6 Easter 2019: A Note in a Bottle

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Ptolemy World Map 1467

To my grandson.

My Dearest Declan,

Just this week for the first time, you escaped your play blanket on your own. Your mom and dad celebrated it by texting us all a picture (by the time you read this, you may not know what a text is but I’m sure there will be a way to find out, as in our time it was a Google search). They are excited and encouraging your every strong movement now, but soon they will be reining you in and holding you back. You will chaff as they once did, to become a free agent. But that is not why I am writing.

It is 2019 and we are feeling our way in the dark –groping our way into what will become your century not ours. I remember fifty years ago talking to my Great Aunt Elma who was born in 1880. To hold her hand, and feel her breath upon my cheek, and to touch her spotted skin was as if I were on a long-distance call to another place in the time tunnel. She had known Civil War veterans and freed Slaves, and people who had heard Abraham Lincoln debate Stephen A. Douglas. Now I am your ligament to the last century and, like Aunt Elma, I will become just another rusting link to another time and place.

So, my heart is in my throat as I write to you with a little voice inside, one who whispers what I most know and care about. I am stretching every joint and tendon to reach into your world with words that will move your blood.

Please listen then, for the pulse of wisdom that runs from my heart to yours; that runs in veins sutured together across time and space, carrying life and holiness and wisdom from the most ancient, ancient of days, to your present time.

That pulse is Hope.

Hope is a four-letter word we use without thought and yet it is the glue that keeps us poised to change the world. Or, when we live without it, to dissolve into the squalor of cynicism.

As powerful and essential as hope can be, it is maddening that we have so much difficulty putting our finger on what it is we should hope for.  Our minds are divided: “double-mindedness” is the word I like to use.

We have half-a-mind to live as cynically as a sewer rat, and half-a-mind to reach for the thinnest of explanations that will allow us to believe in fairies.

Authentic hope lives in between.

In 2019, which is the trapdoor to the past from which I am writing you, cynicism is on the rise and doing well. There is so much bad news that it seems naïve and child-like to hope for a quick end to the entangled, endless wars of our day or to arrest the encroachments of climate change. I feel certain that both of these are growing tentacles into your world.

Only the one we call God, knows what the world of your adulthood will be like – the last half of what is right now a young century. But at this moment, people are so brutal and violent, the ravages of legal and illegal pharmaceuticals so devastating, and the threat of pestilence and disease so random that many people feel hope is absurd or simply do not know what to hope for.

On the other hand, memory can serve us well.

Back when I was holding my Aunt Elma’s hand, India and China were importing rice and struggling with cycles of starvation.  Now they export rice and import jobs.  While such success is a two-edged sword for the earth, it is a measure of how fast things once assumed to be hopeless can change.

But there is a war of worlds going on right now, and I wonder if the partisans of the various constituencies will know peace by the time you are old enough to read and understand this letter.

We have those who live in a world that was formed even before my Aunt Elma was born – a world undefined by machinery, assembly lines, and things we think of even now as old fashioned.

Let’s call that the “old world,” by which I mean people in cultures living today but living with expectations and values of the pre-modern world. They continue to respect and revere the past, tradition, and elements of a more ancient time and culture. They resist what most of us consider ordinary and denounce what we think of us good.

And yet, those living as the “old world” do so side-by-side with people living a more contemporary life. Let’s call that world “the modern” world. My generation is known as the Baby Boomers, and we were raised in the modern world by people, like my mom and dad, who were born during World War I. Our parents lived through a metamorphosis ushered in by speed and flight, and atoms and microchips.

We do not cherish the past or revere tradition in the ways that the “old world” does, and we have come to expect comfort, security, and the possibility of affluence. The institutions that defined the twentieth century are crumbling in the twenty-first century, and though it is disconcerting it is not all that surprising to us.

As you might have guessed, the old world and the modern world are at war with one another, pitting terrorism against state-sponsored violence in an endless cycle of misery.

And then there is the “new world.” Where both the “old world” and the “modern world” imagined order as the orchestrating element of everything, the “new world” imagines chaos as the guiding agent, and recognizes change as the nature of Nature.

The “new world” lives alongside both the “old world” and the “modern world,” but it sees life through the lens of technology and in streaming images, considers money and privacy as quaint, and insists upon borderless communication. In the “new world” values and beliefs are extremely personal rather than communal, and all of it thoroughly relative.

