A former Lutheran pastor sharing thoughts on faith and life. Please join the conversation! I love your comments!

Monday, December 17, 2012

Defiant hope

“And Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name (Luke 1:46-49; NRSV).’”

In the wake of the school shootings on Friday it seems like a more appropriate text would be Luke’s “Slaughter of the Innocents”. But as I sort through the tragic and depressing links being posted on facebook, I find myself wanting to write about hope and what it means to be overwhelmed by hope. An irony perhaps, given the seeming scarcity of hope in our world right now. Kind of like suggesting we prepare for some major flooding this next week in Kansas, when the land all around us thirsts for moisture. Many of us might be thinking a flood doesn’t sound all bad, an abundance of water to heal the dry ground. Certainly, with 20 beautiful children still fresh in our minds, we pray for a flood of hope. And truly, the only response to such a senseless tragedy seems to be to face into it with a resolute spirit and declare our hearts fertile ground where hope can take root.

In August of this year my side of the family spent several days in Estes Park, making ourselves at home in a large cabin built into a rocky boulder. The backyard had a little bit of dirt, but mostly it was a rock climbing playground for the kids. And we all marveled at the tenacity of little scrub pine trees that rooted themselves in stone, cracking the unyielding slabs of rock in their determination to stretch out towards the light of day.

There’s a quiet, otherworldly power afoot in nature. A force that reveals itself only when we pay close attention. In the book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard relates a story Rutherford Platt tells in his book, The Great American Forest. “In 1875, a Massachusetts farmer, curious about the growing power of expanding apples, melons and squashes, harnessed a squash to a weight-lifting device which had a dial like a grocer’s scale to indicate the pressure exerted by the expanding fruit. As the days passed, he kept piling on counterbalancing weight; he could hardly believe his eyes when he saw his vegetables quietly exerting a lifting force of 5 thousand pounds per square inch. When nobody believed him, he set up exhibits of harnessed squashes and invited the public to come and see.”

I can’t think of a better metaphor for hope. A flood of hope starts, ironically, very small. A tiny seed planted deep within an unyielding attitude or worldview. The seed grows and in time, what seemed fixed and unchangeable is split wide open by the sheer quiet force and unrelenting nature of hope.

What happens when we allow hope to take root? For awhile we may resist. Hoping is, after all, a vulnerable proposition. Therefore the greater the force of hope, the greater the potential for disappointment if hope is not ultimately realized. So we proceed cautiously when hope is a seedling. We distract ourselves. We pretend we don’t care as much as we do. If we’ve been badly burned by hope in the past, we may even try to uproot it. But hope, like the harnessed strength of a squash plant, is hard to reign in. Once it sprouts, it keeps on growing. And so in order to make room for its ever expanding presence in our lives, we must begin altering our actions, readying ourselves for the possibility that what we most hope for can, in fact, become reality. Eventually, we start to partner with our hope, doing all in our power to see this hope realized. It is at this point we get in over our heads. We allow ourselves to be flooded with hope.

Jesus is surely our model for the way in which a life can be split open to reveal the endless possibilities of hope. Last week, I mentioned baby Jesus playing the role of a Trojan horse. God planted a seed of hope in this baby. And somehow he had the wherewithal to allow that sprout all the room it needed to grow. A lifting force of 5,000 pounds per square inch indeed. Jesus lived his life as one thoroughly inundated with hope and he invited others to do the same. To allow their lives to be split open by possibility and live according to what could be.

In the shadow of the Sandy Hook massacre, and aware that around our world children die each day due to senseless violence, to have the guts to defiantly live our lives according to the dictates of hope is the only life-giving response imaginable. It hurts to hope in the face of despair, but hope is the only catalyst for change.

Mary knew all about unlikely hope. It’s probably hard for us to imagine how desperate her circumstances were, pregnant but not married. She. Was. Ruined. This is an unlikely context for the birth of hope. Yet hope did indeed take root, symbolized in our gospels through an angelic visit. And Mary allowed this seedling to grow and flourish. What were the odds Joseph would still marry her? And later, that her baby would fulfill all the wild and impossible dreams she had in mind? Talk about gutting her life for the sake of hope. Still, we have this beautiful song from Luke in which a young girl allows herself to be completely overcome by hope. Is it maybe possible Mary’s hope provided an environment in which her son’s hope could grow unchecked? I think so.

For this life changing inundation of hope, we’re given the four weeks of Advent to prepare each year. A totally inadequate amount of time, given it’s really a lifelong pursuit. A baby was born so long ago and through his life and message he cracked the world right open, revealing the possibilities for change, for justice, for love, for righteousness….if only we are able to garner up the strength necessary to allow our own hope to grow, if we are able to make ourselves vulnerable and lay open our own lives for unexpected upheaval and disturbance. “Christ has no body now on earth but our own. Ours are the only hands with which Christ can do his work, ours are the only feet with which Christ can go about the world, ours are the only eyes through which Christ’s compassion can shine forth upon a troubled world. Christ has no body on earth now but our own.”*

Ours is a troubled world. Heaven knows it is. But we are God’s hands and feet. Hope is that force that propels us to say no to violence, in all its many forms. To show compassion for those who are hurting. To move and act in love, embracing those lost in grief, sharing hope with those who despair.

Dear God, we are rocked by shock and sorrow. There is a sickness in our society. We’re pretty good at ignoring it most the time, but then it rears its ugly head and manifests itself in unimaginable violence and horror. Like Rachel, we weep for our children, recognizing there is no consolation to be had. We pray for the Newtown community, shattered by senseless loss. May they find comfort beyond our understanding. May they feel Love in the support and embrace of family, friends, neighbors and a whole country who weeps with them. We pray for Adam’s family, recognizing their living nightmare has also only just begun. We pray for every soul in this country and around this world, who is somehow broken inside. May they get the care and intervention they so urgently require. And we pray for ourselves too God. We pray for strength, that we not accept the way things are with resignation but instead work to open ourselves to hope, to the possibility that violence need not be revered. That our world can get better. That this Christmas season we might open ourselves to you, Immanuel, God always with us, working through and within us. Amen.

*Teresa of Avila

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