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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Do You Believe in Magic?

“There’s not much traffic today.” My husband — my dear, sweet, non-neurotic, Midwestern husband — makes this benign observation, and I’m quick to shush him. “Don’t say that! The Evil Eye will hear you!” This is my Italian upbringing talking. Sicilians are mighty superstitious people, and they believe that the Evil Eye is just waiting for you to express some happiness or pleasure. Then, it will swoop in to gleefully relieve you of it. As soon as you say, “There’s not much traffic” you’ll find yourself able to count the blades of grass in the parkway median. The moment you observe, “What a lovely day,” it will pour. Exclaim, “I feel great!” you’ll be visited by ailments that would make Job’s suffering look like a day at the spa. If my family had a crest, it would say, “Whatever you do, never, never, tempt the Evil Eye.”

Now, I don’t really believe in the Evil Eye any more, but old habits die hard. The fact is, believing in magic (evil or otherwise) appeals to something primal in all of us. When confronted with things beyond our understanding or control, we instinctively seek to understand and control them. Sometimes this means seeking out a supernatural solution: astrology, Tarot cards, crystals, shamans, and psychics are just some of the kinds of “magic” people turn to when their own efforts fall short. Magic says: Make the right sacrifices, chant the right words, bring the right offering and whatever supernatural forces there are can be persuaded to grant your request.

Ultimately, magic is a transaction.

We present our desires, offer the prescribed words or actions, and voila! Easier than ordering a latte. This is why I think these forms of “magic” are so attractive to so many people. We think it is an impersonal, low-risk, “What have I got to lose?” proposition. And the best part is, if your wish is granted, the rest of your life remains unchanged and unchallenged. We think of magic as an encounter with the supernatural on our terms, and those are the terms we like best. (Of course, if you believe there is a malign force of evil in the world — and I do — than any encounter with it through magic is not spiritually neutral. We may think we are in control of this transaction, but we couldn’t be more wrong.)

Now, miracles are a different story. And by miracles I mean God’s intervention in our world in ways that defy our understanding of time, space and matter or are beyond any human ability.

If magic is a transaction, then God’s miracles are about revelation.

Scripture is full of God’s miracles: Creation. The parting of the Red Sea. Jesus healing the sick and feeding the multitudes. The resurrection. It is easy to think of most of these as God seeing a problem and fixing it. Need to get across a body of water? No problem. Not enough food to feed the multitudes? I’ve got this. Blind? lame? Possessed by demons? Bring it on.

While God’s miracles did accomplish those things, their purpose is much grander, much more cosmic than fixing problems. Every time God breaks into our world to act, it is an act of self-revelation. In creation, He is saying, “I am a creative God, a God of order and of beauty.” When He parted the Red Sea He was saying, “I am a God of rescue and restoration.” When Jesus feeds the five thousand, He is saying, “I am the God of provision.” When He heals, He is saying, “I am the God of Shalom — of wholeness and peace.” When He raises Jesus from the dead, He is saying, “With me, death never has the final word.”

God’s self-revelation is an invitation to relationship.

God is not making these proclamations just to hear Himself talk. He longs to be in relationship with his people, and as with any relationship, self-revelation is the first step. “This is who I am. This is how much I love you.”

I think this is exactly why some people have a hard time accepting God’s miracles. I have known people who were perfectly willing to believe that the scent of apple blossoms would help them find their lost keys, but flatly reject God’s miracles. I have known people who believe that shaman incantations can cure disease, but consider Jesus’ healing miracles laughable.

I think that we know instinctively that God’s miracles are inviting us into something deeper, something beautiful and just a little frightening. On the most basic level, it means acknowledging there is a Creator God who is powerful beyond our understanding and operates in ways we can’t predict, often don’t understand and can’t control. In short, there is a God, and it’s not me. For independent, self-actualizing, self-sufficient, self-made people, this can be a tough pill to swallow.

Unlike magic, which leaves us unchanged and unchallenged, meeting the God Who Reveals Himself leaves open the possibility of new life. And while new life with God can mean liberation from things we long to shed, it can also mean that God will ask us to let go of things we want to hold onto. This, too, can be a stumbling block.

In His miracles, God declares, “This is who I am. This is how much I love you.” No forces of magic offer this. No Evil Eye is interested in our flourishing, our peace, our joy. No amorphous auras care about our pain, much less want to enter into it. The Universe doesn’t wait with outstretched arms for us to come “home”. It is only the God who creates, parts the sea, heals, feeds and defeats death who does that.

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