The story goes that there was an Italian village
whose pride and joy was their statue of Jesus
graciously extending his hands in the village square.
During World War II, it was demolished by a bomb.
After the War, the village undertook
to rebuild the statue from its shards.
An art restoration team reassembled the statue,
except that they did not have the right shards
to replace the hands.
They said, “We can sculpt new hands for it.”
But the town council said “no.”
Instead, they inscribed on the statue’s base
the words of St. Theresa of Avila,
Christ has . . . hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion
on this world.
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.
Yours are the hands through which he blesses
all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
We practice the virtues so we can be Christ
to a world that desperately needs Christ.
The virtues do allow us to live fuller, happier lives.
But they are not just a coping mechanism.
If we use them only as a coping mechanism,
we get stuck in the basic spiritual Catch 22:
as long as we’re trying to get our needs met,
we can’t get our needs met.
When we grow a heart for others,
our needs take care of themselves.
Today, we are in the depths of an epidemic
– but the Coronavirus is only one factor.
We have a deeper epidemic of an old
and persistent plague, Despair.
These days, Despair has spiked and it can be fatal.
In 2015, Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton
coined the term deaths of despair.
Life expectancy in the United States rose steadily
in the 20th Century; but starting in the 1990s,
it took a U-turn for white, middle-aged people
without college degrees.
They were drinking themselves to death,
accidentally overdosing, and committing suicide.
Case and Deaton attributed their deaths
to declining job prospects, disintegrating families,
Blacks said, Welcome to our world.
For Blacks, deaths of despair had surged in the 70s and 80s.
New York Times columnist, Charles Blow, an African American,
said that the uprising following George Floyd’s death
was not just about racist policing,
but about Black American despair.
When people feel helpless, like there is nothing left
to lose . . . , a wild swirling, undirected rage
is a logical result.
Ironically, right-wing populism mirrors that experience.
Berkeley sociologist, Arlie Russel Hochschild,
stepped out of her social bubble
to get to know people in rural Louisiana.
She found good, decent people,
consumed by seething anger rooted in Despair
over a lost way of life and no prospects
for a decent new one.
The Coronavirus pandemic and the recession
have produced a spike in the fever
that has been burning for 30 years for Whites
and much longer for people of color.
Fritz Stern’s book The Politics of Cultural Despair
describes the political appropriation of futile rage
that sounds like 2021;
but he wrote it in 1963 and it's about political despair
in 19th Century Germany and how it led to Nazism.
If we are going to be Jesus to this world,
we need to talk about Hope.
You have heard it said, Where there’s life, there’s hope.
But I say unto you,
Where there’s hope, there’s life.
Without hope, there is no life.
In Dante’s Inferno, the sign at the entrance said,
Abandon hope you who enter here.
Isidore of Seville said in the 6th Century,
without Hope we are already in Hell.
And so theologian journalist Chris Hedges said last November,
(D)espair . . . is killing us. It eats into the social fabric, rupturing social bonds, and manifests . . . in . . . self-destructive and aggressive pathologies. It fosters . . . “poisoned solidarity,” the communal intoxication forged from the negative energies of fear, suspicion, envy and the lust for vengeance and violence.
Despair detonates bombs on Christmas Day
in Nashville and Aurora.
So, let’s talk about Hope.
Hope and Despair wrestle in an arena
defined by two contrasting world views.
These two views are the arena
– not to be confused with Hope and Despair themselves.
The first world view was stated in an old evangelical hymn:
This is my Father’s world. I rest me in the thought
Of rocks and trees and skies and seas.
His hands the wonders wrought.
Matthew Fox, rejects the notion of original sin,
which means there’s something amiss
with our world and with us.
He extolls original blessing instead.
Brother David Stendahl-Rast prescribes
a spirituality of gratitude.
Both are saying, the creation is good, we are good, life is good. Enjoy it.
The other view says things are not so good.
Telling the people of Yemen, Myanmar, and Afghanistan
to cheer up and be grateful doesn’t preach.
Buddha’s First Noble Truth is Suffering or Unsatisfactoriness:
The world grinds on its axis.
That’s what Augustine meant by original sin.
It isn’t so much evil as it is Murphy’s Law
about the propensity of things to go wrong
which includes the propensity of people to go wrong.
So, which is true? Both. It’s a paradox.
Hope holds that paradox in tension.
