THE OPERATIONS OF HOPE

220px-Baruch-ben-NeriahBaruch ben Neriah, a name which means Baruch blessed Son of my Candle is God was the personal secretary to the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah prophesied during the period leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem in 587-586 BCE at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon.

Following the death of the legendary Solomon, the Kingdom of Israel, united for the first time by his father David, split into northern and southern sections. In the year 721 BCE the Northern Kingdom, which had retained the name Israel, and whose capital at Samaria was sacked by Sennacherib, King of Assyria. Over the next century and a half, the Southern Kingdom known as Judah, having escaped Assyrian conquest through paying a heavy tribute in gold and silver, most of which robbed from the Temple, continued to survive through a political swift-footedness and double-dealing. A culture of political duplicity and self-serving inertia misled the nation away from remaining faithful to its covenant with God. Around 590 BCE Judah’s luck began to run low. A foolish alliance with Egypt provoked the Babylonians to sack the towns of Judah and lay siege to Jerusalem.

God ordered Jeremiah to prophesy, i.e. speak truth to power, in this case before Hezekiah, King of Judah. Speaking truth to power was a process that went badly for Jeremiah and his secretary Baruch. Jeremiah ordered Baruch to read his prophecies of warning to the people gathered in the Temple on a day of fasting. The task was both difficult and dangerous, but Baruch performed it without flinching. It was Baruch, who in the middle of the siege of Jerusalem advised Jeremiah to purchase a piece of land at Anathoth, land previously laid waste by the Babylonian encampment, as a symbol of hope for the eventual restoration of Jerusalem.

In 587-586 BCE Jerusalem fell. Nebuchadnezzar carried the treasure of the Temple along with the King, the nobility and the clergy into a 70-year captivity in Babylon. It is thought that Baruch escaped into Egypt, where he soon died after the fall of Jerusalem.

This was indeed a dark and dangerous time to have lived. Yet, like his master Jeremiah, Baruch’s message in the first 9 verses of the 5th chapter of his writing is one of hope and encouragement. Amidst the disaster of conquest, in the wake of a profound disillusionment resulting from the folly of political adventurism, Baruch speaks of Jerusalem taking off her garment of sorrow, and rising to the height to look toward the east in order to see her children gathered from west to east rejoicing that God has remembered them. There was nothing in his day-to-day experience to support such a hopeful worldview.

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I sense a shift in the atmosphere. I am not talking about the weather, although I am talking about the climate. As our daily lives are so affected by the shifting patterns of the weather, we often miss the more subtle yet ultimately, more momentous changes in the climate. I became aware of a shift in the atmosphere around the issue of climate change during the recent high-level Paris Conference. Unlike previous conferences, this seemed no longer a fringe event. With nearly all countries represented at the highest levels of their leadership, Paris confirms that outside of the current US Congress, the world as a whole is now ready to address the urgency of climate change. At long last climate change and the contributory effects of human agency are now universally recognized as the number one issue facing the future of humanity.

I also noted as a regular listener to NPR that the extent of the coverage of the Paris conference was truly BBC-like. I don’t listen to commercial radio so I don’t know how this sector covered the climate talks though I imagine there was little coverage. One might naturally expect NPR to focus on coverage yet it delighted me to discover that it was the number one topic around which more regular elements of the NPR schedules were arranged. In my memory, this has not been the case before. These two factors taken together evidence something having shifted in the collective consciousness. Climate change is now a priority, or I certainly hope so.

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Returning to the metaphor of weather and climate, the Holy Scriptures record the unfolding of countless lives lived amidst at a level of weather. Weather is confusing because it is continually changing and serious events can always be dismissed as freak occurances. Yet, threading through the shifting day-to-day weather patterns as event is a more comprehensive story of climate and the imperceptibility of shifts in climate. I use imperceptibility to mean not so much hidden, but that it’s easy for us to be wilfully misled and lulled into a false sense of sercurity.

