Geoffrey's been a "church guy" for most of his life. Even though he's a young adult, he buys the idea of organized religion. He has elected not to follow the majority of his age cohort in the false choice of "rejecting religion in favor of spirituality." Lately, though, Geoffrey has been rethinking his loyalties and what's behind them.
In the middle of a continually deteriorating economy and environment, some religious leaders Geoffrey respects have been preaching and saying things that just don't square up with what Geoffrey knows to be true. "We've already come past the intersection of hope and fear," says one. "As Christ's followers, we are always people of hope." Another keeps harping about "the victory we have in being Easter People," even while his denomination is losing members and funding faster than gravy escapes mashed potatoes. Still another national leader is certain that "God's rescue will come upon us, as of old," as though scientific prognostications about the environment were reversible by prayers or miracles.
Geoffrey's loyal, but he is not easily tempted to check his brains at the door of the church's pronouncements. Lately he's been asking more difficult questions about the places where faith, science, economics, and politics meet. He’s been poking at his denomination's positions on the environment and noticing where rampant individualism is still legitimated in some bully pulpits. He's been looking for the places in organized religion where in-depth analysis and in-your-face actions could replace shallow thinking and token activism. He's insisting on intellectual honesty in his faith community.
Geoffrey's own pastor is right there with him, asking the same questions, searching Scripture, praying without posturing, wrestling with God's will for the congregation, and helping Geoffrey hold onto hope.
Geoffrey and his pastor are suffering from what I call "eco-despair," something I have seen building in the environmental movement and bleeding into the social justice enterprises of which I am a part.
Two large, destructive waves are building or crashing around us, perhaps inside us as well. The names of the waves are well known: the worldwide economic crisis and environmental collapse. Both waves are likely to continue to influence human history and psychology for the foreseeable future. Both waves could seem to wash away hope, as though despair were actually bedrock.
In the one case—economic collapse—the wave seems to be a relatively short-term occurrence. The collapse of net worth and net profit, a rise in the number of unemployed and underemployed workers, an increase in worldwide poverty, the unraveling of assured economic theory—all point to inevitable outcomes that we hope will be survivable, given time.
In the second case—environmental collapse—the wave is much larger, growing slowly and inexorably, perhaps fueled by the same causes that engendered the first wave. This wave is growing large enough to block our ability to see any reliable reference point for thinking or acting.
If you're finding these times to be overwhelming, you might be tempted to claim that you don't know anyone who's hopeful, as though your lack of knowledge were an excuse to slog around in despair. Even though gloom might seem to fill news stories, undergird advertising, and grab the attention mechanisms of your brain, hope is equally present in those same venues. There's more to know than despair!
Finding hope isn't necessarily a trip through a field of posies, though. Along the way you're likely to run into squishy bogs that slow down your exploration for hope. Like the rest of a godly life, hope-seeking is likely to include moments when you suddenly realize that what you're doing is more difficult than you first imagined. Hope can get dinged and scratched like a car door in a parking lot.
When despair about life's diminishing qualities reaches a critical mass, people forsake their "best selves." Simply to survive, desperate people discard generosity, selflessness, patience, or tolerance. As they respond to extreme stress, despairing people fight, flee, or freeze. Eventually they lose their will and ability to work together. The church loses, too, if its message of hope seems to lack significance or power in these most important matters. Despair creates people whose attitude spreads virally, creating a cycle of desperation that threatens to drown the civilization.
Despair-avoidance is one of the swamps where your hope might get mired. This attitude is based on the idea that any negative feelings—despair being one of them—destroy any possibility of acting in a hopeful way. In this frame of mind, you might consider hope and despair to be complete opposites of each other.
But what if hope is never far from despair? What if they are so close that they share some of the same characteristics? What if, to be hopeful, you need sometimes to admit your despair?
When you live at the edges between hope and despair, you don't try to dodge despair. Instead, you see this situation as an opportunity to grow stronger, bolder, or wiser. To strengthen hope, you take the risk that profound hopefulness might suddenly teeter in the direction of deepening despair. You ferret out opportunities from what appears hopeless. You tilt toward hope even as you acknowledge the presence and power of despair. You remain close to people stuck in despair, ready to invite and assist them out of their quagmire. And you depend on the Spirit to hold you safely at the edges of life.
