A few weeks ago, my Clinical Pastoral Education Residency cohort was looking at the Experience of Faith topic: Hope. Some of the questions we were asked to ponder included:
- What does hope consist of?
- Does hope always look the same?
- What makes hope possible?
- Does hope impact others?
- Is it ever desirable to be without hope?
- Is it possible or desirable to give another hope?
- Do Spiritual caregivers foster hope?
- Do any sacred writings come to mind that give you hope?
As a chaplain, hope is something that I find myself often holding in tension with medical diagnosis and expectant outcomes. One of the check-boxes on the electronic charting system that I can check as an outcome of a patient visit says “Offered realistic hope.” I have had the experience of working with a patient whose doctors had given her a very poor prognosis. Her spirits were flattened, she was consumed with grief, sadness, anger, and guilt. When I walked into the room, she had no emotions on her face yet tears gushed down from her empty eyes. “What are you feeling” I asked. “Everything and nothing” she replied. “The doctors say it's bad,” added the her husband. “Do you have any hope?” I asked. “Yes and no,” said the patient. “it’s just so hard to hold on to."
What does hope really mean? Is it something that can be held on to? Is it something that can be lost? What is the nature of hope and what does offering realistic hope mean as a chaplain? And for me, what does my Quaker faith say about hope?
The first thing I did for this assignment is go looking for mentions of hope in Quaker writings. I came across Margaret Hope Bacon, the author of Quiet Rebels, and various tracts written by groups like Friends Committee on National Legislation and the Ramallah Friends School. Yet time and time again, I found references to the age-old Quaker quote of George Fox: "I saw also that there was an ocean of darkness and death; but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness." or as it has been inscribed into the hearts of every Quaker camp child who learns the George Fox Song:"There's an ocean of darkness and I drowned in the night. Till I came through the darkness to the ocean of Light."
In some ways, Quaker theology and culture preaches an undying hope. It is always possible to make this world better. It is always possible to be part of change and transformation. It is always possible to believe in a new life, a better life and a better world. This hope comes from the belief that Christ has already risen. We do not have to hope for the end of times, but rather hope to learn and be inspired by the continuing revelation of the Holy Spirit. The tenet, “That of God in every person” which underlines the Quaker peace testimony indicates that there is something inherently divine in each person regardless of the terrible actions they have done; there is always an opportunity for transformation. While yes, there is an ocean of darkness before us, the ocean of light is always available to us. God is good, all the time. All the time, God is good.
Yet in this culture of undying hope there is not always room for grief, depression, or anger. Even in injustice, Quakers preach about “Bring about the Kingdom of God here and now,” in other words, work to right the wrongs. What about times without hope? What about the dark night of the soul? George Fox preached about being in an ocean of darkness and coming through to an ocean of light. While hope could be seen as that ocean of light, that light at the end of the tunnel, what about the all consuming feeling of the ocean of darkness?
Every day, I visit with patients who ask me why the world is so broken. We hear on the news, stories of natural disasters, mass shootings, bombs, and police violence. Every time I watch a video of Canada welcoming Syrian refugees, I cry. My patients ask me why this is all happening. Why is God allowing all of this to happen? Where is there hope for this world? Where is there hope in God?
In this time of Advent, with Christmas approaching and as cards are arriving in mailboxes wishing people joy, peace, and love—there is a undercurrent of a theological hope. Hope for a better world. Hope for a better life. Hope for salvation. Hope for transformation. Hope for something else. But what does that all really mean?
As my Clinical Pastoral Education Residency cohort considered this assignment, in good seminarian fashion we went looking for the etymology of the word. Hope comes from a German word hoffen. Not much help there. Next question—what's the greek translation of the word hope in the Christian scriptures? What we found was the word elpis which also carries the connotation of expectancy and anticipation. One of my colleagues found that the Greek word for hope was used most by an early Greek philosopher and poet who used the world elpis to mean to long for something. Christian usage of the world solidified it into a kind of expectation with confidence. These two meanings dance throughout history in usage, hope sometimes meaning something ethereal and sometime meaning something strong and faithful.
Curious in our class discussion, I pulled up the New England Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice. I went for the new 2014 Interim Edition, because, hey its supposed to be more in tune with our current community. The word hope is used 25 times in the document, which is quite a more than I expected. In most of these cases (though not all) hope is linked to a kind of expectation. Not too unlike our practice of "expectant worship" Friends' hope is that God will speak through us, deliver to us continuing revelation, and transform our hearts to follow God's leadings for us.
Yet, I wonder how many of us come to worship each week, expecting God to do just that. How many of us even come to worship each week in hopeful longing, hoping that God will deliver unto us a simple message of revelation? How many of us actually come to worship each week hoping that God won't speak to us—won't wake us up to the truth of our lives—won't open our eyes and let us see "glimpses of truth he hath for me."
If it is so much more comfortable and easy to turn away from a hope that is both of expectation and longing for God's role in our lives, why then do we wish hope, love, joy and peace on to everyone this Holiday season? Even the commercialization of hope, the longing of toys and gifts can't quite overshadow the power of this wish we bestow on our friends and family. So, what is it about the hope that Christians find in the birth of Jesus or the coming back of the light in neopagan traditions or the expectant faithfulness of the oil lasting eight days in the Judaism that breaks through our complacency and fills our hearts with this miracle of hope?
Hope is itself a deeply subversive expression of faith. When we wish our loved ones hope this holiday season, we wish them the expectant longing for a better world—we wish them divine revelation and personal transformation—we wish them courage and strength to bring good will to all.
Happy Holidays everyone. May this time of winter's darkness be full of hope for the new year.