Via Negativa: The Hunger Games / Hunger for Hope

Jubilee! Circle, Columbia, S.C.
Readings for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost:

I have uttered what I did not understand. (Job 42:1-6, 10-17)
Have mercy on me! (Mark 10:46-52)
Never lose hope. (Rumi)

Our first song comes from Dave Matthews. Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, Matthews grew up in Yorktown Heights, New York and later moved to Charlottesville, Virginia where he started playing his guitar in the local music scene. He formed the Dave Matthews Band in 1991 and has sold nearly 40 million albums since then. This song is called “Mercy” and it comes from their newly released album, Away from the World.

[Verse] Don’t give up, I know you can see
All the world and the mess that we’re making
Can’t give up And hope that God will intercede
Come on back Imagine that we could get it together
Stand up for what we need to be
Cause crying won’t save or feed a hungry child
Can’t lay down and wait for a miracle to change things
So lift up your eyes,
Lift up your heart

[Chorus] Singing mercy will we overcome this
Oh one by one could we turn it around
Maybe carry on just a little bit longer
And I’ll try to give you what you need

There are some weeks where my weekly meditations write themselves. They seem to pour out of my fingertips like I am taking notation from some other worldly source. Then, there are weeks, like this past week, where inspiration seems to have fled – the words maddeningly hide from me – ideas come and go, but none of them ever stick around long enough to congeal into something coherent.

These are the weeks where I long to return to the days when I stocked shelves at the World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta. Nobody demanded anything more from me than fully stocked displays of Coke memorabilia.

Whenever it gets hard to write a meditation, the reason is simple – I have yet to learn the lesson I’m trying to teach – and this week’s topic – hope – is something I am still desperately trying to learn. I am not, by nature, a hopeful person. I have made cynicism my stock and trade for the past 40-something years and it has served me well. Much of my humor comes from cynicism. Much of my personality is built around being recognized as a cynic. When one wraps themselves in cynicism, it becomes terribly difficult to think in hopeful terms.

Cynicism is the easy road in this world. Tune in to the news on any given day and I challenge you not to come away numb from the terrible events taking place all around us. Wars – at least ten conflicts are ongoing in the world from Afghanistan to Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, the war in Syria, Sudan, the Mexican Drug wars – all killing thousands of people. Famine, droughts, and other natural disasters. Violence against women and children – violence against animals and our planet.

If you pay attention to all the terrible things going on in the world, and the incredible mess that humanity has made of this earth, optimism seems like naivet√© at best, and at worst, blind stupidity. Cynicism seems to make the most sense. At least if we’re cynical, we don’t have to think too deeply about the pain of other people in the world. We can just chalk it up to the evil that people always do and move along.

In truth, cynicism becomes a form of self-defense – a shield we use so that we don’t have to feel the pain of those around us. Cynicism means we can sagely nod our head at the terrible circumstances of the world and pray for those in need, or hope for miracles, but not feel especially moved to actually do anything about the pain and suffering we see around us.

However, I have been called out many times for my reliance on cynicism as a form of self-protection. A friend of mine once called me “an optimistic pessimist.” She told me that though it may appear that my cynicism about the world runs deep, I am, in fact, quite optimistic about the world.

I reacted poorly to this description of me – my cynicism becoming quite strong in the face of this criticism. But, upon deeper reflection, I think my friend was right. I am truly and optimistic pessimist. My first reaction to problems is always very pessimistic. My inner cynic will always see the worst possible outcome. My inner Eeyore is really quite strong. I can be given the opportunity of a lifetime and I can hear Eeyore saying, “Well that’s nice, but nothing good will come of it.”

Honestly, I think we all hear that inner Eeyore at times, rolling his eyes whenever we come across something that seems like good fortune – waiting for the next shoe to drop. However, I also think we all have an inner Winnie the Poo as well, who firmly believes “No one can be uncheered with a balloon,” which basically means, for the optimist, it doesn’t take much to make us happy.

But, there are dangers in the extremes like Eeyore and Pooh. A study done last year by two Duke University professors showed that extreme pessimists and extreme optimists acted in much the same way. Extreme optimists, they found, seem to have too much faith in the future. They don’t save money, they don’t pay off their credit cards and they don’t do any long-term planning, because they believe the economy will always rebound no matter what. Extreme pessimists do the same things, but for a different reason. Why take any measures to help yourself if the world is going to hell in a hand basket anyway?

