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Archive for September, 2009

Sharing Global Faith: Reflections on Hope

Introduction:

SGF imageThe South African cleric and outspoken anti-apartheid activist Rev. Allan Boesak once opined: “faith is certainty that God is real, and our hope is the certainty that God will reveal God’s reality.” In times of trial and despair, revelatory hope often appears to dim, even dissipate. The certainty for which Boesak so emphatically pleads seems to grow thin, tenuous, unstable. At its worst, such hope degenerates into indifference, detachment, even nihilism. And yet, as Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthian churches, amidst the bleak years a promise always rings: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (II Cor 4:8-9).

In this last issue of Sharing Global Faith, four global prophets of our faith reclaim a vision of hope that rests not on certainty but on humble gratitude. In so doing, the revelation of God’s reality takes on novel forms, all of which display beauty in fragmentation and blessing amidst hardship. Balancing between faith and love, Rev. Adeyenke Matimoju (First Unitarian Church of Lagos, Nigeria) calls for the binding of hope with concrete action in the face of uncertainty and the loss of control. Rev. Iva Fišerová (Religious Society of Czech Unitarians) shares her experience of the oppressive communist regime and subsequent gentle invitation to crack the seed of fear and spring a new shoot. Relaying his keynote remarks on the occasion of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Philippines’ 50th anniversary, Rev. Fred Muir (UU Church of Annapolis, MD) encourages the faithful to live as if they embodied the hands of God. Rev. Janne Eller-Isaacs (Unity Church-Unitarian, St. Paul, MN) lifts up the aesthetic and ethical awareness that a redeeming hope and sustenance are woven into even the most difficult times. In a very real sense, these reflections sing and sing.

adeRev. Adeyenke Matimoju

First Unitarian Church of Lagos, Nigeria

HOPE IN DIVERSE DIMENSION

Hope is defined in the dictionary as a “feeling of desire for something and confidence in the possibility of its fulfillment.” It goes further to mean a reasonable ground for having this feeling: there is still hope…

“I hope it doesn’t rain on my wedding day.” You and I have no control over the weather. Hoping it doesn’t rain is nothing more than wishful thinking. Is Christian hope wishful thinking in the face of all that we can’t control?

As an ardent lover of soccer and die-hard supporter of the Chelsea football club of England, “I hope the Blues win the Premiership season including Champions League.” They might win it; it’s possible to be sure, even though it’s extremely unlikely. Is Christian hope a hankering after what is extremely unlikely?

I’ve heard and used the word ‘hope’ with mixed feeling, as it has always connoted a longing for an illusion or uncertainty, as well as a driving force and sustainable tonic.

However, one can only hope to have Peace, Richness, Happiness, Love, Joy, Faith and, most importantly, the hope to sit on top of the world.

It’s good to hope, but it MUST be merged with physical effort in achieving the desired result. While hope has made, and renders, several million impoverished (who have lost everything while hoping), it has also energized and sustained several other million people in focusing them and channeling their determination.

Hope is God’s gift and therefore God’s command. This command, like any command, is to be obeyed. Temptation here is like temptation anywhere: temptation to doubt the goodness of God and allow oneself to violate the command of God. Yet this temptation, like any, is to be resisted. Despite life’s contradictions we are to join prophets and apostles in announcing that day above all days when the world’s wretched neither hunger nor thirst anymore, when one nation no longer lifts up its sword against another nation, when God wipes away every tear from every eye. We are commanded to hope.

Such hope is certainly a gift from God in as much as the resurrection of Jesus Christ and our Spirit-wrought inclusion in that resurrection is a gift from God. While such hope is plainly a gift, however, it isn’t only a gift; it’s also a command. God commands his people to hope. To be sure, it’s only as he gives us hope that he commands us to hope, yet command us to hope he most certainly does.

You must have noticed that scripture links faith, hope and love, and groups them together again and again. Hope is the middle term between faith and love. Hope keeps faith from collapsing under the burden of disappointment and delay. Hope keeps love from dissolving under the acids of frustration. Hope fortifies love and lends it resilience. Hope stiffens faith and forestalls collapse.

“It’s improper to speak of hope when concrete results are already evident. Hope is properly hope only where what’s hoped for hasn’t appeared.” The objection is sound.

In the midst of his torment, Job cries out, “All I can feel is my pain.” At the moment of his outcry he can’t even sense the tiniest bit of hope’s fulfilment. So far from being fulfilled, even ever so fragmentarily, hope appears simply futile. His friends declare him silly for continuing to hope, since there’s no evidence to suggest that his hope is anything but wishful thinking; his hope seems as groundless as a child’s wish for the appearance of Santa Claus.

