Winter 2022 ~ Advent Newsletter

Finding hope in the middle of Advent As we enter into the season of Advent, my thoughts have moved to the lighting of the Advent candles.  In the churches where I have served it started with the unpacking of Christmas and Advent decorations, and determining which needed to be replaced or freshened before they could be used again this year.  The Advent candles may be the only real Advent decorations we use, as it is mixed along with nativity scenes and Christmas trees.

There are many acceptable titles for each of the four candles and although some liturgy police may tell us there is a proper order, the churches I served used Love, Peace, Joy and Hope and not in any particular order.  Some years I would focus on all four while other years I would develop a worship series around once idea, such as Love Came Down at Christmas, and each week we discussed our understanding of different ways God loves us.  This year I am focusing on Hope.

Romans 15:13  May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in faith so that you overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (CEB)

I don’t think the church talks enough about hope.   I was told once, hope is not a strategy, but I have come to understand that without hope any plan for a better future will fail.  Hope is important is we are going to find any joy in life.  I was recently reminded how traumatic events make it difficult to remain hopeful.

Look at the trauma we have endured in just the past few years.

  • 20 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan and an ugly withdrawal
  • School shootings, The Pulse Bar and Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas
  • George Floyd, Duante Wright, and others
  • No knock warrants that lead to accidental killing by police officers
  • Last summer people killing police officers
  • Contested Presidential election and a really tight mid-term election
  • World-wide pandemic and the resulting effects may be worse than the disease
  • War in Ukraine
  • The UMC is caught up in its own drama, isn’t it?

Neuroscientists tell us they can measure the impact of unresolved trauma on a human brain.  Using a brain scan they can see brain cells and the electric impulses that connect them. For many people those places where our brains deal with trauma are dark, no form of life can be seen.  The emotional parts of our brains have taken over the parts of our brains that deal with this kind of stress – and the result is PTSD.

In the last several years there has been lots of trauma.  It seems like something happens every few days.  It’s no wonder that many of us feel emotionally and spiritually drained?  After all, we are still in the middle of a pandemic, or endemic as some are call it and who knows if or when it might be over.  The costs of living keep climbing but did we really expect the world economy to shut down for almost a year and not have a financial impact on our costs of living?  Our country is politically more divided than any time since the civil war.

Hebrews 11 says Faith is the confident assurance that what we hope for will happen.  1st Corinthians 13:13 says, Faith, Hope and Love remain.  Paul talks about how faith and love are a gift from God but where does hope come from?  What do we really know about Hope?

Hope is always about the future.   We don’t need hope in the past, we already know how things will turn out.  Even in the present, hope is always about the next moment. We say, “I hope this works” as we turn the screw or “I hope I find a gas station before I run out of gas” or “I hope they find a cure soon.”  Hope is always about a preferred future.

Lee Strobel says, in his book, The Case for Hope: Looking Ahead With Confidence and Courage:  “Hope is the inextinguishable flicker God ignites in our souls to keep us believing in the prevailing power of His light even when we are surrounded by utter darkness.”   John 1:5 says the light overtakes the darkness.  The darkness always loses to the light, but some days it doesn’t feel that way.

 Romans 15: 13 refers to God as “the God of hope.”  The Bible is a book filled with hope.  97 times the word hope is used in the Hebrew Scriptures and another 83 times in the Christian Testament.  Strobel puts it this way, “God offers a hope so powerful that it can transform a person’s life and rewrite a person’s future.”

I think of it this way, our inputs determine our outputs.  And in so many ways, you are what you eat.  What you tell yourself, matters.  When we internalize life’s difficulties – physiological and psychological things start to happen.  We get really low self-esteem, depression sets in and we become angry, bitter and act out or we become quiet and lonely.  We are afraid.  We cling to the past because we don’t see a future.  Hope is lost.

Discouragement destroys everything.  Do you remember the game Packman?  A little eating face gobbling up dots until the screen was completely clear.  Well friends, despair eats everything in its path.  I believe discouragement is a disease.  Like a cancer it grows in us and eats up all of our healthy attitudes and pretty soon our hope is consumed and depression sets in.  In my experience, hope and depression don’t live in the same person, or the same church, or the same community at the same time.  It’s that light in the darkness idea that John talked about.

 We already have what many professionals say is one of the best treatments to overcome hopelessness, you are part of a church.  If you are in a small church or a small group as part of a large church, you develop relationships where you can talk together, share together and listen to one another.  Your friendships can extend beyond church buildings and into your lives.  Over time, you may develop trust.  Trust is so very important and has become rare in our society.  No wonder our society is a mess, unresolved trauma can only be restored by developing relationships in which we can experience trust.  Trust overtakes trauma.  Let me say that  again, one of the things, and maybe the only thing that helps us overcome trauma is trust.  Until we learn to trust people or institutions or ideas, we will never be able to deal with the trauma that has so much surrounded our lives these past few years.

Are you familiar with Eeyore?  Eeyore is a sad sack of a person in the books about Winnie the Poo.  He’s always down and downhearted.  Well friends, Eeyore’s don’t survive.  In The Case for Hope, Lee Stroble talks about a POW in a Vietnam prison camp who lost all hope and with it his will to live – and eventually he died.  In fact, Stroble says, many US service men died as POW’s in WW2 – Korea and in Vietnam because they lost the will to live.  They became convinced they would never get out of the prison and they lost all hope and they died in despair.  Except that Eeyore has friends and those friends surround him and in the story they help him find his tail.  Hope is found in small groups that over time spend life together.  This is one of the values of the small church or small group within a large church.  People who know each other can lean on one another to work through the problems created by life’s traumas.

Depression is a form of anger, and anger creates energy.  Experts say exercise is a key to mental health.  We can improve our mental and spiritual health and burn the energy created by anger, depression and hopelessness by doing mission work together, whether it’s disaster relief or working at a food pantry, reading to children at the grade school or putting up Advent decorations, there can be a great release of energy in accomplishing something tangible, especially when it helps make the world a better place.

 Finally, we can give it to Jesus.  This is not intended to be a simple cliché.  Depression, hopelessness, anger, they are hard to give it up.  Its giving up control over something that you never really had control over in the first place.  It’s hard because we know how much pain we are experiencing now and to give it up means it will be replaced with something else.  Often we are afraid the new thing might be harder than the one we have now.  Giving over the control of your life, including the discouragement, the depression, the frustration,  may be the hardest thing you will ever do.  You will remain responsible for your past decisions and actions but you can have assurance that you never need to face life’s traumatic events alone.  Even on the most difficult days you can find hope when you have Jesus.

Dave Owsley, NFAMLP President