(This article was written in December 2005, in a post-Katrina, post-personal trauma, mid-congregational stress moment both in the lives of the people in my congregation and in my own life.)
What does HOPE mean? We proudly call ourselves “Hope Presbyterian Church” and we list HOPE as one of our core values. We’ve talked about it, prayed for it, and even experienced it in our midst. Yet in this season—the season in which celebrate the ultimate gift of hope, we find ourselves grasping for something, anything that looks even remotely hopeful as we stumble under burdens that are impossible to bear. We stagger as if we have been punched in the stomach as family, friends, and neighbors find themselves in the midst of life-changing struggles that threaten to overwhelm them with grief, anger and pain. We wonder what hope means when unemployment persists and utilities are cut off and there’s not enough money for groceries, let alone Christmas presents? What does hope mean when cancer cells grow out of control, when friends forsake a lifelong friendship, when promises to a child are broken? What does hope mean when homes, lives, memories are washed away, blown away by nature’s fury? What does hope mean when soldiers die and children starve and so very many seem to have lost their way? What does HOPE mean?
It would be an amazing thing to have a tidy definition for this little four-letter word. If we would choose to focus on a Webster’s Dictionary kind of definition, we might find something to which we could give intellectual assent, but it is likely that we would come away feeling less than satisfied. Hope is a knotty, tangled theological mess of a gift. It is tied up with MYSTERY and FAITH, GOD’S WILL, COVENANT and PROMISE, FUTURE, PRESENT and PAST. To understand hope is to understand that God means to do a great deal with us and that God means to be everything for us.
Meanwhile, we find ourselves yearning for the end of this time of struggle. We crave answers for our deepest questions. We hunger for the fulfillment of our deepest needs. We weep with exhaustion in the midst of pain. We shout out our anger in the face of injustice. We ask again and again: “Why?” and “How long, O Lord?” and “What else should I be doing?” And we keep working. We keep doing the job that God has placed in front of us. Asking these questions and working in God’s kingdom puts us in excellent company with folks like Abraham and Sarah, the Israelites, Job, and Jesus. Even though saints and sinners through the ages have asked these questions—have felt the intensity of this yearning, belonging to such esteemed company doesn’t really make us feel any better.
What if the yearning we feel, the longing for answers, the desire for clarity, the ache we feel in our souls is really the best sign of all that we are people who HOPE? Is it possible that the best signs of hope are found in the asking of such questions, in our deepest longing, in our tenacious commitment to the struggle? Can it be human yearning is the best sign that on some level we have caught a glimpse of the possibility and promise of a better day to come? If that is the case, to cry out in pain is not a sign of weakness. To weep in anger is not a sign of surrender. Rather these are signs of Spirit-inspired, deep-seated knowledge that God does not intend for creation to be in this state. These are signs of the grace-filled gift of understanding that has been inscribed in our hearts—the understanding that we are part of God’s work in progress—a work of never-failing love. When will the hurting stop? When will the yearning come to an end? These are the questions of Advent. These are the questions that begin to be answered when a little baby is born in a humble village. And it is in the asking and the living of these questions that we find hope is born in us.