“From Despair to Active Hope” by Kolya Braun-Greiner

February 26, 2017


Scripture: Exodus  24:12-18, Matthew 17:1-9, 2 Peter 1;16-21

Exodus,  Matthew and 2 Peter – Holy mountains, mystical clouds, and prophets show up in all of our scriptures today. I confess, I love symbolism so I look for what may be the deeper meanings of these elements? Richard Rohr invites us to read the bible as rich with metaphor. Mountains are not only physical places, but also a place of spiritual enlightenment or revelation.  In our common speech we refer to the “Mountain top experience” of awe or inspiration. 

Clouds are a representation of the Holy Spirit or shekinah (feminine spirit of God) in which the wisdom of God may be heard just as Moses entered the cloud on the mountain to hear God’s message.

What about this “transfiguration”? – a mysterious event that boggles the scientific mind.  Borrowing from the late biblical genius, Marcus Borg, regarding these stories of miraculous occurrences, said, they may not have really happened, but they are still true.  Some native traditions hold the possibility of “shape-shifting” one’s body into the shape of  an animal, but for Jesus this transformation is more than a physical one.  It is a kind of spiritual metamorphosis. Jesus is infused with light or perhaps the light already within him is made more magnified!

I am reminded of Thomas Merton’s discovery in a busy shopping area: We are all beings of light:

As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts…. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. . . . But this cannot be seen, only believed and ‘understood’ by a peculiar gift.”

Jesus face “shone like the sun.” And we are all walking around shining like the sun.

Now let’s get to the theme of this sermon: From Despair to Active Hope

We are now living in a political climate with a plethora of reasons for despair.  Let’s look at the context of the transfiguration again.  Immediately before it occurs a chapter in which the disciples learn from Jesus that he will suffer and die. He preaches to them that: “those who want to save their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Perhaps Jesus’ willingness to accept his own imminent death was intrinsic to the transfiguration that followed.

Peter tries mightily to deny this reality and hang on to Jesus, for which he is rebuked.  “Get behind me, Satan!” says Jesus.  Now, when this miraculous, wondrous event or vision of the transfiguration occurs, Peter wants to hang on to that too.  Again he has another lesson to learn.  Don’t hang on to this experience, or even tell others about it!  Instead Jesus says “Get up and do not be afraid.” 

My contention is that as the disciples slowly took in the potential reality of Jesus death, they were battling with despair.  Anticipatory grief.  Anticipating the sorrow of his death.

How do we deal with the despair?  One of the ways I cope with despair is through the wisdom and practice taught by one of my mentors, Joanna Macy.  I first became familiar with her “Despair and Empowerment” work during the disarmament movement in the 80’s.  Joanna Macy would say: give our despair a voice.  For in tamping it down we expend energy that numbs or stunts our creative response to life.  There is a practice more often found in the African American church, of lamentation. When we name the losses we know and feel, we allow our pain to be revealed.  We discover and fully affirm that we deeply care for and love this world.  I confess, my greatest source of despair is the desecration of the earth, it’s waters, and our relationship with it.

Her “Spiral of the Work that Reconnects” begins with gratitude.  This spiral is not a one-time flow.  It is an ongoing practice of revisiting and renewal.

It begins with gratitude which is a wonderful antidote for despair, but not only cultivating thankfulness and experiencing blessing. It also shifts our neural network and brain chemistry to heal some of the negative patterns laid down by experience and habitual responses. Having been shored up by gratitude we then move through “honoring our pain for the world” to “seeing the world with new eyes”  which can motivate us to “go forth” into the world. 

Gratitude is a life practice of indigenous peoples. Robin Wall Kimmerer is a PhD botanist, member of the Potwatami Nation, and director of Native Peoples for the Environment, wrote one of my top 10 favorite books, Braiding Sweetgrass.  She points out the necessity for gratitude and the practice in indigenous cultures of giving thanks to “all my relations.”  When they recite the Great Thanksgiving, they honor all the plant and animal kingdoms, giving thanks with a repeated response “now we are of one mind.”  She eloquently describes the generosity of the earth, and the need for humans respond with reciprocity.  I have taken her profound explanation to invite others to take a moment each day to look around. Take a moment now and look at everything human-made around you.  It all came out of the earth.  It all originated from materials generously provided by earth.  It is actually quite astonishing.  But it is also sobering, because it calls into question many of the materials we have created that are not friendly to return to the earth.  How can what we make and do be a gift back to this generous earth that God created?

There is an architect named William McDonnough, who has designed whole cities to be completely zero-waste.  He calls this form of design “cradle to cradle,”  completely regenerative and restorative. That is the direction we need to go!

But meanwhile here we are, in the last gasp efforts to extract as much remaining fossil fuels out of the ground and burn it up while temperatures keep rising.  I personally grieved when I saw all the flowers blooming at the same time last week. I observed 10 years ago they unfolded in beautiful cascade – first the snow drops then the crocus, then the daffodils, and then the tulips. I lament that children may miss this rich rhythm of natural cycles. Joanna Macy would  say we are now experiencing the final attempt of the industrial growth society to maintain the status quo.  We are now in a phase of what she would call the Great Unraveling on our way to a Great Turning.

So now I turn to despair and grief.  When we confess that our hearts are broken by the brokenness we are witnessing we also allow our hearts to be opened to our love for the world as we witness its suffering:    threats to the intricate web of life    predictions that 50% of all species will go extinct by 2050, garbage gyres of plastic garbage in the ocean consumed by marine life,  threats to our food system caused by climate change.  Without going into a whole litany of devastation, these are just some of the many environmental reasons for despair and grief. 

