Pastoral Issues in the Pew:  Hope and Despair as defined by Andrew Lester

These are nuggets of wisdom given by Andrew Lester on the pastoral concepts of hope and despair.  I will be using them in as I explore the Isaiah texts for Advent 2013 preaching (lectionary) in the posts following this one. 

Each human being has a core story.  Whether it is a genealogy, a written history or memories in the mind’s eye, these core stories act as a map influencing how new experiences are interpreted.  Basically, our past gives us the framework as we interpret and make meaning out of the present.  And our present effects how memories are to be recalled.  Within both past and present is an expectation of a future.  This future story is the wheelhouse of hope.

Within the pews there are stories.  And each story has a past, present and future projection.  Our core story, whether individual or group, is the lens through which we experience the present and we are constantly looking for connections.  We have the most energy when the connections incorporate us into something bigger than ourselves.  This human quality (looking for connection) is fertile ground for the Advent preacher.  The hope of telling the story of God, as presented in the Bible, is to capture the imagination and heart so that pew sitters will begin to adopt God’s story and find their place in it.  Therefore, when preaching about Christmas hope, we preachers are looking for “on-ramps” in the story (in this case, the Isaiah text) where listeners can get on the interstate (of God’s story).  We identify those “on-ramps” through highlighting the human emotion in the text.  As you can guess by now, I will be taking the characters of Isaiah’s prophecies  and internalizing them.  The political and military actions are motivated by human emotion.  Therefore, I will focus on the emotions.  We must do our homework with the prophet’s time language and culture as well as the era each Advent selection was written.  (ALWAYS exegete).  Finally I will not negate the fact that these prophecies point to hope symbolized, not by military power, but by a baby – Emmanuel; God with us. The “on-ramps” I have identified explore the spiritual aspect of hope.  Andrew Lester gives us a more defined understanding of hope and its counterpart, despair.

Lester begins by breaking down hope into two components; cerebral and intuitive.  Hope roots itself within our perception of reality.  This is the cerebral side of hope.  And from this reality of the present, we project ourselves into the future.  Without an adequate summation of the situation at hand, our future projection can morph into an unrealistic fantasy.  To hope is to stay in touch with reality. There is a second, more fluid, side of hope.  It is an intuitive openness to mystery.  No one can predict exactly what will happen in the future.  Hope finds this exciting and looks around every corner with eager anticipation.  For example, while we do not know exactly what the baby will look like in the mother’s womb, we imagine how fun will it be just to hold him/her and identify all those family qualities!  After all, there are no ugly babies!

Humans present two different kinds of hope; finite and transfinite.  Finite hope is the hope word used as a verb and has an object.  The hope is defined and finite.  “I hope to get a raise.”  This type of hope allows us to estimate a goal and work to achieve it.  As we assess our success, we are assessing how much of our finite hope translated into reality.

Transfinite hope is much different.  Transfinite hope creates future story as it relates to transcending the human condition.  When I preside over a funeral sometimes the family will ask me to help them receive friends. This is an exhausting 2-3 hour pre-funeral ritual with long lines.  So many times I overhear well-meaning visitors whisper, “You mustn’t lose hope.”  They are speaking about transfinite hope. Something horrible and uncontrollable has happened and while the future cannot be assured by any human blue print, hope tells us that better days are coming.  Our perspective must rise above the situation and keep us open for reprieve and positive change.

I’ve noticed that this flavor of hope is spoken of as a noun and relates to concepts and ideas.  These concepts and ideas are best communicated through story and we find that pattern in the world of religion.  Transfinite hope describes hope “that is placed in subjects and processes that go beyond physiological sensing and the material world”.  When Lester writes, “transfinite hope embraces the mystery and excitement of open-ended future and the not-yet,” he is describing what is at the root of the spiritual experience. To be a spiritual being is to have constant hope.

Lester speaks of the hoping process.  As I read, I noticed that our finite hopes have some root in our transfinite hopes.  For example, I encourage my daughter to try new experiences; dance, soccer, art classes.  I hope she will find her passion(s).  But my transfinite hope for her is an excitement toward whatever it is.  There is a sense of mystery to this future story.  Things are happening now with my child that will grow into accomplishments I’d never dreamed of.  My hope is that she will become a well rounded person, contributing to the lives of others and growing spiritually AND I get to be a part of it….whatever it is!

The hoping process also seems to come with a back-up. When our finite hope fails, we turn to transfinite hope for comfort, answers, and direction.  Often when sudden sickness or injury turns someone’s life upside down, they will begin to inquire about God’s purpose and teaching in a way that transcends their bodily wounds.  Pastoral care is cultivating a relationship and an atmosphere that allows parishioners to explore this future story, even create it.  Guiding questions of a keen pastoral ear encourage future story exploration without judgement.

However, the process of hope can break down.  This result in a hoping disturbance called despair.

