. We prefer the flowers after winter version, the natural cycles of light and dark explanation of the way things are.
Hope is different from optimism. If you give up hope for forty days and forty nights, you walk with an ancient memory that pulls you towards hope born from absolute failure and death. Optimism ignores the evidence. Hope sees the evidence and keeps walking.
Developmental psychology teaches that hope emerges as an ego strength during infancy. We learn hope in our bodies by the way we are consistently held and cared for. Pulled kicking and screaming from the unitive experience of the womb, the child learns to trust at the same time it begins to sense itself as separate and alone. No childhood is perfect. Most of our childhoods precariously perch between experiences that teach us both to trust and mistrust. Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson taught that, “When the ratio of trust to mistrust is favorable there emerges the ego virtue or strength we call hope.”
In the novel Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver, a woman tells her sister that, “the very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope.” The novel centers on the relationship of two sisters and the political realities in which they live. One sister moves to Nicaragua to teach local people more sustainable farming techniques and dies after being captured by the Contras. The other sister returns to their hometown to take care of their aging father. After she moves back she encounters the small town’s fight against the local mining company that is polluting the river, poisoning their orchards and destroying their way of life. These are the separate political realities in which they live. The separate personal realities in which they live are held together by a complex sibling bond. Their love for each other bound up in experiences that taught them both trust and mistrust.
After losing all hope that her sister Hallie would return safely, Codi opens letters from Hallie received after she had been kidnapped. Thinking she is past hope, her ratio of trust to mistrust not being very favorable, Codi is surprised to find hope inside letters written by her sister just prior to her violent end. In one of these letters Hallie tells her that the very least we can do with our lives is to figure out what we hope for and when we do, to live inside that hope.
Kingsolver tells the story of Nicaragua’s revolution without naïve optimism or jaded cynicism. Here’s a story about utter failure and death. It is the story of a populist revolution being crushed by covert operations funded by the United States. One of the US-funded Contras’ major strategies was to attack rural schools, health clinics and power stations — the very things that most exemplified the improvements that had been brought about by the revolution – the daily things, the work that “filled children’s bellies and brightened their eyes” (Kingsolver).
Being a story of utter failure and death, Kingsolver’s novel is a Good Friday story. It is the fictionalized account of a young woman dying doing the daily work. It is a story that echoes the real story of a young man named Ben Linder, an American engineer who was working on a small hydroelectric dam in rural northern Nicaragua when he was killed by the Contras. He, too, was doing the daily work by participating in vaccination campaigns and bringing electricity to a small, remote town.
On Good Friday and the celebration of the Passover meal we remember those who sacrificed their lives for the cause of human liberation. We remember those who paid attention to the daily work. We remember those who dedicated themselves, not to “saving the world,” but to living inside hope. We remember Jesus. We remember Ben Linder. We remember Martin Luther King, Jr., Mohandas Gandhi, Unitarian ministers James Reeb and Norbert Capek, Miguel Servetus, Francis David, Katherine Weigel, Oscar Romero, Dietrich Bonheoffer, and this year we remember the families who lost loved ones to mass shootings like the one in Newtown, Connecticut. We remember all those whose names we do not know. We remember their Good Friday moments, their flights from bondage, their showing us the way from the darkness of betrayal and abandonment into a way of living inside hope.
Here is a way of living inside hope: it’s called “failing forward.” Failing forward is a way taught to one of my colleagues who has been in the trenches for marriage equality since 1996. She recalls meeting Evan Wolfson, considered by many to be the founder and leader of the same-sex marriage movement. He is the one who taught her about failing forward. Wolfson is an attorney who worked on Baker v. Vermont, the Vermont Supreme Court case that led to the creation of civil unions in that state in 1999. This decision was a compromise between the National Freedom to Marry Coalition and opponents of same-sex marriage. Wolfson acknowledged this as a step forward, but not the victory he had been hoping for. Ten years later Vermont legalized same-sex marriage. It took ten years; living inside hope, the movement had failed forward.
