“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:4-13)
I’ve had reason to think some about ‘hope’ in these last couple of days: both the kind we live with here and the sort that we lean into when we pause to consider what comes next. Here is how it has been.
A few days ago I stood in line at the deli counter. When my turn came, the young man behind the counter paused and said, “First, let me say ‘thank you.'” I had a startled moment when I wondered if I should know him from another context, but no. He had taken in the Northern Illinois University Huskies sweatshirt I was wearing. “Thank you,” he said, “for showing off your school pride.” He had no way of knowing, of course, that my connection with the university is slim. It is not my Alma Mater, although I have availed myself of its resources countless times over the years. No matter, it gave me an opening and so I asked what year he is in school. “Oh, I’m not counting in years any more. I only have two weeks left!” he replied. He went on to say how he was tired of living on a student budget and that as a communications major he already had a job lined up. Andre is living in hope, to be sure. In fact, on the day after Thanksgiving, even as he labored at the job that had helped him squeak by these last years, he was simply ‘abounding’ in it.
Friday morning was quite different though. I had called to check on a member of our congregation whose journey with cancer is fast coming to a close. There had been more than thirty at their Thanksgiving feast the day before, but by now he is mostly in the hospital bed they had placed in the front room. After a brief conversation with his wife, it was decided I would come by late morning. She said they would have bread and wine ready so as to save me the trip across town to pick up a communion kit.
And so it was that after we visited for a few minutes, the whole family gathered around him: children and grandchildren, sisters and brothers and in laws and the rest: there must have been fifteen of us forming that circle. Their youngest granddaughter — not yet receiving the sacrament herself — nodded shyly when I asked if she wanted to help. And so as I made my way around the circle with the bread in hand, this little one carefully carried the glass of wine as one after another of those beloved people received the gifts of God in a time and place I expect they will never forget. Abounding in hope, we were: in hope for a time far distant from this suffering and loss.
After I shared a blessing most of the group scattered to other parts of the house. I leaned in close then to hear him speak of the pain that will not let him go now. “I am done,” he said. “I am just done.”
This is new, I have to say, for he is not one who has let this disease slow him down. Just the week before I had gone to visit, only to have him pull in the driveway behind me. He had been at work. Last Sunday, he was joined by the whole family at worship and by force of stubborn will, I think, insisted on making his own way to the front to receive the bread and wine of communion rather than allow us to take it to him in the pew. Now, though, he knows there is another hope which holds him and he is leaning into it, yearning for its fulfillment with all of his heart.
It is so that these weeks of Advent have us leaning into hope — recognizing the profound gift of Christ coming before — and looking ahead to that day when Christ will come again. Just as John, ‘prepared the way’ for the One who came after so long ago, you and I are called to do the same. And we do so always with a profound hope. The sort of hope which informs our living even now. Indeed, the sort of hope which enables us not only to simply ‘keep going’ but to keep moving ahead with purpose as we work even now for the sort of justice and righteousness and peace so vividly painted for us in the words of the prophet Isaiah today.
- Hope, by its very definition, is forward looking, it seems to me. It is a yearning for what is not yet. In the case of the young man behind the deli counter, his hope is informed by what he has seen in the world. What informs our hope for what comes after this life? What sustains or strengthens that hope?
- How does our everyday ‘hope’ like the sort of hope Paul points to in the letter to the Romans today, the hope that the prophet speaks of, the hope that John prepares for? How is it different?
- How would you define the power and gift of hope? What does it mean to you to ‘abound in hope?’
- Sometimes I get windows into hope when I look through the eyes of another. I would commend to you the following works of fiction which are based in real life experiences of despair and resilient hope: Mischling, by Affinity Konar and The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. The first is rooted in the horrors inflicted on twins during the World War II holocaust — and surely tells the story of hope sustained. The second is a searing description of the trials of those who were “passengers” and “workers” on the underground railroad who with profound hope worked to bring to freedom those enslaved prior to the Civil War in this country. Against logic and an abundance of earthly evidence, both of these stories ‘abound in hope.’ Reading them this fall helped open my eyes to experiences of hope in our world even now.