Monday, January 9, 2012

Hope for the Promised Land

What does the word, hope, mean to you?  We bandy the word about, hear it in passages like “faith, hope, and charity” but how do those first two words differ, for instance?   I realized recently that I had never really defined it for myself.  Have you?  I think that is a good project for January, particularly in an election year, when we’ll probably hear a lot about it!  Let me share some of my thoughts on the etymology of the word and its use in the Bible – a book that’s all about hope -  in order to encourage you to determine your own definition and to think about what other people may mean when they use the word.

 In my mind, hope is weaker than faith or belief.  Like the story of Pandora’s box, hope arises as a positive antidote to the impediments of life.  Children, for example just want, they don’t hope, because they don’t yet sense the possibility of “no.”   If I express a sentiment like, “I hope that Mom will get better” that is vaguer than “I believe she will” or “I have faith or confidence that she will.”  You can see that my impression of the word is rather lame and floppy, so political rhetoric about “hope and change” or “hope and progress” make me roll my eyes.  They seem like easy platitudes to trot out with Uncle Sam and apple pie.    

 However, I realize that people use the word in different ways than I do and I wondered if that was true historically, too.  If so, that might change my interpretation of significant documents.

The etymology of the English word, hope, is unknown, but it seems to be from a North European, Germanic source that may have something to do with the English word, hop.  I love that connection.  It suggests that hope does not mean something I can reach from where I stand; rather I have to take a little leap toward the object of hope in order to reach it or perhaps even to see it.   

What about in the Bible?  That book is full of hope for the Promised Land in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and for Salvation in the New Testament.  Were the word choices in the Hebrew of the Old Testament and the Greek of the New Testament as loosey goosey as my understanding or something stronger?  ln Biblical Greek straight through to modern Greek, the word for hope is elpida.  It is often used as a girl’s name. The word is more assertive than in my definition.  It encompasses a sense of expectation.  When you hope for something, you do not have it in hand but you expect to get it.

 Hebrew is a very concrete language not given to abstractions. In the Hebrew Bible, the word for hope, tikva, derives from the word for a cord (like twine or rope).  Synonyms are words like wait for, and look for.  Here I envision those ropes that northern farmers and ranchers use(d) to string between the barn and the house so that in disorienting snow storms they could feel their way home.  In any case, the word, hope, in both parts of the Bible is much stronger than my cynical usage.  When the Jews hoped for the Promised Land during 40 years in the desert, they were tied to that outcome, their present and future actions were shaped by it.  When Paul expressed hope for the congregations he hectored in his New Testament letters, he fully expected them to work out their difficulties and embrace the vision of Christ that was so vivid to him.  In so many stories in the Bible, a hero hears a voice that no one else hears, that tells him to go somewhere no one else knows or to do something no one else has done.  He has faith.  His followers don’t hear the voice.  They have hope.  These stories have engendered hope in millions of readers since.  Whether you believe that these stories are historical or metaphorical, let me mention three of them.  See if they have emotional resonance for you, while you think about your own hopes and impediments to them.

 In the story of Moses, it doesn’t matter that the evidence of a massive Jewish slave rebellion in Egypt is slim to none during the centuries attributed to this tale.  It is a fantastic hero story about a little Jewish slave boy, plucked from a river, raised in the palace as a prince, who doesn’t turn his back on where he came from, but hears the voice of God to liberate his people and lead them to freedom.  Most people like the great escape part of the story, the success of the underdog against perilous odds and powerful enemies.  Perhaps that aspect of the story appealed the most to actual slaves who converted to Christianity or Judaism.  The legacy of that comfort is particularly evident and touching in the religious and secular music developed by African-Americans, before and after their freedom, especially the lyrics of gospels, spirituals, blues, and soul music, which refer to the Moses story more than any other in the Old Testament. By extension, it has compelling components that have comforted many individuals throughout history who have felt enslaved by a variety of social or personal circumstances.

 In the story of Abraham, he, too, hears the voice of God (not one of the gods of his father), which tells him to take his family and his goods and “go to the land that God will show him.”  This is a one way ticket to no clear destination!  But his family does follow him, through a picaresque series of adventures passing through the lands of various kings until they reach a land they divide up amongst their children and their children’s children. He is the founder of a faith, the patriarch of a people. These Abraham stories must have resonated with the Mormons who followed their charismatic leader Brigham Young west, through plains and deserts, to settle near an inland salt lake, not unlike the Dead Sea of Israel.    Perhaps by extension it applies to any families whose head of household had a vision that transformed the life of the family with an announcement like “we are going to make a change.”  Maybe it involved going back to school or changing careers or moving or starting a business around that invention in the garage.  Whether the family stifles that initiative or supports it, such moments are often ones that transform the future for those involved.    

