Lots of us are feeling a little shaky these days. Overwhelmed, exhausted, anxious, disoriented. Well no wonder. Just take a look around:
There are shootings at elementary schools and at church potlucks. You can’t find baby formula, and you can hardly afford to fill your car’s tank at the gas pump.
The Supreme Court has upended Roe. Congress is investigating an attack on our basic democratic institutions.
Russia has invaded Ukraine. The climate is rapidly deteriorating. We’re only just emerging from a pandemic (maybe). And now we’re reading about Monkey Pox.
Too much, too much, too much! We could use a little hope. A lot of hope, actually. Hope is what keeps us going at times like this.
And when I say “hope” I mean something more than the belief that everything will come up roses. That’s wishful thinking. And while there’s nothing wrong with wanting a better tomorrow, hope is far deeper, far more powerful.
To live, we humans need a “why.” Hope is having such a why. A why that sustains, motivates, and propels us no matter what. Hope responds to, but does not depend upon, external circumstances.
Listen to what Jesus tells us. He is painfully honest on the subject. Life is an imperfect gift. Wonderful and wretched things happen. “It is what it is.” Only, that’s not where he stops. He basically says, “It is what it is. Now what are you going to do about it?”
Hope begins by squarely facing reality: It is what it is. But we are capable of doing more than merely acknowledging, passively accepting, or blindly reacting to the contours and dynamics of the world we inhabit. This is where the implied “now what” of Jesus comes in for us. We have the radical freedom to choose to love.
Jesus makes our freedom to choose love especially clear in one of his most counterintuitive teachings: love your enemy.
Again and again we will encounter people who use coercion, violence, and domination to make a better place for themselves in the world at the expense of others. It’s tempting, maybe even appropriate by some people’s estimate, to hit back. Fight fire with fire.
By contrast, Jesus teaches us to inhabit this planet in a fundamentally different way. We can refuse to be enemies even, and especially, with those who insist on seeing us as their enemy. Instead, we can choose to actualize our true selves as the image of God, as the “children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:45).
God is love. So when we love, it is God’s love pouring into us, saturating us, and overflowing from within us. That’s how the living God is present with us and in us. Receiving love and freely choosing to give that love away make life worth living, giving us the “why” to keep going in the world as it actually is.
Nothing can prevent us from choosing to love. We are radically free to do so. Conversely, nothing compels us to love. We must choose to live for love, to make love the driving force of our lives.
That’s why Jesus presses us to challenge ourselves with this question: “On what am I staking my life?” It could be love. Or power. Or prestige. Or possessions.
For instance, Jesus calls two people to follow him as he makes his way to Jerusalem and, eventually, to crucifixion and resurrection. The first person agrees but asks to bury his father first. “Let the dead bury their own dead,” Jesus says. The second asks simply to say goodbye to family members. Jesus responds, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:60-62). Here Jesus is urging them to be honest about the “why” of their lives and whether or not this “why” will sustain them in even their darkest hour.
Jesus never misled his followers with the promise that love would be easy or would guarantee desired outcomes. But he did emphasize the importance of perseverance. Just keep going, he tells us.
Consider the parable of the unjust judge. There’s a corrupt, self-serving judge notorious for padding his own pockets and pursuing his own interests at the expense of, well, pretty much everybody else.
A woman petitions this judge for justice. Initially, he ignores her. But her persistence is Guinness-Book-of-World-Records kind of stuff. We might say she texts him, trolls him on social media, turns up at his doorstep, throws pebbles at his bedroom window, and loiters outside his office door. Finally, he grants her petition just to get her off his back (Luke 18:1-8).
Obviously, God is not the self-absorbed jerk that this judge represents. We might think Jesus is going to say that if a guy like this will give this woman what she wants for her persistence, then surely we can count on the loving God. Right? Pray hard and long enough and we’ll get what we want. But here’s a news flash. God is not a vending machine, and prayers are not coins we stuff into the slot to get the candy we want.
Just in case we don’t get the point, Jesus tosses out this gem: “Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?” (Luke 18:7). Um, well, actually, Jesus, we are crying out to God day and night. And as a matter of fact, there’s been quite the delay. Like, you know, centuries upon centuries of delay. Suffering and sorrow litter the planet. Why doesn’t God fix it?
I can’t tell you why God doesn’t fix everything. This parable doesn’t explain that. But it does tell us to persevere. To keep going.
And here’s why: It’s what God would do. It’s what God is doing. It’s what we do when we are our truest selves, the image of God. We love. We love in specific ways.
Sometimes we’re heroic. We sacrifice a career or our reputation by daring to speak up for the oppressed or the marginalized. Mostly we’re ordinary and routine. We bring casseroles to the bereaved or we babysit for an exhausted single parent.
Whatever form our love may take, we love with our hands and our feet. It is what it is right here and now, now what are we going to do about it—rather than resign ourselves to the state of things?
We do something because we believe that love does what nothing else can. Love is how God is healing and transforming this world through the imperfect, ordinary likes of you and me.
A portion of this essay is an excerpt from my latest book Looking for God in Messy Places: A Book about Hope. You can learn more about it or grab a copy by clicking here or by going to your favorite local bookseller.
I enjoy leading retreats and workshops, presenting talks, and having conversations with book groups via Zoom. To schedule an event with me just click here and my colleague Holly Windham will help get us connected.