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December 12, 2010 | 8:00 a.m.

When Hopes Deceive

John H. Boyle
Parish Associate, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 146
Isaiah 35:4–10
Luke 1:47–55

The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment just before it happens. Advent is the name of that moment. . . . For all its madness and lostness, not to mention your own, you can hear the world itself holding its breath.

Frederick Buechner

For some while now, each year during the season of Advent, I find myself wondering if God is campaigning for office or running for re-election on a platform of, would you believe, change. Sound familiar? Consider the lectionary readings of the day that have been read in our hearing. They are a laundry list, if not a litany, of promises of changes, radical changes, due to come to pass in some future time, either not too distant or remote, in the sweet bye and bye. We can’t tell the time frame.

But the promises are clear if the time is not. The mess not only in Washington but in the whole world will be cleaned up. Corruption will be no more, nor will greed or injustice. The people now in charge will be toppled from their perches of power. The big shots will be out, and the “little guys” will be running the show. Inequities will be eliminated, the positive accentuated, and all will at last be right with the world. Sound familiar?

Says the psalmist, Don’t put your trust (presumably your ultimate trust) in the people in office, the people in power, or in any mortal, for that matter. They’re no help. The Lord, however, executes justice for the oppressed, feeds the hungry, sets the prisoners free, opens the eyes of the blind, lifts up those who are bowed down, watches over strangers, loves the righteous, takes care of widows and orphans, and brings the wicked to ruin.

Says the prophet, Don’t be afraid. God is coming, with vengeance yet, and will save you. The blind will see, the deaf will hear, the lame will leap, the desert will bloom, the wilderness will be transformed, God’s people will have a Holy Way to travel on and a safe passage, and the people in exile will return home.

Says the Gospel writer, God looks with favor on the lowliest of the low. God’s strength puts the proud on the run, brings down the powerful and lifts up the powerless, fills the hungry and chases the rich away empty-handed.

Only, how come it’s not happening? Not yet, at least. And one can’t help but wonder if it ever will. The old adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same seems to rule the day. For no sooner do the good guys replace the bad guys, than the former become the latter. No sooner is one reform put into place, than another is needed to reform it.

The psalmist, the prophet, and the Gospel writer all record litanies of promises of good things that will happen now that God is at hand. But they are not happening. Why? Sure, some of them are coming to pass here, there, and yonder, in a few corners of earth and in some of the backwaters of the world. But to see and hear the media tell it, the world generally is in disarray, what with daily reports of violence, war, corruption, double-dealing, WikiLeaks, mayhem and murder, and all manner of tragedy in the lives of people the world over. It is not Christ who is reigning forever over things as King of kings and Lord of lords, but chaos. Or so it seems. And sometimes one can’t help wondering whether we’ve been sold a bill of goods, whether we have been hoodwinked, and whether our hopes—predicated on the promises of God, mind you, not a bunch of politicians, but God—have deceived us in the face of the hard facts of reality. It is what Roger Hodge, in a book discussing what he perceives to be the betrayal of American liberalism, calls The Mendacity of Hope.

Or is it not so much that our hopes have deceived us as it is that we have deceived ourselves about our hopes? The world into which Jesus was born, along with the promise of peace and goodwill, was not that much different from the world in which we live today. A small percentage of people lived in conspicuous indulgence, while most lived in abject poverty, struggling to survive and losing the battle. There was no middle class to speak of then, and if the economic policies of some people today were to be followed, there will soon be left precious little of whatever middle class exists today in some places in the world, with the result that the void between the poor and the rich will continue to widen. For two thousand years now the world has listened to the recitation of promises and the repetition of hopes for a better and ideal world. It hasn’t happened yet. And each time it doesn’t, we are plunged into disappointment and disillusionment. And, like the Chicago Cubs, we wait until next year.

The remarkable thing about all this is that we keep coming back to hope and its family of particular hopes that we harbor about ourselves and the world. It is as though we somehow intuitively realize that we can’t live without hope. We may be able to survive, but not really live. We keep coming back to hear once again the promises made and to listen once more to the hopes offered, not because we enjoy being deceived or deluded, but because we realize that there is something life-enhancing about being able and willing to hope. That is why psychotherapist Erik Erikson, in his book Insight and Responsibility, refers to hope as the “vital virtue” and states that it is engendered in the context of mutuality. I thought of that the other day as I heard of the death of Elizabeth Edwards and of how she was determined not to be defined either by the illness that took her life or by her husband’s infidelity that seared her soul. She committed herself to focus on living as fully and as faithfully as she could rather than focusing on the hard fact that she was dying. And she attributed her ability to do so to the faithful support of loved ones and friends who saw to it that she did not make that fateful journey alone.

We are defined as much, if not more, by our hopes as we are by what has happened to us in the past. It is this insight that Gordon Allport, former head of the department of psychology at Harvard University, set forth in his book Becoming. As a corrective to Freudian determinism, he proposed that our “propriate strivings”—what we hope for, aspire to, strive toward and look forward to in the future—inform how we live and order our lives in the present. Our capacity to hope is dependent upon our ability to imagine. Sometimes people are emotionally and mentally unstable and possess an overactive and excessive imagination. But the instability of others may be due in part to a lack of imagination. They see no way out or only one way out of their predicament in life, while in reality there may be other options and other alternatives. Our anger at God for the way things are at the moment, and over which we have little or no control, can blind the eyes of our imagination to those options and alternatives that are available so that we see no hope at all, not even on the horizon.

Such was the fate of Bucky Cantor in Philip Roth’s new novel, Nemesis. A physical education teacher and athletic director in a school in Newark, New Jersey, in 1944 at the height of World War II, Bucky becomes enraged at God for allowing a polio epidemic to strike some of his students, crippling some of them and resulting in the death of others. Thinking that he may have been a carrier of the disease, he holds himself responsible for what has happened to his young charges and becomes saturated with feelings of guilt and self-loathing. When he himself is stricken and partially paralyzed, his anger is intensified and his despair deepened. Years later he encounters one of his students who had contracted the disease and is now confined to a wheelchair. However, in spite of his limitations, he seems to be getting on with his life, with living instead of wasting away in anger and resentment, and reflecting a certain hopefulness about his future. On the other hand, from the exchange between them, it is clear that Bucky has organized his life around his hurt and his hate about his hurt and that his life has curled up into a ball of bitterness. The nemesis of the story was not the polio.

Years ago I met a remarkable elderly black woman who lay dying in a hospital where I was serving as chaplain at the time. Her name was Bertha, but she was known as Berti to all who had come to be her friends. I was honored that I was among them, having gotten to know her quite well during our many visits and conversations. A devout Christian, she had lived a hard-scrabble life in eastern Kentucky, where she had given birth to seven children and where her husband had died in a mining accident. During a visit a few days before she died, I asked her, “Berti, are you in pain?” She looked at me, smiled weakly, and said, “Oh yes, Brother Boyle [to Berti everyone was either brother or sister], I am in pain. But pain is my hope, for when I’m in pain, I know I’m still alive.”

The seasons of Advent and Christmastide are the story of two realities. One is the reality of the hard facts of sin and suffering in ourselves and in the world. The other is the reality of a living presence with us in the midst of the reality of hard facts. During Advent, we are reminded that what we are looking forward to is nothing less than the reality that in Jesus Christ God is showing us that God is immersed and involved in the muck of sin and suffering with us, up to the nail prints in his hands and the crown of thorns on his brow. The reality of the hard facts of sin and suffering is not going away any time soon in all likelihood. The way things are will continue to be the way things are, although we together and with God’s help can put a dent in them from time to time and in some instances transform them, if not forever then for a season.

It is important that we not romanticize our faith either by suggesting it will remove us from the reality of the hard facts of sin and suffering (it won’t) or by thinking that it can somehow change the face of that human reality (it can’t). What our faith does is to enable us to endure in the midst of the reality of sin and suffering in the knowledge that in the midst of it with us is the Incarnate Love of God from which we can never be separated and which never forsakes us. As the hymn writer has put it,

                        When the woes of life o’er take me,
Hopes deceive, and fears annoy,
Never shall the cross forsake me:
Lo! it glows with peace and joy.

I know it’s the old, old story of Jesus and his love. But I know myself well enough to know that because I can be thick-headed and obstinate at times, and that I struggle with doubts and uncertainties, that I need to tell it and listen to it over and over again until I hear it straight and get it right so that it sinks in and soaks my soul and permeates the fabric of my life.

Oh, and by the way, God is not running for office. God is in office. Has been since “in the beginning,” and promises to stay in office, neither resigning nor retiring, because God has made his office with us and the world. And that is a promise and a hope that will not deceive—ever. This I believe. This is my hope. Amen.