Archive for the ‘Hope’ Category

Have Hope

Looking ahead, at the next few months (or years), what do you hope for?

If I asked what would you wish for, would your answer change at all?

Although we often use the words hope and wish interchangeably, there’s a huge difference.  Both are future oriented—for things we want to happen.

When we wish for something we want to happen, we do so in a passive way: wanting something to happen to us without any effort on our part.

I wish we would win the lottery.

 When we hope for something we want to happen, we actively participate in bringing it about.

I hope my children grow up to be good, generous, loving people.

 So then, when we consider that hope is a theological virtue, what we’re saying is that we are actively participating with God.

 The theological virtue of hope can be defined as trusting in the promises for the Kingdom of God and cooperating with God’s grace to make the future happen.

Participating with God involves trust.

  • I trust that I am doing my best, taking personal, proactive responsibility.
  • I trust God to do the rest.

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Balancing the two – personal responsibility and trust in God – is a challenge.  Most of us struggle with one of the two extremes:

Too Much God, Not Enough Me

–OR–

Too Much Me, Not Enough God

 Too Much God, Not Enough Me

You know the story of the man and the flood?

A man who lived by the river heard a radio report predicting severe flooding.  Heavy rains were going to cause the river to rush up and flood the town, so all the residents were told to evacuate their homes. But the man said, “I’m religious. I pray. God loves me. God will save me.” The waters rose up. A guy in a rowboat came along and he shouted, “Hey, you in there. The town is flooding. Let me take you to safety.” But the man shouted back, “I’m religious. I pray. God loves me. God will save me.” A helicopter was hovering overhead and a guy with a megaphone shouted, “Hey you, you down there. The town is flooding. Let me drop this ladder and I’ll take you to safety.” But the man shouted back that he was religious, that he prayed, that God loved him and that God will take him to safety. Well… the man drowned. And standing at the gates of St. Peter he demanded an audience with God. “Lord,” he said, “I’m a religious man, I pray, I thought you loved me. Why did this happen?” God said, “I sent you a radio report, a helicopter and a guy in a rowboat. What are you doing here?”

When our reliance on God comes at the neglect of human action, we are not practicing the virtue of hope.  Instead, we practice some wish-based “Cheap-Hope” where God will provide becomes equivalent to saying God will do it all for me.

Jesus invites us to participate in bringing about the Kingdom of God.  (Read more about participation in my post about The Good Shepherd and Sacraments.)

Sometimes, all we can do to help a situation is pray.  And we should always pray.  But when we can do something more–and it falls within our realm of responsibility–we should do so.

God created us in his image and likeness (Genesis 1:26-27), and bestowed upon us gifts and talents that he expects us to use (recall the Parable of the Talents, Matthew 25:14-30).  We need to take these seriously as we practice the virtue of hope.

Too Much Me, Not Enough God

Then, there are those of us who take it to the other extreme: relying on human action alone and excluding God.

We recognize that the person in despair lacks hope.  But too often this isn’t an inability to practice the virtue of hope.  Rather, despair–hopelessness–is a sign of a serious depression.  Help is available for those who need it.

Who struggles with the practicing the virtue of hope?

  • The Type-A who obsesses about every little detail
  • The Control Freak who cannot let go
  • The Worrier who is filled with anxiety
  • The Complainer who loses perspective

When we think that everything is up to us, we are not practicing the virtue of hope.  Here, the lack of hope involves the failure to trust God.

When Maureen was asked to be the Spiritual Director for the next Christ Renews His Parish (CRHP) retreat, she was overwhelmed.  “I can’t do this; I’m not qualified.”  The Continuation Committee recognized her gifts and talents, but Maureen was filled with anxiety.  “This is an enormous responsibility.  I cannot possibly lead and guide these women on their journey.”  In prayer and conversation with her loved ones, Maureen came to see that she was assuming that she alone was responsible for the direction of the retreat.  Rather than envision her leadership as participating with God, she feared it was all up to her.  Once she grounded herself in the virtue of hope, she was able to accept.  Throughout the process of formation, Maureen had to constantly remind herself that she was not in this alone. Rather, she was working with God: doing her best and trusting God to work in, with, and through her.

