(c) Rev. Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved

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In ancient Greek mythology, only gods and goddesses possessed fire.  Its energy and power were considered too dangerous to be given to humans.  But one god, Prometheus, appealed to Zeus, the head of all gods, to give fire to humans.  Zeus said no but Prometheus disobeyed and gave it to people anyway.

As punishment to humans for accepting such a dangerous thing, Zeus sent to earth the beautiful but impetuous goddess Pandora.  With her, he sent a sealed jar and told her it could be considered a prized gift only if she left it unopened.  But Pandora was unable to resist.  She opened the jar and immediately out poured all forms of evil – hatred, anger, murder, envy, greed, bigotry, and all other forms of nastiness.  At the bottom of the jar, however, remained one promising thing that, if left in the bottle, would be a helpful force for people.  That one thing was hope.

Today marks the next to last day of the Jewish holiday Hanukkah.  Being an eight day celebration, it ends at sunset tomorrow evening.  As most of us know, Hanukkah celebrates the ideal of hope in a dark and troubled world. 

Approximately two-hundred years before the birth of Jesus, a dictator named Antiochus Epiphanes took control over all Judea – present day Israel.  His hatred of Jews was so extreme that he did all he could to insult the religion and its people.  He held sporting games in the holy Jerusalem Temple where the participants were naked.  He slaughtered thousands of pigs in synagogues and in the main Temple sanctuary.  Worst of all, he demanded that Zeus, and a statue of him, be worshipped as a god by all Jews.  He ordered his soldiers to kill anyone who even slightly resisted.  Each of his orders, and many more, were direct affronts to pious, monotheistic Jews.

About thirty years later, a Jewish man named Judah Maccabaeus and his four brothers organized an army to confront Antiochus and his military.  Using guerrilla style warfare, in two years Jewish forces defeated the dictator.  Upon doing so, they rushed to the Jerusalem Temple to rededicate and restore its holiness.  They found its lamp stand and lit it in the sanctuary – as prescribed in the Torah.  To their dismay, they found it held only enough oil for one day.  It took several days to make sacred oil,  so the people were disappointed that the Temple would lose its holiness once the lamp went out.  Over the coming week, however, they were overjoyed to see that the lamp remained lit – keeping their sanctuary holy for eight days during which enough new oil was made.

This event, which Jews have celebrated ever since and will do so again this evening, is a symbol of hope and persistence.  Opposing a brutal dictator, fighting against his powerful army, winning the war only to find their country and their Temple in ruins, the Jewish people refused to give up.  They held onto their faith, which was founded on active hope.

And that theme of hope for Jews has persisted.  I’ve told before the true story of a prisoner in the Bergen-Belsen Nazi concentration camp who jumped into an empty vat that had contained lard to feed prisoners.  He slid around in the vat for some time before rushing into his barracks where he stripped off his shirt and tore it into long thin strands.  The guards and other prisoners thought he had gone mad.

Later that night, however, the man took the fat smeared strands of his shirt and arranged them into a crude menorah.  He promptly lit the middle strand and then one of the others.  It was the first night of Hanukkah and he alone had remembered.  Hundreds of starving prisoners prayed in silence around that menorah.  In the midst of the most terrifying Jewish calamity ever, when they as a people faced being wiped out, Jews refused to give up.  They held onto their faith and hope.

My theme for my four December messages is “It’s a Jingle Bell Rock Holiday.”  That likely sounds far too upbeat for what I’ve said so far, but my intention with this theme is for us to closely consider the ideals of well-known holiday songs.  For today, I want to look at the song “Light One Candle” by Peter Yarrow of the Peter, Paul and Mary trio.  Over the last forty years the song has become perhaps the most beloved of Hanukkah songs – one that sings of commitment to a more just and peaceful world and the hope that it will happen.

(Michael sings “Light One Candle”)

For us, the song’s plea for social justice describes our UU values.  More importantly, and what I want to focus on today, is the idea and psychology of hope as expressed in the song’s lyrics.

Life, as the ancient Pandora myth and the song suggest, is filled with hardship.  We experience times of great joy only to also be confronted with multiple challenging experiences.  What does Hanukkah teach us about such times?  With the current world and its people divided, with freedoms being threatened, with prejudice and hatred getting stronger, with many of us facing personal heartache in some form, how are we to respond?  How might the lyrics of “Light One Candle” inspire us?  Where does hope come from and how might we light it, nourish it, and keep it bright?  Hope, I submit to you, is a vital emotion to have.

Over the last few decades, psychologists have defined the emotion of hope as the perceived capability to solve a dilemma.  Using self-confidence as motivation, people set reasonable goals and plan reasonable ways to meet them.  Hope, in this regard, is not just a feel good emotion.  It’s a cognitive response to difficult circumstances.  For us as Unitarian Universalists, reason based hope could also be described as our form of religious faith.

The magazine Psychology Today says hope is analogous to the little engine that could.  When confronted with a crisis, genuine hope fosters in people the creativity to see beyond their suffering and instead visualize ways to overcome it.  Doing so causes them to make plans, and armed with a new optimism based on their own plans, people then believe much like the little train engine of children’s stories, “I think I can, I think I can.”  Psychologists therefore see hope as an emotion that directly comes from mental cognition and sound thinking.  And that’s a key point.  If our rational brains inform our emotions, instead of our primitive instincts doing so, we are more likely to act with wisdom.  Genuine and lasting hope is not naive.  It is formed by reason and logic.

