Hope Is A Thing With Feathers

A Sermon Manuscript

“It works if you work it.” This is one of the sayings that I use with my daughter; it’s not original. It is a New Thought religious phrase that I took for myself. In my situation, my daughter will often say that something doesn’t work; sometimes even while she is doing it or at least trying to do it. It can be something as simple as loading the dishwasher, making her bed, or applying for a job. I remind her, “You’re doing the thing that you are claiming isn’t working!” “I’m not getting a job.” “Well, keep applying. Right now, you’re working the application.”

It may not look pretty or organized but she is making strides toward that end goal. The problem is, she struggles to see that her efforts are contributing to the end goal she has visualized in her mind. In her mind, if it hasn’t materialized after a few half-hearted attempts, it probably doesn’t work. Now, she knows that if she comes to me telling me that something is not working, the first thing I will ask her is whether she has tried to work it. Whatever the situation, “Did you try to work it?” If she answers “yes,” I’ll then will ask her what steps she employed toward the outcome she desired. The conversation usually ends there, because she quickly admits she really didn’t work all that hard toward her goal. My objective is to motivate her toward action in helping her to reach her goals.

As a man of faith, I had been taught to believe in a benevolent creator, one who answers prayers and performs miracles. But as I grew older, I learned that that is not how life nor reality shows up; I should not expect of God, or anyone else for that matter, to do for me what I can do for myself. We all should do what we can for ourselves and then hope and pray for the best regarding the things that are beyond our control.  It’s the serenity prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”

This reminds me of a story.  There was a job notice that went out in a small Russian town. The job consisted of running a paper route, and it required having a bicycle. Two friends, young boys about the same age, one from the south side of the street and the other from the north side, wanted desperately to land the same job and both competed for it. Neither boy had a bicycle as they were from poor families. The south-side boy was deeply religious. He was taught from early childhood to cherish the tenets of his faith and to always pray for the things he hoped for. He had tried in vain to convert the other young man (the north-side boy), telling him that God would forgive him of his sins if he only asked him. The north-side boy was not religious; he rarely went to church, and he cursed and complained a lot. 

One afternoon, a few of months after the job posting, while taking a walk, the south-side boy noticed a boy delivering newspapers riding on a shiny new red bicycle. “It can’t be,” he thought to himself. Oh, but it was: it was the north-side boy. Not only did he have a new bike, he also landed the prized paper route. “How many times had he prayed?” the south-side boy wondered. “I had prayed every day for months, and I hadn’t received a bike.”

Then he learned the north-side boy had only prayed once. “How is this possible?!” the south-side boy cried. “I have prayed every day for months and I haven’t received a bike, and yet, you pray only once, and God grants you a bike?” He started to get really angry with God. “Well,” the other boy said, “you had told me that God would forgive me my sins if I asked him, so I actually stole the bike, then took your advice, and prayed for forgiveness.”

Most of us know what to do when it comes to realizing our goals and dreams. We strategize; we plan; we execute. It’s just that simple. But if it is that simple, why do so many people struggle with doing what they know to do? Think about something that has been difficult for you to achieve. I’ll use the example of losing weight, which I’ve been struggling with lately. In a conversation with a personal trainer, he asked me if I knew what it takes to lose weight. I told him, through diet, eating the right foods while avoiding other, bad foods, and, of course, through exercise. He indicated that this was all correct and that most people know this but lack the motivation to get it done.

I get how important motivation is. Some people have been writing a book for years and can’t seem to get it done. Perhaps, the reason why you haven’t written that book is because there is the real fear of some negative outcome or consequence, like, for example, that people won’t want to read it. This is true. I have a bunch of books I bought that I haven’t read.

There are some people so fearful of realizing their dream that they’ll often self-sabotage. Perhaps it’s because if they finally realize their dreams, they will then have nothing left to dream about. What do you do when your dream is done?  Some subconsciously fear success; sometimes a realized dream means there is nothing left for the dreamer to dream. 

So, today, I could have just presented you with a motivational sermon about persistence, not giving up on you dreams; and if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again. Yes, it will work if you work it. But this concept is a bit more layered and complex than I had been telling my daughter. I realized that there seems to be something fallible or inauthentic about accomplishing one’s goals solely through personal force and will power. As I began to delve deeper into the subject of my sermon, I understood that something else needed to be addressed. 

