Hope

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					Hope In his classic, Moby Dick, Herman Melville has a scene in which the men in a small whaling boat are tossed overboard by an overwhelming wave in the midst of a raging storm. They manage to scramble back into the boat which is half-filled with water and so wait for rescue by the mother ship. One of them, Starbuck, discovers a waterproof match keg and is able to light a tiny lantern. This he fastens to the end of an oar and, placing himself into the prow of the boat, sits holding it aloft in the darkness. Of this scene, Melville says, “There, then, he sat, holding up that imbecile candle in the heart of that almighty forlornness. There, then, he sat, the sign and symbol of a man without faith, hopelessly holding up hope in the midst of despair.” We live in a time in which, if we honestly consider what‟s happening to the world, we may find ourselves like Melville‟s storm-tossed Starbuck; in the midst of despair. The metaphorical storm of Moby Dick is what is happening to our planet. In other essays I discuss our current planetary context, pointing out that we find ourselves at a moment when Earth‟s life systems are collapsing. After long and careful study, biologists have declared we are in the midst of the sixth major extinction episode in Earth‟s history. In other words, the Cenozoic era is over. Cenozoic is a term used by geologists to designate the 65 million year period of Earth history from the time the dinosaurs went extinct to the present. It is the era the human species emerged, the time in which all human knowledge, civilizations, religions, cultural, economic, educational and legal systems and institutions, were initiated and developed. Everything we know and have experienced as a species has taken place during this time, and now it‟s over. This is not very good news. Actually, it‟s quite depressing and rather hard to get our minds around. But this, to be sure, is what is happening to our planet. And what is even more painful is that the reason the disintegration has happened so rapidly is because of us, our way of living, particularly, western industrial society. No one set out to do this but with the onset of the industrial age, the rapid and massive devastation of Earth‟s life systems has been like a tsunami, with so much of the amazing variety and fecundity of life now swept away. This is not an easy thing to accept. And there are people who refuse to accept it. Many choose the way of denial, even in the face of all the evidence. This is especially true of those who have the most to lose if we confront

the major reason for the collapse – an economic system grounded in a worldview that sees Earth as a collection of objects for our use. Those in positions of political, economic and social power are most vested in maintaining the current way of doing things and so, the solutions we hear proposed by national governments and large corporations are to keep doing what we‟re doing, only do it “cleaner” and more efficiently; which is the best definition of insanity I know: keep doing what is destroying you only do it better! It seems to me, however, that most aren‟t in denial. Most find this too painful to consciously consider for long. And so, we try to avoid the problem because it is too overwhelming, push it from our minds and throw up ours hands and say, “What can I do about it? It‟s too big of a problem, too overwhelming,” and then we go about our business, perhaps recycling a little more often and turning down the thermostat, all the while trying to keep our heads above water in our daily stress-filled lives. Neither denial nor avoidance is an acceptable alternative in times like these. The question I want to address is this: How we can live with the reality of the end of an age and hold on to hope? There‟s a story told by Rabbi Hugo Gryn, a survivor of the Holocaust, who was imprisoned in the same barracks as his father in Auschwitz. He said that “despite the unspeakable conditions, many Jews, including my father, held on to whatever observances they could. One midwinter evening an inmate reminded him that it was soon the first night of Chanukah. Over the next days my father constructed a small menorah of metal scraps. For a wick, he took threads from his prison uniform. Instead of oil, he somehow managed to get butter from a guard. Such observances were strictly verboten, but we were used to taking risks. What I protested was the „waste‟ of precious calories. Would it not be better to share the butter on a crust of bread than to burn it?‟ „Hugo,‟ my father said, „both you and I know that a person can live a very long time without food. But I tell you, a person cannot live a single day without hope. This oil will kindle a flame of hope. Never let hope die out. Not here; not anywhere. Remember this.” It is time for us to remember, as well, because if we are going to seriously wrestle with the multitude of issues the devastation of the planet is bringing on, we will have to live as hopeful people.

