Hope Has You — Church Anew
I sit at my desk. A clean sheet of paper before me, a favorite pen in my hand, music streams in the background. On this late fall afternoon, sunlight floods through the stained-glass window in my office. The plan seemed simple: write an essay in which I would discuss ways and places for fellow leaders to find hope. I sit in this space for a good while, waiting until something comes, the way a poet might wait for a poem to arrive. I rise from my desk, and run my fingers against the smooth spines of the books on the shelf. I’ve read these volumes over the course of the pandemic. I’m drawn in by the titles, with words like burnout, loneliness, loss, stuck, and trauma. I look to another shelf. One asks whether the Lord’s Supper can rightly be celebrated online. An issue of a journal leans against it, the theme’s focus is around what the new normal will look like. A few novels I had yet to read taunt me. Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship, Letters and Papers from Prison, and Life Together stand next to a memoir about anxiety. Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time rests next to a volume of Luther’s Works. In my car, a list of podcasts flashes on the screen, ready to play with the push of my finger. Travel times are quicker because so many people now work from home. There doesn’t seem to be enough time to either listen in or pay attention. There’s barely a moment to breathe.
Each resource released into the world is meant to bring leaders help as we navigate pandemic realities. But where can leaders turn when the waters we navigate flow over our heads? Where can we turn when it feels as though there is no help – as though no one understands what we’re going through? What do we do when the hope we proclaim evaporates like steam before us?
At an appointment with a new physician, I’m asked what I do for a living. When I tell the doctor, she takes off her glasses and sits down next to me. She confides I’m not the first church leader she’s seen in the clinic during the pandemic. “I’m sure that’s true,” I said, and meant it. “So much depression and anxiety among church workers,” she said. “So much pressure.” I nod my head in agreement. “So many opinions to negotiate.” I agreed. “And the politics – as if the health of the congregation is somehow wrapped up in one’s political perspective.”
A familiar heaviness began to pulse within me. “Yes,” I said. “And for the life of me, I can’t find any hope anymore.” The doctor put down her glasses and leaned in. “How are you?” I felt her compassion and concern in the question. “I’m fine,” I said. This was a complete lie. I wanted to tell her that a series of text messages and anonymous notes left on my desk triggered memories from an traumatic childhood for which I had previously received a good amount of therapy. As a result, these things set loose a spiral of anxiety and despair I thought I’d never come out from. But I couldn’t locate the hope within me that would allow for me to tell the truth about how I was doing.
Eventually, hope was revealed to me once more in a hospital where I stayed for a week. It came through the voice of a paramedic (his name was Jésus – I’m not even kidding) who preached to me in the back of an ambulance, a nurse who declared me a child of God the first moment she met me, and a doctor who heard me tell my story many times over. “You are not what they say about you.” But what if I was? “You’re not,” he said. Later, he turned this into a question for me – one he’d ask with a smile. “Are you what they say of you,” he asked? “Hell no,” I said, and smiled.
But it was more than that. It was also the conversations I had with others that week – my friends, my family, and my wife. And, I began to listen again to and for God in the prayers I surprised myself by praying. It was in the middle-of-the-night check-ins the nurses did to make sure everything was alright. It was in the freedom to laugh, cry, to express doubts and fears, to name the pain and to find constructive ways to address what stirred within me. It was in the vulnerable stare in the mirror each morning and evening as I made the sign of the cross on my forehead, and reminded myself that whatever else was – and wasn’t – true about me, the one thing most true about me is that I’m a beloved child of God. Say it with me: I am a child of God.
I continue to be captivated by the story of the Road to Emmaus from Luke’s Gospel. There are two on the road, but only one is named. Could it be, as a former seminary professor once said, that the absence of a name in this story is so we can find ourselves in what unfolds there. You also are on the road. You’ve borne witness to a terrible catastrophe. You don’t know what to make of it. All you turn can do is turn toward Emmaus. The two of you try to make meaning of what has occurred. Yet, the language you have for these things doesn’t feel adequate. You don’t feel adequate to lead because of all that’s happened. Still, a stranger walks among you, asks you what’s happened, speaks into the silence. You invite them in to join you for dinner. This One speaks through bread broken and blood poured out for you. Your eyes are opened. Your heart beats once again in the rhythm of grace. You realize once more what has always been true. Hope isn’t something you have. Hope has you.