March 1, 2019

Abound in Hope

The Commissioners of St. Mary’s County, Maryland recently undertook a study to identify the gaps between the services the County’s social service providers offer and those persons who lack access to resources. The ‘Gap Analysis’ revealed a host of hard-hitting facts and has spurred conversations across multiple sectors in our fast growing, economically prosperous (among a few) formerly-rural community.

For the past six months, I’ve been on a team of people commissioned by our elected leaders to make recommendations about how to translate into action what we’ve learned through the Gap Analysis. We are slowly drilling down near some root causes of the gaps, and truly helpful initiatives are beginning to emerge from our work.

As a Christian leader in St. Mary’s County, I share a lot with these other leaders. We care about the whole of our community. We care about people, and no one on this team thinks that more programming and increased funding is the goal (even though they’d be welcome steps toward the goal). We care about those persons in our community who are falling between the cracks.

And I’m reminded of the uniqueness of my perspective, that is, as a disciple of Jesus Christ. Actually, I’ve gotten clarity on this as I’ve been reading Paul’s letter to the Romans – me and a bunch of other Episcopalians along with The Good Book Club.

Romans is a tough read. If, as we say in the church, relationships are everything, that’s probably what’s missing in Romans. Sure, we learn in chapter 16 that Paul knows a handful of people in that church; he’s even got family there. But the ways in which he knows the Galatians, say, and how he writes to specific people about specific issues in Corinth simply aren’t here in Romans. What is here is a dense, comprehensive theological tome. It’s tough slogging: sin, law, faith, grace, freedom, justification – themes which run throughout all of Paul’s writings – come across especially doctrinaire in Romans, whereas they have a more pastoral, human feel in other letters. All are sinful; all are broken. The law is good, but highlights sin. Even I, myself, am messed up – I remember how true Paul’s words in 7:15 sounded to me as a young boy.

Recently, however, a turn began in The Good Book Club’s daily readings. Starting in chapter 12, Paul begins to talk about another way to live, a “transformed” life, so to speak. Be “transformed by the renewing of your minds,” Paul writes; do not be “conformed to this world.” (Rom.12:2) Most everyone I know, whether or not they’re practicing Christians, want to be better rather than worse, healthier rather than sick, kinder rather than mean-spirited. Paul offers sound advice for a just and harmonious life together. One could easily turn his words into basic rules for good living, even extrapolate these principles into solid public policy recommendations.

But in chapter 15, where we are this week, Paul makes it even more clear that he’s not only talking about things which are good, things they should be doing, and things they should be avoiding. When Paul is talking about the gift and power of being called by Christ in this mortal life he’s talking about something more like resurrection, something more than, simply, doing better. Paul’s talking about the power of hope. He speaks of hope four times throughout chapter 15, most memorably (twice!) in verse 13, reminding us that hope is the power of God that shapes time and eternity, that same power by which God reaches into broken and lowly places to redeem and make whole. Looking back, hope has been a theme running throughout this often-dense letter – way back when, Paul wrote, Abraham hoped against hope (4:18), and hope is the end result of suffering, for those who follow Jesus (5:3-5). “Hope does not disappoint us,” Paul concludes (5:5).

Hope is more than desire. Paul has more than good words and good intentions for these disciples who worship Christ and live in Rome; he has genuine hope. He tells them about a “God of hope” who can “fill [them]” so that they will “abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Hope may be one of those distinct things that makes Christian communities different than other organizations in other sectors of public life. I believe people still come to Christian churches for hope. Those children in Sunday School, and those food pantries, and time spent caring for others, and the gentle moments of honoring our elders, and people who vote for different presidential candidates but nevertheless receive Christ, side by side, at the same altar rail, week after week – that’s hope in real time.

That’s also downright hope-ful.

Recently, I was talking with my brother about the state of our nation. When he thinks about politics today, he said, he’s angry and anxious. Me, too, I shared. But even though our parents intentionally raised us in a socio-economically diverse neighborhood, and raised us in a church that very much came out of the Social Gospel tradition, my brother is no longer a practicing Christian, and he can’t really understand why people still are. But I, for my part, could think of no other community of people with whom I’d rather be connected, especially in this present moment, than devoted, committed followers of Jesus.

“Every Sunday at the altar,” I told my brother, “I not only see but I receive the last, greatest power in the world – hope.” To which I should’ve added: and hope does not disappoint, said Paul.

This blog is part of a series for the Good Book Club. Learn more about the Good Book Club here.