What their study reveals is that those who do best in the world are the optimistic pessimists – those with a moderate amount of optimism. The study showed that they “work longer hours, save more money, are more likely to pay off their credit card balances and believe their income will grow over the next five years.”

I think this is the key to hope, Jubilants. Hope is not a Pollyannaish view of the world – that everything will work out just fine and we don’t have to worry about it. Hope is a mixture of optimism and pessimism – it’s the balance between the light and the dark that we each feel. It’s the ability to both pray – and to act, to expect miracles – and to imagine that we can get it together and stand up for what we need to be.

[Verse] Me and you and you and you
Just want to be free — yeah
But you see all the world is just as we’ve made it
And until we got a new one
I’ve got to say that love is not a whisper or a weakness
No love is strong
So we got to get together yeah
Gotta get, gotta get, gotta get
‘Til there is no reason
To fight

[Chorus] Mercy will we overcome this
Oh one by one could we turn it around
Maybe carry on just a little bit longer
And I’ll try to give you what you need

We talked about poor, put-upon Job a few weeks ago when we explored our hunger for security. Job lost everything – his children, his livelihood, everything that gave him earthly security – in a bet between God and a “satan” or adversary who wanted to prove to God that humans only love the Holy for the security the Holy provides to those who are righteous.

What Job discovers, and what we’re invited to learn, is that God makes no bargains with us – that God is an unfathomable, mysterious force in this world – and our choice to love that capricious, free moving spirit is just as mysterious and confounding as God herself.

In this passage, God has already spoken from the whirlwind, recounting to Job all the wonders and mysteries of everything that God has created and has told Job until you understand the mysteries of creation you will never completely understand God.

Job says to God: ‘I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
“Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?”
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
“Hear, and I will speak;
I will question you, and you declare to me.”
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.’

“I have uttered what I did not understand.” Isn’t that just the whole of humanity’s problem, anyway? As a rule, humanity constantly prattles on about things it doesn’t understand. Despite advances in science – there is still much we don’t understand, but it doesn’t stop us from talking about it. In other areas – politics, human nature, the weather – on and on we talk, trying to show ourselves and the world that we know what we’re talking about. But in reality, we know very little, if anything at all, about the mysteries of this world we live in.

When knowledge fails us – this is where hope steps in to fill the void. Job tells God, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.” This is what hope does for us, Jubilants. It invites us to stop listening to all the talking heads around us, the ignorant Eeyores who speak only of gloom and doom and instead, open up our eyes and begin to see the Holy – and the hope – all around us.

Hope is not found in the yammering on of theologians and preachers – not even this preacher. Hope is found in the hope of a flower pushing its way through the frozen ground to herald the arrival of spring. Hope is found in the melting and transforming caterpillar who will one day spring forth from its cocoon as a gorgeous butterfly. Hope is found in the regeneration of damaged cells as the miraculous human body heals itself from wounds and sickness. Hope is found in the smile of a stranger when you’re having a really terrible, awful, bad day. Hope is found in the deep breath … and the exhale of carbon dioxide that is transformed again to oxygen by the living, breathing, holy creation that we have the privilege to live, and breathe and be holy in.

Hope opens our eyes to the possibilities we may have never considered. Hope opens our eyes to see the mundane around us as suddenly infused with the Holy. Hope moves us away from using our ears and our words to try to make sense of the world around us, and instead brings the world into sharp, wordless and wonderful focus, opening our eyes to the Holy that moves, in, through and around us. Hope is knowing that there is more going on here than we will ever know or understand.

“Never lose hope,” the Sufi poet Rumi writes. “And if all the roads, end up in dead ends, you’ll be shown the secret paths, no one will comprehend.”

You will be shown the secret paths – not told about them – shown them. But, you’ll never see those paths with your mouth open and your eyes closed. Open your eyes, Jubilants, so you can see those secret paths that hope opens to us in every moment.

Breathe deeply.