 In the story of Paul, he, too, hears the voice of God, in the form of Christ.  Like Abraham and Moses, he makes a marked turn from the faith in which he was raised and embarks on his life work as the first minister to the gentiles outside of Israel with the message that they too could go to heaven through faith in Christ, and they didn’t have to convert to Judaism to do so. In this, he differed greatly from the Christian leaders in Jerusalem who saw Christianity as a Jewish sect.  He suffered beatings, death threats, a shipwreck, jail time, and ultimately execution by the Romans.  Except for his hope and expectation that his work was worthwhile, his ministry sounds difficult, dangerous, and lonely to me.  But surely many a reader has felt that way, in his or her own life, too, especially when he has a vision of the right thing to do that no bosses or colleagues support, or even the people he or she is called to help.  Maybe one of the most compelling points of Paul’s story is that he turned out to be right.  Had he NOT ministered to the gentiles in Turkey, Greece, and Italy, I am sure that Christianity would have died out as a stub religion of Judaism when the Romans besieged Jerusalem and found nearly everyone inside it, including the small Christian community, dead of disease, starvation, or battle. Small as his congregations must have been, contentious as they were, Paul’s life work saved what he most valued.  He was the Johnny Appleseed of Christianity.    

I have often wondered why Americans are so much more religious than Europeans.  I have considered various possibilities but I think it is because over the past several hundred years, Americans found in the Bible, particularly in the concept of hope, so many episodes they interpreted as pertaining to themselves.  What European authors of the 19th and 20th centuries have described as cocky and confident in the American personality is really an indication of our historic hopefulness.  Certainly concepts of manifest destiny run deep and broad in our culture. Aspects of America were certainly described as “The Promised Land” and even “The Garden of Eden.”  The Puritans and other religious settlers set out to build “God’s City on the Hill” as Augustine described it.  Early explorers embarked on God’s work.  There are many Biblical stories that surely inspired boatloads or truckloads of immigrants leaving behind one life to start another in a new country, or take ships to the gold fields of CA or AK or start wagon trains across the plains or aspire as entrepreneurs or inventors, hoping for a future better than the past, if not for themselves, then for their children.  These examples did not use my feeble use of the word, hope.  They demonstrate a leap, an expectation, a fierce intentionality.

 Maybe Americans are more religious than Europeans because in our land of opportunity, such hopes did come true, if not for everyone then for enough people to keep the hope fires burning, particularly in contrast to regions of the world with high population density, a prized social hierarchy, and the bureaucracy of guilds, unions, or government, that suppressed a lot of personal hope.

So it is no surprise that the immigrants to America were not just poor people in steerage but also younger sons trapped by primogeniture laws, where the first son inherited just about everything and the younger ones were limited to two futures. If they stayed, since business or work were seen as unseemly for gentlemen, their options were to be on the dole of the older brother or marry a wealthy woman.  In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, that often meant American heiresses, like Winston Churchill’s mother.  For younger brothers who chafed against this, the other option was to leave the country altogether to make a fortune elsewhere. Ill-suited younger brothers nearly doomed the Jamestown settlement – John Smith wrote letters to England criticizing the lazy gentry and pleaing instead for settlers with skills and a work ethic. In any case, English novels are full of younger brothers who strode off to manly outposts like Canada or America and returned home wealthier than those who had stymied them.  Hope intertwined with come-uppance.  It was to America they went with a hope for opportunity and success.  America is the real hero of these tales.

  Let me ask you a question.  Do you have that sort of hope today for yourself or your children or your community?  Personally, I don’t sense that optimism in America anymore.  My husband and I travel a lot, and my general impression is a sort of malaise, as President Carter said 30 years ago.  I’m not sure if it is related to our protracted recession or to the erosion of trust that comes from a continuing slew of malfeasance in business, sports, academics, and government.  Do you feel as cynical or disheartened as I do?  If so, where can you turn for inspiration and hope? We’d like to hear a voice as clearly as Moses, Abraham, and Paul did, but most of us don’t, and if we did, a lot of us would probably tune it out.  Most of us itch with doubt: should I do this or that or something else?  If inertia wins, nothing is accomplished.  If you feel that way, I’d like to wrap these comments up with two possible inspirations for hope. 

One is to look at the personalities of the three Biblical heroes I mentioned. They weren’t Prince Charming heroes.  They accomplished great things despite weaknesses in their own natures.  Moses was a poor husband, for example.  His father-in-law dragged Moses’s wife back to him, in public, to shame him into taking her back. Moses’s sister and brother chastised him in front of everyone regarding his poor leadership skills once they were in the desert.  He often appears scared and doubtful, physicalized by a speech impediment of some kind. Abraham’s story includes several major moral lapses.  He sacrificed his wife’s virtue to kings on two occasions in order to save his own life as they passed through those kingdoms.  He succumbs to his wife’s jealous henpecking to banish another wife and her son to a likely death sentence in the desert. Paul appears, in his own letters, as a bullheaded, priggish, know-it-all.  He may have had a traveling companion most of the time but it is not clear whether he has any friends, and he never talks about a family.  Yet all three of these people are ones that God called to be great leaders, in spite of themselves.  That could be you, too, if you look past your fears and weaknesses toward your goals.

 The second source of hope is the etymology of hope that I mentioned at the beginning.  Think “hop” from English and “cord” from Hebrew and “expect” from Greek.  Most of us won’t hear a voice from God.  Most of us have to stand up and choose to take a little leap toward something we can’t quite see or touch.  That’s what hope is.  And then when we can see it, even dimly or far away, we have to grab hold of the cord that binds us to it, and expect that by our own exertions we can work our way toward it step by step.  Hope isn’t a promise that we will get there.  It is a promise to ourselves that we will try.      

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