I composed this message for a community prayer and lament service we (several area ministers and I) led in the wake of the Charleston massacre. About a third of the Psalms in the Bible are psalms of lament, so the pattern and movement of lament isn’t hard to discern even if we have forgotten how to do it. First comes complaint and confession, in which we cry out to God about what is wrong, even if that means announcing to God that he is at least partially responsible. Second comes remembrance, in which we recall who God is and what God has done. Finally comes the turn toward hope. My assignment was to help us make this last movement toward hope and praise.
We come now to the third movement in our lament, to confident hope and a vow of praise. It’s important to understand what we’re not doing. We are not engaged in wishful thinking here. As if wishing things were different, wishing the world were better, wishing we were better, wishing racism didn’t exist anymore, or wishing the world weren’t as violent as it actually is would change anything.
Hope is different. Hope isn’t built on a foundation of our best ideas and best efforts. Our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.
So we aren’t here for resolutions, for “shoulds,” for gathering pledges, or for making empty promises to one another. We’re here to hide ourselves in the shadow of the Almighty and in the fortress of his promises. As the words to another hymn say, the Lord has promised good to us, his word our hope secures.
In the face of so much evidence to the contrary, of so much violence and hopelessness, of so much wishful thinking and endless debating, we are called to live in redemptive tension with the present. We live out of sync with the times because we are a hopeful people. We believe that in the story God is writing we begin and end as friends. And we say, “Let God be true and every person a liar.”
This story of our reconciliation to God and to one another, the power of Christ which alone can turn enemies and strangers into neighbors and friends, this gives us hope. It is an act of God, not a human accomplishment.
So we are not ashamed and we do not lose heart. For we know the one in whom we have put our trust, and we are still sure that he is able to guard until that day everything that we have entrusted to him.
And now having such hope, we more than all people are able to walk through the valley of the shadow singing the songs of redemption so that none may lose their way. Wishful thinking is always a denial of the present moment, the present circumstance, the present evil. Wishful thinking is a denial of the present in an attempt to hold on to a future that does not exist.
Hope is different. It’s a certainty about who God is and what God has promised that leads to an anticipation that God’s promised future is even now on a collision course with the present.
Hope leads us to be involved rather than detached. Because God is involved. God is not distant, as you may have heard. God is intimately involved and has hidden none of the pain and the brutality and the sin from his own heart. God in Christ knows better than any of us—and this I must remember when I imagine myself to be praying to a distant God on behalf of suffering people. God in Christ knows better than I do exactly what it feels like when the life runs out of your body. God is present. God knows. God in Christ suffered not just to save us from suffering; he suffered because we suffer. For the joy that was set before him he suffered. Hope led him to be intimately, personally involved. And his involvement changed it all. His blood was so precious and so powerful that the peace it won was a lasting peace.
We are all involved too. Think of a child at school, perhaps a bully, perhaps with behavior issues or an inability to focus. Every good teacher knows that it’s too simple to label this child a problem child as if that settles it, as if the child weren’t acting out the dysfunction of home and carrying into the classroom wounds and brokenness beyond their ability to understand and heal. Our society is in some ways that dysfunctional family with generational sins we haven’t yet healed from. We cannot quietly participate in that dysfunction and then act surprised when a weaker member of the family breaks under the weight of our collective sin.
The underlying forces of racism, bigotry, suspicion, fear, bitterness, hatred, denial, and greed continue to build up until they explode out on the surface. And we continue to act surprised. We are all involved. We are all caught up in a web of interrelated sins spanning generations. None of us have escaped being entangled in the snare.
But the fact that we’re all involved—as one big, dysfunctional family, perpetually broken and continually breaking one another—it’s not only bad news. God has made it into good news. Where sin abounds, grace abounds much more. Where sin wounds and kills some, all are harmed. But now also where love binds and redeems some, all are healed. What we do tonight praying in love and what we do here working together in love has everything in the world to do with Charleston.
Wishful thinking isn’t really an escape from the sin, but it could cause us to miss the healing. Hope says, “Pay attention! See! Hear! Feel! Don’t turn away, and don’t lose heart! Don’t stop your ears, don’t run away, and don’t deny!”
We get to be involved. We get to be involved through love, which Martin Luther King Jr. often called the most durable power in the world. Love—the power that is remaking and one day will finally and forever make all things new—now poured into us and we now empowered to participate in love’s power to change and heal and redeem. This is what it means to have hope. Wishful thinking keeps us from being involved. Hope tells us we get to be involved.