Hope, the noun

Hope as a verb is anemic, a flimsy little cobweb. “I hope it doesn’t rain today,” we say. Hope-as-a-verb doesn’t even have the earnestness of a wish, as when my 6-year-old son closes his eyes, furrowing his brows, before blowing out his birthday candles, imagining what he is wishing for because it’s a real possibility (a Thomas train set). Hope-as-a-verb doesn’t demand any commitment. It carries little risk. When spring coaxed blossoms from stems this year, I was hopeful my New York Mets were going to win the World Series. Even as late as June, I was hoping for a turnaround as amazing as the Mets of ‘69. But I didn’t purchase play-off tickets for October to prove my hopefulness. My wife was glad I was sane enough not to make financial decisions on the flimsiness of hope-as-a-verb.

Hope-as-a-noun, on the other hand, is adamant. It stands right there with faith and love as the three paramount Christian virtues. Hope is deep within the marrow of our bones. Paul says, “Suffering produces patience and patience produces character and character produces hope.” Paul isn’t diagramming an assembly line where one part is arranged and glued into the next item in line. Character doesn’t produce hope. Hope grounds character and character is what is exposed by the excavation of suffering. Hope is the reality of God in the soul of the Christian. Thus, Paul finishes off his poetic line with this: “Hope never disappoints.”

Hope-as-a-verb will disappoint, because it will rain and the Mets aren’t in the playoffs. It will disappoint because hope-as-a-verb is an exercise of human will, and human willpower is as flimsy as a cobweb. Hope-as-a-noun is a gift of God as much as faith and love, and gifts of God never disappoint.

I moved to Louisville, Kentucky, at the end of August to start a new position as the manager of diversity and reconciliation at the Presbyterian Mission Agency. Several friends dissuaded me from taking it. They warned me it was a no-win situation, that similar positions were previously made and unmade and that the PC(USA) has been singing diversity since the ‘60s but (like most American churches) remains obdurately monocultural.

But I cannot help but have this hope for the PC(USA): One day, sooner than later, every congregation will be as diverse as their neighborhoods. Even more, that every congregation will repent of their segregated lives and live such a compelling life of diversity, they will bring diversity to the American neighborhoods, from sprawling cities to small towns with one traffic light.

Every Wednesday morning, there’s chapel at the Presbyterian Center. The second chapel service I attended was packed. It was a memorial service for a staff member named Joe. To you readers, it’s just a name, as it was for me. But as I heard the testimonies, the name began to grow bones and sinews. I heard Joe’s humor and his inimitable speech in the people’s stories. As the closing hymn filled the sanctuary, I began to miss a person I had never met. There was sadness; his absence is absolute. And yet, we sang of resurrection as though it was yesterday’s news. This is not hope-as-a-verb. This is hope-as-a-noun.

Behind the chapel lectern is a window. And behind it is the Ohio River enshrouded in a grey mist, and floating in that cloud is a bridge holding Kentucky and Indiana as tight as brothers. Cars drive right into the grey and disappear – not because they are hoping there is a land waiting for them, but because their hope is so certain they aren’t even aware of hope’s work; they are only eager to get home. Hope is singing in the chapel. Hope is in our bodies even after their dissolution. Hope is in our churches. Christ is our hope.

SAMUEL SON works in the area of diversity and reconciliation for the PC(USA). He lives in Louisville, Kentucky.