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Breaking Open the Ordinary

Sandy Prather

02/22/2017

Back in 2008, Barack Obama rode a political wave daring people to hope. It was powered in part by his book The Audacity of Hope, which offered people reasons to dare to dream that things could be different. Today, fast-forwarding more than eight years, we find ourselves in a radically changed climate, one where Michelle Obama, in her November 2016 interview with Oprah Winfrey, speaks of the death of hope in the United States.

It is perhaps not only in the United States that we find an absence of hope. It is an absence that at first glance seems quite reasonable. Hope, after all, in the ordinary way we understand it, is “an expectation of something based on reasonable evidence of fulfilment.” When we look around and ask, are things getting better, not only locally but globally, it is difficult to find reasons for hope. We simply lack compelling evidence that it is so.

In a world where all things “right-wing” are stridently gaining ground, scientific data is systematically dismissed, alternative facts trump truth, terrorism seems unstoppable, refugees wander unwelcome, and the economic gap between rich and poor grows exponentially greater, we wonder, is hope in the future possible? A sober analysis of the evidence leads us to respond, “No.” We are tempted to forgo hope and accept a more realistic, sober point of view. We do not dare to dream that things could be better and so we settle for the status quo. We disengage and cease to work for change. Acquiescing to the unacceptable, we tolerate the intolerable.

But is that the way it has to be? Perhaps as people of faith we are called to something different. “What are the tools/disciplines of a spirituality for apocalyptic times?” writer Mary C. Grey asks. “The first,” she answers, “is the outrageous pursuit of hope in an era when it is not fashionable.”

The pursuit of hope as people of faith is outrageous simply because it is based not on the everyday evidence around us, but on our belief in God who, having created the heavens and the earth in love, does not abandon that creation. It looks beyond the ephemeral to discover and support the mysterious working of grace in all events.

After all, it had to be outrageous hope that allowed the writer of Lamentations to pen the words, “But this I call to mind and therefore I have hope. The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. The Lord is my portion, says my soul, therefore I will hope in him” (Lam 3:21ff). We recall that this was written during the exile in Babylon, one of the darkest periods of Israel’s history,.

It could only be an outrageous hope that held Julian of Norwich in its grasp as she affirmed, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well” even as the Black Death was sweeping across her country in waves that left thousands dead in its wake.

It must have been an outrageous hope that sustained Martin Luther King as he preached his famous “I have a dream” speech amidst the chaos and increasing violence of the civil rights movement.

It will be our outrageous hope that motivates and sustains us as well. Pope Francis, in a series of teachings in the opening weeks of 2017, has said, “It is hope which open new horizons, makes one capable of dreaming what is not even imaginable. Hope makes one enter the darkness of an uncertain future to walk in the light. The virtue of hope is beautiful; it gives us so much strength to walk in life.”

What helps us hold outrageous hope? Letting go of our expectations of success is a first step. Hope as a spiritual discipline cannot be based on our calculations as to whether something will work or not. Vaclav Havel, writer, dissident and Czechoslovakia’s first president, points out that we work for something not because we believe it will turn out well, but because it makes sense to do it, regardless of how it turns out. We let go of the results simply in order to do the next right thing.

In a world where strategic planning guides every project and assurances of success are demanded before we invest ourselves, such a stance will be outrageous indeed. It takes courage to step into the unknown and it is hard to endure uncertainty. Yet, letting go of results also frees us to step out in the ways our faith calls us and sustains us when we are discouraged. There is a wisdom in remembering Oscar Romero’s insight, “We are architects of a future not our own,” and we are able to take the long view of history.

Philosopher Reinhold Neibuhr has written, “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.” When everything around us conspires to convince us that hope is not realistic, our most faithful response is to profess and live out of an unquenchable and outrageous hope. It has to be a theological hope, grounded not what we see on the surface around us, but in our sure and certain faith in the God who does not abandon God’s people. Only then can we be practitioners of hope and witnesses in the world. “We have only begun to imagine the fullness of life. How could we tire of hope? So much is in the bud,” poet Denise Levertov writes (adapted, Candles in Babylon). Dare we live in fidelity to that vision of hope?

Prather, BEd, MTh, is a teacher and facilitator in the areas of faith and spirituality. She was executive director at Star of the North Retreat Centre in St. Albert, Alta., for 21 years and resides in Sherwood Park with her husband, Bob. They are blessed with four children and 10 grandchildren.