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The Rev. Dr. Michael Foss The Rev. Dr. Michael Foss

The Rev. Dr. Michael Foss is senior pastor of St. Mark Lutheran Church in West Des Moines, IA, and the author of several books.

Member of:

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Representative of:

St. Mark Lutheran Church, West Des Moines, IA


Wishful Thinking, Optimism and Hope

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

Proper 14

August 12, 2007

I love baseball. In a recent episode of "Peanuts," Lucy is in her usual position in right field when suddenly a batter hits a fly ball to her. She looks up to catch it, only to have it drop behind her. She picks up the ball and saunters to the pitcher's mound to give it to Charlie Brown, saying, "Sorry I missed that one, manager, I was hoping I'd catch it! Hope got in my eyes.

Today I want to share with you some reflections on "Hope." The story of Lucy and her missed fly ball is appropriate because it reveals our human confusion over what hope really is. Lucy confuses hope with wishful thinking. Wishful thinking looks for that which has never happened before. Wishful thinking anticipates that for which there has been no effort, no improvement.

But Lucy is not the only one who is confused by hope. For example Voltaire called hope: "A mania of maintaining that everything is right when it is wrong." G.K. Chesterton calls hope: "The noble temptation to see too much in everything." On the other hand, Karl Menninger has said of hope: "It is the major weapon against the suicide impulse." And Samuel Johnson has written that hope is "the chief happiness which this world affords."

With all these different opinions, the question remains, what is hope? More specifically, what does the Bible say about hope? In St. Paul's Letter to the Romans the 8th chapter we read these verses:

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory to be revealed to us, for the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God. The creation was subjected to futility not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it in hope. And again we know that all things work together for good to those who love God who are called according to his purpose.

We see that wishful thinking is not what Paul has in mind when he writes of hope. The text begins with an honest acceptance of what is real. Paul understands that the world is not what we would like it to be. Surely this is a word which we can recognize. Far from being an ideal world, Paul knows that this world is filled with pain and tragedy; he doesn't say that is all there is, but he knows that realism demands that we acknowledge it. And we too understand for we have seen and heard of tragedies on land and sea. We know too much to be enamored of wishful thinking. The text declares that authentic hope comes from a realistic view of the world. Now such a view of the world is only possible through faith. This is so because faith demands that we see the world with open eyes and yet discover God acting within it. Faith gives birth to hope, for hope, when it sees the world as it is and comprehends the presence and activity of God, dares to reach into the future believing that this same God of grace is already there preparing the future for us.

In those majestic words of the writer of the Book of Hebrews, this realistic hope is presented: Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (Hebrews 11:1) This biblical hope is very real for us as Christians because we are those who know what God has already done in Jesus of Nazareth - and our hope dares to believe that God will do in the future what God has promised. No matter how dark the present, God will bring the sun of the resurrection into our lives!

So hope is very different from wishful thinking. But how does hope compare with optimism? Alexander Solzhenitsyn tells of a moment when he was on the verge of giving up all hope. While a political prisoner in the Soviet Union, he was forced to work 12 hours a day on a starvation diet; and he became gravely ill. The doctors, in fact, predicted his death. One afternoon, while shoveling sand under a blazing sun, he simply stopped working. He stopped working even though he knew that the guards would beat him severely, even to death. But he felt he just could not go on. Then he saw another prisoner, a fellow Christian, moving toward him cautiously. With his cane that man quickly drew a cross in the sand and then erased it. In that brief moment, Solzhenitsyn felt all of the hope of the gospel flood through his soul. It was a renewal of Christian hope, even though the situation had not changed. It gave him courage to endure that difficult day and the months of imprisonment that followed.

This is the difference between Christian hope and optimism! 0ptimism is born of the human spirit. Its strength is the strength of one person's spirit. Unlike wishful thinking, optimism often sees the situation clearly and yet clings to the notion that good will triumph somehow. Hope is like optimism in the sense of clinging to confidence in the triumph of good, but it understands what that good is - how that triumph shall finally occur.

Hope is founded in God. And, like faith, hope is finally vindicated because God is faithful. For the Christian, hope is not dependent on the strength of our own spirit, but in fact functions precisely when our optimism fails, when our emotional and, yes, even spiritual strength leaves us broken and vulnerable. Isn't this exactly what Solzhenitzyn discovered? When he had nothing left in himself, the building block of faith was still there. And that building block awakened within him that second great cornerstone of Christian spirituality: the gift of hope.

This building block of hope opened life up to him again. Faith grounds us in God; hope opens us to God's future. No wonder St. Paul places Hope second in that great abiding trinity of Faith, Hope and Love. Our Lord would have us build our lives solidly on faith, but God would also have us boldly accept the future which Jesus has won for all who believe in Him and that can only happen through the spiritual gift of hope. Hope empowers us for life by reminding us that God is in control, God will get it done.

What about you? Teens, if you have been rejected by your girlfriend, your boyfriend, or maybe you're having family problems, can you trust God to give you a future worthy of your living into it?

Adults, do you experience even in the midst of success a gnawing hunger for something more? Can you trust that God will fulfill that hope for you?

Only Christian hope has the power to unlock the future for those whose present is a dead end, a locked door, a seemingly insurmountable tragedy.

He came back to consciousness on that hospital bed slowly, reluctantly, almost as though he knew and dreaded the shock that awaited him. Both of his hands were gone! He looked up at the ends of his arms, wrapped in bandages, at the stumps at the end of those arms and everything went cold and numb inside him. His hands were gone; he was cripple. He thought, "What good am I now? What can a man do without his hands?" Harold Russell lost both hands in a military training exercise. Harold Russell believed that his life was over. He sunk into despondency and despair. Later, Charley McGonegal, who had lost both his hands in the service, visited Russell in the hospital. He made the injured paratrooper see that the first and greatest obstacle he had to overcome was himself. He must conquer his bitterness, his fear. Then the Major told him he'd be well and going home soon. That's when Russell felt panic and doubt. "How could he get along, crippled as he was?" he thought. "There's one thing you ought to keep in mind, Russell," the Major said, "You are not crippled; you are merely handicapped."

Harold Russell went on in life to marry his childhood sweetheart, star in motion pictures and be a best selling author. And he did so because Charles McGonegal, the Major, had awakened within him Christian hope.

This is the wonder of Christian hope, the second of that great abiding trinity so many of us are aware of from St. Paul; it has the power through God's Holy Spirit to take our losses and make of them eternal gains-our crucifixions in life and make of them resurrections. This is the power of Christian hope and it is miraculous! And that's what Harold Russell discovered and lived.

If you could choose building blocks for your life, why wouldn't you choose the miracle of Christian hope? Why wouldn't you want such transforming power set loose into your seasons of despair and challenge? Why wouldn't you elect to have the sign of the cross drawn on the sands of your despondency, like Alexander Solzhenitsyn? Why wouldn't you want God to make of your losses eternal gains, like Harold Russell?

Wishful thinking can't do it; neither can optimism! lt is the power of God alone which can do it, the building block of hope which is God's instrument. God is making this gift possible for you today if you are only willing to receive it.

Let us pray. Gracious God, create within all of us that hope which cannot and will not disappoint us no matter how deep our hunger. Pour your love into our hearts and remind us that faith is the assurance of things hoped for. Amen.


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