Hope and Havel

“Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” –Vaclav Havel

On the news this morning: Vaclav Havel, great figure in the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia has died.

I am by no means an expert in Eastern European politics, but I stopped for a minute when I heard this news, and started thinking.

I’m part of the generation that is not sure if we’re Gen X or Gen Y, born in the years that sort of fall between both groups, depending on which sociologist or demographer is defining things. (I find this article about my people helpful, if only to confirm that there are other people like me who are living proof that these sorts of generational generalizations are arbitrary.)

One of the things my age means is that I am too young to remember, with any specificity, some of the really crappy things that happened in the late 70s and early 80s (energy crisis? Iran hostages? huh?), and  I was too young to understand much of what was happening in the mid 80s. My political awareness, and my sense of geo-politics in those years was shaped by the last gasps of nuclear bombing drills in school. I lived in a town that was full of people with roots in Eastern Europe. Driving to the mall, we went over a stretch of interstate where there were several majestic onion dome orthodox churches in view. One of my science teachers, Mr. Chicanowsky, was famous for cooking up Lithuanian Kielbasa on the hotplate in science lab to share with students at Christmastime. One of my best friends growing up was the daughter of a couple who defected from Eastern Europe.

By the time I was starting to get the intellectual capacity to understand the world around me, some pretty extraordinary things happened. I remember watching TV with my parents in the days when communism was crumbling. I remember a teacher running through the building, in tears, to tell us that Nelson Mandela had been released from prison. (OK, admittedly, that year, I was attending a school that was run by hippies, so this was probably a little different than it was in your run-of-the-mill public school.) I was part of the first classes that suddenly had to memorize a heck of a lot more countries for Miss Schmidt’s famously rigorous Global Studies geography tests as the Soviet Union split up.

Of course there were some crappy things in the news as well (First Iraq war? Yes. Terrible.) But some of the first things I saw on the news, when I first had the intellectual capacity to get it were things like the Velvet Revolution and the Berlin Wall coming down. There’s no way around it: those were incredibly images of hope.

In fact, within a few years, my parents would pack their 4 kids and camping equipment into a rental car, and we would spend 10 weeks traveling all over Europe. Our itinerary included parts of theEastern Bloc: East Germany; Hungary; Romania. In other words, countries that, 5 or 6 years earlier, were completely closed off; countries we were taught to feel sorry for, and even be a little afraid of.

Now, here’s where I’m going with this: honestly, I am not often hopeful right now when I listen to the news. Things don’t look so good. The economy is the crapper, not just here, but all over the world. Our country has incredible, rising levels of disparity. (A few days ago, I had a conversation with my grandfather that brought home to me the profound sadness of people of his generation that, while their children may have thrived and “done better” in life, they are worried for their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.) Governments all over the place are corrupt and faltering in their duty to take care of people and preserve the gifts their countries have been given.

It’s not very hopeful.

Last week, I read this article (about someone’s bike getting stolen…) with the great quote:

“Hope is not the smartest of emotions.”

It made me chuckle. I heard a similar sentiment in a Norm MacDonald stand-up routine yesterday.

It might be the general view of hope right now: There’s not much to hope for. And, what we do hope for is probably not going to happen.

I often don’t disagree with this thought.

I’m not proud to say that. As a Christian (a MINISTER, even!) I know I’m supposed to be a great advocate of hope.

I think I stopped this morning when I heard that Vaclav Havel had died because it reminded me of hope.

And, taken back to those first years when I started to understand the news, I remembered this hopefulness.

At my best, when I remember that, I find that I am inclined toward hope. (Not as cynical as the Gen Xers are stereotyped to be.) Maybe things can get better in the world. Things had BETTER get better in the world.

There is one more story about Eastern Europe and the fall of communism that I need to tell.

There is a historic branch of the Reformed Church in Hungary. (That’s right, Presbyterians: you have cousins who speak Magyar!) One of its learning centers in in a town called Sarospatek.

After WWII, my grandparents, through their Dutch Reformed Church, were part of a relief effort to help their brothers and sisters in Hungary, sending clothing. They were strictly prohibited from doing anything, though, to identify where the help was coming from (somehow, the communist government allowed this help, but did not want the Hungarian Church to know that this was a church-driven effort). My grandmother was not one to follow these sorts of rules. So she slyly pinned a small scrap of paper with her name and address deep into the pocket of a pair of pants.

And they got a letter, from Zoltan, a man in Sarospatek. He was an artist and teacher. They wrote occasionally over the years.

But more amazing than the letters were the paintings. He sent them at least two.

In one painting, there is a church under a dark cloudy sky. Just over top of the church, the clouds are parting a little and there is light.

That could have just been scenery, but the other painting confirmed his message:

He sent a painting of the Reformed Theological College in Sarospatek, in winter, viewed through a screen of leafless trees and branches. And if you take a closer look, there is a “tree” that is clearly a cross.

My grandparents knew, from these paintings, what Zoltan couldn’t say in the letters: the church was still there. And it was doing all right. There was hope.

I met Zoltan and his wife in 1993 when my family traveled in Europe. We sat in their living room and they plied us with coffee and sweet drinks and plate after plate of food. Then they took us to the Theological School. Zoltan could not have been prouder that it was again training pastors.

Hope is absolutely ridiculous. Unbelievable.

But so is the idea that things will get better, that a baby could be God, that God is not done loving us and cleaning up the mess.

It’s Advent. Anything is possible. What makes sense to me is that God loves the world, and somehow, everything will be made right.

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