Hope: A User’s Manual

Amy Pagliarella reviews MaryAnn McKibben Dana's new book.

MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Eerdmans Publishing, 179 pages | Published August 30, 2022

As I reviewed my sermons from the last year, one common theme emerged: hope. During a global pandemic, rampant inflation, climate change, political unrest and (insert your own calamity here), any preacher knows that worshippers crave a word of hope — one that is broad enough to uplift but sufficiently nitty gritty to speak to the very real needs of this time and place.

MaryAnn McKibben Dana gets this, and Hope: A User’s Manual is her response. Writing from the trenches of family and church life during a pandemic, she explores what hope is, what it isn’t, and how to “live inside of it.” Her writing is a welcome addition to a growing field of writers (think Kate Bowler or Nadia Bolz Weber) who reject the illusion of perfection, keep it real, and reflect intellectually, spiritually and pragmatically on the meaning of abundant life.

To do so, McKibben Dana must first describe what hope is not – toxic positivity that offers false optimism in the face of real problems – before turning to hope. “Optimism does its best work in the before,” she writes, when it’s still possible things will turn out okay. “But when the facts suggest otherwise, optimism isn’t enough. This is when hope comes in, rolls up her sleeves and says, ‘Optimism, take a seat.’”

This personification of hope getting down to business reminds us that hope is an active verb. Hoping actively can improve the present moment through even the smallest actions, such as in McKibben Dana’s story of youth planting flowers in an abandoned urban park. But hope infuses “modest acts with meaning,” and suddenly gardening is revolutionary — a witness to a better future in the works and the new world to come. Hope: A User’s Manual is filled with stories like this, and it’s clear that McKibben Dana wholeheartedly believes them. Yet she acknowledges that hope can be easier for privileged folks who are used to things going their way. That’s when her thoughts on perseverance – hope for the long haul – ring true.

The hope that McKibben Dana describes is spiritually grounded and inspiring as well as practical — a “muscle to be exercised.” Her “workout” regimen is straightforward. Each short chapter concludes with opportunities to reflect and take on a suggested practice or two, all of which are accessible for personal use or within the accountability of a small group. While faith is clearly at the root of her own hopefulness, McKibben Dana includes enough examples from parenting, anti-racism work and popular culture, in addition to Scripture, to allow her words to inspire well beyond the church.

As I typically do when a book speaks to me, I raced through this one the first time, before returning to savor it a second time as a worshipful read. It’s now on my nightstand for the evenings I seek a final nugget of wisdom, bookmarked for when I’m called upon to provide a brief devotion to open a meeting, and amply highlighted for when – once again – the sermon calls for a word of hope.

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