Monday, October 20, 2014

When Hope Seems Hopeless

Today's guest is April Fiet. She is also part of my online community and I am honored to call her my friend. She encourages and challenges me with her writing. I love how she takes you on her journey of hope and the wrestling with it, and how that has played out in her life.

It feels wrong to write about hope while you are in the darkness of grief.

After all, hope is a sunny optimism, is it not?

When I was a young child, probably around the age of 7 or so, if you had asked me what hope meant, I probably would have told you that it meant being happy no matter what. I would have given you a definition that better suited the word "optimism" than the word "hope." Having grown up in church my entire life, I had internalized songs about joy, songs about praise. I heard stories about the triumph of good over evil. And, somehow, I assimilated this idea that Christians were to be filled with happiness all of the time.

After all, we were a people of hope. And hope does not disappoint.

The problem with this kind of hope is that it begins with the premise that things are already as they should be. This kind of view is more in line with the philosophical category of optimism that already believes the world is at its best. Optimism sees the best in every situation. Optimism is different from hope.

But in my juvenile understanding of hope, I equated hope with optimism. I believed that being a person of hope meant always having a smile on my face. I thought that times of sadness were sinful. That suffering was just a lack of perspective - not that I had never suffered. I had. I had been hurt. Deeply. I knew that the world was not at its best. I wanted to hope, but I did not know how. And, as I grew, (both in years and in my faith), I came to realize that hope was something completely other than optimism, though I did not know how to define it. Hope was something intangible, but hope was also something real.

I grappled with what it might mean to be a person of hope, but I did not know how to live it out. Perhaps I would recognize hope when I saw it.

And then this past summer, I heard someone define hope as, "Believing in something enough to do something about it." Hope did not mean that the world was already at its best. It did not mean plastering a smile on over my pain and broken-heartedness. It meant acknowledging the suffering, and believing in a better reality enough to do something about it. Hope was both intangible and active. Hope was somehow both a present reality and a future longing. In some mysterious way, hope was able to coexist with suffering and sadness.

Hope is the expectation of something better, the longing for the better to become a reality. Hope is believing in something enough to do something about it.

This kind of hope - a hope that is far more than naive optimism - not only is capable of co-existing with suffering, but it in some way also works to overcome it. Hope is not a passive optimism; it is an active pursuit.

But, what about those times when you can't seem to work toward the better you are longing for? What about those times when the darkness is so thick and palpable that you feel trapped by it, unable to move?

Sometimes the most active hope we can muster is picking up the phone and asking someone to help us - a family member, a friend, a therapist. And for darkness and despair that is more than simple sadness, sometimes this is the best way we can hope.

For me, at this moment in time, the darkness in my life comes from deep loss. Quite recently we lost a close family member to aggressive cancer. And the grief during times of profound loss brings the urgency of a renewed and healed world to the forefront. We need a Savior, and the darkness of grief makes that need both so apparent, and so hard to trust in.

Darkness and pain can make hope seem impossible.

Any remnant of optimism is shattered. Clearly, the world is not at its best. And the triumphant and active pursuit of hope seems more that my weary heart is capable of. Hope can still live in places like these - in those places of our lives that seem the most arid and hopeless. Sometimes our sorrow is the most appropriate form of protest. We weep because the world is not at its best. Our tears are the voice of one crying out in the wilderness. Our broken hearts point the way toward the future reality in which every tear will be dried, and death will be no more.

Hope is faith with its boots on the ground - both in the moments of profound joy, and in the moments of deep pain.

Hope is believing in something enough to do something about it, even if the only thing we can do is weep.

April has served as a co-pastor with her husband Jeff for 7 years. They are raising two fantastic, school-age children, which keeps life fresh, fun, and a bit chaotic at times. April enjoys running (at a snail's pace), karate, baking bread, reading (theology and children's books), crocheting, and taking pictures of nearly everything. You can connect with April on her blog, At the Table with April Fiet and on Twitter.

