January 21, 2018

Magnificent Trilogy of Durability, II: Hope

Passage: Mark 2:1–12; I Corinthians 13:8–13

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And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
—I Corinthians 13:13


 Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.
Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense
in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.
Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.
Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History, 1952


It’s almost never a good idea to edit one of the most accomplished poems in world literature, but let me take a shot at paraphrasing St. Paul: “As for our little lives, they will one day come to an end.  As for splendid Rome herself, she will one day cease to be.  As for the Christian Church, it will also pass away.  As for the ancient, towering Alps, they will one day be worn down flat.  As for the universe itself, it will one day be no more.  Only three things abide—faith, hope, and love.  And the greatest of these is love.”

They are the three eternal verities, says St. Paul: faith, hope, and love.  Martin Luther King called them a “magnificent trilogy of durability.”[1]  St. Paul doesn’t pause to explain why he thinks faith, hope, and love are the three things that will remain, but twentieth-century American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr takes a decent swing at an explanation.

“Life is a mystery,” said that renowned theologian Madonna.  Life is a mystery.  It’s cryptic, it’s complicated, it twists and turns, the road is full of potholes and fallen trees.  Therefore, we are saved by faith.  Without sufficient evidence, we must trust that the universe is being led home by a divine benevolence.

Life is a mystery.  Life is also long, longer than the span of our breathing existence. Therefore, we are saved by hope, hope that someone will carry on for us when our finite lives shuffle off this mortal coil.

Life is a mystery, life is long, and life is hard, harder than we can bear on our own, we get lonely.  Therefore, we are saved by love.

Hope is one-third of that magnificent trilogy of durability. Hope is what sustains us when feebler, less permanent things disappoint us.  Flesh is frail, and the heart duplicitous, and even earth’s dense and ancient fundament of rock is transient, but hope is in God, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

Hope is what we live by when the biopsy comes back positive.

Hope is what sustains us when the partner we thought we’d grow old with walks out on us without warning or apology.

Hope is what lasts when we lose a job at the age of 52.

They can deny us opportunity but not our will to succeed.  They can tell us we’ve got six months to live but we can prove them wrong and live large till there’s no breath to breathe any longer.

Is it fitting in Chicagoland to use the Green Bay Packers as a parable of hope? You have probably heard that the waiting list for season tickets at Lambeau Field in Green Bay is 40,000 names long.

The Packers estimate that six or seven season tickets become available every season. At that rate it will take 6,000 years before you get your ticket.[2]  Now, Lambeau Field is an enduring institution, but I think it’s safe to guess that it will not be here in the year 8000, and safer yet to assume that YOU won’t be.  Still, hope springs eternal in the Cheesehead’s heart.

Here’s another: a 93-year-old woman entered a retirement facility with a full spectrum of care, like Presbyterian Homes or The Vi—she’d be there for the rest of her life—and it was very nice but very expensive, of course, and though she had ample resources to support her she worried constantly that her funds were draining quickly away, and she obsessed about it so much and so often that her son-in-law sat down and took a whole afternoon to calculate her expenses against her reserves and when he’d completed his calculations he told her, “Don’t worry, Mom.  I’ve figured it out and you have enough money to live here for another 16 years.”

She was crestfallen.  “But what will I do then?” she protested.[3]  She was 93!  Let’s see: 93 + 16 = 109.  I like her attitude.

Ernie Banks died at the age of 83 on January 23, 2015; that’s three years ago this Tuesday.  His obituary was so wonderful.  They asked Glenn Beckert, who played second base for the Cubs when Ernie was at shortstop, what Ernie was like, and Glenn said, “Ernie was the eternal optimist.  You’d spend spring training in Arizona, where it was sunny and 80 degrees every day, and then you’d fly back to Chicago for opening day.

“We often opened at Wrigley against the Cardinals, and of course there on the mound would be the invincible, frightening Bob Gibson.  It would be gray, cloudy, 32 degrees at Wrigley, it would start snowing in the sixth inning, and Ernie wanders over to second base and says, “Isn’t this a great day?  We’ll keep nice and cool, so we don’t get overheated.”

In 2013, President Obama awarded Ernie the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award.  Ernie remembers: “I handed the President a bat that belonged to Jackie Robinson.  He wouldn’t give it back.”

The Medal ceremony was three years before the Cubs won their world championship, of course.  It would have been 108 years since the Cubs last championship.  The President said he admired Ernie’s slugging very much—19 years, every one as a Cubbie, 2,528 hits, 2,583 hits, 512 home runs—but what the President admired most was Ernie’s undying hope that someday the Cubs would go all the way. And that’s serious hope,” said the President. “That is something that even a White Sox fan like me can respect.”[4]

Did you see or read Aly Raisman’s testimony at the trial in Lansing of Dr. Lawrence Nasser, the so-called ‘doctor’ for the American women gymnasts?

Aly is 23 years old.  She has won six Olympic medals in gymnastics, three of them gold, in London (2012) and Rio (2016).

The other day in that Lansing courtroom she looked her abuser in the eye and said, “I am here to tell you to your face, Larry, that you have not taken gymnastics away from me. I love this sport, and that love is stronger than the evil that resides in you, and in those who enabled you to hurt many people.”[5]

So hope is partly hard work.  It is an attitude, a determination not to be defeated by pervy people or sinister diseases or callous authorities. It’s a clench of the jaw, a grit of the teeth, a squaring of the shoulders, that posture that says, “Go ahead, Fate, bring me your worst.  You have no idea whom you’re dealing with here.”