Successful lives require more than simple perseverance and motivation. There is something that is at the foundation of our being that undergirds and empowers our ability to do the good and passionate work in our lives. So I kept coming back to this one question. What fuels our motivation; what fuels our perseverance? The one thing that fuels our lives and our relationships, enabling them to work, is hope. Oh, so my sermon is about hope. Sometimes I learn what my sermon is about at the same time you do!

Hope is what was lying underneath the covers! There is something deeply spiritual about hope. Hope provides the power to motivate us and to move us in the direction of our dreams, our visions, and our values. Hope is an emotion that springs from the heart after quietly resting there until its strength is called upon. Hope is not a wish for things to get better. It’s the actual belief, the knowledge that things will get better, no matter how big or small. Hope helps us live into our best stories even in the midst of challenging and often overwhelming circumstances. It is that glimmer of light that pierces the darkest of nights; it is the beacon on the hill that that guides us to our destination. It is not faith, but it is the substance of faith. 

Emily Dickinson wrote, “Hope is the thing with feathers / That perches in the soul / And sings the tune without the words / And never stops – at all.”

Christian minister and theologian Charles Swindoll said, “[Hope] is something as important to us as water is to a fish, as vital as electricity is to a light bulb, as essential as air is to a jumbo jet. Hope is basic to life … Without that needed spark of hope, we are doomed to a dark, grim existence … How often the word ‘hopeless’ appears in suicide notes. And even if it isn’t actually written, we can read it between the lines. Take away our hope, and our world is reduced to something between depression and despair… hope is more than wishful thinking.”

And this is the true work of life. Life works when you work it, but you can only successfully work it when there is hope. Hope allows us to see what’s possible. It is the vision and the source of the dream itself. When one loses hope, one loses vision and the ability to dream.

Religion, at its best, seeks to address hopelessness but when it fails, as it often does, it can instead further contribute to it. Human history is full of tragic examples of what happens when people lose all hope. Israeli author and historian, Yuval Noah Harari, in his bestseller ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’, documents such an example involving circumstances that led to the genocide and complete extermination of the entire native population of Tasmania. He writes:

Having survived for ten thousand years in splendid isolation, the natives of Tasmania were almost exterminated within a century of [Captain] Cook’s arrival. European settlers first drove them off the richest parts of the island, and then, coveting even the remaining wilderness, hunted them down and killed them systematically. Some of the last survivors were hounded into an evangelical concentration camp, where well-meaning but not particularly open-minded missionaries tried to indoctrinate them in the ways of the modern world. The Tasmanians were instructed in reading and writing, Christianity and various ‘productive skills’ such as sewing clothes and farming. But they refused to learn. They became ever more melancholic, stopped having children, lost all interest in life, and finally chose the only escape route from the modern world of science and progress – death.

However, in a search for examples of tragedy, hopelessness, and injustice, we don’t have to look very far. This continent has seen some of the worst atrocities human beings are capable of, and more and more of our fellow Americans are becoming awakened to the realization that our nation hasn’t lived up to its noble vision of being the beacon on a hill but rather churned and crushed countless dreams and hopes, and continues to do so – just take a look at the present situation at our southern border. 

This realization has filled many of us with gloom, anxiety, and a sense of hopelessness, and there are people even in this room today who are literally struggling and barely clinging to hope. Some of you are dealing with a health crisis, and you’re struggling to keep hope alive. I will tell you that, as a person of color listening to our national dialogue, I have been struggling as well.

How can we lead productive and fulfilling lives and be successful despite all the things that stand in our way? 

Let’s start with our occupations. We spend a large portion of our lives making a living, or earning an income. But what is our relationship with our jobs? Do we feel happy and fulfilled? Numerous studies indicate that, even more than the amount of compensation or benefits, people desire employment where they are in the position to solve meaningful challenges, where they are respected, and where they can make positive difference. Yet, for an overwhelming number of people, this is not the case. Their jobs have become prisons where their hopes and dreams have been diminished and left to die.  It’s no wonder that most heart attacks occur on Sunday evenings, the night before one has to return to work.

Our time on this earth is limited, and after our basic needs are met – like food, clothes, and shelter – time becomes our most valuable commodity. Do we trade our time, which we’ll never get back, in a way that is satisfactory to us and our close ones? Do we have a worthy cause? Do we work with people who build us up? Do we contribute to the lives of people whom we work with and those whom we serve?

These are important questions because our lives have meaning only in the context of a community and relationships with others. It has been established that when soldiers on the battlefield go into combat and risk their lives, they don’t do so immediately out of love for their country or out of some lofty ideals. These may have been the primary reasons that drove them to enlist in service. But on the battlefield, what drives soldiers to perform heroic acts of courage is the bond they have with their fellow soldiers.

