Monday, December 03, 2007

Overture to a New Creation: How to Live in Hope

Luke 21: 25-36

Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and … the worries of this life…be alert at all times”

In the kitchen this morning, it may be, there is a man watching and listening. It is a distracted watching and a listless listening, to be sure. Loss and depression take there toll, and why wouldn’t I be over his death after two years anyway? Come Sunday, another Sunday morning, and here I am and here she is not.

The nibbling joys of Sunday stay. Coffee. A pastry. The radio carrying music and word, popular and religious. Newspapers strewn. Attending church in slippers. The comforting sameness of the radio that has been on, he does not flinch to notice it, all day and all night and all day and all night. A presence, in the dark.

Now the days are short, and with the gray sky and the shorten day, the season seems like an endless Bergman film, gray and clouded.

You may know this good person. You may be he, or he you. Or not. He is struggling with, wrestling against despair, which sometimes feels like—he remembers the recent obituary of William Styron—what Styron called ‘the despair beyond despair’ (NYTimes, 10.18.06). He earned the naming rights.

Now in this smaller, suburban home, there is a view of the field beyond. Today, windswept, stubbled, empty. He turns back to the paper. The radio carries tune and phrase, now a talk show, now a recording, now a worship service.

He wonders a moment about the difference between being lonely and being alone.

Then—it takes an effort—to the newspaper again. But concentration falters. It is an up hill climb. The gaiety of shopping, here, and the carnage of war, there, sitting side by each, column by column, like eggs and bacon on a worn platter. How can this have come to pass? One in seven of our young people has killed, by accident, a civilian. 3000 have died, on our side. 15,000 serious casualties. 50,000 on the other. And no easy way forward or backward or out. He thinks of her neighbor’s son, just finished at West Point.

The blanket of despond settles ever thicker on top of distraction and listlessness.

Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation …and the worries of this life…be alert at all times”

The hymn sung in the service, just there, reminds him of fifty years ago, when they were young and living in the city of Boston, now a two hour drive away. On Sunday they would make a circuit. One day to hear Howard Thurman at the Marsh Chapel. One day to Trinity Episcopal and Theodore Ferris. One day across the river to Harvard Memorial Church and George Buttrick. It was a time of hope! It was time of a common hope! Where had it gone?

His spouse, a Presbyterian by temperament, preferred Buttrick. Where was that collection of sermons? There. He pulls it down, and finds the underline passage. And the line she loved to quote from Buttrick, “we should not know hope had we not known despair” (Sermons from a University Pulpit, 56).

Now the sermon of the service has commenced, a newer voice, flat vowels, slower cadence, middle Atlantic sound. There is the announcement, at Advent, of an overture to a New Covenant. On a reliable hope hangs our future, says this less familiar voice. He is glad to have had the apocalyptic myth, from the ancient church, explained a week before. This past language and imagery, metaphorically so curiously modern, but theologically now empty. The world did not end in the first century, thank God! And all our sins, tragedies, and errors, will not themselves end it in the 21st, though we must make haste to make peace.

And the memory of fifty years past, and the hint of honesty and hope in the radio sound, and the flood of recognition, in gratitude, for each day.

As Styron also wrote, the one creditable thing about depression is that, in many cases, it can be conquered (ibid).

Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation… and the worries of this life…be alert at all times”

The service, its music and word, hum along in background. He is on the bridge, the service in the stern. The wind out on the bay is rough, carrying the salt from the sea, and in its memories carrying the salt of many wounds.

One of the service hymns reminds him of another. Finlandia. They were singing in the great Trinity Cathedral those years ago…

This is my song, O God of all the nations,
A song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
Here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine;
But other hearts in other lands are beating
With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

My country's skies are bluer than the ocean,
And sunlight beams on clover-leaf and pine.
But other lands have sunlight too and clover,
And skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
Oh, hear my song, O God of all the nations,
A song of peace for their land and for mine.

There is hope in every prayer. He feels a coursing hope moving through his mind for the moment. He puts a note on the refrigerator: Hope—a daily prayer.

Hope gives way to thought.

He sees again the book of poetry about which he had been thinking. Seamus Heaney:

Human beings suffer,
They torture one another,
They get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
Can fully right a wrong
Inflicted and endured.

The innocent in gaols
Beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker's father
Stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
Faints at the funeral home.

History says, Don't hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme

In the distance the preacher’s voice hums along on the radio.

There is that feeling. A feeling of absolute dependence? A feeling of full acceptance? A feeling of freedom? Old names from her studies in religion swirl around like leaves—Schleiermacher, Tillich, ML King. A prayer, a thought, a deed. Ways to live in hope. To pray, each day. To think, each week. To act, each month.

He is free, unlike the pew bound, to bounce up and flick through a well worn collection of family readings. In those years they would make clippings when something heard, or something in the paper stood out.

He puts a second note on the refrigerator: Hope: a daily thought.

Hope gives way to thought. Thought gives way to deed.

He thumbs along, thumbing through the yellowed clippings.

Here is one from South Africa. Now his thought wanders to all that has happened, and peaceably, there…

Didn’t he read just recently about laws to protect a broad freedom to marry like those in his own state? He muses: Canada, Belgium, Netherlands, Spain, South Africa, Massachusetts—all the great, free lands…

Great lands of great minds past:

Pierre Eliot Trudeau (luck is when preparation and opportunity meet…neighboring the USA is like sleeping next to an Elephant*)

Baruch Spinoza (Peace is not the absence of war, it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice*)

Miguel de Unamuno (Warmth, warmth warmth! We are dying of cold, not of darkness. It is not the night that kills, but the frost*)

Nelson Mandela (I am not truly free, if I am taking away someone else’s freedom*),

And then the words of a Bay State native, Robert F Kennedy, Cape Town, 6/66, forty years old…

We must recognize the full human equality of all of our people before God, before the law, and in the councils of government. We must do this, not because it is economically advantageous, although it is; not because of the laws of God command it, although they do; not because people in other lands wish it so. We must do it for the single and fundamental reason that it is the right thing to do*. (* RAH notes)

A third note he puts on the refrigerator: Hope: A daily deed.

And what shall I do?

Attend a meeting

Write a letter

Sign a check

Listen to an adversary

Visit a victim

Offer a gift

Forgive an assailant

Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation …and the worries of this life…be alert at all times”

Now the choir has lifted its voice in praise. There is the cascading beauty of the blended voices.

Says he, to no one present, to one in particular.

‘I have known despair and I have known hope. Both. And well. And I shall them both again. Both. And well. But I will set my sail, into the teeth of the off shore wind. And I will live in hope. In daily prayer. In daily thought. In daily deed.’

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed

Perplexed, but not driven to despair

Persecuted, but not forsaken

Struck down, but not destroyed (2 Cor. 4: 6)

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