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Sowing Hope, Light & Joy

This is the third week in our discussion of the prayer of St. Francis, “Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace.” We have talked about planting seeds of love, forgiveness, and faith. Now we tackle the next few lines that are similar enough to be connected:

Where there is despair, [sow] hope.

Where there is darkness, [sow] light.

Where there is sadness, [sow] joy.

Have you ever noticed how easy it is to get stuck in that negative, complaining mode. I have to be careful about it in myself. If someone asks how I am, I’m liable to begin with the things that are stressing me out, or weighing me down, or at the very least complaining about the weather.

I have this great creative worship group that helps me brainstorm my sermon topics and we got going on this one with a passion, but it wasn’t long before I had to call a time out and say, “Okay, we’re apparently really great at despairing and complaining, but how do we plant seeds of hope, light and joy?”

Consider this, if you are down (and don’t want to continue in the downward spiral of pain and negativity), who do you want to see come through the door? Why? What do they bring? What do they do? When I asked this in worship, people said that the person that they wanted to come through the door would be compassionate, non-judgmental, caring, honest, uplifting, trustworthy, understanding and a good listener.

So, to me it is fairly clear. If we want to bring hope, light and joy, we simply have to be the above things. If we typically lead with negativity, it will be difficult to plant those seeds and we need to consider becoming more self-aware and changing our mindset.

Winter in Wisconsin sure seems to have come early this year, and it has everyone complaining about the cold and snow. It is going to be a really long winter if we start that complaining already!

There was a great article posted early this month entitled, The Norwegian Secret o Enjoying  Long Winter. It was about how the Norwegians deal with the cold and darkness. Every year from late November to late January, the sun never climbs above the horizon, yet the rates of seasonal depression were lower than one might expect.  So a PhD student from Stanford did a research study to try and figure out why. It turns out that if you want to be happy during winter, changing your mindset may be the key.

At first, the researcher began by asking “Why aren’t people here more depressed?” But their answer was “Why would we be?” It turns out that in northern Norway, people view winter as something to be enjoyed, not endured, and that makes all the difference. For example, they celebrate the things they can do in the winter, like ski. And we know that being outside in nature is great for your mental health and wellbeing. I know too many people who go outside as little as possible in the winder. But in Norway they have a saying, “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.”

Norwegians also have a word, Koselig, that means a sense of coziness. People light candles, light fires, drink warm beverages, and sit under fuzzy blankets. And this is not just about sitting in front of the TV. There were also plenty of festivals and community events to draw people together. Being in community is another known antidote for loneliness and depression.

Finally, it was found that people truly enjoy the sheer beauty of the season. Since the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon, much of the time looks like sunrise and sunset, and it is amazingly beautiful.

I think the lesson to be learned is that if we want to be hope, light and joy, we need to shift our mindset from focusing on the negative to recognizing all the good, beautiful blessings around us.

Kent Nerburn in his book, "Make Me An Instrument of Your Peace," tells a story about when he was living in Germany for a few years and was feeling particularly lonely and homesick. He decided to take a train to a nearby town to watch a movie they were showing in English. He got there early and so sat down on a park bench to wait. One by one the shops closed, people ended work for the day and headed home, and darkness came upon the town.  Then he heard a strange sound and looked up to see a man staggering toward him, clearly drunk and sobbing. “Guten Abend,” Kent greeted the man. But he simply looked back at Kent with the saddest eyes he had ever seen. Tears rolled down his cheeks and he began to sob again. Kent invited him to sit. There in the feeble light of a street lamp, they tried to find a way to communicate. 

Kent’s German wasn’t so good, and the man’s English wasn’t great either. Still the story emerged. The man was a judge, well respected in his community. That morning, a young girl had run in front of his car as he was driving to work. There had been no time to stop. He had struck her, killing her instantly. He had been wandering the streets, drinking, ever since.

“I am a judge,” he kept saying. “I am a judge. How could I have done this? I keep seeing her in front of me. Why could I not stop?”

Kent tried to find words to help and comfort, but finally the judge simply said, “Don’t talk. I don’t need words. I just need to be near somebody.”

Kent stayed with him on that street corner long into the night. He didn’t want to go anywhere and didn’t want to talk. Occasionally he would take Ken’s hand. Occasionally he would be overcome with great heaving sobs. But whenever Kent tried to leave or allow him the privacy of his grief, he would say, “No” and grab him by his hand to make him stay.

Kent said he learned something that night about despair and what it means to offer hope. "It is the gift of our presence that the despairing soul needs, no more, no less.  By the simply testimony of our presence we let people know that they matter."

I read an article this week on the Chapman University website. It was written a few years ago and they were commemorating the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass.” On that night, “a tidal wave of Nazi violence swept through Germany and Austria, leaving in its wake not only broken glass, burnt synagogues, and desecrated Torahs, but shattered human lives."

The four speakers that they had invited to the commemoration were at the start of their lives when Kristallnacht occurred. Engelina was eleven; Idele was twelve; Curt was thirteen, and Leopold, the oldest, was sixteen. The article said, "Young as they were, they had already experienced bigotry and brutality. They had seen their parents, once respected members of German society, belittled and ostracized, robbed of their professions, their livelihood, their homes. They had been harassed and humiliated in school… by both their teachers and their classmates, told that as Jews they were unworthy of sitting in a classroom with “true” Germans. They had already suffered in ways that no child ever should. Yet, they could still cling to the hope that their neighbors, acquaintances, and friends would one day draw a line, would say that enough was enough. They were still children with hope.

Kristallnacht brought that hope to an end. Kristallnacht was not simply more of the same. That night violence knew no boundaries. Not even the sacred… was spared. As arsonists set more than 250 synagogues on fire, firemen stood next to their trucks and watched, following the orders they had been given not to intervene unless non-Jewish property was threatened. Policemen gingerly walked on sidewalks filled with shattered glass, being careful not to get in the way of the Nazi thugs systematically breaking windows and looting Jewish stores and offices."

The next morning brought even more horror as some 30,000 men and teenagers were torn from their families and taken to Dachau and other concentration camps. Their only crime... being a Jew.

Far more precious than the broken glass, hope was shattered that night. The hope we place in one another in times of need; the hope that we will stand together. The purpose of the speakers was not simply historical. It was their hope that people could still learn form the past and find the courage to stand up against hatred and bigotry.  

It was the closing of the article that stuck me most. They implored us to, “never take hope in humanity for granted. We can never see it as anyone’s responsibility but our own.”

Hope is our responsibility. Light is our responsibility. And joy (deep abiding joy born of gratitude) is our responsibility. Each of us is needed to relieve despair, push back the darkness, and lighten the sadness to help heal the world.

Love & Light!