The Presence of Hope

A couple of months ago, I started dreaming, pondering, planning Advent. A colleague and I got together and bounced ideas off one another and by the end of that afternoon, I had an initial focus, along with the scriptures I planned to use. A couple of weeks after that Byron, Jessie, Ryan, and Lynda and I got together to brainstorm some initial thoughts around the idea and scriptures, we adapted my original idea a bit, and then I got together with Janet MacLean, whose team put together the visuals you see here.
It was great to work with a team, and I plan to do that again for Lent, so watch for that invitation in the New year!

As I was writing this yesterday, I remembered that last year, we had just finished decorating and it was announced that we were going into lockdown again! And we worshipped on-line till after Christmas last year. And while we are still masked, we so appreciate the opportunity to gather, connect with one another, sing and be present with one another in a way that isn’t possible through technology, much as technology and those who run it each week are appreciated!

This Advent, we are focusing on the Gift of Presence, and more particularly this week, the Presence of Hope. During Advent, we’re going to read through the second chapter of Luke, let’s listen as we begin our Advent journey in Luke 1: 5-25:

5 In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. 7 But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.

8 Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, 9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. 10 Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. 11 Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. 14 You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. 16 He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” 18 Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” 19 The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20 But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”

21 Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. 22 When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. 23 When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.

24 After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, 25 “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”

In those days, to be without children was to have no standing in society. When the angel Gabriel tells Zechariah that Elizabeth would bear a son in her old age, he didn’t believe the angel. And because of his disbelief, he was struck silent until that day came. Zachariah had no hope… Despite being familiar with Abraham and Sarah’s story of a son in their old age, he didn’t believe. His hope was silenced.
This is some of the brainstorming we did:

• Hope for what?
• How to be hopeful?
• Where and how to look for hope?
• Are we open?
• Can we learn to stop talking and listen and stand in the presence of God?
• How old is too old?
• Where do we find hope?
• The worry of others’ opinions blocks our hope.
• What does it mean to be hope-filled people of faith?
• What does this ancient story have to say to our current reality?

All great questions to feed into my reflection and writing. First, let me say that hope is not just wishful thinking. Hope, in the faith sense, is working towards an unseen future… with a sense that God is with us… and that new life is possible… that abundant life is possible! You have made a bold and hopeful decision for the future! While you may not be able to clearly articulate it right now, you are trusting in the birth of a new kind of ministry… even when you’re not sure just what that new ministry might look like! The presence of hope is such an ineffable thing, sometimes only seen in hindsight.

Rebecca Solnit, ( writes: Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes—you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others.

We may only be a few dozen… but Jesus started with only a dozen. 😉

James Clear who wrote Atomic Habits, said this in a podcast with Brené Brown, “Every action we take is like a vote for the type of person we wish to become. Your habits are how you embody a particular identity.” He writes about consistency over intensity in creating habits and about NOT setting goals. Imagine that! Not setting goals. In our goal-oriented society, that it so counter cultural. He does speak a great deal about creating systems though.

But to use myself as an example. I had tried for years to get into a habit of walking. It’s the cheapest form of exercise, it’s readily available, and all you need is a decent pair of sneakers or shoes. At least at my age you need them. 😉 But like many of you, at least I assume I’m not alone, I procrastinate, I make excuses, I didn’t feel like going for a walk, it was raining, it’s cold, it’s hot… I’ll go twice as far tomorrow… anybody use those excuses? After reading his book, I started asking a different question… if I wanted to be an active person, what would that kind of person do? She would go for a walk! And most days she did! It’s become a little more challenging with the change in weather, but I’m still walking at least three times a week, which is three times more a week than a year ago!

In the same way, I think that can be understood collectively. Every action, every decision, every habit we cultivate is like a vote for the kind of congregation we want to be. He speaks of instead of setting goals, ask the question we are trying to answer.
Some of the questions in our Listening Circles reflected that: What Would a Faithful Congregation Be Like? What Do We Need to Be a Healthy, Life-Giving and Relevant Congregation? And then build our systems, our habits, to create the answers to those questions.

For instance, this week, the question is “Do we want to be a hope-filled and hopeful congregation?” Then how can our words and actions reflect that? We’re not going to be perfect. We’re going to fall short, just like God’s people have always fallen short. And it’s easy to fall into the lure of complaining with one another. Did you know that complaining actually rewires your brain for negativity?

Your brain loves efficiency and doesn’t like to work any harder than it has to. When you repeat a behavior, such as complaining, your neurons branch out to each other to ease the flow of information. This makes it much easier to repeat that behavior in the future –so easy, in fact, that you might not even realize you’re doing it. You can’t blame your brain. Who’d want to build a temporary bridge every time you need to cross a river? It makes a lot more sense to construct a permanent bridge. So, your neurons grow closer together, and the connections between them become more permanent. Scientists like to describe this process as, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.”

Since human beings are inherently social, our brains naturally and unconsciously mimic the moods of those around us, particularly people we spend a great deal of time with.
This process is called neuronal mirroring, and it’s the basis for our ability to feel empathy. There are two things you can do when you feel the need to complain. One is to cultivate an attitude of gratitude. That is, when you feel like complaining, shift your attention to something that you’re grateful for. Taking time to contemplate what you’re grateful for isn’t merely the right thing to do; it reduces the stress hormone cortisol by 23%.

So the reverse is also true… if we look around us and see how many ways God is active in our lives and in the life of this community… and cultivate an ‘attitude of gratitude, then we can become more hopeful manifestation of God’s presence in this community. We can rewire our brains!

Zechariah was struck dumb and mute… because he did not believe… maybe that happened so that he couldn’t complain! 😉

So, when someone starts talking hopelessness and despair about the of the church, or longs for the days of their youth, when it was a different kind of church, you can refuse to listen… you can speak of the reality of the many blessings in this place.

You see them in the way that we have responded to the challenges of Covid… in the choir and music… in the UCW… in the new pastoral care team… in the tech team… in the Food Bank… in all the ways that the Transition Team have dreamed about the future… about how they and the Executive will put some of those dreams into action with your help in the coming months.

Turn your attention to them.

This is a new year!

Sure, we have challenges, but as someone who has served churches with far greater challenges, I challenge you to allow your God light to shine. God never promises us a life without challenges… God simply promises to always be present

Let us continually ask ourselves this question in the coming week: How would a hopeful person respond?

Thanks be to God for the challenge and the opportunity of being the church today, amen.

Luke 2: 5-25
November 28, 2021 – SMUC

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