Recently I listened to a virtual talk by the author Barbara Kingsolver. Afterwards, she took questions from the audience and someone asked how she maintained hope during this time. She paused, and then with just the tiniest bit of sternness in her gentle voice, she said, “Well, hope is a duty.” She went on to say that if we love our children, if we love the generation that will come after us, we must have hope. To not have hope, she said, is like child abuse, because it robs our children and young people of something so precious, we inflict a kind of trauma on them. And then she said this:
What I love about Barbara Kingsolver’s explanation is that it understands hope to be a choice. We often talk about love being a choice, that we must choose to love people even when they aren’t particularly loveable in the moment, whether that is our spouse or our teenagers or a neighbor who has irked us. Kingsolver suggests that choosing to have and model hope is also a choice we must make each day.
In Corinthians 13, the Bible’s famous love chapter, Paul talks about faith, hope, and love enduring. No one suggests during times of crisis that we abandon love. And few would consider abandoning their faith, which we work instead to strengthen. But hope gets the short shrift. We talk about giving up hope or abandoning hope. We may choose to cultivate its opposite, a kind of cynicism. Yet Jesus showed hope for the world and its sinful inhabitants right up to the moment of his death. He asked God to forgive his persecutors. He promised everlasting life to the thief beside him. These are acts of hope for a world in the throes of deepest darkness.
So how can we as Christians make a choice to hope each day?
It’s important to make a distinction here between a passive, rose-colored-glasses kind of hope and a get-your-hands-dirty kind of hope that puts our longing for a more just world into action. I keep thinking of St. Teresa of Avila’s admonition, “Christ has no body but yours.” When I think about people who put on hope each day with their shoes, I think about the people working to serve our homeless and prison communities, people working within and alongside our institutions to end systemic racism, volunteers who are planting trees and thinning them, teachers who are working in new ways to help their students learn online, foodbanks and churches providing meals to hungry people, and our medical workers who risk their own health to fight the pandemic and heal its victims. These people are on the “front lines” so to speak of ensuring hope endures. They’re living it, sharing it, and growing it.
But I am not on these front lines, so what does it matter if I put on hope each day? I put it on for the people in my own life. I am trying to model it for my adult children, who are watching me closely. I put it on with my writing students because I believe that telling our life stories, when done with compassion, leads to forgiveness which transforms lives. And in my small way, I’m trying to put on hope for my sister. She has a mental illness which led to decades of drug addiction. At the beginning of the year she was incarcerated, but then she was paroled at the height of the pandemic. Her life is very precarious, and there is much I can’t change. But there is also a lot I can do to make her feel less alone in the world. The funny thing is every time I think I’m helping her in some small way, I end up feeling lighter, like some unseen force has lessened the pull of gravity on me.
Recently Matt Christman, a fellow member of Immanuel Lutheran in Boise, shared that he planned to put his Christmas lights and decorations up early this year as a way of carrying hope into the longer, darker days of winter. I found this to be a wonderful idea, and I think the whole concept of shining light is fundamental to this idea of choosing hope. When we do the get-your-hands-dirty work of hope through activities that will create a more just and peaceful world, we shine a light in the darkness. That is hope. And when we shine our light, it encourages others to do the same, to also commit to choosing hope as they put on their shoes each morning.