But Hope is less on the contemporary Christian radar screen
than any other virtue.
A recent 4 day conference on the theological virtues
had 2 days on faith and 2 days on love.
The organizers skipped hope;
so the participants threw together a program on it.
That produced Prof. Paul Waddel’s article
Hope: The Forgotten Virtue Of Our Time. He says,
Although we live in an era of . . . technological and scientific achievements, it (is) also . . . an age of diminished hope or . . . . , misdirected hope, because it . . . replace(s) the theological virtue of hope with flimsy substitutes that cannot . . . give us what our souls ultimately need. We also live in an era marked by violence, which leads to a barrage of images . . . . (of) citizens fighting police, children in Syria bloodied by war, refugee children washed up on a beach . . . .
(W)hat threatens hope even more he says, (is) . . . the soft and subtle despair we settle into (as) ways of living that rob us of the exalted good God wants for us. The problem is not that we hope for too much, but that we have . . . settle(d) for so little . . . . We have lost sight of hope’s transcendent dimension because we have forgotten the incomparable promise to which hope always beckons.
Case and Deaton say social and economic troubles
But Case and Deaton’s analysis does not explain
the 30% increase in the suicide rate
among 15 to 24-year-olds
or why Black deaths of despair climbed
in one decade when Black financial prospects
Might a pre-existing spiritual Despair be at the root
of our social, economic, and political troubles?
Is Despair an effect or might it be a cause?
Pope Francis says,
Along with vaccines, fraternity and hope are . . .
the medicine we need in today’s world.
But the Church has largely ignored hope.
Instead, we have told people to cheer up and be grateful.
Depth psychologist Stephen Diamond agrees that
clinical despair is primarily a spiritual crisis.
But he cautions against
the just whistle a happy tune prescription.
Repressing Despair only exacerbates it.
Diamond insists something has to be accepted
before it can be healed.
To overcome Despair, both social and personal,
we have to acknowledge the pain.
Existential psychologist Rollo May said,
Courage is not the absence of despair.
it is rather the capacity to move ahead
in spite of despair.
So what do we mean by Hope in our time?
Let’s go back to the two worldviews:
the beauty of the earth versus the pain of mortal life.
Boulder’s own Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche once said,
The world is a wonderful place.
The world is a horrible place.
Rinpoche was stating the paradox.
So how do we hold it in tension?
St. Augustine said, Hope has two beautiful daughters.
their names are Anger and Courage.
Anger at the way things are, and Courage
to see that they do not remain as they are.
Augustine was far from naïve. He knew the limits of this world.
But he believed the Heavenly City is here too
on the same spot as the Earthly City.
By the grace of God, we can make a difference, but it isn’t easy.
St. Thomas Aquinas said that Hope
is the desire for something good
that is difficult but possible to attain.
We hope for things that are difficult but possible.
But we can only achieve a little on our own.
It’s impossible to be happy in a miserable community.
St. Thomas said, there are far more reasons for hope
when we have friends to rely on.
As Prof. Waddel puts it,
If the objects of our hope extend no further than what we can secure for ourselves, then our hopes will necessarily be rather cautious and limited. . . . . We do not hope alone. We hope together.
Christianity is a team sport.
We need each other to sustain our Hope.
But what do we hope for? Pope Benedict’s encyclical In Hope We Are Saved, relies on Paul:
For in this hope we were saved.
But hope that is seen is no hope at all.
Who hopes for what they already have?
Benedict is saying Hope is both immanent and transcendent.
Transcendent Hope lies in the Eternity of God who loves us,
wishes us well, and wants us to flourish
more than this world will ever allow.
We see the image of Transcendent Hope in Revelation:
God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. . . . It is done. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely. He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son.
But Benedict adamantly denies that we live only
for the sake of an afterlife.
We may be poor wayfaring strangers
while travelling through this world of woe,
but we are travelling and we are travelling together.
Immanent Hope is the journey – Benedict calls it a pilgrimage –
toward that bright world (where) there is
no sickness, toil, or danger.
But it’s a pilgrimage only if we are striving here and now
to overcome those evils.
This community-oriented vision of “the blessed life”
is certainly directed beyond this present world,
(but) it also has to do with the building up of this world.
His two key points are: first that Hope is something we do together.
second, that our hope lies both in Eternity
and in what we achieve together in this world.
Immanent Hope ultimately depends on Transcendent Hope.
