I confess. I’ve always enjoyed disaster movies: meteorite near misses, ice twisters, earthquakes, or alien invasions. I like any movie where a threat is vanquished, and when heroes and hope emerge victorious. I’ve always fancied myself a purveyor of hope, but COVID-19 changed all that. When COVID came on the scene it was clear this was no movie. I wished it had been. I remember quipping that we’d be fine if only we could add Dustin Hoffman and Morgan Freeman to the team at the CDC.
The pandemic ceased to be a punchline as the death count worldwide climbed to inconceivable numbers. My own hope was being chipped away, one news broadcast at a time. No matter what I tried, I could no longer could get a hold of it. Who greased hope? I now had a new confession. My hope tank was dry, and I was scared. It felt unnatural.
As a long-time pastor, I’m often the person people seek when they need their hope bolstered. It’s always been a favorite passion of mine, being able to help people see something from a new perspective. Thankfully, I didn’t have time to give in to my own sagging hope. I was busy shepherding a congregation and learning enough technology to lead worship via zoom, from home and with a dog and a cat under my desk.
COVID brought challenges personal and professional. Providing pastoral care to families whose loved ones were dying was hard enough. Ministering among families with loved ones in nursing homes was particularly gut wrenching. How do you explain to someone with dementia that you cannot come inside, but you can wave outside her window?
When it got personal
Then, it got worse for me personally. In the space of a year and a half, my young grandson was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. Then I was diagnosed with a disease for which there is no cure, only progression and pain management. I “hoped” I’d be okay.
Not long before, I happily reconnected with a past love and we were married the following year. Soon after our wedding we noticed troubling changes in his personality and memory recall. Several tests later, the doctors confirmed it was the beginning of dementia. Our hearts sank. What was left of my hope was nowhere to be found.
We all need to know when we need a break, and I needed a break.
There wasn’t enough recovery time to continue being the non-anxious presence in the room, the chief bringer of good news. It stopped being helpful that I’d managed to persevere during the AIDS epidemic, on and after 9/11, and after a tornado that affected one of my churches and the surrounding neighborhood. But I couldn’t lead the hope and happiness parade for one more Sunday. I decided to retire. Pastors cannot draw from an empty well. No one can.
What happened as a result has been nothing but blessing. I turned my energy toward working on my relationship with hope and with God. I stepped back and began with what I knew for sure. When, if ever, we lose hold of our faith, reviewing what we know for sure is a good way to start rebuilding our reserves. Here are some ideas I found helpful.
Start with the Word of God
I dove in and hung on to the words of Romans 15:13, “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope, in the power of the Holy Spirit.”
I fervently know that God is a God of hope; that God can fill me with everything I was leaking and lacking.
What is it you know for sure?
When faith seems low, inventory what you know for sure. I knew for sure that God never fails to show up. And show up God did.
Give yourself grace and self-care
If you’re exhausted and out of bandwidth, it’s time for grace and self-care. If you’re feeling shame that your faith is waning, give yourself the same grace God is giving you. No one can draw from an empty well. Reallocate your energy to refill and rebuild from there.
Hope is a form of prayer
For people of faith, hope is inextricably tied to God. Hope is more than an idle wish. It’s a type of prayer, a method of communicating and connecting with God. Like prayer, hope is an expressed intention—stating your needs as you beseech God for whatever your greatest hopes are.
Losing hope is an inside job
If ever we lose hope, it is almost always an inside job. God (and by extension, hope) never leaves us. God is omnipresent, meaning there is nowhere we can be where God (and by extension, hope) is not. We can be confident that God will never let us go. We are surrounded by God and hope.
Hope is a lens
For Christians hope can be an attitude, a lens, and an outlook of confident expectation, because of who we know God is. Without falling into toxic positivity, be confident that God will show up. Be confident that God already knows your hope-filled prayers. It is through this lens that we are daily reminded of God’s promises.
Find the Good News even when it hurts
When our hopes are dashed or when they take an unexpected form, we can be confident that God will work it for good. This is especially true when we hope for one thing and receive the opposite. We then do well to “put a kind construction” on whatever it is that is taking place. This idea comes from Luther’s take on the eighth commandment. Putting a kind construction is to put the most loving and God breathed meaning on something. Some of us are generous with hope for others, but must not abandon hope in God’s abundant love for ourselves.
Synchronize your hope with God’s imagination
We cannot take hope for granted. Hope is an opportunity to synchronize our hopes with God’s imagination for our lives. Daily prayer can result in higher, not lower, hopes! Dream big!
Give hope time to float up
In 1998 Hollywood produced a film titled, “Hope Floats.” Sandra Bullock plays the role of Birdee Pruitt. Birdee’s world comes crashing down, yet in the end she wisely says, “Beginnings are scary, endings are usually sad, but it is the middle that counts the most. You need to remember that when you find yourself at the beginning [or the middle of a challenge], just give hope a chance to float up.” What a precious image!
Keep returning to the Word of God
No matter our circumstance, we do not do this alone. The Psalmist says, “Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God, my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long,” in Psalm 25:5. In Jeremiah 29, when the prophet Jeremiah sends a letter from Jerusalem to the exiles taken into Babylonian captivity, he knew their hopes had crashed. Still, he admonishes them to “build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in numbers there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile.”
How hard it must have been to hear this. Put yourself in their places. Their situation wasn’t going to improve overnight. Then God tells them that in seventy years he will come to them and fulfill his good promise! “For I know the plans that I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11). The good news can take awhile.
I can attest that my hope is restored, and it’s a work in progress. I am living well with my condition and my spouse is having remarkable results with the newest medications. So is my grandson, who successfully snowboarded this past week! All of it has encouraged me to take nothing for granted and to cherish every day. My prayer for all who read this blog post is to take hope in God’s promises. Trust in God and tie your camel. Turn to Jesus and a therapist if needed! God shows up in many ways. May your eyes open to see God in every place and every face.