Like any living thing, hope has a preferred habitat, the place where it lives best, prospering and replicating itself easily. Hope exists in other places, though, small nooks and crannies of life that aren't as easily identified. In these places hope incubates, grows, and prospers out of sight, perhaps for its own protection. If you want to find the places where hope might be sequestered, waiting to be useful, you must value hope highly enough to do the necessary work of discovering its whereabouts. Be certain of one thing: hope thrives wherever it hides. Hope peeks out from its hiding place and encourages you to look more carefully. With better vision, you will probably start to see hope everywhere.
The collapse of the world isn't going to be stopped or slowed by well-meaning people who only know about hope or who only think hopefully. Because hope motivates people, the value of hope is in the actions it engenders. In his Blessed Unrest, futurist Paul Hawken recounts scores of anecdotes about the far-reaching results of seemingly small, hope-filled actions. He shows how one group multiplies itself, how one small accomplishment leverages larger results, and how one idea sparks accumulated potential.
It stands to reason, then, that small steps are indeed the core actions from which hopeful change is created. (Think "viral change.") What's small becomes what's big; what's ordinary becomes what's extraordinary; what's invisible becomes what's hard to ignore. That's why your smallest hopeful actions are part of a large movement—spread over time and space—that is ultimately powerful, perhaps overwhelmingly. As you move toward hopeful actions, you can draw strength from the truth that there are no idle conversations, no inconsequential acts, no useless assets, no "little people." You can start taking small steps everywhere they are possible. And you may even stop filling your self-concept and your prayers with "just" or "only."
Comment on this article on theAlban Roundtable blog
Adapted from It's Not Too Late: A Field Guide to Hope by Bob Sitze, copyright © 2010 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
It's Not Too Late:
A Field Guide to Hope by Bob Sitze
A "field guide" is a small, pocketable book that accompanies you on an adventure or journey. It's Not Too Late is a field guide to hope—sized so that you can carry it along with you on your daily journey of faith. The entries in this book will help you find hope, whether it's right in front of you or it remains elusive despite your searchings.
Conversations About the Way We Live by Bob Sitze
In today's complex and busy world, people yearn for simpler lives. Bob Sitze believes conversations change us as individuals and that most important social changes take place through conversation, so in Starting Simple he invites us into heart-to-heart conversations about simple living.
Not Trying Too Hard:
New Basics for Sustainable Congregations by Bob Sitze
In Not Trying Too Hard, Bob Sitze offers a vision releasing congregational leaders from the growing burden of trying harder to invent and implement "better" worship, evangelism, stewardship, small groups, long-range planning, mission statements, and the like. Sitze advocates a "small-step approach" to change and provides the necessary tools to engage what is possible without trying too hard. He points readers toward the congregation of the future and assures them that they have the capacity to reimagine their own congregations.
Your Brain Goes to Church:
Neuroscience and Congregational Life by Bob Sitze
Emerging discoveries in brain science are sparking new areas of research as cutting-edge educators and psychologists are asking, "What can we learn from brain science about how we function in the world?" Bob Sitze joins the conversation with a new question: What does the human brain have to do with the beliefs, practices, and structures of congregations? Weaving together clear, accessible explanations about the workings of the human brain, Sitze shows how a congregation's identity and behaviors are shaped by the work of individual members' brains as well as by the "collected brains" of the congregation.
The Power of Asset Mapping:
How Your Congregation Can Act on Its Gifts by Luther K. Snow
Asset mapping isn't a new system or theory. It's a way of thinking, a doorway into an "open-sum" perspective rooted in the Bible and common experience. The Power of Asset Mapping, by long-time community developer Luther K. Snow, shows congregational leaders how to help a group recognize its assets and the abundance of God's gifts and to act on them in ministry and mission.
Crunch Time in the Small ChurchWebinar Series with Alice Mann, Alban Senior Consultant
We Can't Keep Going Like This!
Reframing a Crisis of Viability as a Chance for ChangeTuesday, September 14, 2010 2:00 PM EDT
What Choices Do We Have?
Evaluating the Options in a Time of Transition
Tuesday, September 21, 2010 2:00 PM EDT
Let's Not Go It Alone
Merger and Cluster Approaches
Wednesday, September 29, 2010 2:00 PM EDT
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