The Practice of Hope

This sermon was offered to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick on Sunday, October 22nd, 2023

I am a late addition to the pulpit today. This service was originally going to be offered by a member of our community who is experiencing health problems and had to cancel. One of the funny things that happens when a late switch occurs is that whoever steps in to catch the ball catches the topic. When Reverend Carl told me that hope was the theme for today’s service, I knew I wanted to step in. You see, I’ve written about hope a good deal in the various blogs and columns I’m a contributor for. It’s an area I return to again and again because I think it’s vital. I don’t think we talk about hope enough, and I don’t think we talk about the practice of hope in practical ways.

I know it’s dark right now. A terrible war with deep, twisting roots is unfolding in the middle east. Climate change continues to wreak havoc. Here in the United States, the divide between various social and political factions seems insurmountable, unfixable, and the consequences of that struggle are often devastating. And, we are turning toward the season of darkness.

On a personal level, many people simply struggle with the lack of daylight that accompanies our autumn and winter seasons. It’s a lot. And it seems like it always is anymore.

The Christian faith tradition offers us a triad of tools with to meet the world: faith, hope, and love. Faith and love get a lot of coverage in their various ways. I’m always mildly amused by the balance of churches to liquor stores in small towns. Turn on almost any music station and most of the songs will be about love, or the lack of it.  We do seem to at least talk about the faith and love parts of the triad a good deal. But hope doesn’t get as much coverage and I would argue that without it, neither faith nor love are as strong and resilient as they could be.

Like faith and love, the tapestry of hope is woven of practical as well as mystical threads. One of the first and most useful things to understand is what hope is, and what it is not.

Cultivating hope doesn’t mean attempting to maintain starry–eyed naivete about the world, or using “love and light” as a way to spiritually bypass our own behaviors and patterns that we need to work on. Hopefulness is simply the realistic expectation that something good will happen, and that we have some influence over it. It’s not an “everything’s going to be perfect and amazing” attitude. Hope is aspirational while being grounded in reality.

I do truly believe that we find what we look for. I’m sure you all know someone who, no matter what good things happen to them, always has something to complain about. The inverse is also true. One of the things I loved the most about my late father was that he could find something good about almost every person and situation he encountered. He looked for the good, the hope, in the world and found it. Let’s talk about the first practical part of hopefulness: the reasonable expectation that something good will happen. Just a few examples of hope from recent headlines:

  • A group of teenagers won a landmark environmental lawsuit against the state of Montana, successfully arguing that permitting fossil fuel development without considering its effect on the climate harmed them physically and mentally. The kids, as it turns out, are in fact alright.
  • Right-to-Repair acts are becoming more common in various states with California adding a new one that requires mobile phone companies to provide parts and manuals for repairing smartphones for seven years after their market release.
  • Chemical engineers in Massachusetts are pioneering a process to equip diesel ships with the onboard capacity to turn collected plastic garbage into fuel. The result has been dubbed “blue diesel” and would save time, money, and emissions in both the trips necessary for ocean-cleaning vessels to reach the mainland to offload and in running fuel use.

I love children’s television host and writer Fred Rogers’ quote: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” There are so many people helping right now. It’s easy to overlook in the onslaught of information about things that are going wrong. Our news cycle still follows the adrenaline-chasing practice of “if it bleeds, it leads.” The stories I briefly cited here are national-level ones. Every day, people are helping in small ways as well as large ones, but we must choose to seek those stories out. Remember to look for the helpers, to look for hope. You will find what you seek.

Hopefulness is the realistic expectation that something good will happen, and that we have some influence over it. That second part is important as well. We feel more hopeful when we remember our own sense of agency. Although this is a big world with big problems, we also matter and can influence our surroundings. Hope is a feedback cycle. When we successfully manage a challenge, it increases our optimism that we will do so again in the future. One of my favorite quotes is “You have a 100% success rate of surviving every bad day so far.” It’s a little pithy, but sometimes it’s what gets me through the really hard days.

When I was in Marine Corps boot camp a little over 20 years ago, there was a saying: “Chow to chow, and mail call to mail call.” This saying encapsulated the idea of making everything smaller – focusing just on what was directly in front of us rather than trying to fathom surviving three months of being screamed at by a drill instructor. Narrowing my scope of focus is a practice I still bring to my life. Every day, we successfully navigate small challenges. It’s so easy to dwell on what went wrong, or on the immensity of the problems facing our world. But if we pause to remember the challenges we’ve overcome, we are teaching our own brains how resilient we are. We are laying the groundwork for hope.

Take a moment right now and close your eyes. What difficulty have you overcome today, or this week, whether big or small? Allow yourself to feel pride in navigating your challenge successfully. Give yourself some kudos. You did it. You’re here with us. You made it, and I’m so proud of you. You can open your eyes whenever you’d like to.

