The Sermonator

Nurturing Hope in a Time of Fear, or This is No Time for Spiritual Cynics

In 1972 or thereabouts, the name Kathryn Kuhlman was synonymous with faith healing. She packed stadiums much like Jesus packed hills and lakeshores in his day. On a whim and a prayer, a few students from my college bible study group traveled from Greencastle, Indiana, to Chicago, Illinois, to attend one of her healing services.

When we arrived, the place was packed. Excitement and anticipation permeated the crowd. On one side, parents and caregivers flanked rows of wheelchairs, filled with people of all ages. Our little group of healthy college students came just to be there and see God in action.

There was preaching. There was prayer. Illnesses and conditions were called out. People came forward. With a touch of Kathryn’s hand and a breath of divine power, they fell to the floor, slain by the spirit. The healed were assisted to their feet and sent off to their seats, praising God. Hallelujahs filled the auditorium.

It was glorious. Truly, it was. As we slowly filed out after the service, my eyes fixated upon a mother pushing the wheelchair of her severely handicapped child. Around her, joy was the predominant emotion energizing the massive crowd. Slowly, carefully, quietly, she moved.

How many healing services had she been to? I wondered. How many times has this child, if he could do such thinking, hoped for release from his imprisoned state? How many times has he been slowly wheeled out of a faith healing service, just like today?

Watching the two of them leave changed my whole perspective on that experience. I do know instances of faith healing. Many of us do, whether they have been spontaneous healings or slow miracles birthed through years of diligent prayer. Our own family has experienced many slow miracles! Yet, this moment–at this healing service–was the first crack in my young, idealistic armor of hope. It left me with new faith questions since my initiation into the world of miracles and faith healings: When is faith alive, yet hope misplaced? Where does hope appropriately belong in the context of the suffering believer?

Thirty-four years later, a 21st century faith question accompanies these thoughts: In a world where lament is both a spiritual discipline and stark facing of reality, what does it mean to lay hold of hope? What is hope? [Members of the congregation were invited to share here]

Interestingly enough, Jesus doesn’t talk much about hope. Instead, he embodies hope for those who follow him. “Give me something to hope for!” they seem to cry. “Heal me! Free me! Release me!” some beg. “Help me see beyond my life and its struggles–give me a vision for more,” others ask.

This is exactly what Jesus does. His healing ministry offers a taste of God’s goodness and a vision worth hoping for–a foretaste of the Kingdom, or coming reign of God. That reign is wide and deep. It calls us to question everything about our lives–our deepest motivations and primary loyalties, our prejudices and our monetary habits. It calls us to enter a new world–a world that pulsates with the heartbeat of God–a world where justice, compassion, and reconciliation are truly home. Jesus offers hope because he offers meaning. Hope reminds us again and again that our ultimate trust and value belong in God.

It was hope, rooted in a vision of the Reign of God, that moved Martin Luther King, Jr., and South African bishop Desmond Tutu to confront the racial injustices in their homelands. It was hope, rooted in a vision of the Reign of God, that inspired Mother Teresa to work with the poorest of Calcutta’s poor.

Closer to home, it was hope, rooted in a vision of the Reign of God, that led the family of the late Dorothea Thomas to buy a new communion set for this church in 1979. The church had 12 members and big summertime crowds of 17. One church member in particular thought this was a foolish, wasteful act. Why this waste? she cried. The church won’t be around to use it! she insisted.

But on the first Sunday of each month for the past 27 years, out comes that beautiful Communion set, inscribed “in memory of Dorothea Thomas.” The Thomas family bore witness to hope with their conviction that God was not finished with this church and its ministry.

That same hope, rooted in a vision of the Reign of God, offers us a strong and sure defense against the cynicism and futility that threaten us from all sides. One of my personal champions of hope is the ancient saint Job, whose struggle with hope and despair is so thoroughly unmasked in The Book of Job. The man faces cascading, consecutive, cumulative losses which are both unexpected and overwhelming. As if this isn’t enough, he is stricken with a physically disfiguring illness that leads others to shun him. The body of the book is devoted to Job’s very personal struggle to make sense of his relationship with God in the midst of these profound losses.

Along the way, Job’s deepest yearning is unmasked. As he explains his predicament and defends himself against the theological attacks of his friends, Job blurts out his hope. It blasts out of his darkness suddenly, without warning, as if hope could no longer be shackled by his anger and despair.
Let me back up a bit in the text so you get some sense of the debilitating backdrop for Job’s powerful confession of hope.

God has made my brothers forsake me; I am a stranger to those who knew me;
my relatives and friends are gone. Those who were guests in my house have
forgotten me; my servant girls treat me like a stranger and foreigner. When I
call a servant, he doesn’t answer–even when I beg him to help me.

My wife can’t stand the smell of my breath, and my own brothers won’t come
near me. Children despise me and laugh when they see me. My closest friends
look at me with disgust; those I loved most have turned against me. My skin
hangs loose on my bones; I have barely escaped with my life.

You are my friends! Take pity on me! The hand of God has struck me down.
Why must you persecute me the way God does? Haven’t you tormented me

How I wish that someone would remember my words and record them in a book!
Or with a chisel carve my words in stone and write them so that they would last

But I know there is someone in heaven who will come at last to my defense.
Even after my skin is eaten by disease, while still in this body I will see God.
I will see him with my own eyes, and he will not be a stranger.
(Job 19:13-27)

Hope becomes for us a clearing, whether in the fog of suffering and loss, or the fear of national and global calamity. Hope reminds us why we are here—in simple language, that God has a plan for us, whether in life or death, in blessing or loss.

Two siblings couldn’t manage to visit their mother simultaneously at the nursing home very often, because one’s demanding job allowed no free time Monday through Friday, and the other worked regularly on the weekends. On a rare joint visit, however, the younger daughter made one last stop to see her mom.

“Well, I guess God didn’t answer my prayers,” her mother announced.

“What prayers, momma?” the daughter asked.

The mother quietly replied, “I’m still here.”

“What do you mean, ‘You’re still here?’” the daughter queried.

The mother became quiet for a moment, then replied, “I thought it would be easier for you girls if I just died while you were both here…but I’m still here.”

“God must still want you here, momma,” the daughter protested. It was a little of a hard sell, as her mom lay in bed, dealing with the cumulative losses of health, home, mobility, energy, and daily access to her friends.

The daughter knew her mom could hear God in her protest, even if it required a bit of extra convincing that day.

It is hope that gets us out of bed in the morning, whether she appears in the form of a scrabble game, a phone call from a friend, a child to nurture, a bird on the windowsill, or a burst of deep yearning for the Holy One who can be frightfully elusive at the darndest times.

In a time of fear, amid a culture of fear, let us hope in the God who counts every hair on our head and calls each one of us by name. Amen.