Hope that Breathes

Reading from Vaclav Havel 

Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. Either we have hope or we don’t.  It is not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons….

Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.

Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the faith that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.  

Sermon – Hope that Breathes

Right this moment, there are thousands of people –mothers, children, fathers, grandparents, young adults – all sorts of people, walking together, across thousands of miles, walking north, towards the US southern border.

Some news reports have said there are four or five thousand of them walking together. Try to imagine it. 

Four or five thousand people walking through an area all at once, like four or five thousand people just walking up I-25.  

It’s incredible.

I think about how hard it was last weekend to get my family of four to walk across the mall parking lot and into the movie theatre.

It’s hard to believe there is not something or someone organizing this massive group across such a tremendous distance.   

Which is maybe why some of the conspiracy theories on the political right have gotten some traction.

“It didn’t just happen,” President Trump said at a campaign rally in mid-October, speaking about the caravan. He was implying they were funded and organized as a political strategy.

Last week – on a video call with over 150 folks from across the country – I realized that in some ways, the President is right –  It didn’t “just happen.”  

It was a call with activists and aid workers working at the border.  They were trying to break through the news cycles and into the realities experienced by the people who are actually on the ground.  

People who have been there for months, in actual relationship with the thousands who are reaching our borders – Which it turns out are not just coming in one caravan, as the news reports and sound bites seem to indicate, but multiple, with new ones forming all the time.  At last count, there were 8 caravans traveling together across central America and Mexico, with at least 17,000 people making this journey north.

This is the new face of migration, as people have come to realize that it is safer when they travel together. One of the aid workers on the call told us she had asked the people she’s working with directly – what had organized them, and what was keeping them going….

“What’s organizing us?” one responded.  “Misery, and Poverty.”

Another added, “and courage.”

Misery, and poverty, and courage.

In a certain way, the President and others are wrong –this caravan actually did “just happen.”  It is an organic, emergent force. And at the same time….it didn’t.  There is clearly a connecting, driving force, inspiring these thousands of people across thousands of miles.   A driving force called hope.

“Hope has two beautiful daughters.”  St Augustine said. their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.”

These beautiful daughters of hope: anger – characterized by them as misery – at the poverty of the way things are.  And the Courage to act.

These are the organizers of these caravans.  They did not just happen

The migrants are calling themselves the Exodus, as in the stories of the enslaved Israelites escaping the oppressive Pharaoh to get to the promised land.  We – in the US – are the promised land. “Once people see us,” one of the migrants told the aid workers, “once Americans know we are just regular people escaping for our lives, they will let us in.  Because they are the promised land.”

Did your heart sink like mine did, when you heard that? The hope fueling these thousands is so terribly vast, and so impossibly doomed.  

It’s like watching a horror movie in slow motion – like you can see the end coming, and you just want to turn away because there is no way that this is going to end well.

After escaping misery, poverty, threats to their life, and then walking with courage thousands of miles to reach the so-called promised land, these people will likely be greeted with tear gas or worse, and/or have their child taken from them, maybe forever, and/or be placed in indefinite detention. Which, by the way, is a new way of saying prison, without any clear right to due process.

They are escaping Pharaoh in their own countries, only to encounter the Pharaoh in ours. Which is why our hearts sink at their hope.  Their hope seems foolish, and even, dangerous. It’s one reason my seminary professor Miguel de la Torre has advocated against hope as a goal.  

Because it can become empty, and a tool of the privileged to weigh costs and benefits before deciding to act.  Worse, as he says, “hope [can] serve to soothe the conscience of those complicit with oppressive structures, lulling them to do nothing except look forward to a salvific future where every wrong will be righted.”

We are often taught to think about hope like this – like it’s an act of “prognostication.” Where we take in and analyze information in the present only so that we can see how it might (or might not) point towards something in the future.  

For something to be “hopeful,” it needs to reassure us that everything will be ok at some point.  Even if that point isn’t immediate, hope indicates we can see it coming.   Religious liberals are especially prone to this prognosticating-orientation to hope.   

It’s like the well-known words from Unitarian great Theodore Parker about the moral arc of the universe bending towards justice – as progressives, we learn to ask ourselves, and each other – is it bending?

