Hope comes in different sizes and shapes.
There’s short hope and long hope, boxed hope and unboxed hope.
Short hope reaches for the possible solution to a crisis that seems to appear right in front of us. Like the hope that some people who have made damaging decisions will suddenly see the light — the light we are shining right in front of them — with the result that they will reverse course and fix whatever has been broken. This short hope can mobilize focused energy toward what we think we can do to help effect the new outcome.
I don’t have a lot of encouraging testimonies to give in the category of short term right now. Surely there are some good examples; they just aren’t coming to mind.
That’s eschatological hope. The kind of hope that rests in the cosmic confidence that “All things work together for the good” . . . “Christ is coming back!” . . . “All things are being reconciled through the blood of the cross.”
Such hope is powerful. But at points in life, long hope doesn’t seem to be wearing much skin. Like the plan to spend a vacation some day in an exotic destination: suspicious you’ll never actually get there, or feeling like it’s so far away that there’s no relief for the exhaustion of today.
Here’s the kind of hope we can imagine. It may not be close at hand, farther down the road, but hope that fits in a box of our own expectations. Hope that a new job we’ve vaguely heard about will work out. Hope that the medical treatment we’ve started will eventually fix the chronic problem. Boxed hope. It can help us.
Unboxed hope is the sort of hope whose shape we can’t imagine. Hope that is pele. That’s the Hebrew word that floats in the meaning cloud of something that is “difficult, too hard, impossible.” For example, it was used by the Lord in response to Sarah’s laughing at the promise that she would become a nonagenarian mom. God asked the sarcastic Sarah, “Is anything to pele for the Lord?” And she tripped her automatic defense system in response: “I did not laugh.” But the Lord was having none of it: “Yes, you did laugh.” (It’s so annoying when God insists that we be honest and realistic.)
Realism, in fact, is recognition that nothing is too pele for God. The thing that might happen, that God might do, is literally unimaginable. That’s unboxed hope. Unboxed hope can appear in the short term (like Isaac showing up in 9 months) or very far in the future (such as the abolition of racial prejudice).
Hope for liminality.
I find myself in a liminal space right now, and many people around me are too. Of course we can do some good every day, and we can find some joy each hour. But we sometimes find, when something very big is broken and no effort at a fix is working, that we are wandering in liminality. In a liminal space we know we need hope, but also realize that hope is a tricky business when you’ve been deeply hurt and disappointed — more than once or twice. Garden variety, everyday hope just doesn’t cut it sometimes. Short hope and boxed hope can taste bland or even bitter to liminal people, when our emotional defenses are at full energy. Long hope is good for the disappointed, but it’s so far away that it’s hard to lean on — not an impossible place to find some footing, but not as stable as liminal people feel they need.
Oddly, I find that the unboxed version of hope offers me the most security and peace in liminality. The possibility that impossibility might be the gift that’s coming. The “not-yet-able to imagine” help for us is the hope that comforts the most. And the reason may be that unboxed hope is the kind we can do absolutely nothing about. We cannot create it, shape it, promote it. It’s the hope that is so open-ended that we are left humbly and utterly dependent on one confidence and only one: the never-ending love of God.
That’s the one foundation stone left standing for liminal people — having been knocked off the pedestals of self-sufficiency and of hoped-for-rescue, we have no other place to be except, like the surefooted mountain goat, clinging to the love of God. Love that is even more tightly clinging to us, and pointing into the mists of unboxed hope.
Hope for liminal people.