Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Not Wishful Thinking
distributed 12/4/09 - ©2009

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Cynthia and Tom Reiners of Tucson, Arizona. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

The Christian season of Advent is -- at its best -- an antidote to the ever-present hype and materialism of the secular "Christmas" season. Advent can pull us out of a frenzied schedule of parties, shopping and decorating, and move us into a more centered place. When taken seriously, Advent can be an occasion for reflection, repentance, and the renewal of faith.

(And before some of you fire off your rebuttals, I do know that seasonal decor and thoughtful gifts can be parts of a rich emotional and spiritual discipline. Six years ago, I wrote that "the spiritual and the material sides of Christmas need to sit down for a lengthy conversation." Being intentional about Advent helps keep that conversation going.)

One of the ways that churches and families observe Advent is through the ritual of Advent candles. Each week, the lighting of a candle reminds us of a religious central theme -- hope, peace, love and joy -- that is both timeless and timely.

In the church that I attended last Sunday, the first candle named the principle of hope. The simple words used in lighting that candle touched me with an affirmation of something that is central to my faith and my work.

The liturgists' words included these statements: "As we light the first Advent candle, let it stand for hope based not on wishful thinking, but on deep conviction. We believe, we have seen, we have received the Promise and the Great Gift, and therefore, in the midst of darkness and imperfection, we hope. ... Because of Christ, we not only have hope, but we believe that good is stronger than evil. God wants us to work for good in this world." The recurring response from the congregation was, "We are a people of Hope."

The naming of "hope based not on wishful thinking" sent my thoughts back a decade to a presentation that left me deeply frustrated, and that eventually led me to profound spiritual insights.

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In the fall of 1999, the staff member for environmental advocacy in a major US denomination was visiting Denver. An ecumenical group gathered to hear his insights on several current issues. This was in the closing year of the Clinton presidency, and we all felt that the environment was at risk from several trends in Congress.

After he ran through a number of difficult political challenges -- such as drilling in the Arctic Refuge, and threats to the Endangered Species Act -- someone in the audience asked the speaker, "Where do you find hope?" He answered with details about Senators who were using committee processes to delay or derail damaging legislation, successful political organizing in key congressional districts, and possibilities for a presidential veto of the worst bills. He tried to convince us that there was reason to be optimistic.

The speaker's optimism was tenuous for the issues he named. He had no word of hope that could extend to the greater challenge of climate change. I was aware of a need for a more profound sort of hope -- the sort of hope that could sustain us in dangerous and discouraging times.

I was dismayed, too, that this denominational staff person never spoke about faith in his discussion of hope. His appeal could have been given to the Sierra Club without changing a word. It was a very pragmatic political analysis, and it struck me as shallow.

That evening's gathering led me into a searching re-examination of where I find hope, and of how I understand hope. After several months of reflection, I came to see that there are two almost contradictory meanings to the word "hope".

  1. There is hope for, which is directed toward a future outcome. We hope for nice weather, or a special Christmas gift, or dramatic progress from the UN climate conference in Copenhagen next week. We can be optimistic if there is a decent chance of getting what we hope for, but we may fall into hopelessness when our cause seems unlikely to succeed.
  2. There is hope in, which is a commitment about our faith. We place our hope in God -- or in the market, or in military might, or in non-violence. Hope in has to do with how we live our lives right now. It is a commitment about what we believe is true, and about how the world really works. We can live in hope, even when the results that we want seem impossible.

Those months of theological reflection were transformative to my faith, providing new and deep roots in the theological form of hope. The struggle with hope also changed my vocation. Eco-Justice Ministries was born eight months after that evening presentation -- in part because of my realization that churches have an essential message of hope in a world where environmental optimism is not realistic.

That commitment still shapes the work of Eco-Justice Ministries. It is important for churches to work for energy efficiency and to engage in political advocacy, as strategies that move us toward the sustainable world that we hope for. It is more important for churches to ground their members in a deep and transformative hope in God, a hope that leads us into enduring and fulfilling commitments.

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The first Advent candle calls us to hope -- to hope in God. We are called to hope that is not based on wishful thinking, because living in faith and hope does not mean that everything will work out fine in the end. It is quite likely that we will not get everything we hope for, especially if our hopes are for dramatic transformations toward justice, peace, and the healing of creation.

When we live in hope, we commit ourselves to those great causes, those holy causes, because that is what is required of us. It is required in our calling to embody God's shalom in the world. It is required in living out our personal discipleship. We may never see the results that we hope for, but we will live our lives in ways that are true to God's reality.

As the liturgist reminded me last Sunday, when we live in hope, "we believe that good is stronger than evil, and that God wants us to work for good in this world." When we live in hope, that belief shapes every decision about how we live, especially in these challenging times.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

The distinction between hope for and hope in is also addressed in a previous Eco-Justice Notes, A Matter of Hope, and is discussed in more depth in a sermon of the same name by Peter Sawtell.

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