Hope Comes Last? Or First?

Hope Comes Last? Or First?

I was scheduled on the preaching roster at my Episcopal congregation for the Third Sunday of Lent this year, and it so happened that turned out to be the last Sunday we will meet for many weeks. Based on the Lectionary text of Romans 5:1-11, here’s what I said.


I have always had trouble with something Paul says in today’s passage. It’s never made a lot of sense to me.

He writes to the Romans: “…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.”

That just seems completely backwards from how I’ve seen suffering work. The endurance through suffering? The character? Those rarely come before the hope. From what I’ve seen and experienced, suffering without hope often produces despair rather than endurance.

I’m really not sure how the endurance and character even happen at all in the face of suffering if hope doesn’t come first.

But as I’ve wrestled with this passage, I’m wondering if maybe Paul and I are both right. Maybe hope comes both first and last, at least for those of us who are followers of Jesus.

Earlier in the passage, Paul writes: “since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.”

“This grace in which we stand.” For Paul, here, suffering doesn’t come into a vacuum. We are already standing firm in the grace we’ve received through Christ, then suffering comes and produces endurance, and character, and, finally, hope.

“This grace in which we stand” speaks to us of confidence and trust.

The writer Brennan Manning has said in his book Ruthless Trust that trust is the wedding of faith and hope. “Faith arises from a personal experience of Jesus as Lord,” he writes. “Hope is reliance on the promise of Jesus, accompanied by the expectation of fulfillment. Trust is the winsome wedding of faith and hope.”

That is the hope I believe must come first if suffering is to lead us anywhere other than delusion or fear or despair – “Reliance on the promise of Jesus” – on the grace he has given us access to – “accompanied by the expectation of fulfillment” – that we will share with him in the glory of God. It’s the hope that teaches us trust which comes first. When we trust, we have faith in someone whose love and goodness we have experienced, and we have an expectation – we hope – that love and goodness is taking us somewhere good, even when the journey is difficult.

It’s been quite a week for all of us. As we sat together last Sunday, I don’t think a single one of us had any thought that we were just days away from a pandemic and the need to cancel services and gatherings for the time being. And over this past week, it’s been overwhelming to hear stories from China and Italy, to hear doctors and epidemiologists warm us of how things could go if we are not serious about taking precautions, to have schools closed, events and church services canceled, to see grocery store shelves empty and rush hour traffic all but disappear.

Many people are frightened. Some are panicking, and some are denying there’s anything to be all that concerned about.

I know I’m worried about my folks – my step-father is in his mid-80s and has a genetic lung condition that makes ordinary colds dangerous, much less something like this coronavirus. I’m also struggling with anxiety about my own job security in an uncertain economy. I’m sure each of us has our own worries and concerns for our families and neighbors and ourselves.

Some people are suffering with a scary illness, and some of us are suffering from fear of that illness and its potential impact on our lives.

I learned a long time ago that fear doesn’t have to be rational to be real, and it can be hard if not impossible to reason away. I’ve struggled with anxiety most of my life, and I’ve learned that if I can manage to take a few deep breaths – literally – and keep going through the anxiety, that I learn I was stronger than I thought and the next time the anxiety comes, it’s a little easier to believe there’s something on the other side.

And that’s what has helped me understand what Paul may be getting at. If our trust is in Jesus and the God he reveals to us, when suffering comes, we can take a few deep breaths of that grace in which we stand, and move forward with endurance through difficult times. When we do that, we exercise the muscles of character and our hope is deepened and expanded to ever greater trust in the love of God. That allows us to reach out to others and share out of the hope we’ve both been blessed with through grace and worked to build through endurance.

So as we continue to walk the journey of this particular Lent, with all it’s unique challenges and trials, let us remind each other and ourselves that…

…we have hope that God is doing god things in and through us

…we can trust the Lord we have experienced as loving and good

…we can stand with confidence in God’s grace

…by that grace, we can endure the hardships and suffering we encounter

…we can grow through that endurance and our character will be strengthened

…our hope can grow greater because we see all God is doing in us.

And all of that happens both in our personal life with God and in our life together. May we continue to remind ourselves and each other of where our hope comes from in the days and weeks ahead.

