Actions by the recent Special General Conference have left many confused and despairing of the possibility of any way forward. At the same time, there is an energy and passion to shape a better future. Lovett Weems puts these troubling times in perspective by recalling the power of hope when events do not engender optimism.
The first spring flower you see, say to yourself over and over again: hope rages, hope rages, hope rages in this world. — Joan Chittister
We can agree that recent times have been challenging for United Methodist leaders. Most of us serve every day among tensions and differences. We are under no illusions that our congregations or even other pastors share all the wide-ranging ethical and social commitments proclaimed by the United Methodist Church. Yet we choose to live with the differences because we can understand them. Perhaps we are all too familiar with some of the biases others hold because we recognize them in our own personal journeys.
It is essential for leaders in such a time to remain hopeful even when circumstances give little reason for hope. This was a biblical mandate long before it became a leadership principle. Although the future does not look bright, we remember that it is in such times that new visions often emerge. It was in a time of despair that Nehemiah and his people united to rebuild the wall. It was after years of suffering that Habakkuk sought and received the vision that the just shall live by faith. In was amid life-denying realities that Jesus proclaimed the vision that all might have abundant life.
Our task is to maintain hope when times are hard, assured that we will never know all God is able to do with our efforts. “The basis of hope,” said Howard Thurman, “is never ultimately to be found in the course of events.” The hope that can lead from weariness to energy is rooted in a God who, throughout our history, brings resurrection from death, love from hate, forgiveness from revenge, and, miraculously, hope from despair.
The hope required to keep going is the knowledge that God is with us and will never leave us. And our hope is sure because it comes not from what God may do in the future but from what we know God has already done. God has brought us this far by such faith.
Hope and adversity
Hope that is seen is not hope (Rom. 8:24). Hope is the alternative to false optimism. Peter Gomes reminded us that such hope is “forged upon the anvil of adversity.” Cornel West speaks of “audacious hope” that makes no logical sense to others. God’s leaders proclaim God’s coming new age even when signs are not apparent. God’s leaders help write a new chapter for God’s people.
I heard a story early in my ministry that has weighed on my heart over the years because I can see my own natural tendencies all too starkly in this account. A group of seminary students went to a Latin American country for several weeks. They had been briefed thoroughly on conditions in that country, but they were not prepared emotionally for what they found: hunger, children being buried on many days, and political oppression. Within a few days, the group of students became so emotionally distraught that they could barely function.
One day one of the local Christian leaders, looking at this despairing group, said to them, “You Americans! You only know how to hope when you’re winning.” He went on to say, “I see the hopelessness in your faces. But remember that these are our children we are burying. These are our stomachs that are empty. These are our necks that have the heavy foot of political oppression upon them.”
“But when you look in our faces, you will always see faces of hope. We hope not because we are winning. We have been losing all our lives. We are hopeful because we are convinced that we are being faithful to what God is calling us to be in this moment.”
He concluded, “We are hopeful because we know that when God’s victory comes, it will be ours. It may come tomorrow. It may come in three hundred years. But, when it comes, it will be ours.”
Prophets of the long road
One can almost hear in those words the witness of Paul when he said, “We are often troubled, but not crushed, sometimes in doubt, but never in despair, there are many enemies, but we are never without a friend, and though badly hurt at times, we are not destroyed” (II Corinthians 4:8-9 GNT).
Historian William Warren Sweet described John Wesley and Francis Asbury as “prophets of the long road.” May God give us such new leaders for a new church in a new day.