I Know What I Hope...
Emily Dickinson said that…
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all.
Recently, the Pope has come out and spoken on something for which many of us hold out hope... that our furry and feathered friends, our pets, will be in heaven. I have always believed this might be true, and despite centuries of good priests and pastors and shattering the worlds of little kids, many of us hold to it. You've probably seen the church signs. On this side of the street, "All dogs go to heaven." On that side of the street, "Animals don't have souls, read your Bible." Back on this side, "Presbyterian dogs have souls, Baptists, ask your minister." "Being Presbyterian does not grant you a soul, this is not up for debate!" "Free souls with every conversion and baptism!" Now don't you wish we had a scrolling marquee?
I tend to believe that all that language about God's Kingdom and new heavens and new earths that includes words about animals lying down together, ox and lamb and calf with predators of all kind... it's so prevalent that I believe a new heaven and earth without animals makes very little sense. But I don't know. I know what I hope.
At this time of year, even with the rush, there are times of challenge and reflection and memory that crash together… the interplay of time, eternity, loss, and hope… We think of the memories we have with all the loved ones gathered here with us at worship, those under the tree tomorrow morning, or around tables all Advent season. We think back on the memories we've collected, the moments we've shared. We think of all those who are not here because of time or distance or new circumstances, those who we've lost, and those who we feel with us in a special way this time of year. We settle in to hear the words in scripture and song that are so familiar, and yet so wildly fantastical. A king born in a manger, God's son born to a lowly family in a barn, shepherds and kings, a virgin birth, angels and dreams and stars in the sky!
We are challenged in our reason and for our "reasons" in a season that has nothing to do with reason at all. God loved us and came and dwelt with us, Emmanuel. Hope was born this day. Explain that. Explain your traditions. Explain your gatherings, your gifts, your greetings. As our Jewish brethren say of God showing up, a miracle happened here. Maybe hope is enough. Maybe what we can prove or explain or verify or defend in the midst of our rituals, our celebrations, our joy and our grief is not nearly so important as what we hope. Do you believe in miracles? Do you believe in the virgin birth? Do you believe Mary was 14 or 24? How about Joseph? Was the star a supernova? Did God really come to earth? Do you believe in angels? Santa? Dreams and prophecies? What do you believe?!? More importantly... what do you hope?
When I was in seminary, I had a professor by the name of Dr. Carson Brison. He was a wise man and an excellent story teller and writer. He wrote a story I'd like to share with you about a student he had in his time at small private university some years ago.
He had a class that met Tuesdays and Thursdays, and his student by the name of Jessie usually came to one or the other. At the midterms, he sent home progress reports to parents. When her mother called, he shared some study tips and suggested that coming to class a lot more would help. Her mom agreed. As the conversation wrapped up, she asked if he was the "same Carson" who signed the VA benefits forms for dependents of veterans who had died in the line of duty and he confirmed he was.
No one had been able to tell her what happened, but she took comfort in being told it happened suddenly. Her last memory was a day in the park when he had carried Jessie high on his shoulders. Some memories never fade.
Jessie's attendance did improve for a short time, but reverted to her former pattern. When she came, she took notes for a while and then would put her head down. She seemed constantly to be exhausted. Her classmates clearly did not admire her.
During the final class period, they studied the passage we read tonight from Revelation 21 and how it related to other apocalyptic literature. Just before dismissing the class, Jessie raised her hand, and without waiting to be called on, she asked, "That verse..." She glanced around the classroom at impatient classmates. "That verse about God drying every tear. Does that mean every tear from that time on... or that God will go back into all time and find every tear and dry all of them too?"
A smart popular student on the front row rolled her eyes, checked her watch, crossed her arms and hunkered impatiently into her seat. A murmur and several chuckles came from around the room as they began packing their bags.
My professor had not expected a question from Jessie. Ever. Especially not about the interplay of time, eternity, loss, and hope. He did his very best recover from the surprise, his mind reeling with considerations of interpretation of historical texts, literary and historical and theological contexts. How hard it is to interpret a text of this kind in a linear way. And he thought about his conversation with Jessie's mom. And of course, the bright annoyed student right in front of him. He felt an answer come out of him and was sure it was no good immediately. Jessie's disappointment was clear.
The next week, following that abrupt inquiry, my professor put Jessie's question on the exam as purely extra credit, dressed up with lots of academic language, but at its heart, clearly the same question. Only two students attempted to answer the question... Jessie... and the bright popular student who had been so annoyed that day.
In part, Jessie's response was this... The day I asked this question, not quite how you put it here, you didn’t really answer it. I called my mom and told her my religion professor didn't answer my only question all semester. I told her it was more like you talked about what you hoped the answer would be. She said that for some questions in life, it might count more what you hope the answer is than that you have it all figured out. Do you think she's right?
You don't know this, but my father died when I was very young. I don't really remember him except one day he rode me on his shoulders so high I felt like I was flying. I don't know the answer to this question professor. I really don't. But I know what I hope the answer is. I know what I hope. Is that worth any points?
I think I really need this extra credit to pass this course. I am transferring home next semester and I need as many classes as possible to transfer.
The answer from the bright popular girl on the front row dealt with the structure of the passage, literary and historical context, grammar and syntax. She wrote rather poetically, that such texts seem to be dipped in a special coating that makes them resistant to simple answers to tough questions like the one the girl asked. These writings deal not in the currency of verifiable fact, but in the currency of hope. She then added a personal note and request to her answer...
I know my answer is a good one. You know I don't need any extra credit. Please consider giving my credit to the girl on the back row, the one who slept all the time and kept us late that day and whose question seemed to shake you so badly. I bet she needs it. I want her to have it. I think maybe so do you. I think I saw what you thought when a lot of us laughed.
My professor shared that he didn't know what happened to the girl or if she transferred. He doesn't know what moved that bright popular girl from indifference to compassion. He doesn't know if he made the right decision about her extra credit and final grade. He still doesn't know a perfect answer to any question about time, eternity, loss, and hope.
And neither do I. But I know what I hope. And my prayer as you leave here is that no matter what you face in the holiday season or your year ahead, challenges and celebrations, joy and loss, when you are asked what you know and you have nothing, I pray you know what you hope. What do I know? I really don't know. But I know what I hope. Amen.