Igniting the Candle of Hope

Note: My Thursday posts for December are loosely based on the weekly themes of Advent and the tradition of lighting the candles of the Advent Wreath
 
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It was approximately 3:15 a.m. when I awoke. The darkness was palpable. It felt alive to me, in spite of the comforting glow of my clock radio and the audible deep breathing of my sister in the other twin bed. I could feel the darkness pressing into me, a sense of evil intent in its probing fingers, like it was searching for a way to enter me and take me over. I felt desolately alone, as if my nearest friend was separated from me by a vast desert, rather than the two feet between our beds. And I felt fear – panicked terror really – the kind of fear that paralyzes your vocal chords and makes movement or escape impossible. The feeling of overpowering malignance directed toward me continued to grow, pressing down on me, reaching a crescendo that finally triggered my natural fight or flight instinct – I sat up in bed and hurled a brief sentence at the darkness.

Suddenly, there was a dawning of light in my solar-plexus. Light and warmth began radiating through my body. I could feel it filling me up until my body could no longer contain it. Energy sizzled along the surface of my skin, little hairs on my arms standing straight up from the static of it. The warmth, the energy, felt like love. I interpreted the energy as light, though I didn’t actually see light. The darkness, especially the feeling of evil intent, receded immediately.

I was certain that God had come to my aid in a moment of real crisis. I lay awake, bathed in warmth and love, wondering how such an experience could happen. Abject, shivering fear changed to this cocoon of love and aliveness in the matter of a split second.

The next day, I needed to talk to someone about this experience. I was only in high school, not really able to make sense of any of it on my own (I say, as if I could do so today!). So I called a (slightly) older friend I trusted implicitly. He came over and I poured out the whole story to him.

“Do you remember what you said when you sat up?” he asked. I said, “That’s the strange thing, it was gibberish – the only word I recognized was ‘Yahweh’. ” Then I told him what I thought I had said. My friend’s response was very matter-of-fact considering the next thing he told me. He said he had just taken a biblical Hebrew class at the major university where he was a student. He told me, “What you said is Hebrew and means, ‘God of our fathers, be with me.'”

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The experience I just recounted occurred in 1977 or 78, approximately 35 years ago. Over that three and a half decades, I’ve shared it with only a handful of people. For one, I’ve learned that most of us aren’t able – or even comfortable trying – to make sense of deeply spiritual or mystical experiences. For two, I’m not interested in developing a list of perfectly reasonable or scientific reasons I could have/might have/ perhaps did speak in a language I don’t know – and that seems to be where the few conversations I’ve had inevitably went. For three, I can remember the way I felt, but I can’t recapture the wonder of it. In fact, as with most numinous experiences, the more one discusses it, the less wondrous it seems.

After so many years of holding the experience close, why in the world am I now choosing to share it on a blog available for anyone to read?!

The weeks of late fall and early winter, as the days grow shorter and the nights longer, are a physical expression of an emotional reality: there are times when that which is light in our lives seems overtaken by darkness. We experience sadness, despair, fear.

What a strange and powerful force hope can be in a world where darkness invades our days. I was a silly, boy-crazy teenager that night when the darkness overcame me and I called for help, yet help came. Hope is like that: like the sudden flash of fire when a match is struck on a cold, black night. Like the warmth of arms encircling you when you thought you were completely alone. Hope dispells our inner darkenss. It doesn’t eradicate it, but hope pushes our heaviness back so that breath and joy are both available once again.

Hope is faith holding out its hand in the dark.  ~George Iles

This week, on advent wreaths the world over, people are lighting the candle of hope. In my  heart, I am choosing to recall the times that my cries have been answered, and believing with the hope of faith that they will be again. In my home and my interactions with others, I’m asking:

How might this world light up if hope were allowed to blossom in every heart? And how can I, today, add to the measure of hope in the lives and the world I am part of?

 
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The H Word

“The way I figure it, Heaven and Hell are right here on Earth.  Heaven is living in your hopes and Hell is living in your fears.  It’s up to each individual which one he chooses.”  Jelly paused.  “I told that to the Chink once and he said, ‘Every fear is part hope and every hope is part fear — quit dividing things up and taking sides.”

–Tom Robbins, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues

This week, I’ve been thinking a lot about hope.  First, I read a reflection titled “Fragile Frightful Hope” ( http://wp.me/p3KXs-wK ) in which Randy Greenwald suggests that many of us take shelter in the idea of ourselves as realists in order to avoid the fear inherent in allowing ourselves to hope.  Then, on Tuesday, I attended the annual fundraising banquet for the House of Hope, (http://www.houseofhopecr.org/) an organization offering hope to many women in this community.

The story of the House of Hope is one that highlights the relationship between fear and hope.  Melody Graham, its founder, was working with a woman who needed help, but the kind and intensity of help necessary just weren’t available via local social services.  The first time I heard Melody describe what happened, she said, “And as I was thinking about what this woman needed, I heard a voice ask, ‘Why don’t you open a house for women?'” Each step of the way to establishing the House of Hope was an exercise in facing self-doubt and fear — I mean, its scary to buy a house with no money.  It’s difficult to convince other people to invest in your inspiration.  Melody faced each of these fears, because her hope was stronger.

Melody has been an inspiration to me (and countless others) for years now.  We are amazed by what she manages to create, along with a strong group of friends and allies she has recruited along the way.  I’ve also listened closely as Melody says, “All I did was keep taking the next step.”  Hope leads us forward, if we have the courage to risk doing so without advance knowledge of the outcomes.  And really, the fear is all about outcomes — about being let down, hurt, broken.  We will never know the outcome when we take that first step. Or the next.

At this point in my life, I am not directly engaged in the work of changing my community or creating new structures to support those in need.  But I am engaged in the personal work of transforming a fearful life into one of hope. One next step after another.  Which brings me to the Tom Robbins quote, above.  I have loved this quote for decades, because I believe the wise Chink makes an important point.  When we are sheltering in the cave of Fear, it is easy to delude ourselves into thinking that our only “out” is to leave the cave completely behind.  Stepping out into the pure sunshine of Hope.  But my experience of reality is not that — instead, hope and fear become inextricably mixed.  Sometimes, when I experience that weird flutter in my gut, I can’t even tell for certain which of the two caused it.

This week, today, I living in a place of hope and fear.  I am both afraid I will and afraid I won’t acheive or receive in my life some things I am hoping for.  It doesn’t really matter what these things are — what matters is that I am choosing to hope after a long period of not hoping.  And some of what I’ve hoped for has come to fruition in wonderful ways.  Does it feel less fearful, therefore, to choose hope? Not on your life!  But the quality of the fear is different.  It is a lighter, less depressing fear:   a what if I risk it and it doesn’t happen? instead of a no way can I take that risk!  Sometimes, I can still plunge without warning into the “NO” of pure fear.  But then I realize I can see a little light beginning to glow on the horizon.  Fragile, frightful, hope returns.  And I take another step.