I’ve been preparing for our December ministry theme, hope. Of course, this is an appropriate theme for December, the “darkest” month, the month in which so many festivals of light take place, the month in which so many lights symbolize hope at the darkest time of the year. I suspect there is something deep in our cultural DNA that yearns for light in the midst of darkness. I suspect our ancient human ancestors – especially those in the northern latitudes – experienced winter as a difficult time, a time of hunger, a time of worry – will we survive? The return of the sun at the Winter Solstice must have been a powerful and inspiring moment, one that generated profound hope in human hearts – the days are getting longer; we’re going to make it!
I sense this deeper, ancient yearning at the heart of the Biblical Christmas story. I sense it at the heart of the Hanukah story. I sense it at the heart of the Christmas tree ritual – admittedly a pagan ritual – the placing of an evergreen inside the home, decorating it, lighting it – an enduring symbol of hope at the darkest time of the year.
Yet I also recognize that many people don’t feel hopeful, regardless of the season. For so many reasons, hope is difficult to find. I suppose there have always been and always will be some of us who have difficulty finding hope and feeling hopeful. And I also suspect there are challenges to hope that are unique to our era: the specter of climate change, the “endless” wars our government wages, the pervasiveness of poverty. So, I’ve been wondering: are there techniques for cultivating hope in an era of increasing hopelessness? There are. In her 2010 book, The Gifts of Imperfection, the popular researcher/social worker/storyteller, Brené Brown, says “I was shocked to discover that hope is not an emotion; it’s a way of thinking or a cognitive process. Emotions play a supporting role, but hope is really a thought process made up of [a] trilogy of goals, pathways, and agency.” She says hope happens when “1) we have the ability to set realistic goals (I know where I want to go); 2) we are able to figure out how to achieve those goals, including the ability to stay flexible and develop alternative routes (I know how to get there, I’m persistent, and I can tolerate disappointment and try again); and 3) we believe in ourselves (I can do this!).” This may seem obvious to many of us, but there’s an important reminder here: hope can be learned! I like that.
If you are among those who find it difficult to feel hopeful – and even if you aren’t – I have a threefold prayer for you. First, may the hope of this season wash over you, lift your spirits, connect you to that ancient experience of witnessing the sun’s return. Second, in this dark season may you step back from the busyness of everyday life, engage in self-reflection, and discern where it is you want to go and how to get there. Third, may you believe in yourself.
With love, Rev. Josh