A Homily of Hope
Always there is Hope.
Recently, Barbara Brown Taylor was in Nashville speaking about her much-anticipated new children’s book, Home By Another Way. It is a clever retelling of the Christmas story of the Three Magi. Barbara Brown Taylor is a priest, professor, and author of many best-selling books, each of which has influenced my faith, my own writing and my profession in the ministry. She is certainly one of my faith heroes! After the reading, she opened the floor to questions. I raised my hand and asked: “What is your definition of Hope?”
Her immediate response, “Yes, tell me, What is Hope?”
I felt the blood rush to my cheeks, my palms dampened. I looked around the room and sitting in the front row were three of my Vanderbilt Divinity School professors. I started to panic. You know that moment in the movies where time stops and everyone is frozen in place, except for you. The room darkens and the spotlight is on you. The bookstore was so quiet, as if everyone, especially me, was holding a breath for My Definition of Hope. I closed my eyes, ordered my intellect, ego and theology aside. And simply trusted my heart to speak for me. Here is what I answered:
“God has me, whatever happens. Ultimately, all will be well. God is making all things new.”
Barbara Brown Taylor smiled, and quietly spoke, “Yes. Thank you.”
What I realized later, and she knew it then in all her infinite wisdom, was that I had to answer the question for myself. You have to answer the question for yourself.
The answer is in you.
Paul says, “Hope is the sure and steadfast anchor of the soul. Hope slips into that inner place behind the curtain of our being.” Beneath the skin, deeper than scars, sickness, disappointment, secret worries and existential fears, flaws, even mortality, lives eternal hope. It is in the marrow of us, even written into our DNA. No matter what we are up against; a King Herod or even a cross—We will not be broken. We will rise. God’s love promises it. I like to imagine that God’s creatures, you and me, are all wearing invisible superhero T-shirts. They are imprinted: “I am Hope.” It is how we are spiritually encoded. We are living, well-lit advertisements of God’s hope in this world. Never have I been very adept with foreign languages. Actually, French was my only C in college. But hope is not a foreign language. It is our first language as God’s beloveds. Think for a minute. Every time you even hear the word, “Hope,” your spiritual antenna picks up the signal. Every cell in your body rises to attention. The nerve cells talk to the brain cells who give the green light to “hang on” at your heart’s center. It commands: “We’re still in business.” “God has us.” “God will make a way.”
Sixteen years ago on Christmas Eve, my first-born son, Charlie, only ten weeks old, was diagnosed with Stage 4 Neuroblastoma. I could not have told you with any certainty what hope was, or even if it existed on that dark Christmas night. Flash forward sixteen years, and I know for certain that hope is my superpower. And it is yours too. Hope carried me through a child’s cancer, suffering the loss of a miscarriage, several touch and go childbirths, writing and delivering the painful eulogy for a dear friend who sadly took his own life and dozens more funerals for those I have loved and lost. This may surprise you, but I have felt hope the strongest sitting at the bedside of someone taking his last breath.
Hope is responsible for every brave, beautiful and redemptive vignette of my life. Hope daily saves me. Very few things I know for certain, but I do know this: There is always hope.
You may be wondering how you access your super power of hope? Simply, close your eyes. Trust God, whatever the circumstance. Surrender your will and expectations for desired outcomes, and watch how God, if you allow Him, will far exceed your expectations. Turn over your fears and disappointments, your present and your future, everything you are and love—-, even your death, to the One who loved you first, will love you after and onward.
In Jeremiah 29:11, God says, “I know the plans I have for you. Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” My favorite is Psalm 139 when God says, “I have searched you and I know you. I know when you sit down and when you rise up; I can discern your thoughts from far away. I searched out your path and your lying down, and I am acquainted with all of your ways. Even before a word is on your tongue, I know it completely. I hem you in, behind and before, and I lay my hand upon you. Where can you go from My Spirit? Or where can you flee from My Presence? If you ascend to heaven, I am there; if you make your bed in Sheol, I am there. If you take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there My hand shall lead you. My right hand will hold you up. If you say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night.” I’ll assure you the darkness is not dark to Me. I formed your inward parts; I knit you together. I made you wonderfully. In My Book I laid out the days of your life. When the day comes and I call for you, my beloved. There too I will be.
