This is an article I wrote for my Lutheran community’s newsletter. It is based on the theme verse for our gathering next fall. It was supposed to be 500 words. It’s over 600 words and it was late. Whatever.
Jeremiah 29:11 For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.
As I’ve meditated on this verse the question that keeps coming to mind is “what is hope?”
When we use the word in 2010 it comes off as being vaguely wishful (“I hope you had a good birthday!”) or as a synonym for optimism. This second use is the basis for the shelves upon shelves of self-help books, both secular ( Firm Abs Flat Stomach: In Only 30 Days” ) and nominally spiritual (“It’s Your Time: Activate Your Faith, Achieve Your Dreams, and Increase in God’s Favor”)
But what does the Bible say about “hope?”
Two of the first passages that come to my mind are Romans 8:24-25 “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. for who hopes for what is seen? But we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” and I Corinthians 13:13 “And now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
So “hope” is one of the three things that abides, it’s not as great as love, it’s invisible and we have to patiently wait for it. But what IS it? Is it the same as faith? Is faith personal and hope communal? Is it time sensitive somehow? Faith is present tense and Hope is future tense?
In the Old Testament lesson for the Second Sunday of Lent, we are told that God promised Abram his very own descendents as numerous as the stars. What follows is that wild story about butchering animals for a covenant and Abram exhausting himself keeping the carion off the carcasus waiting for God to arrive and make the covenant. We hear that Abram “believed the LORD and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:6) But is that faith or is that hope? The LORD is very clear a few verses later that Abram himself will not see the results of any of these promises. Not only that, his descendents will live in slavery for 400 years before they are given the land that the LORD is promising them on this day. 400 years is a lot of patience. More than one human being can have!
Sometimes it’s easier to define something by defining what it is not, or what the absence of that thing looks like. What does the absence of hope look like to you? What does it feel like? For me the answer to that question is easy: it feels like despair and it looks like there are no choices but those that lead to failure. It feels like I’ve been abandoned by friends and family alike; that no one would understand what I’m feeling or be able to help.
And remembering those feelings led me to the word Lament. In his article “Where Two Realities Collide” (The Lutheran, March 2010), Pastor Paul Lutter says that lament describes two relialities: the reality of despair and the reality of hope.
“…hope in the present-tense reality of our lives is hidden. Hope that is hidden is not absent. Hiddenness and absence are althogether different.”
And he quotes Luther saying: “Hope means to expect life in the midst of death, and righteousness in the midst of sins.”
This I can understand intellectually, but sometimes I cannot muster up hope on my own. For me, it’s similar to Luther’s explanation of the third article of the creed: I cannot by my own reason or strength have hope.
So maybe the operative part of this theme passage is that Hope, like our faith and our salvation, is a gift of God?
Another question I have is this: The Bible is fairly clear and consistent in stating that faith should bear fruit and what that fruit should look like; take care of the poor, widow, orphan, sick etc. What are the fruits of hope?