Clinging to hope in a river of despair – Baptist News Global

On the last day of last year, I chose “hope” as my watchword for 2020.

Was I out of my ever-loving mind?

My friend Jeff suggested selecting a word of the year. He’s wise and faithful, a Christian others want to be like. His calm focus inspires me. Jeff said praying over and centering on his word of the year helps him set priorities, stay grounded and walk with the Lord.

For 2019, I chose “grateful.” I realized I often failed to count my blessings and took much for granted. Remembering “grateful” changed that mindset. The simple act of considering “grateful” caused me to see all kinds of reasons to feel gratitude.

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“Grateful” reminded me to appreciate God’s gifts. The big-ticket items – my wife and family, my job, our church, my friends – stood out naturally. But I savored little things I might have ignored. The smell of coffee. Technology that allows me to see my daughters and their children from my den, hundreds of miles away. The swing of my hammock. A sentence in a book; a line of a song.

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Flush with gratitude for “grateful,” I pondered a new word for 2020. This being a political year, I realized I would need hope. So, “hope” it is.

Hope would help me endure a contentious presidential campaign. And life being as it is, my spirit would need bucking up to withstand garden-variety disappointments. Will my plantar fasciitis heal, so I can run again? Will football, as usual, break my heart? Will my dog, Topanga, make it to Christmas?

As expected, year 2020 quickly set siege against my natural optimism. Throughout my lifetime, I have disagreed with presidents and other elected leaders. Never before in my lifetime have I feared for democracy, for the rule of law, for basic truthfulness and honesty, for human decency and kindness. And never did I expect big-steeple pastors to defend in a president the kind of moral turpitude that would get any youth minister in any church fired on the spot.

Looking elsewhere doesn’t help. No matter who is elected president, we’ll emerge polarized.

Nobody who seems to have a chance is campaigning from the center, calling Americans to follow our “better angels.” Congress couldn’t vote to lock the door and turn out the lights when they leave for the weekend. And the Supreme Court seems intent on overturning the definition of religious liberty that has stood for 228 years, opting for another definition, which would protect the privileged and persecute the minority.

That’s just for starters. Without really trying, we can think of more:

Raise your hand if you heard of coronavirus before this year dawned.

We’re nearly through the warmest winter on record, with ocean levels rising and weather crises developing more frequently and growing more catastrophic.

Every time I visit the United States-Mexico border, I meet refugees. These sweet people have fled orchestrated violence, political oppression, economic depression and/or environmental degradation. Their stories will break your heart, if you have one.

My alma mater, which I have loved 45 years, is shuttering its seminary. Yes, financial woes beset the school. But evidence also points to theological-political intimidation and manipulation reminiscent of fundamentalism’s successful takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention a generation ago. Another heartbreak.

So, I wake up in the morning and think about hope. What does it mean, anyway?

The “Sunday school answer” is God will win in the end, and all will be well. True, but not overly helpful.

Jesus sometimes spoke apocalyptically, but mostly he addressed the present. Jesus said the gospel is good news in the here-and-now, not just the sweet bye-and-bye. “The kingdom of God is at hand.” “Rise and walk.” “Daughter, take courage; your faith has made you well.”

Jesus offered hope in the moment, and the cosmic Christ still calls us to live in hope, even when despair seems strong.

Now two months into a new decade, I’m finding several reasons for hope:

God created every body, and the divine image exists in all people.

Like calls to like. And even though the signal is weak, perhaps every person – or at least any given person – will hear and heed. Maybe the person who claims to believe in God but does not believe he has sinned and the person who believes neither in God nor in sin will respond to the “still, small voice,” choosing to be part of the solution and not the problem.

Fire of adversity melts idols and refines their substance.

The church in America today is distracted and idolatrous. This is true across the theological spectrum. We trust more in marketing, or church-growth schemes, or hard work, or gimmicks or believing correctly (right and left) than we trust the Spirit of God.

When the fires of adversity burn all that away, maybe we’ll look and sound less like the prevailing culture and reflect more of the love and grace of Jesus. And maybe the challenge of testing will produce endurance and resilience and bedrock faith built upon a relationship with Jesus and nothing else.

Hard times enable us to demonstrate the love of Jesus.

Christianity grew when plagues decimated Europe. Christians’ divine love quenched their fear, and they drew near the suffering and dying. Only the Christians loved enough and were brave enough to face sickness and death. Love won, and the cause of Christ flourished. While we would not wish calamity on anyone, we know anguish provides the opportunity to show people Jesus loves them.

For plenty of reasons, unbelievers think worse of Christians than any other group. If we run toward pain and suffering with grace and compassion, we can change their perceptions for the glory of God.

We see through a glass darkly.

As we cling to hope, may we hold despair loosely. When we see hopelessness, we don’t see everything. God works in ways invisible to our other senses, and only through the eyes of faith can we imagine more, better grace. What we can’t comprehend now, we may give thanks for later.

I came of age in the old SBC. People who believed and loved as I did lost the “Baptist battles.” As cast-out ones, we wept bitter tears.

More than a quarter-century later, I see how God has blessed us beyond our imagining. Elders my age see a rising generation of lay and clergy leaders, unburdened by the scars of battle, prepared and ready to lead churches and nonprofits and schools and all sorts of ventures, prepared to embody the presence of Christ in a hurting world.

This year when I rise in the morning, I choose to think of them and of their Jesus, and I look ahead in hope.

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