2016-06-30
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Excerpted from "Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope" with permission of Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

"Hope," the fantasy writer Margaret Weis wrote, "is the denial of reality."

I completely disagree.

Reality is the only thing we have that can possibly nourish hope. Hope is not based on the ability to fabricate a better future; it is grounded in the ability to remember with new understanding an equally difficult past-either our own or someone else's. The fact is that our memories are the seedbed of our hope. They are the only things we have that prove to us that whatever it was we ever before thought would crush us to the grave, would trample our spirits into perpetual dust, would fell us in our tracks, had actually been survived. And if that is true, then whatever we are wrestling with now can also be surmounted.

Hope lies in the memory of God's previous goodness to us in a world that is both bountiful and harsh. The God who created this world loves it and us in it, but at the price of our own effort, at the cost of our own craving for more of the vision, more of the depth, more of the truth of the life. The God who made this world has blessed it with good things, yes - but all of them take working at: coconuts need to be cracked, soil needs to be tilled, mountains need to be climbed, water needs to be conserved. God does not do this for us. God simply companions us as we go. God has given us in this unfinished world a glimpse of eternity and walks with us through here to there, giving us possibility, giving us hope.

The proofs of eternal rebirth are everywhere. Spring comes every year. Dawn comes every morning. Love happens out of hate. Birth absorbs the pain of death. And people everywhere look to Nirvana, to enlightenment, to reincarnation, to resurrection in the hope of eternal renewal. To the Christian, both the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus we see as proof of God's will for the world, and in the Paschal Mystery the demonstration of the cycle of struggle.

It is true that the Jesus who lives in us died but did not die. But just as true is the fact that we have all known resurrection in our own lives as well. We have been crucified, each of us, one way or another, and been raised up again. What had been bad for us at the time, we now see, was in the end an invitation to rise to new life. The invitation was to a road, we now admit, which we would never have taken ourselves if we had not been forced to travel it. Looking back we know now that this hard road was really the journey that brought us at least one step closer to wholeness in a world in which wholeness can never exist. It may be precisely because we lust after some kind of mythical whole-ness that we fail to see the life-giving truths that come to us one byway, one fragment at a time.

Hope is not some kind of delusional optimism to be resorted to because we simply cannot face the hard facts that threaten to swamp our hearts. People do die and leave us. Friends do leave and desert us. Businesses do crumble and destroy us financially. Loves do dry up and disappear. Desires do come to dust. Careers do come to ruin. Disease does debilitate us. Evil does exist. But through it all, hope remains, nevertheless, a choice.

Hope rides on the decision either to believe that God stands on this dark road waiting to walk with us toward new light again or to despair of the fact that God who is faithful is eternally faithful and will sustain us in our darkness one more time. We can begin to build a new life when death comes. We can reach out to make friends with others rather than curl up, hurt and angry, waiting for someone to come to us. We can allow ourselves to love again, knowing now that love is a prize that comes inmany shapes and forms. We can allow ourselves to cultivate new joys, new interests. We can take the experiences of the past and use them to mine a new life lode. We can give ourselves over to resisting what must be resisted whether we ever live to see it expelled or not. We can let go of a finished present so that what is about to happen in the future can begin. We can decide to go through life with open hands rather than to trap ourselves inside a heart closed to everything but the past.

Hope and despair are not opposites. They are cut from the very same cloth, made from the very same material, shaped from the very same circumstances. Every life finds itself forced to choose one from the other, one day at a time, one circumstance after another. The sunflower, that plant which in shadow turns its head relentlessly toward the sun, is the patron saint of those in despair. When darkness descends on the soul, it is time, like the sunflower, to go looking for whatever good thing in life there is that can bring us comfort. Then we need music and hobbies and friends and fun and new thought-not alcohol and wild nights and immersion in the pain that is killing us.

The worst thing is to dull rather than displace the pain with the kind of joy or comfort that makes us new. "Give light," Erasmus wrote, "and the darkness will disappear of itself."

The only difference between hope and despair is that despair shapes an attitude of mind. Hope creates a quality of soul. The Irish love to tell the story of Paddy McGarrity, who spent his life bemoaning all the circumstances of his life. Nothing satisfied him. But one particularly gracious summer day the sun burst out through the fog and rain of the country and spread over the Irish hills in a blaze of glory. Surely even Paddy would see the beauty of life in this! "Ho, Paddy," the parish priest called to him over the fence. "Isn't it a beauti-ful day!" "Ah, sure, Father," Paddy moaned, "but will it last?"

Despair colors the way we look at things, makes us suspicious of the future, makes us negative about the present. Most of all, despair leads us to ignore the very possibilities that could save us, or worse, leads us to want to hurt as we have been hurt ourselves.

Hope, on the other hand, takes life on its own terms, knows that whatever happens God lives in it, and expects that, whatever its twists and turns, it will ultimately yield its good to those who live it consciously, to those who live it to the hilt.

When tragedy strikes, when trouble comes, when life disappoints us, we stand at the crossroads between hope and despair, torn and hurting. Despair cements us in the present. Hope sends us dancing around dark corners trusting in a tomorrow we cannot see because of the multiple pasts of life which we cannot forget. Despair says that there is no place to go but here.

When I say that I am in despair, I am really saying that I have given up on God. Despair says that I am God and if I can't do anything about this situation, then nothing and nobody can.

Despair is the affliction of the small-minded who have not so much lost their faith as they have lost their memory. Hope says, remember where you have been before and know that God is waiting for you someplace else now, to go on again to something new.

Life is not one road. It is many roads, the walking of which provides the raw material outofwhich we find hope in the midst of despair.

Every dimension of the process of struggle is a call to draw from a well of new understandings. It is in these understandings that hope dwells. It is that wisdom that carries us beyond the dark night of struggle to the dawn of new wisdom and new strength.

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