Meditation preached at a "Bread of Life" Noon Service, First Presbyterian Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Wednesday, March 24, 2010. “But hope that is seen is not hope.” What an astonishing thought. The point of hope as a Christian, Saint Paul tells us, is not that we see the basis for our hope, but that we have persevering and indomitable and unconquerably strong hope when we have no basis for it at all.
What a comfort this is. I would like to take a look with you both at the ways this fact can give us a sense of new possibilities, and also, how in the world it can make sense to hope when we have no basis for the hope.
I think the easy part of the question is why being able to have hope when we can’t see a reason for it is such an amazingly encouraging idea. If we are honest with ourselves, I think each of us can probably think of a major facet of our lives, or those of someone we love and care about deeply, where it isn’t easy to see a basis for hope. It could be an illness, a terminal one or a painful or disabling chronic one, for which doctors see no cure, and where God doesn’t seem to have it in His plan to provide a miracle. It could be a financial circumstance or a job situation which sharply limits the possibilities we or our loved ones have in our lives, and where there seems no way out of it. It could be a disrupted relationship that once was very important to us, and which there seems no way to fix. It could be a personality flaw or quirk that, despite prayer and best efforts, it seems impossible to live with, and like the “thorn in the side” that Saint Paul said he prayed and prayed to be delivered from, we just have to deal with it and make the best we can of life, in spite of it, taking advantage of our other, stronger points, and trusting in God to supply for what we cannot do.
We also may find areas where we don’t see a basis for hope in things we care about deeply for our country and our world. Whatever our political philosophy, liberal or conservative or independent, we probably have issues we care about deeply where, year after year, efforts to make a positive change always seem to go down to defeat. And there are human concerns that are not chiefly political that can break our hearts and never seem to change – human beings killing other innocent human beings, people starving or living lives of chronic hunger and want. Our list could go on and on. But I want to talk with you about hope, not grounds for discouragement. Why is it that we can have hope in these situations?
I once read a meditation that said that the reason we sometimes get discouraged, even when we are praying about our problems, is that we are looking at the problems, not at the Lord. The problems certainly can seem too big to solve, at least for us, and it can seem impossible to imagine anyone solving them. But no problem seemed too big for the Lord. When Jesus was told that there were five thousand people He’d preached to who had no way of getting food, He simply said to get the few pieces of bread and fish His followers could find together and to start feeding the people. And when His friend, apparently one of His best friends, Lazarus, was not only dead, but had been dead for several days, He told Lazarus’s heartbroken sister not to lose hope.
And He supplied hope. That, the great priest-psychologist-Harvard professor Henri Nouwen, who gave up his career to live in community with developmentally disabled people and to care for them, is the message of Lent and of Easter. In Lent, we live through the reality that we may feel that we, like Lazarus, are sealed inside a tomb built like the ancient Jewish tombs were built, with a great boulder around it that would take many people to push away, and there seems no way out. At Easter, he said, we awake to the reality that, no matter how deep the tombs in which we have been imprisoned, or have imprisoned ourselves, the Lord will raise us again to new life.
And this “will” part is the amazing part. The fourteenth century English mystic, Julian of Norwich, said that there are many people who believe that God is all great and CAN do all things, and that God is all good and WANTS to do all good things for us, but they still fail to believe that God WILL do all good things for us. But, she said, He Will.
So what does this mean? Does it mean that everything you are hoping for is going to happen, soon? Does it mean that just wait for Easter Sunday, and the loved one in a hospital ward will get a new diagnosis, that an unexpected inheritance will free you from the financial worries that are threatening a child’s ability to get a good education, that the chronic anxiety disorder or depression or bad memory that stands in the way of us being all we would want to be will suddenly go away? I wish I could assure you it will, and it is, of course, possible, that it will. But we know from experience that, more often than not, when we do find miracles, it will be like what the Presbyterian minister in Pennsylvania told a deeply discouraged member of my family 20 years ago: “There will be a miracle, but you will not recognize the miracle until long after it happens.” More often than not, at least in my life, what the Lord does is not to make our problems go away, but to stay with us in the midst of our problems, and somehow to give us a means of dealing with our problems.
