Rector's Ramblings January 27, 2021
Sometimes having hope is a scary endeavor. That sounds like a strange assertion, but I know it to be true, and I’m guessing you do, too. I think we tend to think that hope pairs with happiness, and it can and does at times. Alternately, hoping can be a risky endeavor and one that raises a sense of unease. I suppose I’ve known this for a long time in some sense, but it was just recently that I really identified my own experience with it.
Hope is particularly scary after a time of turmoil, pain, or loss. In moments when our thoughts go to what went wrong or turned out badly previously, it can be so overpowering that we don’t allow ourselves to be hopeful, lest those hopes be dashed. We can lose our sense of hope altogether if we’ve had a series of experiences that showed us that our hopes were misplaced. The most obvious example of this is from the Peanuts cartoons when Charlie Brown tries repeatedly to kick the football, only to have Lucy pull it away. On one hand, those are funny moments, but on the other, they capture the pain of Charlie Brown’s repeated and frustrating failure. Those moments, despite how cutely they may have been drawn, become less funny when we have lived them.
A family that has lost a pregnancy knows this, as they see the first sign that they are pregnant again. If we’ve experienced that scenario, we know how careful we tend to be with our hope. We seem to hold our breath for the first twelve weeks or longer, depending on what we experienced previously. With multiple miscarriages, or other complications, couples, and mothers in particular, can chip away at the joy of a pregnancy out of fear that this one, too, won’t make it to term.
Or if we’ve had a series of bad relationships, we may have trouble believing it when we meet a good person who is right for us. We can be so wounded that we can’t really let ourselves trust a person, which can in turn undermine the new relationship before it even has a chance to take root. Perhaps we’ve had our cancer return multiple times and we can’t bear to approach the upcoming follow-up scans with the hope that it will be clear, because it wasn’t last time. And even if it is, we shift to worrying about whether the next one will be clear.
Even with the things that are somewhat less personal, we know what this is like. You can see and hear it in the news about the pandemic. Yes, the vaccines are rolling out, and yes, they are looking promising against some new strains…but. But there are new strains. But there are questions about the effectiveness of limiting spread even if it prevents symptoms. But, but, but. We’re so ready for the turning point and the final chapter of this pandemic, and yet we’re cautious about getting our hopes up too high.
We all probably harbored some sense that finally getting a conclusion to the election cycle, we could move forward. Or maybe we had a sense that the attack on the Capitol would bring us together. We want to hope for a more civil and collegial political life in our country, but in the first week of this new administration, before the one month anniversary of the attack, we see a quick retreat to party lines, both spoken and drawn. We still want to hope, but frankly, it’s scary to hope for that. We know what the odds and the experience of the last months, let alone years, suggest about what is to come.
We can’t get lost in what has passed at the cost of hope, even if the past makes us wary; even if we’re afraid that more heartache or failure, or pain is yet to come. We don’t want to forget the past, either. We hold onto the memory of where we’ve been because it’s important to do so, yet that remembering cannot be where we live. We can’t make the present or the future into the past; we must look forward to what is possible, and for us as Christians, what is promised.
Today is the 76th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The Jewish people have learned a thing or two about finding a brave hope despite a terrible past. Elie Wiesel, in his Nobel Lecture from 1986 said, “Just as man cannot live without dreams, he cannot live without hope. If dreams reflect the past, hope summons the future. Does this mean that our future can be built on a rejection of the past? Surely such a choice is not necessary. The two are not incompatible. The opposite of the past is not the future but the absence of future; the opposite of the future is not the past but the absence of past. The loss of one is equivalent to the sacrifice of the other.”
In our world, the Eucharist is probably our most important act of memory, a special kind of remembering you’ve probably heard me preach or write about in the past. It’s no mistake that before we remember the events of the Last Supper and their meaning, we first (among other things) confess our failures, and remember, not God’s failures, but that God’s promises aren’t yet fulfilled. When we pray together in the Prayers of the People, an unspoken theme is that we need God to be getting about the work God has promised to do; people still get sick and die, nations war, the church is broken, and so many other things are not as God intended.
When we tell the story and remember what Christ promised in that shared meal, what his death and resurrection means for us today, it is also a remembrance of so much that is yet unfulfilled, so much pain in a confession and in a petition. All of it is a hopeful remembering, though, in that the bread and wine remind us where this story will end, with the fulfillment of God’s promises and our ability to share in them. Nonetheless, we have hope, which we carry out into the world as the prayer says, “to do the work you have given us to do…as faithful witnesses of Jesus Christ our Lord.”
We get our courage to hope, not from a personal well out of which some of us can dip our buckets, but out of the deep reservoir of God’s goodness. The challenges, pains, and failures we’ve experienced are not enough for God to give up on us, and we can’t give up either. That’s not the way of those who follow The Way of Jesus Christ. We are a people who remember where we’ve been and also remember what God has done, is doing, and will do for us. We are, above all else, a people of hope.
I am hopeful about the end of the pandemic, or at least the worst of its disruption and destruction. I am hopeful that we will begin to find things we can unify around as a nation. I am hopeful because I am a Christian. Being hopeful isn’t easy; sometimes it’s scary. We can say the same thing about being a Christian, I suppose. I’ll keep confessing my sins, asking God to help where I think God needs to get busy, and somehow I’ll find a way to build a future. I hope to see you there.
Almighty God, give us such a vision of your purpose and such an assurance of your love and power, that we may ever hold fast the hope which is in Jesus Christ our Lord who is alive with you and the Holy Spirit, one God now and for ever. Amen.
- New Zealand Prayer Book
Photo Credits: “Hope Sign”, created by Nick Youngson, shared on Picpedia.org via CC BY-SA 3.0. “Corona-Virus und Weltkarte” shared from Wikimedia.org and is in the public domain.