When I speak of the need for hope, I want to be clear about something: I‟m not talking about optimism. For me, there is a difference between hope and optimism. Optimism is a belief or longing that what has been, can be improved upon, reformed and/or reinvigorated making the future better. Optimists are wonderful to be around and few good things have come about without an optimistic spirit. But the way I look at things, hope and optimism are not the same thing. Earth‟s life systems are deteriorating; in fact, as they have functioned for millions of years, they are beyond repair. How can something that has ended, be reformed? Can one be optimistic about the state of the planet and still accept the reality of our situation? I am not optimistic but I am full of hope. Hope is not about revival or resuscitation; it is about faith in life, the absolute certainty that God will bring something brand new out of the devastation of the present. It is the conviction that a new age will emerge from the destruction of the old order. Whether that devastation is the loss of a loved one, a relationship, job, illness, or the larger disintegration of the planet‟s life systems, always there is the possibility that something new and life-giving will be born. The Jewish and Christian scriptures are filled with such hope. Banished in exile and the nation as they knew it demolished, the voice God through the prophet Isaiah was heard by the Children of Israel: “Behold, I am about to do a new thing/Can‟t you see it?” And from the vision of John of Patmos, following the cosmic battle between Darkness and Light, the Voice is heard once again: “Behold, I make all things new.” Such is the hope-filled faith of millions. But remember: before something new can be born, the old must pass away. J.R.R Tolkien‟s The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a mythological story of the passing of one era and the emergence of a new one. It chronicles the great War of the Ring which occurred in the Third Age of Middle-earth. At that time, the Ring was the master of all the Rings of Power and though held by the Hobbits for many years, was desperately sought by the Evil Power (Sauron) who had made it. The one in possession of the Ring had mastery over every creature in Middle-earth but because it was made by an evil power, in the end it corrupted any who attempted to use it. Out of the struggle to possess and control the Ring with all its power, there came a great war and with it, the end of the Third Age of Middle-earth. There were those who knew the corrupting power of the Ring, along with the only way to destroy it – by casting it back where it had been made, into the fires of Mordor, the country of

the Enemy himself. The Lord of the Rings is the story of the long and perilous journey of the small Fellowship of the Ring to accomplish this great task. It is the story of bravery and peril, risk, struggle, violent conflict, war, heartbreak, friendship and loyalty, all those elements that comprise the human struggle for existence and meaning. Not all in Middle-earth chose to participate in the struggle. Some were in denial of the threat. They were the ones who refused to prepare to counter the dark storm that was already upon them. Others knew how bad things were but stayed isolated, more loyal to race and nation than to the larger common Enemy that threatened them all. Still others coward in hopelessness and fear, refusing to fight. Whatever one‟s stance, the end of an age was at hand, and it was painfully clear that the transition between the old and the new would be chaotic and destructive. Several times, main characters in the story, facing seemingly insurmountable odds, declared that they were “hoping against hope” they would survive to destroy the Ring and accomplish their mission. Finally, the Ring was destroyed, thrown into the fires of Mordor on Mount Doom and immediately, the mountain began coming apart – lava, ash, the entire mountain. There, we see Frodo and Sam, the exhausted Hobbits who accomplished their task, lying on a rock waiting to be swallowed by the destruction all around them. And in the midst of this devastation, Frodo declares, “I‟m glad that you are here with me, here at the end of all things, Sam.” Indeed, it was precisely as Frodo declared; the end of all things. The Third Age of Middle-earth was over, but out of its destruction, a new age was born. The question Tolkien begs his readers to consider is this: “What will the new age be – darkness or light, peace or violence, oppression or freedom? And what will be your role in helping this new age come into existence?” Like Tolkien‟s mythological Middle-earth, as the Cenozoic passes away, we will experience an extremely chaotic time; for many, it‟s already happening. And like it or not, this chaos is inevitable because for the new to be born the old must pass away. A star has to selfdestruct and explode, a supernova, for a new solar system to be born. The dinosaurs had to die off for mammals to fill Earth. The feudal system had to end before the inherent dignity and worth of every individual could arise in many European societies. For the new to be born, the old has to die and with every death, comes chaos. But it is in the midst of the chaos when hope emerges.

