Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
righteous and having salvation is he,
humble and mounted on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall speak peace to the nations;
his rule shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you,
I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.
Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope;
today I declare that I will restore to you double.
(Zechariah 9:9-12 ESV)
It had been a good week. Until, that is, I discovered that it hadn’t.
Summertime in New Hampshire is sublime, by any account. Particularly to those of us for whom the uninhabited out-of-doors conveys a tangible grace; a fresh, palpable experience of the very life-breath of the creator God, these fleeting days of green and warmth are a gift and treasure. For myself, introvert by nature and extrovert by virtue of vocation, it is in the quietude of the woods and mountains, in unhurried moments on the banks of trout streams and rivers that I find myself made whole again. “He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters. He restores my soul.”, so the Psalmist writes. It is a song and a prayer that is never far from my heart. A jeep, a tent, and a fly rod. A book, a mason jar of pipe tobacco and the onramp to Rt. 16 North: The basic ingredients of a deep, personal joy, these.
Given the chance to spend a few days as a family in the heart of the Great North Woods, then; camping in the grass along the Androscoggin River, casting for brook trout while watching my daughters play in shallow pools along the the river’s edge, we had the makings of a pretty good week. The sun was shining and the fish were biting. The hoards of weekend warriors had departed for a few days to their more southern points of origin. And, perhaps most importantly, mobile devices were reduced to refreshingly benign service as digital cameras, books, and occasional flashlights by the absolute void of cellular signal. It was a rich and restful time, if all too brief.
It was not long into the return trip, passing through Berlin into the southernmost reaches of the Great North Woods, that we began to perceive that something was wrong. The quiet testimony of flags on government buildings flying at half mast, electronic restaurant billboards offering prayers for an unfamiliar tragedy and for a people halfway across the country; “What on earth happened in Dallas?”, my wife wondered aloud. Cell phones now with trepidation switched out of airplane mode, three days of social media and digital headlines came cascading invisibly through the roof of our vehicle as the children dozed quietly behind us. A confusing but increasingly coherent storyline began to emerge; even as I write this, the granular details of the timeline and causal relationships still escape me, somewhat, but the basic thrust was quickly clear enough: death, death, rage and civil response, more death, death… uneasy quiet. It turns out it had been quite a week. I will not hesitate to admit the temptation I felt to turn the car around and head back into the woods.
“That’s what I thought, too,” he said at last, “when I was your age. If there’s just one kind of folks, why can’t they get along with each other? If they’re all alike, why do they go out of their way to despise each other? Scout, I think I’m beginning to understand something. I think I’m beginning to understand why Boo Radley’s stayed shut up in the house all this time... it’s because he wants to stay inside.” - Harper Lee, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
My summer pleasure reading was beginning to resonate a little too poignantly. There are moments and, indeed, seasons when the life of a recluse seems the only sane and sustainable option in a world gone horribly mad. There are days when hope seems a simply too implausible and great a burden to bear, when hopelessness evokes a seductive, gravitational pull upon the soul. A cold-hearted cynic by nature, I often find myself reduced to a head-shaking, smirking indignation by the bludgeoning suffered at the hands of a 24-hour news cycle. "What on earth is a person to do", the thought begins, "in the face of such profound, intractable, brokenness?" I can hardly bear to face my own shadow, most days. Never mind the compounded sins of an entire nation - and a world, for that matter - bent on tearing itself apart at the seams along the lines of an inborn imbalance that we can hardly articulate, let alone mitigate. I've been told that Charles Spurgeon once famously replied to an open letter which posed the question, "What is wrong with the world?", by stating simply but profoundly, "I am." I'd like to think that that is a confession I could bear to articulate so naturally and publicly.
But the trouble is that I am so twisted by sin that even virtue can turn to vice. Because, even should I find myself possessed of enough humility and clarity to admit the role my own darkness has to play in the wretched symphony of human evil, with will enough to confess it, my heart would readily leverage that knowledge, not unto redemption, but inaction. "Who am I", the thought continues, "to dare a public step or even a whisper in the face of this darkness? What integrity or authority could I hope to stand upon? What righteousness have I to claim, wretched, poor, blind, ignorant man that I am?" The problem is just too big, and our own histories too sullied, for there to be much hope. And so, in the face of an evil as pervasive and entrenched as America's original and abiding sin (racism), hopelessness can begin to descend like a pall in the guise of reasoned retreat. With legacies of systemic sin so difficult to trace and face, and dynamics of privilege and power so subtle to some while clearly oppressive to others, false humility easily justifies silence and inaction. Whatever I may aspire to say or do, I will most certainly be wrong; misinformed, shown to be lacking in integrity, or simply unwelcome. So, as reason would advise against wading into a battle which one has no hopes of winning, hopelessness slips in through the fissures of my heart on the coat tails of rational self-preservation. This is hopelessness, as virtue; the persistent, gravitational temptation of my exhausted, broken, sin-bent human heart.
