The Risk of Hope

This week, hope has been on my mind. Hope of better things. Hope of kinder days. Hope of justice, respect, compassion, quality of life. Hope that things will turn out okay, for us all.

In particular, I’ve been hoping that the newborn baby finches in our aviary at hospice will all make it successfully through the rough transition between the time they were safe and snug in their nest, being fed by mama and papa bird, and the time they take their first freewheeling dive out of the nest, hoping—with no turning back at that point—that they will somehow know how to fly.

One moment, up to this point in their little lives, they’ve never flown. And then the next, with a sudden decision, they are airborne! Never to be the same again. Talk about a leap of faith.

The aviary came to stay in our hospice area when the hospital closed our geriatric unit to turn it into an area for COVID-19 patients. We have absolutely loved caring for the group of happy finches we have–zebra finches, star finches, and cordon blue finches–and the zebra finches have already blessed us with one pair of babies, who are now full-sized and independent and quite chatty.

But a couple of weeks ago, we thought we heard something new. Tiny baby birds make an unmistakable sound when they are clamoring to be fed, and it sounded to us like a new crop of finches was on the way. But for me, that’s also when the worrying began. They are so small and vulnerable—what if the other birds pick on them? What if they fly out of the nest and can’t get back? What if, what if, what if?!

New life itself is evidence of hope, the world continuing, God’s creation doing its thing. There is a pattern of goodness and care that attends each living soul, seen and unseen. I know I’ve mentioned before a sweet idea from the Talmud: That over every blade of grass an angel bends, whispering “Grow! Grow! Grow!” We hear that goodness and care, that tenderness of life, in God’s promise to Jeremiah:

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.”

God loves all life, I remind myself when I’m worrying about the baby birds. God cares for those tiny finches and intends for them goodness and safety and provision and ease. A life where they are cared for; a life where nature’s wisdom—already living within them—steers them in the way that they should go. I remind myself that all is well. But in the back of my head, the hope and the prayers continue.

When Jeremiah spoke those words of God’s promise, it was to reassure the people of Israel—who were then in exile in Babylon—that God’s long-range plan for them was goodness and their current suffering was not the end of the story. Their captivity would one day end; and God’s bigger vision would be realized. This means they could take heart and rest in faith on God’s promise that all would be well—that blessing was God’s ultimate plan for them.

Those words of Jeremiah’s gave the people hope. And hope is a key ingredient in creating a better life, in that time and this one. Whatever goal we’re trying to reach, whatever change we want to make, we won’t get very far if we don’t have hope that it can happen and belief that it is possible. Hope is an optimistic outlook, a kind of Godly fuel that says, “we can do it if we try—and we’ll be helped along the way.” Hope gives us the confidence to take the chance. When we begin to act on our hope, the momentum builds, increasing our desire and spurring us on as we begin to see the change we are hoping for. Hope makes our vision more real and helps us act in ways that will make our hope a reality.

You remember what Paul said in his letter to the Hebrews about the very definition of faith. This is Hebrews 11: 1 from the New Living Translation:

1Faith shows the reality of what we hope for; it is the evidence of things we cannot see.

The reality of what we hope for—more peace, better health, improved relationships, a kinder world—is demonstrated by our faith, our claiming and counting on God’s promise of a good future. Can we look within and without right now and say that our faith testifies to what we’re hoping for? Or are we caught in discouragement, lamenting and complaining about the sorry state of the world. If you would honestly answer the latter right now, you are not alone. But the waves of discouragement we are suffering together as a world community are not the end of the story. God’s plan for all life he created is a hope and a future.

But as you know if you’ve ever hoped for something that didn’t happen, hope also has its risks. When we hope for something—really anything==we run the risk of being disappointed. We point our hope in a certain direction, we say, “I believe this can happen!” and we do our best to hold on to our faith that God is bringing something good. Sometimes things do work out that way, and sometimes not. The greater our expectation, the greater the risk of our possible disappointment. I hope all the new tiny hatchlings will be okay, but I also know—and steel myself for—the possibility that things might not go well. Sadness, disappointment, and grief could be just around the corner.

But one thing doesn’t make the other untrue, and the possibility that sadness may come doesn’t remove the reality that we have plenty to hope for. That’s what Jeremiah was trying to say as he shared the promise from God. God wasn’t saying, “Everything is perfect now, celebrate!” God was saying “I know the plans I have for you, long-term…” and “one day you will see how much I love and guide and care for you.”

