Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Meaningful Hope

I can’t remember where I was or the context in which it came, but I do remember very clearly introducing a humorous anecdote with the phrase, “Here’s a really funny story…” But, before I could actually begin the tale, one of my sharper friends interjected, “Well, we’ll be the judge of that.” Though never gifted with comedic timing, I knew right away that anything I said would underwhelm my audience. Although his tactic was uncharitable, his point was clear: the more I emphasize the humor in a story the funnier it needs to be to get a laugh.

We oversell things all the time. Jokes are funnier, fish are bigger, and grandchildren are more precious than they actually are. Our perspective is often like that of a passenger-side mirror—“objects in mirror are [insert relevant adjective] than they appear.” Why? Because we like having a story that’s worth listening to. We enjoy the attention that accompanies the kind of tale that gets a hardy laugh or a dropped jaw. And, whether consciously or not, we tend to oversell things when we doubt that they (or we) will get the reaction we seek.

Early in the movie City Slickers, starring Billy Crystal, the audience watches an awkward moment of overselling take place in a school classroom. It’s “Bring-Your-Dad-to-Work Day,” and Crystal’s character, whose job it is to sell advertising time on the radio, is set to follow a construction worker, who has just finished a colorful tale about summoning “super-human strength” to lift a fallen crane off of a woman’s legs. Crystal’s son, embarrassed by his father’s lackluster career, says to his class, “My dad’s name is Mitch, and he’s…a submarine commander!” The classroom erupts in a chorus of admiration only to have their excitement deflated when the truth is revealed.

Like Crystal’s son, my tendency to overstate reality reflects my insecurity. When I’m surrounded by people whom I admire and want to impress, my self-doubt shows up in the way I try to get attention, and it usually backfires. Like a hitter in a slump, the only way to get back in the game is to relax and trust that the hits will come when I stop worrying about it.

In Luke’s account of the Sermon on Mount (actually called “a level place”), Jesus looks at the multitude that has gathered around him and says, “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh” (6:17-26). If anyone else had been speaking, that would surely be an example of overselling. Blessed are the poor, the hungry, and the mournful? In what way are they blessed?

Yet, in my discomfort and insecurity, that’s exactly what I try to say to someone in need: “Don’t worry; you’ll be ok.” I don’t really believe it, but it seems like the kind of thing I’m supposed to say to someone in trouble. And no matter how much I might want to comfort someone with a message of Christian hope, unless I’m in a position to do something about an individual’s suffering, my words are empty—mere overstatement. Yet Jesus is able to say to someone in that same moment of deepest distress, “You are blessed,” and say it with the power, confidence, and hope that my words lack.

That’s because Jesus isn’t offering the sort of hope that hinges on immediate relief. He’s promising them a blessedness that doesn’t depend on a physical answer for their longings. Instead, he’s saying to those who have nothing but pain that God sees them in their agony and knows their trouble. He’s showing us that even in our moment of lostness we have not been forgotten by God.
Jesus came down from heaven to demonstrate that God hears our cries and sees our needs and knows our grief. Jesus represents a cosmic answer to our earthly plight. His victory over death reveals to us that our poverty, hunger, grief, and despair are not the end of the story. That doesn’t mean that God wants us to be rich and happy all the time. The “prosperity gospel” that some espouse is surely an empty overstatement. Instead, our Lord and Savior simply says, “Blessed are you who are in need. God knows your troubles and will save you from them in ways that only he can.” And that’s the eternal hope of the Christian faith—not that God will make all of my troubles go away but that God knows my brokenness and blesses me because of it.

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