What is the posture of hope?
There is a Norman Rockwell painting of what appears to be a father and son waiting for the train. On the younger man’s luggage is a sticker that says “State U.” The older man, a weathered rancher in coveralls, is hunched over holding his hat, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. The younger man in a suit and tie is sitting up straight looking down the train tracks, presumably looking for a glimpse of the train that he expects to arrive and take him to college. Rockwell titled the painting “Breaking Home Ties.”
I remember this painting from a scrapbook my grandfather had of Saturday Evening Post covers. I often looked through that scrapbook when I was a child and I specifically remember that painting.
It is the contrast in posture that caught my eye. The rancher is not looking toward the train but off into the distance in the other direction. Perhaps he is thinking of the chores that he has yet to do after he and the dog drive back to the ranch in the old truck. Maybe he is thinking about when his son was younger and how fast time goes by. Maybe he is filled with the many worries parents have for their children as they leave the nest. His life will change. The house will be far too quiet, lonely. Perhaps he is trying to hold back his emotion. His posture gives him away. It is not a posture of hopeful anticipation, but rather a posture of looking back, of what is lost.
There is no mother in the picture. Maybe there isn’t one. Maybe she had things to do at home and it was Father’s errand to take Junior to the train. Maybe she just doesn’t like goodbyes. But the son is holding something that is tied with a pink bow. That had to be from mom. Things she knows he will need or hopes he will need.
The son on the other hand, eyes bright, looking with expectant excitement toward the direction of the train is perhaps thinking of a whole new life that awaits him, a life filled with books, friends, and the freedom of adulthood. Maybe he is thinking about the train ride itself and his plans for the upcoming year, what his roommate will be like, what his professors will be like, what he will learn. Maybe at some point he will become homesick for his mom, his dad and his dog. But not now. He is wearing a suit and tie, no ranch clothes today. His posture is straight up hope.
When was the last time you sat in a posture of straight up hope? You can’t force it. You can’t will it. It comes just as naturally as the postures Rockwell painted here. Our postures give us away. How do we find ourselves these days? Are we like the father, the rancher, looking off into the distance at what was and what will be lost when that train arrives and takes his son away? Are we sitting up straight, finding it hard to hold back our excitement of what is to come?
When I was a boy looking through my grandfather’s Saturday evening Post covers in his scrapbook that my mother saved, I remember reflecting on this painting. I have a recollection of feeling sad for the father and wishing that he could be happy, too. Happy and excited for his son. Or just wishing he could be happy and hopeful for something. You can’t force it. You can’t really hide it. Our postures give us away.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent. Advent means coming. We are waiting for the train. The train is coming. What is our posture? Are we weathered? Tired? Have we seen too much already? Is the train a reminder of what we have lost or will lose, of what is no longer possible, of regret, or is the coming train a sign of a new start? Who are we in this painting? Are we sitting up straight with expectant hope of a new adventure? Are we hunched over, our shoulders carrying the weight of what might have been?
Our posture depends upon how we see our circumstances. Not only our circumstances, but of life itself, of how we see the world. When I first decided to enter the ministry I was filled with expectant hope, with a straight up posture. At that time, the veterans of the church were talking about what had been lost, the loss of the church’s influence, the declining numbers. I saw those numbers too. Occasionally, I regarded them with the posture of the old man in Rockwell’s painting. But not always. Sometimes I saw those name numbers, those same circumstances with a posture of hope.
What is the difference? Why sometimes weathered and why at other times clear-eyed and excited? Maybe it is simply life experience. You lose hope when you get old. Hope is for the young. You grow older and hope gets beaten out of you. Maybe. But I don’t know if it is so evenly divided. I have seen young people without hope and elders with hope. You can tell by their posture. Now I am speaking of posture in a metaphorical sense.
This is a posture of awareness, wisdom, and courage. If there is one thing true about life it is that our lives our short and the universe is long. No matter what happens to us, the universe goes on. We see dimly; we get but a glimpse.
We get one chance at this life. Everyday there is a train coming. Everyday there is a new adventure, a dragon to slay,
Hope requires heart. Heart is another way to define courage. Hope requires courage. You have to have guts to hope. You have to be willing to take chances, to define what it is that drives you, to stake a claim, and know that you will get your butt kicked more often than you care to. But knowing that helps you know also that a butt-kickin’ isn’t the end of you. It’s just a lesson. Sometimes, you can deliver a butt kickin’ as well.
How we face it depends upon our posture.
Advent and Christmas is an invitation to adjust our posture. As the text in today’s reading says, “Stand tall and hold your heads high.” To observe the signs. To watch and wait with expectation.
When I think of hope, I think of the late Molly Ivins, the journalist who specialized in Texas politics and culture as well as national politics. Whenever I get into a slumpy posture, dazing off into the distance, lamenting what the criminals in high places are doing to our planet, I think about Molly Ivins and I start to sit up straight.
I will close with her wisdom that I think is fitting for Advent 2017:
So keep fightin’ for freedom and justice, beloveds, but don’t you forget to have fun doin’ it. Lord, let your laughter ring forth. Be outrageous, ridicule the fraidy-cats, rejoice in all the oddities that freedom can produce. And when you get through kickin’ ass and celebratin’ the sheer joy of a good fight, be sure to tell those who come after how much fun it was.