One of the things my sisters found when they emptied my parents’ house after my mother died was a journal my father kept during his service in the Army in Europe during World War II.
It was an introduction to a much younger version of the man I knew. My father very rarely talked to us about the war, though we did know that it had something to do with the fact that he despised Spam for the rest of his days.
He was 19 years old when he was drafted in 1943. He was sent oversees in 1944, straight into Battle of the Bulge, and he started the journal midway through that terrible winter. This is how it begins:
I am going to keep this diary so that in future years I may remember more closely the day to day events of my Army career. I especially want to remember—in the days of normal living coming again in the not too distant future—the days of hell of our present existence in combat. For, as Sherman said, war really is hell—crowded with misery, discomfort, and uncertainty—uncertainty as to whether or not you’ll be alive in the next minute.
In the peaceful sort of living which was once normal and which will follow this conflict, surrounded by the things which I have longed for so constantly, I may lose sight of this fact. Old memories will soften with time. Thus, the mission of this diary: to remind me, should I need the reminder, what it was like, and to make me work unceasingly to make certain that my son does not march off to war; or if he does—and I say this with the sad knowledge that our fathers fought for the same ideals—he goes prepared.
You can hear a lot of hope in these two paragraphs, and when I say hope I don’t just mean wishful thinking. True hope means living in complete trust that all will indeed be well.
My father hoped that the war would end. He hoped that our nation would survive. He hoped that he would survive, too, and return to raise a family in peacetime. That life would eventually be good again.
And hope is the reason I’m telling his story. Not just because it’s Veterans Day, but because we all seem so hungry now for stories of hope.
We need to be reminded that hope is real. And we need to understand our mission as people of hope, people who can spread that hope to the world.
You can hear the idealism in my father’s account of that moment on July 3, 1943, when he stood up with others in a room where late afternoon sunlight filtered through the western windows and recited the oath of allegiance. He wrote:
I can truthfully say that it was one of the proudest moments of my life. … my country had called on me in its hour of greatest peril to protect it, its traditions, and my loved ones against a powerful enemy. Perhaps I grew to manhood then and there, I don’t know. …
He left for boot camp two weeks later, on his oldest sister’s wedding day. I’ve seen the old black and white snapshots of that day, which he describes this way:
I kissed them all several times I guess, and then walked down the steps. My mother stood on the porch and when I was a little way down the street I turned and waved. At the corner of Guilford Avenue where I turned left I stopped. She was still there. I waved again; she waved. Then I began walking and a building cut her off. It hadn’t been too bad—for me.
Not too bad for him, but we—he and I—I could only imagine how difficult it must have been for his mother. I imagine her struggling to balance the hopes and fears she must have been feeling as she watched him walk away, then turned back to go on with a wedding celebration.
She was a widow; he was her only son. And she could only hope that she would ever see him again.
The Old Testament reading and the Gospel today are both accounts of the hopes of widows, and the widowed mother of an only son is a key figure in the story from the first book of Kings.
It’s a time of terrible drought, and her food is nearly gone. She’s about to prepare what she expects will be one last meal for herself and her son when Elijah the prophet arrives and asks her to feed him first. He tells her his God has promised that her supply of food will last until the rains come again.
There’s no reason she should believe him, since her people worship a different god. But she does feed Elijah, and her supplies don’t fail.
The commentaries always make the point that widows were among the poorest and most vulnerable people in the ancient world—not that things were much easier for my grandmother, raising four children alone so many centuries later.
But like my grandmother, this nameless woman who supports Elijah is a survivor. She’s a fighter who doesn’t give up. In her own way, she’s a woman of hope.
And then in the Gospel we hear the story we call the Widow’s Mite, about the widow who drops her two copper coins into the temple treasury.
Jesus is in the middle of criticizing the corrupt temple system, with its scribes who are only too ready “to devour widows’ houses,” when he pauses to praise this woman because the amount she drops into the treasury isn’t just what she doesn’t need for herself, it’s everything she has.
She’s living as if she truly believes that if she trusts in God, all will be well.
And that is the very definition of hope.
As people of faith, are we also people of hope? And are we people who spread that hope to the world?
N.T. Wright is a Bible scholar and a bishop in the Church of England. He says it’s wrong to think that the “kingdom of heaven” is only about what happens when we die. It’s something that begins now, and we have a role in building it.
Our whole Christian story is a story of hope, and Wright says we’re called to participate here and now in God’s new creation which was launched on Easter morning:
The resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit mean that we are called to bring real and effective signs of God’s renewed creation to birth even in the midst of the present age.
Nice words, for sure, but how exactly are we supposed to do that?
How can we believe that in the face of all the suffering and evil we experience in this world, we are actually witnessing—and really participating in—the ongoing creation of a new reality which Wright calls “God’s new world of justice and joy, of hope for the whole earth.”
How can we live as people of hope?
There’s no simple, easy answer to that question. Cultivating hope is work that has to persist over time.
It begins with prayer, that intentional awareness of divine Presence that brings us into relationship with God. The kind of prayer I’m talking about isn’t just asking God to keep bad things from happening. It isn’t just about changing the world; it begins by changing us.
When we pray for other people, no matter how difficult they are, it almost inevitably inclines us to love them. When we pray for a better world, that’s the beginning of our effort to make it happen.
It’s also important to stay focused on what really matters in life. What’s most important? I’m talking about the things that give life meaning, sure, but also about the little things that give us comfort. Friends, laughter, good music, the golden glow of the light at sunset. All those little things.
So look for beauty in this world. Look for love. Look for God everywhere, and as Jesus said, if you seek, you will find what you are looking for.
And then make a regular practice of expressing your gratitude for those things. Think about all the things you’re grateful for. Make a new list every day. People who have done this all say this has created a life-giving, hope-giving change in their way of being in the world.
Accept that you might have to change your expectations. This one is harder, but sometimes we have to be prepared to let go of our ideas about how things are supposed to be. We might have to be prepared to make sacrifices—as my father and his mother certainly did.
Letting go of our own ideas about how things are supposed to be might bring us to see that the way things are is OK. That the bad is bearable, that the good things in life are very good, and that we can help to make them even better.
My father described the winter of ’44-’45 in Germany as “a living hell.”
He said, “We ourselves didn’t know we were capable of living through it.”
But he did live through it. He survived the nightly visits of Bedcheck Charlie, who arrived every evening to strafe our troops as they prepared for rest. He survived the cold and the dysentery. He survived the Spam.
By luck, by grace, and by his own efforts, my father made it through that winter. He made it home again.
He came back to his mother, to the future wife and family he would love.
And when I think now about all the lessons he taught us, I think the most important is what it really means to love.
And that brings me to the last thing on my list, the true foundation of hope, which really is love.
We are held in a love so great it can never really be understood, only experienced.
This love is the force that calls us into being in the first place, and sustains us ever after.
It’s a living stream that comes to us as grace and increases when it’s returned from our own hearts and souls.
It’s the solid rock where we stand safely even when the whole world seems to be in turmoil.
It’s the thing, as St. Paul says, that “never ends.”
N.T. Wright. Surprised by Hope, 209.
1 Cor 13:8 NRSV