Saturday, October 22, 2016

Letters to My Dear Sophia: Hoping When Hope is Gone

This is a series entitled "Letters to My Dear Sophia," which I intend as a compilation both for my daughter when she grows up, but for you as you raise your children, and think about yourselves in the oft-parental relationship to your heavenly parent. My intent is that, through reading these letters to my daughter and the intense love I have poured into them, you might hear an echo of the kind of love and hope that God has for all of us.

Letters to My Dear Sophia: Hoping When Hope is Gone

As I was driving to work this morning, it occurred to me what a miracle you truly are. Having a baby is a surreal experience wherein the love of two people is transmuted into flesh and blood. There is something very divine about this, which I am sure greater theologians than I have explored at length. Nonetheless, it really struck me, because last week I watched the debate between two presidential candidates, one of whom brought up late term abortion and accused women who have them of some very mean things. This necessitated conversation about what exactly drives somebody to have such an abortion, and the answer is generally: something has gone very wrong. It's a tragic situation, and one I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy, and the whole thing made me realize what odds you have beaten just to exist. From the moment of conception, there were so many cell divides and so many things could have gone wrong, and yet here you are.

As I noted in my last letter, you are my "rainbow baby." That's the term in the online baby community (yes, that's a real thing) used for a baby that comes after a miscarriage or pregnancy loss, because "after the storm is the rainbow." For me, you turned out to be the culmination of all my hopes, but that is not true for everybody. I remember a family, not one I ministered to directly, but I heard through the grapevine what had happened. A woman had gone into pre-term labor at a different hospital, and because of some mistake the doctor made, she ended up losing not only the baby but ultimately needed a full hysterectomy. She would never be able to have children. It's all well and good to say, like Job having a new family and new children, that God will just replace what was lost. But the replacement is not the same, and sometimes even that is not possible. I imagined the months to come, with this poor woman sneaking down the hallway in her house, passing a closed, unmarked door, behind which lay all her hopes and dreams that would now never be.

Sadly, this is life. You will lose things that are very, very important to you. You will lose beloved toys, pets, friends, and someday you will even lose me. I am so sorry to be so grim, but better you should understand this reality young, not so that you fear it, but so you can learn early how to hope even when it's hopeless. Some people might say that it's Pollyanna-ish to continue hoping in the face of hopelessness. Sometimes when the doctor says this is the end, it really is, and no miracle will stop death and time. So what do you do in the midst of that?

There is a TV show that your dad and I like a lot. We watch it about six times a year, so I'm sure you'll know what I'm talking about by the time you're old enough to read this. It's called Futurama, and it's a silly cartoon about a hapless pizza delivery boy who accidentally ends up in a cryogenic chamber and wakes up a thousand years later to become a space delivery boy instead. It's usually ridiculous and silly, but sometimes it hits on the profound and this particular episode is about his best friend Bender, a bending robot. On a routine mission, the Planet Express is attacked. Bender is annoyed that he's being woken up from his nap, so he crawls into a torpedo bay and is fired out of the ship. But because the ship is moving at maximum speed when the torpedo is fired, there is no way for them to catch up to his greater velocity so they return to earth without him. The main character, Fry, doesn't give up on him, though. He hijacks the rest of the crew to go on an expedition to a mountain observatory where a bunch of monks have been looking for God using a high powered telescope. After locking the monks there in a closet, they take over the equipment and fry searches for days. 

Meanwhile, Bender has been flying through the galaxy and somehow life has spawned on him, forcing him to play God with them, where he royally screws up and kills everybody. In the course of this deep space trek, Bender happens upon a galaxy that has "a high probability" of being God, and engages in conversation where he pours out his woes about accidentally killing everybody. God is sympathetic and they talks philosophically about this difficulty for a while. Back on Earth, the ship's captain Leela is trying to convince Fry to give up and he says: "You can't give up hope just because it's hopeless. You gotta hope even more, and cover your ears and go 'bla bla bla bla bla bla bla bla!'" Eventually, Leela does convince him to give up, and in frustration he hits the instrument which spins and somehow telegraphs his parting words about wanting to find Bender to space, where it's picked up by none other than the "probably God" galaxy, who proceeds to chuck Bender back toward earth. He crash lands in front of Fry, and all's well that ends well.

The line about hope is silly, and delivered in typical silly Fry fashion, but there's actually a lot of truth there about hope works. Hope is both a feeling and a practice. Right now, the things you are hoping for are to be fed and get snuggles, and as you get older you'll find yourself hoping for trips and opportunities and admissions and partners and job interviews and pregnancy tests and so much more, but the bigger our hopes get, the bigger the pain when they don't work out. A cynic would tell you it's better to just set low expectations and not be disappointed, but I just can't get behind that idea for myself. Hope is in itself a painful thing. It's full of longing and desire and fear of loss or failure, but it's also something which has the capacity to motivate you powerfully and pull you through the darkest times. It has the power to change the world. 

Sometimes it seems silly to hope. Why hope when it's hopeless? Sometimes it's impossible to do it. Depression and grief make it challenging indeed. But I think the biggest gift of God in our brokenness is hope, even when it's hard, because it evokes our imagination beyond our current pain. When I work with the kids at the hospital, we do an exercise where we practice hoping because you may not be able to feel hopeful all the time, but you can practice it. The exercise is pretty easy and goes something like this: imagine a guy, Jim, who wakes up and the dog has pooped on the floor beside his bed and he steps in it. Then the hot water heater is broken so he has a cold shower, and he drops his toast butter side down on the floor where the dog eats it, and then his car won't start. We make assumptions about what's going to happen next based on what has already happened: the day started out terrible so surely nothing good will happen. I contend, though, that the trick to hope is to intentionally base our expectations not on the reality that exists today, but the reality that might exist. That means if your day starts off rotten, you choose to say something good is going to happen. This builds anticipation, and gives you agency. Maybe you need to smile at somebody because making their day better might make your day better. This isn't just 'power of your mind' stuff. Maybe your day really will stink. But the point is that you practice doing this in small ways, so that when you really need to exercise your hope muscles, they're in shape.

As people of the resurrection, our lives our built on this. Rather than assuming that, because the world sucks it can never get any better, or because death exists there is no hope in our lives, we go on with the assumption that God can do a new thing. Hope is looking at tomorrow not based on today's bad day, but based on the promise that even death can't stop the God who loves you and cares for you. It breaks my heart to think of the grief you will endure in your life. When you smile at me now, you're so happy, and you love your Ellie and your face lights up when you see your dad and me, and everything is new and bright and exciting. The sin of this world will try to rob you off that naive optimism that you have right now. Now you don't know any better, but soon you will understand disappointment. Because I love you and I want you to be resilient despite life's hardships, you must hold onto that innocence. To do that, I want you to remember these words: God promises new life. When you are sad because your friend moved away, remember that God promises new life--new experiences, new friends. When a boy breaks your heart, I want you to remember that there is new life; there is healing, there is love. When you first say goodbye because of death, I desperately want you to remember that there is new life. That even though hope this day is gone, that real hope, true hope, transcends what is possible, and promises new life.

Today your little baby heart is tender, but it will get bruised and toughened up with years. Never let those years harden your beautiful, sensitive heart. Hope even when it's stupid to hope. Hope even when it hurts to hope. Hope stubbornly. Hope aggressively. Hope blindly. Hope ridiculously. Don't ever let anybody tell you not to hope with every part of your being, and when you can't hope any more, hope some more, until the enormity of your beautiful, optimistic, stupid hope shatters death and grief.