Conclusively, in the word of Jeremiah Wright, “I’ve seen college students who give illusion of being on top of the world – designer clothes, all the sex that they want, all the cocaine or marijuana or drugs, all the trappings of having it all together on the outside – but empty and shallow and hurting and lonely and afraid on the inside.” Many times what looks good on the outside – the illusion of being in power, of sitting on top of the world – with a closer look is actually existence in a quiet hell.

It is good to hope of good things to come, but it is hopeless when action doesn’t follow; for hope without action is hopelessness. Except of course, in a situation where you’ve acted, but your actions have no control over the outcome, then one can continue to hope.

ivaRev. Iva Fišerová
Religious Society of Czech Unitarians

Hope accompanies the human family in its history as an essential part of its existence. Hope can be both very personal and shared. Either way, its presence in our lives contributes to our wellness. We live in various parts of the globe and yet we share hope in our life/death/life cycle, the basic pattern of life.

When we live in severe political conditions, as we did in my country, our shared hope shrinks and we tend to orient it personally. I remember there was not much shared hope during the communist regime. Social life disappeared from the public scene, our jobs were not meaningful and we were searching for hope by using our gardening potential and building small weekend cottages by ourselves. Doing something real brings hope into one’s life. But as a society, we lived like in a tunnel with no end in sight.

Time changed and twenty years ago we were liberated – a new hope came. Every day we would demonstrate, I would ask myself: What does freedom look like? What can I do as a free being? What is it like to be able to do what I love?

There are moments when we come out from the darkness. The universal song of life calls us from the tomb of restrictions. After years of humming there comes a strong inner push to sing mightily. However, we can be fearful standing at such a threshold,  lacking experience of or with the new. At the same time as our very nature wants us to become anew, the forces of life are powerful. If that ‘rose (which) lies curled deep below the winter snow’ does not listen to them it dies.

Hopelessness prevails at many times in our life. But in our darkest moments a soft ray of light reaches into the soil we are dormant in. It brings along a gentle invitation and as we can’t resist that magic that cracks the shell of our germinating seed. We use our potential to spring a new shoot. Sometimes our seed needs courage to receive the invitation and leave behind its outgrown shell. Sometimes we need to perform a great work to break through the cement of our tomb. Sometimes once realized, our strength brings us quickly to bloom.

Whether coming as the first or the last one, the rose co-creates spring. It knows its place in the universe. Spring does not exist by itself and everything enlivened by the song of life helps to make spring come. And as the song grows it takes along the weakest, the shyest, until the next season of life arrives.

picture-11361Rev. Fred Muir

UU Church of Annapolis, MD

The stories and lessons of Philippine history—of island tribal life, of foreign interventions, of war, terrorism and authoritarian politics and religion; the stories and teachings of Negros Universalism—of the Rev. Toribio Quimada’s freethinking religious leadership and spiritual passion, and how his faith journey and Philippine culture collided and overlapped; the stories and value of Jesus—his faith shaped spirit, his prophetic commitment, his leadership, and his seeking and teaching of wisdom; all of these are places from which members of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Philippines begin telling and measuring their UU story and journey.  Reflecting on these lessons and stories and on the occasion of the UUCP’s 50th anniversary, I shared these words during my keynote remarks:

Pick any one of these starting points to begin your story.  I know that you each could tell me—tell each other—stories about the religion that shaped your family, stories of your childhood religious experiences.  Perhaps you knew Rev. Quimada and traveled with him, watched him preach and heal.  I know that many of you have a spirit-filled life that has touched others in deep and lasting ways, and you could tell us stories.  Many of you believe in the inspiring ministry and power of Jesus, and he is essential to your lives.  All of these are informed and shaped by your Unitarian Universalist faith.

Who do you say you are?  I would like to hear your story.  I would also like to hear what difference your Unitarian Universalist congregation has made for you, your family, friends and barangay (barrio or village).   Remember this: Your story is always in relationship to others; we are all connected in a web of interdependence, one tao to another, what Martin Buber called an “I-Thou relationship.” Hear this story of such a relationship:

A long time ago in a small country village, the richest farmer in the village was sleeping, as he often did, through the Sunday worship service.  He would almost wake up, then fall back to sleep.  Every Sunday he would do it the same way.

Living next to the church, it was one Sunday morning he woke up to roll over just in time to hear the end of the sermon where the minister said something about blessing bread on the altar, then he fell back to sleep.

When he really did finally wake up, all he could remember was something about bread on the altar.  He thought that God had spoken directly to him, telling him to place bread on the church’s altar.  The wealthy farmer was honored that God had asked him to do this, so he immediately went about making a loaf of bread.

