What is Hope?
Being a chaplain allowed me a million tiny moments with folks that contained so much love and spirit and connection. Many of those have passed from my memory. What I do remember vividly are those singular moments of pain—the pain of the family, the pain of a staff member, or even my own pain.
I remember the day I was almost punched.
This tragedy began long before I came into the picture. The looming systemic tragedy and sin of racism that leaves African American families wary of healthcare providers and systems that shadowed every interaction with the family. The tragedy of the discounted symptoms of black folks that intersects with racism and leaves them more likely to die than their white counterparts. Also, drug addiction, a large patriarchal family with a recently deceased leader and the next one dying in the bed, a medical staff trying to desperately save the man’s life, and a faith informed by a very particular understanding of hope slammed into this day.
No wonder the family member went to punch me. I represented everything wrong with the healthcare system, white authority and privilege, and faith.
The story is simple: the man was hurt in an accident and the first hospital said he was okay. He came to my hospital for a second opinion because he felt so poorly. He was awake, chipper, and kind. And then he was unconscious. He had internal bleeding. His organs began to shut down. We needed his closest family member to give consent to a potentially life-saving procedure, but she wanted to wait for the next male member of the family to be in-charge to get to the hospital. We waited and waited. We tried again to get her to sign. She would not. The man began losing ground we could not recover.
We told her that he was dying.
I remember her words so clearly, “What you are telling me is that I cannot have hope, but I’m a Christian. I have hope God will heal him. Get out of her!”
He died. His family was so angry, which I utterly understand. The staff was angry and feeling helpless. I stood in the space between both. That’s when the family member started hitting the wall of the patient next door. High, grieving, and in a rage, each punch briefly turned off the ventilator of that patient. I was sent into the room to ask them to stop. Instead, their fist flew toward me. I blocked them with the door, and the family tackled them to the ground.
I was done. I’d given all I could give.
But the family was not done with me. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought of them, prayed for them, and hoped that they’ve healed from this trauma that was not of their own making and also marked by their humanity in the face of the great forces of modern healthcare, racism, white privilege, and faith stories that don’t work. It didn’t matter that the Attending Physician was black. These larger looming systemic traumas were too big for the family to scale in that moment of fear and death. I deeply hold this truth.
What lingers for me are the woman’s words: “What you are telling me is that I cannot have hope, but I’m a Christian. I have hope God will heal him. Get out of here.” In that moment, sitting next to her, I realized that her hope was in an outcome, not in God. I also realized that we conflate these so often as to harm ourselves and others.
It’s not that she did not trust God—I want to be clear on this point. It’s that her hope in God was confused with her hope that her loved one would recover. Who among us has not had that mixed up? I still do. Not that long ago, a dear friend’s child was very ill in the hospital. It was hard to keep these two things clear in my body and soul as I prayed for that child to live!
The woman taught me a lesson about hope—my middle name—and how it is not rooted in outcomes but in creativity. Hope is a force that inspires us to believe, deeply, that what we see before us is not the end of the story. My father’s death was not the end of our love. My miscarriages and being told that our “parts won’t make a baby” did not keep my husband and I from parenting. My friend’s death did not stop—permanently—my heart from making friends, laughing, and delighting in art (something she excelled at). Walking away from evangelical expressions of religion did not keep me from finding the ever-expanding heart of Mother God.
I understand why any of us would like God to be in-charge of outcomes. We want cause and effect. If we act “good” we want good things to happen to us. We want, as my young child would say, “the bad guys to get theirs.” Jesus understood this when he spoke of the rain falling on the just and the unjust. (I love that guy!) I especially understand it when we have someone we love who is terribly sick or distressed and we pray, and pray, and pray. We want them to pull through. We want them to find healing. We want God to intervene.
Of course, we want God to intervene.
But what if instead of intervening directly—Be healed in the name of the Lord! healing—God works in a more gentle and quiet way? What if God whispers to the doctor, “Try this…” or to the person suffering addiction, “These folks here could help you, if you reach out…” What if God’s largest intervention is the way were made to be endlessly creative? What if how we reflect being made in the image of God is by being creative? What if that is the most essential part of God—the creative force of the universe?
This is what I believe: when we commit in the moments of our deepest blows that we can co-create with God meaning, new life, joy, and purpose we are filled with hope. When we can look around at the shards that cut and maim our spirits and bodies and say, “Mother God, when I’m ready, I’d like you to help me make a mosaic with this shit.” she always answers, “Of course, my darling. We will make something beautiful…eventually.”
I believe we always have the power to both grieve deeply and abandon our outcomes at the feet of God knowing we will survive and thrive no matter what this unfair and beautiful life throws at us.
Our hope is in the presence and goodness of God. God shows up. God loves us and wants to help us transform ourselves and our heartaches. God helps us to learn to live with. And living with…that is what the universe is all about. Stars are born. Planets evolve, and with destruction new life is created. The universe expands.
This idea—that I can learn to live with anything that happens because I have hope in God’s never-ending presence—is essential to me because it gets me out of bed in the morning. I’ve seen the very worst of humanity. I’ve seen what we do to one another, and I’ve seen the utter random terror that happens. I’ve been with all ages of people as they died. Some died beautifully. Some died brutally. I have a little girl. I know her life is not a guarantee. I still have moments when I wake up before her and wonder if she died in her sleep. The scrim between life and death is very thin for me. Maybe it is for you as well? Knowing that if anything happened to her, I would need to choose hope in that moment lets me open her door and kiss her sweet face.
Hope is my muscle memory. Hope is my church, religion, and faith. My hope is in God alone, not outcomes. I still pray for outcomes—I hold onto those divine whispers with everything I have. I also know they reside in me during my darkest hours.
I’m with you.
You are not alone.
We will make something beautiful with this…eventually.
I love you, dear daughter.
I don’t know what happened to that family. I’m sure they think of their beloved every anniversary of his death; I know I think of them so often. I pray they have found ways to be creative with his terrible loss. I pray that they have hope in God’s good creative force that never leaves us in the pit forever, but continually invites us to new life with whatever heartbreak we’ve faced.