I don’t know about you, but for me, it is quite rare to have an experience where it seems like God is directly telling me something to give me hope about something, but every now and then, it happens, and when it does, it is something to be cherished for years and years, and perhaps for the rest of our lives. I’d like to tell you 2 stories, one about when that happened to me, and one about when it happened to someone else who shared the story – on Garrison Keilor’s “Prairie Home Companion,” actually – I can’t remember the singer’s name, but I think he came from Texas, and in a minute, you’ll realize why I remember that part of it.
The singer and his wife were, like me, fans of that fourteenth century English Christian mystic, Julian of Norwich, and as I was to do later, they’d made a trip to Norwich to see the sites associated with her. They did it about this time of year, and when they got to the cathedral in Norwich, they saw an amazing site – the grassy space in front of the cathedral just covered with glorious, bright, beautiful daffodils, in gorgeous sunlight, revealing the beginning of Spring. And the next day, they went back to the cathedral, and saw something else which would probably not have surprised them if they’d come from Michigan, but because they came from much further South, made a deep impression. The weather had turned cold overnight, a deep snow had fallen, and all the daffodils were now buried under the snow. And this musician wrote a song about how that made him feel, which he sang on the show. “Ring out, oh bells of Norwich,” he sang, “and let the winter come and go. Ring out, oh bells of Julian, and tell the people what you know – Love is coming, like the daffodils, love is coming to us all, and all will be well again, some day.”
That is the Lord’s message. Our daffodils may be covered in snow. Our problems may not have an apparent solution. And – and I think this is often the toughest part – we may not be able to see the Lord, to have any sign at all of the Lord’s presence or the Lord’s caring and we may even – as Mother Teresa of Calcutta did, as Julian of Norwich herself did in the midst of her mystical experience of God’s love revealed in Christ – have to struggle not to lose our faith. We may wonder, as Jeremiah did at one point, if we have been deceived in what we believed about God, or we may wonder if we ourselves are bad people, not worthy of our faith, or perhaps not having true faith. The biggest part of our Cross is that our hope always has to be a hope that we cannot see, that we can’t find the basis for. But in the darkest moments of our lives, in the moments when there seems no basis for hope at all, the Lord IS still with us, whether we can see the Lord or not. Like the daffodils that are there under the snow, or like the Sun that is still shining somewhere above the clouds and therefore above us even when it is hidden by the clouds that are so often so thick in Norwich, England – or in Lansing, Michigan – in March, God is still there with us, knowing every sorrow that we face, our every tear heeded and, as the Bible tells us, some day to be wiped away. No matter how great the sorrow, no matter how seemingly insurmountable the problem, God is there. And if we look, not to the problem but to the God Who is greater than the problem, or to our memory of believing in God, or the faith that is so strong in someone else that we trust, we can know that, in ways we don’t understand, God will supply an answer of some sort, even if we don’t recognize it until years later.
I told you I was going to share a story about a time God gave me a hint, a glimpse, and I’ll close with that. It happened a very long while ago – I can remember the date because it was the day before a holiday, and it also had been one of the toughest weeks I’d ever gone through. Things were easing up, though, and I knew I was going to get through the struggle of that time. I was walking from my office to the train station to catch the train home from work, and as I walked through the square in front of it, I saw an older man singing and playing a guitar. I felt a little conflicted about whether to walk up to where he was and put a little money in his guitar case, but I decided to do it. And when I walked up close, I could hear the words of his song, and it was all about God, and every word seemed to fit my own situation. “He was there all the time,” he sang, “He was there all the time – you may not have seen Him when you wanted Him, you may not have seen Him when you needed Him, but He was there all the time.”
He was. And He is. And He always, always will be, even when you cannot see Him, even when you cannot see reasons for hope. For there truly is “Hope For What We Do Not See.”