Sunday, June 10, 2012

"Choose Hope" - Sunday Sermon, June 10, 2012

Chaplain Mel Baars
Psalm 130
June 10, 2012
“Choose Hope”
If you have ever been to my office, you know that I love “snail” mail. My walls are almost completely covered with letters and cards that I have received over the last eight months. I just can’t bring myself to throw mail away, even when the correspondence is from a stranger. If it is addressed to me personally, then I have found room for it on one of my walls. A few weeks ago, I got a card from a friend which really got my attention. It was simple. On the front, in water colors, was an “H” and then, written in thin, almost unnoticeable script, were these two words, “Choose Hope.” I wouldn’t have even seen these two small words on the front of the card if the sender had not pointed them out to me in her message. That is how camouflaged they were within the bigger picture. But, once I noticed them, these words became the most prominent piece of the card’s front design.

Choose hope. When stated like that, choosing hope appears to be a seemingly uncomplicated choice. Choose hope, kind of like choosing a tooth paste brand or a new pair of running shoes. As simple as this concept may have seemed, I know better. I decided to tape the card in a place on my wall where I would see it often. Despite the fact that hope is a simple choice, and despite even, our knowledge of God’s steadfast ways, I still forget that hope is an active, and sometimes even risky, choice that we each have to make each and every day. No matter how much I believe, or at least want to believe, that hope is working in the world, it is so easy to lose sight of it. From broken relationships, interminable violence or illness or both, the wounds that don’t seem to ever fully heal -- considering all that we are bombarded with each day,  it’s easy to miss hope altogether.

In this deployed environment, no matter how many months it has been, it is always an appropriate time to visit and revisit the subject of hope. Here, in our camp, we work with detainees, some of us with our “hands on,” as guards, medical professionals, interrogators, others of us as supportive elements to the mission of detainee operations. While there are occasional glimpses of hope, kindness shown when we least expect it or even the smallest acknowledgement of gratitude, mostly what we see and deal with is anything and everything but hopeful.

The past few weeks of local news have not helped much either. We have had some of our deadliest days where suicide bombers and vehicle born explosive devises have wreaked havoc, the civilian death tolls reaching previously unseen heights. Just a few days ago, another girls school was poisoned, which makes at least six schools for girls targeted in the last few months. Afghan teachers and principals along with government officials have been arrested as a part of the these horrendous acts. It’s hard to imagine who would target innocent children. Yet, it happens, again and again. In the face of this and other difficult, even devastating realities in our world, the light of hope is often made very dim.

So what of these three things: faith, hope, love. These are our watchwords; they are cornerstones of our lives with God. They are at the very heart of God which means that they should also be at the heart of our lives with God and with one another. Faith, hope, and love. As much as they are separate ideas, they are also so intertwined that they cannot ever be fully distilled from the other. To have faith in God requires hope that God will make good on all the promises that have been made. To have hope is to believe that despite the evidence to the contrary, love is possible. As J.R.R. Tolkien once said as a part of his Lord of the Rings trilogy, “Though the world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is mingled with grief, love grows perhaps the greater."[1] Though we may not see it, hope means that we believe that love is working in the world, mending and healing even the impossible wounds that we carry around with us.

And, this is all very good news. Except that most of the time, we don’t live like we believe it. We are so beat down that one foot in front of the other is as good as it gets, and on some days, for some of us, even that is a stretch. It is from this place, from this dark and deep place of pain, that our psalmist cries out to God, saying, “Out of the very depths, I cry to you O Lord.” This is how it all begins. And, thank God for the psalmist and his courage to give voice to the suffering that he is experiencing. I wish we would follow his lead more often. Out of all that he utters in these eight verses, his naming of where he is, just how far gone he has become, this is an incredible act of bravery. And, as they say, naming the problem is half the battle. This is exactly what he does when he calls out to God, asking for an audience, recognizing that he is lost and in need of being saved by someone other than himself.

I have to wonder how our psalmist landed in these depths in the first place. Was it a result of his choices or someone else's? Could it have been natural disaster or just plain bad luck? We really have no way of knowing, which is one reason this psalm has the power to resonate with so many people. People end up in the depths for many reasons-- too many to account for here. No doubt, there are times when our choices yield very painful consequences. But, sometimes we have little control of the way that life unfolds around us. Often, it is the choice of someone else which has a ripple effect whether on a single relationship, a family, or a whole community, bringing with it a cloud of darkness. Blame and pain are not always partners in crime. Think about Job or even the cross. There was no reason for either Job or Jesus to be cast into the pit, but they both were. This is life. As my own father has reminded me whenever I have struggled with my own suffering and grief, at times, life is just plain tragic. It hurts. It brings us to our knees.

When the psalmist mentions iniquities, he opens the door to the reality of sin, of a creation that is cracked and broken apart. Yet, he does not claim these iniquities for himself or place the cause of his pain elsewhere. Instead what he does is make a subtle point. Wherever the blame may lie, at the end of the day, suffering is a rampant issue. The whole human family is threatened by the broken shards of glass which are continually shattered by sin-- individual, communal, collective-- so where do we go from here?
Over these eight verses, the setting of our psalm doesn’t change. We begin in the depths and we end there, too. But, what does change is the psalmist's outlook on the darkness that surrounds him. With some time and maybe even a little perspective, and most importantly, growing patience, he remembers something that he had forgotten. Even in the pit, with no light in sight, with nothing but darkness as company, he remembers God. He remembers that God is still at work. This is hope. It is what the psalmist holds on to when there is literally nothing else.

Like every good poet, our psalmist helps us to see the significance of waiting, by his use of repetition. We he says, “My soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning,” he gives us a palpable example of the difficulty of waiting. I am willing to bet that every one of us has had the pre-dawn shift of watch at one time or another in our military careers, even me. It’s the hardest shift because, even when we know, inevitably that the sun will rise, watching for it to actually happen, is like watching for water to boil. It’s almost impossible. There is this moment when, despite knowledge of science and physics and whatever else, it feels like it’s never going to happen.
For those of us who live in a world of instant gratification, of constant communication, of texting and updating, and emailing and gchating and more, waiting is a tall order. It is one of the hardest things that we will ever do. But, just as it was then, when our psalmist cried out to God from the depths, the practice of waiting is an important part of participation in a community of faith, hope, and love. For when we wait with faith and hope and love, we become witnesses to the work that God is doing in the world, even here, even now.

One of my favorite theologians and priests, Henri Nouwen, wrote extensively about his own struggles with suffering and the prayers he prayed because of the pain that he experienced deep in his own pit. One of my favorite quotes of his about hope is this, “When you pray with hope, you turn yourself toward a God who will bring forth his promises; it is enough to know that He is a faithful God.”[2] The depths may still be dark, at times pain and grief may threaten to undo what we love most, but with open hands and hearts, we can still choose hope. For God has promised to make good out of our ashes. Surely, this promise is enough. Amen.

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring. Harper Collins, 2002
[2] Henri Nouwen. With Open Hands. Ave Maria Press: Notre Dame, IN, 1995


  1. Great sermon, Mel - I doubt if students read it now, but Jurgen Moltman's "Theology of Hope," published in the early 1960's, did more to shape my theology than perhaps any other book. Can't wait to see you soon. John A

  2. This was an amazing tonic to read after loosing a friend on Friday, thank you.