Domestically, in politics and culture wars, there is a nasty power struggle paralyzing any effort to make progress. That bitterness reflects what is happening internationally, and very little problem-solving or even repair seems to be getting done.

The people of these three worlds walk among each other, witnessing the very same earth and sky and sea but apprehending them differently, literally seeing them differently and warring in the process. How will they ever come to terms? How will they ever learn to agree or tolerate such differences?

My sweet Declan, the struggle of these three worlds and the carnage that this conflict is creating across the planet earth, and within our own nation, is the very ache that has caused me to write you so many years before you can understand a word of it.  I suppose this is a note in a bottle dropped into the ocean of time between us.

It is the grasp to hope, and the reach to know what to hope for, that inspires me to write you.

Human beings almost always live out over our skis, lean too far over our handlebars, and imagine how it could be even before we know how to create it. We have buried deep inside us a powerful grain that enables hope: Imagination.

Our double-mindedness is healed by the knowledge and experience that what we can imagine we can achieve. While you are now experiencing the daily frustration of your reach to crawl that exceeds the grasp of your body, it is that very capacity to “reach” that offers hope.

Moses envisioned a day when the grandchildren of slaves that built the pyramids would become a nation unto themselves. He did not live to see it but it happened.

Jeremiah once dreamed that God would invite gentiles into the covenant with Israel.  He did not live to see it but I am living proof that it happened.

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed of racial equality and economic justice for all.  He did not live to see it and neither will I, yet it is still being created stone upon stone.

Technology that once seemed a ridiculous projection of bad science fiction is now in use, even commonplace.

My grandfather, your great-great grandfather on my mother’s side, was a country doctor in rural Michigan. He watched people die of pneumonia and tetanus while today we watch hearts and lungs and kidneys traded like spare parts.

What we can imagine we can achieve.

This is where we can hope; and it is where you become part of the hope even as I am part of the hope.  We need to imagine ourselves into what the gospels would have us to become.  We need to imagine ourselves into the kind of people that Jesus and so many of our spiritual ancestors have told us we can become.

We need to imagine ourselves becoming tender with love, generous with resources, vulnerable with service, and open to receiving wisdom from where we least expect it.

When we have become cautious and timid with our love because we have been betrayed or hurt, we need to employ our imagination. We need to imagine how we would act if we were to take the risk to love more courageously.

If we can imagine it we can achieve it.

If we are stingy with our money, jealous with our time, or self-centered about the use of our hands, then we need to make up a story about how the scrooge inside us will be transformed.  We need to write ourselves a script that imagines a new future.

If we can imagine it we can achieve it.

If we have been timid about crossing socio-economic, ethnic, racial, or political boundaries to develop relationships of mutuality that defy our differences, then we need to imagine what it would take for us to be braver.

If we can imagine it we can achieve it.

If we find ourselves defensive and resistant to ideas that threaten our assumptions, then we need to imagine that we can become a new canvass upon which the ancient wisdom will be painted in new and vibrant images.

If we can imagine it we can achieve it.

Declan, I mentioned a man named Jesus, someone I hope you have learned about along the way. Moses, Jeremiah, and Isaiah too.

Like many prophets and agents of God’s love, Jesus was facing a violent end at the hands of a world order who feared people like him. He saw with sober clarity the horrendous suffering he faced, and still, even then, he imagined a new relationship with God that his friends and family could live into. He promised them a hope he would not enter, but that he could imagine.

I find that inspiring Declan, and a way of soothing my double-mindedness. I let those ancients and moderns alike, the ones I call prophets and agents of God’s love, lead me into futures I cannot not see.

So, my sweet boy, or man as you may be now, whatever the condition of your world, you can engage in the subversive act of imagining a new world.

You can engage in the revolutionary act of imagining a new order or new chaos.
You can engage in the healing art of imagining a new way of living and loving.
You can practice imagination with a purpose, the re-creation of the world as God has dreamed for it to become.

In the days ahead, on your long march to learn to walk and see and know and love and care and understand, I pledge to keep my own imagination alive so that when the time comes, I can teach you how to imagine.

With whatever time we may have to share the world together, we will use our imaginations to set in motion such incredible changes that God will smile, and we will continue to live with relentless hope.