Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. (Romans 12.12)
According to an ancient Greek myth, Pandora’s box contained all the evils of the world, and once these were released only hope remained. As the lockdown restrictions continue and we contemplate all that is going on in the wider world, hope is something we all need to hold on to; and it is very noticeable, if hardly surprising, how often hope is spoken of in media interviews, newspaper columns, and people’s conversations day by day.
Last week for a couple of days, on the news of the death of Captain Sir Tom Moore, the media headlines, offering a very welcome and positive diversion from the diet of virus, variants and vaccines we are fed each day, were dominated by the celebration of his remarkable achievement – his raising incredibly almost £39m (on an initial target of £1000) for the NHS by walking round his garden 100 times before his 100th birthday, and the inspiration and encouragement this gave so many throughout Britain and beyond. Tom Moore’s advice is helpful to us all in these times: Remember tomorrow is a good day; tomorrow you will maybe find everything will be much better than today. Both Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer – apparently independently! – described him as a beacon of hope.
Hope is not quite the same as optimism: it is more nuanced. I was earnestly hoping that Scotland would beat England in the Calcutta Cup rugby match at Twickenham last Saturday, but realistically, in terms of such considerations as previous form and the size of the pool of players each team has to draw from, I was not optimistic; so I was delighted at Scotland’s victory! Optimism carries with it a higher degree of likelihood or certainty about what is to happen. Hope on the other hand, grounded in heart as well as mind, is more open as to possible outcomes, and as such carries with it a greater element of potential surprise. The 17th century Anglican priest-poet George Herbert captured this well in his poem Hope:
I gave to Hope a watch of mine: but he
An anchor gave to me.
Then an old prayer-book I did present:
And he an optick sent.
With that I have a viall full of tears:
But he a few green eares.
Ah Loyterer! I’le no more, no more I’le bring:
I did expect a ring.
More recently, appropriately perhaps to the approaching season of Lent, but less encouragingly owing perhaps to its composition in one of the darker periods of his life, TS Eliot, in East Coker, said:
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
In fact hoping is necessary to our emotional and spiritual survival – not least in present circumstances. The last of these lines of Eliot reminds us of the essential interconnectedness of faith, hope and love, of which of course Paul speaks in the very familiar 13th chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians. One of the distinctive features of Christian hope is its being grounded in trust in God’s loving purpose, revealed in Jesus, and dependence on God’s grace, the power and presence of God’s Spirit, sufficient for all our needs. So the faith and the hope cannot be separated from the love – not only God’s love, but our loving response in compassion for one another and a commitment to justice and peace. Hope thus has a dimension of agency and engagement, whereas optimism suggests rather a more passive ‘things will work out all right’ approach.
The weekly Wellington Bible study gathering has recently been looking at parts of a thought-provoking book Mission Rediscovered – Transforming Disciples, published following an international ecumenical conference held in Tanzania in 2018. The final discussion focussed on the last chapter of the book, entitled ‘People of Hope’, which speaks powerfully of the calling of those who seek to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. We are ‘people of the resurrection’, called to share in the building of God’s kingdom through the creation of communities of love and our own personal witness in action and word, in the conviction that pandemics, social injustice, even death do not have the last word. While death and eternal life must remain a mystery, they are also a reality; and the hope that sustains us is that our ultimate fulfilment lies with God, and in our being, beyond death, as the Franciscan writer Richard Rohr has put it, ‘caught up in the cosmic sweep of divine mercy and love’.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15.13)