[Chorus] Mercy will we overcome this
Oh we come too far to turn it around
Oh and asked too much to be a little bit stronger
But I want to give you what you need

[Chorus] Mercy what will become of us
Oh one by one could we turn it around
Maybe carry on just a little bit longer
And I’ll try to give you what you need

The story is told of a tutor who was sent out to a sick boy from a school in the city where she worked to help the boy keep up on his studies while he was in the hospital. The teacher had told the tutor that the class was studying nouns and adverbs and asked he to give him a lesson.

The teacher had not mentioned that the boy had been severely burned in an accident and was in terrible pain. The sight of the boy upset the tutor and she tried her best to teach the boy his nouns and adverbs but felt that she didn’t help him much. The next day, however, the nurse asked the tutor what she did to the boy. The teacher was concerned that she had upset him with her reaction, but the nurse say.

“No, we’ve been worried about that little boy, but ever since yesterday, his whole attitude has changed. He’s fighting back, responding to treatment. It’s as though he’s decided to live.”

Two weeks later the boy explained that he had completely given up hope until the teacher arrived. Everything changed when he came to a simple realization.

He said: “They wouldn’t send a teacher to work on nouns and adverbs with a dying boy, would they?”

“And if all the roads, end up in dead ends, you’ll be shown the secret paths, no one will comprehend.”

Ironically, sometimes, even nouns and adverbs can open our eyes to that secret path of hope.

“I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.”

Breathe deeply.

Our second song comes from singer and songwriter Clyde Jackson Browne. He was born in Heidelberg, Germany where his American military father was stationed. He grew up in California and later moved to New York where he joined The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. He later struck out on his own and shot to fame in the 1970s with such hits as “Running on Empty,” “Somebody’s Baby,” and this song, “Doctor my Eyes,” which was on his self-titled 1972 debut album. It reached #8 on Billboard’s Hot 100 charts that year. Let’s try it.

[Verse] Doctor, my eyes have seen the years
And the slow parade of fears without crying
Now I want to understand I have done all that I could
To see the evil and the good without hiding
You must help me if you can

[Chorus] Doctor, my eyes,
Tell me what is wrong
Was I unwise to leave them open for so long

In our Jesus story, we find our guy coming into Jericho and confronted with a man full of hope. Bartimaeus didn’t have much right to hope. He was a blind beggar, relegated to begging for his daily sustenance by begging by the side of the road. This beggar gives us a good lesson on both the blessings and the dangers of hope.

How many of us hope for something secretly? We have these hopes and dreams but we haven’t told anyone about them – we just keep silent, hoping against hope that those hopes and dreams will come true. This blind beggar has a lesson for you.

Bartimaeus could have sat beside that Jericho road and just hoped that Jesus might notice him and take pity on him. He may have heard Jesus was coming along the road that day and positioned himself just right to be there when this amazing healer walked by. But, Bartimaeus put a voice to his hope. He begged Jesus to notice him, to have mercy on him and heal him. He hounded Jesus so loudly that the disciples told him to shut up.

But, Jesus noticed this hopeful, raucous man and healed him. Jesus may have taken notice of his silent hopes, but there was no way he could miss this man’s excitement at the thought that Jesus had the power to heal him.

Instead, Jesus tells Bartimaeus, it was his faith that had made him well, his faith that if he clearly and loudly expressed his hopes and dreams to the man who can make them come true, that he would realize those hopes. Bartimaeus had such conviction in his hope to be well that he took the chance, stepped out of his comfort zone, and asked that his dreams be made true. Hopes loudly expressed is really faith in action.

Instead of silently hoping that our lives get better, Bartimaeus teaches us that we have to pick ourselves up from the side of the road and make some noise about our hopes and dreams. Hope is not about sitting and dreaming, but it’s about expressing those hopes in the present moment, to anyone who will listen, because hopes and dreams rarely come true in isolation – it’s only in relationship, when we connect with others with similar hopes and dreams, that we bring them into reality. Only in relationship with Jesus was Bartimaeus made whole.

If we silently sit on our hope, it no longer serves us, but can become an obstacle.

As Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn warns: “Hope is important, because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today. But that is the most that hope can do for us, to make some hardship lighter. When I think deeply about the nature of hope, I see something tragic. Since we cling to our hope in the future, we do not focus our energies and capabilities on the present moment. We use hope to believe something better will happen in the future.”