To think in a way that fosters real hope is to have confidence in one’s abilities to solve a problem.  It also involves, according to psychologists, the ability to formulate realistic strategies to do that.  We, in this church community, have confidence that we can have an impact on reducing homelessness and poverty among children and teens – one of our goals for doing good in the community.  Our confidence leads us to plan ways to do that – to raise money and then volunteer as a church with local organizations.  Our confidence, strategizing, and actual work produce in us genuine hope much the same way that Jewish resisters opposed a tyrant, and Holocaust inmates refused to give up their humanity and their faith.

The song “Light One Candle” implicitly endorses that hopeful but reason based approach.  The song asks us to “light one candle for the wisdom to know when the peacemakers time is at hand.”  It also encourages us to “light one candle for all we believe in” and to remember past pain and the ways we dealt with it.  It calls us to light one candle not just as a spiritual gesture, but as something to inspire social justice action.

The song also tells us to light a candle for the sacrifice required to achieve our goals of peace.  By lighting Hanukkah candles, we are reminded of our responsibility to create change for the good.  We’re reminded of ways to do that – to honor our values, employ our wisdom, and use memories of past hardships – all to not dream of good that magically happens, but to instead believe and then act in ways that will make our hope and faith a reality.

And that is a fundamental premise of Unitarian Universalism.  It’s something else to remember when we tell others just what it is that we believe.  Our hope, what some call our faith, does not rely on a god to address the ills of our lives and world.  We do not worship a savior who rescues humanity.  Instead, UU’s believe that it is us who are one another’s saviors.  That’s a nutshell expression of our spirituality.  We have faith and hope in people, not gods or goddesses, to heal the world.  We accept the wisdom of many religions and we adopt truths from many sources not to please a deity and avoid his or her punishment, but to instead serve humanity.  That’s our duty and it’s what we were born to do.

Our hope, therefore, is not grounded in fear based religion.  Our hope is based on an informed and confident worship of universally true values.  We have the wisdom, ability and heart to work for the dignity of all, to advocate for equality and peace, and to seek truth.  Our cognitively based hope is what I consider the only provable form of religious faith people can have.  That hope creates for us both a better world that we help build, but it also creates our symbolic afterlife.  How we marshal hope to serve others in this life, and all the ways our service is paid forward far into the future, those are our legacies and our figurative heaven.  Personally, I’d rather be on the frontlines of doing good in my life – and thereby changing things for years to come – than I would praying, reading ancient texts, and selfishly trying to earn my ticket to heaven.  Any lasting legacies of good that I do now will be my afterlife reward in how I have affected the future.

Rational hope, expressed in the song Light One Candle, exemplified by Hanukkah, and as the basis for UU spirituality, comes because of three things: 1) we must set realistic goals for what it is we desire, 2) we must craft realistic plans of action to achieve our goals, and, 3) we must think confidently and positively that we will succeed.  Of these three, the most difficult is the ability to think positively.  Experts assert, however, that capability lies within every person.  We each can remember how we have overcome past challenges.  We’ve seen others overcome them too.  We know that success in achieving a goal is not just a prayer, but a proven reality we’ve experienced and seen.   When we remember these, fear, doubt and depression lose their power over us.  We’re able to confidently repeat “I think I can” when any hardship stands in our way.  Reason based hope and faith are only true if they are based on informed – and not emotional – goals, plans, and positive thinking.

I have a good friend who fifteen years ago was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer.  Doctors told her only 20% of all similar patients survive past a year.  My friend, though, has an amazing spirit.  She believed she would beat cancer and live to see her young children grow into adulthood.  She first set out to learn all she could about her cancer.  After doing so, she underwent the best treatments available – ones that were daring but promising.  After her treatments, she committed to regular and painful screening.  She also began living in ways that boosted her body’s ability to beat the cancer – by eating the right foods and continually exercising to strengthen her overall condition.  Five years later, doctors declared her cancer in remission.  Ten years later she was told her cancer was not detectable.  Fifteen years later, a milestone she celebrated this past May, doctors told her she was in peak health and effectively cured of cancer.  She now delights in her adult children and six young grandchildren.

Many of you know similar stories.  Such stories, I firmly believe, are not based on a religious miracle or twist of luck.  My friend made her luck.  She is the goddess that caused her so-called miracle.  Committed, confident, informed and strategic, she had a faith and hope based on the kind of positive outcomes you and I can achieve too.

This is the realistic hope of the Maccabee brothers who defeated a tyrant.  It’s the hope of Jews who fought, died and survived during the Holocaust.  It’s the hope of people who refuse to allow democracy or equality die, and it’s the hope of all of us who serve, give and remain committed to this good but imperfect church knowing that it helps improve many lives.  All of us, and all of these people, exemplify the spirit of Hanukkah and rational faith.  Tonight and tomorrow evening, let us therefore light one candle of hope not as some misguided fantasy for a better world, but as a confident assertion that we can, and we will, make it happen.

I wish you all much peace and joy…