And when we can say yes, we call that hope. 

But then the day comes, when the news is filled with stories of children being tear gassed, and life expectancy shrinking, and whales dying, despite the fact that you and everyone you know has been working hard, and doing your part; and all the while, your kids (grown or otherwise) won’t listen to you; you’re still not over the grief you thought by now you’d be able to shake; the debt won’t seem to get paid off; and then the doctor calls and confirms, the cancer has come back. 

On days like these, hope that’s “dependent on observation of the world” does feel dangerous.  But not because of its potential to lull us into inaction in the way Miguel de la Torre fears, but even more because of its inevitable relationship with despair.

As Margaret Wheatley has said, “Motivated by hope, [we are eventually] confronted by failure, [and] we become depressed and demoralized. Life becomes meaningless; we despair of changing things for the better. At such a time, we learn the price of hope. Rather than inspiring and motivating us, hope [becomes] a burden made heavy by its companion, fear of failing.  Which is why thinking about hope as something related to external factors, something “dependent on some particular observation of the world,” or something you can just go searching for and acquire – like, One click and it’ll show up  with free 2-day shipping on your door step – all wrapped up and ready for Christmas.

This has never never been the way that I’ve found hope works, in my own life, and when I talk to others. And by work I mean – when hope is something that is sustaining, connective, inspiring, clarifying….something that provides meaning and purpose for our lives in a bigger sense, something that reminds us – in a way that reaches into our smallness, of our greatness.   

That’s what hope should do.  For hope to work – in real life today, it can’t be anchored in some far-off future. It must live in the here and now, and in us. 

Hope needs to move through us, like breath. And like breath, it has to become a habit so regular that we don’t even think about it, a commitment we connect to our bones, our pulse, our whole lives.    

Rob Hardies, the minister at All Souls Church in Washington DC, says it this way:

“in order to be hopeful, we must make hope a lifelong spiritual discipline. An intentional practice. In this way, hope is like love. It’s not a once-and-for-all cure, it’s one of the most important ongoing spiritual projects of our lives. Hope is a journey. A difficult path through a beautiful and broken world.”

When we started to plan this series on the habits of hope, and the question of how to cultivate hope in challenging times I started to think about other times where people successfully manifested hope even in the darkest days.

I immediately thought about these stories from the early days of the AIDS epidemic. Which was not because I realized then that we’d be kicking off this series the day after World AIDS Day. That was just an amazing coincidence.

But more, because I think these stories have so much to teach us about hope, and the habits of hope, especially in times like these, when the idea of hope feels confusing and challenging to many of us.  Which is when I thought about my friend, Nori. And a story she told once about her early work in the earliest days of the AIDS Epidemic.  

She’s now the minister at All Souls in Colorado Springs, but she started her ministry in California, where she and many others from the lesbian community became the primary caregivers for their brothers who were one after another being diagnosed, and then often within months, dying.  

They had no one else, really. Our government had mostly decided to ignore the reports of this plague, and family members often decided that it was what these mostly gay men deserved.

Without their sisters stepping up, in many cases they would have died alone. As Nori has written:

“I had such grand plans. I was going to march in demonstrations and I was going to be involved at the political level and the newspapers would quote me in their hard-hitting articles on the AIDS rights movement. I was going to be quite the radical revolutionary.”

But instead, she found herself at bedsides, caring for the wounded, tending to their bodies, broken and frail, massaging their feet in the quiet dark where no lights were necessary because they’d long ago lost their sight.  

33 friends lost, countless other memorials.

The Rev. Kim Crawford Harvey, who was around that same time, the minister in Provincetown where many were infected talks about how she realized “At a certain point, we just couldn’t grieve.  First of all, it was too painful for the guys who were dying to only have all this sadness around them, and not be reminded of the beauty. But also, it was just too exhausting and so devastating for all of us.  So, Provincetown has always been good at a good party, and man we had some amazing parties.”

I know it may not seem like the most obvious choice – to think of these stories as stories of hope.  But again, I think that’s only if hope is based in an assurance of some future positive outcome. But if instead, hope is an orientation of the heart that calls us to respond to what is right in front of us, and if hope is a habit where the fear of the unknown – I mean, they didn’t know how infection was even happening) –  if hope is where this sort of fear leads not to isolation, but to a reflex of compassion, and connection.

