“Do you have the courage to be optimistic?” This question landed in my inbox Tuesday. It’s not a quote from scripture, a leadership book, or a morning devotional, but a promotion from my local bank. I often delete these immediately, but it felt on topic with my sermon, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen.” The email talked about the challenging environment, inflation fears, and yet there are bright spots. They highlighted local businesses just starting with bank loans, a Thai family opening a new restaurant, an upscale pet store, and a coffee company with a fresh blend called “Dream First,” which would donate 10 percent of the proceeds to flood victims in Kentucky. They ended with a rousing appeal: “Be courageous and dream first.”
Given the negative news, people willing to risk starting a new business is hopeful. The only thing better would be a story of a loan to a new homeowner, but that is too much to hope for here in Midcoast Maine. But I digress into negativity.
In contrast, the article passed among my colleagues this week is titled “Clergy Burnout, the Current Crisis.” If you are ordained and not burned out, you are not cool. Forty percent of parish pastors have quit since COVID started. Everyone is trying to understand why. (I think I avoided burnout by moving. Searching for a new church is energizing. There are boat rides involved. The problems are the same, but the setting is all new and shiny!).
I don’t think burnout is complicated, even if the reasons are numerous. Clergy are front-line workers during COVID and absorb lots of anxiety, like nurses, teachers, and therapists. COVID has exposed any weaknesses, and survival anxiety is rampant. What do people do when they feel anxious? Often, they find someone to blame, and the leadership is first on the chopping block. If only the right pastor were here with energizing sermons and charisma, everything would be OK. Or anxiety often sends people into overdrive to seek solutions without really knowing what the problem is. Many congregations are responding more like a corporation with lowering profit margins than Christ’s church called to spread the good news of hope and healing for the world.
Put another way, focusing on technical solutions rather than adaptive change is easier. How can we fundraise better, improve our PR campaigns and the newest technology or rewrite our by-laws to be more efficient? Those are all helpful things if the problem is technical. But what if we are in an age of adaptive challenge? As leadership consultant Ron Heifitz says, we live in a radically changing environment, so we must understand and adapt. Dramatic church upheaval happens every 500 years or so, and we have a giant rummage sale. We must sort out what to keep and what to discard. It shouldn’t be a great surprise that the Protestant Reformation came at the same time as exploring new continents and the invention of the printing press. The digital revolution is transforming everything, including church. It has brought us access to information and the ability to get our views out, and Amazon can deliver what you want in a day or three if you live in Maine. The digital revolution has also brought us fragmentation, polarization, and a breakdown in institutions. We haven’t figured out how to do ministry when everyone is looking at their phone rather than each other.
I confess that I don’t have the answers of how to adapt. But I do have hope. I acknowledge this is a tough time, but I think we can be at least as optimistic as the bank across the street and ask, “Do we have the courage to be optimistic?” “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for and a conviction in things unseen.” Let’s talk about hope. Hope is not compiling evidence to help us decide whether to be optimistic or pessimistic. That would be a conviction in things seen, not unseen. If I’m only weighing evidence, I’m not sure I would get to hope. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once said the only Christian doctrine you can prove by reading the morning newspaper is sin. That isn’t going to help us much. More information will not strengthen our capacities for faith, hope, and love. It might just numb us. Hope is believing and acting on possibilities despite the evidence.
Hope is the point in the Epistle to the Hebrews. The writer looks at examples of faith from the Old Testament to show the way. Take Noah, who built an ark before there was a flood to be ready when it came. Now I have all the same questions about Noah’s ark that our kids in vacation Bible School had. He couldn’t possibly have two of every species on the ark because they would have eaten each other. But we can understand the point that there is a loving God at the center of the universe who guides us, so we have hope, whatever floods may come. Noah took a great leap of faith in something unseen because he had hope.
Next, Hebrews mentions Abraham and Sarah, who were called in a vision from God to leave their home and go to a strange land to find a new life. We know stories about the trials of immigration. Crossing the ocean to a new land is no guarantee things will turn out well. Being a settler in America was harsh, backbreaking, and brutal. It didn’t dawn on everyone that land was stripped from people who already lived there. Many colonists didn’t make it. Abraham was migrating nearly 3000 years before and living in a tent. If you read Genesis, Abraham and Sarah didn’t accomplish too much. They made many mistakes, but they had faith and stuck in there. Hebrews points out that they never fully attained what they hoped to do. They were the first-generation immigrants who sacrificed so the next generations could fulfill their hopes. Their faith was the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.
Hebrews could have mentioned Moses, a murderer living in exile, unsure if he was a Hebrew or an Egyptian, who then marries a Midianite wife. You might think the most he could hope for was plenty of water and pasture for his sheep. But a burning bush and the voice of God convince him to go and liberate his Hebrew family, who birthed him from the ruling Egyptian family who raised him. Taking that on is some crazy kind of hope.
The strategy of the book of Hebrews is to remind us of our history. Our forebearers had faith in God’s goodness during difficult circumstances, and we too can hope in the same God. The strategy of remembrance works. Why do you think enslaved people in America wrote songs like “Go Down, Moses?” Notice that each story requires the hearer to take a journey.
Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen. Hope calls us to part ways with the prevailing gloom in our nation. I read an article in the NY Times last week titled “Try to Resist the Call of the Doomers.” Joan Chasten, the writer, noted that we have become too hopeless with all the bad news, from COVID to Ukraine, a climate emergency, water shortages, significant political tensions, and January 6 hearings. There isn’t much evidence for optimism, but Chasten says, “Doomerism luxuriates in the awful, and people seem unable to get enough of it — the equivalent of rubbernecking at a terrible car accident.” She also challenges the idea that if you hammer people long enough with how bad things are, they will take action. As if telling people we are facing a crisis of species extinction or a Fascist takeover so many times will motivate them. Instead, people just disengage. She quotes climate activist Michael Mann,
“Climate doomerism can be harmful because it robs us of agency, the agency we still have in determining our future….I have found that the best way to spur action is to begin from a place of optimism — a belief that the thing you want really is possible.”
I would take that statement one step further. I’m not a short-term optimist. I’m bad at predictions, especially about the future (as Yogi Berra would say.). But I have a warm relationship with hope. Hope tells me that even if I can’t see the way, I believe a way will come. Hope says God hasn’t brought us this far in history to leave us behind. At the micro-level of my one short life and this congregation, I trust that God takes what we do and weaves them into the forces for good. Hope has a history with me. I was born in 1964, the Beatles came to America, and LBJ signed Civil Rights into reality. I have lived to see a black president, maybe someday a woman too. I remember the first moonwalk, both Michael Jackson and Neil Armstrong. The Berlin Wall fell, gays can marry, and every time I use my iPhone, I feel like I am on Star Trek. Hope is also very intimate. For me, hope comes from moments of deep prayer that lead to my calling as a pastor, falling in love, healing from divorce, and falling in love again; knowing a God of second chances and third chances, and seeing my kids build their own lives, learning to sail at age 58, and building a home during inflation and supply chain shortages. I have lots of hope. I know we have many problems, but faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
Where is hope leading you this morning? As the spiritual says, “Deep in my heart, I do believe that we shall overcome…someday.”
Now we must take the journey.