Now Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. —Hebrews 11: 1-2
This last week, a very specific memory has cropped up in my mind:
Summer camp, July of 1998, gathered around a fire with 80-ish other teens and adults. We sang a song:
I’ve got my hopes set high,
That’s why I came tonight,
So I could see the Truth, so I could see The Light,
So I could do my best, and pray to The Father,
‘cause if there’s one thing I oughta know by now…
When it all comes down
(When it all comes down)
When it all comes down
(When it all comes down)
If there’s anything good that happens in my life it’s from Jesus.
I’ve got some issues with the lyrics, but I can’t deny the feeling I have when I think about that night. It was a rare moment of calm, when everyone seemed to be singing the song…none of the usual teenager jokes and giggles…just a bunch of earnest kids singing this song in the dark. I have no idea what was happening in most of the lives gathered around that fire, but this song seemed to strike a chord with everyone in that moment. To my knowledge, not many of those people are members of a faith community today, and I don’t think many of them would have professed any kind of “personal relationship” with Jesus even then. And yet…that moment happened…it’s been flashing through my mind all week, just as sure as any other memory I possess. And I think the reason for this is 2 fold:
- Teens love emoting…and there is no greater emoting opportunity than singing an Amy Grant song around a campfire in the late 1990’s.
- The song is not rooted in Christian triumphalism, offering answers and clear-cut rules; all things that turn young people off of religious talk…probably because it sounds inherently questionable. It’s not a song that declares everything hunky-dory as long as Jesus is somehow the center of your universe. It doesn’t try to convince that there is a “grand scheme” behind whatever suffering one is currently experiencing…but rather names reality as every teenager sees it: It’s all coming down…it’s not a matter of if but when. When it all comes down. The song then assures that even when it all comes down…there’s the possibility of something good. As Franciscan Monk Richard Rohr has said, “The soul does not need answers, it needs meaning.” This song offers Hope as a meaningful response to suffering…not somewhere down the line…like a light at the end of a long, dark tunnel…but Hope that reside with us, here and now in the midst of suffering. We do not show up to learn about Hope…we show up because we have HIGH HOPES already…and we are seeking reasons to think Hope won’t disappoint us.
Or…maybe there’s a joke about setting your hope “high,” that I just never got. Who knows?
But now I’ve done that too. I’m old enough and faced enough of life’s uncertainty and challenges that I’ve found temporary solace in imbibing some of God’s good fruits and retiring at the end of the day. I’ve done this perhaps more often than is good for me…only to find when I come back down that nothing is different. There’s violence, brokenness, danger, crisis, catastrophe, hatred, and–as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught us, the true enemy of love–apathy. So…since those things aren’t going anywhere…and since I can’t constantly be as high as my hopes…I thought I’d try bringing some discernment to bear…to discover something I’ve yet to see.
2015 has been one of the best years of my life, and also among the toughest. My doctor is pretty sure I’ve been dealing with some level of depression. “Situational depression” he called it. I don’t think I share the burden that so many others do, of having my own brain functions and body chemistry trapping me in a web of depressive moods, thoughts, and actions. It’s more likely that my life has just been unmanageable…work responsibilities, life changes, family crises, financial struggles, and, yes, impending doom and gloom in all areas of world affairs…all combined to make it difficult to access the creative and joyous parts of myself, amounting to hurdles of despair and sadness seemingly too great to overcome. My thoughts and feelings led me to isolate myself from family and friends due to lack of energy. The rhythms of my life began centering around eating and sleeping, with little time to devote to anything else. I’ve lost entire days to the struggle of knowing I can’t leave the house without a shower…and knowing I couldn’t handle getting in the shower. Emails and phone calls would pile up, unchecked, unanswered…because they didn’t seem like forms of communication…to me, they felt like attacks…tiny cuts in my emotional skin.
I understand how that may sound. If you can’t relate to it, then we can all be grateful you have not yet faced this particular struggle. And to be clear, I don’t believe my personal experience is the same as those who suffer chronic depression. There are folks who go through what I’ve described here–and much worse–on a daily basis, throughout their entire lives…with, possibly, brief moments of relief through medication and therapy. My experience has truly been contextual. And, all due respect to my doctor, since I’m not a medical professional myself, I have found it more meaningful to name my recent experience something that is more within my realm of expertise. Perhaps it wasn’t depression at all…but rather, despair. I think that gets closer to describing what I’ve been going through. The worries and stresses and concerns and legitimate suffering in the world around me became my primary focus, blocking my view of any brighter future or better promise. The despair became so great that it rose higher than any hope I held…it rose so high there were times I worried I might drown in it.
I confess to despairing. I confess that I allowed it to become greater than my hope. And I’m able to write these words because in recent days…despite of everything that’s happened…hope has been gaining the upper hand. Today’s concerns have outweighed the tragedies of yesterday…the not yet has been diverting my attention from Breaking News. I am reminded that it is my call to not be a slave to this broken and weary world…but a prisoner of the Hope that gave birth to it.
Over the course of the last several weeks, I’ve been able to make tiny–and some not so tiny–changes to my life that are slowly revealing a greater horizon for me to look toward. This is not something I could have done for myself or by myself. I am blessed with the support of a loving partner, a caring family, great friends, trusted colleagues, education, health care, and a schedule that allows me the flexibility to exercise more, eat better, cook for myself and my partner. All of these precious gifts are not new in my life…they were here the whole time…but I allowed the shadow of despair to obscure my vision. And while I remain grateful for all these precious gifts in my life, there is only one thing that was able to cut through that soupy fog of despair so I could begin to see clearly again. Hope.
It’s possible that there will be more times in my life when I’ll have to wage this particular struggle again. But in this moment of clarity, I want to take the opportunity to speak out about the Hope that led me out of despair. We often think of Hope as the thing that will save us from sorrow, the vehicle that will keep us sailing high above stormy seas, the protective armor that shields our soul from attacks of sadness. That is the kind of Hope that failed me. The Hope that promises to skirt around the world’s troubles is not trustworthy. The Hope that functions as a sedative during times of distress is not worthy of praise and worship. The gift I found in the midst of darkness–a gift that was only revealed to me when I was so exhausted, overwhelmed, and busy that I could no longer resist the darkness–is a Christian Hope It is not a gift that I found evidence for…it is a hope that lies in God’s Promise of the Not Yet. It is not a vision that was found by ignoring or denying the sufferings of the world…but found within suffering. Its strength is not independent of life’s imperfections…its strength is entirely dependent upon the imperfections of the world…that’s what makes it real. There was no way around despair to find true Hope…it was only going through the despair that Hope was revealed.
I do confess, I have despaired. I confess that I will again. But at this moment, I am convinced of something just as important: Contained within every tragedy of the world is a seed that can grow Hope. For those of us with the ability to perceive it, it is our responsibility to carry, preserve, plant, and nurture that seed…until it grows high into a sign to give Hope to others. It’s the promise that Love is never gone, never out of reach, always available to us. It’s the vision of covenant relationships sustaining God’s Beloved Creation, even through destruction, war, pollution, and death. It’s the Final Word, what’s left at the end of all things, rooted in the First Word God ever uttered…Light.
Sometimes it takes everything coming down in order to see what remains eternally. I’ve got my hopes set high. So I can do my best. And pray. Because when it all comes down…if there’s anything good…God has it waiting for us.