Courage to Hope
Matthew 6:25-33; Psalm 126
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Cathedral of Hope – Oklahoma City
26 November 2006
No one is perfect, and few people succeed in achieving an unbroken continuity in their lives. Again and again we come up against limits, and experience the failure of our plans for life, the fragmentary nature of our good beginnings and, not least, the guilt which makes life impossible for us. The essential thing in experiences of life like this is the new beginning. If a child falls over it is no bad thing, because it then learns to get up again. Christian faith is faith in the resurrection, and the resurrection is literally just that: rising up again. It gives us the strength to get up, and the creative freedom to begin something once more in the midst of our ongoing history, something fresh. . . . That is the truly revolutionary power of hope.
Those words were written by the theologian Jurgen Moltmann in his powerful little book In the End—The Beginning: The Life of Hope. I’ve talked about this book a few times, including in my very first sermon here when I came as a candidate for this pastorate. This book has a significant place in my life. I read it when I was at one of my lowest and darkest points, and it was this book that helped me to begin the journey out of that darkness.
My very first relationship with another man had ended in a very painful way. I was still early in my journey out and lacked the support structures which would be present later. At that point, coming out to my family and my co-workers still lay ahead in the future. It was a time when I felt great uncertainty and anxiety. On top of that, I was filled with grief, anger, hurt, and depression that my relationship had ended.
Our closest relationships often bring us pain. Broken friendships, harsh treatment by a loved one, fighting within the family—all of these deeply affect us. This month we’ve been talking about the Christian practices of relationships. We’ve been more focused on the positive side. But what happens when those relationships go through difficulties – when there is fighting or even when a close relationship comes to and end?
It is a strange irony that our closest relationships are the ones that hurt the most. I know because I see it all the time in my profession. How many people have I listened to? The lovesick sixteen year olds. The college student trying to figure out if their first relationship is over. The widow in deep grief over the loss of her husband. The forty year old single woman who has never been married whose vibrant personality is sometimes clouded over by a mood of deep melancholy. There are the newly divorced who wonder what comes next. There is the senior adult man who is afraid that he is marrying again too soon after the death of his wife. The twenty-something who attempted suicide because of his loneliness. The person coping with being HIV-positive and how that affects his dating life. And there are those couples who fight, don’t see eye-to-eye, or are facing some big issue or deep grief. Even the best couples seem to have those moments now and then.
Our popular culture is full of expressions of lost or failing love. The best place to look for expression of heartache and despair is music. There’s a whole type of music best described as “break-up songs.” I don’t know about you, but usually when I have a relationship end, there are certain songs that I listen to in order to air my grief and pain.
When I was hurting, I found great solace in the music of Patty Griffin, particularly her song “When It Don’t Come Easy.” This song isn’t filled with agonized despair, but is about those times in a relationship when the going gets difficult:
Red lights are flashing on the highway
I wonder if we’re gonna ever get home
I wonder if we’re ever gonna get home tonight
But if you break down
I’ll drive out and find you
If you forget my love
I’ll try to remind you
And stay by you when it don’t come easy
Here is someone who really wants this relationship to continue but is afraid that it won’t. She’s writing to her beloved imploring him to also engage in what it takes to make it home. She’s willing to drive out and find the other person and remind him of her love. But is he also willing to drive out and find her and remind her of his love?
There is pain here because it acknowledges that all is not romance. Relationships have difficult times. Sometimes you can make it through them and sometimes you can’t. Clearly love doesn’t always come easy.
Our experience is often that we cannot do the rational thing. Our love is strongly irrational and it drives us to try anything, sometimes even stupid things that cause more harm. Sometimes we wish we could start over again, because if we could, it would all be different. There is often a deep longing to begin again.
The past cannot be undone and relived. It is settled. But this is precisely where the Christian practice of hope figures in. To remain focused on the past is to sink through regret into despair. Much like Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress, we can sink into our own “Slough of Despond” composed of “many fears and doubts, and discouraging apprehensions, which all of them get together and settle in this place.” The Christian hope points us toward the future, wherein lies promise.
The title of this worship series has been “The Work of Love.” The phrase comes from a poem by my favourite poet, Wendell Berry. Berry is a Kentucky farmer and the poem is first about the work of love that is farming, but I think that the farm is a symbol, as it is in so many Berry poems, for something larger. I think Berry wants to remind us about all of our love relationships. He opens with the lines
We have kept to the way we chose
in love without foresight
and long ago
and concludes with
where we know
we are, even as we do,
the work of love.
The “work of love” isn’t just what we do, it is what we are, who we are becoming. It is the result of a choice, a decision, made without foresight but rooted in our love for another. It is a commitment that we make to one another, a commitment that we hope will be sustained. It flows from our central being, who we are.