Whether it’s our parenting, our professional career, or our relationships, practicing the virtue of hope means that we are participating with God.  Moreover, we are inviting God to participate with us in every nook and cranny of our lives.

Practicing the virtue of hope also means participating with others.  We need to allow and encourage others to participate to the best of their abilities.  That means putting down our “If you want it done right you have to do it yourself” banners.  The social justice principle of subsidiarity means that we let each person do for themselves what they can.  There is goodness in that.  It’s how Jesus did things, too.

Like any virtue, practicing hope is something that we can get better at doing.  As a teen, I often prayed the Serenity Prayer.

serenity-prayer

As an adult, I find that the Prayer of Oscar Romero speaks to the depths of my heart as I struggle to become better at practicing the virtue of hope.

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said. Romero 3

No prayer fully expresses our faith.

No confession brings perfection.

No pastoral visit brings wholeness.

No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.

No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.

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Rising from the Ashes

I had always imagined one’s honeymoon would involve sand, sun, and saltwater (probably because the bulk of my family vacations were spent on the beach).  So while planning our spring 2004 wedding, when Peter suggested we honeymoon at Yellowstone National Park, I was a bit taken aback.  “We both love hiking and nature, and besides, it’s on my list.”

It’s on his list.

Though not the most convincing argument, I acquiesced, especially since he promised to set us up with quality lodging (no camping or “roughing it”).

Without a doubt, Yellowstone is spectacular. It should be on everyone’s list.

The geysers…

The hot springs…

The wildlife…

Each morning we would drive from the gorgeous Lake Yellowstone Hotel to a different area of the park.  I started to notice some of the stark trees around the landscape…


Yellowstone showed the scars of fire.  My heart broke to see the scars of such pain amid such beauty.

I remembered the intense “Summer of Fire” in 1988.  I couldn’t believe we were still seeing the effects in 2004.  My rocket scientist husband, who has a bit of the encyclopedic knowledge going on, explained that fires were an ongoing reality in Yellowstone, most of them sparked by lightning strikes.  Like most people, I assumed that fires were bad.  I got all Smokey the Bear: “Can’t they do anything to prevent forest fires?  Or stop them?”  As I shot off endless questions, Peter (who avidly avoids the phrase “I don’t know,”) suggested we tour the visitor center by Old Faithful, which told the Story of Fire at the National Park.

I hadn’t realized that there was such an allegory between “fire” and personal “pain and suffering.”

Conventional wisdom—and the average park visitor like myself—views fires as devastating, destroying everything in its path.  We see fire suppression, on the other hand, as good stewardship.

Sounds a lot like our attitudes towards pain and suffering…

Turns out that the amazing scenery in Yellowstone has been shaped by fire; it is part of the ecosystem.  The National Parks Service explains this ecological phenomenon in the educational resources on Yellowstone’s webpage (which, by the way, is where all Yellowstone fire-related facts and figures in this reflection come from):

  • Natural (lightning caused) “fires are the primary agent of change in many ecosystems”
  • “Many of Yellowstone’s plant species are fire-adapted.”
  • Some 80% of the park’s forest has pinecones that actually rely on the intense heat of fire to crack open the resin and release the seeds inside.
  • Fires actually stimulate the rebirth and growth of some plants.
  • While above ground grasses are consumed by the fires, the below-ground root systems typically remain unharmed, and even increase in productivity after a few years.

In the gift shop section of the visitor center, I picked up the book Fire: A Force of Nature: The Story Behind the Scenery, and was struck by a quote on the front page:

“Fire presents opportunities for new life that don’t exist until a burn.”  

Isn’t that the truth.