And one caveat – we don’t need to beat ourselves up about feeling hopeless while also trying to cultivate hope. Start with where you are: if hope is challenging, that’s totally okay. Allow it to be difficult and grant yourself some grace. Hope is a practice; it takes repetition and some neural rewiring. It takes time.

Speaking of neural rewiring, that brings me to the next practical technique around cultivating hope. Reframing our thoughts is a powerful way to work with the brain’s ability to learn new patterns and behaviors. This flexibility is known as neuroplasticity. Reframing is also part of approaching hope as a practice – it’s something we repeat so we can get better at it. When we’re struggling with low levels of hope, reframing a thought to be happy is frequently unhelpful. However, reframing a thought to be neutral can have good effects. For example, “Everything is ruined now” becomes “I’m trying as hard as I can, and giving myself some grace.”

Begin with observing and reframing your thoughts when you notice them. The practice of slipping into the Observer mode many of us learn in meditation practice is useful here. Don’t worry about catching and correcting every thought – start with the most repetitive or intrusive ones – and grow from there. My favorite technique when I’m working on reframing thoughts is to write down the most intrusive and harmful thoughts I have and then write out the counter-statement for them.

For example, “I’m never going to get caught up” becomes “I’m working at a steady pace and honoring my own needs. My worth is not determined by my productivity.” Then, I memorize the counter-statement. When the repetitive, hopeless thought occurs and I catch it, I tell myself the reframed thought. Eventually, my brain stops sending the repetitive thought. This method takes time, but it works. Remember, hope includes techniques that take practice.

The next practical approach to hope involves focus: focus on what you can influence. The person we always have the most influence over is ourselves. By tending to the aspects of our lives that we have the most control over, we help create the right circumstances for hope to flourish. Think of it as amending the soil a garden grows in.

Keep up with your self-care and creative outlets. It’s tempting to surrender to the gravitational pull of the couch and endless dopamine hunting via social media, but continuing (or starting) a self-care regimen is one of the best ways to cultivate hope and resilience. Small activities that inspire pleasure or joy are the building blocks of hope. Self-care looks different for everyone, so remember to try different techniques if this is a new practice for you. Our self-care gives us smaller moments to look forward to as well as times of pleasure and satisfaction. The combined effect is strongly supportive of a resilient mindset.

When you can, get involved with group efforts and activities. Reverend Carl has a wonderful saying: “If you feel like you’re just one person alone, stop being one person alone.” If you’re having a hard time processing some of the political or environmental challenges facing us, getting involved in a group focused on creating change on those fronts is a great way to address those feelings. Doing something, even a small thing, about a big problem can help us feel more optimistic. It also puts us in contact with other people who are trying to make the world a better place. Getting involved in local social, racial, and environmental justice organizations is a wonderful way to make an impact as well as connect with others of like mind. Acts of compassion and care help foster a sense of control over the world around us as well as have a positive effect on the lives of others.

I’d like to share my favorite quote on this subject from the book A House for Hope – The Promise of Progressive Religion for the Twenty-first Century. This quote phrases the link between community and hope better than I ever could.

“Hope rises. It rises from the heart of life, here and now, beating with joy and sorrow. Hope longs. It longs for good to be affirmed, for justice and love to prevail, for suffering to be alleviated, and for life to flourish in peace. Hope remembers the dreams of those who have gone before and reaches for connection with them across the boundary of death. Hope acts – to bless, to protest, and to repair.

Hope can be disappointed, especially when it is individual rather than shared, or when – even as shared aspiration – it encounters entrenched opposition. To thrive, hope requires a home, a sustaining structure of community, meaning, and ritual. Only with such a habitation can hope manifest the spiritual stamina it needs to confront evil, endure through trouble, and “hold fast to that which is good.'”

Lastly, monitor your media intake. If you’re a bit of a news junkie like me, have specific windows of time for checking the news, and then shut off that media feed. We can only absorb so much information before we hit overload. Give yourself plenty of wind-down time after your last news bulletin of the day to recover and reset before bed. Monitoring media includes our entertainment as well. Stay aware of the emotional tone of your entertainment media and choose options that support the emotional state you’d prefer to cultivate. The stories we read and tell matter.

Remember what hope truly is – it’s the burning coals that fire the engine of transformation. It’s the brazen blaze that inspires big dreams. Hope is audacious, the driving force behind social changes that seemed unthinkable once. And hope will deliver them again. Hope is what empowers us to CHANGE things. Believing that the path can be different, better, more just…this is an act of immense hope. And it is an act that has been performed again and again and again.

FEED YOUR HOPE. Stay connected with community. Seek out and read the uplifting stories. Pay attention to your thoughts. Building the beloved community is going to take all of us, and we need to keep our engine fed with hope.















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