All Souls Unitarian, a liberal church two miles north of the White House in Washington, has seen record attendance in the weeks after the election of Donald Trump. Congregants have filled the pews, bringing fears and disillusionment about what the next four years could mean for them and for progressive causes they value, including gay rights and the treatment of women, immigrants and minorities.
The following is excerpted from a sermon the Rev. Rob Hardies gave Dec. 4 in answer to people’s questions about how in the new year, with a new administration, they can find hope.
“What gives you hope?” As a minister I get this question often. But in the last several weeks I’ve been getting it all the time: “I’m confused. I feel vulnerable and afraid for my future. My kids’ future. I’m concerned that everything I’ve worked for in my life is at risk. How do I find hope? What gives you hope?”
Yet I’m afraid that the very question frames hope in misleading ways. To ask what gives us hope suggests to me that hope comes like a gift does, unbidden from the world outside of us. All wrapped up and ready to go. I’m afraid that a lot of us are waiting around for some piece of news or secret knowledge to be delivered to us that will suddenly give us the hope we so desperately seek.
This is not my experience of how hope works. What I’ve observed from my own struggles and those of others is that in order to be hopeful, people we must constantly work at it. We must make hope a lifelong spiritual discipline. An intentional practice. In this way, hope is like love. It’s not a once-and-for-all cure, it’s one of the most important ongoing spiritual projects of our lives. Hope is a journey. A difficult path through a beautiful and broken world.
Here are three lessons I have learned on the journey to hope:
1. Start where you are and take one step at a time.
When the distance between you and the Promised Land seems really, really far, start where you are and take one step at a time.
People who successfully cultivate hope in their lives don’t become paralyzed by seemingly insurmountable problems. They get involved. They do the good that they can, in the place where they are, with the tools and the people around them. They find concrete and local opportunities to engage the work of redeeming our world.
There are more refugees in our world today than at any time since World War II. And the stories of families who’ve given up everything to escape violence and war are heartbreaking. All Souls has partnered with Lutheran Family Services to support a family of refugees during their first year in our country. Helping them find housing, work, education, etc. Helping them establish themselves in this country. It’s just one family. Maybe we’ll take on a few others. But you have to start where you are and take one step, and then another. We at our church have been told we’ll be matched with a family in 30 to 90 days. Let’s do the good we can in the place where we are. Let’s try not to become overwhelmed or paralyzed. Hopeful people, I notice, take concrete action to make a difference, even if it’s a small difference.
2. Cultivate a spiritual practice.
We need a horizon in our lives that is larger than the day’s headlines, or the trending meme, or the latest hashtag. I don’t know about you, but I’m looking for the Spirit to open up my horizons. To blow my world open a little and give me a bigger perspective. It’s like the gospel song “Total Praise” that we all love to hear: “Oh Lord I lift mine eyes to the hills, knowing my strength is coming from you.” We need to get our heads out of our smartphones and lift our eyes to the hills. We need to enlarge our perspective. We do that through spiritual practice. Your practice might literally be taking yourself out to the hills for a hike. Or it might be a mindfulness mediation that radically grounds you in the present. Or maybe you study and pray on scripture, anchoring your life in another worldview. There are lots of practices. What they all have in common is that they add a little eternity to the relentless temporality of our lives.
The Episcopalian preacher Fleming Rutledge used to say that she always preached with the Bible in one hand and the New York Times in the other. Her point was that the eternal and the temporal should be in dialogue with each other. They should inform and balance one another. But we’ve lost the balance. Today we are bogged down not only in the headlines but in the ever-shrinking universe of our social networks, where all the information is curated specifically for us. That is a very small perspective. We need something big to balance it out. The Spirit is big. God is big. I need God to show me a bigger horizon, give my life a larger perspective. I want God to put me in my place.
3. Whatever you do, don’t make the journey alone.
The great Sufi mystic Rumi writes, “There is a secret medicine given only to those who hurt so hard, they cannot hope.” It is this: “Look as long as you can at the friend that you love.” We need companions for the journey of hope. Family. Friends. Comrades. Lovers. “Look as long as you can at the friend that you love.” Every year we celebrate Thanksgiving with dear friends who always gather a group of us for the holiday. This year there were so many people, we had to move our dinner to another house to accommodate everyone. “Look as long as you can at the friend that you love.” There are times when it’s necessary for us to retreat and do our personal spiritual work. But the hope journey can’t be made alone. Believe me, I’ve made a study of this. I’ve taken note of the things that give people hope. The hopeful people are the together people. We’re on this journey together.
David Eaton, one of my predecessors here at All Souls, said, “The church is that institution whose primary purpose is to help people discover, create and maintain hope in their lives. When people have no hope, they discover hope together. When they cannot discover hope, they create hope together.”
The operative word, friends, is “together.” Together we’ll sing and pray. Together we’ll organize and march. Together we’ll light candles in the dark. Together we’ll bless our children and remember our dead and provide sanctuary to the vulnerable. And together we’ll find our hope. Amen.
Robert Hardies is senior minister of All Souls Church, Unitarian in Washington, D.C.