December 2, 2018



Roger Martin is a crafty fellow. He asked me a few weeks ago to give a little talk on the subject of hope. I thought to myself that it would be a pleasant exercise akin to watching an uplifting movie on the Hallmark Channel. Of course, I said yes to Roger. It was only after I looked more closely at his emailed request that I realized I’d been had. I got the feeling I get when Joanna asks me to do children’s time and the subject turns out to be the nature of the holy spirit, or she asks me to read scripture, and all the names are six syllables long with only one vowel.

Roger suggested that I think about how my own sense of hopefulness had changed over the years and the role my religious faith played with those feelings of hope. This was getting awfully personal, and I began to fear that rather than being uplifting and instructive, my talk might instead be dispiriting and bewildering. To explain in part, let me introduce my first prop—the U-shaped curve. It’s my understanding that people’s sense of hopefulness tends to follow this curved path throughout their lifetime, being higher in their youth, decreasing in middle age, and then rising again as one becomes older. Let’s just say that I am not especially young or old. But before talking about my waxing and waning hope, I’d like to consider what hope is.

One of the songs we sing in this church tells us that hope is a candle. That’s a nice image—a bright flame to drive away the darkness and lead us on in the night. Unfortunately, we all know that candles can go out. The poet Emily Dickinson said that hope is the thing with feathers—another nice image: a brightly colored bird that soars into the air. But we also know that birds can fly away. (Let’s not even consider what hope would be if it were a candle with feathers—which sounds like a very dangerous combination.) In any case, these metaphors for hope reflect my perception of hope as being comforting and inspiring, but also fickle and transitory.

But what about the nature of our hopes? What do we hope for, aspire to? I can’t help but think of the Henry David Thoreau observation that “The youth gets together his materials to build a bridge to the moon, or, perchance, a palace or temple on the earth, and, at length, the middle-aged man concludes to build a woodshed with them.”

In other words, our hopes change from the grandiose dreams of our youth—I hope to get rich and famous, to the more practical ones as we age—I hope the doctor remembered to phone in my prescription. All kidding aside, I think that if we truly practice what we preach, our hopes evolve from hoping for good things to happen to ourselves to hoping for good things to happen to others, our communities, and the world. Thus, I hope I get a big bag of candy becomes I hope everyone has enough to eat; I hope I live in a mansion becomes I hope everybody has decent shelter.

And this is where I find my hopes being informed by my faith. Over the course of my life, as I’ve pondered more often Jesus’s teachings of humility and selflessness, the scope and focus of my hopes have changed. Gone is the grandiose dream of the freshly minted high school graduate who will save the world with an amazing invention that will also make me rich and famous. In its place now is my hope that my children will have a good day at school or that my small, imperfect efforts might make somebody’s life a bit more bearable. Although I haven’t come up with any great inventions, I have to boast I’ve got quite a flair for pouring milk at LINK where our church helps feed people. I hope that the guests there get all the milk they want to drink and that it tastes good.

I think most of us would agree that it can be awfully hard to be hopeful these days with all the problems of the world. Again, this is another instance where I find my sense of hope being informed by my faith. I truly believe that Jesus has taught us how we should live. It’s as if we are trying to reach a destination, and someone has given us a map. I have faith that the map will get us there, but I sure hope we can do a better job of following the map. We can hope all we want, but we need something to underly those hopes, to sustain us when they grow dim. Again, I turn to Mr. Thoreau for some words of wisdom. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.

In whatever form my hopes may take—be they grandiose castles, soaring birds, or flickering flames–my faith is the foundation upon which all these hopes must rest as they come and go, grow and shrink, and turn from inward to outward.

If this were indeed a Hallmark movie, I’d wrap everything up with a heartwarming, instructive conclusion. Instead, I’m afraid this is more like a show on the DIY (Do It Yourself) Network. I’d encourage you to think about your own hopes and how they have changed over time, how your faith influences your hopes, and whether it is time to build a bridge to the moon or just a simple woodshed. As for me, I hope I’ll be a little more suspicious the next time Roger Martin asks me to speak about something.