I want to begin this morning with a story and a disclaimer. It is, most assuredly, a first world story (that’s the disclaimer!) and not particularly heady which, I can sometimes tend to be! But it does illustrate where I am going and perhaps you will relate. It has been almost a year now, but it still fresh in my mind, especially as we prepare to undertake a similar project! We had decided it was time to have some work done on the tiny bathroom that the second owners of the house we live in had tucked into a corner of the master bedroom. We had some ideas and engaged a local contractor who was recommended to us. The hope was to better utilize the little footprint, to update of course, but also to stop the constant dripping of the shower due to worn valves, to be able to close the shower door without hitching it up and pulling hard and to seal it so that it wasn’t always leaking, and to replace fixtures and cabinetry that were literally crumbling before our eyes. It didn’t seem like s stretch!
Our project manager kept saying that it takes a village to build a bathroom as, one by one, demolition folks, wall builders, tilers, painters, plumbers, electricians – I think that’s all of them – paraded through day by day and week by week, each of them hoping, too, that their piece of the whole would be pleasing and practical, both. You can imagine that with this much activity things were bound to go wrong or not quite fall perfectly into place. I am a realist, but to be quite honest, I was losing my faith in the company we had hired on with. I discovered along the way that there is a domino effect which occurs as one small error tips the next and the next and the next if no one steps in and says, “Hold on a minute – is there another way to do this?” One step forward and two steps back we went until, finally, after some six months of waiting, I am able stand before you and report that we have a remodeled bathroom. And the things I originally planned for appear to have come to pass!
So while my faith in this company and its workers was waning, I managed to remain hopeful and you might say that this is just the kind of person she is. It is true that I am a glass half or even three quarters full kind of woman! But where did that hopefulness come from in the face of mounting mishaps? What meaning can we extrapolate from this construction fiasco? What is this idea of hope really all about anyway?
Faith and hope are closely related, both being about a level of confidence in something or someone where no proof may exist and believing none the less. The difference is that faith is a noun, while hope is a noun, but also a verb. It has an active tense! Now this excites me to no end because my concept what is transcendent is all about action! To be hopeful is more than mere conjecture. It is to move toward what one believes in; to insert one’s self into the journey of bringing the hoped-for thing to fruition; to take steps that will usher in the desired outcome while holding fast to a vision of the result before us.
I could see the finished bathroom in my minds eye, there before me, even if slightly beyond reach at times. And that’s the hopeful part – I continued to grasp into the future, pulling us and all those other folks toward the end result. There were a lot of “how comes?” and “what if’s?” uttered from my lips in those months since inception. “If we can’t have this, can we do that?” I couldn’t rely on others to do the leg work. I needed to get out there and keep researching, investigating possibilities and steering the project in the desired direction. I was a critical part of the village!
Perseverance in the face of frustration is not magical thinking or a loss of touch with reality. Elizabeth Gilbert writes about the creative process in her book, Big Magic. We persist because of the vision, but also because we have to some degree “fallen in love” with the idea. We’d give up otherwise. Certainly, I would have given up on the bathroom plan if I didn’t hold this idea before me. There were times we honestly wanted to scrap the whole thing; put the room back to its original state with no master bath at all!
We need to let go of fantasies about perfection, according to Rebecca Solnit, who suggests that perfection is actually an enemy of getting to the good, stopping us from starting with its unrealistic expectations and sapping the enjoyment from our journey. Somewhere along the way I realized that learning to endure frustration and disappointment is part of the work; not an interruption of the process, it is the process. Managing one’s self in the places where things look bleak is a testimony to our devotion to the hope we carry. And this is the thing: we carry it – in our minds – in our hearts – in our hands, with us as we go, never losing sight of the end game. Because, if it is something with more depth than a bathroom plan, or even if it is just that kind of a project, we believe in the value of it. We care about a hoped-for thing, deeply perhaps, and have a sense of calling to immerse ourselves in its creation.
