A Hunger for Hope

An All-Ages Homily by Barbara Wells, co-minister
Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

– November 18, 2001 –

Have you ever felt really hungry? So hungry that you were weak or shaky? So hungry that you would do almost anything to get some food?

While I expect a few of us here might know a bit about hunger, the truth is that most Americans, particularly those of us who are reasonably well off, have little experience with prolonged hunger. Most of us usually have enough to eat and drink.

But there are people in America, and around the world, who go hungry most of the time. There are children and adults who live in dire poverty who must beg for food each day or go hungry. Right now, for instance, in some African cities, people live near garbage dumps so they can scrounge for food others have thrown away. In Afghanistan, there is terrible hunger due to many years of war and drought. Even in our own country, folks go hungry. The food we collected today for the All Souls Food Drive is important. There are people in our capitol city, even in our county, who live on the edge of real hunger every day.

It’s important to remember this kind of hunger in the midst of Thanksgiving. On Thursday, most of us will sit down to a feast. That’s a fine thing. But in the midst of plenty, we do well to reflect on those whose plates are empty. Doing so allows us to feel compassion, and perhaps will lead us to care more deeply for those in need.

It is an interesting coincidence of timing that this Thanksgiving will occur during the Islamic celebration of Ramadan. Observing Ramadan is one of the central tasks of Muslims. Lasting for an entire lunar month (about 28 days) Ramadan invites Muslims to pay more attention to how they are living their lives. They are to look carefully at their actions, pray more, and examine their consciences.

One of the most important aspects of Ramadan is the expectation that all able-bodied Muslims will fast from the time the sun rises until it sets. They are not to eat or drink anything during the day. As they feel the pangs of hunger that emerge, Muslims are invited to feel what the hungry and poor feel, and it is hoped that such feelings will engender a greater sense of charity and compassion for people who might need help. I like this aspect of the Islamic religion. It serves as a good reminder to all of us about the importance of caring for others.

In a few minutes, during today’s offering, you will have a chance to offer financial gifts to OXFAM International, which is an organization helping to provide food to the poor around the world, today in particular to those in Afghanistan who have been affected by war and drought. Earlier, you had the opportunity to bring gifts of food, which will help feed our neighbors in need here in the DC area. Helping others in need of food is a powerful act, during Thanksgiving and Ramadan, but at other times as well. I thank you for your generosity.

I want now, however, to talk about another kind of hunger, one that may not hurt the body as much but can also be painful. I am talking about spiritual hunger. It’s pretty obvious how people feed their physical hunger: we eat or drink. But spiritual hunger is different. First of all, what is our spirit? It’s not something we can see, that’s for sure. But it is, in my opinion, something we can feel. I define spirit as that part of ourselves that is most whole, most fully and completely human. It is our spirit that responds to love and beauty. It is our spirit that exhibits compassion for others. It is our spirit that cries out in sorrow and shouts for joy. Some people may call it soul, or mind, or heart. It is not the name that matters. For this part of human life generally defies definition. Spirit may not be easily defined, but I think most of us have at least some idea of what it is.

I believe that our spirit, like our body, also gets hungry; and when it does, feeding it becomes an important religious task. What does a hungry spirit look like? Let me give you an example that most of the young people in this room (and a surprising number of adults as well) will recognize: Harry Potter. For those of you uninformed about this literary hero created by British writer J.K. Rowling, all you might know about him is that he is a child wizard. What you may not know is what Harry’s life was like before he found out he was a wizard.

When we first meet Harry Potter, he is living in a loveless home with his aunt, uncle, and cousin. They make him sleep in a closet under the stairs. He does most of the work in the house but is never praised or appreciated. While he does get to eat food (though not much, certainly compared to his greedy cousin Dudley), it is his spirit that hungers desperately. Nothing around him is beautiful. There is no joy in his relationships. He is picked on at school and is horribly lonely. His spirit is starving.

