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 Today's Take:  NCR's daily Web column
Each weekday over the course of a week, a member of the NCR staff offers a commentary on one or more topics in the news.  It's our way of introducing you to some of the people carrying out the NCR mission of faith and justice based journalism.

December 2, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 160




Pat Marrin 'Hope is the thing with feathers'

By Pat Marrin, editor of Celebration

Today's Reading: Isaiah 11:1: A shoot will sprout from the stump of Jesse, from his roots a bud shall blossom.

"Hope is the thing with feathers," Emily Dickinson reminded us.

Other Today's Takes by Pat Marrin
Dec. 1, 2003 Peace: the minimum requirement
Oct. 31, 2003 Freely chosen reality
Oct. 30, 2003 The burden of servant leadership
Oct. 29, 2003 Entering by the narrow gate
Oct. 28, 2003 Gracious Ignatius
Oct. 27, 2003 A distinction shared with famous people
I presume she meant that there is something fragile about hope, because it is necessarily about things that are not here yet. We nourish hope, cooperate with it, nudge it forward by trusting in it, going with it.

"Despite the facts," someone a bit more hard-edged once said, "we are still hopeful." The prophet Isaiah witnessed what appeared to be the collapse of God's promise to protect his people from destruction. Yet, even as the prophet pondered the fallen tree, he saw renewal sprout from the severed stump. Below ground, the roots of the promise were firm and deep. Keep hope alive, he urged a broken, dispirited people heading into exile.

There is an apocalyptic tone to Advent. For the future to come, the present needs to get out of the way. Breakthrough entails breakdown, especially when needed change has been blocked, stalled, resisted. Hope is the energy that opens doors, pushes ahead in spite of resistance. Hope tells us where the energy of time and history is going, how to let go of things that don't work any more and go there, regroup.

Advent invites me to renew my hope in many small personal things I still have some control over, but also in big things that overwhelm me. I am speaking of the church and my country. Allow me to state my hopes here briefly. I believe that to say things out loud is a necessary stage on the way to imagining a future that is not fully visible, though hope tells me, is very real and on its way.

The church
I am one of a generation defined by the Second Vatican Council, old enough to remember both the beauty and the suffocating certitude of old church, young enough to remember both the freedom and terrible ambiguity of the renewal. Vatican II marked a miraculous and startling revolution in the identity and direction of the Catholic church. It was not about doctrine or mission, but about identity -- ecclesiology, the very nature and structure of the church.

The recovery of the liturgical life of the primitive church, a renewed understanding of sacraments as active encounters with God through Jesus Christ, a recapturing of the gospel of divine life, the centrality of baptism and the recognition of the dignity and charismatic empowerment of every member of the church - all of this flowed into the new ecclesiology.

As the late Fr. Godfrey Diekmann often said, "This was the work of the Holy Spirit." And despite foot dragging by those who, in a friend's description, move about confidently like civil war re-enactors, and despite what may be a very long "last hurrah," by restorationists in high places, the substructures of the renewal are in place, unstoppable, the only future God is offering us. I rejoice in this thing with feathers called the Holy Spirit.

My country: at home
On the national front, I am fearful of the direction my country is taking. I find myself wishing for those simpler, more innocent times in our political history when all we had to contend with was Richard Nixon. President Bush confounds me, his blank-slate face waiting for startup instructions from his programmers and handlers. Who is really in charge? Who will take responsibility for the mess this crowd is creating when they are gone? Even without the dire warnings from my favorite liberal columnists, I feel it in my bones that we are in for some difficult days ahead because of what this administration is doing both at home and abroad.

At home, we are allowing a new infrastructure to take root that will open the door to domestic surveillance and preemptive powers against political opponents, minority religions and certain ethnic communities, peace and justice activists and the alternative press. The national security state of the 1950s is now the post 9-11-01 homeland security state.

I recently sat in the lobby of local hotel where recruitment interviews were being conducted for applicants for the thousands of new jobs created by this new federal agency. I saw the best and the brightest, young people I might have had in my college classes, lining up to be hired to do the data sweeps and intelligence filters that are now profiling every one of us in intimate detail. I promise I will be boring enough to escape notice, but how many others will be harassed for their legitimate public opposition to government policy?

My country: abroad
Abroad? Where to begin? We are in a war basically about oil and we have gone out of our way to provoke not just suicidal religious fanatics on their own home turf who know, because we taught them, how to use all our own weapons against us, but also a religious and cultural majority of nearly 1.3 billion people in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

Years ago, in a memorable and chilling conversation with a wise old Dominican priest, I was reminded that people can always escape judgment into mercy because of a loving God who has all eternity to work with us. But nations exist only in time and therefore are subject to the laws of history, one of which is that we reap what we sow. What we set in motion will come back upon us, even if the arc is wide and the return is slow. Nations are punished for their misdeeds in history.

The function of the prophet is to give warning, because turning aside can mitigate or divert some bad karma, as was the case with mythical Nineveh when Jonah preached repentance. We will someday build monuments to the prophets who are now warning us to change course. We have already seen the power for good in past prophets like Martin Luther King Jr., who risked everything to stand in the path of the violence going out from us and circling back upon us.

Finding hope
Where do I find hope? Hope does not mean avoiding the truth. Taking the long view of history, even the apparent destruction of the dream does not prevent the prophet from seeing deeply. Cut off at ground level, the stump will sprout. The hidden roots will supply life to the recovered shoot. The promise will prevail even against cataclysm and loss. Our church and our nation, both in their own spheres, have deep roots. These can survive even the apparent and temporary felling of great promise.

Because I have hope, I will work to create the future I believe must come. The essence of hope is that even failure and postponement cannot prevent this future. Dorothy Day once said that, in the end, beauty will conquer the world. I am nourished by her example, her hard work, her willingness to endure the long loneliness that leads to love in community in the worst of times. I hear hope whispering in the flutter of wings. Something wonderful is about to happen, and it has feathers.

Pat Marrin's e-mail addres is Celebration, NCR's sister publication, is an ecumenical worship resource. For a preview, follow this link: Celebration.

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