Signposts of Hope

Jennifer Ireland

Jennifer IrelandApril 22, 2012


Isaiah 58: 9b-12
1 Corinthians 12:26
Matthew 6: 25-27

It is Earth Day today, so let’s begin with aprayer celebrating the beauty of creation.

From a poem by Robinson Jeffers:

“…to fling rainbows over the rain…
And beauty above the moon, and secret rainbows
On the domes of deep sea-shells,
Not even the weeds to multiply without blossom
Nor the birds without music…
Look how beautiful are all the things that God does.
God’s signature
Is the beauty of things.”


Good morning, friends. It is a privilege to stand in this space, and humbling, too, as I’ve tried to be open to the Spirit’s leading as to what words to bring you today.

“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” wrote Paul in 1 Cor. Ch. 13:12. I will acknowledge that I question some other words of Paul’s, but these I believe are revelatory and point us to the God who is Love, is the source of our hope and faith. How we stay anchored in the supreme reality of Love, sustained by faith and hope, as the enormous devastation of the earth’s ecosystems grows--this is the subject I will be wrestling with this morning.  Are there answers faith can give that can keep us from being set adrift by anxiety and fear about what is happening to the earth, with worse yet to come?

One coping mechanism I’ve employed throughout my life and continue to make use of consists in learning about individuals who lived in times of crisis, who by their courage and grace offer signposts to what is possible for human beings to attain.  Two such people who come readily to mind are Etty Hillesum and Viktor Frankel—both of whom were Jewish and were sent to concentration camps.  Etty Hillesum died there and left us her diaries; Viktor Frankel survived to write The Doctor and the Soul, among other books; their writings have held insights that have shaped my life, and given me hope. Recently I am finding another source of hope, a signpost if you will, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose biography our mission group is reading. I will say a little more presently about what I am learning from him.

First I want to tell you a little about the story of Gail Small and her community, as I’ve been on the lookout for examples of “alternative consciousness” for the possibilities and hope that are to be found in ways of seeing that differ from that of the dominant culture. The documentary film,“Homeland”, features the stories of four Native American communities and the acute crises each is facing: crises engendered by the activities of the fossil fuel industries, uranium mining, and the paper industry, which, in their intense degradation of the land and water, are threatening their survival.

The Cheyenne tribe in northern Montana lives on one of the poorest reservations in the country, 15 miles from the largest stripmining and gasification complex in the U.S.  Here are the words of one of their members, Gail Small, from the film:

“The Cheyenne reservation, carved from land once considered too barren for farming or ranching, ironically turns out to sit atop one of the largest deposits of clean-burning coal in the world. Deposits estimated to be worth over $200 billion.”

“…The people here could all be millionaires if they would sign on the dotted-line and go into a major energy contract. But they vote and they've chosen to say no. For thirty some years, they voted and said no. Now that to me is almost like a miracle. I mean, you look at any other people in the world who have been given this abundance of wealth, and for over thirty some years have said no. It's really a story that I find no analogy to…”


Surrounded by 75,000 methane gas wells, polluting their air and rivers, depleting the ground water, she asks: “Where will the Cheyenne go?” But they aren’t giving in and signing on the dotted line, and they are not leaving. For over 30 years this is their victory: they have chosen to be who they are: to be community despite severest poverty, huge threats to the air and water, and a constant battle with encroaching fossil fuel industries.

In the decision they have lived by that characterizes their values as a people, I find they more nearly can answer “Yes” to the questions Jesus posed, in Mathew Ch. 6:25. “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” To take his words seriously would mean considering a different way of thinking, feeling, and living; and, immersed in materialism, it seems difficult to know where to begin. Maybe we could be helped to consider Jesus’ meaning by meditating on these Cheyenne people who by their choices are saying that life is more than food, the body, more than clothing.

The dominant culture in 2012 USA, far reaching as it is, has gone down the path in the opposite direction from the Cheyenne—a long distance from answering “Yes” to the questions of Jesus about the meaning of life and the body. Instead of seeking first the kingdom of God, this path is in search of more and better … everything.  And by proceeding in the opposite direction, it becomes possible to pursue individual “happiness” based on exploitation of other people and the natural world as well. Empires are built; wars fought; the planet ransacked for its natural resources. A flattering picture the impulse to exploit is not, and for this reason smokescreens are sought, to distract, to deceive, to manipulate the appearance of concern for the greater good.

Who is being sacrificed, and what is being sacrificed? These questionshelp to cut through the smokescreens which abound. The northern Cheyenne: they are being sacrificed. As Gail Small says, their survival hangs in the balance. The land surrounding them has been sacrificed—it is now an industrial wasteland. The people who live along the Appalachian mountains are being sacrificed, too.  Dottie Bockstiegel preached here not long ago about the travesty of mountaintop removal which poisons the water, destroys ecosystems, and leads to a far higher rate of disease than is found in the general population. That this practice is legal means that certain people and regions of the country are expendable. There are countless other such examples of exploitation that any of us could name.The legacies of the Viet Nam, Iraq, and Afghanistan wars have meant that millions of people have become refugees, have suffered, have died. What justifications are given for the large scale horrific suffering inflicted by the wars? To protect the American way of life, it is said; to bring our democracy to foreigners…Perhaps. But wars were desired by those in power, and rationalization for them accepted by enough of the people--this much is certain. What price is paid and by whom?