When spiritual food arrives in the person of Hagrid, the gentle giant of Hogwarts School for Wizards, Harry becomes a new boy. He is, for the first time, able to experience a life filled with wonder and it brings him unimaginable joy. When he begins his new life at Hogwarts School, he not only makes friends, he also discovers that he has extraordinary abilities. Because his spirit was no longer so hungry, Harry was able to begin the process of growing into a fully developed human being–and, I might add, a pretty powerful wizard!

In that process, however, he does not forget what it is to starve for want of meaningful relationships and work. His former hunger has taught him compassion. His newly found food for his spirit has taught him hope. I am of the opinion that Harry Potter is such a popular figure precisely because his story is about yearning for wonder and finding it in magic, yes, but also in friends who care.

Our lives may not be in as much need of spiritual food as Harry’s but I would venture to say that many of us know what it’s like to feel the pangs of spiritual hunger, particularly in recent times. These last few months have been extraordinarily difficult in our nation, and in our local community. There is an undercurrent of fear and confusion that has come about since the events of Sept. 11, and I know that I have felt it deeply in my heart. I expect you have, too. Fear, in my experience, is an emotion that often makes our spirits hungry. Interestingly, real fear feels physically very close to real hunger for food. When I’m afraid, my stomach often knots up, I feel weak, even dizzy, and I don’t think very clearly. I have been afraid over the past few months and I know in my life such fear saps me of energy, and leaves my spirit hungry. Perhaps this is true of you as well.

So, where do we go to find spiritual food? Must we wait, like Harry Potter, for it to find us? I would suggest that the best kind of spiritual food is usually right before our eyes. It is called love, it is called thanks, it is called hope. When I get scared, it helps me a lot to seek out those who love me, flaws and all. On September 11, I stayed close by Jaco’s side, his love for me providing an antidote to the rising fear in my heart. I also made a point of telling him (and the rest of my loved ones) how dear they are to me. It also has helped me to remember to be thankful. While it seems that so much has changed since that awful day, many wonderful things have not changed: the beauty of the autumn season, the sound of lovely music, the laughter of children, the freedom to worship here with you. When fear comes upon me I do well to give thanks for all I do have.

I would suggest that remembering to love and remembering to give thanks lead to the most important spiritual food of all: hope. To have hope is to recognize that even when things are bleak and difficult, the possibility is always there for change. Hope is not foolish or unexamined optimism. Hope is that powerful force inside the human spirit that truly believes that what is best and most wonderful about our world will emerge and be triumphant. Hope reminds us that the way things are now is not the way they must stay. Hope gives us the courage to stand up for what we believe. It gives us the stamina to stay the course, if not for ourselves then for our children. And hope keeps our hearts and minds open as we recognize that new growth is always possible.

Where can we find hope in these difficult days? Let me suggest one simple place we can look: our own spirits. And how might this process of looking for hope begin? I believe it begins with the giving of thanks. For it is what we most treasure–our children, our freedom, the beauty of the natural world–that offers us hope. Even if our spirits are aching with fear, when we enter our day with thanksgiving, hope can emerge.

This Thursday, many of us will gather with friends and family to offer thanks and share a meal. May I invite you on that special day of national thanks, to remember all that has blessed you and be truly grateful. May you acknowledge the struggles of our world and find compassion for those in need. And may you, in the faces of those nearest and dearest to you, in the beauty of the autumn landscape, and in the all those people and things that you value, find hope. It is the best spiritual food of all. May it feed our hunger now, and in the days to come.


Closing Words:

May we, as we gather together in joyful Thanksgiving this week, remember all those who are hungry for food and drink, and do what we can to offer them sustenance.

May we, as we gather in religious community here and elsewhere, remember our own spiritual hunger, and seek to fill our spirits with thanks and hope.

And may we, as we go forth on this day, remember to share the gifts of love and hope with all whom we meet, so that the true spirit of life may shine forth in acts of compassion and justice.

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