Episcopal Church To-Do List:
Know the difference between Hope & Optimism
…embrace the former.
There’s been a Facebook challenge since November first to post every day something for which you are grateful. To read everyone’s personal gratitude lists has given me a few epiphanies about my friends and their lives, offering me new perspectives.
Since reading these, I have begun to muse about the times I worked in a church during this season.
Christ the King Sunday arrives and the plug-and-play organist chooses all the kingly songs, a kingly anthem – maybe the kids sing a zippy “Ride On King Jesus”. The program in the parish gurgles along in its peristaltic reflexive way – throw in a lot of crowns, kings, reigns, and we’ll be doing right by Jesus.
Then Thanksgiving gets into the mix. In my staff experience, this is a thorny hump in the middle of the week. There are digressions into gossip about the parish fellowship meal which morph into analyzing the history of the community ecumenical Thanksgiving service. The “positive” aspect of these staff meetings is people imagine they’re focusing on fixing everything while complaining, idealizing stuff that is always going to be problematic because people are problematic. It would be so much more effective – and spiritually mindful – to just work together on offering a meal and a worship service. It doesn’t seem worth the energy to try to control who cooks what and who eats what and whether the organist at the Methodist Church is as good as the one at our church. Food, fellowship, music, and prayer. It’s very simple.
This year, Advent 1 falls on the Sunday immediately after Thanksgiving. Another staff moan fest – numbers will be down because people are traveling. The Sunday School teachers will be a week behind on teaching the kids about…what, exactly… Hope? Everyone will make their Advent wreaths a week later. And one rector I worked with somehow thought this timing meant more work for her. What the what?
For the faithful who have left the church, we are observing the rise and fall of the spiritual tide, being mindful of the waves on the sand. We observe the lectionary year prayerfully in our own ways. We will be decorating for Advent, searching the links between Christ the King Sunday, Thanksgiving, and Advent 1 without waiting to be told what to do or how to do it.
It’s lonely. The faithful are homeless. We dare not go into a church to look for fellow travelers in hope because someone will slap a name tag and a “Smile!” sticker on our lapels.
Christ the King Sunday can be such a tough one to make relevant in the two-thousandies. One year when I was team teaching 6th and 7th grade Sunday School, I was alone with 15 hormonal tweens and teens on this last Sunday in the liturgical year. Nothing made sense to me in the canned curriculum, which is always a start – unless our teachers, serious catechists, deacons, priests, bishops, and communications officers, embrace a grounded faith in consort with a willingness to be upended by reality there can be no hope. We must seek personal transformation, and then the transformation of those around us will happen.
I downloaded about 20 different images of Jesus, and brought in icons and other images I had at home: Jesus the teacher, Christ the king, Jesus the healer, Rasta Jesus, laughing or dancing Jesus, activist Jesus, suffering Jesus, Jesus eating. Who do you say that I am? We passed the pictures around and talked about which one we related to most. We talked about what Christ the King is like, questioning if this aspect of Christ was one we could invite into our daily lives. We laughed when a girl remembered a boy named Jesus in her nursery school who was always hitting the other kids. “Jesus – go to the time-out chair!”
We never came up with a definitive Jesus for everyone. It was an enormous gift for me because most of the middle schoolers related to laughing or dancing Jesus. Why? “He seems so free to be himself.” Now, whenever I see a petulant middle schooler, chip on her shoulder, I remember that dream of those Sunday School kids: to be free to be who God created them to be. I suspend all judgment and head straight for the conversation. Had I imposed my own notion of what Christ the King meant, or asked the rector for advice I would never have received this ongoing gift.
A few weeks ago, I saw a montage of a lot of Hollywood moments where the slobs got their recognition. It included things like rewards to the Wizard of Oz quartet and Han Solo and Chewbacca getting cheered by the crowd as they receive laurels from Princess Leia. This moment is inscribed in our hearts through popular culture time and again – from the justifiable humiliation of Lena Lamont when the curtain goes up to reveal who is really singing in Singing in the Rain, or when Jamal rises out of a pit of offal in Slumdog Millionaire.
This is an aspect of a Christ the King moment. It’s not only that the Risen Christ rules – or reigns or whatever verb the hymnody spits out at us – it’s that the slobs beat the snobs. Our King is one of us, we are all victors.
And here is where there’s another light on the road for me: I can travel from Christ the King to Advent 1 in my own spiritual journey because Christ the King represents not royalty or the One who doth Reign, or golden crowns – but hope. Jesus as wise, compassionate, deserving King is a core story of hope, the theme of the first week of Advent.
The tomb is empty. The cross is bare. Are we there yet? Yes we are!
Hope is not optimism. Hope is anchored in reality, and as a basic human yearning, rises up, infecting our actions so we strive through the pain, and the piles of crap around us don’t matter at all. Optimism, however, likes to redecorate the crap. A dead end is renamed a cul de sac.
The greater church is intensely engaged in optimism. This trickles down, permeating every aspect of how we do business. Check out whatever ENS has put in your in-box for the week and tell me it’s not optimism. A Phoenix needs ashes to be a phoenix
Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. In short, I think that the deepest and most important form of hope the one that can keep us above water and urge us to do good works, and the only true source of the breathtaking dimension of the human spirit and its efforts is something that we get, as it were, from “elsewhere”. It is also this hope, above all, which gives us strength to live and to continually try new things even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do here and now.
From the politics of hope by Vaclav Hamel
I wish us all hope on the journey, thanksgiving for hope, and pray for the church that it may find its way in understanding the reality around it – no matter how painful that may be.