The Missing Cup
We prefer optimism to hope.
Tis the season of the holiday coffee cup. Whether you prefer to line up at Second Cup or Starbucks, your paper cup will evoke a festive and holiday spirit. It will do so, of course, without reference to any traditional Christian teachings concerning the birth of the Messiah. At this time of year, Starbucks is often singled out by the Christmas/Christian culture warriors for its willingness to exploit the birth of Jesus while simultaneously erasing the Bethlehem narrative.
But what about Second Cup? Are we going to let that Canadian company off the hook? Let’s look at Second Cup’s holiday campaign, which involves beautiful, baby blue cups evoking snow, ice and tinsel. Each cup is emblazoned with one of the following three words: Peace, Joy or Love. Here in Quebec it’s Paix, Joie or Amour. I like these cups. Who in their right mind would object to anything that celebrates the first three of the fruit of the Spirit?
But those three words, or ways of being in the world, also represent three of the themes of Advent, which are Hope, Peace, Joy and Love. Not only is the Second Cup campaign an expression of the Spirit’s work, it’s Advent-appropriate!
But my question is this: What happened to hope? Why is there no cup celebrating hope? Perhaps factory cup production would be more expensive with four words instead of three? Maybe the six letters of Espoir don’t wrap tightly enough around a cup?
The problem with hope
I think something deeper is going on. Namely, that hope doesn’t fit well within a feel-good marketing campaign. The problem with hope, of course, is that it implies a deferral of fulfillment. When you imagine chatting with friends over a latté, or sitting quietly with a coffee and a novel, you can imagine peace, joy or love in the moment. But hope is different. Built into the idea of hope is the realization that you can’t (won’t!) have everything right now – there are some things for which you must wait. Our fulfillment will always, necessarily, be future. Perhaps Second Cup even conducted market research on the question and concluded: “We can’t afford hope. We need people to feel the love, now.”
As always, however, let’s not be too quick to point the finger, whether at Starbucks or Second Cup. Because we Christians also have a hard time accepting the discipline of hope. We have a hard time accepting that fulfillment may/must be deferred.
Expressed differently, we prefer optimism to hope – we prefer the idea that we can anticipate or achieve desirable outcomes for our lives (optimism) over the notion that we must wait for fulfillment of our lives to arrive (hope). Optimism suggests that we can achieve peace and joy and love through better management of our personal lives, while hope suggests that fulness of life comes as sheer gift and grace from beyond us and our capacities. Hope is hard.
But maintaining optimism can be exhausting.
Hold onto hope
The preference for optimism over hope is also evident in our response to the current crisis of congregational decline, and in our development of church renewal or planting strategies. We are optimistic that our new strategies and missional orientation might produce results – we think it might just work! Certainly there is a complex interplay and tension between optimism and hope. But optimism is not hope, and optimism quickly becomes a hard taskmaster, since it easily places the burden of fulfillment on our shoulders, or in our hands. Hence the exhaustion. Or the profound doubt or depression when our optimism isn’t rewarded with results.
Christmas and Advent (with apologies to Second Cup) are nothing without hope. Nothing without the realization that we need to be saved, and that the salvation and transformation of our lives comes from beyond our own capacities or vision. The point is: In the child of Bethlehem hope, impossibly, arrives.