Theology of Hope in Unlikely Places

The Seattle Times sports page has been running a campaign of hope in recent months, and I like to imagine that, in its own strange way, it is a theology of hope. Bare minimum, it is a valiant effort to combat hopelessness and an effort we in the church ought to join.

As many of you know, Tyler HIlinski, the WSU quarterback killed himself on January 18th, just three weeks after leading the Cougars in the Holiday Bowl. The Times did not blink from looking under the surface in this tragedy. A few weeks later, Sports editor Matt Caulkins wrote about the darkness of his own mental disorder and testified to the hope that therapy and medication gives him. On Good Friday, the paper gave four pages to NFL star Mark Rypien’s struggle with depression and anger clearly connected to taking so many hits on the grid iron. And, in the first week of Easter, the Times has told of more programs WSU has begun to encourage its student athletes to share what’s going on inside their souls.

This is commendable. Is this a Christian theology of hope? No. But whenever and wherever hopelessness is combated we can trust that Jesus is there. I want us to be there too.

I remember a phone call from a mother once, just as I was preparing dinner, who told me her 22 year old son, whose forehead I had anointed with oil at his Confirmation eight years earlier, had, early in the morning, hung himself in the garage. It wasn’t the first suicide I had encountered as a pastor nor the last, but it cut deep in our church, our neighborhood, and in me. William Styron, in his book Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, comments that “it is hopelessness even more than pain that crushes the soul.” Where can light make it in?

How do we bring this hope to those we love, work with, sit in class with who struggle with bouts of this despair and depression? Certainly, a right theology is key. 1 Peter 1:3 gives it: the resurrection of Jesus is the end of the reign of darkness. Hope, is not a past event, but something that breathes, that lives, that is always looking to break any cycle of despair or any pit of hopelessness. Finding windows to offer this “good news” to the despairing may be thorny, but can we not bring it in our own friendship and solidarity?

And what would this solidarity of hope look like? Styron was helpful to me. One of the deacons at my first church, a second grade teacher, wife and mother of a 4th grader gave me Styron’s book after two suicide attempts and said, “This is what it’s like.” Styron, a novelist best known for penning Sophie’s Choice, gave me two gifts in making his own darkness visible.

First, in vivid language, he helped me to see just how really dark life feels for those in serious depressive episodes. It is suffocating and to end life can seem like the only hope of light. This is so strange for those who have never entered this pit. But for those in the abyss, suicide can seem like a solid coping mechanism. There is no silver lining. A better angle for vision is unavailable. And this hopelessness crushes. 

Second, Styron becomes a prophet to those of us whose spouse, child, parent, or friend cannot see light. Nearly everyone survives these bouts and live healthy lives. Those suffering a siege must “be told – be convinced rather – that the illness will run its course and that they will pull through. A tough job, this calling “chin up!” from the safety of the shore to a drowning person is tantamount to insult, but it has been shown over and over again that if the encouragement is dogged enough… the endangered one can nearly always be saved.” We must be zealous in our persuasion. 

And what to say to those of you in a siege now? Hear us from the shore. Hear me. We know you can’t see the light. Jesus is still on the cross for you. But trust us. Trust the countless people on Sunday who never skip their medication after their own battles with the hole and those of us who’ve seen loved ones come out. Trust us. There is hope. Slog through. Live long enough until you see that he’s not on the cross anymore, but is a living hope. 

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