Groans of Hope

“Let’s just take a cab.” That’s when I first suspected that my son was on his way. It was a Sunday evening in mid-March, a little more than fifteen years ago, and my wife Tammy and I were emerging from a theater where we had just seen a play. We were living in New York City, so we didn’t own a car, and we had arrived at the theater a few hours earlier by taking a subway and then walking four long cross-town blocks over to the off-Broadway theater where the show was taking place.

And that was how we almost always got around in New York City; Tammy is very thrifty and was almost never willing to spring for a cab, even when nine months pregnant, even earlier that night, knowing it was a long walk to the theater and she had been feeling “off” all day. But now, standing out on the blustery corner and looking at the long walk sloping upward towards the glow of Times Square about half a mile away, she walked maybe a quarter of the first block, stopped, and said, “let’s just take a cab.”

I looked at her for a moment, but she appeared to want to play it cool, so I simply agreed, hailed a cab, and we rode back uptown to our apartment, where she lay down on the couch. “My stomach has been cramping, but it stopped now,” she said. I cocked an eyebrow and looked at her. Neither one of us was quite willing to state the obvious yet, so I glanced at my watch, and noted the time. “Well, tell me if it happens again,” I said, and started cleaning the bathroom just to have something useful to do.

About ten minutes later, I heard her voice: “it’s cramping again.” That happened again, and again, and pretty soon it was nine minutes in between; then eight. I finally said, “You know, for stomach cramps these are coming very regularly, and at shorter intervals.” “I know,” she replied, having already picked up the phone to call her OB/GYN. We got to the hospital around 12:30 a.m., the contractions continued to get closer and closer together, the doctor said it was time to start pushing, and Liam was born just before 6 a.m.

There are few things I can think of that are as inevitable as childbirth once true, active labor begins. How long labor may last, or how difficult it may be, are extremely variable from one mother to another, even from one child to another with the same mother. But once labor begins, childbirth is going to happen. That’s the dimension that we often miss here in the eighth chapter of Romans that I just read, when Paul describes this evocative image of creation groaning in labor pains: the inevitability of birth.

But we miss it because Christians often skip past this whole section to the final verses of the chapter, which are among the most inspiring in the whole Bible, as Paul asserts: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

These are verses that appear on inspirational posters and Christian memes; they show up regularly in funerals and memorials services, when we are especially hungry for inspiration and hope. I myself am notoriously unwilling to pick favorites in almost any category, but those two verses would almost certainly be in my top five favorite Bible passages.

And they have been verses that have been especially resonant for me these past six weeks as our lives have been defined by dynamics of separation. Like (presumably) all of you, we have spent most of the past six weeks or so inside our house here in Bethlehem, aside from going outside for exercise and my coming here on Sunday mornings. Even shopping for essential items is usually done by delivery or curbside pick-up, so we’ve very rarely been out among other people.

But last weekend, my family went for a walk in the Trexler Nature Preserve after worship on Sunday. And at the Nature Preserve, out in the beauty of the woods and hills and streams of that place, it was particularly jarring to see other hikers in masks and mirroring our movements to the side of the trail to maintain at least a six-foot distance between them and us. And it was even worse when they did not: when people ploughed right down the center of the trail, often without masks, so we had to literally step off into the brush to avoid coming near them, scowling at them under our own masks. Because right now, we are in a situation where separation from others is not only necessary, but an act of basic human decency. To refuse to separate, to create distance from one another, is to threaten the other’s health and well-being.

But that doesn’t mean separation is what we want. This is hard, and it’s growing harder as time goes on, as days and weeks blur together. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure the second half of March had about 200 days in it, and April has had at least that many. Those who are directly involved in responding to the pandemic, whether healthcare workers or first responders or essential service providers, are living with a bizarre and relentless combination of exhaustion and anxiety over what they’re being exposed to on a daily basis, and what they have to go through to try and protect themselves on the job, and their families once they get home.

And the rest of us are worn out from the new routines of decontamination, from spending hour after hour in videoconferences for work or school, from sitting alone in our homes, from calculating how much food or toilet paper we have left before we have to risk a trip to the store or order an online delivery that you hope will have at least half of what you’re trying to get. And the recent ugly turn in the national conversation has made things even more difficult. Where even just a week or two ago there was a sense that, despite widely varying circumstances, on some basic level we were all in this together, now it feels like there is a growing separation, distance, division between us as a people on what, or even who, we should sacrifice to ensure the well-being of our society.

