The Genesis of Hope
The run-of-the-mill childhood illness had given his sister only a fever for three days and an itinerant rash on her torso. But in him, it bypassed the fever entirely and poured all its virulence into an angry rash that distended his cheeks, swelled his eyelids and pilled his smooth skin to a swath of angry red bumps. He sat on the sink, his feet in the basin, and stared sadly at his reflection in the mirror. Then he hung his head. The words were flat, his voice weak and downcast, and I barely heard him, but I did. Oh, I did.
“God didn’t answer my prayer. Instead he just gave me a silly face.”
The night before when the rash had first appeared, creeping its way up his cheek, he’d prayed so simply and directly, in his blithe and innocent way, to be healed. Hands clasped and eyes squinted tightly shut, he offered up his request, so sweetly and earnestly. He had been so sure in the asking, and so certain of the deliverance. And now, here we were. God didn’t answer my prayer.
My heart broke, hearing it. My hand went to my mouth and my eyes started to sting. Not now, I thought. Not this weighty theological dilemma that is way too complex even for me to understand, let alone simplify and codify into some teachable moment for my child. And the timing, oh, the timing. My frustration in prayer had crescendoed to a huffy resignation just the week prior. My prayers, it seemed, had been fluttering to the ground like forlorn confetti at a wedding where the groom had gotten cold feet; my words falling unheard into a formless void. Hearts were getting harder (mine included) and people were getting divorced and getting sicker anyway. I didn’t feel like running any race. I felt like sitting down in the middle of the road. When I did try to pray, it felt hollow, as if the bitterness on my tongue poisoned the words before they even left my mouth. Maybe there isn’t even anyone there to hear, I thought, which seemed an even more incredible and terrifying alternative to the idea that God was indeed there but silent. And in the space between doubt and nihilism, I languished, feeling like a fool: a fool to believe and a fool to disbelieve. Instead he just gave me a silly face.
So I just held my son and stroked his calloused cheeks while I let the tears come down my own. “I know. I know. It feels that way, doesn’t it?” I said. And in saying those words I remembered the last time they were spoken to me, and I was back there again, pulled over on the side of a remote country highway, desperately trying to make it to my parents’ house 300 miles away in a state of almost complete disintegration. Darkness closed in on the periphery of my very being and threatened to swallow me whole. I was pretty sure my marriage was over and now a terrible misunderstanding blunderingly handled by me meant that my husband might lose his job. It’s a long story, for another time, of how I arrived at the side of that road, sobbing into my phone to one of my dearest friends, clinging for dear life to her words as though they were my last remaining tether to hope above the pit of chaos that loomed beneath me, belching meaninglessness from its rotten belly. And truly, they were just that. “Everything’s falling apart,” I cried out in between the convulsive sobs that held my body in thrall.
“Yes,” Stephanie said. “I know. Yes, it feels that way.” That was the medicine I needed. In that moment I didn’t need platitudes, I didn’t need facile reassurance, I didn’t need someone lying and saying it was okay when it so obviously wasn’t at all. I desperately needed hope, yes, but I needed that validation first. I needed my lamentation to be real to someone else.
I think sometimes before we can authentically hope, lamentation must come first. When our story doesn’t turn out how we wanted or expected, the temptation to meaninglessness, cruel opportunist that it is, slithers in and taunts us with its blackened barbs. We start to wonder if this is it, if this is where our story ends. We start to wonder if there is a story being told at all, or rather if the welter of disintegration that swirls around us is the truth: that there is none, that entropy reigns. The most profound refrain of despair resonates in our bones: Why? Why have you forsaken me?
Out on that lonely road, I cried harder. But my friend wasn’t finished: “But it’s not true. And it won’t always feel that way,” she said firmly. I couldn’t believe her in that moment, but I let her hope for me, even though it seemed so distant and so absurd. I couldn’t believe it then, though I came to in time. In the midst of pain, it seems untenable, even ludicrous to see beyond the pain, to believe that dry bones can come alive again. But they can. I’ve seen it, and tasted it, and known it with my own eyes and tongue and heart.
A couple days after my son despaired over his reflection, the swelling receded and his face began to return to the handsome little boy I knew. I was fearful, though, fearful that the incident had planted a seed of doubt that would now grow unchecked until he’d eventually abandon any semblance of faith at all. I thought just because he was little, my son’s faith was fragile. Deep down, I condescendingly thought his hope was sweet but quaint and naive. And I thought it had been crushed. I was so wrong. He smiled at his face in the mirror now, and turned toward me. “See, mom? God healed me. It’s a miracle!”
Tears stung my eyes again, at his untarnished wonder. Hope isn’t always just a specific wish for something to happen or not to happen - it’s also an unwavering belief in an ultimate good ending and a sense of awe at the beautiful, bewildering gift of life. Because if we allow it, if we want it, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear, God infuses everything with meaning. Every thing. Sometimes we have to pass through meaninglessness to get to the meaning, but it’s there. There are (or at least there will be) no meaningless or profitless dangling threads, none at all, in the end. No ultimate tragedy. Death, in any of its forms, does not have the last word.
That’s the genesis of hope. And so we hope, even when everything seems to point toward the chasm of chaos, even when the collective voices of cynicism and despair growl “don’t bother”. We hope when it’s irrational, when it doesn’t make a lick of sense, when the void of meaninglessness yawns before us and the storm assails us. And when we can’t hope, we let someone else hope for us. My husband didn’t lose his job after all and eventually, after months of the hard work and pure grace of healing, our marriage was restored. But even when this or that leg of your story doesn’t end the way it should because our world is broken - even when hearts harden and the sick don’t get better - it’s not over yet. Your story - our story - is good, and it isn’t over.