Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘hope’

Living in the Upside Down

Isaiah 64:4-6; 8, 9b   
Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for Go.
You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways.
But when we continued to sin against them, you were angry.
How then can we be saved?
All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.
Yet you, Yahweh, are our Parent.

We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.

Most likely you have at least heard the Netflix series Stranger Things, created by the Duffer Brothers. Or, if you are like me, you cannot WAIT for season three…

Stranger Things takes place in a small town in Indiana [full disclosure, I spent part of my childhood in a town in Indiana], and the story begins with the disappearance of a 12-year-old boy named Will Byers. Over time, we learn that a group of scientists has been experimenting on a girl with telekinetic abilities [she is called “11” because that is the number tattooed on her wrist], and Eleven eventually makes contact with a monster-creature that inhabits an alternate dimension, ripping open a gate between that world and ours. The creature crosses over and is able to take the aforementioned Will and another character, Barbara. I won’t go into any great detail, because I don’t want to spoil it for those of you who haven’t seen it yet.

What I do wish to focus on are the characters of Stranger Things and the two worlds that exist side-by-side and simultaneously: our dimension, and the alternative dimension, called the Upside-Down. First, let’s focus on a few of the characters, all of them friends: Mike, Dustin, and Lucas, and the missing Will. Eventually, a fifth member of their party is added, Eleven. These young friends are the main focal point for the narrative and end up acting as our eyes and ears throughout the series. For example, they give a name to the creature-monster from the Upside-Down—the Demogorgon—based on a creature in their Dungeons and Dragons gaming. They figure out with the help of their science teacher that the alternative dimension is an upside-down version of their world. Eleven, their new friend, becomes “El,” as Mike deems it the best way for her to blend in. These friends interpret the story for us as they assign meaning to all the that happening.

And what is happening is definitely strange and sinister. Not only is their friend Will missing; not only have they encountered El who is gifted in ways they could not have imagined; but also, there is not just one Demogorgon monster loose in their town—for the secret government facility on the outskirts is up to no good and holds the gate to the Upside-Down.

upsidedownSpeaking of the Upside-Down, it is a mirror image of our everyday world, but corrupted, toxic, gothic, and heavy. Thus, Stranger Things presents to us a reality in which the natural and supernatural coexist; a seemingly idyllic world of a small Midwestern town in the 1980’s contrasted with the death and danger of the Upside-Down.

SPOILER ALERT: as the story unfolds, we are presented with the mind-blowing and unsettling fact that the Upside-Down is not separated from our world. In fact, the Upside-Down can even be in us, around us—and if we look closely enough, we can spot the toxicity of the Upside-Down creeping into the roots and foundations of our lives.

Clearly, Stranger Things draws from a variety of mythological, spiritual, and religious traditions. The dualistic idea of two worlds coexisting is nothing new in many traditions around the world. Likewise, the contrast between a beautifully-imagined divine creation and a terrifying, fallen world may sound familiar to many of us. In Judaism and then the Christian religion that came out of it, these ideas were commonplace, that Elohim/God created the whole earth, universe, waters, creatures, etc., as beautiful and good. And yet, creation was capable of falling into a state of isolation and death, called Sheol or sometimes Hades.

During the season of Advent [four weeks leading up to Christ-mas], Western Christians read the Hebrew prophets like Isaiah with the recurring theme: though Elohim made the world good, people aren’t seeing this good and aren’t seeing God, for that matter. People wonder if God is absent or missing. The beauty of the world and of humanity has faded and crumpled up like fallen leaves.

The Upside-Down has become reality.

Yes, it’s true that the season of Advent is really not supposed to be candy canes, mistletoe, sleigh bells, and so-awful-that-they’re-good Hallmark holiday specials. Advent is a bit Debbie Downer; it’s gloomy; it’s too honest about the world; it does really feel Upside-Down!

But that’s the point, really. And that’s why I’m grateful for the great storytelling and wisdom of Stranger Things. We ought to be more honest about the state of our world and the state of us. We shouldn’t ignore the completely Upside-Down ways we follow in society and how we let people we don’t even know tell us how to live, who to love, what to eat, what to believe, how to express ourselves, how to think.

What is more upside-down than that?

No, if we learn anything from this upside-down season we are all living in, it is that we must let our curiosity doors be flung wide open, re-imagining a world in which all people are valued as they are and where violence is not the answer to anything. And indeed, that we are living in the balance of at least two realities—the one being the world we are conditioned to see and the rules we are told to follow. This world can of course trick us into thinking that everything is “normal” and “okay” when in fact it is just the opposite. For under the surface there are people crying out for justice; right inside our walls are voices begging for acceptance; lurking in the shadows are true monsters who only seek to control, manipulate, and destroy; our bucolic, nostalgic worlds are only surface worlds.