+ Here are five reasons why I continue to hope. First, it‟s important to remember that in the Bible, “hope,” in the words of Walter Brueggeman, “arises precisely at the zero hour.” Hope arose in 587 BCE when a holy city was obliterated and all customs, hopes, dreams, beliefs seemed destroyed with it. It rose when some women came to embalm a dead body sealed in a cold, rock tomb when it was still dark on a Sunday morning 2,000 years ago. Whether most stumble around in the stupor of denial and anxiety or not, this is the moment for hope. At the end of an age, hope comes in the moment between sleep and the opening of our eyes, in the darkness before the dawn. It is waking up and remembering that God has promised to always be involved in life, will never pull the plug on God‟s continuing, creative work, and has released the Energy into the world and into us that makes something brand new possible. Secondly, I believe that it is hope which beckons to us to stay in the struggle, and to do so together, to make life mutually enhancing for all. Though we face a planetary crisis we have never before encountered, there is a Divine Energy at work urging us to stay in the struggle. As the Fellowship was being formed in the first book of Tolkien‟s trilogy, Elrond, chief of the Elves and Gandalf the wizard, those who knew the depth and danger of the situation, were explaining things to those who were about to take on the perilous journey. Elrond declares that the farther Company goes, the darker things will become and no one knows precisely the courage one will have to sustain himself in dangerous times. At this, Gimli the Dwarf declares, “Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens.” The road is now very dark and it promises to get darker as the devastation intensifies. We will need each other more than ever to help make the “new thing” of Isaiah and Revelation more than promise. But this is where we, like Starbuck, “hopelessly hold up hope.” We don‟t know what the new age will bring but we do know that we are not alone in this work and that much of whatever the next geological age will be, will be created by the human species. We will literally be co-creators of the planet with God and the powers of the universe, determining what the future will be. This will involve an enormous amount of energy, imagination and tapping into the creativity that the universe and God provides us, to begin shaping what will come. Personally, I want to be part of it.

Third, it helps to remember that one of the profound conclusions that scientists have come to over the past few decades is that the universe constructs itself for life. Or, put it this way: the universe is always moving towards life. Even in the midst of cataclysmic destruction – supernovas, mass extinction spasms - life is the aim of the universe, its purpose. According to mathematical cosmologist Brian Swimme, it seems as if life is what the universe has been aiming at all along. And because Earth is the only planet where life exists (as far as we know), the universe has been building for this Earth moment since the beginning of things 13.7 billion years ago. It reminds me of the words of Jesus in John‟s Gospel: “I came that they might have life and have it abundantly.” If a vibrant Earth community is the purpose of the universe, our question becomes, “How can we join with the rest of the universe and the movement of the Spirit, in shaping the next age of life on Earth that is mutually enhancing for all? Fourth, I have hope because of the growing movement to reclaim the importance of myth and the ancient practices of the great religions of the world. Our ancestors had living mythologies which connected them to nature and God, or the gods, and showed them through ritual how they were to live in harmony with life. Myths are stories of our search through the ages for truth and meaning. Such myths have been mostly ignored in the modern period but the energies or powers behind the myths have not gone away; they have gone “underground,” into the unconscious and are alive in the depths of the individual and collective soul. Myths come from the deepest center, from where the heart is, and point us to the Holy. At the same time, myth brings the experience of the Holy into the world, to the living, breathing world of matter, of skin and bones. And it is these energies that give guidance for the future. It is, in the words of Joseph Campbell, what “provides a field for locating ourselves” in the Something greater, the indescribable which empowers life. There is a struggle going on in American culture today - and around the world, for that matter to determine the nature of this myth (as if any one person, group, religion or culture can make such a determination!). To a great extent, the worldwide rise of religious fundamentalism in the past 40 years is a manifestation of this. (It is also a distortion of the nature of myth: fundamentalism dictates who you‟re supposed to be and what you‟re supposed to do based on someone else‟s view of things, not what arises from your authentic experience with the Sacred!)

This struggle shouldn‟t be a surprise, considering that the old age is ending. The future, in so many ways, is up for grabs; we don‟t know what the new age will bring. I do know that in the long run, fundamentalism doesn‟t work because it does not meet the needs of the modern world. It resists the changing societal mores and seeks to either stop all of the changes or take us backward. Whichever way, fundamentalism doesn‟t meet religion‟s primary purpose: to help people find their place in the midst of what is happening in the larger world under the guidance of the Holy. And this I also know: there is a deep yearning for ways we can experience awe, wonder and to understand our place in the universe. Science can help do this, showing us what the universe is, how it works, how we are connected with everything else, and how all those interactions determine what is and what might be. But science cannot answer the “whatever for?,” the “meaning” questions. What myth does is point beyond “what is” towards the transcendent, to God, “evoking in the individual a sense of grateful, affirmative awe before the mystery that is existence” (Joseph Campbell). I see this happening more and more in the worship life of the so-called “free-churches” of Christianity. Some congregations are now employing ancient and contemporary rituals, symbols and images in worship (inside and outside of Sunday mornings). Ritual is myth enacted but following the Reformation of the sixteenth century, Protestant churches removed all or most vestiges of Roman Catholic worship; i.e, incense, icons, chants, the Eucharist. We relied heavily on the “head” and either pushed aside mystery by banishing those symbols and images whose purpose is to point us to the Holy, or we said that, someday, we‟d figure it all out, and proceeded to put “God in the gaps.” Now, many of the rituals of the past, along with new ones, are being created that point to the inexpressible truths of the Transcendent. Even in many Baptist churches that 30 years ago hadn‟t even uttered the words Advent or Lent, are now following the cycles of the Church year, using different rites and symbols, old and new, to express our faith and cosmology. Many have also incorporated ancient spiritual practices into their daily lives – contemplation, silence, knowing the Holy in the other, retreats, the labyrinth, praying the scriptures – all attempts to lead people deeper into the heart of Mystery. We are beginning to allow, once again, the rituals and practices to work on us in order for Mystery to live in us and course through us.

