Faith, Hope and Misery

December 2, 2007
Rev. Douglas Taylor

Advent is upon us. Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the Christian season leading up to Christmas.  “Advent is marked by a spirit of expectation, of anticipation, of preparation, of longing.”  It lasts four Sundays and each week a candle is lit to represent some aspect of the spirit of the season.  Typically Hope is the first or second theme.  There is not a set pattern that all churches follow but Faith, Hope, Love and Joy is one configuration.  Hope, Peace, Love and Joy is another.  Advent means: arrival, or to come.  But what is coming? Dennis Bratcher, Director of the Christian Resource Institute and The Voice, writes that:

Advent is marked by a spirit of expectation, of anticipation, of preparation, of longing. There is a yearning for deliverance from the evils of the world, first expressed by Israelite slaves in Egypt as they cried out from their bitter oppression. It is the cry of those who have experienced the tyranny of injustice in a world under the curse of sin, and yet who have hope of deliverance by a God who has heard the cries of oppressed slaves and brought deliverance!


That is what the whole concept of the Messiah is about: deliverance from injustice and oppression!  The lead up to Christmas is not supposed to be about lights and decorations in the trees, shopping and giving gifts; advent is about the expectation of deliverance from injustice.

The world is a mess.  That’s not news to anyone here.  But our culture seems to have this overwhelming need to hide from it all; to not notice the problems of the world.  Our culture seems to want this time to be all joy and happiness and light; meanwhile there a growing anxiety going unaddressed in our midst.  With the wars and natural disasters, school shootings and the environmental crisis looming in our minds; we enter into this season of Advent with its theme of expectation and dealing with injustice.  And instead of being encouraged to make a difference we are fed a steady diet of commercials and Christmas music.  This pattern of playing nothing but Christmas music from Thanksgiving Day to Christmas morning began during the 2001 holiday season following the September 11 terrorist attacks. Several stations have moved it up to begin the week before Thanksgiving.  A few stations even began the all-Christmas music play-list as early as October 31st last year!  It is a bald-faced attempt to distract people from the worries and anxieties by ‘getting them into the Christmas Spirit.’

This sort of thing reminds me of the story of a priest who stopped reading the newspaper because the reports disturbed his prayers.  There are some religious traditions that encourage their adherents to avoid the world, to turn away from it lest they be tempted to conform.  A hallmark of liberal religions such as Unitarian Universalism is our insistence that we face the world with our eyes open, to engage in the travails of the day allowing that engagement to impact our faith and vice versa.  Indeed it is harder to stay engaged with the overwhelming injustice in the world and maintain an optimistic outlook.  It is hard to sell a gospel of hope while acknowledging a discouraging reality of suffering and injustice.  Yet that is exactly what we do here.  We offer a gospel of hope in the face of the world’s terrors.

James Luther Adams, our 20th century Unitarian theologian has written that our optimism is a foundational aspect of our way of faith.  “The resources,” he writes, “that are available fro the achievement of meaningful change justify an attitude of ultimate optimism.”  He goes on to claim that all prophets, those in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures as well as those from contemporary times, all prophets speak with an active expectation of righteousness without neglecting the tragic reality of life.  Adams says they “recognize this tragic nature of the human condition [and] continue to live with dynamic hope.”

People are struggling with this kind of thing, and religions are learning that traditional answers are coming up short.  There was an article in the Christian Science Monitor back at the end of July began with the line: “People in the pews want to know why, if God is loving, the innocent suffer – and they aren’t always happy with the answers from the pulpit.”  The article was a report on the annual Craigville Colloquy, which had chosen to deal with the theological issues of misery and tragedy.  Attendance was unusually high.  Attendance this year was unusually high, a fact which organizers credited to the effect of recent tragedies such as 9/11, hurricane Katrina and last spring’s massacre at Virginia Tech.

“It’s getting harder to give answers that do in fact satisfy,” says [UCC pastor] Rev. Richard Coleman. Events are producing “a whole rash of dying, killing, and suffering that for us just doesn’t add up. That makes the old question more intense because we want someone’s life, when it ends in death, to have some meaning” and not simply succumb to the inexplicable.

