What is Hope?


I believe that all faiths arise and endure because they have something to teach us.  Today’s blog is the second of a three-part reflection on my own faith.  If you come from a different religious tradition, please consider sharing what you’ve learned from your own faith in the Comments section at the end of today’s blog post.

What is hope?

“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”  I Corinthians 13:13 (New Revised Standard Bible)

Of the three abiding spiritual gifts, hope is the one I find most challenging.  Though sometimes God seems distant to me, the Presence I’ve always felt in my most joyful and challenging moments sustains my faith that God exists.  And love?  I’ve seen the face of God in the faces of the people who love and care for me too often to question that.

But hope?  Hope is elusive.  I feel certain that God exists.  And I hope that my prayers are heard, that God will answer them in a way that will lead me into the light even when life seems dark.  But if I’m honest, I have to admit that I’m not always sure He will.

Let’s face it:  Not every prayer we pray gets answered—at least not in any way that we can recognize.  We have many platitudes we voice to one another when our prayers seem not to be heard.  And I don’t know about you, but I don’t find it particularly comforting when someone says, “God’s answered your prayer.  You just can’t see how right now.”  Or, “If God hasn’t answered your prayer, it’s because He’s got something better in store for you.”  That just doesn’t give me much hope.

Many are the people who have given up on God when they feel they’ve been abandoned.  Would I still cling to God if my child had died in my arms a few hours after being born?  If she had been gunned down as the children at Newtown were?  If she had died in the Twin Towers or in the Pentagon attacks?

I hope I would.  And I have the greatest admiration for those whose faith sustains them when hope is lost.

In the secular world, we know that hope is important.  Numerous studies attest to the power of hope to change outcomes when the prognosis is bleak.  In fact, just last year Dr. Shane Lopez published a book called Making Hope Happen, in which he claims that hope is the leading indicator of success in both our personal life and our careers and sometimes even in our health.

But because hope isn’t measurable in any sort of quantifiable way, we often fail to recognize its significance in dealing with the issues that face us.  In fact, the Washington Post reported that Arne Duncan, the U.S. Education Secretary, actively campaigned against the superintendent of the school system where I work when our superintendent was being considered for a position in the New York City Schools.  Why?  Because Dr. Starr has been a vocal critic of placing more emphasis on test results than on giving students hope that an education really can lead to a better life.  Dr. Starr says, “For students, there’s a direct connection between their success in school and their level of hope, engagement, and well-being….Hope matters.”  This has become Dr. Starr’s mantra, and he believes in it enough to say it even when it hurts his career.

Why is hope so important—so key that Paul names it as one of the three most important spiritual gifts?

Sometimes our poets say it best.  Emily Dickinson wrote

Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul

And sings the tune without the words

And never stops at all.

Hope gives wings to our faith.  It isn’t the same as wishful thinking.  When we have hope, we work actively to bring our dreams for ourselves and the world into fruition.

I know that God can.  I’m just not always sure that God will.  And so, on those days when I doubt God’s willingness to step into the muck with us, I hope.  And hope gives my faith wings.  It motivates me to ask a friend for a feather when my own wings are wearing thin.  And when my own hope soars, it motivates me to give a lift to someone whose burdens weigh her down.

Hope perches in the soul of the world, the church.  Sometimes, as Paul reminds us, “we see through a glass darkly.”  We don’t always know where our hope will lead us, what divine Grace will be at work in our hopeful hearts.  But as long as we keep reminding each other to sing the tune, even when we’re too weary to say the words, Hope will abide.

So tell me your stories of “the thing with feathers.”