The Seven Deadlies: Pessimism

Jubilee! Circle, Columbia, S.C.
Readings for the First Sunday of Advent:

Neither shall they learn war anymore. (Isaiah 2:1-5)
Keep awake… (Matthew 24:36-44)

Our first song comes from the Atlanta duo the Indigo Girls. This song comes off their 1999 album “Come on Now Social.” It’s called “Cold Beer and Remote Control.”

All of my days have been misspent,
Stuffing out the sofa and the antenna’s bent
Inside my heart’s bustin’ out at the seams,
I work for the impossible American dream
I got a job at the grocery store,
A few bucks an hour and not much more
The world comes in just to take things away,
They eat it all up and then they sleep into day

I try not to care I would lose my mind
Running ’round the same thing time after time
Only two things bound to soothe my soul
Cold beer and remote control

Isn’t it the truth? Isn’t it easier to just not care – to give in to our pessimism? I mean, if we do care, we’ll certainly go crazy trying to right all the wrongs in the world. It’s easier to just give up – grab a beer and the remote control and tune out the world.

The top sin I think our world is suffering from today is the sin of pessimism. Despair is prevalent in our society. Just a gander at some of the statistics of the reality that surrounds us just in this country is enough to send even the heartiest of us running for a cold beer and our remote control. I know that rattling off statistics is the best way to put a crowd to sleep, but I invite you to pay close attention to what these numbers reveal about the world in which we live.

The unemployment rate in America is hovering near 10 percent – that means more than 14 million people are without jobs. There are nearly 6 workers for every available job. Those numbers have increased pessimism among not just those out of work, but those still employed. A recent poll showed that “one out of five US workers believe that they are ‘fairly’ or ‘very likely’ to lose their jobs in the next year.”

In addition, last year the poverty rate in America was 14.3 percent, up from 13. 2 percent in 2008. Nearly 59 million Americans are without health insurance. Three million of our brothers and sisters, including more than one million children, are homeless, and many more are at risk.

The gap between the rich and poor continues to get wider and wider. According to an analysis this year by Edward Wolff of New York University, the top 20 percent of wealthy individuals own about 85 percent of the wealth, while the bottom 40 percent own very near zero percent. In fact, many in that bottom 40 percent not only have no assets, they have negative net wealth.

And you can forget one day joining that top 20 percent if you haven’t yet. Wage growth in America has completely stalled. Average income went from that $30,941 in 1980 to $31,244 in 2008. Think about that: the average income of Americans increased just $303 dollars in 28 years.

Are you depressed yet? Want a cold beer and the remote control?

The only way to pull ourselves out of this crushing sin of pessimism is to recognize it for what it is – a repression of our divine creativity. The world we have created, and all the despair that comes with it, is the result of the misuse of our creativity.

We are in a financial crisis in this country because of the misguided creativity of the captains of finance. In their drive to make more and more money – to increase the width of that income gap – they gave birth to some very creative financial instruments. Loans, investments, money markets, all these ways to make money that looked good when they first started – but soon they turned toxic – and the bubble popped. It left many homeless, jobless, and in despair.

That creativity is again at work, rebuilding that toxic empire – and the gap between rich and poor continues to grow. We never learn. Instead of using our creativity to bring about justice, to bring about an end to poverty, an end to war, an end to homelessness, an end to joblessness, we continue to use it make money – to get richer and richer, while the majority get poorer and poorer.

Let’s name this sin for what it is – an abuse of our ability to create – and in that abuse we create the demons of despair, pessimism, and depression.

Breathe deeply.

Now once upon a time I was nobody’s fool
Two jobs and showing up for school
I guess it comes apart so little by little
You don’t know you’re there till you’re stuck in the middle

I try not to care, I would lose my mind
Running ’round the same thing time after time
And only two things bound to soothe my soul
Cold beer and remote control

Our ancient Hebrew ancestors had a lot to be pessimistic about. Just like our world, their world was dangerous and depressing. They lived under the constant threat of attack from outside enemies.

In Isaiah’s time, Judah was living under the threat of Assyrian domination. It was also a time of war in other parts of the region that affected Isaiah’s homeland. So their time, like ours, was unstable – full of uncertainty, fear, and pessimism.

In this setting, however, Isaiah speaks words of encouragement. Instead of offering dire words in a time of pessimism – Isaiah speaks of a time that is coming when nations, instead of making war, will “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”

“Neither shall they learn war anymore …”

What music to the ears of citizens who live in a nation at war in two countries overseas. What music to the ears of citizens engaged in a war over civil rights. What music to the ears of citizens engaged in a war over land and natural resources.