But then, inevitably, He speaks.
In the exact moments when these thoughts come out of the shadows of my unconscious enough to be articulated and exposed, He is there, a bulwark within my very soul. Inevitably, the soft, sure, grace-filled voice of Jesus speaks;
"Hopelessness is a not luxury afforded to those who would follow after me."
I hear these words spoken into my heart. I perceive that, because the very Spirit of Christ has taken up residence at the center of my being, as Jesus himself promised He would, I am in actual fact INCAPABLE of resigning myself to hopelessness! In the moment, I'm not sure that feels like good news. But, the truth remains that I can no more surrender the hope of Christ - for me, and for his world - than I could voluntarily hold my own breath until life itself abandoned my lungs. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, life and hope and love abide; it is His eternal, immutable nature, undarkened by suffering and circumstance. Where there is no hope, there is no Spirit, but as a child of God caught up in the saving embrace of Jesus, the truth is that his Spirit simply isn't going anywhere. I am my beloved's, and He is mine. Mysteriously, miraculously, entirely so. Which, from the perspective of the horizon of eternal salvation, produces great comfort and great joy within me. Brought to bear within the messy, heart-wrenching tensions of the present, however, this same miracle calls forth a different realization and response, altogether.
I am a prisoner of hope.
Moment by moment I realize that to claim and cling to and follow Christ IS to be possessed of hope for the world that he spilled his very blood to purchase and redeem. I realize this, and I want to weep for pure exhaustion at the thought. In truth, I'm not sure I can effectively convey to you how badly I want to give up on this place; to give up on our nation, to give up on you, to give up even on myself. As I attempt to comprehend the heart of a God who perceives entirely the true depth and breadth of human evil, and yet STILL loves perfectly and hopes continually, I feel as if the very fibers of my being are in danger of being rent into atomic fragments. To simply attempt to imagine the heart of God threatens my own, fragile heart with bursting. I am weak, I am tired, and this broken world is simply too much for me, most days. But here the Spirit of Christ calls out, again, "MY strength is sufficient for you, and my power is made perfect in weakness." So my broken, ingrown heart keeps on beating, daring to love and compelled to hope, by virtue of a strength alien to me; such is the life of Christ. It can be truly said that I am not my own; long ago bought and paid for, possessed of a Spirit with His own means and agenda for my life.
We are prisoners of hope, you and I.
Such it is to follow Jesus. Where our flesh would despair and the idols of our hearts and heritage would tempt us to fall back behind the pall of fear and false humility, the Spirit of Christ compels us outward, into engagement with the world's darkest sins and deepest hurts. We have not the luxury of hopeless resignation, you and I. As those inhabited by the Spirit of Christ Himself, we are nothing if not a people of hope; a people of self-giving love, and of a faith welling forth in holy confidence, not in any strength that we might possess, but in the strength of He who so possesses US.
As it turns out, it's been a pretty rough week. A week that continues to insist that our corporate wounds and sins be laid bare for a watching world to see. It's uncomfortable, it's exhausting, and for those of us with the privilege to do so, it is tempting to respond with retreat into an insulated, resigned ignorance. This is tempting, as we fail to perceive how we could ever hope to possess the resources necessary to engage the present darkness, even within our own hearts, and prevail. But hopelessness, it turns out, is not an option. In Jesus, we are a people incapable of it. And though we may weep for exhaustion and fear, the strength we are given to submit to the stories and the struggle, painful though it may be, and the strength we are given to engage the powers and principalities, as well as the complex threads of our own privilege, is not contingent upon our ability to produce it. Our hope captivates and compels us by a power altogether not our own; we are prisoners of it, by the grace of Jesus. And as his power perfects itself in expression through our very weaknesses, we begin to understand what it means to pray, as Jesus himself teaches us:
"...Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For yours is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever."
For Minnesota, and Louisiana, and for Texas. For Florida. And tonight, for Michigan... For Black Lives and Blue Lives, for the scared and oppressed, for the privileged and confused. For a nation at war with itself, burdened by false gods and unhealed wounds, may we HOPE. May we hope as Jesus himself hopes: For his glory, for our own healing and sanctification, and for a world in desperate need.