Saturday, August 29, 2009

Hope and Outcomes - Part One


Lord ... in your own time and for your own purposes, find us in our seeking, strengthen us in our relationships , abide with us in our restlessness, liberate us from fretfulness to serve your kingdom and care for our neighbors. Enchant us into becoming like children, laughing, asking, imagining, and trusting you as the God and Father-Mother in whose spirit we live and move, and have our being. Adopted from Loaves, Fishes and Leftovers: Sharing Faith's Deep Questions.

One of our great difficulties in life, and with God, is how often we don't get the outcomes we want, plan, pray for, work to attain, insist are good, and hope mightily will result from our virtues, convictions and efforts. So we become discouraged, disheartened, feel defeated, turn cynical and frequently act that way. The confusion of it causes many people, as it does most of us, to struggle with our faith, even abandon it. We ask what's wrong with the whole shebang when the outcomes we're sure are right keep getting trashed? Why does that happen? What is God doing, if anything? So, unless we're masochistic, we start wondering "Why care anymore?God doesn't seem to, or many others either?" Frustration, anger, blaming, hostility, doubt rise in us like spiritual acid reflux. Hope burns out.

Now hang on here. In my last blog, I quoted Bill Coffin's helpful insight: "Christian hope doesn't depend on hopeful circumstances." I added that Christian hope doesn't depend on particular outcomes either. After all, who are we to insist that other people, or the world, or God come up with the exact results we want and hope for so passionately, whether they are personal or relational or societal or global outcomes? After all, we're finite, limited beings. We don't have the might or mind or right to impose our hopes on others or expect that the world, or God, deliver on them. If we try to do that, we cripple ourselves because creation doesn't work that way. Life and faith don't either whether the outcome we hope for is about health care reform, or global warming. or pervasive poverty, or nuclear proliferation, marital problems or career advancement or raising kids or getting sick. Okay, so how do life and faith work?

Well, as I see it, at its core the truth is that Christian hope is not for something. It is in something, or better, some One, namely God. Hard as it is to make that distinction, it's a crucial and liberating one. For a moment, let's begin to consider this pivotal issue together. None of us can even clearly track how we got to this moment and place in our lives, all that's involved -- the choices, chances, influences, twists and turns, serendipitous encounters, mistakes, closed doors, open doors, risks taken or avoided, loyalties, betrayals, dead-end successes, open-ended failures, etc., ad infinitum (almost). Even our own daily, short term hoped for outcomes often elude our control. That much seems obvious about how life works, and faith as well. But don't miss the less obvious truth of it, that however differently from our hopes our lives turn out, we still hold them as precious because they are. And by and large, we are grateful for them and live them as fully as we can.

This is in no way meant to deny or dismiss the painful, terrible, horrific, heart breaking experiences we've gone through in the process. But somehow many of us learned profound lessons from these experiences and they changed our lives in unexpected ways. Somehow, we endured and went on, limping perhaps, but often understanding life differently and more deeply. Others did not. That, too, is how life and faith work. Beneath those painful experiences, or because of them or sometimes in spite of them, we endured and carried on because of some undergirding sense that it was worth it. And the world made it as well, without our outcomes being accomplished. So did the human family in spite of all its casualties. Despite our confusion and complaints, our hope was not really snuffed out, not totally or permanently. That, I think, is partly how life and faith works. It's a process we participate in, benefit from but don't control. The truth is, essentially it's all a gift. A grace.

So, who or what's in charge of all this complicated tumult and uncertainty of creation and life? Anything? Anyone? Where does the degree of order and structure of life come from? Let's get to that in an upcoming blog as those are really heavy questions.

First, let's deal with a more immediate, concrete question. How do we live with sustaining hope in the mostly out ot our control, churning process of life and the world? The simplest and toughest answer is that we do what Jesus did, or what other compelling prophetic and spiritual leaders did or do. We live out what we believe about God's kingdom as humbly yet freely and fiercely as we can. Then we leave the outcomes to Him/Her. As a Christian we live out the love we see in Jesus: love of self, of neighbors as our selves, love of enemies we don't have to like, just treat with respect as brothers and sisters. We work for justice which, as I often say, requires "love with its sleeves rolled up." We keep working even when we don't get far with it. We stay generous, compassionate, forgiving, courageous, creative and light hearted in our struggles and at peace with ourselves. We stay stubbornly, ridiculously, insistently, passionately, contagiously hopeful because our hope outruns outcomes. Our hope is in God and so are we, all of us, all the time.

The wonder is that our efforts to live out that hope do make a difference. After a worship service years ago, an old, nearly blind, former teacher living alone on a small pension came up to me in the coffee hour. Everyone knew her as Miss Miller. She said, "The gospel is about not being afraid, isn't it? Surely it is! I mean, when justice seems out of reach, or peace does, or life is hard, I kept working for it all my life because that was my way of being with God, you know? Don't you ever give up hope." Then as she turned away she gave me a tightly folded piece of paper: "Please read this at my funeral." she said.

Suffice it here to tell you the poem's theme is that while never presuming that our little efforts will change the world, each of us still has the choice and the responsibility, " ... to choose which side/ Shall feel the stubborn ounces of my weight." I never forget that. I smile and hope more deeply when I remember Miss Miller and her stubborn ounces. They embody what hope in God means.

The promise of it is in this: When my dear friend and colleague Joan Hemenway died a few years ago, there was a quote on her Memorial Service bulletin that I have on my desk. It was something Joan used as a kind of benediction at the final gathering of her classes of Clinical Pastoral Education students. It's the promise of Christian hope. "When we walk to the edge of all the light we know, and step into the unknown, we must believe that one of two things will happen: there will be something solid for us to stand on, or we will be taught to fly."

Friends, every day we step into the unknown with God. Step with hope because either of those two things are outcome enough.

Think about it. Despite the length of this, I hope it's worth it. Ted

As I promised, a little more about how it works will be my next blog.

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