“Neither shall they learn war anymore …”

Instead, we lay down our sword and shield down by the riverside. Ain’t gonna study war no more.

Can we even imagine it? We put so much of our creativity – our very souls – into the making of war. The tools of war are amazing feats of creativity – planes, helicopters, guns, tanks, computerized missile systems, bombs, and the most devastatingly creative tool we have – nuclear weapons. All that creativity poured into the making of war – poured into the industry of death and destruction. All that creativity poured into bringing about despair, pessimism, and hopelessness. All that creativity poured into the elimination of our capacity for compassion.

We make war not just on each other, but on the very earth that sustains us. We make war on the ozone, the forests, the waters, and other species. Matthew Fox writes that “like any war, these wars are ideological – they derive from uncritically accepted dogmas such as the one that says humans can do anything to anybody as long as they make money and don’t get caught.”

Breathe deeply.

I try not to care, I would lose my mind
Running ’round the same thing time after time
And only two things bound to soothe my soul
Cold beer and remote control

Sit down,
The room is dark
The blurry graffiti on the benches
Across at the public park
The plastic’s black and buttoned
The haze is blue,
And all I want is nothin’ to do

‘Cause it’s a long walk to the bus stop,
It’s a long wait for the turning clock
It’s a too tired car sitting up on the blocks
And things I put aside like that pile of rocks

I try not to care, I would lose my mind
Running ’round the same thing time after time
And only two things that will soothe my soul
Is cold beer and remote control

Really, it is sometimes easier to not care in this world. It’s easy to be a cynic, to give ourselves to the dark side, to take a dim view of the world, or to wallow in depression, despair, despondency, distrust, and dyspepsia. We can be glum, or gloomy, and grieve over the hopelessness of this world – or we can take pessimism as a bell of mindfulness – a wake-up call from the Holy. Instead of giving in to our melancholy – the Holy calls us to matrimony – a unity of our intellect and our intuition – a marriage of our humanity and divinity. Wake up, Jubilants – the wedding is about to begin.

Breathe deeply.

Our second song is from another Jubilee! Rag Tag Band favorite: Melissa Etheridge. She wrote this song “I Need to Wake Up” for former Vice President Al Gore’s film “An Inconvenient Truth” about global warming. The song won an Academy Award for the Best Original song in 2006. In her acceptance speech she said: “Mostly I have to thank Al Gore, for inspiring us, for inspiring me, showing that caring about the Earth is not Republican or Democrat; it’s not red or blue, it’s all green.” Let’s try it:

Have I been sleeping?
I’ve been so still
Afraid of crumbling.
Have I been careless?
Dismissing all the distant rumblings
Take me where I am supposed to be
To comprehend the things that I can’t see

Cause I need to move, I need to wake up
I need to change, I need to shake up
I need to speak out, something’s got to break up
I’ve been asleep, and I need to wake up, now

In our Jesus story, we find our guy setting the stage for this marriage of intellect and intuition. Tonight’s passage from Matthew comes near the end of a discourse by Jesus about signs of the end of the world. Traditionally, this passage is read a prediction of the return of Jesus. No one knows the time or the hour when Jesus returns, so he warns his listeners – and us – keep awake.

But, since we don’t read scripture traditionally here a Jubilee! Circle – let’s consider what else Jesus may be trying to say in this passage. Instead of staying awake for the end of the world – perhaps Jesus is telling us that we must stay awake by “marrying and giving in marriage” – by bringing our intellect and intuition together in this world.

We sleep through so much of our lives – and not just literally – but figuratively. We do so much of our living by rote – we get up, we get ready for work, we go to work, we work, we come home, we eat dinner, we open a cold beer and pick up the remote control.

Where is the creativity in that? “Keep awake!” Jesus tells us. If we don’t use our creativity to bring justice and peace into this world – then why are we here? If we sleepwalk through our days, pessimistic about the world around us, how can we change anything?

When we keep awake we are constantly seeking ways to co-create in this world with Holy. When we keep awake, we are alert to the possibilities – alert to the opportunities that we have to be creative and improve this world. Pessimism can bring about the end of the age – but creativity – the marriage of intellect and intuition – can bring our world back to life.

There are plenty of people out there using their creativity to make this a better world. There are three scientists working in poor regions where coconuts are indigenous, have found ways to turn coconuts into bio-diesel fuel and other useful tools including charcoal from the shells and particle board made from the husks.

Another researcher is working on a solar cooker for underdeveloped countries. In this e countries 1.6 million people die each year from ailments linked to breathing in cooking smoke. Instead of burning wood and depleting trees and soil, the solar cooker uses no fuel, eliminates the daily search for firewood, and saves families about 25 percent a year on fuel costs.

