“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.
Those who dwelled in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined.
For a child has been born for us, a son given to us,
Authority rests upon his shoulders, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Almighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
I was looking at these words earlier this week in preparing for one of the Christmas Eve services, and it stuck with me, the way Handel’s music does, the way a reading you’ve heard for forty-something years does. I read it after a colleague commented in staff meeting that there seems to be an epidemic of hopelessness right now. And then Isaiah’s words offered something I couldn’t name.
Today I heard an amazing person who works for the county in the Department of Human Services thank a bunch of us religious people because we offer hope. She said that without hope, there can never be change. And I realized that in the many trees of grief and pain and shock and despair, I had forgotten to take a step back and see the whole forest, whose canopy looks a bit like hope.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a story Jim Collins tells in Good to Great, a story about Admiral Stockdale, who was a prisoner of war in Viet Nam for three years and survived. Collins does better service to the story than this blog, but I wanted to share Stockdale’s words: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
Hope. Hope that brutality will not last forever. Hope that grief will feel more like a dull ache than an icy, rough piercing. Hope that things will get better, whatever those things might be. And for me, as a Christian who really does believe all this Jesus stuff, and the miracles, and the promises, hope that God has not abandoned us to our worst selves, that God is moving in the midst of all that seems turbulent and immoral and wrong.
I also have hope in the resurrection but it’s sort of the wrong season for that.
So I’ll be seasonally correct. I think Christmas is, more than anything else, about hope. It’s the hope that God is still at work. It’s the hope that the life of a baby will change the world. It’s the hope that God makes promises and fulfills them and we are better for that.
So what do I hope for? That we’ll figure out a way to prevent cancer and treat it more effectively. That we’ll learn how to be there for each other, and that we’ll get better at all the mental illness stuff. That we will never forget those who live in poverty, and that we will work tirelessly to make the deep changes necessary for poverty to be alleviated. That humane and thoughtful people will make the rules, with a real sense of liberty and justice for all.
Where I live in the Pacific Northwest, it’s weird to talk about God and say you believe in Jesus. The assumption is that you don’t go to church. But I have this hope, at least for those of us who are hanging in there with church (or temple or mosque) that God will poke us this season, and remind us of the Great Love that is not letting this world go to hell in a handbasket.
Hope makes things bearable and beautiful.