Certainly my own greatest moments of personal growth have occurred in the aftermath of a painful crisis.  The growth might range from learning a difficult lesson to forging a new, better, stronger path.  Sometimes it prompts me to develop compassion, broaden my perspective, and practice empathy.  Other times the crisis has me questioning decisions, priorities, and/or relationships.

Just as the amazing scenery in Yellowstone has been shaped by fire,                                                                                                       the amazing person that I am has been shaped by personal pain and suffering.

I marvel at the idea that whatever part of me which was struck down by personal pain and suffering has somehow been rebuilt.  This dynamic is at the heart of the Christian message: from death comes new life.  Theologians use the phrase Paschal Mystery to refer to the suffering, death, and Resurrection of Christ.  But the Paschal Mystery doesn’t just refer to what happened to Jesus.  It points to the process of dying and rising that we experience in our everyday life.

And by referring to it as a “mystery” we reaffirm the fact that we don’t always understand how that new life occurs… yet we have faith that it will.

“Fire presents opportunities for new life that don’t exist until a burn.

From death comes new life.

As marvelous as it is, it’s also important to see the word “new” in each of those phrases.  New life.  Different.  Things will never be quite the same as they once were.

Anyone who has experienced personal pain and suffering resulting from the loss of a loved one can attest to that truth: Things will never be quite the same as they once were.

Moreover, let’s be honest: pain is real.  Fire burns.  No one is expected to cheer on suffering wearing a t-shirt that says, “Yay – growth!”  That’s not what faith in the Resurrection is about.

I cringe when I hear phrases like:

What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.

God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle.

Everything happens for a reason.

I know they certainly don’t bring me solace.  I can’t imagine a Holocaust survivor or rape victim finding comfort in hearing any of these clichés, either.

The enormity of the Yellowstone “Summer of Fire” in 1988 was unprecedented.  That summer was the driest in the park’s recorded history.  The practice of allowing for “controlled burns” was called into question as the fires burned from June through September, threatening lives and homes in the greater Yellowstone region.

With controlled burns, a fire ignites naturally – with a lightning strike, firefighters monitor as Mother Nature does some “spring cleaning” through the burn, and the fire extinguishes naturally.

The fires that summer were just too big and too out of control.

A total of 248 fires started in greater Yellowstone in 1988; 50 of those were in Yellowstone National Park. Despite widespread misconceptions that all fires were initially allowed to burn, only 31 of the total were; 28 of these began inside the park.  In the end, 7 major fires were responsible for more than 95% of the burned acreage. Five of those fires were ignited outside the park, and 3 of them were human-caused fires that firefighters attempted to control from the beginning.

Between the evil of arson, the enormity of the problem, and the imminent danger to others, Yellowstone National Park needed help.

More than 25,000 firefighters, as many as 9000 at one time, attacked Yellowstone fires in 1988.

There was a lot of damage.

Ecosystemwide, about 1.2 million acres was scorched; 793,000 (about 36%) of the park’s 2,221,800 acres were burned. Sixty-seven structures were destroyed, including 18 cabins used by employees and guests and one backcountry patrol cabin in Yellowstone.

Yellowstone was certainly affected by the fires, but all was not lost; it was not devastated; it was not destroyed.

The effects on many plants and animals are still being studied, although in the short-term, most wildlife populations showed no effect or rebounded quickly from the fiery summer. In the several years following 1988, ample precipitation combined with the short-term effects of ash and nutrient influx to make for spectacular displays of wildflowers in burned areas.

Contrary to what was feared, the fires of 1988 did not deter visitors. In 1989, more than 2,600,000 people came to Yellowstone—the highest annual visitation of the 1980s.

While we are in the midst of the flames of suffering, it is difficult.  Even Jesus wept.  But that is not the end of the story.  From death comes new life.  We are people of the Resurrection.  Faith in new life is what it means to be a people of hope.