This is what the marriage of intellect and intuition can do. We can dispel pessimism and despair when we co-create with the Holy in service to others.

My favorite story though is about an outfit in Los Angeles called Homeboy Industries. Founded in 1992 by Catholic priest Gregory Boyle, Homeboy Industries took former gang members and set them up in business. Today, the outfit has several businesses including Homeboy Bakery, Homeboy Silkscreen, Homeboy Maintenance, Homeboy/Homegirl Merchandise, and Homegirl Café.

Father Gregory, often called “G” by the home boys and girls, tells the story of Luis, one of the workers at the bakery. One day a group of farmers came to tour the bakery and Luis showed them around. Afterward he told Father Gregory what amused him the most is how white people talk.

Every time he’d show them something or give them a taste of the bread they’d say, “this is great!” He didn’t understand why they kept using the word “great!”

Some four months later, Luis meets Father Gregory in the parking lot outside the bakery to tell him about an incident with his four-year-old daughter Tiffany. Luis picked her up from the babysitters to take her to their new apartment – the first place that Luis has been able to pay for with honestly earned, clean money.

As Father Gregory writes in his book:

He unlocks the front door, and Tiffany scurries in, down the hallway, and lands in their modest sala. She plants her feet in the living room and extends her arms and takes in the whole room with her eyes. She then declares, with an untethered smile, “This . . . is GREAT.”

He turns and says to me, “I thought she was turning white on me.” […]

In that moment Father Gregory told Luis: “You . . . did . . . this. You’ve never had a home in your life – now you have one. You did this. You were the biggest drug dealer in town, and you stopped and baked bread instead. You did this. You’ve never had a father in your life – and now you are one . . . and I hate to have to tell you . . . but . . . you’re great.”

And as a child, I danced like it was 1999
My dreams were wild,
The promise of this new world would be mine,
Now I am throwing off the carelessness of youth
To listen to an inconvenient truth

That I need to move, I need to wake up
I need to change, I need to shake up
I need to speak out, something’s got to break up
I’ve been asleep, and I need to wake up, now

Father Gregory told that story at Luis’ funeral. Luis was loading the trunk of his car one Wednesday afternoon when two gang bangers looking for trouble saw him. They walked up and executed him – for no reason at all.

In the week of his death, Father Gregory said the question he heard the most from friends and other homies was this: “What’s the point of doing good, if this can happen to you?”

That’s the ultimate pessimist’s question. What’s the point of doing good? Tragedy can befall us at any moment – so why do good if it can all come crashing down in senseless death?

Father Gregory’s response was this: “Luis was a human being who came to know the truth about himself and liked what he found there.”

I would offer that Luis understood what it means to keep awake. He had slept through so much of his life – spending it in a gang, spreading drugs, death, despair, and pessimism. Then he woke up – and realized that in coming to know the truth about himself he could marry his intellect and his intuition and begin to co-create with the Holy in this world. Luis knew he could use his creativity to give something back to the world.

Jubilants, what’s the point in doing good? This is the question you must answer for yourself, lest you give in to your pessimism. We’ve been asleep, Jubilants. Now it’s time to wake up, time to shake up, and speak out. Instead of grabbing a beer and the remote control, we must take back our creativity – marry our humanity and our divinity – and be a force for doing good in this world.

We don’t have to make fuel from coconuts, invent solar cookers, or give jobs to gang members – but the Holy calls us to do something – to step outside our comfort zone – to give back – to create something that moves the world toward divinity instead of the toward despair.

Beat your swords into plowshares, and your spears into pruning hooks. Don’t learn war anymore – and more importantly, don’t teach or take part in war anymore. This is what Luis did.

As Father Gregory writes Luis “embraced this goodness – his greatness – and nothing was the same again. And, really, what is death compared to knowing that? No bullet can pierce it.”

I invite you, tonight, Jubilants to embrace your greatness, embrace your goodness. Don’t give in to the sin of pessimism that says you can’t do anything about how crappy the world is. The truth that pessimism doesn’t want you to know is that you can change the world, in big and small ways – and you must. The world is relying on you.

I am not an island,
I am not alone
I am my intentions,
Trapped here in this flesh and bone

And I need to move, I need to wake up
I need to change, I need to shake up
I need to speak out, something’s got to break up
I’ve been asleep, and I need to wake up, now
I want to change, I need to shake up
I need to speak out, oh, something’s got to break up
I’ve been asleep, and I need to wake up, now

Oh, Yeah!