Some years ago, I lived in London for graduate school. I discovered a painting at the Tate by George Frederick Watts, entitled “Hope.” It reflects that hope is not a sentiment, but a choice. In the painting, a woman sits on top of a globe, and in her hand is a lute with all the strings broken, except one. She plays the lonely one with much gusto. The British author, John Berger says, “Always we are on the ledge, never without hope.” Life is never going to be perfect or easy or go exactly as you or I would like. And one day we will die. But until then play the one string relentlessly because as Paul assures us in his Letter to the Romans, “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance character; character hope. And hope does not disappoint.”
My Cliff Notes definition of Hope: Emmanuel. God with me. Forever and Always.
Sixteen Christmas’s ago, a friend helped awaken the definition of hope in me through this prayer. I return to it often.
Dear Child of Mine,
As you go through this day, know that I am gently protecting you. I am as near to you as your very breath, as close to you as your heartbeat. I can see the fragile state of your emotions. I know how close to the surface your tender feelings are. I am aware that the wick of your spirit’s inner light is flickering in the winds of your dilemma. But you are my child and I am on your side today. I will hold you in my love until you are strong again. Do not be troubled or afraid. Do not strive in you own strength, but lean into My love. Be strengthened by My Spirit. Find comfort in My Mercy.
The poet, Robert Frost, wrote there are always two roads. The truth: It is much easier to take the well-traveled path of cynicism and despair, especially when seemingly betrayed by life and faced with scary odds. Have the courage to choose to trust God and live daily in expectation of what redemptive and loving action God will do in your life and mine next. Look at Jesus. He embodies the lovely Frost line, “I took the path less traveled, and it made all the difference.”
Hope does not disappoint!
Are you longing this Christmas for a sign of hope then take a fresh look at the Christmas story. Over 2,000 years ago, God chose ordinary people, like you and me, to stand up and speak their definitions of hope into the world. Remember Joseph. What a remarkable human being. His life was certainly not how he would have planned and yet, he rose to the occasion anyway. Joseph chose to trust God and committed to whatever was necessary to make way for Love in this world. I especially admire Mary. She met her unlikely destiny with steely courage. Her secret: She trusted God no matter the circumstance. She walked head-up to stable and to cross. Listen to her tremendous declaration of hope: “God, I am Yours. Thy Will be Done.” And who doesn’t admire those Wise Men from the East? They had a hunch there was something more to experience, something even divine, and they faithfully followed the star. God is always presenting us with signs of hope. Could we want for anything else this Christmas?
I have a confession, my personal definition of Hope is not original. It was spoken first by that babe in a manger on Christmas morning, throughout his life, and most profoundly, from the cross. If you listen, Jesus is speaking it into you right now: God has you. All will be well. Love will prevail. Hope does not disappoint.
Many times the burdens of life and our fragile humanity weigh too heavily upon us. We forget our superpower. There will be days, where you or someone you love will stand up to meet a life situation and the words will not come. The despair, thick. This is where God is infinitely wise. He gave each of us enough hope that we can share some with each other. There is a scene in Exodus where Moses and the Israelites are wandering in the desert and out of no where they are attacked by raiders, the Amalekites. Moses goes up on the hill and raises his arms on behalf of Joshua and the Israelites as they engage in the toughest battle of their lives. When Moses’ arms are raised in hope, the Israelite’s prevail against the enemy. We are told that Moses’ arms grew weary trying to bear the burden of the struggle. He dropped his arms, and the enemy took the lead. Aaron pulled a “Clark Kent Superman” and rescued the flagging Moses. Aaron held Moses’ arms up for him until they secured victory. God never meant for us to fight life’s battles on our own. He gave us one another so that when we lose hope, an Aaron can come in for the rescue. God affords us little victories throughout our lives in preparation for the ultimate Victory: our return to God.
Do not keep your super power hidden. Let it out! Hold up another’s arms until they are strong again. One day coming you’ll need an “Aaron” to hold up your arms. Every time you speak a word of hope into another, the Christmas story lives on. We, as God’s people, prevail. What our world needs this Christmas is ordinary people like you and me wielding that extra-ordinary superpower called Hope. Wear your metaphorical superhero t-shirt and declare the God-given truth: I am hope! And God’s hope does not disappoint.
Now let us go and Live in Hope.
Receive the blessing by the Archbishop Desmund Tutu from one of my favorite’s, The Book of Joy:
Dear Child of God,
You are loved with a love that nothing can shake, a love that loved you long before you were created, a love that will be there long after everything has disappeared. And God wants you to be like God. Filled with life and goodness and laughter and joy.