The Gift of Hope

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This Christmas, I’m asking for the gift of hope.  

I don’t mean the kind of hope we casually toss about in our every day conversations. We say “I hope you feel better” and what we really mean is that we want it to be true, and — fingers crossed — maybe it will be. It is no more than a wish we might make on a shooting star.

That kind of hope is easy, cheap and useless.

No, the hope I want is different. Not a facile, throwaway pleasantry, the hope I want is grounded in certainty and expectation. When God’s people say they have hope, it means they fully expect something to happen, despite any evidence to the contrary.

In the times of trouble, when darkness whispers that there is no light and never will be again, people of hope hear another voice. Probably the most radical thing the Christian faith teaches is that even in these dark moments — especially in these dark moments — we can can hear that other voice, reminding us that God is faithful. Faint at first, then growing stronger and louder, we hear the words that say we can hope in God because He has never forsaken us and never will.

Although we can’t be certain how or why or when, hope says we can be confident that God will act.

Scripture is full of this kind of hope. The Psalms declare over and over God’s steadfast love and faithfulness; the Prophets warn of God’s judgement, but just as often remind us of his inviolable covenant with us. But for my money, if you want to know what real hope looks like, listen to Mary’s song in the gospel of Luke:

And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
    and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
    For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
    and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
    to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”

Now this is a young woman who has every reason to be afraid and worried. She knows that her pregnancy will, at best, make her the subject of gossip, snickering and shaming. She knows that at worst, it could lead to her death as an adulterer.  She has been given the unimaginable responsibility of raising the Messiah, something nothing can really prepare you for.

And yet she has hope — not the wishing kind that would have her saying, “Man,it would really be nice if God shows up!”

Her hope is the expecting kind, the kind that says, “I know what God has done in the past, and I know He will do it again.”

Confession: There’s a cynical world-weariness still lurking in dark corners of my soul that thinks this not something a real person could actually do or feel in times of trouble. The Mary I met in Sunday school was someone so impossibly holy that although I found her admirable, she was no more real than a princess in a fairy tale.

And yet, as I have grown in age and faith, I know that there are people — real people — who have the same kind of expecting hope as Mary. Real people who face uncertainty with the certainty that God will act. Ordinary people who face death — their own or others’ — with a peace that undergirds to their grief. And I ask myself, how do they do it?  How did Mary? 

The answer lies in the angel’s declaration to Mary: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.”

The power of the Holy Spirit is what will make the impossible — a virgin conceiving — happen. It is also what makes it possible for her to have the joyous hope she sings about in her great song of praise.

Her expecting hope is nothing less than a gift of the Holy Spirit.

My jaded reaction that having this kind of hope isn’t something that real people could do is partly right: it isn’t something that comes naturally to us, or something we can manufacture. It is a gift we receive from God, a gift we can ask for and that will be joyfully given, a gift we can nurture, a gift that is nothing less than a beautiful mystery.

This gift allows Mary and us to do two things: remember God’s faithfulness to the individual and the community.   First, the gift of the Holy Spirit reminds her of what God has already done for her:

“For He who is mighty has done great things for me”  

Second, the Holy Spirit reminds her of what God has done for her community:

“He has shown strength with his arm…
he has exalted those of humble estate …
he has filled the hungry with good things …
He has helped his servant Israel …”
This Christmas, I’m asking for the gift of hope. I’m asking the Holy Spirit to come upon me and the power of the Most High to overshadow me, as He did to Mary.   I am praying Paul’s powerful prayer from Romans Chapter 15 over myself and over a world sorely in need:

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit, you may abound in hope.”

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Speak, Lord

A plain cross lies on a Bible, at the beginning of the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, describing the birth of Jesus.

“The right scripture at the right time, every time.”

That’s what a little Bible reference book in my library promises. Want to know about repentance? Take off your hair shirt and turn to page 106. Pondering forgiveness? Stop plotting revenge and flip to page 134. Struggling with lust? Go to page 178, and quick.

This handy-dandy book is part of the Bible as Instruction Manual genre. It’s an appealing idea on the surface — let’s face it, we all want easy answers to difficult questions. When we can’t get our new Smart TV to connect to Netflix, we’re happy to have step-by-step instructions to follow. With any luck, the manual is clearly written, and we can be binge-watching House Hunters in no time.

But our lives aren’t electronics and God isn’t some techie writing FAQs.

The Bible isn’t a static reference work offering one right answer to any question. It is a conversation and conversations, especially with the Creator of the Universe, aren’t neat, predictable, or free of nuance.

Unlike an instruction manual, the God who reveals Himself through written words asks as many questions of us as we ask of Him. To really know how Scripture informs any given situation, its Author is going to want to know more. I may ask, “How should I handle this conflict?” The Author will ask “Why does this situation make you so angry?” I may ask, “Do I need to reconcile with this person who has hurt me?”  The Author asks, “What would reconciliation look like?” I might wonder, “Does scripture support what I think is right?” The Author asks, “What would bring shalom — wholeness and peace — to this situation?”

Case in point: the email that made my blood boil.

Not long ago, I got an email that hurled an accusation at me, in a snarky and condescending tone. The church-y words it contained — “I’m praying for you” and signed ”Peace” — only made me madder.

My first instinct was to proclaim my innocence, so skillfully, with such stinging eloquence that my correspondent’s maladroit missive would be put to shame. I would expose his calumny and his bad writing in one fell swoop. And, for good measure, I would point that, really, this was all his fault. Perfect.

I didn’t send it right away. As I sat with my counterpunch coiled and ready to deliver a devastating blow in the name of all that is Good and True, I wondered: what would scripture say about this contretemps, especially given that it was in the context of Christian community? What did God want to see happen here? 

The Truth as a (Blunt) Weapon

The first thing that came to mind was God’s prophets, who were given the thankless task of proclaiming Truth to people who didn’t want to hear it.  God respects and honors the truth, I told myself.  In fact,  Psalm 15 says this is a condition for coming into God’s presence.

Lord, who may dwell in your sacred tent?
    Who may live on your holy mountain?
The one whose walk is blameless,
    who does what is righteous,
    who speaks the truth from their heart;
(Psalm 15: 1-3)

I liked the sound of this. It gave me Holy permission to defend myself by speaking the truth.  Unfortunately, the next verse says otherwise . . .

whose tongue utters no slander,
    who does no wrong to a neighbor,
    and casts no slur on others;

Hmmmm. Speaking truth isn’t the only measure of righteousness. We are reminded that we must not cast “slur on others.” My counterpunch felt good, but it suddenly didn’t feel right.

Turn the Other Cheek?

Perhaps  Matthew 5:39 should be my lodestar: 
 

But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.

Maybe I should just let it go. Maybe I should shrug my shoulders and chalk it up to “You can’t fix stupid.”

I live with this possibility for a day. Ignore it, shake the dust off my feet, move on. When Jesus suggests this response, it comes from a place of bravery and confidence: “The Lord is my stronghold, whom shall I fear?  For me in this situation, letting it go feels like cowardice and fear. It didn’t feel good and it didn’t feel right.  

Truth, Tempered

While I’m in Matthew, I read on:

“If your brother signs against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.”

                                                                   Mathew 8:15

What if I responded — honestly, but without rancor? Could I confront with charity? Was it possible to defend myself without attacking him?  Was it possible to respond in a way that honored the truth while holding out hope of shalom?   And so I wrote a response, direct, but minus the venom and self-righteousness.  This felt right.  Much to my surprise, my correspondent apologized, which NEVER would have happened had I sent my first email.

The thing is, each of these “answers” to my question could have been appropriate. I can imagine other circumstances when God might want me to be a latter-day John the Baptist, speaking Truth, no matter the consequences. I can imagine a situation in which God would want me to hold my tongue, and walk away, confident in God’s vindication of me.  

But I can’t be trusted know which is which without the Holy Spirit to “guide me into all truth.”

I keep this prayer in the front pocket of my Bible to remind me of what I am holding in my hands.   It tells me that I need to read reverently, listen carefully and allow the Author to ask me questions before answering any of mine.

Speak, Lord, for your servant hears.
Grant me ears to hear,
Eyes to see
Will to obey
Heart to love
Than declare what you will,
Reveal what you wiIl
Demand what you will.

                                     (Christina Rosetti)


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In God We Trust

I spent this morning in a room full of pain. It is not a space designed for comfort, physical or otherwise. The wooden benches are hard and the heat is stifling even on a frigid January day. An aisle separates the “sides” in this judicial proceeding — the victim’s family and friends on the right, defendant’s on the left, like some sick joke of a wedding. It lacks the majesty of movie courtrooms: no dark wood panelling, high ceilings or gold inlay. Just a drab little box of a room with scuffed linoleum floors and a microphone that doesn’t work. It hardly seems a worthy setting for the drama unfolding.

I have come to this most unprepossessing place to hear sentence pronounced on the man who killed my friend. I sit in the same seat as I did during the trial, although at least this time, I have a soft down coat to cushion that unforgiving bench. The same cast reprises its roles: the young prosecutor, the bumbling defense attorney. The victim’s grieving husband, brother and friends. The defendant and his grieving wife and children. The judge, whose words will change so many lives. We meet again, in the same room where a few months ago, I willed myself to stay and see the autopsy photos, where I listened to the defendant deflect all blame for taking my friend from us all.

Something is different, though. I notice for the first time the words in large, gold block letters that hang over the judge’s head:

IN GOD WE TRUST

Funny, they must have always been there, but I just now see them. In God We Trust. I look at the red eyes of my friend’s husband, at the sagging shoulders of her brother, then at my husband’s hand holding mine. I look across the aisle at the defendant asking for mercy and the women who love him weeping, and I wonder what those words mean, here in this room full of pain.

In God We Trust.  Is the State of New York and its legal system declaring their trust in God? To hear courts tell it, no. In response to legal challenges over the years, courts have declared these words have no more than “patriotic or ceremonial character”  and “have lost through rote repetition any significant religious content.”  Ok.  As far as the government is concerned, these words are just a quaint, patriotic, meaningless decoration.  

But for me and for many of us here today, “In God We Trust” isn’t just some patriotic trope. These words are the only oxygen in the room.

We came praying, trusting God for justice, although what that would look like depended on which side of the aisle you were sitting on. Was it God’s justice or man’s that we witnessed here today?  I don’t presume to know.  But I do know that, regardless of whether God “answered” our prayers for justice, we trusted Him enough to pray in the first place, knowing that answered or not, God would still be with us.  

We trusted God for comfort in our grief, although for some that grief was over a brutal, untimely death, and for others it was over a life irrevocably changed by having caused that death.  We put our trust in God to help us absorb whatever blow the sentence would inflict.

After the sentencing, one of the defendant’s relatives approached my friend’s husband.

“Can you forgive him?” she asked.
“Yes, I forgive him. This is what our faith teaches us.”
“May I hug you?” she said, tentatively, tearfully.

They hugged and I was in awe of this God in whom we put our trust. This is a God who fills a room full of pain with strength and solace.  We trust this God who sits next to us on those hard benches, whether we are grieving violence done to us, or the violence we have done to others. We cling to the God, who, in the words of one of my favorite hymns is “a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.”

 

 

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