The last nine months have been some of the most difficult of my life, and I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about faith and hope.
The reality of hope - the belief that something will get better before it actually does - is perhaps the hardest kind of work I’ve ever done. At least, recently. I find myself wanting to stay melancholy and to continue in my hesitation about a better, dawning day. I want to set my expectations low so I won’t have to suffer disappointment on an acute scale. And for the normal kinds of stuff and events of living that gets me by without a lot of wounds. But this big stuff…this deep-down ache of grief, the heartaches that accompany transitions, the holding out for a job that is still elusive,the believing that one of those houses I’ve bookmarked on realtor.com could actually be ours one day soon…all of that is a very different story.
If things are to be different, I must have hope.
A hope that burns as brightly as the sun when it’s midnight. Hope that clings to life in the midst of death. Hope that doesn’t dry up with the drought or starve in the famine. Hope that when all else is uncertain, there is one sure thing - this too shall pass and on the other side it’s good. The early apostles carried that kind of hope. The slaves in early America carried that kind of hope. People throughout history have faced the firing squad, the dictator, the loss, the genocide, the need, the diagnosis and have held tightly to hope. I am learning to admire them on a whole new level.
It’s one thing to talk about hope, and it’s a far different thing to live by it.
To live by it means I will not let my present state of existence defeat me. To live by it means I will believe for something tomorrow even when no forward progress was made today. To live by it means I work to fulfill what is my responsibility in this world (no more and no less). To live by it means I can stare death in the face and say without flinching, “It is well with my soul.” To live by it is to believe, beyond the shadow of a fear or a doubt, that all really is well, even when it isn’t. To live by it means I am certain about some things concerning the God I serve.
Things like He is good, wants the good, and is therefore working for mine. That I am loved no matter what. That He is able to do far more than I give Him credit for. That He can still make my tomorrows the best days of my life. That I do not have to listen to Shamus’ voice, and allow Shamus* to have influence over me. That grace is really more about doing absolutely nothing except receiving. And then I trust that God will do the rest and it will be sufficient. To live by hope is to have faith in the God I proclaim…and to have faith that I am who He says I am.
First faith, then hope. There is no hope when I do not believe. There is no hope if I fail to understand a bit of who God is and a bit of who I am to Him. First faith, then hope.
And I think about 1 Corinthians 13. How this love chapter ends with these words: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” I think about something that has been ruminating in my mind and heart for nearly a year. How it all is coming together with a little more clarity. I have always wondered about this 13th verse of this 13th chapter - the greatest of these is love? Really?
I mean, faith is a big deal. Scripture tells us we can not please God without faith. That seems pretty major, right? And hope? Well, without getting into the etymology, let’s just say that the way the NIV translates Isaiah 40:31 sums it up well, “but those who hope in the Lord, will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”
Faith and hope are significant and substantial realities, so why would Paul say the greatest is love?
Because maybe Paul isn't talking in terms of superlatives as I had always imagined. Maybe he's listing a progression. Maybe the murderer turned apostle, isn’t saying, “You know, faith and hope are okay, but love is where it’s at. Love’s the best. Gold medal winner. All others are losers, so choose love.” Maybe the once blind Saul is speaking in terms of progression. “First faith, then hope, and finally love. Love is impossible without the others, so the greatest reality in this journey is love. It means you’ve come the farthest distance.” Could it be that what I considered to be multiple choice virtues from a 1st century pen is really the legend on the map of discipleship?
First faith, then hope, and finally love.
My last nine months have been plain hard. Like raise-the-white-flag-in-surrender kind of hard. I have been faced with the choice of whether I will lock in my faith and live according to the narrative of hope. It’s no longer idle theological chat. It’s fish or cut bait. It’s sink or swim. Do or die. It’s looking at my reflection in the mirror and asking myself, “What are you going to choose?” If I believe what I believe about God, then it can make a difference in the midst of these hard days. First faith, then hope. And if I can do this…have the hope to be at peace even when I might be in pieces; if I can discover an inner peace that allows me to fall asleep on the boat in the middle of a storm…then maybe love is what will naturally result in my life.
And tonight, I caught just a glimpse of what could be. A Niki who loves God in the sweetness of everyday, ordinary miracles. A Niki who loves God and so she laughs at the future and opens her arms to what may come. A Niki who loves herself so she is kind to herself, lets herself off the hook, and gives herself some stinkin’ grace. A Niki who loves herself enough to erase the standard of perfection - for her and everyone else. A Niki who loves others with abandon and without fear. A Niki who loves with her beautiful, messy life, allowing her dreams, her heartaches, and her being to change the space she’s in.
First faith, then hope, and finally love. Faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these? Love....because you have come the furthest distance.
For the first time in nine months, I can genuinely say I look forward to what is to come. For the first time in nearly a year, I will rest my head on my pillow and know that the best days aren’t really behind me. I suppose some would believe that I should have been saying and knowing these things all along, but you know what? Sometimes life beats you down. Sometimes circumstances bleed you out. And sometimes, even Jesus people can’t hold on to trite platitudes about a heavenly future because today feels like walking through Hell. But tonight, it’s different.
Tonight, I see the possibilities of love, and that they can include me too. Tonight, hope is starting to take root and I pray it will endure. So here's to faith. Here's to hope. Here's to going the distance of and finding the blundering potential of love.
*It's a long story, but Shamus is the name I give to the destructive self-talk we all fight that would keep us in despair, defeat, and shame.