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Sarah D's Stories

writings on life and faith

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Hope: An Action Verb
Romans 5:3-5 “We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint (some translations say, “hope does not put us to shame”), because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

I don’t know about you, but this verse in Romans has always been a hard one for me to stomach…the list of virtues leading to hope begins with suffering? No thanks! On the surface hope can seem harmless: light, airy, maybe even fun…and then this verse slaps suffering right into the beginning of it’s definition of hope. In scriptures the two are often linked. Like Jane Hirshfied says, in her poem “Nothing Lasts”…They are the skipping rope of life’s two ends, “one wears a dress of cotton (hope), the other wool (grief)”.

If I look at my own life, my hopes often begin at a place of emptiness, of lack, of grief, of suffering. I think about my hopes for the at-risk students I work with and the lack of resources and opportunities they have by virtue of where they were born (and yet we are prophetically called “Kids Hope”). I think of my hopes for the people I know and adore in Haiti, and the chronic suffering they experience. I think of my friend’s hope for a baby, and the deep pain this hope causes her each month. These are hopes because they begin in a place of lack, of pain, of loss, of suffering, of something “not yet” that “might be”…but aren’t guaranteed. At times hope has been so painful, I’ve tried not hoping for things any more, I’ve tried giving them up, and yet these hopes return like dandelions and grow and spread their seeds without my permission!

Hope depends on that little ellipses’….that “not yet”. Sometimes you find yourself reaching for something that feels unattainable. It stretches the soul, and that reaching out is the moment of “hope”.  Romans goes on to say, “Who hopes for what they already have?” And it’s being unsettled with the way things are that helps us to persevere, even when that perseverance is painful and costly. “If we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently”. I can think of times I’ve hoped and waited less-than-patiently, and it only added to my suffering. Nobody I know loves waiting. To hang in there, to actively wait and continue to push through, to continue to hope, goes against our human nature, (to show up in our weekly mentoring sessions, to learn Creole and maintain relationships with the very poor, to keep buying pregnancy tests--they are all radical acts that move us beyond our natural inclinations). But then something happens as we persevere…not when we are done persevering…but in the process of persevering, God builds a certain kind of character in us. God molds our heart to be more like his and our (circumstantial) desires give way to his (eternal) desires. Notice I didn’t say “we mold our hearts”…but God does…almost at times in spite of us….but that’s what actively waiting does, it changes us.

Later in that same book Paul goes on to claim that we can boast in our sufferings….that we can speak with pride about the most unpredictable and distressing aspects of our lives. What is he talking about there? I have to think it’s connected to the character that comes when we allow ourselves to suffer by continuing to hope.

At least, here’s the thing that I’m in the process of discovering with my own hopes: once we persevere to the point of having character, we are changed, (even if we never get what we were hoping for, the very act of hoping can shape us in positive ways). Character involves surrendering, persevering, developing wisdom and a perspective that is bigger than where we started from. Character shapes how we persevere. We realize that even though those things we want are good, they’re not actually the point…they might materialize, and they might not. This stretching character doesn’t happen perfectly of course, and not usually very quickly; but after a prolonged period of perseverance we find our desires shifting from changed circumstances to a changed relationship with God. Often times, instead of the change we long for, we are given the presence of Christ and discover that He is enough to get us through one more day, of suffering, of poverty, of bareness, of singleness…of hopelessness

God helps us to persevere and build the kind of character that is needed to stand up and continue on in the face of suffering. This might be a stretch, but I think that’s why the Bible says, “Blessed are those who mourn”. In other words, “happy are those who are not happy”…the lament that happens when we don’t get what we want (when we want it) grows us and builds an other-worldly “kingdom-type” character in us. This season of Lent that we are in right now literally means Spring or Springtime, and represents the desire for new life to emerge out of our lament, our pain…and hope is the agent that drives this transformation. As we engage the lacking and painful realities of our life AND bring them before God, he doesn’t always fix or change them, but he weeps with us, he’s present with us…and sometimes that’s actually enough.

Though the families in our community are still at risk, we heal and grow and learn about Christ by being in relationship them. Though we may never be a biological mom, we find other ways to mother. And even though Haiti remains the poorest country in this hemisphere, we continue to return and sew into relationships that change both parties so that it’s not clear who is ‘giving’ and who is ‘receiving’. (I have a quote by Mother Teresa written in sharpie on the wall in my bedroom that says, “Only in heaven will we see how much we owe the poor for teaching us how to love God better”). In fact, the circumstances we hope for will often remain out of our control to change/manipulate, yet the one who created the world remains faithful to us as we wait, remains present with us in our suffering and grief and in our “not yet”. Like the tulip bulbs that need seasons of darkness and the harshness of winter in order to bloom: our souls can bloom a type of character that not only looks for God, but can find him in all things…not when we finish, but as we wait and hope in the “not yet”. In that process, we can learn to love ourselves, others and God better. That gives me the courage to continue to hope.

Tulip photo credit: Staci Kennelly. To read her thoughts on hope click here (and then follow along in the blog circle).

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Beautiful reflections, Sarah. I love that quote from Mother Theresa. I hadn't heard it. It is perfect.

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