When the bread was done and cooled, he went to the church and after placing the bread where he thought God had told him to put it, he said: “Thank you God for telling me what You want me to do.  Pleasing you makes me very happy.”

No sooner had he left the sanctuary than the poorest man in the village entered.  All alone, in the back, he prayed: “O God, I am so poor.  My family is starving; we have nothing to eat.  If you do not perform a miracle for us, we will starve.”

As he approached the altar, he saw the bread and shouted: “A miracle!  A miracle!  Thank you God for providing this good bread.  And you work so quickly!”  Then he ran home to tell his family of the good news.

Minutes later, the rich man returned to the church to see if God had eaten his bread.  And sure enough, it was gone!  “You really like my bread, Lord!  I thought you were teasing me.  This is wonderful.  You can be sure that I will be back with more.”

The following week, the rich man brought more bread and left it.  And soon after he left, the poor man would arrive to say his prayers and find the bread.  Another miracle!  And then, the rich man would come back and see the bread was gone and rush home to make more.

This bread exchange went on for many years, always in the same way.

Then one day, the minister of the church happened to be in the sanctuary – but out of sight – and he watched the whole thing happen: the rich man enter and talk to God; the poor man enter and say his prayer then leave with the bread; then the rich man come back and promise to make more.

The minister called the two men together and told them what they had been doing.

“I see,” said the rich man, “God doesn’t really eat my bread.”

“And I see,” said the poor man, “God isn’t baking the bread just for me.”

They both feared that now God would no longer be in their lives.

Then the minister asked them to look at their hands.  “Your hands,” he said to the rich man, “are the hands of God giving food to the poor.”

“And your hands,” he said to the poor man, “are also the hands of God, receiving gifts from the rich.”

“So you see, God can still be present in your lives.  Continue baking and continue taking.  Your hands are the hands of God.”[1]

Who do you say you are?  You are the hands of God.  You are brothers and sisters of faith; you walk in the footsteps of Jesus and Bishop Gregorio Aglipay; you are the bright light from the flame first lit by the Rev. Toribio Quimada as well as John Murray, Hosea Ballou, and Clarence Skinner.

“Be careful how you live your life for it is the only gospel others will read,” said Bishop Helder Camara.  Live as if you were the hands of God; that’s our Universal call:

Be joyful, Universalists, come celebrate this company.

Officials, members all unite, rejoicing in debate that’s free.

To teach the Universal light, to strengthen democracy.

To teach the hope that is for all,

Proclaim the Universal call.[2]


[1] Lawrence Kushner, “The Hands of God,” Eyes Remade for Wonder, Jewish Lights Publishing, p. 63.

[2] “Maglipay Universalist,” lyrics by Toribio Quimada.

img_0011_000Rev. Janne Eller-Isaacs

Unity Church-Unitarian, St. Paul, MN

Some years ago I was asked by a well-known, local artist to meet with her.   I gladly set up the appointment, having no idea why she called me.  A few days later, she came into my office with two pieces of work she wanted to show me.  Before presenting her work, she explained that she had been plagued by bouts of deep despair and depression throughout her life and had just been going through one of the worst of her life.  She decided to create a picture of her mood and set about covering an entire canvass with black.  No matter how hard she worked, however, there was always some speck of white.  She could not wipe out the white completely.  She explained to me that being unable to completely cover the white was a profound life lesson for her.  No matter how difficult things were, there was always a speck of hope that was impossible to erase or blot out.    The next painting she showed me was full of color and vibrant images.  “This is a picture of my hope,” she said.   The artist had sought me out because this was a religious awakening for her.  I know that she has experienced times of depression since then, but never as severe or debilitating after finding an image and experience of abiding hope in her life.

In times of despair, social unrest and upheaval, images of hope can literally save our lives.  Woven into even the most difficult times are moments of redeeming hope and sustenance.  Sometimes these images surprise us and awaken us, like the experience of the artist who visited my office; others have to be sought out and cultivated.   When despair grows in us, we must pause and seek out that which gives us hope.   Supported by a deep and abiding hope, human beings can endure the most challenging times with their humanity intact.  Hope is not a denial of reality, but rather a force that that holds brokenness and despair as well as beauty and faith.

A mosaic is a work of art which occurs when that which is broken creates beauty out  broken pieces.  Hope is like a mosaic, creating beauty and wholeness out of the disparate pieces of life.    We live out of hope when we walk with humility and confidence into the new day never denying the brokenness but seeing the beauty of it all none the less.

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