Hope in Hell

I can’t believe that a few days ago that it was too warm… to close…

Today, we are told to expect high winds and heavy rains. There’s a tendency to say the beautiful weather was too good to be true - that dark and wet is normal and that sunny, warm, dry days are misleading - they just give us false hope when what we should expect every day is gloom.

This month of August marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War. It was a war that followed and dashed a period of tremendous optimism.

As we came out of the 19th century into the 20th, there was a sense that humanity was growing and changing into something better - something kinder and more peaceful.

The dark times of the past were over and now the world would only get better and better.

At that time, the Unitarians in America were enamoured of a five-point “theology for the future” written by James Freeman Clarke. The fifth point - so often repeated and so enthusiastically embraced was this hopeful phrase: “the progress of mankind onward and upward forever.”

100 years ago today, that optimism - that sense of hope - was dissolving. 69 years ago today, the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki lay in ruins following the first use of atomic weapons in warfare.

And today, we know of devastation in Gaza, horrible inhumanity in Iraq, and more horror around the world than we can begin to absorb.

100 years after the beginning of the war that was to end war, it is easy to see nothing but stormy weather.

This is the place where religion has so often offered answers - where Christians would assure us that hope is warranted because God will - eventually - save us all. It is where Buddhists tell us that expectation of a better world is the very source of our misery - that equanimity lies in living fully in the present - appreciating the the good that is there without grasping onto it or hoping too hard for the bad to melt away.

We have many ways of responding to the the world’s horrors. More and more, I hear people say they avoid the news altogether. They will just focus on their own lives. They have to block out the horror to get through the day.

Others simply despair. The world is evil - humanity is evil - they retreat into depression and fear. If they can afford it, they find gated, guarded communities to protect themselves from the terrible world.

Still others see the horror and can only get angry. Blame is the response that allows them to cope with the world. In every instance, one side is right and the other wrong. Dividing humanity into good and evil makes it possible to cope - to believe that if only the bad guys could be stopped, all would be well.

And the few, rare, saintly people respond to the world’s deep flaws with love and kindness. They do not ignore, they do not blame, they do not hide. They engage with compassion, and hope, and a conviction that there is good behind the world’s woes.

They are hopeful in the most hopeless of times. They sustain hope even in hell.

I am no saint. I doubt you are either.

How can we possibly keep hope alive in the face of the reality of human cruelty.

One answer comes not from words but from images and our ministry student, Claire MacDonald, mentioned this to me last week. It is the image on the cover of the order of service. Those children are Palestinians from Gaza. The photo was taken during a brief cease-fire in the horrible fighting there.

And they have jumped into fountains to swim. Jumping, laughing, exploding not with hate but with joy in a pause in the horror.

Hope lies in this - in the possibility of seizing joy from amid terror - in diving into love in the midst of hate - in the discovery of possibility where there seems to be none.

In his “Earth Prayer”, Mark Nepo offers these words:

“Let us live for the grace beneath all we want,
let us see it in everything and everyone,
till we admit to the mystery that when I look deep enough into you, I find me,
and when you dare to hear my fear in the recess of your heart, you recognize it as your secret which you thought no one else knew…”

What is the reality in your heart? Is it hate and destruction or is it love and compassion?

Ultimately, those of us who do not adhere to a faith that offers absolute answers must make a choice. There is no truth. Belief is a choice we make depending on who we want to be and how we wish to live.

The choice we must make is how to understand the relationship of storm and sunshine. Is storm the true reality and sunshine simply a fleeting, transient, teasing moment of goodness?

Or is storm simply a temporary misery that hides the reality of sunshine and warmth?

These clouds will pass away

The cold winds will still

The rains will dry

The warm, nurturing, sunshine has been there all along.

It will be revealed again.

May it be so.