Where I live the sky has been particularly cloudy this week. And, of course, that feels about right considering the week we’ve had.
It’s been hard not to feel the dread and the gloom reflected in the sky from the national conversation we’re having spawned by Donald Trump and the local conversation we’re having in the part of the world where I live and that I love over, of all things, the appropriateness of religious guidelines for work parties at the local university.
In the midst of these controversies, whose flames are fanned by the 24-hour news cycle and the rage of the internet, it’s hard not to get depressed. That despair and depression comes because despite our own participation in the screaming and the shouting and the posting online and the need to be justified in our positions, we all deeply want to be part of something better. We want our lives to be about more than being right or having the right to be outraged or winning the battle of this particular day. We want to be part of a community and a country where we can move beyond the differences and the divisions and find a way to love one another and suffer with one another and rejoice with one another and experience meaning and healing with one another.
Of course, living that kind of life is getting harder every day. That’s why we’re disillusioned, because it is getting more and more difficult to imagine the life we really want as we deal with real fears about how to keep our families and loves ones and our nation safe while coming to terms with living in a world where distance and borders provide less safety and security than they ever have before. And so, when you put it all together it is really hard not to be resigned to hopelessness.
And as we race towards Christmas we are constantly reminded of that word – hope. It is in bold print on the magazine covers reminding us that this CAN be the year we have the perfect holiday meal – you know the one that inspires us not to plot to kill one another while reaching for the dessert. It is is on our screens as we watch one of the 235 sappy Christmas movies available to us on Hallmark or ABC Family. And it is on the lips of our friends as they remind us that we still have time to finish our shopping, we still have time to complete all of those projects, and we can still get into the Spirit of the season, whatever that means.
But in the midst of the stories that dominate our news and the lesser angels that seem to be winning the day, the hope we are being sold doesn’t feel nearly hopeful enough. It doesn’t seem to have the power and the weight to speak into the real problems and the real fears that so many of us are facing. The hope of the Christmas greeting card industry doesn’t feel like it offers enough to enable us to live into the big visions of our national story, much less the even bigger vision of the Kingdom of God.
That’s because it isn’t. With a nod to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the hope of December is cheap hope. But fortunately for us, the hope of Advent is the hope of the world. And the hope of Christmas isn’t an empty hope or a hope that we can move on from once the calendar turns to 2016. It is not a hope that you can toss away once you are done with it. That’s because true hope could never be called cheap, because hope isn’t a feeling. Hope is a presence that cost someone their life.
Hope is more than just an idea that makes us smile as we sip a warm beverage. Instead, hope is something we can count on because hope comes from God. We can depend on hope and we can cling to hope and we can hold on to hope in the worst of times because hope it is God’s gift that comes to us and stays with us. Because it comes from God, Paul can say with confidence that hope never disappoints. Instead, hope is what we experience when God pours love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5). Indeed, hope never fails because it comes from God, who said that the powers and forces of darkness never get the last word.
That’s why on Christmas Eve so many of us will punctuate our family dinners with a trip to buildings with a cross at the center and holy spaces punctuated with bright candles. We light those flames because we need to believe it is still true – now more than ever – that hope isn’t something you can extinguish. That’s one we’ve learned by experience – because God knows we’ve tried.
We make our way there because the essential truth of the faith happens to be the truth we need – that no matter how bleak it gets, darkness can never overwhelm the light. Light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overwhelm it – you might have heard that. And that light isn’t just a metaphor but a real presence that keeps you moving especially when you aren’t sure how you are going to take another step. That light is the hope that gives you the strength to keep going when the world has done its best to weigh you down and beat you up. That light is the hope that pushes you to reach out when it feels hopeless, the nudge to somehow believe that one small act of kindness and grace can make a difference in a world gone mad. More than anything hope is what leads you to boldly and defiantly hold up your light in a world that most days seems covered in and addicted to darkness.
A friend once told me that hope was at the heart of my theology, the core of what I believe about God. And that’s true – I’ve never been able to read the New Testament and come away convinced that hope isn’t real. The Bible I read describes a life with God that reminds us again and again that we are never resigned to who we have been and that there is never a situation that God can’t improve, redeem or transform.
2015 has been a year where I had to learn that again. It was filled with anxiety and stress and loss and despair accompanied by deep silence that only real pain can bring to your front door. What I’ve learned, or relearned I guess, is that real hope can’t be scheduled. Instead, it shows up when you need it the most and generally when you least expect it. Isn’t that the real message of this season when we remember that hope comes to us in a child who no one expected much out of who was born to parents that no one paid much attention to in a barn out back because no one could be bothered to make room for them?
Hope is a surprising thing. So maybe it should come as no surprise that as I drove home Wednesday night, despite it all the gloom broke. As I drove around a curve I was able to look back towards the city I have come to love. And as I looked back, I saw its downtown buildings and halls of its university. And above them as the sun worked to set, the sky dazzled, brilliant in hues of pink and orange. It was as if the atmosphere over our little corner of the world had a message for us all.
Hope is real. Hope never disappoints. Gloom and despair and darkness are ultimately powerless against the presence of light.