Hope is an attitude.  But it’s also a perspective.  The other day in The Times Nicholas Kristof wrote a column with a very un-Kristoffian title: “Why 2017 Was the Best Year in Human History.”[6]

I was skeptical.  2017: in Las Vegas, the worst mass shooting in American history; in Puerto Rico, Hurricane Maria; in Florida, Hurricane Irma; in Texas, Hurricane Harvey; actually two Harveys, one in Texas and another in Hollywood at Miramax, this whole tawdry scandal of unbridled, unheeding male sexuality; in Charlottesville, white supremacists come out of the closet we thought they were hiding in and begin shouting publicly what they’d only dared whisper before; in the District, blunt, thoughtless, unsmiling leadership with no sense of humor or humanity.

But Mr. Kristof and others like him want us to take a longer, broader, larger view.  Bill Gates points out that around the world childhood deaths have fallen from 12 million in 1990 to five million in 2017. The goal is to cut that figure in half again in 12 more years, by 2030.

Mr. Gates points out that not so long ago, many Africans would wait until their baby was four months old before they chose a name for her, because infant mortality was so common.  You can’t waste good names.  Today, that doesn’t happen as often.[7]

In his recent book Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari points out that for the first time in human history, more people die from obesity than from starvation.  More people die by their own hand than are killed by soldiers, terrorists, and criminals put together.  The average American is a thousand times more likely to die from binging at McDonalds than from bombing by Al Qaeda. A while back I officiated at the wedding of my good friend Wendy to the love of her life—Thelma.

Someone put it like this: “Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory.”[8]

Hopeful people are like those superheroes The Guardians of the Galaxy, right?  Hopeful people are Guardians of Tomorrow.  Hopeful people live as if their nation, their civilization, their planet, this universe, will be here a long time after they are gone.

Now, they might be wrong about that.  A killer asteroid or Kim Jong Un or an influenza epidemic might wipe most of us out tomorrow, but hopeful people live as if that’s not going to happen; they live toward goals and futures they will never see.

And so hopeful people plant trees under whose shade they will never rest, and start college funds for grandchildren whose graduations they will not live long enough to see, and donate university science centers they will never once step foot in after the dedication ceremony.

They not only conserve fossil fuels but plan for a day in the very near future when cleaner energies will make fossil fuels unnecessary. They live in such a way that the water and air they leave their children will be cleaner than it was for their parents.  They don’t live on the earth as if it were a hotel room that somebody else will have to clean up.  They don’t leave trillion-dollar budget deficits for their grandchildren to pay up.

Someone put it like this: “We must live by the love of what we ourselves will never see.”[9] Yes?

I love the story of the beetlely oaks of New College Oxford.  Do you know the story of the beetlely oaks of New College Oxford?

New College is called New College because it wasn’t founded until 1379; it’s not even 700 years old yet.

New College Oxford has this magnificent dining hall with a tall ceiling.  It looks a little like the Great Hall at Hogwarts Castle. The roof of the dining hall is held up by these ancient, massive oak beams, two feet square at their thickest and about 45 feet long.

A hundred years ago, early twentieth century, one of the university’s entomologists started poking around on the ceiling and pressed his pen knife into one of the beams and discovered that they were riddled with beetles.

Well, what do you do?  Where do you find timber that impressive in the twentieth century?

A Junior Fellow heard about the dilemma and suggested they visit the College Forester.  These Oxford and Cambridge colleges, you see, have parcels of land all over the UK that have been endowed to them, and they have Foresters.  Maybe there was a grove of oak trees somewhere on college lands that could replace the beetlely beams.

Well, the New College Forester hadn’t been on the main campus in years, but when they tracked him down in the forests of the kingdom and told him their dilemma, he just tipped his hat and said, “Well, sirs, we was wonderin’ when you’d be askin.”

College Foresters, you see, know that all oak beams go beetlely eventually, so when New College was founded in 1379, they’d planted a grove of oaks for the College Hall.  This plan had been passed down from one Forester to the next for 500 years: “You don’t cut them oaks.  Them’s for the college Hall.”

That story is probably apocryphal, but there’s enough truth in it to express the point: Somewhere among the oak groves of New College Oxford, there were trees that had been protected and nurtured, down the generations and down the centuries, for TOMORROW.

“We must live by the love of what we ourselves will never see,” because “nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope.”[10]

 

[1]Martin Luther King, Jr., in a sermon in Atlanta entitled “The Meaning of Hope,” quoted by Richard Lischer in “The Word That Moves: The Preaching of Martin Luther King, Jr., Theology Today, vol. 46, #2, July, 1989, 173.
[2]Bill Pennington, “Super Bowl XXXII: the Fans; A Slice of Life: Cheeseheads Are More Than Cute,” The New York Times, January 25, 1998.
[3]Reported by Mary Scott, The Reader’s Digest, March, 2005, p. 215.
[4]Slightly adapted from Richard Goldstein, “Ernie Banks, the Eternally Hopeful Mr. Cub, Dies at 83,” The New York Times, January 25, 2015.
[5]Full Text of Aly Raisman’s Statement, The New York Times, January 20, 2018.
[6]The New York Times, January 7, 2018.
[7]Bill Gates, “Hope by the Numbers,” Time, January 15, 2018, p. 40.
[8]Franklin Pierce Adams, quoted by Steven Pinker, “The Bright Side,” Time, January 15, 2018, p. 29.
[9]Rubem Alves, quoted by Margaret Wheatley in a blog, We must live by the love of what we will never see,” October 6, 2013, https://onetusk.org/2013/10/06/we-must-live-by-the-love-of-what-we-will-never-see/.
[10]Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1952. pg. 63.