Delivering Dark Hope: It’s a Dickens of a Time to be the Church
David R. Weiss – July 26, 2021
NOTE: I always put the link to my Patreon website in my byline at the bottom. Ongoing modest support for my writing (even at $2-10/month!) makes a BIG difference. Besides keeping me clothed (which even Margaret thinks is a good thing), monthly pledges are a huge emotional-spiritual boost, letting me know my words are valued. I don’t put any of my writing behind a pay wall. It’s all gift. Over the next decade it may be among the most important gifts you receive. If you can support me with a monthly gift I’m grateful. In any case, please read—and please subscribe.
* * *
Sometimes an essay (or a whole tangle of essays!) gets caught in my gut for days. I try to will it up and out into the world, but there’s another part of me that says, pleadingly, “No—please, can I have some other words?” My fingers move haltingly about the keyboard. Okay, in truth I’m a one-fingered typist, so it’s mostly my index finger that hovers stubbornly above the keys, as though its solitary act of authorial defiance could force another future to present itself. To no avail. So here we go.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” ~Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Dickens had no idea.
A couple weeks ago I was part of a conversation at my church in which we were asked to say a few words about how we envision our congregation doing ministry—ten years out. Of course, that’s an invitation to “think big,” to imagine all the exciting things we could be doing … if we started dreaming right now. So I did.
I said something to the effect that I imagined us serving as a hub of urban healing and hope in a world—and a city—being undone by stresses that will make 2020 seem like a stroll in the park. ––––– Oops. You can usually count on me to find the crickets in a room.
But I was dreaming BIG. Given the size of our building and its location on Summit Avenue, coupled with strong pastoral leadership and an engaged laity, we could be uniquely positioned (geographically, socially, and theologically) to BE good news (we Christians, say gospel) in a collapsing world. Granted, it won’t be easy. Collapse isn’t going to be easy. And bearing gospel in the midst of collapse, well that’s going to take a miracle. So, churches better show up.
Of course, there are other options. Churches might prefer to continue trading polite pleasantries: preaching love and kindness and opining for mercy and justice, while pretending that the challenges we face are simply “more of the same”—variations on the past extended into the future. That view won’t be sustainable for too much longer, but it might (and in some churches, no doubt, will) last the next decade.
But as global civilization begins to undeniably teeter on edge, and rumors of encroaching doom come to dominate our headlines, some churches might (and some, no doubt, will) choose to simply comfort their own, offering funeral services of a sort to both culture and society as they fray. Other churches might (and some, no doubt, will) heighten the promise of heaven, inviting their followers to place their hope in a next life—maybe even to imagine sort of twisted Providence in the apocalyptic suffering unfolding in this one.
Worse yet, still other churches might (some, no doubt, will) choose to ally themselves to fear and hate … and guns. This is happening already in right wing faith communities (calling them “evangelical” inverts the very meaning of the word—so I won’t) that opt to worship whiteness and wealth, capitalism and consumption while still mouthing the name of Jesus. These churches have entirely abandoned the biblical God and have utterly betrayed the witness of Jesus. But they continue to thrive by sowing a very dangerous fashion of faith in human hearts. And their numbers will likely grow.
So, there are options. Even as the future unfolds … and fractures in front of us, churches will have choices to make. There is no “one thing” that is needful. Unless. Unless they truly desire to bear good news—embody gospel—for their communities in the years ahead. If that’s their goal—and I ache with holy longing for that to be my church’s goal—then they will need to learn how to deliver dark hope.
By now you should have a bunch of questions. I don’t have a matching bunch of answers, but I can clarify a few things. Over the next ten days.
Sometimes it helps to pace yourself (and myself) for an arduous journey. So, thanks to a ten-day challenge thrown down by a colleague, I’ll expand on these thoughts over the next ten days (I’ve budgeted in time to write a sermon as well). Here’s where we’re going:
Day One (today) – On Delivering Dark Hope: setting the table. Check.
Day Two (Tuesday) – Collapse: the bio-physical roots of our predicament. In which I set forth what I see as the damning “hard science” evidence for why eco-social collapse is now a foregone conclusion.
Day Three (Wednesday) – Collapse: the psychic-social-cultural roots of our predicament. In which I set forth, drawing provocatively on Trauma Management Theory (grounded in Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death, 1973), what I see as the equally damning “soft science” evidence for why eco-social collapse is now a foregone conclusion.
Day Four (Thursday) – Dark Hope: the need for a hope that can—at least—abide in unknowing and tumult. In which I argue that this most necessary hope is of a sort that White Americans have virtually no acquaintance with. With a bow toward Bonhoeffer’s decision to go through the war alongside his fellow Germans even as he resisted the Germany government.
Days Five and Six (Friday and Saturday) – Sermon Interlude: On being the church that we’re called to be. In which I explore Paul’s understanding of Christian community as a community where everyone—especially those at the margins—has a role in shaping who we are and how we meet the future. (No sneak peaks, but I’ll post this after I preach it.)
Day Seven (Sunday) – Dark Hope: on the quintessential value of justice work even and especially in a world that’s unraveling. In which I explain why—even as climate breakdown becomes an all-encompassing reality, that reality encompasses justice work; it doesn’t supersede it.
Day Eight (next Monday) – Dark Hope: on lament-compassion as the defining virtue of Christian faith (actually of human faith) in this time. In which I suggest that lament-compassion is the “swiss army knife” of authentic community in the coming years. Indeed, it has always been so, but we’ve had the damning privilege to pretend otherwise. In the future, this virtue will make or break human survival.
Day Nine (next Tuesday) – Dark Hope: on claiming our children as the blessing they are. In which I address head on the awkward agonizing dilemma of acknowledging that we will bequeath to our children a world so deeply wounded that all their lives will be necessarily given over to its care—or to despair. And thus, we owe them, with all the love we have, to equip them for this work.
Day Ten (next Wednesday) – Dark Hope: on the declaration that … AND YET … there is cause for joy. In my mind, we are unquestionably and irrevocably careening toward eco-social collapse. And we have precious little time to get our shit together before our world comes unmoored. We ought to feel frantic and prone to frenzy. And yet—it remains possible to live our lives well and with purpose even now. Dark hope declares that we remain worthy of moments of joy.
Ten days. Stay with me. Please.
* * *
David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.