For behind every wreath, Christmas tree, and stocking is an Upside-Down reality.

And waking up to this is to embrace the Upside-Down hope of Advent. For the story of Advent isn’t some religious hocus-pocus or some doctrinal creed to swallow down your throat. This is a season of actively waiting—waiting and working for a better world, a kinder humanity, a peaceful existence. This season invites us to embrace the dark and the light as one reality in the world and in us all. For all the Demogorgons out there, there are just as many Els. And for any moment when we feel like Will, trapped in a toxic, lonely place all by ourselves, there are people who still can hear us. They are listening. They are looking for us. We are not alone. Peace to you this season in the Upside Down.

 

 

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The Lighthouse

Luke 21:25-28   NRSV

There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.

The New Testament Gospels often quote Hebrew prophets like Isaiah, or at least, they paraphrase. Jesus of Nazareth, at various points in the Gospel stories, uses the words of Hebrew prophets to speak to the context in which people were living. In this Luke passage, Jesus refers to the chaos and confusion in the world, but also a breaking through of a new kind of era.

This is what is called apocalyptic literature, i.e. a writing that imagines the end of an era. It’s not necessarily the “end times” as some often refer to it. The end of the world is not a literal end like the earth exploding or a mass extinction or the planet disappearing or something like that. Save that for Hollywood and maybe The Leftovers.

the-leftovers-season-2dApocalyptic literature, however, is more about symbolism—that the sun, moon, stars, oceans, and land all reflect what people are feeling inside.

In this case, people are scared and worried. So nature reflects that. But Luke’s writer encourages the reader to not hide or give up. Why? Because the Son of Man [literally human one] is coming. This is a direct reference to another Hebrew scripture book, Daniel. Instead of hiding in fear, people are encouraged to stand up and raise their heads.

Luke’s apocalyptic writing is imaginative just like Isaiah. The Gospel is imagining this current moment as hopeful, redemptive, healing, and character-building—in spite of the external things all around that seem so daunting.

But in order for us to personalize this, we’ll have to do some imagining of our own. So let’s try this simple yet effective activity. It’s called lighthouse.

Visualize this: You are lost at sea on a stormy night, far, far away from the shore, in a rowboat. But off in the distance you notice a glimmer of light, leading you to land. If you row hard, you can make it. You reach the shore only to find someone waiting for you with a warm meal, dry clothes, and a place to rest.
lighthouse.jpeg

Take a moment to draw, color, or paint an image of a lighthouse on a piece of paper or any sort of medium. Depict yourself in the image, either in the boat on the water, in the lighthouse, or wherever you choose.

Who are the people who greet you there? They are the ones who fill you with love, encouragement, and peace. They accept you as you are; they help you become a better person.

What kind of food will you eat there? How does it smell and taste? Who do you share the food with?

How soft is the bed waiting for you inside the lighthouse? How does it feel to put on warm and dry clothes after such a long, wet, and cold journey?

This lighthouse is the source of guidance in your life—a place to stand up and raise your head and look for—especially when things are confusing, tense, worrisome, or fearful. This place of rest, peace, and strength is always there; you can always return to it.

We are at our most human when we admit that things are not perfect, when we admit that sometimes we feel broken or lost. We fully embrace our humanity when we put aside all the superficial things and false appearances that we maintain to look good for others.

Everyone deserves a lighthouse within themselves. Everyone deserves to feel loved and cared for and accepted. That lighthouse exists in all of us. We don’t have to wait for it or allow others to build it for us, because each one of us is enough. We have inside of us the capacity to love and care for ourselves. When we do, we are able to weather any storm and to find that flicker of light off in the distance.

Put your lighthouse drawing somewhere in your house or apartment or room where you can easily find it. Throughout this season, return to it. Remember that imagining wholeness and hope in this moment will lead you to wisdom and strength.

 

Hope on the Journey

Isaiah 60:1-5 (NRSV)

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms. Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice…

rekindle
How do you define hope?

This could be a trick question, but thinking about it will lead you to some wisdom. How do you define hope?

For many people [myself included], hope can seem like an insufficient thing. After all, look at the world. It’s easy for someone to tell another to hope when she is suffering or being discriminated against, or if she is stuck in a terrible situation. What do you tell Syrian refugees who are torn from their homes, only to be turned away by others? Should they have hope? Really?