Despair is the opposite of hope.  While hope is ruled by the possible, despair locks one down with the impossible.  The core story has been broken to the point that the future becomes inaccessible.  When despair comes in finite form, we suffer.  And when we suffer, we are pushed to the transfinite hope option of the hoping process.  However, when the transfinite future story breaks down despair becomes unavoidable.  Beginning on page 74, Lester lines out eight examples of despair in which the transfinite future story experiences a break.

This capacity to hope is the foundation for all spiritual experience. (Lester, 65)

The trouble with Isaiah

The lectionary texts for Isaiah during Advent bring lovely imagery in a poetic form.  Yet, the trouble with all this “pretty stuff” is that Isaiah offers a sort of finite hope that is not reasonable for now.  (By finite hope I mean theophany.)  Initial reading of Isaiah can cause the reader to adopt a “get real!” attitude.  The lion and the lamb stuff seem like a bait and switch.  God promises something that is nowhere near coming to fruition.  Is God based in reality (meaning our reality)?  Did God not read Andrew Lester’s book?

While theopany gives a beautiful read to the Sunday morning text, I have decided to appreciate it beyond it’s literary components.  I have decided to understand theopany as a sign pointing or a comment given toward the width of God’s hope for us – God’s redemption extends beyond just the human world.  God longs to redeem completely and this includes the world around us.

The second trouble with Isaiah is that the prophet is writing about kings and kingdoms, not parenting, paying the mortgage or even getting along with others.  While those are key issues of his day, how can the preacher translate Isaiah’s concerns to modern life?  For the sake of creating a pastoral sermon, my work will seek to understand the political and national ins and outs of Isaiah’s day and then internalize those issues.  After all, we all have a wayward Ahaz inside of us that needs to hear our Isaiah speak.

The third trouble with the Isaiah texts is that the ones chosen for Advent 2013 are read in the light of the Matthew texts.  This reading is traditional and educated congregants will be listening for the familiar words and experience those familiar Advent thoughts (this is about Jesus).  For the sake of historical context, the original ears to hear these prophecies did not think this way.  How can we be true to the text and yet not offend those who are set on hearing it the way we’ve always heard it?

Isaiah’s background information

The Isaiah texts for Advent 2013 are all located in the first section of Isaiah (Chapters 1-39).  Historically, these texts are thought to be written before the exile to Babylon. Isaiah feels that the hardships of his time were brought about by social injustice.  Isaiah warns and even berates.  But sprinkled in these difficult texts are futuristic hopeful visions.

For Isaiah, the northern kingdom had fallen to Assyria in 721bc. So when our prophet receives his call, the echo of war drums are fresh upon everyone’s ears.  Isaiah receives a calling the year Uzziah died (742bc).  Dramatic Chapter 6 relays the story of Isaiah, overwhelmed by God’s holiness and human sinfulness.  Only a burning coal to his lips would release him to respond.  Isaiah’s ministry lasts from Uzziah death (742bc) till the siege of Jerusalem (701bc).  (Some say longer, 687bc)

His prophecies begin during the reign of Ahaz.  Ahaz is a rouge king that followed pagan idols and sacrificed his own children to Baal.  The second king believed to reign during the writing of our Advent Old Testament text is Hezekiah.  Hezekiah brings a great deal of reform to the kingship.  Idols are removed, worship is reformed.  Ecclessiastes, Proverbs, and Song of Solomon were written during his reign.  Hezekiah was a king of foresight.  He built a 500 meter tunnel that brought spring water to the city.  This was helpful when Jerusalem was under siege.  The tunnel still operates today. Hezekiah joined Judah with Egypt and Bablyon in a revolt against Assyria.   Though Hezekiah expected the Egyptians to come to his aid, they did not come, and Hezekiah had to face the invasion of Judah by Sennacherib (2 Kings 18:13-16) in the 4th year of Sennacherib (701 BC).2 Kings 19:35 records that during the siege the Angel of the Lord killed 185,000 Assyrian soldiers in a single night.  Hezekiah is portrayed by the Hebrew Bible as a great and good king. He is one of the few kings praised so highly as to have “trusted in the Lord the God of Israel; so that there was no one like him among all the kings of Judah after him, or among those who were before him” (2 Kings 18:5). (from Wikipedia)

For Isaiah, the vision of Chapter 6 was so overwhelming that military and political savvy faded into the background.  He spoke to those consumed with national security.  Finite things like weapons and alliances demanded attention.  Isaiah felt that true security came from faith in God and responding to God by rightful living.  This is the constant clash of Isaiah.  And it draws out in me the question, What do I put my hope in that I may be secure (financially, socially, emotionally….)?

When preaching the pastoral sermon within the Isaiah/Advent text, the preacher is informed of Isaiah’s context but begins the sermon creation process with questions of the heart that encompass the texts.  The pastoral issues in the chosen texts are security, faith/trust that results in action and hope.  Safety and trust are foundational for hope.  We must feel a degree of safety in our spirit to explore emotions and thoughts (internal dialogue).  We need trusted companions for the journey, those who accept our quandaries without judgment (external dialogue).  Finally, humans are compelled for project themselves into the future.  Hope is the energy giving emotion needed promoting us to seek safety and trust in the present.