Hell, Hope and the Near Death of Mr. Cuddles

Today's guest is Kenny Pierce. He is an online friend who has spoken truth and encouragement into my life. We relate well to each other probably because we are the 'old folks' in our online community! He continually reminds me that our voices are important and our stories need to be shared.

Hell has a sign plastered beside its door: "Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch'intrate"

I read that once in a work by Italian poet Dante Alghieri. Those words of his appeared in the first of the 3 books of his Divine Comedy - the "Inferno" (Italian for "Hell") in the 14th century. The words of seduction, bidding us to enter its abyss:

"Abandon all hope, ye who enter here."

Hell. The first thing that you do when you enter, before you take off your shoes, your gloves, your coat.

Hell. when you cross its threshold, the first thing that you're told to do is leave all hope behind.

I've abandoned hope, and I've walked its streets, barely clinging to my own sanity. So many times. I've followed the instructions as I passed through its gates, to descend into that void.

Hell. Many have described it as a realm of lakes of fire and screaming souls. Gnashing teeth and the lilke. My Baltimore catechism painted that image of it beautifully for me in my formative years. In no uncertain terms, I knew it in the womb, and onward.

Hell. As a spectator in this world, you can watch it, available 24/7, on cable, over the air, and on social media.

Images of bombs dropped on a village of innocents. Those screaming souls, cries of agony. Laughing demons that keep those in agony there. Those who've abandoned all hope long ago.

I walk the streets of Hell on a daily basis. I walked it in my youth as a taunted and bullied gay kid. I walked it as a young adult, watching a plague called "AIDS" decimate my gay brothers all around me.

I walked through Hell's side roads of muggings, gay bashings, alcoholism, anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation.

And I walked through the worst kind of Hell. I turned away from the light of a God who I thought wanted nothing to do with me. I was sent to that corner of Hades by a Church that weaned me as a child, only to reject its own.

I've been to Hell and back, many times.

Hell. Dante spoke of it in terms of circles. Degrees of agony, or darkness, as you moved further from the light. That spear piercing your soul as the distance between you and the source of all goodness grows. When the gulf of darkness swallows you slowly.

Hell. It's quite obvious, when you're trapped in that realm. You knew it when you crossed its gates and saw the sign. Hope was no option. You sold your soul already. You sold it when you handed your ticket to the gatekeeper. When you gave him all of the hope you had left.

Hell. You are in a place where a fire so dark, so intense rages that it destroys you from inside. You scream and beg for respite but it will not let go. Will not stop. And as it burns, as it destroys its host, it will not grow weak, will never be reduced to embers. It feeds on itself, on you.

As your hope fades, hell only grows stronger. There is always another circle in hell that can be created, farther from the light. The fire lives and breathes yet you cannot see it. You feel it, and know that to claw your way out of its grasp demands that you defy the words at the gates of the place where an eternity of despair and pain began.

To leave this place of darkness requires that you recreate the one thing that the fires in the dark devour. You must pick up the shards of hope, now reduced to ashes. Though they be destroyed, you must hold on to that which you lost.

You must wish for the miracle of being whole again. Nearly impossible when you can barely think through the pain, rationalize through the insanity.

Hell. To escape its clutches and hope again requires nothing less than a miracle.


She didn't want him to die.

She'd adopted a hamster and I helped her decide which one to pick out a few months ago. Oh, she struggled with the decision. What to buy him, where to put him. What would he want to eat. What bed to put him in and whether he could possibly catch what took away her other baby.

Her most important task, however, was figuring out what to call him. Now THAT would be a major dilemma (so I thought).

"Ok, Sophie, take the nicest thing you can think of. Right this second. The first word that comes to your brain, and add 'Mr.' in front of the name for him."

"Mr. Cuddles! Ohh, I love him so much already! That's perfect!"

I'm like an uncle to Sophie and her sister. Her mom will send photos of her doing her flips and turns at gymnastics. She'll send photos of Sophie and her sister chilling and scrolling on their iPads.

