God assures us that, in the midst of our human planning in this world, which is always threatened by failure and fiasco, Christ is present with us. The presence of Christ is a stimulus to hope, even in the midst of difficulty and disappointment. It encourages us to search for “life […] to the full” (John 10:10), to work for a better future for our world, to hope for the coming of God’s kingdom. It also offers us a share in God’s life – a life that we participate in already by virtue of our existence, and a life that grows in us as we flourish.
Crossing Iowa on U.S. 34 we spotted three red headed turkey vultures sitting on the roof line of a home. It seemed a bit creepy. Put us in mind of the many folklore omens we’ve heard in our lives. In retrospect, at least from the perspective of the vultures, it is clearly a sign of hope not unlike the house cat patiently sitting in a hay field awaiting a tasty mouse.
Walter Brueggemann, in his recent book Reality, Grief, Hope points out striking correlations between how we in America have been changed by the catastrophe of 9/11 and how the destruction of ancient Jerusalem changed Judaism. He shows how the prophetic biblical response to that crisis was truth-telling in the face of ideology, grief in the face of denial, and hope in the face of despair. He argues that the same prophetic responses are urgently required from us now if we are to escape the deathliness of denial and despair.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the firebrand English Baptist preacher, was invited to address British Friends in 1866. His title was “George Fox.” I can’t imagine anyone in that Devonshire Meeting House on that Tuesday evening forgetting what they heard. He related that Fox, after going to one professor after another, inquiring as to this and that, at last found peace where, as Spurgeon said “we too found it…” He told the gathered Friends that “There is one passage in his Journal which has been quoted thousands of times, but you will not object to hear it again, it deserves to be printed in letters of gold”:
“And when all my hope in all men was gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do, then, oh then, I heard a voice which said, ‘There is One, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition.’ And when I heard it, my heart did leap for joy.”
This renowned Baptist preacher retraced Fox’s life from childhood in a religious home through his deep depression, his conversion experience and his near martyrdom suffering indignities and imprisonments at the hands of the religious and civil authorities of his day. He detailed Fox’s ceaseless ministry. Then he wrote of Fox: “The death of our friend was the noblest thing of all…. I have prayed many times—in fact it has grown to be almost a daily prayer with me—that I may be able to say when I finish my course what George Fox said, “I am clear, I am clear”. Oh! It will be a special mercy for you, my brethren in the eldership here, you who speak in God’s name, if you shall be found clear at the last. Consider what God’s truth is, and how we ought to handle it as God’s truth, not as a matter to be trifled with or to be spoken without prayerful earnestness; and consider by whose power we profess to speak, namely, by the power of the Spirit of God. Do we always speak by that power? Are we always conscious that we are true to the motions of the Spirit within…? Are we not occasionally silent when we ought to speak, or do we not speak when we ought to be silent….
Spurgeon continued: “I do not think that George Fox spoke too strongly when he said, “I am clear.” So far as he knew the truth, I cannot see that he could have given his testimony to it more boldly, or more distinctly. He adopted every mode which ingenuity could devise to arouse a slumbering nation, and better still, he also followed after the better wisdom which comes from the Spirit of God. As far as he knew it I believe he delivered every jot of God’s counsel, and that in all respects he was faithful to his conscience, so that he could say, knowing that God was hearing him, ‘I am clear.’” Fox’s was a journey that began in despair but once finding hope became a powerful instrument of God to his generation. His is a story that demonstrates that once hope is learned it causes a person to throw themselves into its wake wholeheartedly.
In our day, hope may well be hard to find. World history is a cemetery of broken hopes, of utopias which had no foundation in reality. In our nation as in every nation, there is much foolish hope; national arrogance, will to power, ignorance about other nations and people, hate and fear of them, the use of God and his promises for the nation’s own glory. These do not come out of what we truly are and cannot, therefore, become reality in history, but they are illusions about our own goodness and distortions of the image of others.
Paul Tillich declared that there are things and events in which we can see a reason for genuine hope, namely, the seed-like presence of that which is hoped for. As we sung last Sunday, in the seed of a tree, stem and leaves are already present, and this gives us the right to sow the seed in hope for the fruit. We have no assurance that it will develop. But our hope is genuine. There is a presence, a beginning of what is hoped for. And so it is with the child and our hope for their maturing; we hope, because maturing has already begun, but we don’t know how far it will go. We hope for the fulfillment of our work, often against hope, because it is already in us as a vision and driving force. We hope for a lasting love, because we feel the power of this love present. But it is hope, not certainty.
Like the vultures on the roof or the cat in the hay, hoping implies waiting. “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him,” says the Psalmist (Ps. 37:7). Waiting demands patience, and patience demands stillness within ourselves. This aspect of hope is most important in the hope we have within ourselves and our own maturing and fulfilling what we essentially are and therefore ought to be.
There are two kinds of waiting. There is a passive waiting in laziness, like those who wait for some end-time catastrophe from which they will be spared. And there is a receptive waiting in openness. The one who waits passively, in laziness, prevents the coming of that for which they are waiting. The one who waits in quiet tension, open for what may be encountered, works for its coming. Such waiting in openness and hope does what no will power can do for our own inner development. The more seriously the great religious leaders of our past used their will to achieve it, the more they failed and were thrown into hopelessness about themselves. Desperately they asked, and many of us ask with them, Can we hope at all for such inner renewal? What gives us the right to such hope after all our failures? Again there is only one answer: waiting in inner stillness, with poised tension and openness toward what we can only receive. Such openness is highest activity; it is the driving force which leads us toward the growth of something new in us. And the struggle between hope and despair in our waiting is a symptom that the new has already taken hold of us.
The idea of eternal life in Christianity is often misunderstood as valuing the next life at the expense of this one, but this not the way that the term is used biblically. In John’s gospel what he points to is a new kind of life that is available now, which transforms every aspect of life as it is lived. As well as this, it offers a new horizon on what can be anticipated at the end of life. In Christianity, this is expressed as hoping for the coming of the kingdom of God. The kingdom will come in its fullness giving what Christians call an eschatological character to their hope: “a new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1). This plays an important part in the critique that Christianity offers to any account of the future that is merely this-worldly: there is a condition attached to that understanding that holds here, since the future that Christians hope for is both ‘now’ and ‘not yet;’ it is both ours and God’s. But this need not be expressed merely as an eschatological hope, as if the limit to human folly only held at the end of time. If that were the case, Christians would hope that God will establish God’s kingdom on the ruins of this world, in spite of everything that humanity has done in its search for well being and the fulfillment of our potential. But this is a misunderstanding of the world, of our role in it, and of God. God assures us that, in the midst of our human planning in this world, which is always threatened by failure and fiasco, Christ is present with us. The presence of Christ is a stimulus to hope, even in the midst of difficulty and disappointment. It encourages us to search for “life […] to the full” (John 10:10), to work for a better future for our world, to hope for the coming of God’s kingdom. It also offers us a share in God’s life – a life that we participate in already by virtue of our existence, and a life that grows in us as we flourish.