Why We Hope When All Hope Is Lost

Yesterday I got to revisit one of my most read blog posts ever (and one of my favorite bible stories!) in a guest post for To Love Honor and Vacuum. I loved getting to work with Sheila and she was such an encouragement, but when she first asked me to write a new version of a piece I’d written over two years ago I wasn’t completely sure I’d be able to do it.

black-and-white-woman-girl-sittingIt was certainly an interesting exercise to reflect on the same issue from such a different place in life . . . yet I write that and I think, “Is it a different place in life?” After all, the post is about singleness, and I am still single.

. . . Or single again, depending on whether you see singleness as being unattached, or whether it’s a binary along with married — you’re either one or the other . . .

I tend to think in binary. Married or unmarried. For me, being in a relationship was the part of the one that felt like the other. You’re still adrift at sea, but you are in sight of land. Though maybe not close enough to it to tell if it’s a habitable island, or if it’s just the wreckage of another ship passing you.

As I wrote, I found I was less drawn to the idea of desperation, and more inclined to talk about hopelessness. Hopelessness, I feel, comes after desperation. It was desperation that made Sarah forget herself and laugh when she was eavesdropping on her husband’s conversation with the messengers of God — laugh, perhaps, to keep from crying. It was hopelessness that inspired her to give her handmaid, Hagar, to her husband Abraham to produce the offspring God had promised.

“Hopelessness is dangerous,” I wrote in my Confessions . . . and I believe it. I don’t think Sarah new what she was giving away. The birthright of the firstborn is a powerful thing in Hebrew culture. And though I believe that God honored and cared for Ishmael as Abraham’s son, the sibling rivalry between the descendants of Ishmael and the descendants of Isaac carries on throughout the entirety of the Old Testament and even down to the present day.  All because of a moment of hopelessness on the part of one woman.

In regards to marriage . . . part of me goes “Are we still talking about this? I’m so tired of talking about this!” . . . but in regards to marriage, I recently broke something I had kept for a long time in hopes of that day. It wasn’t out of anger or frustration. I simply broke it in carelessness. I had stopped believing it mattered. I had allowed my circumstanced to become my god and because of that I sacrificed something deeply important to me on the altar of hopelessness.

“Oh, there goes another thing I won’t need,” I thought, numb. Then it hit me like a flood a few days later and, sobbing, I dug the wreckage out of the trash can and squirreled it away somewhere, in hope of God knows what.

But in hope . . . hope it so buoyant. That is both the most miraculous part and the most painful. Our hearts were built for hope. And even long after the object of our hope is destroyed, long after we’ve doused the fire, a single look or word can kindle the spark again.

If you’re biblical scholar (or you simply looked it up like I did), you’ll notice that the second story I mentioned about Sarah actually comes before the first. Ishmael was born years before the messengers came to herald the birth of Isaac, and the promise of offspring was given to Abraham many, many years before that. I’m sure Sarah had smothered the flame of her hope more times than she could count.

Then God himself comes to have tea with Abraham and it stirs the embers in Sarah’s heart again. She lingers close to the wall of the tent where she can hear what the messengers have to say about God’s long-forgotten promise. We can only assume she held her breath because the response comes bursting out when she hears the words spoken.

And she laughs. She laughs because she realizes that, even after seeing her husband raise another women’s child as his heir, all the hope is not dead in her heart. She laughs at God and His audacity to promise such a thing. She laughs at her own foolishness for believing it.

“God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise . . . ” (1 Corinthians 1:27). And that’s the way it feels to hope when our circumstances don’t justify it, it feels shameful. Believing in our circumstances seems wise, believing in God despite our circumstances feels foolish.

But that is what makes us like Him. If there’s anything that characterizes the God of the Bible, it is unrelenting, often unrealistic, hope for His people. Our hearts were made for hope because our hearts were made for Him.

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Who Really Misses Out On Valentine’s Day?

This is the first year, ever, I’ve been in a relationship on Valentine’s Day. And I will spend it alone, probably catching up on work. Or I will use my best salesmanship to cajole my two exhausted roommates into dressing up and going out, or not dressing up but still going out, or staying in and doing something totally anti-productive like critiquing a rom-com while eating ice cream from the carton. In this way today will very closely resemble every other Valentine’s Day of my adult life.

