Thursday, June 27, 2013

Hope is a Verb

As American Baptists of New York State, we will embrace God's future with these core values: honesty, connectedness and hope. We will uphold our operational values in every aspect of our common ministry.

Hope is one of the declared core values of our Region.  Whenever I see hope mentioned, I read more closely.

Throughout Gil Rendle’s book Journey in the Wilderness he challenges us to rethink, reformulate, reposition, and reprioritize.  In other words, to do that thing we don’t like to do: change.  Then in the last paragraph of the epilogue, he writes about hope.  He observes that hope can be passive, as in “I hope you have a good trip.”  We do nothing to insure that the trip is, in fact, good.  And if the trip is not good, it does not affect our lives.  He then comments that for believers hope should be an active verb.  He reminds us that Saint Augustine wrote that hope has two beautiful daughters—anger and courage.  Hope depends on (1) anger over what could be but is not and on (2) courage to make it different.  This is a different type of hope.  This is hope that makes a difference in our lives.  It is this active hope that spurs us to do that thing we find so uncomfortable: change.

Hope is also a part of the program for congregations put forth in Peter L. Steinke’s book A Door Set Open—Grounding Change in Mission and Hope.  Steinke observes that hope can get a congregation over the threshold of saying “we can’t.”  It is an invitation to act in adventurous ways, to risk some things, to step off some banks not knowing how deep the water is.  Sometimes we say “I can’t” when we really mean “I’m afraid.”  Anyone who has coaxed a young child to learn to swim knows this.  Hope as an active verb needs courage.

Hope takes the long view.  Steinke points out that contemporary culture has led us to prefer the magical.  Magic is direct and immediate and requires no change or effort.  Abracadabra, all is fixed.  We look for immediate gratification and embrace avoidance.  We seek an analgesic that will numb the discomfort without dealing with the underlying issues:  five easy keys to a happy marriage; four simple steps to well-behaved kids; or three quick practices to grow your church.  Temporarily we feel better thinking we have done something, but long term there is no lasting change.  Practices that lead to deep and lasting healing oftentimes hurt a bit.  Anything less is simply denial.

In the Hebrew Bible, hope is often coupled with lament.  Hope is not about denial; it is about looking reality in the eye, finding it wanting, and having the courage to take action in spite of the way things appear.  Hope is the outgrowth of a dissatisfied realism.  It is an active verb.

My church in Philadelphia formed a partnership with a Haitian church 20 blocks south of us.  Each month new Haitian immigrants would arrive in Germantown by way of Brooklyn, and this congregation would help them get established.  The church bought a deserted building that once had housed a large thriving congregation.  The sanctuary that seated 500 people had large holes in the ceiling.  The stained glass windows were gone, sold decades ago.  The baptistery was full of leaves, a regular compost pit.  The floor was coated with the droppings of pigeons that had taken up residence there.  Pastor Santine showed me the sanctuary and talked about their plans to rehab it.  I thought:  “This is a dream: give it up and go rent a storefront.” They salvaged materials, asked the homeless men who ate at their feeding program to work 2 hours for each meal received, and kept taking in the arriving immigrants who worked at the project and gave out of their meager earnings. 

To make a stirring story short, two years later Pastor Santine invited me to preach at the dedication of their refurbished worship space.  I stood up and confessed my initial doubts.  I admitted that I never thought I would see the day when I would stand in that pulpit and not have to dodge pigeons and be careful not to fall through the rotted floor.  As I stood there and looked around at the worshippers that day, I could barely believe what had happened in that place.  I talked that day about hope, not a passive “I hope that works out for you” hope but a hard-nosed keen-eyed hope that makes a plan and gets to work.  Pastor Santine was no dreamer; he was a realist.  His life experiences had taught him how to fuse loss with hope, great challenge with initiative.

This is the kind of hope I want for New York Baptists—not a passive “I hope that works out for you” hope but an active hope.  I pray that in our churches and our Region will keep alive hope’s two beautiful daughters— anger over what could be but is not and the courage to make it different.

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).

In hope,
Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister

The American Baptist Churches of New York State