“When the time is the darkest, that is when the light of hope is the strongest,” says the Rev. John Boley. Advent 2020 is time to reflect on the difference between hope and optimism.
Clergy Assistant, Michigan Conference
Like all of us, I come into this Advent season with a mixture of thoughts, feelings, fears, and anxieties. It goes without saying that we’re experiencing things we never have before. Into these dark days and hours, how can the Church even talk about the 1st and 2nd coming of Christ or the themes of the Advent season?
I was struck by our traditional lighting of the Advent candles, and especially the lighting of the first candle – the candle of HOPE. I guess it hit me in a new way that the candle of HOPE is the inverse of the presence of darkness – that when the time is the darkest, that is when the light of HOPE is the strongest. I’ve always known that cerebrally, but it has taken on new meaning this year.
In the stable and privileged life that I have led, Advent/Christmas always brought renewed concentrations of faith amidst fun and happy times. Advent/Christmas always brought an emphasis on Christ-centered good things – and we, of course, need to focus on these every year – but my circumstances have been such that it was often done with sentimental meanings, surface happiness and good times, feel-good opportunities, and optimism for the future.
So I’m struck again by the difference between HOPE and optimism. Optimism is based on happenings and outward circumstances – that events of my or our life will arrange themselves to make for solid happiness and well-being. Optimism is good.
But HOPE is very different. HOPE exists as a spirit-infused presence that instills well-being despite circumstances, despite fears and anxieties, despite outward appearances, despite what the near or long-term future looks like. HOPE is a gift from God that exists far and above even the possible presence of circumstantial optimism, and regardless of it.
During this particular Advent season, as we lit our first candle of HOPE, this gift from God has been driven home in me in a way that it has never been before. Here are just some of the elements of this HOPE during this season.
- HOPE in the New Church. Obviously, the Church is being transformed before our very eyes. Even before the Pandemic, the Church was being transformed into a new era. And now, the rapid implementation of virtual worship services and meetings means that we are never going back to our 1950’s style church. We are being forced to update our use of technology, seek new ways to be in ministry, and have a new understanding of outreach. Perhaps our obsession with church buildings will now be placed in a better perspective. But at the same time, many of us have a greater appreciation for personal presence and the community nature of congregations. Our HOPE is a stronger Church of Jesus Christ and a stronger United Methodist Church, moving forward into the next decades able to combine the best aspects of this evolving new Church reality, despite apparent setbacks to our way of doing church in this Pandemic.
- HOPE for Creation Care. Many of us have felt that even with this virus in our midst, there is a sense that Creation is healing itself from our abuses. We cannot take the physical world for granted anymore. Incarnational faith demands a powerful appreciation and action to care for Creation. As I am writing this, I hear a report that humpback whales are back in New York harbor as the water is much cleaner right now, and there is abundant food. Our HOPE is in pervasive efforts to combat climate change and preserve natural resources despite many forces aligned to abuse and exploit God’s Creation.
- HOPE in Human Sacred Worth. This Pandemic, of course, has brought into focus the gross inequities in our social and economic world. The callous efforts of the current administration concerning human life at many levels will bring a greater appreciation of the sacredness of all human life. The resiliency of human beings and the concerted efforts to bring our coronavirus vaccine to the world overcome so much callous disregard for individual human beings. Our HOPE is in the undercurrents of appreciation for every sacred human being in the face of strong efforts to dehumanize the marginalized.
- HOPE in Civic Appreciation. While Christianity does not necessarily support any one model of government or economic system, there are significant ties between the Christian faith and democracy based on respect for individual human beings and their self-governance. These last weeks have put our system to the test. While it is far from perfect, our HOPE is in a greater appreciation for the value of democratic institutions, checks and balances, and individual rights so that the precepts of the Christian faith can go forward. From a personal perspective, our judicial system’s integrity in the last several weeks is a bedrock of our HOPE in our system.
- HOPE in Social Justice. Again, this Pandemic has brought into focus the gross inequities in our society, particularly the economic disparities of rich and poor. It has given us laser focus on how the marginalized are indeed vulnerable in so many ways. Too often, that knowledge has been mere head knowledge but not heartfelt realities. The Pandemic has given us laser focus on who are the significant contributors to our society. For me, this has also meant a huge new appreciation for our food supply chain. Our HOPE is in a new awareness of the inequities despite systemic and structural entrenchment to support them.
- HOPE in Personal Transformation. For many of us, being in lockdown has meant new disciplines in exercise and diet, reading and reflection, and prayer and meditation. That is the case for me. I am grateful. Our HOPE is in the workings of the Holy Spirit to help transform our hardship into positive and spiritual gifts.
Thanks be to God for the gift of HOPE.