Lent: Giving Up Hopelessness
Can you remember a time when you gave up hope? A time when you thought that life cannot get better — will not get better? A time when you chose to run rather than weep because you did not want to get involved?
As a minister, I get to attend the bedsides of those die slowly of debilitating illnesses. Sometimes I am in and out of homes or hospital rooms daily. Although my visits are brief, I listen to family members who live in the presence of gradual death, day in and day out, with little or no breathing space of their own. Over time and many visits, I can see different reactions to those who are dying.
Some caretakers use protective emotional strategies to shield themselves from overwhelming sorrow. Sometimes they joke. Sometimes they clean. Sometimes they do things that do not necessarily need to be done for the patient, but which gave the caregiver the sense of helping. Sometimes, in the middle of a conversation, you can sense that a sorrow-soaked family member is not really there in the moment. The caretaker has just shut it all out.
Some people will limit hope by becoming emotionally militant. There is a mock-Latin aphorism: Illegitimi non carborundum. The phrase came about in World War II: Illegitimi — the tame translation is “illegitimate ones.” The phrase means something like, “Don’t let the illegitimate ones grind you down.” It was picked up by Barry Goldwater in the 1960s, and reportedly sits prominently on the desk the current Speaker of the House. At first glance, Illegitimi non carborundum has its appeal. It is macho and assertive. “I’m going to be tough in the face of despair. I’m not going to let those who suffer pull me down. I will resist.” It may sound hard-hitting and muscular, but I wonder if it’s true, because in my experience, when we deny suffering we may actually take on even more suffering.
So, if denial doesn’t work, if protective emotional strategies don’t always help us, if anger and stoicism cause more suffering, what are we to do?
How about this: weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn? We could try emotional honesty. Author Frederick Buechner suggests that we keep track of the times and events in our lives that bring tears to our eyes. They may be happy or sad moments. It may be a funeral, or a wedding, or a patriotic event; when veterans march by in a parade or "Taps" is played. It could be something that triggers a sense of loss, like hearing a loved-one’s favorite song unexpectedly played at a restaurant. It could be something inconsequential. Some men need to go to a dark movie theater to cry. There’s that scene in Rocky II when Rocky’s wife Adrian is in a coma, but her hair is perfect with that little ribbon pinned to the side, and her lipstick is on, and she comes out of the coma just to tell Rocky to win his second fight against the Apollo Creed. The dramatic music builds and the scene cuts to Rocky doing one-armed push-ups with the dawning sun behind him. That scene can bring on the tears.
I’ve had moments when I get choked up during a truck commercial. I don’t understand it. I just go with it.
For some of us, tears may come at an unexpected time or place. Whenever we are stirred to such depths, these may be times God is working in our lives. The Spirit breaks through the craggy veneer of hardness behind which we tend to entomb ourselves. Check the times and places where you weep and you might feel the places where God wants to get through to you.
Jesus weeps. We read it in today’s gospel account from John. Jesus weeps over the death of his friend, Lazarus. Jesus weeps because God cares. When we wonder if anybody cares, the tears of Jesus remind us that God cares. God understands.
One day a child was running down the hall at church on the last day of Church School. He had a little ceramic plaque in his hand that he had made for his mother. He had worked on it all month. As he ran down the hall to give it to her, he dropped the plaque and broke it into a thousand pieces. The child began to cry. The grown-ups tried to comfort him. They said, "Don’t worry, it was just a little piece of clay." The child was inconsolable. Finally, his mother came on the scene. She said, "Let's pick up all of the pieces, and we will take them home and put it together and see what we can make out of it." That is what God is like! God is like a good parent. God understands when and how it hurts. When life shatters, go ahead and weep with sadness. God helps us pick up the pieces and make something out of what is left. God cares about you. Weep with hope. Weep for joy.
When denial doesn’t work, when protective emotional strategies don’t help us, when anger and stoicism cause more suffering, what are we to do?
We let go of hopelessness and remember God cares. Weeping does not mean all is lost. It does not equate to hopelessness. Weeping means that we are opening ourselves up to God’s care. We remember God can bring life from death. God pieces together something-ness out of nothingness.
For me that’s the story of Lazarus. Lazarus was dead, dead dead. Three nights dead. Buried in a tomb. When Jesus arrives on the scene, it’s too late. By the fourth day, everyone’s given up. The mourners have resented and resigned. There’s no happy ending. No beautiful finale. It’s too late. It’s finished. Lazarus is dead. I’m sure there is some denial. Some anger. Some emotional protective strategies to shield mourners from overwhelming sorrow. And then Jesus calls out a name. He issues a command. “Lazarus, come forth!” Through tears of sadness and the torment of hopelessness, Jesus calls his name. Lazarus. Get up! In the face of anger and denial and stoicism, in the face of skepticism and lament, Lazarus walks out of the craggy façade of a garden tomb. Finally, everyone understands the meaning of Lazarus’ name. Lazarus means, “God has helped.” No one else could help, but God has helped. On the fourth hopeless day, God has helped.
Clutching a picture of his pregnant wife, a 25-year-old Marine was flown into a military hospital in Afghanistan. Doctors immediately begin working on him, attaching IV’s and cutting his clothing off. As blood spilled out over the photo, he begged the doctors buzzing around him to get him back to his wife. From pale lips and a raspy murmur, he managed to say, “I promised…I promised I’d meet my son.” Then darkness fell around him. The medical staff noticed the Marine had lost liters of blood, his lower torso was completely gone. One doctor asked, “Will this kid even want to survive?” Silently and grimly, they wheeled him into the operating room, uncertain he could sustain the hours and hours of surgery ahead. A nurse tenderly removed the photo of his wife from his stiff hands and propped it by the OR table.
It’s said, after surgery, when soldiers come to after days of powerful pain medications, amputee soldiers are often sent home emotionally broken, spiritually empty, and unable to move beyond their traumatic losses. Doctors and nurses try to save a physical life, knowing many of the soldiers’ spirits die before they ever get to the OR table. Hope is hard to find among their hospital beds.
When this young Marine awoke after days of recovery, his first words were to thank all the staff for saving his life. Then he paused to thank God for guiding their hands in his healing. The startled staff carefully repeated the severity of his injuries and the extent of his loss, thinking the Marine had not understood. He replied that he already knew how bad he was hurt when he was put in the helicopter. He knew this might happen. “God was with me and got me this far,” he explained. The nurses wondered when the news would really hit him. Instead of the blank stare and overwhelming grief, this soldier grinned at them saying, “I’m still living and that’s something, isn’t it?” Gratitude poured out of him. Not sorrow or lament or despair. Gratitude. Gratitude for the staff for keeping him alive. Gratitude for the ability to keep his promise to his wife to meet his unborn child. The staff marveled at his positive outlook and his determination. Perhaps everyone finally understood the meaning of hope. “God has helped.”
This Lenten season, maybe you need to give up some hopelessness. In the darkness of ruined relationships, in the frustration of unsuccessful attempts to make your life better, in failed dreams of beauty and happy endings, in the entombed hopeless reality of life’s shadows, there is a voice – a special, singular voice – and it calls your name. Through the tears and the torment of hopelessness, the voice says, “God has helped! No one else could have helped, but God has helped. On even the most hopeless of days, God has helped. Now rise.”