Have you ever noticed that we say the word hope a dozen times a day? It’s so much a part of our daily thoughts and conversation that we rarely notice it. I hope it doesn’t snow. I hope the crowds aren’t too bad. I hope the mail comes soon. I hope you have a merry Christmas.
The weeks leading up to Christmas are truly a hopeful time, a time of looking forward and preparing for the biggest holiday of the year. Buying and wrapping presents, planning surprises, making lists for holiday meals, attending favorite holiday events. We look forward to hearing the Christmas songs on the radio; we love seeing the beautiful lights spread across the landscape. For a time, we don’t even mind the chill in the air—and the possibility of snow—because all these things serve as encouraging signposts that lead us along the path to what we hope will be a light-and-love-filled Christmas.
Merriam-Webster tells us that hope as a verb means “to cherish with anticipation” or “to expect with confidence.” When it is used as a noun, hope means “something desired or hoped for” or “a desire accompanied by expectation of or belief in fulfillment.” So phrases we use or hear regularly at Christmastime, like
I hope she likes the present I got her…
I hope it snows on Christmas Eve!
He’s my last hope for Christmas ideas.
…are more than just casual little statements. They are creative acts, as we describe in the present what we hope will come to be in the near future.
In each case, when we use the word hope, we’re saying something about what we believe is possible and what kind of outcome we want. In the first example, I hope she likes the present I got her, we get a mental picture of our friend or family member smiling broadly and maybe hugging the present we gave her. In the second, I hope it snows on Christmas Eve, we can picture big, beautiful snowflakes falling, fitting like the perfect puzzle piece into our image of a quiet holiday night. He’s my last hope for Christmas ideas says we’ve run out of suggestions and we’re expecting with some confidence that he (whoever he is) will come up with something good and get us out of a jam.
We’re speaking hope all the time, even if we’re not fully aware of the underlying goodness and right order we’re truly hoping for. Hope is something basic, something essential in the human soul. Our innate capacity to hope shows that our hearts feel it when love is near. We reach for, lean toward, look forward to that goodness and know it when it arrives. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for,” the author of Hebrews tells us, “The conviction of things not seen.”
Our faith—in God, in the goodness of life, in each other—is all wrapped up with the sense of hope we carry in our hearts. This is one reason why George Fox’s call to action, “Walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone” is so important as a keystone of our tradition. With that simple, hopeful statement Fox sets the vision of the goal we’re hoping for, setting up signposts on the path.
“Walk cheerfully” brings to mind a very specific mental picture, doesn’t it, walking with a spring in our step and a smile on our face. Think back to a time when you walked cheerfully. Most likely, life felt pretty good just then. We were probably in a good mood, feeling hopeful. Maybe we were on the way to do something we really enjoyed or spend time with a person who was dear to us. Chances are as we walked cheerfully, our heads were high, our faced were lit with a smile, we felt friendly and at ease and open to life. That’s a standard for our practice of faith, Fox says. That feeling, that posture, that hope. It’s worth remembering.
What would it look like in our own daily lives to “answer that of God” in people we meet? Maybe it means keeping a peaceful heart when someone is bent out of shape in the checkout aisle. Or holding a loving image of someone who is behaving unkindly. Perhaps it means forgiving someone who hurt us. Or thinking the best of others, no matter what. “Answering that of God in everyone” lived as a lifestyle could mean greeting each other in peace and love because the love of God in us compels us to do just that.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German pastor and the author of the Christian classic, The Cost of Discipleship, frames this idea as responding to the needs of those around us, writing:
“He comes in the form of the beggar, of the dissolute human child in ragged clothes, asking for help. He confronts you in every person that you meet. As long as there are people, Christ will walk the earth as your neighbor…”
This is Emmanuel. God here, walking the earth among us, living with and within us, present in our gritty, 2019 reality with all the confusion, challenge, and opportunity this age brings. God, right now, shining light into the darkness—with and through and sometimes in spite of us. That is just what we hear David calling for in our Old Testament reading, as he asks God to draw the people close so they will once again know and honor the reality that God walks among them. He writes “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.” With just a little bit of imagination, we can hear those words of David’s echoing in George Fox’s own invitation—to walk cheerfully with a shining face and answer that of God in everyone, helping us all remember we are siblings in our worldwide family of God.
Ultimately David’s hopeful request is fulfilled one thousand years later, with the birth of the Christ child in a stable in Bethlehem. Matthew tells the story with an emphasis on Joseph, a good and righteous man, a business owner, known for his upright dealings and his devout faith. He is engaged to a young woman named Mary, and when he discovers she is with child, he makes plans to cancel the engagement quietly, so as not to disgrace her or perhaps put her safety at risk. It is obvious that he respects Mary and cares for her; his plans show that he wants to protect her and keep her from public humiliation.