How do we become the work of love? What are the Christian practices that sustain the work of love despite the difficulties? What Christian practices help us keep our relationships going or start anew if our relationships end?
First, as I said, there is hope.
Christianity is wholly and entirely confident hope, a stretching out to what is ahead, and a readiness for a fresh start. Future is not just something or other to do with Christianity. It is the essential element of the faith which is specifically Christian: the keynote of all its hymns, the dawn colouring of the new day in which everything is bathed. For faith is Christian faith when it is Easter faith. Faith means living in the presence of the risen Christ, and stretching out to the coming kingdom of God. It is in the creative expectation of Christ’s coming that our everyday experiences of life take place. We wait and hasten, we hope and endure, we pray and watch, we are both patient and curious. That makes the Christian life exciting and alive. The faith that ‘another world is possible’ makes Christianity enduringly capable of future.
That from Moltmann again, and one of the key thoughts that helped me out of the despair I was in when I read that book.
It is one thing to develop a hopeful perspective, it is another thing to live into it. I believe that our hope must be animated by courage. I am quite convinced that courage is the most important virtue necessary for living the Christian life. I think it is courage that sustains us on the journey when everything looks difficult. It is courage that overcomes fear, anxiety, and despair. Courage sustains our peace, joy, faith, hope, and love.
What does courage have to do with hope? I think that it is easy to be a cynic in our world. It is easy to see the negative, to focus on the bad, to become overwhelmed by evil and suffering. And it is understandable -- the world is not always a wonderful place. Sometimes it is difficult to find truth, goodness, and beauty. But it is there. I think that for us to live as positive people of hope takes courage. The world around us wants us to be cynical, skeptical, and ironic. It is courage that compels us to look beyond the bad things in our own lives and the bad things in the world around us to find what is hopeful. We cannot create the kingdom of God without hope, nor can we sustain our own relationships without hope. The task is too difficult. Negativity will destroy God’s work and the work of love. If you find yourself in a situation where it is difficult for you to be positive, to find hope, then you must muster your courage. Draw on your convictions and your passions and step forth with spirit and will power and return to the work of love.
So, it takes courage to be hopeful, to remain focused on the good. Look at today’s Psalm. Here is a song written by people whose fortunes have not yet been restored, but they dream of that day, a day when their mouths will be filled with laughter and on their tongues will be shouts of joy. Though that day has not arrived, they are already acting like it has. That is at the heart of the Christian belief in resurrection. The resurrection proclaims that God’s reign has arrived. We may still be experiencing all the darkness of this world, but we Christians can live as if that great, joyful day has already arrived. We can celebrate with laughter and shouts of joy, even in the midst of situations of despair.
But how do we do that? We have to learn to rely on God and God’s promises. Tonight’s gospel passage is among the most difficult for us to accept and put into practice. It tells us that we consume so much of our time worrying and striving, when what we need to do is learn to rest comfortably in God’s provision for us. This takes courage doesn’t it!?!
I’ve talked about how our relationships help us to find rest and peace. Yet I think we also need to develop our own inner rest and peace in order to maintain our relationships. Our relationships are sustained by the courage to hope. But I think this courage and hope arise only when we are resting comfortably in the peace of God.
So, how do we get away from rush, hurry, and anxiety? How do we find that inner peace that trusts in God? By nurturing ourselves with spiritual practices like prayer, meditation, silence, bible reading, walking labyrinths, or taking retreats. I don’t think we can undervalue just a few minutes spent in silence contemplating the love of God. When you find your breathing becoming fast and shallow, your heart rate increasing, your shoulders and neck tensing up, or your stomach getting tied in knots, then take a few moments to sit comfortably, breathe in long, controlled breaths, close your eyes, and meditate on some verse, phrase, or image from scripture or a hymn. I really do think that this is among the best medicine there is.
Here’s my formula then for sustaining our relationships. Spend time developing the spiritual practices that bring you peace and rest. Engaging in these practices will open you up to the presence of God. As you become more attuned to God’s provision, then you will discover hope and the courage to live as a hopeful person. It is a hope of new beginnings rooted in our faith in the resurrection of Christ. If you are living as a hopeful person, then you will come to your relationships with the attitude that will help to nurture and sustain them. Nurturing these skills means that the work of love becomes not simply something that you do, but something that you are. As the gospel says, “strive first for the reign of God and its righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
Learning these lessons didn’t mean that I quickly pulled out of my despair after that first break-up. It also didn’t mean that I was spared pain or hurt ever again. But what it did do was give me the resources to move ahead in the journey and begin to develop the skills necessary to sustain my life as a Christian in relationship with other people – friends, family, colleagues, church members, and the men I’ve dated. If we live fully into God’s will for us as revealed in the Christian story, I firmly believe that we can become better people and find more blessing for ourselves and others. This is my firm hope. May I have the courage to live it.