So in order to find success in our work – whether we define success by the accolades we receive, our productivity and output, or simply by our level of contentment – we need to dissect what motivates us in the first place; what gives us hope and what sustains it.

Likewise, when it comes to our familial relationships, if we have heard it once, we have heard it a thousand times: relationships require work. And it’s true, as I like to say, “a marriage works when you work it.” It begins with a shared vision of hope and possibilities, and most people enter into marriage with high hopes. As a minister, I can tell you that most vows exchanged between partners are truly heartfelt. And yet, people and circumstances inevitably change, and what sustained a relationship in its earlier stages eventually gives way. 

It’s a challenge enough for oneself to go through ceaseless changes, as one is forced continuously to define and redefine, create and re-create one’s own identity. But it is life’s work, and sometimes a heavy burden, to negotiate all these changes with other people who are also constantly going through change as well. Yes, it takes work, but not just work. It takes imagination, generosity, good will, capacity to forgive, determination, and sheer strength. And even all that isn’t enough if all these qualities are unmatched in one’s partner. So it takes taking chances. It takes courage. It takes risking one’s own heart. And we can risk something only in the presence of hope. It takes endless hope.

I had wanted to conclude my message today with the notion that for most things to work in our lives, it requires effort, because things tend to work when we work them, but also that a persistently applied effort requires hope and that we need to keep hope alive in order to achieve our goals. I wanted to remind you to take stock of your lives and then to make a plan of action. In order to open up new and fulfilling possibilities for your future, you may need to nurture the hope that remains, or you may need to regroup and regain a vision for your future. I was going to tell you to take small steps along the way to remember to daily renew your hope.

And this is still true; you should do all these things. But it would’ve been amiss of me if I came here this morning and only encouraged you to follow your dreams but left without calling you to your deeper, truer Self that is at the foundation of everything you encounter in life and of how you experience what you encounter. Because, what’s the point of it all if, at the end of this life, we depart without getting closer to the truth of who we are? Or if we die without revealing ourselves to ourselves? I’m reminded of Socrates’ words, as recorded by Plato, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

We can make things work by working them, and we can hold on to hope while at it. We can go chasing our dreams, and after we achieve or abandon them, we can find new dreams for us to chase. But it begs the question, why. Why do we hope for the things that we do? Why do we chase this set of dreams and goals and not the other? Frankly, some dreams are too small, too misguided, or too selfish. The boy with the bicycle had a dream, and he went about obtaining it with a lack integrity. Some goals are too unworthy, too wasteful, or too empty. What is really underneath the surface? What are we really seeking? 

Actor, film director, martial artist, and philosopher, Bruce Lee, wrote the following, “Where some people have a self, most people have a void, because they are too busy in wasting their vital creative energy to project themselves as this or that, actualizing a concept of what they should be like, rather than actualizing their potentiality as a human being.”

Our hope, our definition of success, and our dreams and goals come from our values. Our values inform our understanding of right and wrong, justice and injustice; they determine how we see the world and ourselves in it and how we interact with it. Our values inform our actions and our thought process.

People often deceive themselves when they state their values to be something that is not supported by their actions. We can see this in the daily news cycle. We need to examine our values regularly by asking ourselves which of our values are active, that is, which of them are supported by our actions, and which of them are inactive, or passive, which should lead to a re-evaluation of our values or to re-energizing of our efforts.

For example, if we state that we are concerned with the plight of the homeless, but we do not volunteer at homeless shelters, or study the emotional and psychological effects of homelessness or the economic and mental-health factors that contribute to it, or support legislation and legislators that seek to alleviate homelessness, or participate in any of the activities to that end, then perhaps we simply desire that the problem of homelessness should be solved by someone else, and therefore, this is not one of our active values.

Our values, in turn, are dictated by our integrity, and our integrity comes from our authenticity, that is, who we truly are and who we are becoming. In the end, a truly worthy goal in life is to examine ourselves so scrupulously and thoroughly and in such a depth, that all our values, all our actions, our goals, hopes, and dreams are unified and in perfect harmony with who we are and who we say we are.

May we know ourselves with ever greater clarity.
May we seek the truth with every fiber of our being.
May our thoughts, words, and actions reflect our values with absolute integrity.
May we always have hope that renews and sustains us in our good deeds.
May we be the change that we want to see in the world.
May we be successful in all of this.
May it be so.

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