“Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting of the hope that is in you.”
That verse from the First Letter of Peter leapt out at me this week.
I have to admit that hope is not something I’ve given a lot of thought to lately. Even before the coronavirus pandemic shrouded the world these were hardly hopeful days.
Climate change, an increase in hate crimes, the growing gap between have and have nots are just some of the issues which can cause despair.
Now, when even a trip to the grocery store can seem like a matter of life and death, it can be even harder to feel hopeful.
During this season of Easter, all of our epistle readings have come from Peter’s letter. Actually, scholars are not sure who wrote these words, but we do know that they were written to Christians in churches in Asia Minor, or present day Turkey.
Christians were a minority. Many of them were what we would think of as lower class people, immigrants and slaves among them.
Christians knew that following Jesus might well mean enduring social ostracism, bullying, and even harsher persecution. I’m sure there were many days that felt hopeless.
Peter is reminding them that God is not indifferent to their suffering; that they are not alone in their struggles.
Despite those struggles, Peter says, they are to continue following Christ’s teachings of loving and serving one another, and their enemies. And they are to have hope.
We have a tendency today to conflate hope and optimism, as if those words were interchangeable. But really they are quite different.
An article I read by a man named Ray Deck puts it this way: “Optimism, a vaguely positive sentiment, gets spread indiscriminately over hardship.
“Optimism,” he says, “ignores the facts, and tries to feel good anyway. Optimism often defies common sense.”
It’s like being afraid of having cancer, so refusing to test for it because you might find out you have it.
Or it’s thinking that a serious problem will miraculously go away if we just declare victory.
Hope is something else entirely.
“Hope surveys all the facts, acknowledges them, but also looks beyond them to something larger,” Deck says. “Hope asks the hard questions, and believes that there must be an answer even if it is elusive at the moment.
“Hope doesn’t try to feel good. It is hard earned; you can’t get it if your head is in the sand. Hope is available only to those willing to wrestle with pain, injustice, and other difficult realities.”
For Christians, our hope is based on the belief that God is with us, that because of Christ’s death on the cross, God knows what it is to suffer, and ultimately to triumph over suffering and even death.
Christian hope is a radical act that doesn’t deny the reality of our situation. It is also the understanding that because we believe God is with us we can be hope for those around us.
Writer Anne Lamott acknowledges this when she writes, “By showing up with hope to help others, I’m guaranteed that hope is present. Then my own hope increases. By creating hope for others, I end up awash in the stuff.”
There were a couple of times this week that I felt awash in hope, even as the predictions of our foreseeable future seem to grow ever grimmer.
I see hope in a Sandy Springs woman named Jennifer Lott. Jennifer has a daughter at Sandy Springs Middle School. When the school shut down because of the pandemic, Jennifer and some of her friends began to worry about what that meant for many of her daughter’s classmates and their families, for whom school meals were a life saver.
It’s one thing to think about that; it’s quite another to do something about it. That’s what Jennifer and her friends did.
They decided that it was their job to make sure these children and their families did not go hungry. With no experience, no funding from foundations, no real expertise they decided to start a food pantry.
They found a restaurant that was closed for all but takeout, and so had space to offer for free. They put out the word to the PTA that they needed donations.
Food and money began to come in, and word began to spread through the community.
In the first days of the pandemic this Pop Up Food Pantry served 10 families a day. Two months later it serves 100. A sister pantry has popped up at the other end of the community, doing equal business.
For four hours a day, Monday through Friday, they give food to anyone who shows up for as long as the food lasts.
The pantry is stocked by donations, and now some food from the Atlanta Food Bank. But five days a week Jennifer or another volunteer goes to Walmart and loads up carts with bags of potatoes, onions, bananas, corn, apples, beans, rice, pasta, spaghetti sauce, peanut butter, bread, tooth brushes, toothpaste, diapers, cat food, dog food, and any other of life’s necessities.
She spends between $400-$600 a day replenishing the pantry. All of that money comes from donations.
Jennifer and those who work with her have no illusions about the reality of the pandemic, of the enormous costs to lives and livelihoods. But they didn’t bury theirs head in the sand. They looked at the reality and then decided to do what they could to help.
As Anne Lamott would say, they showed up with hope and now the place is awash in the stuff.
Jennifer is able to account for the hope that is in her. It is grounded in her faith. “The concept of faith and good works pretty much defines my life outlook,” she says.
Or as scripture says, “Faith without works is dead.”
The second place I saw hope this week was at our vestry meeting. For almost two hours over Zoom we met and discussed the hard realities of the situation of people in our congregation and in the wider community.
It would be easy to bury our heads in the sand. But the vestry refused to do that. Instead the discussion was what can we do to help? How can we offer hope to those among and around us? How do we follow Jesus’ commandment to love and serve our neighbors?
From those discussions money was put aside to create two funds – one is for those within our parish community whose livelihoods have been affected by the pandemic.
The other is to support community food banks – through weekly food drives and financial donations. We hope to be able to fund one of Jennifer’s shopping expeditions each week for at least the next 10 weeks – or to do the shopping for her.
Already in our narthex is a small mountain of groceries that will be delivered to the Pop Up Pantry later this week.
My conversation with Jennifer and the discussions of our vestry give me hope. The reality before us is grim, there is no denying that. We will not overcome it with false optimism or putting our heads in the sand.
But I was reminded this week that God is indeed with us, and with God’s help we can be there for one another, bringing hope to a world that desperately needs it.