I digress momentarily here for a brief retrospective on my lifelong tendency to be drawn toward whatever I perceive as the greatest threat to survival.  During my “roaring 20’s” it was nuclear power, then when I discovered that this “atoms for peace program” was really a way to use the spent nuclear waste from making nuclear bombs, I became active in the anti-nuclear movement.  Then, as the reality that 2/3 of all uranium is extracted from Indigenous land, I went to work in solidarity with the American Indian Movement.  Fast forward to the next big threat to life I perceived: climate change.

I worked on faith based climate change education for seven years with the Catholics.  I loved the commitment to solidarity with the poor and the deep understanding of Franciscan tradition’s spiritual connection with earth.  But with not much traction happening at the national level, I got to the point where I felt discouraged and called to work on a more tangible local level, right here, at home.  I had also been increasingly sensing that the next major threat would be access to water.  And without water, we cannot survive any amount of climate change.  And as been the case so many times in my life, once I got that clear, God opened an opportunity for me to do the work I do now as an educator with the Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake.  Our motto is forming faithful stewards, caring for sacred waters. Water is life and I hold the water protectors of Standing Rock in prayer of gratitude for the way they have stood strong, loudly proclaiming this message.

My own experience of seeing with new eyes, the third phase of transformation in Joanna Macy’s spiral, has been my work that has given me “watershed eyes.” We all live in a watershed. The theologian, Ched Myers convened a Watershed Roundtable a few years ago and opened my eyes to the context of watershed and the role of people of faith engaged in his effort of Watershed Discipleship.  (See their Facebook page for lots of inspiring stories and water based liturgy.)  But seeing with new eyes also entails embracing the earth as our ally.  Native people tell us and I am convinced,  there are spiritual powers of the earth, with which if we unite with them can forge a union that will have transforming power to heal the destructive path we’re currently on.

The story of the young King Arthur and the sword in the stone illustrates this well. As you may recall, he was carefully taught by the Wizard Merlin.  As a part of Arthur’s schooling, Merlin had Arthur transformed into various animals so that he might experience directly the strengths of these animals, like the farsightedness of the hawk or the night vision of a bat, or the cleverness of a fox.   Arthur was faced with the legendary sword in the stone, for whomever could pull it out would be king.  He tried one time, another time to no avail.   Then he looked around and he saw all the different animals whose strengths he had known by his own transfiguration.  Then, embodying those strengths, he was able to pull the sword out as it were in butter. 

We too can gain strength from the natural world if we pay attention.

These lines excerpted from a Rilke poem expresses this well:

Pure attention, the essence of powers!
Distracted by each days doing,
how can we hear the signals?

Even as the farmer labors
there where the seed turns into summer,
it is not his work. It is Earth who gives.

~ Ranier Maria Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheaus, Part One, XII, In Praise of Mortality, translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy.

Seeing with new eyes, we can gain a wider sense of self as we come to understand our deep interconnectedness through both time and space – 14.5 billion years of evolution as well as the our interdependence with the intricate web of life, from which I’ve gained great solace. There are strengths and wisdom to be learned from the natural world that my Celtic ancestors knew about. St. Patrick reflected this in this prayer attributed to him called “The Breastplate”:

I invite you to close your eyes for a moment to experience this prayer.

I arise today with the strength of heaven,
Light of the Sun,
Radiance of Moon,
Swiftness of Wind,
Speed of Lightening,
Splendor of Fire,
Depth of the Sea,
Stability of Earth,
Firmness of Rock.

Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ above me,
Christ below me,
Christ within me.

When we look at our food, we often say this grace from the Buddhist teacher Thich Naht Hahn:  In this food, I see the whole universe is supporting me.

So, having witnessed with “new eyes” a vision of the transfiguration, Jesus tells his disciples: “Get up and do not be afraid.”  We too can get up, and move ahead  while carrying our fear with compassion. Get up, keep moving, as Rilke says:

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.

Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

~”Go to the Limits of Your Longing,”  by Rainr Maria Rilke

Joanna Macy calls this “getting up” phase of the Spiral of transformation, “going forth” engaging in active hope.  This hope is not a mushy optimistic hope or wishful thinking.  It is a courageous hope.  She says:

Active Hope is waking up to the beauty of life on whose behalf we can act. We belong to this world. The web of life is calling to us at this time.

We envision the world we hope for and we find a way for us to contribute to manifesting that vision. We can be guided by our focused intention and that is the power of prayer.

I’ve had a vision for some time that houses of worship could be a light or beacon on the hill as shining examples of living in balance with our Dear Mother Earth as St. Francis called her.  I am blessed to have meaningful work in which I see glimpses of this happening.

With all that’s going on right now, we don’t have to do it all.  There’s some small true thing for each of us to do.

Clarissa Pinkola Estés, PhD, is an American poet, post-trauma specialist and Jungian psychoanalyst, who wrote Women Who Run With the Wolves offers these words of encouragement for living in active hope:

Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely.

One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. Soul on deck shines like gold in dark times. The light of the soul throws sparks, can send up flares, builds signal fires, causes proper matters to catch fire. To display the lantern of soul in shadowy times like these – to be fierce and to show mercy toward others; both are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity.

Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it. If you would help to calm the tumult, this is one of the strongest things you can do.

~ from Letter to a Young Activist During Troubled Times

(I will line out the following chant as a call / response.)

Light Is Returning  (p. 117 of Rise Up Singing)
Light is Returning
Even though this is the darkest hour
No one can hold
Back the Dawn


Omitted during preaching:
[Let’s keep it burning
Let’s keep the light of hope alive
Make safe our journey
Through the storm.

One Planet is turning
Circle in her path around the sun
Earth Mother is calling]

Peter’s message may be our benediction: May we hold a lamp shining in a dark place until the day dawns and the morning star rise in our hearts.  Perhaps we too, with our community carrying our hopes, can walk around shining like the sun.


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