Jeremiah with his secretary Baruch, alongside Isaiah, Malachi, Amos and the other great prophets of Israel sought to draw attention to the direction of climate change among people who could only see the weather patterns from one day to the next. In the weather we can see the folly of the shifting patterns of human choice. Weather reveals the the cumulative sinfulness of human decision-making. Yet, running over the top of the weather is a climate message; a message of hope and unwavering belief in the providential dream of God and its ultimate fulfillment.

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Generational change, the succession of one generation by another, then another, and then another – is woven together within a narrative I call the transgenerational vision. In the midst of dark times, events spell danger and devastation, times during which our hopes sink as our fears rise. The transgenerational vision is the manifestation of hope.

Baruch, while he knew such times of darkness, disillusionment and despair, became the voice of hope.  Hope expresses and keeps alive the power of the transgenerational of the recovery and thriving of God’s people down through each generation, regardless of the appearance of things. In the midst of fear and terror of the kind reached only in places like modern day Syria, Baruch articulated God’s message as a message that can only be comprehended when we step back from the immediacy of everyday experience to behold the level of the transgenerational vision – God’s vision.

Baruch and his master the prophet Jeremiah were threatened and abused by the powerful whose self-interests deafened them to God’s call to remain faithful to the covenant. They were mocked and humiliated by the ordinary people blinded to their own best interests by their collusion with a set of social and political values that placed misguided national and cultural interests – the politician’s easy answers to complex questions– before the dream that God had for them.

How little things change. We too live in a time when the dreams of the governed are increasingly betrayed by those they elect to govern. In misguided expectation of recovering the dreams of the past they give credence to demagogues who offer easy comfort through the ancient evil of scapegoating. The truth is that increasingly those who govern, while they maintain their power through the assiduous mining of our fears, no longer represent us. Rather they are now in hock to the moneyed interests that put them in power and to whom they are beholdended. The easy manipulation of our fear coupling with our growing civic ignorance simply ensures our continued collusion in processes that continue to belie our best interests as a people and nation, further distancing us from God’s dream for us.

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Advent is a time for reflection on the urgency to embrace the message of the transgenerational vision. This is a message that counsels us to stand firm in the face of rising fear that robs us of our courage, our compassion and hope.

Advent is time for reflecting on hope. Hope is a cardinal virtue, but it’s tricky because of our tendency to confuse optimism with hope. Hope based on optimism disappears when optimism inevitably turns to more pessimistic outlooks. Hope has nothing to do with optimism but everything to do with faith. The letter to the Hebrews states that faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see.

Hope is the expression of a high-level confidence in the goodness of God’s dream for humanity. Amidst the signs of impending catastrophe, Jeremiah purchases the parcel of land in Anathoth as a symbol of a future he hoped for, but could not see, and did not live to see.

If our confidence is rooted only in what we can see, and in what we can initiate and control by our own efforts, then hope is doomed to disappointment. By contrast, hope is the assurance that what we hope for is to some extent already present to us. The practice of hope simply makes it more so.

The best practice of hope is to commit to planting the seeds in our own generation for the future we want for our children and their children’s children. For most of us this means that we build a strong civic awareness of the need for sound governance, justice, equality and the rule of law. That we take steps to ensure that we have air we can breathe, land and crops we can successfully farm; that we direct our efforts to the preservation of ecosystems that support the diversity of life in, and of our oceans, lakes, rivers and forests. This is God’s intention for creation, the protection, and the preservation of which has been entrusted to us.

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Beginning with this Advent season, might this become the practice of our Advent hope that through the seeds we plant now the future may not simply be a repetition of the past? Things will need to change, particularly the reestablishing of government that serves the needs of the governed and not the entrenched interests of superpacts, extractive fossil industries, the NRA.

The Theologian Paul Tillich put it beautifully when he wrote:

Although waiting is not having, it is also having. The fact that we wait for something shows that in some way we already possess it. Waiting, anticipates that which is not yet real. That is, if we wait in hope and patience, the power of that for which we wait is already effective within us. Those who wait in an ultimate sense are not that far from that for which they waitTheology of Culture as compiled at http://www.religion-online.org/showchapter.asp?title=378&C=83

Tillich’s theme: the power of that for which we wait is already effective within us what are we waiting for this Advent?

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