I had a conversation with a friend this week who was describing some pretty amazing work he's hoping to do: work to alleviate homelessness, save various local plant and animal species, redirect and reshape exploitative economic systems. After hearing and being inspired by all of these truly world-shifting ideas, I wondered out loud, "How do we sustain that kind of work over the long haul?" How do we stay at it, even when the tasks are uncountable, the victories are small and limited, and problems we are fighting remain unsolved?
We both agreed that we can't do the work from a self-assured, triumphalist stance of "The world's gonna be right. Just watch me make it that way." As anyone who has worked toward meaningful change in the systems and structures that keep people marginalized and oppressed can attest, the mill of oppression has a way of grinding down that overly simplistic and naive perspective. And if you start the work from that place, it'll be hard not to quit when the setbacks come, or the victories are seemingly too small to matter.
And yet, without hope for real change, without faith for a world better than this one, without confidence that a peace born of real justice and love will prevail, we can't sustain that kind of work either. Why do it if the wheel of injustice will keep on rolling forever?
So we need hope, but not naive optimism. We need realism, but not jaded, defeatist cynicism.
This is why Advent, the season in the Christian calendar immediately before Christmas, is such a crucial yearly rhythm for spiritual life. Advent is a season of preparing ourselves to participate in the world God is making right. It's four weeks of retraining our hearts and our bodies to long for the world as it should be. It's a time for us to embrace the hope-filled but sober reality that we cannot perfect the world, but God will. And He will use every scrap of effort, every kind word, every bit of work toward justice as the building blocks of his renewed world.
Everything matters. Nothing is wasted. Not because we're in control, but because God is. That's why (as the unsubstantiated legend has it) the Christian reformer Martin Luther, when asked, "What would you do if the world was ending tomorrow?" responded, "I'd plant a tree."
So I encourage you to invest yourself in Advent this year, because our world needs realistic and hope-filled people now as much as it ever has.