Toorak Uniting Church

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From Optimism to Hopefulness

Isaiah 65: 17 – 25
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
Pentecost 26
17 November 2013

 Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks
Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks 1780-1849

The painting on the cover of this week’s Order of Service is by Edward Hicks, who was an American folk painter and distinguished minister of the Society of Friends (the Quakers). Hicks was born in 1780 and died at the age of 69 in 1849. This painting, titled the Peaceable Kingdom, exemplifies Quaker ideals of peaceful co-existence and non-violence. In fact, Hicks painted 61 versions of this composition. The animals and images of the children are taken from Isaiah Chapter 11 and echoed in the passage read this morning, Isaiah Chapter 65. The painting depicts the visionary imagination; both a reversal of the natural order and an implicit harmony among all things.

The wolf will live with the lamb,
      the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling [are] together;
      and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
     their young will lie down together,
     and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
     and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.

Hicks depicted humans and animals to represent that the Quaker idea of the "Inner Light" or "Christ in you" could eventually even break down the barriers, not only between people but within all creation. There was in the mind of the 18th century Quaker the concept of a hidden wholeness that would somehow restore creation to what was perceived as the original vision.

Optimism and Hope:
But of course what this beautiful piece of art depicted in its naiveté was a vision that was unattainable. Like the passage from Isaiah, it is a poetic image; a parable of sorts; a rich metaphor that would bring the listener to life and capture his or her imagination so that he or she would hold fast to the hope that life can have a harmony and that violence need not harm us and our relationship with the creation.

This story in Isaiah is about hopefulness and the possibility of both transcending and integrating suffering into the life of this creation:

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.

Some years ago The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy presented the notion that there was a restaurant at the end of the universe. The idea was that a person could make a reservation at this restaurant and from their window watch the end of the universe and then return to their own time. The point was that if you saw how everything ended then when you returned home, you would live better than you did before.

I think Isaiah’s vision was formed and shaped by the belief that a glimpse of a new creation, a new world, would sustain hope in the present-day lives of the people. That’s where hope differs from optimism. Some say that there are three ways of being in the world: As a pessimist – if something can go wrong it will go wrong. A realist – better to be hard-headed and just accept the way things are. And finally an optimist – most often things will come out okay in the end. Well, if you have a choice, then the optimist is probably the best way to go. However, optimism does not work well in the midst of deep suffering. It is only hope that has the power to sustain and transform desperate people in desperate situations. As Vaclav Havel, the first President of the Czech Republic, wrote:

Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well [or as I expected], but the certainty [or the confidence] that something makes sense [and has meaning], regardless of how it turns out.

I have thought about this in relation to the great tragedy we are still observing in the Philippines. What is it that sustains people in such devastating circumstances? Well first, obviously water, shelter, food, companionship…. And the list goes on. But underpinning all of that is this need to remain hopeful. That’s a spiritual quality. It is something that is held in the heart and bred in the soul. And just being optimistic isn’t enough. In an article by Professor David Henderson of Montana State University he suggests that:

Optimism claims everything will be all right despite reality. Hope accepts reality, the poverty of spirit that underlies all fear, instigates all tragedies, bureaucracy and institutional inertia. But hope has a trump card—the capacity of the human heart. When optimism gets ground up by reality, hope will go toe-to-toe with reality because of a heart that simply refuses to quit. And there is no reality that can overcome the capacity of the human heart to withstand and even to ask boldly, "Is that all you got? Is that the best you can do?"

And hope is most often nourished in communities that encourage and support each other. It is remarkable that after tragedy strikes people will often say they finally got to meet their neighbours; or now we feel more like a community because of what we have gone through. They have seen a vision of the end and it has encouraged them to live more fully in the present moment.

It is hard to go past this Emily Dickinson aphorism for a description of hope:

Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul - and sings the tunes without the words - and never stops at all.

Of course it was no accident that the US President Barak Obama’s second book was titled The Audacity of Hope; because hope in the face of despair, disappointment and division needs to have audacity to thrive and survive. Hopeful people seem to have vision of something beyond the reality they see in front of them. Perhaps it is a new creation, or a new world in which harmony rather than violence has the day. They have a sixth sense that regardless of the devastation they see around them, life will not only go on but it will move in new and vital ways.

To finish with the words of Professor Henderson:

Optimism depends on the world’s dark realities relenting — they will not. Optimism requires externals to work themselves out — they will not. Hope, on the other hand, doesn’t ignore external realities; it simply knows the human heart’s capacity to withstand those realities, and it trusts in the inexhaustible power of our hearts to choose love over fear.

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2013

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