Carlos Wilton, January 20, 2013; 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C; Isaiah 62:1-5
“You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate…”
– Isaiah 62:4
83 days. That’s how long it’s been since Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge hit us. I’ve been thinking a lot, these days, about where we are after the storm. What’s our state of mind? What’s our state of the heart?
Well, that would depend on who you talk to, of course. Some of us were flooded. Others of us were not. Some of us lost jobs. Others of us, connected with the construction industry, are working harder than ever before.
The effects of this storm have been pretty uneven. Mostly, it depends on where your house is — or was. There are those whose lives have been turned upside down; and others who may have had to endure 4 or 5 (or even 10) days of lost electrical power, but are just fine now.
Except for the survivor guilt, that is. It’s real. A lot of you have talked to me about it. Having visited friends or family who lost a great deal to the storm — and in some cases, lost just about everything — some of you find yourself observing, “It could have been me!” And then, “What wasn’t it me? What did I do to deserve such good fortune?”
For those majorly affected, this is the time when everything seems to be bogging down. The mucking-out is done, the insurance paperwork has been filed, but nothing seems to be happening. It’s “hurry up and wait.” And wait. And wait….
How do you keep your spirits up, in such a situation?
The answer is a simple word, four letters in length. The word is “hope.”
I’d like to spend some time with you today, looking at this thing called hope. Where does it come from? Where is it taking us? And how can we keep it alive?
Let’s start with the scriptures — with a passage that doesn’t mention the word hope at all, but is really all about it:
For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
and her salvation like a burning torch.
There follows a whole lot of fantastic imagery about the exiled Israel being crowned like some beloved princess, and then there’s this couplet:
You shall no more be termed Forsaken,
and your land shall no more be termed Desolate…
Forsaken — we can all relate to that one, right? You only have to look at the news stories about Congress dithering on passing the various bills to deliver aid to our little corner of the world, to feel just a little bit forsaken.
As for Desolate — well, maybe that term doesn’t apply to my block, or to yours, but you don’t have to drive very far before you come upon some neighborhoods that truly are desolate. Maybe a lot of the residents are back in their houses, but there’s so much work still to be done inside! There’s a deep yearning to be over and done with all this, to have the repairs completed and to get back to life as it’s meant to be
But there’s no end in sight. Congress dithers, the insurance adjusters take their own sweet time, a surprising number of our towns try to make do with the same number of construction officials they’ve always had — even though the number of people waiting for permits is umimaginably large — and the result is, everybody seems stuck in a holding pattern.
What we could all use, at this juncture, is a little hope.
So, where do we find it?
If you’re like most people in this can-do American culture, you tend to think of hope as something we generate on our own, drawing on some battery backup imbedded deep within our hearts. Hope, to this way of thinking, is a sort of individualistic civic virtue. The way we get it is by pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps.
Which is nonsense. Anything we pull out ourselves — by the bootstraps or by anything else — can’t possibly be the sort of hope we need.
It’s sort of like standing on a beach, and observing a swimmer in the water. His arms and legs are flailing, and he’s crying out for help. Clearly, he’s drowning. Faced with such a desperate scenario, you cup your hands to your mouth and cry out: “Hey, you making all that noise out there! Calm down. I’m – going – to – save – you. Now listen carefully, and do everything I tell you…. SWIM!”
Not exactly what the lifeguard ordered.
Yet, isn’t that about as ridiculous as expecting that we, ourselves, will be able to generate our own hope — like the alchemists of old who imagined they could conjure gold out of a philosopher’s stone?
No, hope clearly comes from outside ourselves. Emily Dickinson is right on the money with one of her most famous poems, that’s called — what else? — “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.
The poet’s right. Hope never does ask a thing of us. Because hope is pure and elemental, and independent of anything we say or do. If we’re so fortunate as to have it, we don’t know where we found it. It comes to us as a gift: we Christians would call it a gift of the Spirit.
The prophet Isaiah talks of Israel’s “vindication” that “shines out like the dawn.” If we say a person is vindicated, it doesn’t mean the person has solved his or her own problem. It means some power from outside, some mighty judge, came in with a sheaf of fresh evidence. The report of a hitherto unknown witness, the results of the DNA test — whatever the vindicating evidence may be, it’s not something the prisoner on Death Row could have generated from within the confines of a jail cell.
Hope comes from God.
Eugene Peterson comes at this question by comparing hope with wishing:
Wishing is something all of us do. It projects what we want or think we need into the future. Just because we wish for something good or holy we think it qualifies as hope. It does not….
Wishing is our will projected into the future, and hope is God’s will coming out of the future. Picture it in your mind:
wishing is a line that comes out of me, with an arrow pointing into the future.
Hoping is a line that comes out of God from the future, with an arrow pointing toward me.
Hope means being surprised, because we don’t know what is best for us or how our lives are going to be completed. To cultivate hope is to suppress wishing — to refuse to fantasize about what we want, but live in anticipation of what God is going to do next.
In the case of the Israelites in exile in Babylon — you know the story — they had just about given up on getting back to Jerusalem through their own efforts. No pleadings, no entreaties, no quantity of hard work on their part swayed the King of Babylon in the least. Like the Pharaoh of Egypt, he wanted to hand onto his Israelite slaves.
But then, hope arrived from an unexpected quarter. The Babylonians who, for generations, had terrorized all lands to the west of them, all the way to the Mediterranean Sea, forgot to keep any eye on their own back door. Cyrus, emperor of Persia, tiptoed in, a mighty army in his wake, and captured mighty Babylon. He set the Jewish prisoners free, and gave them safe conduct back to their ancestral homes.