Hope—or the lack of it—has a powerful shaping influence on our lives. We are much more likely to get the outcomes we want in life—the good job, a nice home, a happy relationship, or better health—if we have hope that those things are achievable for us. It’s an optimistic outlook that cheers the heart, even when—like the children of Israel—the evidence of what we hope for is still unseen.

But if we are afraid to hope or we let ourselves ruminate on negative thoughts—like Oh these things always happen to me or I’ll probably get passed over for that job or I know that house deal won’t work out—our lack of hope can also have a shaping effect on our experience. Maybe we won’t try as hard to get better. Perhaps we won’t even brush up our resume. It won’t make any difference anyway, we think.

Lack of hope—whether it comes from discouragement, doubt, or fear—can plant seeds of helplessness, blame, and despair in our lives, making it hard for us to change our difficult circumstances or find a better way. That negativity can spread, making us wonder whether good will ever come our way again, leaving us feeling like maybe we don’t even deserve the help we are praying for. This is all just a mistaken mindset, and any mindset can be changed.

Some people who have been hurt or disappointed over and over again develop a kind of hardened cynicism about anything hopeful, thinking that hoping for anything of consequence is a trip into a land of make-believe that requires wearing rose-colored glasses. But the good news is that their cynicism—and our disappointment, our doubt, and our fear—can be healed. And God knows just how to heal it.

In the darkest of dark times as a prisoner at Auschwitz, Victor Frankl found a common thread among people who were able to survive the terrible and inhumane conditions of the concentration camp. They were able to hold on to their hope of future happiness. That didn’t take away their suffering in the moment—the loss, the hunger, the inhumanity, the pain. But like the children of Israel in exile, their hope reminded them that God had a plan and a promise for them—a long-range vision with hope and a future.

Our New Testament story today is the well-known story of the Prodigal Son, about a young man who asks his father for the portion of the inheritance that will be his and he goes to a far country and squanders it all on wild living. Just as he was running out of money, a famine came to the land, and he took a job tending pigs. When it occurred to him that even the pigs ate better than he did, he understood the error of his ways and decided to return home, apologize to his father, and ask for a job as a hired worker.

There is so much hope in this story. The hope of the father, waiting by the window, still watching—after perhaps months if not years—for some indication that his younger son is on the way home. There is the wizened and exhausted hope of the son, who has chosen badly and now knows it. Armed with the reality of his deep hunger, he sees how wrong he’s been and hopes—hopes—he can return to his father’s home to work as a hired hand. His choice and his feet take him that direction as step by step he acts to make his hope a reality.

The father never gave up hoping in the goodness of his son and he had faith that one day all would be made right. The son, for all his wayward plans, listens to the spark of hope within him and goes home, where he would understand at long last the deep, unfailing, unconditional love of his father.

In contrast, we can tell that the older brother—struggling with jealousy and entitlement—hasn’t been carrying in his heart a hope for his family to be reunited. Instead he has nurtured a grudge toward his brother, holding on to anger and generating a feeling of competition that made him want to be seen as the “good son.” When the father lavishes love on his brother with a celebration of his homecoming, the older brother is angry—because all his efforts to be good, to do the right thing, to be the better person seem to count for nothing. He wants to be placed above his brother because he chose the right way. But his father turns that idea on its side, saying that he values all that his older son has done, but they must celebrate the return of his brother, because the boy once dead is now alive, the young man lost has been found.

The hopeful heart of a man who treasures his sons is rewarded with what he has been hoping for. His actions teach both his boys that they are treasured not for their obedience, not for their behavior or choices, but simply because they are his sons.

And that is the basis for our hope: not that our own behavior will save us, or that we’ll finally do the right thing, make the right choice, say the magic words. Our hope lies in the fact that the One who created us truly treasures us—far beyond anything we do or say in this world—and longs to be in tender relationship with us every moment of every day.

We too have wandered away and squandered our spiritual riches and gotten caught up in all sorts of worldly dramas and plans. But no matter. We are all hungry and hope for true and lasting nourishment for our souls and anytime we choose, if we just let ourselves hope, our feet will find the way. We can head home with humble hearts. And we can be sure that God will rush out to meet us on the road, ready to embrace us and celebrate our return, helping us discover—perhaps more than ever before—how much we are treasured by the Heart of Love.

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