To run a race well, we have to run beyond the finish line.
To run a hundred yard dash well, we have to sprint for 110.
We lost that practice in the 17th Century
when Western culture undertook
to create a kingdom of humanity
through human structures that were supposed
to make life good for all of us.
That is the project we see failing in our time.
Humanistic hope was planted in too shallow a soil.
Benedict says, Let us put if very simply. (People) need God;
otherwise (we) remain without hope. . . .
The human being needs unconditional love.
(We) need the certainty which makes (us) say “neither life,
nor death, nor principalities, nor powers, nor height,
nor depth, nor anything in all creation can separate us
from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” . . . or
“Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil for thou art with me.” . . . .
(Humanity’s) true hope which holds firm in spite of all
disappointments can only be God – God who has loved us
and continues to love us “to the end”. . . .
This brings us to the relationship of Hope and Faith.
They are not the same, but they are so closely connected
that we can’t draw a precise line where one begins
and the other ends.
Biblical scholar Krister Stendahl described
the New Testament teaching about where to look
for the Kingdom of God after Jesus and before the end of time.
His classic term was “already/not yet.”
The Kingdom happens now whenever we pray faithfully,
act justly, and live out of love.
Selfishness, greed, domination, deceit, disease, hunger, violence
keep happening – for now.
But, since Jesus, the final outcome is assured.
Faith is about the already. Hope is about the not yet.
Already, God loves us unconditionally. Our destiny is secured.
But, for now, the world still grinds on its axle.
We do not yet have the good life we hope for.
Faith is our ground for that Hope.
When we lose what we love, we grieve. But Paul says,
we do not grieve as others do who have no hope.
We grieve, but since all good is from God and God is eternal,
we know nothing good is lost to us forever.
Blessed are the hungry – present tense – for they will be satisfied –
Blessed are those who weep now – present tense -- for they shall laugh
– future tense.
The present tense is Faith that we are blessed now.
The future tense is Hope for a destiny
that redeems our present experience
however hard it may be.
Jesus put Hope at the center and Christian hope is cosmic.
In Romans, Paul said:
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the cosmos waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; . . . . in hope that the cosmos itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
The phrase waits in eager longing is actually more physical,
like standing on tiptoe.
The universe is pregnant with the Kingdom of God.
Paul compared our worldly sufferings
to labor pains as we give birth to that Kingdom. He said,
the whole creation has been groaning
as in the pains of childbirth . . . .
If God is good and God is Eternity, then we know how the story ends.
Faith assures us. Hope keeps us moving forward.
Faith and Hope are twin virtues.
Francis said three things about Faith.
First, it is light for the journey.
Knowing our destiny in God shows us our path.
Hope is the green energy fuel for the journey.
Liberation theologian Jurgen Moltmann says
Hope opens the road to life in time . . . .
Second, Francis said Faith is something we Profess
-- but not just ritually by reciting the Creed.
Professing the Faith is responding to the good news of God’s love
by living out of it, enacting it.
In Romans, Paul said we believe with our hearts . . .
and confess with our lips.
It isn’t just reciting the Creed. It’s living the gospel.
So what does that look like?
Benedict gives us the answer:
Our relationship with God is established
through communion with Jesus . . . .
a relationship with the one who gave himself
as a ransom for all.
To be in communion with Jesus, to profess the Faith,
to respond to the gospel
is to commit ourselves to each other’s well-being
in the age to come and right now.
Bonhoeffer famously called Jesus the man for others.
To be in communion with Jesus means being for others
in the world today.
Pope Francis’s third word for Faith is Build.
He says, we walk in the light and respond to the gospel
by preparing a place in which human beings can dwell
with one another.
He’s echoing the Lutheran Jurgen Moltmann.
Moltmann says the secular visions of a better, more humane,
more peaceable world are inadequate
because they don’t run past the finish line.
Immanent Hope is sustainable only with Transcendent Hope.
But Moltmann says those secular visions express more hope
than we find in calm despair or skeptical realism.
We can’t build the Kingdom of God, but we can prepare a place for it.
We do that, Francis and Moltmann say,
when we respect the dignity of every human being
and work for peace and justice on their behalf.
Faith reassures us day but day.
But when today is a pit of Despair, Hope carries us into tomorrow.
Hope is angry.
Hope grieves over the distance between how things are
and how they ought to be;
and Hope is courageous enough
to persistently, doggedly insist on change.