Monday, December 14, 2020

Living with Hope

Preached via Zoom 12-13-2020 at Wayside Friends Church

I recently endured a day and a half of significant unhappiness having to do with the COVID plague and its effects on my important relationships. At this time, I thought, I'll have to call my pastors and tell them I'm not qualified to speak about living with hope. Then I went for a walk with my dog up behind a city park where I saw a natural crucifix and looked out over my home town and the surrounding mountains and, when I got home, I felt better.

And I thought, "Going for a walk is an example of living with hope." You see, I know that my chronic tendencies to anxiety, depression, migraine, and fibromyalgia are all lessened by simple exercise. In fact, even "bicycling" on my Wii Fit helps me. I do these things I know to be good for me out of hope, an anticipation of something positive. 

Emily Dickinson, famously reclusive, probably a migraine sufferer, with a distantly polite relationship with God, wrote this about hope:

"Hope" is the thing with feathers - 
That perches in the soul - 
And sings the tune without the words - 
And never stops - at all - 

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard - 
And sore must be the storm - 
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm - 

I've heard it in the chillest land - 
And on the strangest Sea - 
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.

This poem describes hope as a bird within us, constantly singing its tune through storm, cold, isolation--a bird that lives without being fed. Hope is a grace in this picture, a gift. Hope is associated with the human desires for happiness and comfort and security. Any action we take towards those goals for ourselves or others is an action based in hope, including the action of writing a poem.

The author of Hebrews envisioned hope as an anchor, which has become a common Christian symbol for hope (my paraphrase follows):

Because we human beings are flesh and blood, Jesus also himself became flesh an blood; so that by dying himself, he might destroy the accuser who has the power of death, the devil; And thus deliver his human family who through fear of death were all their lifetime living in chains...It was right for him to be made like us, his family, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people. Because he himself has suffered being tempted, he is able to help them that are tempted. (Hebrews 2:14-18)

We have a high priest who can be touched with the feeling of our weaknesses, who has been tempted in all points as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, so that we may find mercy and grace to help in time of need. (Heb. 4:15-16)

Though he were a Son, Jesus learned obedience through suffering, and being made complete, became the author of eternal salvation for all who obey him. (Heb. 5:8-9)

Which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast. (Heb. 6:19)

The Old Testament Hebrew words translated as hope in the King James Version have metaphors in their souls: cord (signifying attachment); pool (signifying gathering together, like raindrops); hurrying toward refuge, running to safety; waiting; and even digging out or exploring. Hope is both steady and active.

It is meaningful to me that a word search for hope in the Old Testament shows clusters in the Book of Job, in Psalms, and in Lamentations.  Hope's song, as Emily Dickinsons aid, is sweetest in the storm. In the book of Job, we often see Job's comforters assert that we get to hope for good when we have been good, quid pro quo.  Job's suffering gives the lie to this idea (which he may himself have shared when things were good). He lies on his ash heap, scraping his skin with shards of pottery, and says what he thinks is true instead, that God has mysteriously abandoned him despite his being a good man, and that even so, "Though God slay me, yet will I trust him." This is a statement of Job's faith, and his ongoing argument with God is a sign of his stubborn hope.

I had a serious bout of depression in my mid-30s, and during that time was asked to share from the pulpit at my church a passage of scripture I found meaningful.  I read the following: "Cursed be the day I was born, and cursed be the person who brought the news of my birth to my father..why did I ever leave the womb to see misery and woe, to spend my days in shame!" (Jer. 20:14, 15, 18). Suffice it to say I was not invited to share for quite a while after that. But a student of mine who also knew depression expressed to me that it gave her comfort to hear those words. For those who don't know, Jeremiah had many reasons for his dismay: he lived as a prophet among people who insisted on ignoring his words, even throwing him into a dry well to die.  He saw his country and city conquered by the armies of Babylon, and he himself was an unwilling immigrant to Egypt with the refugees, even though he told them that emigrating would end in disaster.  His words were written on a scroll that the king read and burned. No wonder he wished he had not been born. But even so, he acted with hope. He bought land he would never live on, he and his scribe rewrote his scroll, he continued talking with God about his life. And he wrote these famous words, more famous than his words of dismay: "But this do I call to mind, therefore I have hope; the kindness of the Lord has not ended, God's mercies are not spent. They are renewed every morning--ample is your grace! 'The Lord is my portion,' I say with full heart; therefore will I hope in God." (Lamentations 3:21-24)

Living with hope includes speaking honestly to God and about our experiences. We do this, even when we are angry or despondent, because we have hope that God will show up. And God does show up, not to answer our existential questions, but to be present, as in the last chapters of Job.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Jesuit priest, wrote many celebratory poems about the beauty in nature and his faith in God; he also wrote this poem, found among his Terrible Sonnets, written from a place of severe depression:

"Not, I'll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist--slack they may be--these last strands of man
In me, or, most weary, cry, I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be."

Hopkins describes himself as a rope he is thinking about destroying, but he chooses not to do so. The repeated word "not" becomes his act of hope--not despair, not untwist, not choose not to be. For some, waking up still alive is living with hope.  And Hopkins points out to himself that he can make choices that derive from hope. A schizophrenic acquaintance of mine learned to talk back to his destructive voices, an act of hope: "Barry don't want to do that," he would say about some act of self-harm.  When I was on my walk (see opening story), I said to myself, "Your feelings are not despair, but self-pity." Thinking that through was an act of hope. And even self-pity is somewhat hopeful, though neither comfortable nor attractive. One hopes that there will be some improvement, that a better moment will arrive. Meanwhile, as Hopkins wrote, "Let me be to my sad self hereafter kind."

St. Paul writes that faith, hope and love abide, endure. Love hopes all things--hoping for the best for our world; hoping for the best for our enemies.  Hope is not just a feeling, but it also inspires and requires actions. Planting a seed is hopeful--watering and weeding and fertilizing and bracing and protecting--all necessary acts of hope. Reconciling is an act of hope--forgiving and compromising and empathizing--all necessary components for reconciliation. These are hopeful action we can move towards.

Despair is corrosive, like pouring acid on the soul. Contempt is also corrosive, like pouring acid on someone else's soul. Both attitudes reject hope; hope for oneself and hope for others. I recently wrote a protest letter to the members of the Supreme Court, and as an act of hopefulness, sent it to all of them, not just the ones I think are sympathetic. Who am I to limit the possibility of change for even those I see as foreclosed to necessary mercies for human beings? I don't see everything.

T.S. Eliot write in "East Coker," one of The Four Quartets: The only wisdom we can hope to acquire / Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless."

Humility makes it possible to live with hope.

And I would be wrong to ignore the teaching of the resurrection of the dead as our basis for hope. When St. Paul writes of hope, it is most often in the context of the hope of the resurrection. He grounds his whole experience of Jesus on his encounter with the resurrected Christ.

"We do not mourn," he writes, "as do those who have no hope." Our notions of what the resurrection of the dead entails are often sentimental and perhaps inaccurate, but the fact remains that when Jesus was about to die, he told his followers, "I go to prepare a place for you, and I will come again to receive you unto myself" (John 14:2-3).  Believing this makes it possible to work towards loving our neighbors in the here and now. The resurrected Christ was happy to fix breakfast for his frightened followers. 

Whatever scarcities surround us presently, whatever weaknesses or sorrows inhabit our souls, we have a future hope that all tears will be dried and all wounds healed. Let us live with this hope.

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