Hope isn’t some optional add-on to life. To flourish, we need hope. Desperate hope, hope against hope, hope in the face of hopelessness, is the narrow path of life for human beings on the way.
Without hope, without some expectation or drive for the future, we are imprisoned in the present. Hope is decision to move into the future, imagining a “way out of what constrains and threatens to engulf or imprison us into a brighter alternative” (Bauckham and Hart). When we imagine a hoped-for future, we envision another state than the present; hope broadens the landscape of vision and allows us to transcend the apparent absoluteness of the present.
To have flourishing communities, we need to be communities of hope. And to be a community of hope we need to nurture hope. How do we do that?
Hope is nourished by memory. This may seem paradoxical. Memory reaches back to things that have been. Hope reaches forward to things that are not yet. Memory gazes on things that were once seen; hope searches for things that are not yet seen. Despite the apparent tension, the two feed on one another. A rich memory stokes hope.
We can see this in some elderly folk, though not all. My father is the old man I knew best. He took things in stride, was hopeful in every circumstance, assured that things would work out. His calm was largely a product of memory. He had experienced trials of various sorts, and had survived them. He knew that trials produce proven character, and proven character produces hope. Without that memory, every crisis seems like the end of the world.
But it’s not just individual memory. It’s collective memory. My father passed on his calm by passing on some of his memories. But collective memories can exist not only in people, but in institutions, rituals, books, myths, stories, songs. Moses motivates Israel for the conquest by reminding them about what Yahweh did to Egypt. Memory of Egypt was the motivation for keeping Sabbath (Deut 5:15). Israel isn't to fear the Canaanites because they could remember what Yahweh did to Pharaoh (7:18). They shouldn’t fear deprivation because they can remember what God did for them in the wilderness (Deut 8:2). They should refrain from sin because they remember what God did when they sinned in the wilderness (Deut 9:7). Memory fed hope for Israel’s conquest. Once the living memory faded, Israel had written records, annual festivals, monuments, and institutions to remind them.
We live in a frantic, panicky society. We lack hope for the future. But one reason we lack hope is our vanishingly short historical memory. We can’t even remember last week’s headlines – I’m sure they were about some crisis or other – much less the long sweep of history. The churches don’t help, because churches often have an attention span and historical memory as short as anyone’s.
We’ve put ourselves in quite the squeeze. We have no historical memory. Our future hopes are also vanishingly short. We want results now. So we’re left with the present, but the present is nothing, unless it’s stretched out by memory and toward long-term hopes. We cannot love or enjoy the present without the past and future. And so all we have is the immediate moment, without memory of how things used to be and without expectation beyond the immediate horizon. No wonder we’re panicky.
To combat the panic, hope. And to hope, remember. Remember to hope.
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