As a people of hope, withstand the fire.  Understand that controlled burns are a part of life.  Ask for help.  And when rising from the ashes, be sure to identify and appreciate “spectacular displays of wildflowers” whenever you see them.

Just Paint Over It

For the longest time, I really didn’t have a discernable hobby.  I mean I’ve always enjoyed doing lots (and lots and lots) of different things, but I never felt like I had a concentrated focus on any activity or interest to consider it my answer to what I would do for pleasure or relaxation.

Many of my closest friends and family members (especially my husband) would readily agree that the lack of doing something purely for pleasure or relaxation has been kind of a problem for me.  I don’t know if anyone ever bluntly told me to “go find a hobby.” Maybe they should’ve.  Hmm… Actually, I probably would’ve responded with, “I don’t have time,” which is evidently exactly why I needed one.  But I digress.

Several years ago, I discovered paint-your-own-pottery.  I loved the creative process.  I loved that so long as I approached painting like I was a 9 year old coloring a picture, it turned out pretty cool looking.  AND, I loved that I could use it in my daily life.

After a while, however, I found that paint-your-own-pottery was getting pretty expensive.  And really, how many mugs, plates, bowls, and light-switch plates does a girl need?  Well, over the course of 10+ years, it amounts to quite a bit of both: cost and stuff.

While excitedly working on painting a replacement tea mug, I mentioned my creative joy and my stumbling blocks to my friend, Stacey.  I wanted to do “this kind of thing” more often, but didn’t want the excessive cost or stuff.  She suggested: “Try painting on paper, just for the fun of it.  No one even has to see it if you don’t want them to.”

So I did try.  Twice.  Instead of feeling excitement, relaxation, and pleasure, I was filled with anxiety, completely stressed out about what I was supposed to paint and why.  The process itself was tainted by the fact that I genuinely didn’t like what I painted.  Moreover, I really did want to do something with it.  There was something about the overall purpose of the creation that generated joy for me.

Shortly after these failed attempts at making painting itself a hobby, Stacey’s sister Sara offered her own version of “Pinot and Picasso,” where she taught my group of girlfriends how to paint our own copy of a work of art with step-by-step instructions.  In case you missed it in the class title, there was also a promise of wine, so I was in.

Intimidated even further by the thought of painting on canvas, I hesitated at every step.  Then Sara said something that changed my whole approach to painting:

If you don’t like something, just paint over it.

How freeing!

This insight allowed me to experiment without hesitation.  I had infinite do-over’s.  If something didn’t work, I could just try again, and again, and again until I liked it.  Sometimes that meant starting over.  Sometimes it meant painting over the one spot that wasn’t working.  It removed the pressure of feeling like I had to have the whole thing perfectly planned out before I even started.  Or feeling like it was ruined by one little (or big) mistake.

As a proactive person, I don’t ever want to feel stuck in a complaining rut.  I’d much rather feel empowered to do something about it.  With this just paint over it insight, instead of feeling bound by a choice my attitude became one of exploring the possibilities.

What a wonderful approach to all of life!  If you don’t like something, just paint over it.  As I looked around at my house, my relationships, my work, and inward at myself, this insight became one of transformation.  Don’t trash it; don’t brush it under the carpet and ignore it.  If I didn’t like something, I could transform it.

The very idea of transformation cultivates hope.

In faith, this is the transformation that is linked to forgiveness.  The Greek word for what happens in the transforming process of forgiveness is metanoia.  It is a change of heart, a conversion where the person turns away from what is destructive, hurtful, hateful, and instead turns towards God.

Turning towards God involves

  • forgiving oneself and transforming one’s own character
  • forgiving others, seeking forgiveness from others, and transforming relationships
  • seeking forgiveness from God and becoming transformed.

Put another way, metanoia is about

  • becoming more (and more and more) of a good person
  • doing what is right
  • acting with love
  • helping others

Looking around your own life, what would you like to just paint over and transform?

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