A few days ago, I stumbled across this sentence in the middle of a tiny book about prayer: Hope includes an openness where you wait for the promise to be delivered, even though you never know when, where, or how this might happen. Under normal circumstances, I would have found these words profound and thought-provoking; this week, they were my lifeline.
Fun Fact. Sometimes you write an article about having hope in all circumstances and then a few days later you find yourself in an unexpectedly hopeless situation and have a mini meltdown. Not that I know anyone in a position like that, but if I did, I would remind her (or him ‘cause it could totally be a guy) of two things. First, peanut butter cookies will not, in fact, solve your problems (though I do recommend them if you’re looking for a satisfying culinary experience). And second, hope isn’t something that can be mastered in 1500 words or less.
Hope is huge – and messy. All the blog articles and Disney movies in the world couldn’t cover its intricacies, and no amount of well-intentioned pieces of advice could prepare us for the moment when our world crashes around us in one fell swoop. Far be it from us to think otherwise and trivialize something so gut-wrenchingly difficult to put into practice.
I’ve wrestled with hope more in the last five days than I have in months, and the question I’ve asked most often hasn’t been why hope is important. When everything around you falls to pieces and you don’t see the way out, the why doesn’t matter. In the “dark nights of the soul,” you need the how.
I went looking for the how this week, and of all things, I found it in Henri Nouwen’s unassuming little book about prayer. I shouldn’t have even had it with me; I was on my way to visit a friend in another state and just “happened” to bring it along – never mind I hadn’t picked it up in over a year and impulsively stuffed it in my bag for a completely unrelated reason. I didn’t question that at the time (no one questions what direction the lifeboat comes from), I just took it out of my carry-on, turned to the section about hope, and read every word.
An openness where you wait for the promise to be delivered.
Trusting fully that God is a faithful God who makes all promises real.
To keep living amid desperation.
Line after line, page after page, Henri painted a picture for me. He acknowledged we all wish for things – concrete things like good weather and restored friendships and world peace – and there is nothing wrong with asking for them (it would be inauthentic of us if we didn’t). It’s when we fix our eyes on the things we wish for instead of the Giver of those things that we get in trouble, and unfortunately, that’s how it usually goes. Instead of opening our hands to receive what He has for us, most of us close ourselves off to every answer except the one we want. This causes our perspective to get smaller and smaller until one day we find ourselves stuck “in a world of tiny things.”
Do you ever read or hear something profound and think: does this person know me?
Sadly, Henri and I don’t know each other. We never met, and seeing as he died nearly ten years ago, I’m pretty positive we won’t for a while. Even so, when I read his work I feel like we’re friends, and I think that’s a common experience for anyone who’s picked up his books.
When people talk about Henri Nouwen, the word that comes up most often is “vulnerable.” This seems an odd choice when you look at his credentials. A priest for 39 years, author of 40 books, professor at both Harvard and Yale, and a caregiver for people with disabilities, the man had an impressive spiritual resumé. He probably could’ve written The 29 Steps to Super Spirituality or a guidebook on “becoming your best self” and no one would’ve batted an eye or questioned his knowledge on the subject. But he didn’t.
Henri wrote books with titles like The Wounded Healer and The Return of the Prodigal Son. In the majority of his work, we see him wrestle with things like clinical depression, intense spiritual doubts, and an unquenchable longing for human connection that oftentimes resulted in an all-consuming, unshakable loneliness. More than any other writer I’ve encountered, he was unflinchingly honest about how hard and unjust and horrifyingly empty this thing called “life” can be – and how helpless we are to change it.
And yet. Here he was, the so-called “Wounded Prophet” telling me in all his vulnerability not to give up, urging me to “go fearlessly into things without knowing how they’ll turn out.” In the midst of his darkest night, Henri was convinced that hope was worth having, and so he resolved to act accordingly – and he was asking me to do the same.
As much wisdom as Henri gave me to stand on that day, I couldn’t quite do what he asked, not yet. Not until someone showed me it was really possible to live out his words. That’s when the alarm started ringing in my head: Kelly. What about your mom?
Of course. What about my mom.
A couple Christmases ago, my mom got sick. Not the kind that can be fixed with prescription medication or even a few procedures, but the kind that a whole lot of doctors and surgeons look at and say, “Well, you’re just gonna have to live with it ‘cause we don’t know what to do. Good luck.” Do you know how my mom handled that news?
At first, she let discouragement and grief get the best of her, and I don’t know of anyone who wouldn’t have done the same. But then something changed. A couple months into the ordeal, she started getting cheerful.
My mom has always been on the extreme end of the cheerful spectrum (captain of the cheerleading squad was a good role for her). But the kind of cheerfulness she had this time was different. It wasn’t a passing mood or even an extension of her personality – it came from somewhere deep within her. I asked her about it one day, and this is what she said: “Kell. I might not ever get fixed. I hope that I do, but if I don’t, my life is still filled with so many good things. I’ll be okay.”
I can’t think of a clearer example of hope than that.
So often when we suffer or don’t get what we want, we ask why, and that’s a fine thing to ask – but it won’t help us have hope. Personally, I’ve never thought my mom’s sickness was a “gift” from God or something He did to “teach her something.” I think it was a result of living in a broken world where surgeons mess up and children die of starvation and wars drive millions of people from their homes. But whether or not I’m right won’t give my mom any more or less hope. Hope doesn’t come when we justify or minimize or even explain the ways in which we are wounded; it’s more ambitious than that. Rather than answer the why, when, where, and how of our hurts, hope asks us to sit at feet of the One who can heal them, open our hands, and wait. As my mom and Henri Nouwen could tell you, it is a vulnerable, beautiful place to be.
My mom got the physical healing she prayed for. She’s not completely better, but if you ask her about it, she’ll smile really wide and say, “90 percent is way better than 0!” (See what I mean? Cheerful.) As for Henri, most people believe he battled depression until the day he died.
Sometimes we get what we want, sometimes we have to wait awhile, and sometimes it never turns out the way we think it should. In it all, we can choose to believe God is good, that He sees us, and that He will make us whole, or we can choose to not. Whether or not we have hope hinges on that decision.
Choose hope, friend. Go on a walk, watch a Disney movie, have a peanut butter cookie if you need to, but when you’re done, choose hope. I promise you it’s worth having, even (and especially) when you have every reason to give up.