They should have known, those Israelites, that the God of the covenant, the great I AM who spoke a mighty promise out of the burning bush, had something good in store for them yet. All this came not from them, but from God.
The late playwright and Prime Minister of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel, knew all about hope. He’d lived the greater part of his life under Communist oppression — resisting the Soviet occupiers in subtle, non-violent ways, writing his dramas that gently tweaked the nose of the regime, giving voice to the soul of his beaten-down people. After it was all over, and his homeland had been freed — and he’d been elected Prime Minister, of all things — Havel sought to give voice to the true nature of hope in a speech. He said of hope:
It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.
This, of course, is right in line with the wisdom Eugene Peterson is imparting. Remember what he said, that hope is that arrow originating with God, and pointing towards us (not the other way around). Hope is a little bit of heaven’s light, breaking into the gloom of this benighted world.
Novelist (and Presbyterian) Anne Lamott is onto something very similar as she writes, in her book, Bird by Bird:
Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up.
[Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (Anchor Books, 1995), xxiii.]
Another way of putting it is this humble fragment of folk wisdom — the sort of thing you might read on a refrigerator magnet, but how true it is:
When you’re down to nothing, God is up to something.
And, let me suggest, the process of discerning what sort of thing God is up to can be defined as hope. Even if your house was wrecked, even if your car was flooded, even if you don’t know when — this day, this week, or this month — the prodigal claims adjuster is finally going to show up…. Even if you can’t say when, precisely, “The check is in the mail” will finally become “The check is in the mailbox,” it’s all about God, and waiting on God.
Another great prophet of the Babylonian exile, Jeremiah, catches the same spirit in these famous words:
For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. [Jeremiah 29:11]
Let me tell you a story, now, about a humble little ministry that’s built around the concept of hope — not of some abstract theological principal, but on guidance from the Holy Spirit.
The place is Johannesburg, South Africa. You know how it’s been there, in recent years. Yes, Nelson Mandela and his supporters were able to engineer an end to the dreadful system of apartheid, and finally place the reins of government in the hands of all the people, not just the elite white minority.
But life is difficult there. Very difficult — especially for the black minority, whose journey out of poverty is proving to be a slow one, indeed. One of the terrible things that was happening, a few years back, was that the corpses of newborn babies were showing up in dumpsters. Their mothers — poor women who had migrated into the city from the tribal areas, looking for work — were at their wits’ end when they found themselves pregnant. To try to raise a baby, while at the same time holding onto the job they had searched for so desperately — a job that, in many cases, was essential to supporting the women’s other children, back in the homelands — seemed an impossible task. Some of these women simply abandoned their newborn children. They simply didn’t know what else to do.
That is, until the pastor of a little Baptist church came up with an idea. She directed that a hole be cut through the wall of the protective compound that surrounded her church building. Just inside the hole they constructed a sort of shelf, and outside it, they hung a sign. The sign said, “Door of Hope.”
The pastor let it be known that desperate women could come up to the church at any time, day or night, and hand their baby through the door of hope, placing it on the shelf within, no questions asked. Volunteers from the church were always close at hand, ready to listen for a baby’s cry. Those church women would take the new arrival in their arms, cradle it and nurture it, and begin the process that would lead, one day, to adoption into the home of a family who could care for the child.
During the time that ministry is in place, the people of that little church has saved the lives of over 500 babies. [From a Presbyterian News Service story, “A Spy for Hope,” June 28, 2007, about Norm Nelson’s “Compassion Radio” broadcasting ministry]
The Door of Hope is a wonderful ministry — but it’s not an especially complicated, nor even a well-funded one. It is literally a hole in the wall. Yet, it’s also the product of a vision, cherished in the hearts of that pastor and her people, that says they don’t have to crumple under the weight of the social problems all around them. Those problems are way bigger than anything they can handle; but they do what they can. And what they can do is receiving “throwaway” children through that hole in the wall.
The impact of Hurricane Sandy, in our corner of the world, is shocking. The zone of damaged homes is so vast, the numbers of people affected so huge, it’s tempting to simply throw our hands up in despair, saying “What can we possibly do?”
But there’s another way, a hopeful way. We can search out one thing we can do, one thing that will begin to make a difference in the lives of some.
We hardly had to search it out, really. It kind of found us. It’s the Volunteer Village we’re establishing in the Education Annex. When you go over today for Sandwich Sunday, you’re going to see the bunk beds — beds that will house up to 36 volunteers, who are going to start coming here as part of church groups from all over the country. Once all the referral organizations are in place, locally, those skilled workers will be able to come into the homes of local residents, at their invitation, to do the work their flood insurance and homeowners insurance and FEMA grants won’t be able to fully pay for. Without an effort such as this, it’s hard to see how a great many people in this area, of modest financial means, would be able to restore their homes to anything close to the state they were in before Sandy came to town.
We can’t do all the work necessary to Restore the Shore. How could we — or any other church or organization — possibly think we could do such a thing? But I’ll tell you one thing we can do. We can make some adjustments in our church programs, and put up with a bit of inconvenience for the next several years, for the sake of our guests, and the neighbors they’ll be helping. It’s our version of the Door of Hope. The Session and I are convinced it’s what the Lord is calling us to do. We’re already equipped to do it, with a newly air-conditioned building just three blocks or so from the start of the storm-damaged neighborhoods, and experience providing hospitality through our Communion Breakfasts and Sandwich Sundays, and participation four weeks per year in the Interfaith Hospitality Network.
We can do this thing. We really can. By the grace of God we can live, triumphantly, as people of hope!
Copyright © 2013, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.