Hoping for something better may make you feel better, but unless you share that hope in the present moment, hope can be a stumbling block – something you just use waste this present moment by wishing yourself into the future, instead of working to make those hopes come true in the present.

Blind Bartimaeus gives us a new vision of hope: Don’t just sit and hope in private, stand up and shout your hopes to the world – then we can all get together and help make those dreams come true.

Breathe deeply.

[Verse] ‘Cause I have wandered through this world
And as each moment has unfurled
I’ve been waiting to awaken from these dreams
People go just where there wil
l I never noticed them until I got this feeling
That it’s later than it seems

[Chorus] Doctor, my eyes,
Tell me what you see I hear their cries,
Just say if it’s too late for me

I have to admit, I really hate how the book of Job ends. I long for it to end like the book of Jonah does, without any neat happy ending, where you have to decide for yourself what God might do next.

But, for Job, there is this la-la, sing-songy, sappy happy ending where he ends up with twice the riches that he had before along with seven sons and three daughters – all to replace what had been taken from him in God’s reckless bet. This ending really pisses me off in lots of ways.

First, it reminds me of the time one of my cats died and my mother said to me, “So? Get another one.” Like you can replace cats like tires. That one is worn out? Get another one. What’s the big deal? The big deal is that cats – like human children and every living creature – are unique, with their own personalities, their own endearing quirks, and their own irritating faults. You don’t just replace cats, and you don’t just replace human children. It’s lovely that Job has ten new children, but they are not, and can never be, replacements for the old ones. Job, like any good father, would still grieve for the children he lost. I think it irritates me that God comes off like my mother in this passage. “Hey, your other kids are gone, here are some more. No problem!”

What galls me about this is the unfairness of it all. I mean, God didn’t have to make the bet in the first place. He could have simply left poor Job alone with his happy family and happy financial situation. But, God goes out and deliberately messes with Job, then gives him twice the wealth and different kids. “There, all better,” God says.

No! Not all better. I think it’s actually worse – and what’s worse than that – it’s just not fair.

But, that reminds me of another thing my mother once told me: “Life isn’t fair.” And, it isn’t, and we all know it. But, here’s another thought to make you mad: “Hope isn’t fair, either.” It’s not, because while one person may be wishing for a bigger house or a better car, someone else is wishing for a crumb of bread to stop their swollen bellies from growling.

Hope is not fair, and often it’s an obstacle that keeps us from being right here right now. But the pain of the world, of being here right now, can often be enough to make us want to turn a blind eye to the world’s problems.

It’s enough to make us want us to teach ourselves not to cry, because if we really internalized the unfairness of the world we would weep without ceasing.

The paradox of hope is this, though it is not fair, it is all we have to offer to this world. We offer that through the other thing that is not fair – and that is unconditional love. This is a holy kind of love that gives itself away to anyone – to the filthy rich and the desperately poor, to those with six houses and to those with only a cardboard box.

Theologian Ellen Davis invites us to think about it this way: “The great question that God’s speech out of the whirlwind poses for Job and every other person of integrity is this: Can you love what you do not control?” It is a question worth pondering. Can you love what you do not control: this wild and beautiful creation, its wild and beautiful Creator, your own children?

Can you also love a world that you can’t control? Can you love the people that you can’t control? Can you love the situations you can’t control? This is the unfairness of unconditional love – we must give it away to everyone, most especially those we cannot control.

It’s unfair but all the Holy asks us to do in this world is to wastefully give unconditional love – offer it unfairly – to everyone, regardless of whether or not you think they deserve it. The truth is, none of us deserve it – but there it is – lavished on us by the Holy just for being here.

“My teacher, let me see again,” was the cry of blind Bartimaeus, and it must be ours as well. The secret path that no one comprehends is the path of love, Jubilants. Can you see it? That secret path of unfair, unconditional love? Our fervent hope is that we will receive it, and we must also hope that we will have the strength and the courage to give it, no matter what.

That, Jubilants, is all we can really hope for.

[Verse] Doctor, my eyes have seen the years
And the slow parade of fears without crying
Now I want to understand I have done all that I could
To see the evil and the good without hiding
You must help me if you can

[Chorus] Doctor, my eyes,
Cannot see the sky
Is this the prize for having learned how not to cry

Oh, Yeah!