A few days ago, I spent a scholarly hour researching a medicine before going to bed. It was late and I was already tired, but I had a burning passion in my heart. I had been scouring the patent and medical literature on a cancer medicine which has the potential to make Johanna better. This is not the first time I’ve done this. Not even close. I often lie awake before bed, dreaming of a day when Johanna feels better, wishing with all my heart that her body would work again, that her pain would dissipate, that there would be relief. It’s a hope I’ve had since the beginning of her illness. A hope that prompts me to relentlessly search for answers. I’ve yet to find these answers and my research a few days ago fared no better. The specific medicine I looked up had recently become generic, and I had hoped to find a pure form of it, free from inactive ingredients which could seriously endanger Johanna. Alas, the only generic options were pills, just like the name brand variety. It was another dead end. A closed door. A dashed hope.
I’ve had a lot of dashed hopes. I try not to think about them, but memories of them come anyway. They wash up in my consciousness like small, rhythmic waves on a seashore, reminding me of the violently churning waters of my life. I see the marriage I wanted, one without the extreme limitations brought by a nefarious form of Mast Cell Activation Syndrome. I can no longer share many simple, everyday expressions of spousal love with Johanna. I cannot hold her hands, hug, or kiss her. To be close to her is to endanger her. I must wear a mask around my wife, slowing the spreading of germs, so as not to make her feel sick. I cannot put my arms around her when she weeps. I cannot have her lay her head on my shoulder when she is exhausted and tired from her suffering. She sleeps alone at night, as I do upstairs. This is not what I wanted for my marriage.
I see the job I had, teaching at a school I loved, with students I loved, interacting with families I loved. I clung to my job as a source of income, insurance, joy, and vocational fulfillment. I did not see the storm clouds brewing, portending my job’s end, nor did I want to see them. Nevertheless, on a December afternoon, after I learned Johanna’s brothers could no longer care for her, I quit my job. I taught for another week and walked out of my classroom. For months I couldn’t even talk about it. I was a walking nettle, stinging whoever churned my memories of teaching. I wanted to push them out of my mind. I thought, ‘Why linger on memories of it? It will only make things worse.’ I was in denial about my brokenness and anger. Losing my job had thrown me into churning waters and left me washed up, soaked and wounded. I wanted to drag myself up like nothing had happened, but the wounds were obvious to everyone who knew me.
Like a true tidal wave, these dashed hopes are crushing. I grow weary thinking about them. What will the future hold for me? Do more disasters await? Questions swirl in my mind as I reflect on these dashed hopes. It is in these beaten down places, the places where the bottom of life has fallen out, where I cry out to God.
I waited patiently for the Lord;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the pit of destruction,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure. Psalm 40:1-2
I’m clinging to these verses, reminding myself that my dashed hopes do not have the final word. I will not be waylaid by the churning waters of life. I have hope that God will set my feet on the rock of his unfailing love. I am working on this hope each day, practicing it. I never thought hope could be practiced, but our circumstances have been showing me otherwise. Each day I have a choice to believe that God will strengthen me, filling me with patience and joy as I wait for Him to return and make all things new. Hope is like a muscle. It goes through stress and injury and strengthens with practice. I was reminded of this recently, when I listened to a book about the Apostle Paul by NT Wright. He writes,
The optimist looks at the world and feels good about the way it’s going. Things are looking up. Everything is going to be alright. But hope, at least as conceived within the Jewish and the early Christian world, was quite different. Hope could be, and often was, a dogged and deliberate choice when the world seemed dark. It depended not on a feeling about the way things were or the way they were moving, but on faith. Faith in the One God. This God had made the world. This God had called Israel to be His people. The scriptures, not least the Psalms, had made it clear that this God could be trusted to sort things out in the end, to be true to his promises, to vindicate his people at last-even if it had to be on the other side of terrible suffering. Hope in this sense is not a feeling-it is a virtue. You have to practice it like a difficult piece on a violin or a tricky shot at tennis. You practice the virtue of hope through worship and prayer.
Though I feel like a waterlogged seafarer, tossed and crushed by the waves, thrown barely conscious on the seashore, I have hope. It’s not a perfect hope, but a hope that is being exercised and working itself out. A hope that places the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus at the center. A hope that looks ahead and sees the day when everything is made new. There will be no dashed hopes there.