How To Be Hopeful

July 19, 2020

This is still the season of fireflies. Or as they’re often called in the south, “lighting bugs.” They started up a few weeks ago, I noticed, on the summer solstice – right on schedule - when at twilight they began rising up and blinking softly.

Here’s some trivia: Fireflies are actually beetles, and they use their flashes as mating signals. You probably knew that already. The flashes we see out in the yard are generally males looking for females. It’s kind of like teenage boys driving around in fast cars thinking that makes them more attractive. Or middle-aged men doing the same thing.

As the male lights up, flying around, if a female firefly waiting in the grass or bushes is impressed by that, she responds back with a flash of her own. And they engage in this twinkling “conversation” until the male locates the female and, well…this is a family show.

There is one type of firefly, however, that’s kind of vicious. The females of that species will mimic the flashing pattern of another firefly species, and when an unsuspecting male is lured in close her, she eats him. The law of the jungle…or the front yard!

For us, fireflies are beautiful; magical. A few summers ago, Elle and I were out walking early one night. It had just started getting dark. And suddenly she stopped and grabbed my arm and said, “Look!”

Ahead of us was a large grassy area, and the air was just alive with fireflies. There was something happy about it. We stood there for a few minutes, staring in wonder, just glad to be alive, to witness that simple beauty in that moment. It might sound corny, but it made both of us feel hopeful.

As a kid I used to catch fireflies in a Mason Jar to get a better look at them up close. But it was always a crime to keep them. You needed to let them go. Back out to fly into the darkness and light things up.

I think that’s why – as silly as it might sound - the glow of a firefly feels to me like hope. It’s a light in the darkness, and even the darkness can’t overcome it. Just like that passage we read every Christmas from the Book of Isaiah.

It reminds me of what Martin Luther King said: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Light and love and hope. They all go together.

When the Apostle Paul wrote his majestic letter to the Romans, one truth among the many marvelous things he told them was, “…in hope we’re saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen?”

I think Paul must’ve know a few things about human nature. That most of us are seeking something. Most of us feel as if we are works-in-progress; that we all want completeness, wholeness. Because in that, there is peace.

One way to speak of that - using religious language - is the word “salvation.” Paul says, “…in hope we are saved.” The idea of being saved, as Paul describes it, really is not exactly what a lot of us might first conjure up. Over the years, being saved came to mean that you were going to get to go to heaven, because you believed certain things. At least, that’s what I grew up thinking that word meant.

But my understanding of that word is much broader, now. And I think it comes closer to what Paul meant when he talked about being saved. The Greek word Paul used is “sozo,” and it’s a synonym for words like “whole,” and “complete” and “worthy” and “healed up.”

So, in that sense, being saved is not so much about your permanent home address after you die.

It’s about your state of being and mind and heart in the life you have now, today. And Paul says, that way of being is found in hope. Living with hope is being saved.

And I have to agree, the people I’ve known who’ve been the unhappiest, and the most broken, and feeling the most as if they were unworthy and incomplete, have been those without hope.

I think that’s why, over the past four or five months, with all we’ve been through in dealing with COVID, we’ve yearned so much for a sense of and the reality of healing and wholeness and completeness. We need hope – just the smallest glimmer of hope – that things will be okay. We need to feel hope; we need to feel saved.

And I believe it’s why that in this same season of distress and change, so many people of every race and creed and color have poured onto the streets and cried out for justice. I think it’s why we can all say and finally understand that it’s not a political statement to affirm that Black Lives Matter.

It’s a way of saying that just as my life has always mattered, for too long now – far too long – not all lives have mattered. That black lives have been devalued and dismissed and broken and incomplete and treated in our culture as not being as worthy as mine.

So we’ve needed to truly listen and try to understand and to make that wrong right, once and for all.

And in striving to make that real, there is so much hope in that. There is salvation in that.

One thing Paul makes clear, though, is that what we hope for is a reality that we haven’t seen. Think about that. Sounds weird at first. If I hope for a chocolate cake for my birthday, just like mom used to make, I’ve seen that cake before. I know what it looks like, smells like, tastes like. Mmmm.

At the same time, the cake I’m hoping for won’t be the same cake. It can’t be the same. Because in the meantime between my memory and past experience and now, the Earth has circled the Sun many times. I’ve changed. The world around me has changed. Time has marched on. And I’ve learned some things. I wouldn’t even eat that cake in the same way – mostly by not eating as much!

So, what we hope for is something we haven’t ever experienced, really. Did you ever see the movie, “Groundhog Day?” Bill Murray plays a TV weatherman reporting on Punxsutawney Phil. And through a strange and mystical twist, he wakes up every day, reliving the day before, Groundhog Day, over and over again.

At first he’s terribly confused, but then he’s delighted that he can change little things just for fun every day – every day that’s really the same day played out all over again. But eventually he grows very weary of the same thing, day after day. And his greatest hope is not to ever have things stay as they have been and just repeat. His hope is for something new he hasn’t experienced before.

What he hopes for so dearly, is what is unseen.

So, what’s our unseen hope? I have a few.

That we’ll emerge on the other side of COVID understanding how connected we are as human beings; how interdependent we are. That my wellbeing and your wellbeing and the wellbeing of every human is the responsibility of every human. My hope is that we can learn to count on each other and trust each other because we’ve learned how knit together we are with each other.

And that when frightening things happen in our world, we’re stronger if we work together. I hope we’ll finally grasp the truth that just as a virus does not respect boundaries between nations or people, we’re coming closer to living into the reality that barriers of language and ethnicity and race and nationality are illusions we’ve bought into, at least when humanity is viewed from the loving perspective of God.

From that sacred point of view, we are all part of the same family, we’re all in the same boat, and we’re all created by the same God. And we should all grow up and start acting like it.

My hope that is still unseen is that we will experience the day when a Black child born in this country has exactly the same opportunity and freedom from fear and the high esteem bestowed upon them that I have been privileged to enjoy, purely by the accident that I was born with white skin.

My hope is that we will all understand that our responsibility of caring about each other and for each other inevitably means that we stretch our comfort zones. That we deal with our complacency and our complicity, that we understand that we need to seek forgiveness and reconciliation, and that we pledge to do better because it’s the right thing. It’s the just thing. It’s the sacred thing. It’s our work now.

Today, as we remember and give thanks for the life of John Lewis, the legendary civil rights leader and member of congress who died Friday; who was beaten and jailed many times, and who did not lose hope in the face of incredible odds, and the challenges that STILL confront us, his hope must be our hope. His work must be our work.

And I don’t know yet, all that work will involve. I do not know yet what all may come. I don’t know exactly what that will look like.

And that hope can and will mean salvation. Our souls, today, need it, badly.

And my hope today is that we – you and me and this church together – that we will understand our purpose, our reason for being, and our cause, is never to be stuck in Groundhog Day, never to be in an endless loop of repeating what we’ve known before and think that that is the same thing as being faithful. It’s not.

Our cause is to hope, and be the vessels of hope, and the instruments of hope. For anyone – any of our neighbors who are broken, weary, frightened, rejected – anyone who’s ever thought that being part of a community of faith would never be relevant to their lives.

Our hope that’s very real but still unseen is that together we will be people who together break down barriers, and who bind up the wounded, and who welcome the stranger, and who shine and flicker brightly in the darkness. And who know that we are saved not for our own sake. But by being the living lights of healing, wholeness, and completeness, for others.

This little light of mine,

I’m gonna let it shine.

This little light of mine,

I’m gonna let it shine.

Let it shine,

Let it shine,

Let it shine.

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