Hope in the Hurricane

presented September 14, 2018

Many years ago I was part of a women’s ritual group at Grand River Unitarian.  One cold fall night we were cosied up on the couches in the youth room doing an exercise about the essentials in our lives. We each had 10 small slips of paper in a bowl. We were asked to write down the ten most important people, things, values, what we couldn’t do without.  What was essential to our well being.

We named family members, pets, work, hobbies, passions, homes, places, money, love, hope, health, beloved treasures. All of our lists were similar, the same basic needs – just varying in the details.

We held our bowl of treasures, filled with so many essential things that made our lives worth living.  The abundance felt good, affirming. Then we were asked to lose 5 of them.  To simply take 5 slips of paper out of our bowls and let them go.

We lost homes, places, hobbies, pets. We all kept our children and spouses on the lists.

Now we each held a bowl of 5 slips of paper.  That didn’t seem so bad.  It felt like clarity.  5 essential things is pretty good.  Health, family, and values, were the things we all held onto.

Then we were asked to lose 2 more.

This was harder.  We had to choose who we saved, what really mattered the most.  It took awhile.  We would take one slip out only to return for another.

I kept my son Silas and his father.  And hope.

Now my bowl only had 3 slips of paper.  It was looking a little empty, but I thought, if this is all I had, I would be okay.  The three of us together, looking after each other, with hope to pull us forward. Clarity.  That which was essential to my life.  The people I love the most and hope.

And then we were asked to take out 2 more slips of paper.  To leave only one thing in our bowl, the one thing most necessary to sustain us.

What do you choose?

I chose hope. If I lost everything and everyone dear to me, I wanted to be able to hold onto hope.

When all else is lost, my bowl holds a little slip of hope. And it is enough.

Hope is the sense that there is good in the world, that even when things are bleak, there is still bright beauty somewhere, and that good, that beauty will return to your own life.

Hope is essential to being human.  As creatures capable of inflicting great pain on each other, of being so astonishingly destructive, we would not survive without hope.

To be without hope is to be in despair, to drown in the bleak thought that life as it is in the worst times is how it always will be. It turns living into mere existence, draining away the brightness of life.  But when the worst is here, we all need hope that life will improve.

Not the “just ignore it and things will get better anyway” wishful thinking, but a robust hope which reminds us we have agency and can act upon our circumstances.

Hope can provide the energy and motivation to look towards a better future and start moving. Hope energizes us by enlarging our vision, helps us to see more than just the moment in front of us.

It’s very easy to go through life with our eyes down, focused just on the steps in front of us. Naturalists teach that in walking in the woods, the way to see wildlife – to catch a glimpse of the fox slinking away behind the fallen oak – is to soften and widen our gaze.  To develop owl eyes.

In owl eyes we lift our eyes from our feet, look ahead, and keep our gaze soft and wide, not focused only on the path ahead, but aware of what is beside us as well as in an arc in front of us.

Hope gives us owl eyes, so that we don’t just see the obstacles that can loom large in front of us, but can also see that the path we are on isn’t the only way through. Hope reminds us to keep seeing more, to look for possibilities.

This religious tradition is founded in hope.  Unitarian Universalism arises from people who believed religion could be different, that God could be understood differently, that society could be different.

 Our spiritual ancestors read the bible for themselves and began to reject church doctrine.  They believed Christianity wasn’t being true to Jesus’s words.  They published books and pamphlets, formed their own societies, sought religious freedom.

The books were banned, the societies broken apart, and people were exiled, arrested, even killed.

It took centuries, but they had hope that new religious forms were possible and kept trying. We are the legacy of those ancient hopes, and we carry it forward. Our principles are hopeful. We want justice, equity and compassion in a world in which these values are in short supply. We seek world community, a peaceful world where all are free in a reality of war and slavery.

As people of the chalice, we are formed by hope.  An energizing, active hope that motivates us to change ourselves and society.

 

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Hope is not a wishful denial of reality. It is not the belief that everything is fine or will be fine. There is suffering and destruction all around us.

