Discovering hope in a pandemic world
Alan R. Rudnick
March 31, 2021
In his bestselling book, “Into Thin Air,” Jon Krakauer relates the hazards that plagued some climbers as they attempted to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Andy, one of the expedition leaders, stayed at the peak too long, and on his descent, he was in dire need of oxygen.
Andy radioed the base camp and told them about his predicament. He mentioned that he had come across a cache of oxygen canisters left by the other climbers, but they were all empty. The climbers who already passed the canisters on their descent knew they were not empty but full. The base camp pleaded with him on the radio to make use of the oxygen canisters. Andy was starved for oxygen, but he continued to argue that the canisters were empty. The problem was that the lack of what he needed (oxygen) had so disoriented his mind that Andy would not listen to life-saving advice. Though he was surrounded by something that would give him life, he continued to complain of its absence after pleas from his team.
I have found that we often tell ourselves that what we really need is not within our grasp in life’s most terrible and desperate moments. We fill ourselves with self-talk, which rationalizes our blind spots or justifies our self-defeating behavior.
During this pandemic, we have been deprived of hope. Hope is in short supply sometimes. Some of our church buildings remain closed, we have not been able to hug our loved ones, families are facing economic hardship, and our children are struggling to learn at home. Over half a million people have died from COVID-19 in the U.S. alone, and many more have been sick. When we are so deprived of hope, we tend to tell ourselves we need something else—and we cannot find it. We are tempted to fill ourselves with optimism, but that is not what we really need. God gives us something more than an optimistic outlook.
The Christian theologian Jürgen Moltmann once distinguished the difference between optimism and hope. Optimism has to do with positive outcomes in the future emerging from the past and present. We forecast what is possible in the future: If it looks good, we are optimistic. According to Moltmann, hope concerns itself with fruitful possibilities in the future that come from outside our actions or others but instead come from God’s hand, which is a gift of something new.
Jesus illustrated the work of hope and often utilized agrarian themes—including imagery of vineyards, planting, growing, vines, planting, sowing, reaping, fruit, figs, producing wine, and the like—when teaching others about God’s hope. In Luke 13:6-9, Jesus taught through a parable concerning a vineyard owner who has given up on hope for a fig plant and wants it taken out in favor of a more productive plant. The gardener has not given up on hope.
Finding and accessing hope in a pandemic world comes from faith in God that God is not done with our crisis. Who are we to pronounce judgment that God is finished with us, our problems, or our world?
The gardener in Luke 13 is willing to give hope a try. He will prepare the ground and plant (his doing) and then let outside forces and elements (rain, soil, sun, and time) do the rest. We can choose to be like the vineyard owner who has given up hope or the gardener who gave hope a try. This work of hope in God is what St. Paul wrote about in Romans 4:17 (NIV): “the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not.” For us, there is always hope: God can take something dead or dying and raise it into a new, flourishing life (resurrection).
When we find ourselves in crisis, we take a hard look at our “hope canister” and check to see if there is life-giving spiritual oxygen left. If there is not enough in our “hope canisters,” it is time to prepare, plan, refill, and receive. If there is not enough, we need to listen to those trusted individuals, spiritual guides, and helpers who journey with us through darkness and crisis.
If we are to understand Moltmann correctly, filling our capacity for hope is not based on evaluating our past personal experience in order to ascertain our future. Finding and accessing hope in a pandemic world comes from faith in God that God is not done with our crisis. Who are we to pronounce judgment that God is finished with us, our problems, or our world? We are Easter people. Easter people know that today may be a dark day like Good Friday, but we know that hope comes in the form of the Christ who shatters our expectations so that God may break through and resurrect our brokenness, helplessness, and hopelessness into something new and unexpected.
The Rev. Alan R. Rudnick is an American Baptist minister and Senior Minister at DeWitt Community Church in DeWitt, NY. He is the author of The Work of the Associate Pastor (Judson Press) and is a Th.D. candidate at La Salle University, Philadelphia, PA. Rev. Rudnick is a former member of the board of directors for American Baptist Home Mission Societies, Board of General Ministries, and Mission Council of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.