Alaina Kleinbeck: Hope takes hard work

Bigstock / Siam Pukato

Why do we expect young people to be naturally hopeful? Looking honestly at a broken world and resolving to live in hope anyway requires experience, writes the director of the Thriving in Ministry Coordination Program at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

A colleague recently shared that some of the young people in his ministry have become uninterested in talking about joy and hope. They tell him there is too much despair and brokenness; it is just too hard to try to hope. For some, hope in the face of oppression and evil seems like foolhardy denial that is profoundly useless.

This rattled me.

I do my best to tell young people in every way I know how that they are not the future; Jesus Christ is. Yet I also realize that at some point in my ministry I formed an assumption that young people are constitutionally disposed toward hope. I assumed that youthful hopefulness was enough to drive out cynicism and despair. In fact, I was counting on it.

The problem with this assumption is that it misses the source -- and the hard work -- of hope. Hope that relies on the vitality of youth risks becoming baseless optimism. And this kind of optimism demands that the young offer me and others something they are not prepared to offer.

When Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, he pointed to an apocalyptic hope -- hope that can only come from the world being overturned by the death and resurrection of Jesus, hope that fills cracked clay jars and overflows from the broken places. For Paul, the suffering of the present moment is akin to carrying the death of Jesus around in our bodies so that we live out the life and resurrection of Jesus every day (2 Corinthians 4).

Hope is choosing to live the resurrection in the face of death.

This kind of living feels like an incarnate algebraic equation in which the complicated variables are always in flux, growing and shrinking and vanishing and reappearing. Those of us who resolve to hope must regularly recalibrate our hopefulness to the reality around us and inside us.

Hope demands honest confrontation of injustice, pain and suffering. It does not wallow but rather works to change the story. In contrast, fear and despair reinforce stories of anxiety, scarcity and the immutability of the present circumstances.

The poet, pastor, lawyer and activist Pauli Murray writes in her poem “Dark Testament”: “Hope is a song in a weary throat.” This throat in Murray’s poem is wearied by the truthful confrontation of the forced immigration, enslavement and ongoing oppression of African-Americans.

The poem reads like a fever dream as it courses through the darkest parts of the history of the United States, confronting the reader with the dream of freedom that became a nightmare for so many. It reminds the reader that troubles in our land might ebb and flow, but they do not cease -- nor can the fight against them cease.

In telling the story of America’s evils, Murray creates the conditions for hope. Hope begins when denial and resignation are laid aside. Hope becomes possible when the weary throats sing anyway.

This resolve to sing anyway, to live the resurrection in the face of death -- to hope -- does not come easily.

And keeping this resolve -- to hope and not to fear -- requires life experience. So whatever my former assumptions, I now realize it’s profoundly unfair to rely upon young people for examples of hope. They are only just beginning to see why “hope” is not a euphemism for “denial.”

We need our elders to tell us their stories of hope. They can talk about overcoming incredible adversity -- the miraculous escape from a warring land, provision in a time of shortage and scarcity, faithfulness in the face of betrayal, escape from abuse, neighborly kindness in a time of need, open doors and shared resources, peace where there was violence.

Many of our grandparents, our church mothers and fathers, our mentors -- who have a bit more experience in this often-painful world -- have chosen hope in the face of fear. They know the postures and practices that cultivate hope in our lives. Their sufferings have taught them how to live the resurrection anyway, how to sing anyway, how to hope anyway.

I, like the young people in my friend’s ministry, need exemplars of hope, those who bear the story of overcoming bitterness within their very breath. I need to learn their stories of embracing righteous anger against injustice as an act of hopefulness. I need to re-echo their narratives of harnessing and activating this anger at the painful realities of this world with an apocalyptic imagination that sees beyond our own experience and existence.

I realize I can’t look to the young for this -- I need weary-throated elders to teach me how to sing.