My fiancé will be two states away, and at church. When I asked him what the greatest thing he’d ever done for Valentine’s was, expecting to glean something from his relatively more expansive relationship repertoire, he said, rather dully, “I usually just send flowers and chocolate.”

“That’s awfully cliché,” I said (or maybe I was wise and just thought it).

Besides one box of chocolate-covered strawberries from a girlfriend, he said the best valentine he’d ever received was from a classmate in junior high. I felt slightly betrayed by this. Not the strawberries or the valentine sent to my future husband, but the — the boredom. He belonged to a category of people I had always been taught to envy — the kind who are paired-off at this time of year.

As for me, the best valentine of ever received was when I was 17. A guy-friend of mine wrote and performed a rap in my honor. I have it written down in his unique cartoon-strip style handwriting somewhere and I laugh every time I come across it. The next year, all the girls in my dorm got together and wrote meaningful valentines for all the guys in our class. I was the typist, so I had that document for years, too. I remember being amazed, reading it later, at how lengthy and insightful the notes were about each guy. What a privilege to take part in something so simple and heartfelt.

Another year, the girls I lived with dressed up in black (just to be contrarian) and went out for dinner, and once a married couple in our community threw a big party for all their peers. Everyone had a hat, bowl, or jar assigned to them and people dropped notes into it throughout the evening. It was a little like the Valentine’s boxes in middle school, only the sweet things your friends (and a few acquaintances) gave you were words instead of candy.

The first year in India a friend from the U.S. sent me, my roommate, and our two closest friends a Valentine’s care package, with confetti hearts and red paper garlands, and a sugar cookie mix with cookie cutters and frosting to decorate. We each got a pair of pink panties and a Disney-themed princess card. The party we threw with it was one for the books.

I’m realizing now this post could have been titled 21 Unforgettable Things to Do On Valentine’s Day (If You’re Not in a Relationship) because I could go on, and on, and on. For me and my friends, Valentine’s has been about creativity, charisma, and joy. As we got older, and stayed single, there was maybe something about feeling just a tad bit sorry for ourselves that also allowed us to laugh at ourselves. Maybe being outside the clear target audience for an over-commercialized holiday also gave us the freedom to do what we wanted with it. But ours, unfortunately, is a very minority perspective.

For most people who don’t represent one-half of a couple, today is a day of mourning.

The one Valentine’s day that’s blackened in my memory was the year I spent at Gordon College. There, I could get no one to go out with me, though ALL of my friends were single and doing absolutely nothing but feeling sorry for themselves. There was a dark cloud that fell over the days preceding and following. It was the first time I understood that the bitterness felt over not being a relationship could actually be stronger than the joy felt in a relationship.

It is ironic that a day commemorating the martyrdom of a saint known for his charity would become so focused on eros love that it squeezes out all other kinds, most particularly the two St. Valentine exemplified — charity (sacrificial love for fellow man) and martyrdom (sacrificial love for God). How different would Valentine’s Day be if we had chosen, instead, to celebrate compassion, brotherly affection, friendship? Are those even considered love anymore, or is the only kind of love worth celebrating nowadays synonymous with sexual orientation?

We live in a culture where romantic love is not so much celebrated as it is idolized. Other kinds of loves — at best — are made lesser, substitutionary. At worst, they are made repellent, twisted, or suspect. It is rare to see truly genuine male friendship in modern cinema, and when we do reviewers refer to  “homosexual undertones,” or it is called “bromance,” and taken to sick extremes in fanfiction and internet memes. How long will it be till female friendship is viewed the same way?

Within Christianity, the love relationship of Jesus with his Bride, the Church, has also been marginalized. I think I may be one of the last few holdouts who still believe that Song of Songs is an allegory, not a Solomonic Fifty Shades of Grey. I believe we will be reading the books of the Old and New Testament for all eternity — millennia after the sacrament of marriage has been abolished. If that’s true, why would one of them be written only to glorify something that will no longer exist? Made curious by my recent post on Dating Jesus, I Googled that phrase. What turned up was a score of articles from the likes of Christianity Today and Relevant Magazine with scathing critiques of viewing our relationship with God as a romance. If only the Bible didn’t portray it as one . . .

When I’m not busy making plans with friends, Valentine’s Day does make me a little sad. Not because I’ve been lonely, not even because I’m 900 miles from the person I most want to spend today (and, let’s face it, every day) with. Valentine’s Day reminds me that we’re increasingly becoming a culture of only one kind of love. And in that sense, we’re all missing out.