And if hope a habit where even in the middle of chaos and grief and pain, we are compelled to choose joy.  Regardless of the outcome. Where we choose life again and again, even in the presence of death. Then these stories and this time offers us an incredible example of hope, and how we can cultivate hope for today.

Especially when you consider the fact that the ripple effects of the networks and activism that happened during that time – the demand for real treatment, the attention to health care as a right, the creation of a more comprehensive notion of the “gay” community – While most of these saw no immediately positive “results” – they are very much still playing out today.

As one small example…now I know this is a long shot, but I wonder if any of you watch the TV show Empire? It’s a pretty soapy show about a hip hop dynasty, which I know usually Unitarians flock to that sort of show….but really, the first season was really good, and then because I am stupidly loyal after I start a show, even as it’s gone downhill, I’ve kept watching.

But sometimes there are sparks of what it was that first season – including a new storyline this season about one of the main characters, Jamal, falling in love with a man who is HIV positive. It’s a little mind blowing to watch it play out….Wasn’t it just a few years ago that two men kissing on TV was considered too graphic? Let alone two black men, let alone one who is HIV positive.

That their relationship is unfolding with joy and honesty and passion is an image of hope for me.  It reminds me of how surprising life is, and how history is – like Rebecca Solnit says – not like an army marching forward, but more like a “crab scuttling sideways, a drip of soft water wearing away stone, an earthquake breaking centuries of tension.”

Actually one of the habits of hope is the practice of paying attention to the ways hope is alive – right here and now, alive in the people around us, which in turn allows us to be hope for each other, in real life when we stay awake to these moments that stir our hearts and signal in an almost-magical way, the shifting sands, the widening of life’s welcome – that is not somewhere else, but here.  When we let these moment sink in. Like breath. And carry them with us then we can keep remembering, and reminding each other as Rebecca Solnit also says, this awareness that it is “always too soon to go home.”

Activist Margaret Wheatley tells about a time when she and her colleagues were feeling incredibly depressed about the state of the world, and their ineffectiveness in making real change.  

They were blessed to receive counsel from the Dalai Lama.  He told them:

“Do not despair,” he said. “Your work will bear fruit in 700 years or so.” 

It’s always too soon to go home.

This is what the migrants know.  Fueled by the daughters of hope, the great Exodus knows that hope can never guarantee an outcome for themselves, or even for their children. 

They are organized instead by a hope that is about the journey itself.  Because it is traveling together, in a community that is already a powerful form of resistance, and a hope that is about choosing joy in the middle of it all.  They showed us, on the call, videos of the camps, where there was art, and music, and playfulness.  Life, even in the presence of death.  

In the Christian tradition, today marks the first Sunday in advent.  Advent is a season set aside to practice waiting. Which is not the usual way that we think about these times we are in, as a country, as a people. So much feels urgent, and the pace of life today is hectic, and over-done.

But this understanding of hope that permeates the stories of those early days responding to the AIDS crisis, and that is organizing the migrants today invites us to imagine instead the slow work of life, the long, long arc – and to join together in that great mystery, to let hope breathe through us in a deep and abiding surrender.  To all that is yet to be born, if we are only willing to take the chance in these dark days of winter and worry, to give ourselves over to that much Life.

About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley is relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy of pop culture (reflected in this blog by random posts on Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Scandal, Orphan Black, or the latest Marvel movie). She has an audacious ambition for the liberal church, believing in its capacity to transform lives and our world by way of hyper-local relationships and partnerships that inspire the unleashing of courageous love. She's all in on adrienne maree brown's emergent strategy, and finds solace in the trails in and around Fort Collins Colorado where she serves with the brilliant Rev. Sean Neil-Barron as one of the ministers of the Foothills Unitarian Church. She and her amazing partner of over 20 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (14) and Josef (12) who both relish and resent being PKs, and who keep her grounded, frustrated, inspired, and humbled, everyday. She is basically obsessed with her puppy, a large sized mutt, Charlie.
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