Seems insufficient to me.

What do you tell the mother of the child who is gunned down randomly, for no reason, other than the fact that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time? Do you tell her to hope?

What about the young woman who is dying of cancer. She knows she’s terminal; the doctors say so. Do you tell her to hope?

I’m just being honest. I think sometimes we use the word and concept of hope to try to answer questions we cannot answer or to try to make us feel better about horrible situations.

So, that being said, here is what comes to my mind when I ask myself the same question:

How do I define hope?

I define hope as imagination.

Maybe that makes sense to you, maybe it doesn’t.
I define hope as imagination.

Because I’ve seen people in horrific situations exhibit an incredibly creative and healing form of imagination. They don’t just hope things will get better. They imagine what good could possibly come out of a horrific situation. They imagine whether or not anything good at all could happen.

But they are not just imagining about the future; they are imagining about this very moment. Can it be possible for the Syrian refugee to find a new life, or safety, or community? Can it be possible for the grieving mother to find joy and purpose again? Can it be possible for the terminal cancer patient to enjoy her life and positively impact others?

These kinds of questions are not superficial. Neither are they cop-outs like hope statements are sometimes. These questions are honest, messy, and real. It takes time to ask them and the process can be long and even painful. But when people ask themselves individually what they can imagine about their current situation, they are building within themselves the capacity to move forward.

The Hebrew prophets were doing the same thing, you see. Prophets like Isaiah weren’t really predicting the future, as some might claim. Neither were they sharing history or documenting what was happening in their time. Prophets were imagining what things could be like in the world. None of what they imagined was realized. Isaiah, for example, most likely written by a variety of Israelite priests, was put together over a span of years, some of them during the Babylonian exile.

In other words, we’re talking about war, and people being ripped from their homes and exiled to a foreign country. Mmmmm……

So it’s not a “hopeful” book, really. Isaiah IS an imagining book, though. The authors imagine what good could possibly come of this situation. They imagine what their reality would be like if people actually loved G-d in the way they said they did and loved others also. They imagined if justice reigned over injustice. They imagined if poor people were actually lifted up and encouraged and given food and shelter. They imagined if wars would cease and people would stop killing each other over religion, land, and power.

Yes, go ahead. Insert your John Lennon reference here.

Imagine.

And so, have you reflected on how you answer the question?

How do you define hope?

I encourage you to use your imagination. Don’t be superficial or seek easy answers. Let the question hang there for a while. Let your imagination go crazy. In this current moment, in your life, what can you imagine? How can things be joyful, peaceful, and fulfilling?

HOPE: What is it?

Isaiah 2:1-5

 

The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. In days to come the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth  instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!

Romans 13:8-12a

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.

hg.catchingfireThe Hunger Games: Catching Fire, recently released, is the second movie in a series based on the three novels written by Suzanne Collins. The story of the hunger games focuses on selected people from various districts who are called tributes. They must fight to the death in order to provide food for the people of their particular district. For 75 years, the oppressive, wealthy Capital has staged the games. But in the previous games, Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (played by Josh Hutcherson) won as a couple. Thus, they became victors—heroes for the oppressed people of the districts. But they are soon forced to obey the demands of the Capital’s leader, President Snow (played by Donald Sutherland) and compete to the death once again. Why? Because Katniss’ bravery and stubborn defiance have made her a symbol of hope for the people.

In one scene, Primrose Everdeen, Katniss’ sister says:

Primrose Everdeen: Since the last games, something is different. I can see it.

Katniss Everdeen: What can you see?

Primrose Everdeen: Hope.

It is this hope that has been the spark for a rebellion by the people of the districts against the oppressive rule of the Capital and President Snow. Sensing this, Snow puts an awful plan in motion to destroy Katniss and Peeta and to crush the hopes of the 12 districts.

snowOf course, the Hunger Games draws out some very appropriate and timely themes for us today. For certain, we live in a world in which there are millions of people who suffer needlessly without enough to eat, in unsafe conditions, and forced to compete against each other.

The strongest theme in this particular movie for me happens to be the use of fear to control people and the ability of hope to change the game.

That is what we will explore.

Throughout this season of Advent, I will be asking questions and encouraging you to ask them, too. So what questions do we have about hope?

I received two questions this week that I would like to share with you:

 1. What did Jesus have to say about hope?

 2. How can we hold onto hope when our life doesn’t seem to be filled with much hope?
How do we know there is light at the end of “our” tunnel?

 3. And my question: what IS hope?

Since I am the one talking, I get to start with my question.

The English dictionary defines hope as:

 -a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen.