But hope intervenes in Joseph’s plan, shining God’s light into the situation and letting Joseph know that he is part of a divine plan so big, it’s blessing is for all people. An angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream, telling him that that all this is happening to fulfill what the prophet had said about the coming of Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.” When Joseph woke, the scripture tells us, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.
Matthew doesn’t tell us the name of the angel of the Lord in this passage, but we can hear that the angel brought him hope, helping him see there was a bigger purpose unfolding and that God had given him a part to play. The Book of Enoch, an ancient Jewish and Christian apocryphal text said to have been written by Noah’s great-grandfather, mentions the angel Phanuel, who is the archangel of repentance and hope. Phanuel encourages people to turn from their self-centered ways and reconnect with God, which restores hope to their lives. That’s what the angel helped Joseph do—let go of his worries about their reputations and recognize instead the miracle of God’s love that they were helping to bring into the world.
In his 2014 book, Making Hope Happen, Dr. Shane Lopez defines hope as a life-sustaining force that is rooted in our relationship with the future. His research has shown that hopeful people tend to have four core beliefs in common:
- First, the future will be better than the present. Maybe in small ways, personal ways, prayerful ways, but better.
- Second, we have the power to make it so. This is the important belief that we have the ability to make positive changes in our lives through our thoughts, prayers, choices, and actions. This belief is the antidote to victim thinking, which robs us of hope and stifles our ability to change.
- Third, there are many paths to our goals. This idea helps us stay open to God’s leading as we continue to take steps toward the outcome we’re hoping for.
- Fourth, no path is free of obstacles. This idea might sound discouraging at first, but it actually encourages us when we hit a setback. Meeting a problem in the road doesn’t mean our hoped-for result is impossible; it simply means we need to keep trying. No path is completely open all the time. When we remember that, the hopeful vision becomes so compelling that it keeps drawing us forward even when challenges come our way.
“This type of thinking about the future gives us momentum and staying power,” Lopez writes. He adds that hope is more than just “positive thinking” because hope is carried forward by action; it is our beliefs, showing up in the world. We’re not just wishing something would happen and doing nothing to help it along; when we hope, our daily choices and actions help bring about the better circumstances we’re hoping for. That’s the vision—like Fox’s “walking cheerfully” that helps us know where we’re headed, take setbacks in stride, and recognize and celebrate when we arrive.
Researchers have also discovered that the moments when hope arrives—that split second when our hearts change from discouraged to encouraged, when we move from doubt to faith, when despair leaves and hope returns—almost always has something to do with relationship. There is a social phenomenon going on, a transmission of hope, an intervention from the outside in. The angel appearing in the dream to bring Joseph the hope and insight he needed to play his part. Or a leading from God that prompted David to pray for the reconciliation of the people.
Researcher Duane Bidwell, a professor at Claremont School of Theology, studied hope in the lives of children with chronic illness. What he found most surprising were the answers his team received when they asked the kids to talk about moments when hope became real for them. “More often than not,” he wrote, “they told us about ordinary moments with family and friends — saying grace around the dinner table, times when they were aware of the abundance they had in their lives, even though … they build their lives around dialysis and medication.”
These simple moments, the research team found, could be as tiny as a friendly look, a pat on the arm, or just being in the presence of someone who cared. Being around a person with a warm heart, a person who wants good for us, brings us hope—hope to face whatever we’re facing. Or make a change we need to make. Or to begin to believe in the goodness of life again.
This is what I hope we’ll remember, especially this Christmas. When we mindlessly say the word hope a dozen times a day, deep down, we really mean it. And through our actions and intention—to walk cheerfully and answer that of God in others—we help bring the light of hope to those who may be needing it just now.
Each kindness is a hopeful act. As is each prayer, each smile, each greeting. Each time we think kindly of another—planning a Christmas gift, helping with a daily task—we are ambassadors of hope. Each new morning that dawns is an expression of hope, opening the way for new possibilities. The appearance of each star. Every new beginning, each new life. All hope, stretching out before us, offering infinite possibilities for expressing God’s love–finding and sharing kindness, goodness, warmth, and light.
This is Emmanuel, God-with-us, touching peoples’ hearts and drawing people close, one life at a time through us. We never know when our cheerful walking might boost the hope of another soul and help them feel—for a split transforming moment, the comforting nearness and care of God. This Christmas, I hope we’ll notice and celebrate that miracle, the hope born into our world again and again and again. If we do, we’ll get a sense of the part we each play in helping others gently approach the manger, hoping—maybe for the first time ever–to discover pure, lasting, renewing love for themselves.
- OT Psalm 80: 1-7
- NT Matthew 1: 18-25
- https://www.amazon.com/dp/1451666233 Making Hope Happen, Dr. Shane Lopez