Sermon by Rev. Diane Rollert, 25 January 2015
I’ve begun to wonder if our relationship with hope changes throughout our lives, as our circumstances change and as we age. You could call it a dance, but maybe it’s really a roller coaster ride or les montagnes russes, as they say in French. That up and down, back and forth, excitement, disappointment, wondering, and waiting, then falling and climbing back up again that seems to define life.
Often we look to children and youth to give us hope. They are the future, after all. I know I watch the infants and toddlers in our midst and I envy their ability to be so present to each living moment. They are filled with that holy wonder that we adults so often miss. I don’t think that hope is really something that infants and toddlers experience, precisely because they are so present to the ”now”. Maybe you have to be able to imagine life’s possibilities and disappointments before you can encounter hope.
I remember my own childhood dreams — to become a dancer, a singer, a scientist, an artist, a teacher. I never imagined that I’d be doing what I’m doing now, but I had a sense of hopefulness about the future that stretched out before me, no matter how treacherous my day-to-day life could sometimes be. I had a sense that, in the end, all things could be possible. I also remember when I experienced hopelessness for the first time. I’d already experienced meanness the way most children do, at the hands of other children, but it wasn’t the same as learning that the world itself could be a very cruel place that allowed for riots and war.
I think about parents and hope. You give birth to a child and you imagine what their life will be like, who they will become. You hope only the very best for them, and then real life happens. Children have their own paths to follow, and often they aren’t the paths that we dreamed. Our children have their own struggles and we can’t protect them from the world. They can have dreams that look so different from our own. We say that we will accept our children’s choices no matter what, but if we are honest about it, we know our own hopes can still lurk in the back of our minds. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves that loving acceptance is more important than our own expectations.
Maybe that’s how we have to handle hope in our own lives. We have to learn to love who we are and where we are, here and now, even as we hope for something greater for ourselves and for the world.
This past week, a few of our wise elders shared with me a perspective on hope I hadn’t really thought about. They wondered if hope becomes less important as you age and you realize that you may only have 5, 10 or 20 more years to live. The quality of each moment, the quality of life, becomes more important than what may happen in the future. You look at the world and how it has changed and you worry about what it will be like for future generations. The past can look so much better and the future can look so bleak — something older generations have been saying since the beginning of time. You let go of hope, or you set it aside for the time being — until you let yourself see hope blossoming in a younger generation.
I wonder if letting go of hope is like letting go of faith. Maybe that’s just where I am in this dance right now. I believe we all need something to hold onto; hope in the future, faith in the present, or perhaps gratitude for the past.
Today, I’m saying goodbye to you for a month. I’m leaving on sabbatical Friday. Part of the time that I’m away, I’ll be leading a pilgrimage to the Philippines to visit the indigenous Unitarian Universalist congregations there. Yes, there is one congregation in a poor community in Manila and another 27 congregations on Negros Island, mostly in poor rural mountain communities where there is no electricity or running water. These congregations have been in existence since the 1950s, founded by the Rev. Toribio Quimada, a man who left his Pentecostal church when he came to realize he believed in a loving God and universal salvation. By a fluke, he discovered Unitarianism and Universalism and the rest is history.
I was on Negros Island three years ago when I served as a sabbatical minister there for two months. Going back will be a homecoming for me as I reconnect with the many people I got to know during that short but intense time. I’m especially looking forward to a reunion with one particularly remarkable young woman. We first met when she came down from the mountains to participate in a workshop I was leading. I thought she was a very timid teenage girl with these bright shining eyes.
As the workshop progressed, she began to come out of her shell. She was 25 and the mother of three children. The church paid for her bus fare, food and housing, but in order to join us for the workshop, she needed to make enough money to leave food for her children. So she spent weeks cutting logs and lugging them to burn into charcoal and harvesting coconuts to dry and sell at the market. When the coconuts weren’t dry enough, she entrusted her goods with her neighbours, borrowed money for her children and left them behind in her husband’s care.
The year before, she’d given birth to a stillborn child. The sadness still overwhelmed her, but she’d made up her mind. She wanted to do something more with her life.
She wanted to go back to school. She’d been a good student when she was younger, but her mother had told her it was better to marry, so she’d never finished her high school education. As we talked, we developed this plan. I would put $300 in a trust for her through the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Philippines and she would go home to convince her husband that her studies would be good for the family.
At first he resisted with anger, but leaders in the church went up to the mountains and successfully reasoned with him. So my young friend began taking qualifying courses and now is making her way through her high school education. Every few months she sends me a report card or lets me know how she’s doing — and she’s doing great. Once she receives her diploma, she has plans to enter university, and I’ve promised her that I’ll continue my support when she does.
I’ve had a glimpse of how difficult her life is, yet I can’t really fathom what it’s like. It is so different from the life I lead and the privileges I’ve had. There is so much I take for granted. Will she be able to realize her dreams? I can’t say. But her ability to keep hope alive inspires hope in me.
Maybe that’s the last thing I want to say about hope. Sometimes we have it. Sometimes we lose it. Sometimes we need someone else to be hopeful for us. Sometimes we need someone else’s hopefulness to remind us that hope is always there waiting for us, a partner in this dance we call life.
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