 -a feeling of trust.

 -[verb] to want something to happen or be the case.

But honestly, a dictionary definition is not really adequate, because hope as a concept has developed over thousands of years, throughout cultures around the world. Psychologists who study human emotion state that hope is an emotive response to circumstances that are pretty terrible. Hope can result when people are unsure about the future or are currently experiencing a tough time. Something happens in a person’s brain—he/she can open up to a new reality and remove the mask of fear and despair. This mental image of hope allows a person to see the big picture and helps creativity grow.

But hope, say psychologists, is actually quite different from positive thinking. Being positive is a therapeutic and systematic process used to reverse pessimism. But it can often lead to a “false hope” in a fantasy or an outcome that is highly unlikely. On the other hand, hope is cultivated when people have a goal in mind, determination that the goal can be reached, and a plan as to how to achieve the goal.[1]

In other words, hope is more than just a positive, mental image. Hope is thinking that turns into action.

Hope is imagining a better tomorrow when today is terrible.

Hope is taking the small steps necessary towards that tomorrow.

But what does the Bible say about hope?
A lot, actually, but we do not have the time to explore all of it.

So let’s start with Isaiah, from the Hebrew Scriptures.
In the Biblical literature, hope is about expecting or anticipating.

Isaiah is part of what we call prophetic literature. Everything you read in Isaiah is symbolic and not literal. In this second chapter of the prophet’s book, we are told that Isaiah saw the words. How does one see words? The Hebrew language helps us here. “See” means “envision.” Right away, the words on a scroll or on a page jump out at us. They are alive; they don’t stay on the paper. They are envisioned. Seen. Alive.

Isaiah challenges the people to walk in Yahweh’s light. They are to reject war and turn to ways of peace. This was shalom. Shalom is wholeness. Shalom is a vision of balance, justice, and unity. But this shalom is not realized yet.

This is important to understand because Isaiah was not a prophet who lived in some fantasy world. He saw the extreme poverty, oppression, and injustice in the world. That was reality. Suffering was reality. Isaiah was a realist. Hope was not false or merely a once-a-year, Christmasy kind of hope.

The world of Isaiah’s time and the world of our time was and indeed is screwed up—out of balance. So to have hope seems absurd.

At least, it seems absurd if it is just a good idea or a feeling.
Hope without action would have been absurd. But Isaiah’s hope is a calling out to the people for change, for them to help, to heal, to bring justice, to find balance in themselves and then to bring balance to others.

Prophetic books like Isaiah do not tell us about a current reality, but rather, challenge us to start building an unseen reality.

Build hope where there is despair.

When the night is long, scary, and full of despair, can you imagine the dawn?

I hear Katniss Everdeen: The sun persists in rising, so I make myself stand.

sunpersists And so I return to one of the questions asked about hope.

How can we hold onto hope when our life doesn’t seem to be filled with much hope?

How do we know there is light at the end of “our” tunnel?

For each person, it will be different. The absence of hope, for many is fear; despair; hopelessness. So what is causing those feelings in your life? Identify the sources of fear and despair. And at the same time, identify a path that you may take to overcome fear and leave despair behind you. What steps can you take today? Tomorrow? Next week?
In short, we won’t hope without hopeful thinking turning into hopeful action. I can think positively and pray all I want, but if my prayers and thoughts don’t move me to positive action—I’m stuck in my fear and despair. This kind of progress in the midst of difficulty is not easy, for sure. But hope that is more than thinking is a spark that can set a fire.

And a very appropriate question during Advent: What did Jesus have to say about hope?

Actually, nothing. At least not specifically.

Jesus of Nazareth never mentioned the word or concept of hope. But he did talk a lot about fear. There are a myriad of Gospel passages attributed to Jesus that mention fear. And in each case, Jesus of Nazareth tells people: do not fear.

Why? Because when we fear, we have way too much trouble envisioning a new day.
When we are paralyzed by fear, we stop thinking wisely and certainly stop moving.
When fear dominates, we stop loving and accepting people as they are.

So it should come as no surprise to us that Jesus’ most famous words are echoed by Paul in the letter to Rome. And what else could be more appropriate for us to hear during Advent season [and every season of the year]?

Owe no one anything, except to love one another.
Awake from sleep.

In fact, wake up your neighbor from his/her sleep. Wake up the world.

For the dawn is near.

Hope is real—if we live it.

Do more than imagine hope. Forge a path for it in your life.

Amen.


[1] Snyder, Charles D. The Psychology of Hope: You Can Get Here from There. New York: The Free Press, 1994, pg. 19

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