“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Sometimes a sentence or phrase floats up from the page, shimmering with truth and mystery, calling us to dive in more deeply–and surely this beginning of the 11th chapter of Hebrews is one of those sentences–“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
In a world of such upheaval and conflict, in a political season of battering claims and divergent visions, in a time in the life of the Church–and our church in particular–when old forms and methods seem increasingly ineffective and the shape of the new remains to be seen, it is more important than ever for those of us who claim to be people of faith to be clear about what it is we hope for. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for…”
Krista Tippett, creator and host of the Public Radioprogram, On Being, writes, “In a century of staggering open questions, [like, Will the earth survive?] hope becomes a calling for those of us who can hold it, for the sake of the world.” [Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, p. 233] Hope as a calling is a far weightier claim than the way we often throw the word around– “I hope it doesn’t rain tomorrow.” “I hope he chooses me.” “I hope you like it.” Hope is a calling, for the sake of the world.
To be cynical and hopeless in our day and age is easy. Every day there are news stories and revelations to reinforce one’s cynicism. The cynics–those who believe that everybody’s a crook, that nothing’s really going to change for the better, that the church is dying, that nothing’s going to make a difference, that The System’s rigged and always will be–have plenty of company and support. Cynicism is easy because it doesn’t have to lift a finger to change anything.
Hope, on the other hand, is a conscious choice that often goes against the grain. “Hope,” writes Krista Tippett, “like every virtue, is a choice that becomes a habit that becomes spiritual muscle memory. It’s a renewable resource for moving through life as it is, not as we wish it to be.” (Op cit., p. 11) Hope is not the same thing as optimism, or wishful thinking, or idealism. “It references reality at every turn and reveres truth,” Tippett says. “It lives open-eyed and wholeheartedly with the darkness that is woven ineluctably [unavoidably] into the light of life and sometimes seems to overcome it.”
“Spiritual muscle memory”–I love that image. You know what muscle memory is– it’s what your hands automatically do when you’re kneading bread or folding the laundry, if that’s what you’ve done week after week, or day after day. It’s how your body knows what to do when you throw a ball or hit a golf ball or put your skis on, if you’ve practiced enough. There’s plenty of muscle memory on display these next 2 weeks of the Olympics. Muscle memory is how your fingers know where to go and what to do on a piano keyboard or with trumpet valves or the fret of a cello if they’ve done that often enough.
“Hope, like every virtue, is a choice that becomes a habit that becomes spiritual muscle memory.” We have to practice hope. We have to make it a habit, like brushing our teeth. And such a practice has nothing to do with denying that things are difficult, that at the moment, we may feel sad or in pain or anguish. In fact, research is now confirming what Paul wrote in his letter to the church in Rome– “We know that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because hope is God’s love being poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”
Brene Brown, sociologist at the University of Houston who studies issues of shame and vulnerability and courage, says that “hope is a function of struggle.” [struggle or suffering produces endurance…character…hope] Too often we as parents try to shield our children from hardship and disappointment, but in fact, we are doing them a disservice by doing that. Brown says, “I see students come to us who have never had experiences, real experiences, with adversity. And how that shows up is hopelessness…Hope is a function of struggle.”
“Hope is not an emotion,” Brown says. “Hope is a cognitive, behavioral process that we learn when we experience adversity, when we have relationships that are trustworthy, when people have faith in our ability to get out of a jam.” (Cited by Tippett, op cit., p. 250) How many of us can relate to Brown’s reflection, when she says, “The moments I look back in my life and think, God, those are the moments that made me,’ were moments of struggle.” (P. 251) Moments when we failed or were fired, moments when we spoke the truth that nobody wanted to hear, moments when we went through an illness or crisis or the death of a loved one or a relationship, those are the moments that make us, that give us spiritual muscles for hope.
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Eugene Peterson puts it this way–”The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living [another way to think of ‘hope’]. It’s our handle on what we can’t see.”
I also love what Madeleine L’Engle said about “Some things have to be believed to be seen.” That’s another spiritual practice–seeing, noticing, the things that are hopeful, that give us hope. As Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesians, “Beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Notice these things. Keep a gratitude journal, give thanks each morning for the gift of the day, full of God’s presence and power. Brush your teeth. Practice hope.
Krista Tippett, through hundreds of interviews and conversations with theologians, ethicists, scientists, civil rights workers, artists, musicians, community organizers, says that the shape of “emerging wisdom about our world is largely…quiet. It’s animated by projects and people you didn’t know to look for. It’s joined by points in space and time that have no obvious reason to be important.” (Op cit., p. 234) We can be points on this map, points of hope and new life, though our imaginations haven’t quite bought into the new indicators of “importance.” Almost everything that is truly bringing new birth and hope is happening “under the radar,” as we say, though Tippett contends, “the radar is broken.”
That’s essentially what author Paul Hawken, who in his book Blessed Unrest, discovered when he chronicled literally tens of thousands of grassroots efforts, political, ecological, social, that are operating “under the radar.” The analogy he draws is like that of the earth’s immune system, like the white blood cells in our bodies, which are rallying to heal the body and fight off the forces that would destroy it.
Anne Lamott, referencing Emily Dickinson, says that “hope inspires the good to reveal itself.” Imagine what an incredible calling it is for us, as people of faith, to have hope, for the sake of the world! To inspire the good to reveal itself, to hold a space for children and young people and people of all ages who are still growing to discover the best in themselves, to imagine how we might evolve as a spiritually conscious race, preserving the best of the human spirit– including those gifts of the Spirit like kindness, patience, humility, goodness, self-control, gentleness, generosity–those things which we in the church have known for centuries, yet have too often forgotten. We too can be points on that map of emerging human wisdom.
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.” “Fear not, little flock, [Jesus said] it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” That is God’s hope for us!
Our world is abundant with quiet, hidden lives of beauty and courage and goodness [Krista Tippett assures us]. There are millions of people at any given moment, young and old, giving themselves over to service, risking hope, and all the while ennobling us all. To take such goodness in and let matter–to let it define our take on reality as much as headlines of violence–is a choice we can make to live by the light in the darkness…Taking in the good, whenever and wherever we find it, gives us new eyes for seeing and living. [Ibid., p. 265]
This looks like mere bread and juice, but with the eyes of faith it is so much more–it is the bread of life and the cup of blessing, joining us with Christ and one another, with all the world, nourishing us to become hope and courage, in the midst of our vulnerability and failure. So let us take up the calling of hope, for the sake of the world, and let us keep the feast. Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark