I found out something very important this week.
Scientists and philosophers have been researching this theory for years and it has finally been proven as fact. There is universal consensus on this matter. I guarantee that this fact will change your life:
Life doesn’t always turn out like you planned.
I know that’s a lot to think about, so I’ll give you a second to let it sink in.
It’s true: life doesn’t always turn out like you planned.
This fact is a big problem for us modern folks, who are so attached to getting concrete ‘results’ from their plans and endeavors. When things don’t go our way, we have a tendency to get frustrated and cynical about life in general. We say things like:
“It’s a dog eat dog world!”
“You’ve got to look out for number one.”
“You’ve gotta get it while the gettin’s good.”
Do you know people who talk like this? Any really honest folks out there want to admit to thinking like this sometimes? I know I do (usually when I watch the news… especially this week). I admit that I get really cynical like this sometimes. I lose hope.
And that’s really the crux of bitterness and cynicism: the loss of hope. We lose hope when things don’t turn out the way we’d planned, when that business deal falls through, when that relationship doesn’t work out, when we don’t get the acceptance letter we’d been waiting for, etc. We lose hope because we don’t get the results we were looking for. And that’s where our main problem lies: Our definition of hope is too attached to the circumstances in which we find ourselves.
Any hope that is primarily based on results and circumstances is, in my opinion, false hope (because we never really know how our circumstances are going to work out).
But there is another kind of hope. G.K. Chesterton wrote, “In the struggle for existence, it is only on those who hang on for ten minutes after all is hopeless, that hope begins to dawn.” This is the other kind of hope. This is what I’m calling hope after hope.
Our Old Testament reading this morning comes from the book of Lamentations. That book gets its title from the word lament, which the Oxford English Dictionary describes as “a passionate expression of grief or sorrow.” The book of Lamentations was written by Jewish people during a very dark and hopeless period of their history called the Babylonian Exile.
Here’s what happened: in 587 BCE the Babylonian Empire invaded and conquered the kingdom of Judah in southern Israel. The Jewish people were carried off to Babylon where they were expected to work as slaves and assimilate into the culture of their captors. Their beautiful capital city, with its walls, palace, and temple built by King Solomon, was burned to the ground. Those people who survived the battle lost their land, culture, and religion.
Up to that point, Jewish religion had been centered on priests performing animal sacrifices in the Jerusalem temple. Without that building, those rituals, and the priests to perform them, the people didn’t even know how to practice their faith or worship God. This became a particularly problematic issue because their Babylonian overlords were doing everything in their power to erase Jewish culture, religious freedom, and sense of human dignity. Talk about hopeless…
When we listen to the words Lamentations in the scriptures this morning, we can hear the sorrow and the pain of the Jewish people:
How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!
She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks…
she lives now among the nations, and finds no resting place…
her lot is bitter…
My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me.
If we look over at the Psalm we read this morning, which was written during the same period of time, we can hear the sorrow turning to anger:
By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.
How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!
I think most people would agree that these passages were written by people living in a situation that looked pretty hopeless. But the amazing thing is that the people were not hopeless. Even in these bleak circumstances, the Jewish people found something to hold onto, something worth hoping in. The author of Lamentations says:
this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.”
This is a different kind of hope. It is the hope that comes alive after hope has died. The thing about this kind of hope is that, if you haven’t lived through it, you can’t understand it. If you haven’t been through the experience of poverty or failure, if you don’t what it’s like to lose everything (even your sense of control over your mind and body), then this idea of hope after hope doesn’t make any sense.
“Hoping in God” is not some meaningless, trite religious slogan that belongs on a bumper sticker. In the theological language of our Christian tradition, it means this: Wherever the creative energies of life are concerned, there is always a Plan B. To elaborate using Christian language: there is no situation so bad, messed up, or complicated that God cannot bring good out of it. In other words, God can work with whatever we bring to the table. When things don’t go according to plan, God always has a Plan B (or C, D, E, F, G… and God’s alphabet never runs out of letters). You can’t mess your life up (and life can’t mess you up) so bad that God says, “I give up. You’re on your own.”
This kind of hope is not based on circumstances. This the hope that comes alive after all those other false hopes have died. This is hope after hope. This kind of hope, which is superior to simple optimism and more than just “pie in the sky in the sweet by and by”, keeps holding on when things don’t go according to plan. This kind of hope looks for the opportunity in the crisis and seeks out the creativity in the chaos of life. The hope that comes after hope says, in the words of civil rights activist Rev. Ralph Abernathy, “I don’t know what the future holds, but I know who holds the future.”
Hope in God transcends optimism over our circumstances.
This is the kind of hope that the author of Lamentations was talking about when he or she said, “the Lord is my portion… therefore I will hope in him.” Indeed, this is the hope that sustained the Jewish people during their time of struggle and slavery under the oppression of the Babylonian Empire. Their circumstances didn’t work out like they planned, but their hope stayed strong.
During their half century in exile, the faith of the Jewish people grew, changed, and adapted. It was during this time that they first became monotheists. Until then, they had believed in many gods, but reserved special loyalty for YHWH as their tribal patron deity. During the Babylonian Exile, they came to believe that there is really only one God who created and sustains the whole earth. This belief in one God helped sustain their faith while the Babylonians claimed that their god Marduk had beaten YHWH in battle. Likewise, their religious tradition adapted to its new situation in exile. Instead of priests making sacrifices in the Jerusalem temple, the people gathered weekly in houses of prayer, called synagogues, to study the Torah under the guidance of teachers called rabbis. This is the basic form of Judaism that continues to exist in the world today. Their suffering during the Babylonian Exile gave the Jewish people the spiritual tools that would go on to shape their faith (and ours) for thousands of years to come.
As it is with our Jewish neighbors, so it is with us. Our hope in God is a hope that begins to dawn “ten minutes after all is hopeless”. It is a hope that is not dependent on our circumstances. It is a hope that continually says, “Where God is concerned, there is always a Plan B.” It is a hope that says, “I don’t know what the future holds, but I know who holds the future.”
That kind of hope has the power to strengthen us for the journey and sustain us through whatever life brings our way.