                        (Christian Science Monitor article from the July 25, 2007 edition)

Just counting natural disasters, the amount of death and destruction is staggering. The 9.3 magnitude earthquake (3rd largest ever recorded) causing the tsunami that devastated coastal areas of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, southern India, and Thailand, killing some 275,000 people was only three years ago.  Hurricane Katrina, from August 2005 caused nearly 2,000 deaths was clearly not only a natural disaster – it was a disaster of politics, race and class.  Three months later 40,000 people were killed by the magnitude 7.6 earthquake in Pakistan.  Other reports double that number.  Famine in Niger, flooding in Central America, mudslides in the Philippines, and yet another earthquake in java this time, adds up to many more thousands dead just in the past three years.  Bangladesh had a cyclone last month causing 4,000 deaths.  Such overwhelming numbers, it is hard to take it in.  Plus there is massive species extinction, a growing environmental crisis, wars in the Middle East and elsewhere, slavery resurging, the AIDS pandemic in Africa, genocide in Darfur, torture, terrorism, and yet the world is still a breathtakingly beautiful place and all people are precious.

As the pastor from that article said, there is “a whole rash of dying, killing, and suffering that for us just doesn’t add up.”  The message of hope – even during the Christmas season – is a hard message to swallow in the face of such suffering and tragedy.  And I am one, to be sure, who has been caught trying to say our situation now is worse than in any other time.  And whenever I catch myself saying “The tragedies and atrocities we face are worse than ever before,” there is always someone saying, “Things have always been bad.”  Indeed, listen to this poem written by Theognis, a 6th-century Greek poet.

Hope is the only good god remaining among mankind;
the others have left and gone to Olympus.
Trust, a mighty god has gone, Restraint has gone from men,
and the Graces, my friend, have abandoned the earth.
Men’s judicial oaths are no longer to be trusted, nor does anyone
revere the immortal gods; the race of pious men has perished and
men no longer recognize the rules of conduct or acts of piety.

That certainly sounds contemporary: restraint is gone, people don’t trust each other, and no one recognizes the rules of conduct.  The only rule of conduct these days is: whatever you can get away with.  So, I’ll concede that certain basic aspects of what’s wrong with the world today are what have been wrong all along.  There have always been earthquakes and wars and devastating diseases, people who have pushed the boundaries of decency.  Certainly!  There are, however, two things which cause me to say we are facing suffering and injustice at an unprecedented level today.  Fundamentally, nothing has changed and what we are dealing with today is not new.

And yet, the first major difference is very simply a matter of statistics.  We have nearly twice as many people on the planet now as we did when I was born.  The global population was roughly 3.7 billion the year I was born.  We are at 6.7 billion now.  It took us millions of years to reach our first billion human beings on the planet; we reached that mark in 1820.  It then took us only 110 years to reach 2 billion.  30 years after that there were 3 billion.  In 14 years we had 4 billion, another 14 years so another billion added on.  12 years later in 2000 we saw 6 billion.  Anyone here born in 1965?  We’ve doubled the world population since your birth.  You can’t tell me that twice as many people on the planet have no impact on the amount of trouble we experience.

The other feature that has dramatically altered our situation is technology.  We have instant communication and access to information.  A few hundred years ago if an earthquake happened in China people in the Europe wouldn’t know about it for months if ever.  Now we hear about it as it is happening, as if it is happening nearby.  When someone walks into a political office in New Hampshire with a bomb strapped to his chest, or actually road flares using this weekend’s example, everyone can hear about it and have a chance to get anxious or upset about it.  At another time in history, few people would have that chance.  We would have heard about the story after it had been resolved – without the concern of what would happen next.  Instant news raises the anxiety of society.  It’s not that more bad things are happening, simply that we know about more of them as they are happening.  And I could make an argument that indeed more bad things are happening – seeing as there are twice as many people on the planet as there were 40 years ago; but regardless of that, the anxiety that is charging through our culture now has very little to do with how much has gone on and more to do with how aware we are of what is going on right now.

