Living with Hope

Isaiah 40: 21-31

Some have read Vaclav Havel’s writings of political protest that he penned before he became President of Czechoslovakia. A poignant essay that he wrote on the concept of hope was inspired not through incarceration as a political prisoner, but from an experience he had one evening as he left a bonfire feast. A friend needed help walking home, and during that walk Havel fell into an open manhole cover. He began to sink into sewage and struggling made him sink even faster. A half hour of failed rescue attempts brought the sewage up to his chin! Finally someone brought a ladder and he was able to escape. Two months later he waspresident of what came to be the Czech Republic. He cites that experience as teaching him a very tangible lesson about hope. “Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism,” he wrote. “It’s not the conviction something will turn out well, but the certainty something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” I am certain you can imagine all of the lessons of hope (figurative and literal) that predicament taught him!

That things will make sense in the end is a unique way to define hope. Most of us see hope as pertaining to visualizing and achieving a goal. Havel sees it as the certainty that things will make sense no matter what happens. Hope has many definitions and has always been an ideal of greatest importance. Even an abbreviated look at philosophical and theological literature shows that hope has been a major preoccupation of humanity. Throughout the Old Testament and in Greek mythology we learn about the precious nature of hope. The Greek myth of Pandora illustrates that when the evils were let loose upon the world, the only good spirit left in the jar that did not escape with the others was hope. Hope needed to be released in order to make human life bearable. Hope is always the last thing to go, isn’t it? When we lose hope we have lost everything needed to deal with life, so we are always looking for it.

We can always find plenty of hope in sports. First Peter 3:15 states that we should always be ready to give a reason for the hope that lies within. If we want to live Biblically, this teaches us that we should be ready to show why we hope our team will win. Sports administration theory has a term called Competitive Balance that includes hope as part of its equation that predicts a team’s season. In this field, hope is defined as a “dynamic and binary forecast for a team’s ability to engage in post-season play, made by consumers of that team (encompassing passionate fans, casual fans, and non fans, especially those in the market for consuming a game).” Yes, hope is more than the opposite of despair, which comes from the Old French despoir, meaning a complete lack of hope. Hope is something that depends upon tangible circumstances that help us and provoke us to formulate dreams for what lies ahead. Hope is the energy that moves the world forward. Because hope is so powerful, many ancient writers urge caution. “For Hope, wide wandering, comes to many of mankind as a blessing, but to many as the deceiver,” the choir sings in Sophocles’ Antigone. Plato and Aristotle wrote that hope held a dangerous negative power as well. Hope was able to lead people astray. In the Old Testament and in the New Testament we are taught that by our very nature we must hope. And in the Bible hope is seen as the map we follow in the journey of God’s plan. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas illuminated this idea — that God gave the gift of hope to humanity and intends for us to seek and follow God’s future in a spirit of hope. Augustine focused on hope as our way to endure sufferings. Aquinas writes with a more positive focus — that Hope’s purpose is to lead us toward eternal happiness. Each theologian shares the idea that hope is linked to salvation both in this world and the next. It is as if they believe that hope is the glue that makes all good things of God stick to life.

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant included hope in the big three questions of humanity: What can I know? What ought I to do? and What may I hope?

Kant wrote that hope was the motivating factor when people search for meaning. He connected hope to morality, as if hoping was both the cause and effect of what makes us true moral beings. Gabriel Marcel, a 20th century French existentialist, expanded Kant’s third question “What may I hope?” Marcel’s writings invite us to see hope as an exercise in primal thinking. He writes that technology and our approach to life sometimes make the world more of a problem to be solved, then a mystery to be experienced. He writes that we have been taught to regard nature, and this includes human nature, as something to be analyzed. Marcel considers hope a primary reflection in which we see mystery surrounding our experience like a sphere. Hope is what allows our life experience to move forward in this mystery, rather than being stopped in its tracks by empirical evidence or understood according to biological or social laws. Marcel does not diminish the role of scientific thinking; rather, he gives energy for even more imagination and creativity by making hope the key that unlocks the doors to the mysteries of the world.

Each of us has had moments in our lives when hope felt so tangible we could have poured it from a cup. I’ll never forget my summer of hope. My father was at the end of a battle with cancer. I remember seeing him for the first time — he was so white he looked like a ghost — and he must have seen it in my reaction, because he said, “It is still me in here!” Later when I spoke about the future I said that I hoped to be accepted at Princeton seminary, hoped that my girlfriend Christine would accept my proposal of marriage, and hoped he would get well and perform the wedding ceremony. “That’s a lot of hope,” he said, “but hope is so good, and it’s good to hope, it’s always good to hope.”

I believe I hoped more in that summer than I ever had before. Yes, we can learn to hope, and recently science has confirmed that hope is something that can be learned just like tennis or dancing. Richard Davidson, the world’s leading neuroscientist specializing in how the brain handles emotions, writes that the brain is so malleable, that even if you were born with a gloomy disposition, or if life has been anxious and dark, you can train your brain to have hope. If you are thinking that business leaders in our struggling economy need to be trained to have hope, take heart, help is available! Just in this decade there have been great advances in the study of hope and its application to business. Researchers at Arizona State University’s Center for Responsible Leadership have addressed the neurological basis of effective leadership and its relationship to hope. Maybe you read about this project in the Wall Street Journal or in Business Week recently. Electrodes were fastened to executives’ heads in order to gauge their hopeful thinking. The leaders could observe their brains’ activity during hopeful thoughts. The optimistic, hopeful thinking looked much different on the brain maps than the pessimistic thought processes. Since it has been shown that leaders are more effective, efficient, and productive during hopeful thinking, if leaders could realize their hope and train themselves to be more hopeful, it follows that they would be much better leaders. Arizona State University’s MBA program even includes a course entitled “The Neuroscience of Leadership” in which students observe their mapped brains in an attempt to train their brains for “optimized leadership behavior.” Mark Thorton’s Meditation in a New York Minute is one of the required books for the course. We have learned from Buddhist monks who devote their lives to hopeful, positive emotions. I am not suggesting that we should become Buddhists monks, of course, but we can learn meditation in a New York minute! There is a study that suggests that thinking hopeful thoughts for 30 minutes a day can train the brain in just two weeks.