Amen.

Lent and Living Saturday

Lent and Living Saturday

Lent isn’t pretty. It challenges us to look at the life we face each day, to look and really see. It calls us to be uncomfortable—to face sin, all that is wrong in us and our world, without looking away, acknowledge the hold it has us entangled in, and repent.

Lent is about death. Or at least it should be. Not just the physical death that awaits us all, or even that one death on a Roman cross two thousand years ago (though we’ll get to that), but the death that invades our lives every day. The death that sin—messing up and hurting each other—brings, both our own sin and the sin of others.

In our own lives, in the lives of people we pass, people we work with, people we sit beside in class, we are surrounded by invisible deaths every day. Dreams have died, relationships have died, hopes have died. Death is in our own failures and in the failures of those around us, the failures we have to live with whether they are ours or not.

But we are not made for death, and we can’t just sit and bear it without hope.

Most often, I try to find that hope myself. I try to find the problem I can fix or the reason that will let me understand how it will all turn out to be okay. I want the death to actually be an illusion: it only looks like death. And the more I turn from death, the more each death become invisible. Death is a denial of meaning, and I will insist on meaning. In my demand for answers, I want the hope first, even though it’s last in the list: suffering, endurance, character, and then, at the end, hope (Romans 5:3-4).

I don’t like that verse. Everything in me resists living in Holy Saturday.

Friday. The most horrific wrong. The most unjust death of all. On Friday it’s devastatingly clear: this is not the way it’s supposed to be. And on Saturday we have to live with that, with all the dissonance of what we don’t—can’t—understand. Sunday does come, not so much with answers as with life and hope. Sunday holds victory out before us, calls us to persevere. There is more, and that more is certain and sure.

But today is Saturday. We have to wait for Sunday, for that life that is surely ours but not yet.

I put a lot of effort into getting out of Friday and into Sunday. Lent tells me, stop. It’s Saturday. Face the dissonance. Weep. Get desperate. Live with the wrongness of injustice and death and this dying world.

Only then can I really hear the hope for all it’s worth.

Lent also tells me there’s an end to death. This is not how it’s supposed to be, and this is not how it finally will be. We live in Saturday, yes, but we’ve been shown the fullness of Sunday, and it is coming! Grace witnesses to that hope every day. Even as we begin to let ourselves see the invisible deaths, there is the grace of ordinary resurrections.

Ordinary resurrections: seeds of hope that come in this world. Death surrounds us, but so does life. And so I wait—trying to listen to Lent, to see both death and life—in Saturday.

Lent and Creating Kindness

Lent and Creating Kindness

Over the past couple of years or so I’ve been wondering about kindness a lot. I started being accused of it pretty consistently (which is my way of wrestling with hearing that people see it in me). It caught me off guard at first, and then as it became a pattern, got me to wondering.

If you’d ask me to describe myself, no matter how flattering I was tempted to be, it would’ve never occurred to me to use the word “kind.” It wouldn’t have occurred to me to use the word “unkind” either, but kindness had never stood out to me as something I was notably good at. So I wondered, what is it they’re seeing?

It seems connected to caring, and empathy. And I’ve thought that maybe kindness is one of the ways we understand love when it shows up in action. Love is abstract, and kindness is concrete.

So, “Love is patient, love is kind. Love does not envy, does not boast, and is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (1 Corinthians 13: 4-7)

It’s what love looks like on the ground.

And if people experience kindness from me? Or any of those other things? I’m deeply glad, because I know how very much I fall short of them every day. But I’m still puzzled, because while my background would understand these traits as a kind of automatic “fruit” of God’s presence in my life, I’ve come to doubt it’s ever that straightforward.

If there is kindness in me, how did it get there?

I’m beginning to suspect it gets into us through grief. More particularly, through grieving.

One thing about Lent that we tend not to notice so much anymore is how deeply it is tied to grieving. Sackcloth and ashes, fasting, the colors of black and gray and purple – all the stuff of grieving. And in the days when families practiced a period of mourning after a death, and widows wore their black “full mourning” and then their gray and purple “half mourning,” the practices of Lent would have readily evoked that mourning of a loss.

