Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Symbols of Hope (December 20, 2015)

I want to begin with the words of Poet Wendell Berry
It is hard to have hope. It is harder as you grow old,
for hope must not depend on feeling good
and there is the dream of loneliness at absolute midnight.
You also have withdrawn belief in the present reality
of the future, which surely will surprise us,
and hope is harder when it cannot come by prediction
any more than by wishing. But stop dithering.
The young ask the old to hope. What will you tell them?
Tell them at least what you say to yourself. [This Day p. 305]

Sometimes it feels like there is no reason for hope…especially if you’ve watched the news recently. There are many reasons, large and small, why we lose hope. In this darkest time of year, even in a mild winter like this one is starting off to be, many of us are affected psychologically and physically by the loss of light. For each person who looks forward with eager anticipation to the delights of winter, I bet there is one more whose mood is as dim as a grey winter sky.

For folks like us who live in a climate of dark cold winters and sunny summer days, winter itself is a powerful symbol. Driving through the hills of the twin tiers, through the brown grass and the bare grey branches, there is not a sign of new life to be seen. But you and I know, at least intellectually, that this is only temporary. We know that those bare grey trees are not dead, just dormant, just conserving energy through the cold months until they are ready to grow and fruit again.

That’s why marking the solstice is such an important observance in this part of the world. We witness around us dead leaves decaying on the ground. Autumn’s bounty is gone, and there is no hint that it will ever come again. But come it does- every year. We can check the progress of the sun’s return against our watches, and see that slowly, too slowly to notice, the day light grows, and with it will come the reliable parade of new green growth.

This return of light and growth is so reliable, that it too is a symbol. When we find ourselves in a dark season of our lives, through loss or illness or conflict, we can call to mind the winter- how dark and lifeless it seems, and how inevitably it is followed by the sun’s return. Whether or not it is winter in Pennsylvania when those feelings come, we know what it is like to experience a winter in our hearts and souls.

A good symbol is powerful because it manifests reality in a way that words can only gesture at. I can say “things will get better- this too shall pass.” but even to my ears those words sound empty. Poet Jeffrey Burten Russell writes “as the sign of a deeper truth, metaphor was close to sacrament. Because the vastness and richness of reality cannot be expressed by the overt sense of a statement alone.”  As I look out my window at that bare lifeless tree against the grey sky, I can’t help but see the green summer leaves, I can’t help but watch for the buds to emerge as the ice melts and the days lengthen. So any time I feel bleak and hopeless, I can remember the bare grey branches of a tree in winter, and perhaps I will find hope in the idea that maybe I too am not lifeless but dormant. Perhaps someday I too will bud and grow and fruit. A symbol teaches us through the “vastness and richness of reality” – a tree teaches us something about ourselves and about life each time we meet one in the world.

Symbols are complex and deeply personal, though they don’t always seem that way when we first encounter them. Maybe your preschool teacher had a poster like my son’s classroom had- a symbol for each season, and the symbol for winter was snow. I always thought this was strange because his classroom was in a climate where snow was a virtual impossibility. Winter in Santa Clara California was the season of drenching rains and green grass. Even we who live in the North East where a snowy winter is a distinct possibility, know after years of experience that Some years this darkest season can be filled with treacherous blizzards or ice storms, or these odd balmy days with small green leaves poking up from the muddy ground.

So a symbol is both the cultural expectation- that winter is a cold and snowy wonderland, and the reality we meet each day. We adults know that winter is never the same twice. We remember hard winters like last year, that seemed to last forever, and from which some of our trees lost branches or never recovered at all. And there are mild winters when you never do get enough snow to build a decent snow man. When we celebrate the winter solstice each year, as we will this week, we mark the darkest night, we look hopefully toward the returning light. The Solstice itself becomes a symbol of welcoming back the light in our own spirits, and each year we celebrate it becomes more complex and more personal.

When we are young we are taught symbols like equations- a heart = love, a dove = peace. But no symbol means just one thing, it means all those layers and layers of things, each memory, each song, each story. A good symbol holds them all. A good symbol provides a new way of looking at our experience.

Let’s take a moment now to think about what winter means to you. When you hear the word “winter” what images come to your mind? … Allow your mind fill with the sounds and smells of winter, the unique quality of light. .. Does that image you just conjured, does it match your inner state, or does it contrast to that state?... Who are you in this picture? Are you like the evergreen, stable and sturdy through the darkness? are you like the creatures who hibernate, drawing into their nest and themselves as winter begins? Are you the hungry squirrel, still gathering food against hard times ahead? … Remember that image and come back to it later if you choose.

The Christian tradition offers us another symbol of hope this time of year- birth. Unlike the symbol of the evergreen, which reminds us that it is possible to survive and be green even during a harsh winter, the birth of a child reminds us that life continues even when we ourselves may not. Remember that phrase in the poem I opened with, “It is hard to have hope. It is harder as you grow old,” as Berry wrote “you … have withdrawn belief in the present reality of the future” The birth of a new child assures us of the reality of the future. It reminds us of the possibility of new generations, that life itself will continue even though eventually we will not.