Mary Oliver, in her poem, “What I Have Learned So Far,” asks if we can be “passionate about the just, the ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit to no labor in its cause?” Her response is a resounding, “I don’t think so.” “All summations have a beginning,” she writes, “all effect has a story, all kindness begins with a sown seed. The gospel of light is the crossroads of - indolence, or action,” she declares. “Be ignited; or be gone.” Our hope is bound up in a choice between benign inactivity and avoidance on the one hand and animated response on the other. Be aroused from our slumber or be gone, she admonishes! To hope is to live into new realities with a fiery passion, without which we dissipate into the mist.
But, from whence does this hopefulness come? I want to say that it has something to do with the stories of our lives, our world, our existence; mythical or factual; not taken at their face value, though, all the time, because some of those moments are steeped in hopelessness. Ours is to turn them on their heads; moving beyond the instant of destruction or the gnawing awareness of poverty close by and afar or the unexplained illness bearing poor prognosis or the unfathomable occurring in our midst. Stories in their fullness don’t end there. People respond, more often than not. We step up when we need to.
My own story could have been cast in hopelessness as I wound my way through domestic abuse, single parenthood, a lack of education and the poor employment opportunities that result. Instead it is a story of hopefulness come to fruition. I wasn’t willing to settle. I struggled through hard times that became less difficult each step of the way. I will grant you that I had white privilege on my side, but I can say with certainty that I didn’t feel very privileged in those days. As each small success gave way to another and another, I built up an account of hope that I could draw from.
Two of the books I read most recently –I realized I was spending a fair amount of time reading about hope – one was Almost Everything: Notes on Hope by Anne Lamott and the second was Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. Both of these writers remind me of the value of stories – the one’s we tell ourselves when the going gets tough. It is how we tell them that makes all the difference. We can go down either road – the hopeless one or the hopeful one. The choice is ours.
Solnit writes that our actions and our inactions have impact. We can tell a story of wrongs, injustices and injuries which, of course, need to be told, but we need not think that we have told the whole story having shared the ugliness about it. This is the story we are bombarded with these days as if it was the end of the tale. But there is more to the story and, in fact, we can be part of the story; the part that moves it into the hopeful realm. Early in her book tours, Solnit gave a talk about hope to an assembly of people of color who were reminded of the civil rights movement or the rising up of the Zapatistas and then an Asian woman spoke so profoundly: Quote: “I think that is right. If I had not hoped, I would not have struggled. And if I had not struggled, I would not have survived Pol Pot.” Wow!
Our motivation sometimes arises out of our depth of despair. The more difficult the circumstance, the stronger the will to survive. Perhaps it is human instinct. And so, I wonder about our current state of affairs. There are plenty of “doom-sayers” who can’t seem to move beyond the negative commentary and finger pointing. It is a privilege to be able to sit on the sidelines and call the shots as we see them happening around us. The folks who have taken to the streets are the ones most affected; those who have the most at risk. How do we get past the rhetoric and into the telling of the rest of the story?
And there is a story here, too, in this place of faith and community. It is a story that isn’t finished yet! What does Unitarian Universalism have to say about the way forward? Rebecca Parker and John Buehrens in their A House for Hope: The Promise of Progressive Religion for the 21st Century, say that hope rises from the here and now experiences of our lives, longing for goodness, justice and love, the alleviation of suffering and a flourishing peace. That hope remembers the dreams of those who came before us, reaching back in order to lean into the future. And finally, that hope acts in ways that bless, protest, and repair. Our task seems to be to create a home for this to happen in; a place of rest and restoration, but also of imagination and ideas and learning; a place from which we go out into our world and act in ways that further the story of hope – the story of our vision for a just world. The story of our larger faith is grounded in the stories of communities just like this one, made up of people from different walks of life with unique skills and incredible passions.
So I want us to take a moment together here this morning to think about and share our hopes for this amazing community in Barnstable. Take a deep breath. Dream big for a minute. What do you hope for this place? What is your vision for the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House of Chatham? What do you come here for and what of it do you take into the world? What is your hope today?
Ours is to tell the rest of the story in ways that move us into our hoped-for things. Ours is to take action, bit by bit, piecing the puzzle together until the whole beautiful scene unfolds before us, again and again. Ours is to keep the vision before us and to fuel the passion within our hearts, stoking the fire with the hardwood of struggles overcome; stories not left by the roadside half told, but carried to completion. Ours is to hope.
So may it be.