IBM employed a consulting strategy in 2005 that centered on hope. 300 of their top executives were part of a program called Collaborate for Growth. The executives recalled moments of hope in their lives and then learned to apply these memories to current business challenges. Maybe this study of hope prepared them for our economic crisis! We are all worried about this crisis, and I am beginning to worry about how this daily grim news will affect our children. Children’s level of hope has been linked to high grades, high IQ scores, higher SAT scores, and social stability. Several projects in our decade have attempted to teach children how to hope. There was a program called Making Hope Happen that paired students with a hope buddy so a hopeful attitude could be mentored. Children were asked to take pictures of things that gave them hope and then to narrate meaning and paths to realization. Children were asked to draw trees with short roots and trees with long hopeful roots. The branches were goals and concrete strategies.

Hope provokes us to action. Jurgen Moltmann’s Theology of Hope was the inauguaral text of the political-theology movement which emerged in Europe as a critical reaction to Christian existentialism. You might call it a response to Gabriel Marcel. One example of that type of hope would be a valiant effort to stop the cycle of genocide in Rwanda. The program Mizero Children, which means children of hope, features Rwandan children in traditional costumes dancing to rhythmic drums. The goal of this program is to prevent another genocide from coming in 20 years as revenge for their murdered parents. John Paul Samputu, an internationally known singer and songwriter, best known in this country for his 2005 performance at the National Civil Rights Museum for Freedom Award recipients, created and led the program to counter the vengeance created from 1 million people being killed in a 90 day period. The children’s singing and dancing group toured around with this message of hope. “These children will not kill because they have the joy of forgiveness and God in their hearts. They are healed of the anger. . . “ Samputu states. “God healed me and told me to forgive the people who killed my parents. I forgave them through the power of God,” he said. “The orphans have one father,” Mr. Samputu said, referring to God. “If you want to have a future you have to help the children. If you don’t teach them, they will have another genocide. They will have revenge.”

How wonderful that he is trying to stop another genocide. Yes, a cycle of evil can be stopped by hope. Some have said that he is giving false hope. I do not think so. False hope comes from an immoral premise. For instance, on June 18, 2004, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York sentenced Jason Vale to sixty-three months in prison and three years of supervised release for defying a court order to stop advertising and selling Laetrile to cancer patients. Lester M. Crawford, acting commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration at the time, said “There is no scientific evidence that Laetrile offers anything but false hope for cancer patients, some of whom have used it instead of conventional treatment until it was too late for that treatment to be effective.”

That is false hope! Yet there is a hope that is imaginative, pure, and linked to the eternal. Here is an example of that.

In the documentary Making Every Moment Count, a pediatric hospice nurse talks about a 17-year-old girl named Rachel who underwent lung transplantation for cystic fibrosis and who was very likely to die in the next few years from chronic rejection of the transplant. According to the nurse, “Rachel said very seriously that when she is to die, she wanted to be here in Canuck Place (a pediatric hospice facility), in a hospice surrounded by friends and family, and surrounded by people that knew how to take care of her…and she was talking about the nurses and the doctors that can help her not feel scared.” The documentary shifted when Rachel said, “I have another way that I’d like to die…I would like to be sitting on my front porch, wrapped in an afghan in a rocking chair and my husband holding my hand.’” That kind of hope is not false hope. It is a beautiful hope that keeps the goodness of the mystery of God alive in the hearts of humanity. Sometimes as Christians we are faced with bad news or bad attitudes that challenge us to lose hope. British guerilla graffiti artist Banksy visited the segregation wall that separates Palestine from Israel a few years ago. He was painting the wall with beautiful images, such as the silhouette of a girl holding a bunch of balloons that were carrying her to freedom above the wall. An old man approached him and said that he made the wall look beautiful. Then the old man said that he didn’t want the wall to be beautiful. He hated the wall and wanted Banksy to go home.

That illustration has nothing to do with the wall itself, but everything to do with the feeling we have when we realize that what we are doing, saying, or being, is seen by someone else as false hope. “Hope begins in the dark,” writes author Anne Lamott. The miracle of Christianity is that hope began when God said let there be light, and that hope defeated death in the darkness of the tomb when Jesus broke forth as the light of the world. God created us as hopeful creatures, it is the energy of our souls. Emily Dickinson wrote “Hope is the thing with feathers – that perches in the soul – and sings the tune without the words – and never stops – at all.” Maybe she was inspired by the prophet Isaiah who gave us our scripture for the day. Those who wait upon the Lord shall rise up with wings as eagles. When you are challenged to give up hope, remember to wait upon the Lord. Yes, hope is a thing with feathers that perches in the soul. We need to have hope in our business life, our family life, and in our struggles as humans because hope is our positive energy that brings life. Remember, not only can we train our brains to hope, we can teach others to hope. English poet Alexander Pope wrote “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.” When you feel as if you have no hope to offer, remember that hope springs eternal within you because of God’s eternal love. You may be challenged to pour a cup of hope this week. Pour out that eternal living water of hope, and remember, hope is good, it is always good to hope!


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