So with all this swirling around like smoke from a wildfire surrounding us, I was reading the final two verses from Paul in the eighth chapter of his letter to the Romans once again this week, because they are among my favorite verses in Scripture and bring me comfort and hope in times like this. And, as I and many people usually do, I skipped the rest of the chapter to go straight to them. And as I did so, I noticed that the subject of this whole soaring inspirational statement, the literal grammatical subject of it, is “I,” meaning the Apostle Paul, the author. These verses are an elaboration of Paul’s own conviction: “For I am convinced that….[nothing] in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

And the trouble with that is, it is very, very hard to hold onto someone else’s conviction in times of great exhaustion and anxiety; it’s hard enough to hold onto our own convictions in such circumstances, and sometimes it feels like we just can’t: we’re too tired, too scared, too sad, too angry, too overwhelmed. So the fact that Paul is convinced can suddenly feel not quite as powerful and inspiring as those of us who love these verses so much are used to.

Which is why it’s important not to skip the verses from our lesson today, as we so often do to get to that Scriptural crescendo of hope at the end. Because skipping to the end makes us forget that this declaration of hope begins in groaning: the groaning of creation itself in labor pains, and we ourselves groaning inwardly while we wait.

And I think we need to both notice and stop there for a moment in appreciation that Paul is talking about responding to the hardship and brokenness of this world not with indifference, not with some saccharine positive spin to try and convince us to feel better, but with groaning: wordless utterances of pain and sorrow and grief. Groaning here is not a lack of Christian faith, it is an expression of it, because it is giving voice to the very brokenness of the world that God sent Christ into the world to heal; it is joining our voices with the voice of the Holy Spirit, who does not simply “sigh” as our translation strangely puts it, but groans; Paul uses the same word for the Spirit that he does for us and the world, even as it intercedes for us.

And so hope is born not in the absence of pain and brokenness, not even in spite of it, but in its very midst, because only truth can give birth to hope. And the truth is that pain and sorrow and grief are real; but the truth is also that they are not the only things or even the most powerful things that are real. That is the fundamental truth, the most elemental hope, of the Christian gospel. As we just heard once again through Holy Week and Easter, Christ experienced the full power of human pain and death, but it is not the cross that gets the last word, it is the empty tomb; it is not pain and sorrow and grief, but love and light and life. Not because Paul is convinced it is true, but because in and through Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection, hope is born like a mother gives birth in labor: messy, painful and even scary at times, and accompanied by deep groans, but utterly inevitable even when, in the moment, it seems like it will never come.

And as anybody who has had a child can tell you, there is no going “back to normal” once the long-awaited baby is born; life is forever changed as a result. But that’s the whole point. Hope does not return things to the way they were before it was born; hope changes the world that have been groaning in labor pains until now into what it was always intended to be, and us along with it.

Not all at once, of course, any more than a mother gives birth to a fully grown adult as their child, which is why the empty tomb on Easter is not the end of the story, but the beginning of a new chapter in which Jesus’ followers, then and now, learn the good news that we do not need to find hope somewhere within ourselves, because in Jesus Christ, hope has already found us, and there is nothing in heaven or in earth that can stop that from happening, that can separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ; it is inevitable. And so the question for us is not where do we find hope, but how do we respond to it finding us? And I think the answer is that hope in Christ is not given to us as a possession, but as a resource; it is something we are intended to share, not to keep.

And, ironically, when we find our grip on hope loosening, the best way to maintain hope and receive more is to give it away, to share it with others. I was talking to a friend of mine who lives in New York City earlier this week, and she paused in the middle of the conversation to go out on her balcony because it was 7 pm, and New Yorkers have been stopping whatever they are doing at 7 pm for weeks now, and going to their windows or balconies or stoops to give an ovation to the essential workers who are risking so much in such difficult circumstances to keep others safe. When she came back, she reflected on how it began.

“The first night it was supposed to happen, I stepped out and didn’t see or hear anybody, because my building faces the back of others, and everything is dark and muffled. So at first I felt like I was just clapping into the void. But once I started, I realized I could hear someone else, so I kept going, and then I heard more, and pretty soon it was everywhere.” And as we talked, she noted that the ovation itself is supposed to be about thanking and encouraging the essential workers, but it has ended up inspiring the people offering it every night, as well, giving them a sense of power and purpose that they did not have before.

So if you are finding yourself groaning these days, you don’t need to stop. In fact, you shouldn’t, because there is much to faithfully groan about these days. But as you groan, groan in hope. Because hope in Christ, like love, is never something that we simply generate within ourselves; it’s always something that is shared, something that brings us together precisely because we receive it by giving and give it by receiving; it’s never fully from us or for us, because it always comes to us as a gift. So all you have to do is to start sharing with a kind word or act, a card or call, a Facebook post or a round of applause, anything that offers hope to someone else. And as you do, you will find that hope comes inevitably to you, not just from you, because it always, in the end, comes from God.

 

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