Natalie Briscoe, Congregational Life Field Staff for the Southern Region of the UUA
The mission of the Southern Region Field Staff is, “More Hope, More Love, More Courage, More Justice, More Joy. Now.” In every program, consultation, and coaching call we have with a congregation or emerging ministry, your staff judges its work upon that standard: does this opportunity bring more of these five core values into being?
I must that I am having a difficult time with that first core value. After a particularly difficult 2016 which was challenging all on its own, I find myself walking into 2017 with a sense of dread. I know that I am not alone in fearing for the basic human rights of many people in my community, in the United States, and all over the world. Most mornings I wake up feeling absolutely hopeless, and I wonder, how can I do my job today? How can I, as the hymn says, bring hope when hope is hard to find?
As a religious people, we engage in story as a way to pass down our deepest values and views about the world. As Unitarian Universalists, we are so grateful for the pluralism of thought, belief, and tradition that brings us to so many wisdom stories that can inform our spirits.
At the end of this upcoming week, we are invited to engage in the telling of two important stories, one from our Jewish heritage and one from our Christian heritage.
On December 24, the Jewish Holiday of Hanukah begins. The Festival of Lights then lasts for eight days, commemorating Judah the Maccabee and a small band of faithful followers who, against all odds, defeated the mighty Seleucid Army and reclaimed their Holy Temple. When they sought to light the Temple's Menorah, they found only a single bottle of oil had not been contaminated. This single bottle was supposed to be a one-day supply, but it miraculously lasted for eight days.
This Jewish story and celebration can tell us a lot about hope in these dark times. First, even when the odds seemed stacked against us – or especially when they are – don’t be afraid to stand up for what is right. Judah Maccabee and his small group were definitely no warriors, but they had great faith. They faced a great force- and won. We can do the same. Second, a little light goes a long way. The light that was supposed to last for just one day lasted for eight. It multiplied, just as we should continue to build on and multiply small acts of kindness and love. Even though our light is small, it is mighty and can grow. And third, and possibly most importantly, the story of Hanukah tells us that we have to take our fight to the streets. A lit menorah doesn’t stay safe on a table in the center of the house. It is placed in the window as a beacon for all of those who need to see it. We must look outward, we must let our light shine in public spaces, and we must call to people who can band their good tidings with ours.
On December 25, we are invited to celebrate Christmas and to once again hear the story of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. The nativity story has particular meaning to us in this time of political upheaval and division. Joseph was required to return to the place of his family, Bethlehem, to be counted in the census. The census was ordered by Caesar Augustus, and it was done because the Roman empire wanted to make sure everyone was paying taxes correctly. This travel for the young and very pregnant Mary was probably very “taxing,” and the family probably arrived in Bethlehem sometime in the evening, when all of the rooms in the town were already taken by earlier-arriving travelers. Soon after arriving, Mary gave birth to a baby boy, in conditions that could be interpreted to have gone strictly against her birth plan. A little while later, after the Kings from other nations came to see this tiny baby who was hailed as the new King, they set up a ruse to save the child from King Herod, the insecure, egotistical “King of the Jews” who wanted to obliterate any threat to his power. Escaping to Egypt ushers in another part of the story that sounds familiar to us today, that of a Middle Eastern refugee family fleeing abuse and certain death.
This timeless tale continues to have so much to say to us today. First, Jesus was a symbol of hope, as all babies are. A new life, with endless possibility. A life that must be protected, and a life we know will end. Each day we awaken is like being born again, with new possibilities and new opportunities to change the world for the better just by being a hopeful presence. Second, Jesus never turned away from evil and injustice. He confronted it head-on. He called it out when he saw it. The story of his life would have been very different if he had distanced himself from the evil he saw, but he chose another way. He chose to go confront it. He didn’t want to close his eyes to it; he wanted to understand it….so he could eradicate it. And third, Jesus was a human baby in all his vulnerability and need. Hope, as fortifying as it is, asks us to be so vulnerable as well. To put faith in things we cannot or haven’t yet seen. To keep moving forward even through our pain.
Both of these stories teach us about hope. They show us how to confront the evils of injustice. They show us how to take the rebellion to the streets, not to hide when we are scared. And moreover, these teaching stories from our great Jewish and Christian sources show us the true importance of making it our personal duty to keep our eyes on the prize: the beloved community, the Kingdom of God, the Temple Immaculate. That is worth more than any gifts we receive, and it’s certainly worth giving our lives in service.
This is what bring me hope: the congregations and individuals still working. Those who refuse to hide, who confront evil head-on. Those who take it to the streets. Those who fight evil empires. Those that put their light in a window and draw others in close. Those who stay hopeful and vulnerable. Thank you, my brothers and sisters in faith, for helping me fight. I promise that when you feel hopeless and lost, I will do my best to put a candle in the window and prepare a room for you. The only way through is together.