The Healing Power of Extraordinary Hope
By Rev. Ellen Quaadgras
Westminster Unitarian Church
November 11, 2020
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I was at a minister’s retreat recently where a colleague talked about something called liminal space. It’s a word ministers like to use about in between times. “Times of ambiguity, or disorientation,” as denominational consultant Susan Beaumont put it: “when a person or group is betwixt and between something that has ended. And a new situation that hasn’t yet begun.”
Richard Rohr, a Catholic priest, calls it the space human beings hate to occupy, but where God is continually talking to us.
I’m with Rohr about it being a space that humans typically hate to occupy.
Well, it’s fascinating when it’s in other people’s lives, that in-between place. We love reading books and movies about momentous times, and wars and famines and earthquakes when those things are not happening to us.
I think it would be fair to say it’s not so welcome when that uncertainty makes its way into our own reality. Whether that’s a job change, a relationship challenge, or an unusually consequential election… When we are the ones whose lives might change, whose future is at stake, we don’t always like it very much.
Here we are right at the end of the lead up to a pretty big turning point that will impact us all.
Many of us are feeling it. Because this *isn’t* just any election. This is an election that, itself, appears to have consequences for democracy in this country. It’s not every election season that words like dictatorship and fascism get tossed around. One of the candidates has suggested he may not cede power, and the UUA has already put out a few scenarios that they consider realistic, about how this all may play out.
And we’ve been seeing it in the news, too, concerns about violence from extremist groups. And that there’s a decent chance this will not be decided by Wednesday morning. And even if it appears to be, there’s a decent chance the results will be contested.
In other words, we may be in this liminal, uncertain uncomfortable place for even longer than we had anticipated, and the months leading up to Nov 3 have, for many of us, been plenty long already.
We all deal in different ways with these kinds of times. For some of us, our minds go to the very worst outcomes, so we are ready. For some of us, our minds go to the very best outcomes and hold onto that, so we don’t get so lost in anxiety that we can’t function. Some of us might go back & forth between them. Some of us avoid all the hubbub and hope for the best. Or we resign ourselves to whatever might come because it’s all so overwhelming. I think I’ve done a little bit of all of that.
Or maybe we just carry the anxiety. A friend of mine was telling me she’s been noticing recently how often her shoulders are up by her ears. She’ll start asking herself what’s going on and then, ah, right, the election.
In anticipation of this sermon, I read one from a pre-election day sermon from a colleague. It was about generating a sense of spiritual abundance when it feels scarce. And it felt scarce, back in 2016. As you may recall, the country was, for the first time, experiencing this unprecedented level of attacks and counterattacks as part of that runup. Leaving many de-energized disillusioned and drained/disengaged.
But there my colleague was, preaching spiritual abundance… anyway. That’s bold, I thought, in the face of all that negativity to just tell people to open their hearts and think big and be big and imagine big anyway. As I read it, the words audacious hope came to mind.
Which kind feels like what we’ve been needing, in our day, too. We’ve needed to motivate, encourage, push, do, act, imagine, hold on, you can do this, here we go! We’ve been needing some audacious hope. That may be what’s kept some of us going in all the card writing, call making, voter texting or just getting through without losing ourselves, for as long as we have.
Buttttt…. I will tell you that every time I typed the word hope, my editor wanted to “finish” the word for me. You know that autocorrect feature? How about turning that word into hopeless, it would suggest. Or if not the word hopeless, perhaps you’d like it to read hopelessness?
And, not that I’m suggestible. But by the time I’d written a few paragraphs about what’s hopeful in this election, I thought, maybe my editor is trying to tell me something. My inclination is to stay positive, but at the same time, somewhere in the back of my head this little voice says, what if it doesn’t turn out just the way you “hope”?
So I thought, maybe just go with this. Maybe I need to explore hopelessness, (this other side of the picture) just a little.
Now, I recognize that not everyone will relish this. Back in the spring, I shared a Buddhist reading at morning meditation about abandoning hope – it was not… very popular. The comments went something like this: That was terrible. Or, that was depressing. Or, if I don’t have hope, What is there. there’s nothing, what is there without hope?
For those of you who agree and are thinking of pressing the leave meeting button, hold on, don’t worry,
I will get back to hope.. but, for a moment…
Let’s entertain this flip side. This other emotional character that we call hopelessness, discouragement. Not to take a deep dive and get lost, but just touch it, lightly, peek at it, from around a corner. Bring curiosity to it, to see what it might up to, so it’s less likely to take us by surprise later on.
Because there is a chance that things won’t turn out the way any of us “hope” and we may have feelings about that. Feelings that, might poke their heads out from time to time, in the middle of the day or late at night, no matter how well we are keeping our fears under wraps. No matter how audacious we are.
There’s an uneasiness that may be driving us. Or draining us. I suspect, most of us are carrying its weight, somehow or other.