This week the Supreme Court heard cases regarding California’s Proposition 8 as well as DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act. The decisions, which we will know sometime in June of this year, will either establish equality or be characterized as a set back by proponents of gay rights. We may continue to fail forward for the time being, but with many states legalizing gay marriage and public opinion turning toward support of marriage equality, there is a strong chance that this fight will soon be in our past. The ratio of trust to mistrust will be favorable. Hope will emerge.
Thursday afternoon I walked to the campus of the California State University at Channel Islands, which is within walking distance of where I live. I was looking for the United for Marriage Rally, one of hundreds held this past week all over the country to bring attention to the fight for marriage equality that had finally made its way to the Supreme Court. Not knowing exactly where it was, I first walked past the library where the Catholic Club was sponsoring a live stations of the cross for Holy Week. A student portraying Jesus was standing on a cross, his arms held out in the classic pose, his head wrapped in a crown of thorns. I was looking for the marriage equality rally, but first I found Jesus.
The rally was small, perhaps 80 or 90 students with some faculty gathered at the student union building. As I approached, the group was posing for a photo. I noticed one of the signs someone held in the crowd – “Get Your Church Out of My Marriage!” As I got closer, I noticed another sign leaning up against the building – “The Catholic Club’s Live Stations of the Cross has been moved to in front of the library.” It made me smile to think that a marriage equality rally had displaced Jesus.
Several student organizations sponsored the rally including College Democrats, College Republicans, Young Americans for Liberty, and Spectrum, the LGBT group on campus. A representative from Ventura County Gay Pride spoke. The president of the College Republicans spoke, identifying herself as a progressive Republican, giving a stirring speech about her generation and how they will shape the future. A member of the faculty spoke spontaneously, moved by the show of support from the crowd. She was obviously pregnant, due in August she told me in a conversation afterwards, looking forward to the day that she and her partner can marry and raise their little girl with all the benefits that legal relationship will give them.
Walking back home after the rally I marveled at the family their little girl will be born into. Like all of us, she will have her own ratio of trust to mistrust to sort out. In this changing world, the odds will be better for her now. In this changing world, her hope will have a better chance of emerging. As I walked past the library I noticed that Jesus was gone. The cross was empty. The passing period was over. I assumed he had gone to class.
Many Unitarian Universalists come to church on Easter wondering what to do with Jesus, now that he is gone from our religion. If the resurrection isn’t real, just a metaphor or a sign that the idea of Jesus doesn’t die, then why mention him at all? Why not displace Jesus with other stories, other signs of Easter like flowers, bunnies and eggs? Because Jesus isn’t gone from our religion. He remains in our principles and sources and in the way we covenant to love our neighbors as ourselves. He remains in the litany of lives lost in the fight for human liberation.
When we hear this litany of lives sacrificed for justice, we could despair or we could hope. The journey from Good Friday to Easter teaches us to do both. The wandering in the wilderness for forty days and nights or for forty years teaches us to do both. If you remember Jesus, if you give up hope for forty days and forty nights, you walk with an ancient memory that pulls you towards hope born from absolute failure and death. Optimism ignores the evidence. Hope sees the evidence and keeps walking.
David Ray, one of the founders of American Writers Against the Vietnam War in 1966, writes about hope in his poem “Thanks, Robert Frost.”
Do you have hope for the future?
someone asked Robert Frost, toward the end.
Yes, and even for the past, he replied,
that it will turn out to have been all right
for what it was, something we can accept,
mistakes made by the selves we had to be,
not able to be, perhaps, what we wished,
or what looking back half the time it seems
we could so easily have been, or ought…
Hope for the past,
yes, old Frost, your words provide that courage,
and it brings strange peace that itself passes
into past, easier to bear because
you said it, rather casually, as snow
went on falling in Vermont years ago.
Hope even for the past, as snow went on falling in a Vermont that ten years ago had to compromise with civil unions. Hope even for the past that continues to move us toward equal rights for all. The past becomes easier to bear when we know that we are always failing forward to a future filled with hope. Winter does give way to spring. The ratio of trust to mistrust continues to be favorable. Living inside hope, we see what needs to be done and keep on walking.