I had a very interesting conversation the other day with a close acquaintance. We were talking about the weather, the news, our plans for the season, and so forth – what might be termed a “generic conversation” of no particular depth. But then, as is often the case, the conversation evolved. As we talked about the season before us, about the faith implications of the birth of Jesus and the intervention of the divine into our world, my acquaintance made the comment, “Oh, I don’t know about all this religious stuff, about what is true or what works; I just keep extremely neutral about it all.”
That comment struck me strongly as the sentiment I register in many interactions these days – to play it safe in the land of neutrality. Call it a “whatever” attitude, call it indifference, call it withdrawal from caring, an attitude of neutrality very often reflects the position of surrender or apathy towards complexity, of which there is plenty in our everyday lives. Perhaps it is the usual “seasonal burn-out” that is felt, with too much happening in too short of a time, and people are desperate for a respite. Perhaps it is a result of the darkness of our news content these days, moving from mass shootings to impeachment to incidents of prejudice to international tensions with an alarming regularity, and people just want to steer clear of the shadows. Perhaps it is the confusion of it all, where one finds it hard not only to know what to do to make things better – we’re not even sure how to frame the issues, what is true and what is false, and wish to remain non-committal in case any position we take might be revealed as misguided. Neutrality sounds like a good position to take in light of all that is going on in our lives, our country, and our world.
The only problem is that the law of entropy tends to become active in a neutral atmosphere, that law stating that things left largely to themselves tend to move towards greater chaos. Left alone, food spoils, paint peels, rust propagates, mold grows, and gardens become choked with weeds. Without meaningful interaction, a close friendship diminishes; without clarifying conversation, misunderstanding accelerates; without a check and balance system overseeing our economic, governmental, and legal systems, a fair and just society is at risk of ethical anarchy; without attention to, and action towards, what makes life more fulfilled, positive, healthy, and balanced, we tend to move in the opposite directions. Neutrality may promise stability and safety, but it usually fails on that promise as time moves on. Even more insidious is that sometimes greater darkness awaits the lull that comes with a neutral posture – our minds can trace the indifference of many which allowed tragic episodes like the holocaust and the age of Jim Crow laws to thrive.
This season offers us a reminder of an exponentially-better option than neutrality for life’s chosen attitude – hope. Hope is the belief in the positive potential of creation. Hope is the mind’s and heart’s consideration and implementation of the options that will serve life better. Hope is the recognition that, though many things are not the way they ought to be, we have the power and ability to change some if not most of those things. We have ways and means and abilities and relationships that can move us in the direction of hope’s longing, if we allow the risk of putting them into motion. It is a risk, for hope is most present in life’s most desperate circumstances – it is when we face life-threatening illness, life-separating divisiveness, or life-compromising injustices directly that we experience what true hope means. But it is only as we live into that hope, not just with longing but with action, that we see such threats diminished.
I find this a very helpful perspective in this time of year, when we recall an event long ago that was all about God’s hope for the world. God longed (and longs) for the world to become a place where life moves towards its potential; where the rule of love would make any other rule unnecessary; where compassion and truth overcome hate and deception; where all of God’s people can see they are members of one family. All of these have their basis in the hope God demonstrated through Jesus, who came in the flesh as a testimony for us all – that real hope is never neutral. Christmas speaks this message above any other; a hope that is real acts upon that hope. God acted in accordance with God’s hope, and invites us to do the same.
The Rev. John Daniels is pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Missoula. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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