So in this liminal moment. In this uncertainty, betwixt and between our hopes and our fears, I invite us all to take a deep breath and ground ourselves. Right here, right now in the not knowing. In this warm, loving supportive space we have created together this morning. Let us allow ourselves, to feel whatever we are feeling, whatever we may be holding, in our muscles, in our bones. Become aware of it. Touch it lightly with our attention. Not falling into it, not magnifying it, but also, not resisting it. Can we…. let it be? Can we… set it free? Allow it to be in us, move in us, move through us?
Can we… let go?
Song: Loosen, Loosen by Aly Halpert
When we let go of our hoped-for outcome, when we hold those 3-d movies of our fears up to the light for a moment, we might find some feelings sitting underneath.
In a recent call with some colleagues about the election, one of them suggested that more than anything right now, what we need is a spiritual practice. Or just, ways to work with our feelings. Ways to keep ourselves centered, grounded, connected to ourselves and to each other. (resilient) Ways to hear this voice of God in the liminal space. Or, for the non-theists among us, to hear a greater wisdom, connect with greater love, in the midst of whatever happens.
Because we don’t know. We just don’t know. And that’s hard.
Still, There’s this great poem by Robert Bly about welcoming uncertainty that keeps popping into my mind.
Think in ways you’ve never thought before.
If the phone rings, think of it as carrying a message
Larger than anything you’ve ever heard,
Vaster than a hundred lines of Yeats.
Think that someone may bring a bear to your door,
Maybe wounded and deranged; or think that a moose
Has risen out of the lake, and he’s carrying on his antlers
A child of your own whom you’ve never seen.
When someone knocks on the door, think that he’s about
To give you something large: tell you you’re forgiven,
Or that it’s not necessary to work all the time, or that it’s
Been decided that if you lie down no one will die.
We can practice setting expectations aside. We don’t know what will surprise us, by definition. We don’t know what some moose might be carrying for us, what kindnesses the future may hold, just as we don’t know what might show up wounded or deranged at our door.
We can practice imagining acceptance of what*ever* comes, good or bad, it’s not all up to any one of us. We are in this together.
I remember saying to you once, a few years ago, that abandoning hope, letting go of our expectations, does not have to mean the beginning of the end. It can also be the beginning of a new way.
Roshi Joan Halifax is a Buddhist teacher who has spent many years of her life working in situations that most people would consider hopeless. She’s worked, she writes, as an anti-war activist, a civil rights worker, a caregiver of dying people. She has volunteered with death row inmates, served in medical clinics in remote areas of the Himalayas—where life is hard, food is scarce, and access to health care is nonexistent —and in Kathmandu with Rohingya refugees who have no status, anywhere. 
And yet something keeps her going.
It’s not, what she calls ordinary hope, based in desire, wanting an outcome that could well be different from what will actually happen. An outcome that, if we don’t get it, is considered some sort of misfortune. Could lead us to – not just feelings of hopelessness, but to the belief that a particular situation is actually without possibility, leaving us de-energized, paralyzed, or unable to act. This ordinary hope is […] just another form of suffering.
She then contrasts this with what she calls “wise” hope – beyond ordinary hope, something I keep wanting to call extraordinary hope
Wise hope, she says, is […] about seeing things as they are, including the truth of suffering—both its existence and our capacity to transform it. It’s when we realize we don’t know what will happen that this kind of hope [has a chance] to come alive; in that spaciousness of uncertainty is the very space we need to act, she writes.
There are over 65 million refugees in the world today, she continues, only eleven countries are free from conflict, and climate change is turning forests into deserts. Economic injustice is driving people into greater and greater poverty. Suffering is present.
And while this election is crucial, and we need to do whatever we can to further democracy in it.
And it’s also true that there is suffering that will not be fixed by one election, no matter what the outcome.
So, we get to be in this for the long haul. And we get to touch and find, within ourselves, a source of hope that is less about outcomes, and more about a spirit in the heart. One that, ironically, often doesn’t show up until after we decide to take some action. At least, that’s been my experience. One that, also in my experience, seems to require a willingness to face and sift and sort through all kinds of feelings, to connect with something greater than any one of them.
Halifax quotes Czech statesman Václav Havel who said, “Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”
We can’t know, but we can trust that there will be movement, there will be change. And that we can be part of it. We move forward in our day and get out the vote, or sit at the bedside of a dying patient, or teach that third-grade class.”
There will be change. And we can be part of it.
Or, as we heard in our first reading, All that you touch
All that you Change
When we let go of expectations, we might find we have some feelings to work with.
In and among them we may find fear and discouragement. We may find suffering. But we may also find ingenuity, resilience, kindness, connection, possibility. And personal transformation.
We may find that when we act on our convictions we tap into something deeper than ordinary hope, we tap into the rhythm of our values, of our convictions, and to a deeper hope, beyond attachment.
And we may remember we’re not alone. That there are others, tapped into those same values. Caring along with us. We can connect with each other, support each other, inspire each other.
When we act on our convictions, regardless of the outcome, hope has room to come alive, in us, and through us.
A hope beyond attachment, Self-regenerating. Audacious. And, in times that feel so hard, Extraordinary.
Suffering is present, feelings may be hard, there is a hope that reflects something greater. Self-regenerating. Audacious. And, in times that feel so hard, Extraordinary.