When I was in the fourth grade my teacher, Mr. VanNostran, asked us to write our own definition of the word “hope.” I don’t remember the occasion or the context for the assignment; I don’t even remember what I wrote. But I do remember that a few days later, Mr. Van (as we called him) read aloud another student’s definition. The boy, whose name was Paul, was absent that day, and Mr. Van took the opportunity, I think, to teach the rest of us something about ourselves, something about the world, and something about the word “hope.”
Paul was a nice kid—he was quiet and he was poor. Living as we did in rural West Virginia, none of us in that class of fourth graders came from wealthy families. Most of us came from similar economic backgrounds. We were all of modest means—some a little better off than others, maybe, but not markedly so.
But even in places like Appalachia, and especially in places like elementary, middle, and high schools, there are fixed systems of order and rank, based mostly on privilege and popularity. And Paul was not popular. His family was not privileged—at least not in the sense of having the security and advantages that come with money. I don’t remember that Paul was ever mistreated, but I know now with the wisdom that comes with age, that children can be cruel, even when they don’t mean to be, and that sometimes what is most cruel is the indifference with which we regard those around us. We were indifferent to Paul—not overtly unkind, but nonetheless uninterested and unconcerned.
And so I remember to this day Paul’s definition or explanation of the word “hope,” read aloud by a visibly moved Mr. VanNostran, sometime during the school year of 1972: “I hope someone needs me.”
I remember the silence with which we greeted those words. And it wasn’t that Mr. Van gave us a lecture about how each of us should be a better friend to Paul; about how we needed to notice people like Paul who are often invisible in a social world where being cool is the pinnacle of achievement. He didn’t preach to us about the shallowness of giggly fourth-grade girls that would only intensify as we headed toward junior high and high school. He didn’t have to say any of that. Paul’s words had moved us, too. “I hope someone needs me.”
As I’ve thought about that experience off and on through the years, I’ve come to believe that true hope is ultimately about the deepest longing each of us has for community, communion, connection. Christian hope is not wishful thinking; it is not cross-your-fingers optimism. It is, instead, an abiding trust in the good news that God seeks our good, even as God desires fellowship with us.
Our hope as Christians is that we are moving ever more closely toward that communion with God for which we were created, a being-in-relationship that is realized (imperfectly) here and now as we are Christ’s body in a broken world.
Advent/Christmas/Epiphany are seasons of hope: Hope that we will once again embrace the scandal of the incarnation, the first advent; hope that we will be found faithful at the second advent; and hope that we will live true to the call of Christ in the meantime. But hope is not sentimental, and God forgive us for the many ways we sentimentalize Advent and Christmas and the gospel itself.
“I hope someone needs me.” The great good news of the gospel is that God needs us—not in order to be God, but so that God’s purposes might be worked out; so that all might be brought into the joy of communion with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, where genuine love, lasting peace, and enduring hope abide. Now and forever.