Friday, February 7, 2014

Hope: Whence, whither, and if

From Toledo, IA
Sophia to Rascal: Hoping against hope that friendship is possible.
As I mentioned in the previous post, co-blogger and friend Jon Swartz is in his last semester in EMU's dual degree program between the Seminary and Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, the same program I completed nearly two years ago. It is therefore senior capstone season for him and he's apparently working on a project about hope. I don't know the particulars of his project yet (can't wait to read that paper, Jon!) - but his work includes a survey tool that he sent out and invited me and a number of others to complete.

It was a good exercise for me, and with Jon's permission I'd like to share an edited version of my responses to his survey, because I don't think I've ever written much here about hope and yet it strikes me as central to the Christian faith. So here's what happened in my head as I responded to Jon yesterday...

Before starting, a few New Testament verses sprang to mind as I reflected...
  • Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (Hebrews 11:1)
  • ...we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)
First, Jon asked: What is hope? - How would you define hope? I ventured that...
  • Hope is the yearning toward better days and better circumstances.
  • Hope shapes the vision and helps clarify the path forward, beyond the current state of things. It imagines the world otherwise.
  • Hope, like all truly worthwhile and necessary things like love and forgiveness, is in a sense impossible. But we must strive to cultivate it in ourselves and our communities.
  • Hope is a gift/fruit of the Holy Spirit.
He then asked if hope is a meaningful or helpful framework for you to examine your life and work. It most certainly is, and it has to be. I tend to be a very critical person (grad school certainly sharpened and/or exacerbated that tendency in me), and if hope is not part of my life, cynicism and despair quickly set in. I sometimes lose track of it, but at times my prayer life becomes overwhelmed with petitions to God for hope to be seen, grasped, and embodied.

Next, Jon asked: What is it - in my context - that I hope for? I've written here before about the struggle of living in this here small town. It ain't easy, and hope (and joy) within the community seems to have abandoned us. (Granted, I see flickers regularly!)

So I hope for renewal in this town and the place upon which it depends: spiritual+religious, economic, ecological, relational, and political (all in a radical/communitarian sense). 

I also hope for the body of Christ to awaken from its slumber here, shake off the dust and atrophy and nostalgia, and invite the living God to work mightily through us. And I hope to be a part of God's mighty work here.

Then he asked an interesting variation on the question: In your context what is it that you hope IN? - Ah, "from whence dost thine hope spring?," I mused...

I hope in the work of the Holy Spirit to blow like a mighty rushing wind, like cool waters on a parched desert landscape, like a consuming and transforming fire across the prairie - bringing new life out of the scorched remains of the old.

But we're fallible and limited beings, and Jon knows this, so he starts getting realistic...

What is the opposite of hope? - The first word that popped into my head: Despair.

He asked me to elaborate on experiences of hopelessness, what those feel and look like. - Yes, I do experience hopelessness, more often than I care to admit. Sometimes my brooding on the state of affairs in our town, parts of our extended family, American society, the broader world - it all sinks in so deep that I've experienced hours or sometimes days of being collapsed on the couch, staring off into space, paralyzed. It brings the Avett Brothers to mind:
And I know you need me in the next room over
But I am stuck in here all paralyzed
For months I got myself in ruts
Too much time spent in mirrors framed in yellow walls
(from "Ten Thousand Words")
Being the good systems thinker he is, Jon inquired: How do you experience differing levels of hopelessness? - Personal, Institutional, Systemic.

The levels all collide with each other, and are finally inseparable.

For instance, as I was completing Jon's survey yesterday, my wife notified me of a double homicide on the Sac & Fox/Meskwaki settlement just outside of town. I have a dear friend (who's white) that works on the settlement and is deeply connected with that community. I know he's going to be devastated, along with the rest of the community.

And why? - Hopelessness. For the Sac & Fox, the loss of their land and old way of life now stretches across a century and more. They cannot "go back." The historical harms done that animate the cycle of violence that turns on and on and in on itself... - And this careens back into my heart, moving me to lament, nudging me back toward hopelessness at such a seemingly intractable and hopeless situation for the Sac & Fox, and my culture's complicity in their state of affairs.

It's dizzying, the depths and breadth of such things. I wish I could become similarly overtaken by hope...but it doesn't seem to happen much.

He asks: What gives you hope? - I answer: A good God and good friends.

As I close, I'll say that suffering and hope seem inextricably linked. We cannot know or experience one without the other, and our lot seems to fall more heavily toward suffering. (But see the Romans text above for the redemptive quality of suffering...that itself produces hope.)

Finally, hope takes up space in real lives in real places. As Christians claim that God without flesh is no god at all, so is hope without flesh and bone, dirt and stone. Consider this passage from Wendell Berry's "A Poem on Hope":
Hope then to belong to your place by your own knowledge of what it is that no other place is, and by your caring for it as you care for no other place, this place that you belong to though it is not yours, for what it was from the beginning and will be to the end.
Here's the old farmer-genius reading the whole poem. (And thanks, Jon, for everything here...)

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