One obvious example is the current suffering from the destruction of Hurricane Florence and now Typhoon Mangkhut.  In the United States, North and South Carolina have been pummeled for days by extreme winds, record rainfall, flooding, and power outages. The Typhoon is causing the same issues in the Philippines, Hong Kong, and is now heading towards China.

There wasn’t anything anyone could do about these monster storms.  No way to divert them, or deflect them or avoid them.

All people could do is be prepared, to think ahead and protect themselves and find safe harbour. I imagine it is an exercise in clarity.  What is essential?  What must we carry in our little bowl of treasures?  What do we need?

I believe having hope in these circumstances is vital. Hope helps us to prepare for the storms of life.  That robust, active hope doesn’t shrug its shoulders and say “what hurricane? It will be fine. Just watch more tv”.

Robust hope says the storm will get bad before it gets better, but it will end. Preparing for the worst helps you get to the better on the other side. Hope makes plans.  Hope revises plans.  Hope makes new plans with new information.

Hope protects its home with boarded up windows and tarps.  Hope reaches out to neighbours and loved ones.  Hope says it’s better to get through this together.  Hope gets people out to safe harbour.

Hope is a motivational system that helps us move forward, and shows us that there are many paths to move forward.

We can’t pretend the hurricane isn’t there, we don’t know what will happen, but we can manage our circumstances.   We find ways to survive through our own efforts and those around us.

Having hope that we can survive the storm is motivating. It helps us to ensure that outcome by acting, working towards survival.

And this requires that expansive hope.  Not hope that you can beat the storm or even survive without harm, but that you can manage the storm and the outcomes.

When our hope depends on winning the next battle, or stopping the latest horror, it is easy to lose hope.  To focus on how things got worse.  To feel like a failure when we don’t succeed.

Hope pinned to a particular outcome can undermine us.

Hope that gives us the agency to act, means no matter what happens, we can feel that we tried.  We planned, we prepared, we did what we could to make things better.

We need those owl eyes of hope, not just to look around for the possibilities in the moment, but to also swivel our heads around to see the longer view.

Writer Rebecca Solnit says that if you take the long view, you’ll see how startlingly, and how regularly, things change. Of course, it doesn’t just happen, things change by the “incremental effect of countless acts of courage, love and commitment, the small drops that wear away stones”.

Life is always in motion, things change, hope is worthwhile.  

Unitarian Universalism didn’t just happen.  The Catholic church didn’t just say ‘go right ahead and develop a new theology, here’s some gold chalices to get you started’.

Our ancestors, ordinary people, had hope that religion could be different and kept trying, despite the storms. Thousands of people over the centuries in Europe and North America kept believing that spirituality was larger than the bible, larger than a text, grounded in our own experiences. They just kept seeking a way through, looking towards a horizon of hope.

I doubt our 16th century Unitarian ancestors were planning on water ceremonies, but I think they would be pleased.  We are open to all, based in reason and experience, and aren’t restricted by doctrine.

Life is change.  Hope is always worthwhile.

Hope is not simply an emotional state, hope lies in action. Hope energizes, motivates, reminds us that we can act. Even in the face of a hurricane, hope asks us to accept that we can work towards a better future.

For the people in the hurricane this week, things will get worse before they get better. After the rain, the flood. After the flood, the mess. After the mess, the clean up. After the clean up, the repair.

Things won’t get back to normal for many, instead there will be a new normal. But in the midst of the destruction, people are helping one another. Hundreds of volunteer rescue teams are going out in boats to get people to dry land. It’s really all we can do. It is the essential work when all else is stripped away.

When normal is gone and the storm goes on, all we can do is help one another to get through it. We can act with hope.

I’m going to end with a poem by Gary Snyder.  I found this poem in my twenties when I was full of despair at the way of the world, and it has always helped me to hold onto hope.

The rising hills, the slopes,
of statistics
lie before us,
the steep climb
of everything, going up,
up, as we all
go down.

In the next century
or the one beyond that,
they say,
are valleys, pastures,
we can meet there in peace
if we make it.

To climb these coming crests
one word to you, to
you and your children:

stay together
learn the flowers
go light

May your bowl of essentials include hope. May we continue our ancestor’s legacy of hope and action. May we have hope in the hurricane, stay together, and go light.

So Say We All

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