Sunday, November 27, 2016

"Hope is ridiculous"

In the denomination to which I belong, each week of Advent has a theme or a keyword: Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love.

I like that. I think those are four things the world desperately needs - shoot, they are things I desperately need - and it's good to be reminded of them and to celebrate them.

The traditional Advent wreath we use has three purple and one pink candle. The pink candle is for the third week - Joy. Which makes me smile because Pinkie Pie. And the minister this morning, commenting on the different weeks, referred to "joy as a full-contact sport" which again I love and I think that's an apt description of Pinkie Pie. And yes, I know Ponies are totally secular and all (even as some fanfic writers have tried to either Narnia-fy the world, or create its own religion). But I maintain that things that are good, even if they do not intend to point to the ultimate Good, still remind us of it. And the idea of full-contact joy....I said earlier on Twitter it's been a while since I felt that. Oh, I've been happy, but the kind of happiness I have is a quieter sort. There's an ad running right now, I think it's for Wal-Mart? Or one of those other Stores That Seemingly Sell Everything and they play Chic's "Freak Out" over video of kids going NUTS over getting what they wanted for Christmas. Confession: the ad makes me slightly sad because I cannot think of anything - well, any THING - that would make me that happy. I could be that happy over, say, finding out a cure for cancer has been discovered, and it's one that will cure someone I know. Or seeing the too-many people in my life who are hurting experience some kind of improvement in health or mobility or finances or job prospects or relationships or whatever. Or I could be that happy over having worked to build a relationship with someone and having him declare, openly, his love for me and his desire to spend the rest of our lives together. Or I could be that happy over a good friend of mine that I see too seldom happening to move to my town or at least nearby, and have the opportunity to spend more time hanging out with them. But I cannot think of a THING that would make me happy in the way those kids are happy over a toy. Maybe that's a mark of maturity and I should be happy over that, I don't know. But it does making an "I want this for Christmas" list a bit more complicated, because all of the things I really and truly want cannot be bought in a store.

But anyway. This week is Hope. The title of this post comes from an Advent devotional my mom picked up at their church; she got copies for both me and my brother's family. Interestingly, it's one put out by Phillips Seminary - go figure; a church in Illinois having a devotional from an Oklahoma Seminary, but my local church doesn't have it.

Anyway. The reading for today is from Dr. Peluso-Verdend and is about hope, and he talks about how hope is ridiculous - in the sense that the gap between how things are and how things "should" be in a Kingdom sense is as large as it's ever been. But still - he says he has hope, and lists a variety of things, like the rapprochement (following Vatican II) of Catholics and Protestants (And I would add: largely a cessation of violence, at least as far as I can tell, between Irish Catholics and Protestants). And the fall of the Berlin Wall. And the greater acceptance of a diversity of people...

I know I've said this year on many occasions, "People are bad and seem to be getting worse" or "the world is bad and getting worse" but it's hard to keep going thinking that. And really, my own life is pretty good, and in some ways pessimism is a rejection of gratitude, of not being thankful for what you do have. 

But yes. Hope is ridiculous. And yet, I try to cling to it. I haven't been hopeful enough this year, and I think that's part of my distress - losing some of my ability to see the good in people or in situations. Granted, it has been a year that has battered a lot of us in a lot of ways. (For me: the financial uncertainty at my university, seeing someone who had been there longer than I had lose their job because they lacked the protection of tenure, illness and injury among a lot of people I cared about (starting with the Friday night trip my dad took to the ER back in January, which fortunately ended happily, but which raised the specter even more strongly for me of "There will come a time when you will be making one last trip up there"). My own ongoing abdominal issues which do seem to be partly stress, partly re-pulling a persistently damaged muscle, and perhaps partly perimenopause. Instability in the world, worries about the geopolitical future. The closure of several small businesses I liked and frequented.

But still I hope: I was thinking the other day, "Downtown was bleak and empty when you first moved here, then a lot of shops opened. Now they've closed but couldn't it possibly cycle back around to more shops opening some time, if the economy gets better?" Or that maybe the educational establishment way-of-thinking will cycle back to "you know? Technology is fine but it's over used and it can be used badly" and I won't feel like such a Luddite dinosaur for using chalk-and-talk. Or maybe they'll come up with something new to fix the chronic pain in people I know who have it.

The idea of hope, though - the minister this morning pointed out that it has to be an active thing; it has to grow out of faith. The kind of hopes I listed - for some new shops, for a change in how we do higher ed, for pain relief for people - is more wishing than hoping; hoping is something where you can make a difference and you choose to do it even if it is small. And I don't know. I have no head for business (and no time) so I know I wouldn't open a shop downtown. And the research I do is about as far from pain-relief research as you can be and still be in biology. I don't know. All I can do is what I can do, and I try to do my best.

Another thing about hope, though - hope is the faith that says, "Things will somehow be okay." I've talked before about how I think there's a certain courage in decorating for Christmas - pushing back the early dark with lights and candles, putting up things that are sweet and pretty and remind us of happy times, setting up a Nativity to remind us (even as most Nativity sets are probably pretty inaccurate - my own has a pale, blonde Mary, and I am sure the real Mary would have been olive-skinned and dark-haired, and the baby Jesus is blond,  but then again - perhaps there's something to be said for the Divine appearing to us in a form that is like how we are, to remind us that we have some spark of it in us.

And I saw in some of the little towns I passed through, coming back, those decorations it seems many small towns have - the trees or stars or candles made out of a sort of stiff garland, that are made to be hung on light poles. Some of them even light up at night. And again, to me, there seems to be something brave about that - the budget for putting those up, whatever it is, some would argue could be "better spent" on other things - patching a pothole or two, adding a few shares to the police retirement fund. And yet....after having gone through a time of very strict budgeting this spring of just buying the essentials, there is something about being able to spend maybe a LITTLE frivolously that makes life seem more worth it. And it does represent a certain hope or trust - that the however-many dollars were spent paying the guys to put them up, or to repair/get new ones, or the little cost of the extra electricity to light them - that it won't break you, that there is money in the budget for that.

In a way, it's kind of like the check I write each week to put in the offering plate; I know once or twice I thought this spring, "Can I really afford to keep giving like I do?" but I did, because.... I don't know. I didn't want to go down the path of stopping giving. Oh, I dialed back some on other causes: didn't give to a couple scholarship funds because I felt like giving through church and also to some disaster-relief/poverty-relief groups I contribute to were more important at the moment. But to me, it did represent a trust - saying "I can afford to do without this money even as my paycheck has been cut" because one of the problems I DO have in regards money, I know, is insecurity - I still haven't replaced the fence on the back of my house or the broken ceiling fan because even as I look at the money in my savings account (earning its grand .05% every month) I think, "But what if something really big and bad happened and you needed that money? You can do without a ceiling fan." I do still sometimes operate in what I call "grad student mode" (and not just with money: I still believe that somewhere there is a "permanent record" where my every work-related trespass is recorded, and once a certain critical mass accrues, I will be out on my ear).

But I really do need to gut up and tell myself: you know how to budget. You have stock investments that could be sold in a major emergency, even if you think of them as your retirement. Your parents would help you in a pinch. And I need to call the fence guy and go buy a new ceiling fan and schedule the electrician....and tell myself that this is no different and is perhaps even more essential than the town putting up the bells and stars and other decorations.

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