And yet, paradoxically, we are distanced from suffering.  A few hundred years ago illness and death were not contained to hospitals and nursing homes – they happened in the family living room.  Now when there is illness and death we call a specialist and send the aberration away.  And then we sit down in front of our TVs and computers and witness several violent events each evening!  We have instant access to the details and the pathos of the story, both fictional and real, but no relation to it.  We have no agency to actually deal with the information.

At times I grow frustrated with myself and you all around me.  The world is on fire and I preach sermons about enlightenment, religious literacy, balance, and what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist.  And yet, it matters.  With a deep breath I remind myself that life is an ebb and flow, a breathing in and a breathing out, sermons gentle inspiration and sermons of fierce conviction.  The trick is to not turn fully away from the fierce heat of reality during the moments of retreat lest we be tempted to escape into denial.  For in that escape the great anchor of hope is perverted to spurious faith.  Funny, is it not?  Some religions warn against engaging with the world lest ye be tempted and here we warn against not engaging lest ye likewise be tempted!

Which brings me back to Pandora and power of hope. The Greek story of Pandora is told to explain why evil and suffering exist.  The moral almost seems to be: Curiosity killed the cat.  Pandora couldn’t resist looking in the box, it was so tempting!  Eve, I mean Pandora, was set up!  How could she not fall for the trap!  “Don’t eat from that tree in the middle of the garden.”  “Don’t look in this box we’ve given to you as a part of the special gifts from the Gods!”   I understand the logic, the people wanted to understand why there was suffering and tragedy in the world.  They also wanted to affirm that God or the gods were in control.  So the Gods made suffering a part of the plan: the question then becomes, “why?”  And we could spend years on that, indeed people have.

But here is an interesting question that was raised by one commentator.  Does the box serve as a prison or as a pantry for hope?  Is hope left in Pandora’s Box to indicate that it is readily available to us all or is it caught in there and held against us?  Do we read it pessimistically or optimistically?  Some have suggested that, contrary to the way most people understand the last line in the story, hope is held captive and was not released into the world.  This leaves us with only ‘empty Hope.’  “Not only are humans plagued by a multitude of evils, but they persist in the fruitless hope that things might get better.”  (Beall, E. “The Contents of Hesiod’s Pandora Jar: Erga 94-98,” Hermes 117 (1989) 227-30)  Marx called religion the opiate of the masses, a tool to keep people hoping for more when there is no more.  Perhaps our propensity for hope is simply one more cruel trick of the Gods to keep the game interesting, lest we all quit.

Bot, no!  Such is not the case!  Thankfully, life is not a cruel trick.  The hope in which we trust is a hope that is not contained.  We believe in a hope that is grounded in reality because we will not blind ourselves to what is really out there.  The hope we preach here is a compelling call to engage with the world because we have a crucial role to play in making life meaningful and beautiful for ourselves and those around us.  For all the atrocities recorded in the news, there are thousands of deeds of courage and love that are catalogued no where – though accumulated in the heart of each person.

We may be tempted into apathy, our culture would thrive it seems to have us complacent.  But we don’t go in for conformity.  Going with the flow has never been one of our virtues.  Our faith is a dynamic interaction with the world, an active engagement with all of reality.  We look out at the world and say, “Yes it is beautiful, yes it is good.  Yes there is trouble and violence and terror but we will not hide, we will not give up.  Life is still worth the love and hope we offer.”

James Luther Adams said that Unitarian Universalism and other prophetic liberal religions answer ‘yes’ to life.

The affirmative answer of prophetic religion, (writes Adams,) which may be heard in the very midst of the doom that threatens like thunder, is that history is a struggle in dead earnest between justice and injustice, looking towards the ultimate victory in the promise and fulfillment of grace.  Anyone who does not enter into that struggle with the affirmation of love and beauty misses the mark and thwarts creation as well as self-creation. (from “The Five Smooth Stones of Liberalism” in On Being Human Religiously by James Luther Adams)

No false hope for us to cling to in fear.  No empty hope will serve here.  Our hope lies in seeing reality and suffering for what it is and knowing that together we can work to improve the situation.  Therein lies our hope.   Do light a candle this advent season amidst the struggle for the hope and expectation that resides within you and those around you to yet bring forth an opening that will allow for one more step toward a more just and beautiful world.

In a world without end

May it be so