In a culture today that does so much to wall grief away and avoid it (rather than literally wearing it on our sleeves), Lent would pull us into grief. All of us. Together. Entering into grief with each other.

It’s not just about moving deeper into ourselves in our own personal grief, but remembering our grief and letting it move us towards each other, allowing another’s grief and loss to enter us, to connect to our own, and to connect us to each other.

That has the power to change us, and to plant kindness in us.

There’s a poem by Naomi Shihad Nye called Kindness. Part of it reads:

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

Whatever kindness there is in me, I can’t tell you how it grew to be there. But I’m pretty sure it was planted by loss and watered with tears. That it grows in the grieving Lent has taught me over the past fifteen years since I started exploring it.

Some years, Lent gives me the space to explore and express griefs I was already struggling with. Other years, it redirects my attention, away from whatever has my life buzzing along, towards grief and loss. I don’t usually like that – I’ve never come easily to sorrow. But over time I’ve learned that until I‘m willing to sit with it, grief will eat away at my life and turn into something that has very little of love or empathy or kindness in it.

There are particular moments when someone showed kindness to me that I remember as far back as my childhood. They are not the sorts of things that those who offered them would ever remember – a few words, a gesture of with-ness in an awkward moment. And those people had no idea of the griefs I was living with at the time. But their kindness was a gift of healing to me, and I remember.

I don’t think I will ever accept grief gracefully, but I hope I can let it grow a space of kindness in me.

Lent and Loving Outsiders

Lent and Loving Outsiders

Poverty looks like a lot of different things.

Don’t get me wrong, none of those things should overshadow the most obvious meaning: not having stuff. Basic stuff. Ability-to-live stuff. A roof over your head, food to eat, clothes to wear, water to drink that won’t make you sick stuff.

Never forget that is poverty, and far too many around the world and in our “rich” country live it every day.

Traditionally, Lent has been a time to focus on giving “alms” the poor. The first time I went to an Ash Wednesday service at the Catholic Church in my neighborhood, I received the ashes on my forehead and was promptly handed a small, flattened cardboard box that I was intended to pop open and fill with my Lenten contributions for the poor.

I love how hand-in-hand that was. “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return,” I was told. And then I was handed something that also told me, remember we are all dust and need to help each other along the way.

Lent is about self-denial to most of us, but self-denial is not the goal of Lent. “Fasting without praying,” a friend of mine once said, “is like plowing without planting.” Self-denial is pointless unless that space we create with it is filled and planted with something that will take root, and grow to bear the kind of fruit that changes us and changes the world.

The church mothers and fathers knew that seeing the poor is one of those things. And not just seeing in an observational way – though it is all too easy for the poor to become invisible to us. But seeing to identify with, to develop compassion for and empathy with.

That’s challenging. Poverty isn’t pretty. It’s exhausting. And it often hides.

It hides behind jobs that don’t pay a living wage. It hides behind rising housing costs that eat up grocery budgets. It set up camp in the underbrush of that lovely, tree filled nature grove in the park. It hides in cars where someone discreetly sleeps. It hides in open-hearted generosity. It hides in the family judgement and rejection that obliterate a safety net. It hides in discriminatory lending policies that prevent families from investing in homes and businesses to build that safety net. It hides in that job you could lose the moment they find out who you are and who you love. It hides behind court fees that keep people in jail or deprived of their license because they can’t pay them.

Poverty pushes people to the edges and makes them outsiders – people who live along the borders of expectation and what is legal and what life is “supposed” to look like.

Lent asks us to do a lot more than toss money or food at them over there at the edges of our lives (though that’s better than ignoring them altogether).

Lent asks us to go to the edges with them, to turn things upside down and inside out.

It doesn’t just ask us to keep bandaging up the wounds of those the system chews up and spits out (though for God’s sake, we should certainly be doing that!).

It asks us to take on that system. Bring the outsiders in, not by changing them to fit “inside,” but by changing “inside” (us) to include them – become uncomfortable to make a space they can breathe and rest and live in.

Love doesn’t just give to the poor. Love doesn’t even just go out to be with the poor. In a multitude of ways, Love makes a home with the poor.

“The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” With those people.