But a new born baby is not one single static thing like a picture on a greeting card. One thing new parents quickly learn is that no matter what advice your friends and relatives and authoritative books have given you, what your child needs and wants is absolutely unique. A sleeping baby looks at once like any other sleeping baby, but even before he or she is born, the unique self that is that child is already emerging. An infant is a mystery, full of potential. To me this is the miracle in the Christian Nativity story- with or without angels and Magi- the miracle of new life entering the world. How it is that a complete and unique person emerges from the splitting of cells, how it comes to be full of the spirit of life is still pondered in the halls of science.

As we grow and live this symbol too becomes more complex and personal. When I was young, the nativity scene was simply a well-known story, but now that I am a mother, an aunt, a minister who has heard the great variety of experiences lived by people I care about, all of that hovers around that simple sentence as we hear in the gospel of Luke: “the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.” That sentence is laden with meaning. Memories crowd around of new born babies we have known and loved and celebrated, each one totally unique. We understand the tremendous relief and gratitude that accompanies the birth of a healthy child. If you have known a woman who has given birth, you think of the travail of labor, of the inherent risks to both mother and child. Of the helplessness of the father or partner or helper. The birth of a new child becomes somewhat bittersweet when we remember all those who struggled to conceive and couldn’t, who meant to have children but whose path took them in another direction. The miracle of birth becomes all the more miraculous the more you know, the more you experience.

Let’s take a moment to paint that picture in our minds this morning. The newborn child, laying in a manger. His mother and father keeping watch, along with the whole community of shepherds, and angels, of donkeys and domesticated animals... What would it feel like to be inside that moment? …Where do you see yourself in this story?.. How does it make you feel today? … Remember that image and come back to it later if you choose.

I want to offer you one more symbol. A candle in the dark is similar in its symbolism to the returning sun, but it is, literally something you can get your hands around. We can only wait patiently wait for the sun’s return, we can feel it on our skin, or wrap a coat around our shoulders in its absence, but we can never touch it or hold it. A candle is a more intimate thing, an ordinary thing that we can probably call to mind the feeling of wax on our fingers, the weight and texture of it. Generations of people in our culture have had that same experience. Its meaning has changed over time, of course. In some ages, a candle was the only way of providing light in the darkness. I’ve noticed in old stories that candles are rationed and saved in hard times, not used lightly but preserved for future need. Consider the Hanukkah story. Their holy temple was seized by foreign soldiers, and used in ways considered sacrilegious. When it was rededicated to the Jewish Faith, the ritual included burning oil in the menorah for eight days, but there was only enough oil for one. But out of scarcity – abundance. The flame burned for all 8 nights exceeding their hope. There are many beautiful stories of Jewish people in times of hardship drawing strength from the act of lighting a menorah, sometimes a makeshift menorah made from a potato, or a cork, or whatever poor scraps were at hand. When candles are hard to come by, when light is hard to come by, a single flame becomes a precious and hopeful thing. 

For most of us in this room, we can light the darkness with just the flick of a switch. Candles are special to us not because they are a rare and critical resource, but because they are no longer ordinary. Lighting a candle shows we are leaving ordinary time and entering ritual time. A candle brings light to the darkness as surely as the stars, or the moon, but it is only a candle that we have the agency to light and to share. Think of the powerful symbol of neighbors standing shoulder to shoulder on a dark night, each holding candles during a peace vigil. The candle symbolizes, to me, something of the individual spark inside each one of us. It reminds me how when we let our light shine, not only can we light the way for others, but sometimes we can help them rekindle their own light. Perhaps this is why we love our annual candle light ritual as we do- it gives us hope in our ability to spread and share warmth, the light of truth, the spark of hope. 

Take a moment now to consider the light of the candle. Imagine holding a candle in your hand, and gaze at the flame. How is your own light right now? … The light of your mind, body, heart and spirit? … How is it with the light of this community?.... Where is your light needed?... Remember that image and come back to it later if you choose.

The tree in winter, the newborn child, the candle. There are many more symbols of hope, but this is a start. If there was a particular symbol that spoke to you today, or caused you to feel something unexpected, you might revisit it as the winter unfolds. Pay particular attention to any image that gave you hope; I encourage you to notice when this symbol appears during this winter’s holiday celebrations, and in your daily life as well. Maybe you happen to have an evergreen tree in your living room right now. What a special opportunity to observe it, and to listen to your own inner response to that symbol as you pass it during the day. Observe the evergreen trees on these endless mountains as you drive by them. Each time someone lights a candle, this can be a moment to reconnect with yourself- how is your own light? And if your own light needs brightening, feel free to dust off those candlesticks someone gave you as a gift years ago that you were saving for a special occasion. Let the light you kindle be an object of your meditation, let it feed you and reflect back to you something deep in yourself. 

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