Monday, April 26, 2010

Living Hope

In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. (1 Peter 1.3-4)

Keep Hope Alive

Reverend Jesse Jackson and I go back a ways—not as personal friends, but as fellow travelers in the gospel corridors of Chicago’s South Side. I was fortunate to discover this amazing universe not long after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., when African-American leaders and pastors scrambled to fill the vacuum he left. Rev. Jackson was the obvious heir apparent. His national profile was high, though not nearly as intense as it was locally. Passion and florid rhetoric had been his stock in trade from the start, as he ventured from the Chicago Theological Seminary to make his way through pulpits around town. While the public knew him as a civil rights activist and orator, we relished his prodigy as a preacher. Few equaled his depth and agility. He rarely spoke from prepared text. Even when he did, as his topic coalesced and the congregation’s response escalated, he usually left the page so the sermon could lead him. That’s when his gifts were most wondrous, for he seemed to pluck perfect verses out of thin air: a spot of Job followed by something from Paul matched with an ingot from Isaiah topped off with a bit of Mark.

Having witnessed this so often, to this day, listening to Rev. Jackson’s speeches and comments, I see his mind flash on this and that scripture, which he molds into secular syntax. This is certainly true with his trademark phrase, “Keep Hope Alive!” The evocation of Dr. King’s legacy is apparent to every listener. But those of us who know Rev. Jackson's dexterity with Scripture place its origins further back than the Civil Rights Movement. We hear 1 Peter 1.3-4 and its celebration of renewal and inheritance made possible by divine mercy. “Keep Hope Alive!” transcends Dr. King’s dream. It’s a cry for certainty, immutable trust that hope will be rewarded and justice will prevail.

A Life of Its Own

This “hope” business can be tricky, though. Without a fixed objective—a thing hoped for—it can easily get away from us, like a lovely kite that breaks free of its tether. And that’s typically how we lose hope. Rough winds and invisible currents snatch it out of our hands, leaving us with only the slender thread that connected it to us; we watch helplessly as it flies into the clouds, assuming a life of its own. Yet that’s Peter’s point when he writes, “[God] has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Hope has a life of its own. It’s a force that won’t be tethered to one outcome, or predictably respond to strings we attach to it.

A swift lope through the Old and New Testaments suggests our modern concept of hope as a thing we can have and cling to actually reverts to pre-Christian thinking. In hope-heavy books like Job, Psalms, and Proverbs, it’s generally referred to “my hope.” But the apostles write of hope in a much larger sense. Basically, hope has us. It’s very close to an entity we plunge into, a medium that surrounds and infiltrates our lives. This is what Peter means by “new birth into a living hope.” First-century believers closely associated hope with the imminent return of Christ. Yet their perspective on the Second Coming differed in many ways from ours. They preferred the term “parousia,” which literally means “transcending substance” or “divine presence.” Thus, parousia amounted to reunion with the Risen Redeemer and they firmly expected it would happen soon.

So great was this hope it encompassed every aspect of life to become something far more essential than a commonly held desire. It defined the Church’s mindset and behavior in every respect, as believers practiced hope in preparation for parousia. Thus, we hear Paul say “we rejoice in hope” (Romans 5.2) and the Hebrews writer refer to hope as “an anchor for the soul, firm and secure” (6.19) and Peter admonish us to “set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed.” (1 Peter 1.13) We’re instructed to abide in hope, to allow it to breathe and move through us. To keep hope alive and in operation as the precursor to parousia. To govern our lives as though the Risen Christ were present now in anticipation of His presence to come. This sensibility forcefully emerges with the incomparably brilliant explanation of faith in Hebrews 11.1 as “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”

More Than a Feeling

Hope is more than a feeling of optimism we harbor about possibilities. It’s our guiding principle, and since I’ve already invoked one 70’s single, I’ll add another that captures the nature of hope. It’s a living thing. And we live in hope exactly as fish live in water. Its certainty surrounds us, supports us, propels us, nurtures us, and sustains us. We keep hope alive because hope keeps us alive. It’s a powerful, interdependent relationship that must be protected so both can thrive. Doubt, logic, and fear poison hope. Consequently, they poison us. They steal our breath, weaken our systems, and cripple our will to live in hope. When we entertain unhealthy opinions and indulge in harmful behaviors, their pollutants destroy hope.