And perhaps most significantly on this point about myth, are the poets, songwriters and artists, those who are now looking beyond the broken images of the past to create new ones, pointing us to the Sacred and new ways of understanding our larger purposes. The poetry, song, art and drama, help activate something in the imagination to push us beyond our small selves to the larger community of life. Of course, it‟s impossible to project what any new myths might be because underlying all myths are the energies in the individual and collective unconscious, the same stuff from which our dreams come. All I can say is that these myths will have something to do with the human as a planetary creature. The ethnic, tribal and religious boundaries are too small in this time of the global village. Anything new will have to be related to the planet as a living being, Gaia (the Greek word for Earth). And what a symbol is the picture of Earth from the moon! In that photograph, the most looked at picture in the world, we see what a beautiful, fragile, undivided and life-giving place this is for one people. Finally, I have hope because we are not alone. Not only do we have one another, but we are part of an amazing, creating universe that is always emerging, always changing, always moving towards greater complexity and fecundity. We are not the only species that has gifts to give to life; we are one of anywhere from ten to one hundred million species who call this planet home, who have made this planet the absolute perfect place for each and every one of us. And I must never forget the ultimate source of hope; God. Hope is rooted in the holiness of God, who, in the words of theologian Paul Tillich, is the Ground of Being. There is a sacred, numinous Power intimately involved in every aspect of existence, touching Earth and moving everything towards shalom. I believe in an incarnate God who is everywhere, alive in everything and is the One who promised to never leave us alone. As contradictory as it may seem, I also believe this same God is transcendent, One who never stops creating, making all things new. And to blow away even more of our logical categories, I also believe in a God who was and is and is to be, One who, just like in the beginning of things, will bring order out of chaos and breathe life into this new age that is dawning. There are times I get smacked in the face with something I should find quite obvious. Not long along, I was sitting in our backyard next to our rabbit‟s pen. I was looking up, scanning

the clusters of maple leaves dancing in the wind, and as I paused at one particular clump, I notice that, as the leaves circled and moved up and down at the wind‟s behest, there was an empty space in the middle that never changed. Everything else was moving and changing directions, but the center held steady; the dance of the leaves was not only dependent on the movement of the wind but the certainty of the center. And as I sunk into my chair, it occurred to me that though we‟ve messed up things on this planet, even to the point of ending an age, God is still at work. Sometimes beckoning us to dance wherever the wind takes us, sometimes yearning for a return to the center, but always calling us to let go and trust. Consider another image offered by singer/songwriter, Peter Mayer God is a river, not just a stone God is a wild, raging rapids And a slow, meandering flow God is a deep and narrow passage And a peaceful, sandy shoal God is a river swimmer, so let go.” + I know that I will not be around to witness the final ending of the Cenozoic age. And neither will I be blessed to see all the fruit of whatever new age is coming. This will take generations, hundreds of years, and it will necessitate that the most brilliant, imaginative, spiritfilled people of every culture and race on the planet be engaged in how we will order our societies to live with Earth on her terms. I‟ll be long gone by the time we begin to see what we will become. But that doesn‟t matter. We were never promised that we‟d be around to see the fruits of our labors. What we are called to do is get into the game and begin, in the words of cultural historian, Thomas Berry, the “Great Work” of transformation, to plant seeds so that someday, a harvest of sustainable life will come. So, maybe Melville was right; perhaps what we‟re called to do is nothing less than Starbuck and “hopelessly hold up hope in the midst of despair.” Perhaps. But I like the way Albert Schweitzer put it

“No ray of sunlight is ever lost, but the green which it awakens into existence needs time to sprout, and it is not always granted to the sower to see the harvest. All work that is worth anything is done in faith.” So be it.


				
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