Rationalizations for sacrificing some people, whether in war, or in other ways, turn out to be fairly simple, I am realizing, even as theyare often extremely effective. In essence, the sacrifice by some is portrayed as necessary for bringing about a greater good. From very early on in Hitler’s rise to power, Bonhoeffer saw that what was termed the “Aryan principle”, which stated that non-Aryans could not be members of the church, must be opposed, or else the Church would forfeit its very identity as Christian, its allegiance to God in Christ. Here is what Bonhoeffer wrote in response to the movement of German Christians who supported Hitler: 

“The German Christians say: We are not so much concerned with these thousand Jewish Christians as with the millions of our fellow citizens who are estranged from God. For their sake, these others might in certain cases have to be sacrificed . We answer: We too are concerned for those outside the church, but the Church does not sacrifice a single one of its members. It may even be that the church, for the sake of a thousand believing Jewish Christians that it is not allowed to sacrifice, might fail to win over those millions. For what good would it do to gain millions of people at the price of the truth and of love for even a single one? (quoted in Dietrich  Bonhoeffer 1906-1945, by Ferdinand Schlingensiepen, p. 137)

In this excerpt can be heard an echo of Christ’s words, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world yet lose or forfeit their very self?”( LukeCh. 9:25). Who and what is being sacrificed in forfeiting one’s most essential identity? Remembering who we are then becomes the act of the community and the individualupon which so much depends.

Remembering  also fortifies hope, an insight I owe to the recent 8th Day Old Testament class.  In the book by Bruce Birch, What Does the Lord Require?, he quotes Brazilian theologian Rubem Alves,who wrote: “In the biblical world, one hopes for the future because one has already seen the creative event taking place in the past.”  Central among these creative events in the Bible are the exodus experience of the Hebrew people—their deliverance out of slavery in Egypt; the experience of exile to Babylon, liberation, and return to Jerusalem; and God’s outpouring of life in Jesus and his community. The biblical stories reveal a staggering amount of suffering for the people “on the way”; but ultimately there is deliverance, and in the New Testament, the inbreaking of the new creation. To the degree the community experiences these and other Biblical stories as truly living stories,they are sources of profound hope for the future.

I want to take a moment to share a bit of personal remembering that is part of my faith story, the work of God in my life. I was born in Columbia, S.C. and grew up in Chapel Hill, N.C., a university town still segregated when I was a child. I had only white friends—there was simply no contact with people of different ethnic or racial backgrounds, with one exception being a Jewish family across the street. A couple of miles from our house was a convenience store that had a sign out front: “Whites only.” Before my parents decided to refuse to shop there, as a young child I accompanied them inside a few times, and I recall a slight feeling of uneasiness. I can’t remember now, but I’m sure there must have been a conversation about the meaning of that sign with my parents and which I imagine fed my uneasiness.

When my family moved from Chapel Hill to Washington, D.C., I entered the 9th grade of the predominantly African American Gordon Jr. High School, and my world changed quite a bit. I was shy and imagined I would be lonely, but on the contrary, life opened up for me. There were kids of so many backgrounds, and the friendships I began to develop were tremendously exciting to me.  I was quite politically naïve, and I remember the shock when, one evening I was at home alone and watched a documentary about South Africa under Apartheid. The images of the humiliation and poverty of the people that were flashing across the screen were contrasted with the nice homes of the white suburbanites who tried to justify keeping the system of oppression in place.  My memory has not retained any precise details, but the film affected me deeply and I had an experience I recall these decades later. Simply put, there was a moment of clarity as I watched the film, in which a protest rose up in me against the suffering inflicted by the Apartheid system. The whites may have looked like me, but I utterly rejected what they were doing and saying.

I believe this moment of claritylong ago has guided my way forward. It may seem paradoxical that a film which opened my eyes to the evil of Apartheid would be for me a sign of God’s work in my life. Yet it is.  It has helped to lead me into life-giving possibilities, one of which has been the determination not to pass on to my daughter any of the racist ideas that I encountered growing up in the South.

Bruce Birch, in reference to the passage in Isaiah, Ch. 40 “…they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up wings like eagles…” asks what is meant by “waiting upon the Lord?” His answer is this: “Basically the community of faith is to be constantly alert to creative and life-giving possibility, even in chaotic and death dealing situations. It is there God’s hopeful activity is to be found, and there we are to join it.”

I would like to urge one more important way we can seek out God’s life-giving possibility, and that is through becoming more attuned to the natural world. Since the start of Lent this year I have adopted a practice that I hope to maintain indefinitely, and that is to invite daily awareness of the beauty of the natural world if only for five or ten minutes each day, and to offer that time to God. This has been taking the pattern of directing my attention to features of the natural world—sights, smells, and sounds-- as I am walking to and from work, a time when I am typically in a hurry and preoccupied with other things and oblivious to my surroundings.  This is one small change I am making.  If we are not already making room in our lives to experience the beauty of creation,whether it be an urban stream, small garden by the curbside, or moonrise on a clear evening, let us try, and see where it leads.

I began with lines of the poet Robinson Jeffers celebrating the beauty of creation.  This is what he says about our ability to see what is beautiful:

“The beauty of things—
Is in the beholder’s brain—
the human mind’s translation
of their transhuman
intrinsic value.”

Thanks be to God!