Hebrews 6.11-12 urges us to maintain “diligence to the very end, in order to make your hope sure. We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised.” Again, there’s the same connection Peter makes by connecting living hope to “an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade.” On the heels of last week’s Earth Day observances and the resurgence of ecological values, we should remind ourselves that our spiritual health, survival, and inheritance are predicated by healthy hope the same way the prospects of marine life rely on healthy seas. We have been born into a living hope. But if we don’t keep hope alive, we’ll be washed up on shore, saturated with poisons, lifeless, and without our rightful inheritance.

We plunge into hope. It encompasses and moves through us, much like the sea surrounds and filters through fish. We keep hope alive because it keeps us alive.

Postscript: Impossible to Resist

It’s a living thing… I’m taking a dive! (And anyone who says "Don't you do it!” simply doesn't know what he's talking about.)


Philomena Ewing said...

Hi Tim, I'm not sure if you got my earler post in response to this. I seem to be having some trouble aas i put comments on Claire's blog yesterday and they have disappeared too so I reposted
Please can you let me know if you got my earlier comment - if they are truly gone I will repost later.

Tim said...

Phil, this is all I've received so far. But Blogger seems to be a little cranky lately with comments--they come in late or don't show up in the count.

If it's not too much trouble, try again. If that fails, you can always send your thoughts directly to me at:

I'll post them for you!


claire said...

Hope is indeed a prime ingredient of our Christian life. All the poisons that try to hide hope do not come from Godde. This is what I try to remember.

Thank you for a lovely post, Tim. And timely too :-)

Tim said...

Claire, for reasons I can't surmise, my thoughts have lately been drawn to protecting our gifts--a sort of spiritually skewed environmentalism, if you will.

As one who lives near the water, like me, you know how easily some disregard the importance of keeping it as pure as possible. They forget what lives in these vast expanses and how fragile the ecosystem is. I see the same thing happening with hope. We toss all kinds of detritus and doubt into it and expect it to survive. It may for a while, but it can't be sustained. (Now I'm beating a dead horse, I think.)

I'm ever grateful for your comments here, Claire. They're a constant source of encouragement!

Peace, joy, and hope,

Philomena Ewing said...

Hi Tim, Please forgive me for the dealy in reposting. I am due to go away early next week and have been trying to get work all the work done before I go and so the blog has taken second place undfortunstely. This is a bit of a rush and I can't remember exactly what I put in the first post but this is the gist of it: What I like about your blog is that it is rooted in integrity of thought and feeling and when you write I know that it is born from deep reflection and rich spirituality.
I love the term “parousia,” which you describe as “transcending substance” or “divine presence.” as for me this is what happens ( even if rarely) when I feel as if I have broken through and made contact with God. It is hard to describe but I do recognise that there is a boundary between me and God when I am "in the world" and I have to stop and really switch off from the world to let God "in ". So that is why I like this post because it fits my own experiences so well. (The concept of parousia also fits in with liminal space which I am fond of and have written of in the recent past).I also like your idea of hope visiting us and yes, we do have to safeguard it and protect it so that it does not become sullied and worn out.
On a separate point, I am way behind with things at the moment and would like to follow up your recent radio appearance but I will do asap( if I can get it from UK) and look forward to this too.
Only a couple more day sfor me to post and then it is unlikely that I will be posting too much in the next couple of weeks as I will be out of contact so I wish you all the very best of God's love and care and look forward to reading when I get back.
Hope this one gets through !!
Many Blessings

Tim said...

Oh my goodness, Phil, take care of your work first of course! What I love most about the Web is that it can wait when it must.

I too love the concept of parousia--the ineffable presence of Christ now and to come. And I agree with you completely: we find it in the liminal space that bridges our lives and God's presence. I believe this is exactly what Jesus means by calling Himself "the Door" and "the Way, the Truth, and the Life."

Re the interview. The link to the audio archive is posted above; it too will be there when you return. In the meantime, safe and happy travels. I hope you find time to refresh and relax while you're away!

Blessings and much joy,