But best of all are the pictures that result from Sophie's Mr. Cuddles selfie sessions. That camera of hers aimed at his smiling hamster face for the world to see as she passes them along. And they're always followed by smiley emoticon faces, laughing themselves to tears.

I love that.

But today was different.

Today's face didn't have a smile as the message came through from Sophie. Tears were streaming down the face of the emoticon on the message. In fact, she sent 3 faces with tears covering them. In a row. This was bad.

"I have terrible news. It's about Mr. Cuddles. He's sick. I think that he died. I think he died of old age."

A couple of other tear-streamed faces followed. She was speaking of the hamster who was quivering and cold in the past tense. You could just feel the agony from the little girl, sending messages and probably hoping for a miracle in the face of what was happening in front of her.

"Abandon all hope, ye who enter here."

No. Sophie needed to stop speaking of him as if he was dead. She was handing that ticket to the gatekeeper. About to walk into the dark place, but she messaged me. Told her mom what was happening. She hadn't completely handed the ticket over. Yet.

So I learned all sorts of interesting things about hamsters. One being that they don't deal well with cold.
At all. They go into hibernation and have to be brought out of it. They exhaust food stores that were never created if cold triggers that reaction. He'd run, hadn't eaten enough, and was in shock.

Sophie had to leave for practice so she passed Mr. Cuddles off to her skeptical mom. Over FaceTime, I coached Liz on how to care for the hamster; feeding him and keeping him warm. Reluctantly, she wrapped Mr. Cuddles in an old towel and cradled him against her chest. Certain this wasn't going to end well and dreading Sophie coming home.

The eulogy was prepared and being delivered a couple of hours earlier. Hope was all but relinquished. But when Sophie got home, he was staring at her, ready and waiting for his next round of selfies.


Google can be a friend when you need it, I find. Or maybe what it contains. Someone else's fears, experience and wisdom. Their near loss of hope and their recovery. How we get ourselves out of the pit of despair. Often we see our own plight, a way out, in someone else's story.


Those were the words that stayed with me.

I'd said the same, so often, about my father, about my grandmother, about lost friendships, bitter quarrels. I'd abandoned hope so many times, and walked through the darkest places in its absence, and from the mouth of an 11 year old girl, I was reminded of the one thing that made coming out of that place possible.


Mr. Cuddles, I'm happy to report, is doing beautifully.

Sophie has gone back to her daily routine, knowing that her buddy is alive, well, and going about his regular wheel running, treat chomping, and camera mugging. She's probably a little wiser to the ways of hamsters, hibernation and what it is to love. She's 11 and has much more to learn about that most important lesson.

It was an important first step when she'd given up hope.

When asked to write a piece on hope, I agreed, but then pondered it, and procrastinated. I had no idea, if truth be told, what to say. So much I've seen lately, personally, on the news, all around me has been dark. I've struggled in my own past with loss, with depression, anxiety, substance abuse, bullying, and the list goes on.

I wanted to write the great opus on hope, with little to offer in the way of words available to me.

This is a simplistic rendering, I realize. A happy ending in a world where hope doesn't result in happy endings. Where hamsters die, people are murdered, children abducted, families in lands near and far destroyed by disease, war, famine, hatred. Where hope is a luxury available to few. Some hang on to it for dear life, when all is lost and they suffer horrifically. Have lost horrifically.

Hope is a ticket that is so readily handed to the gatekeeper. And who can blame any of us for abandoning it? The world demands it daily of us at its gates.

I don't have the anwers. For my own level of hope ebbs and flows as I go about my own way.

I don't often know how to move forward, as was the case with this topic, this piece. But I do know that the story of a hamster, brought back to life when we thought him all but dead, came out of nowhere, when I needed to believe, to find hope most.

There is a verse cited often as being among the most beautiful passages in the New Testament. I first learned it in a Catholic song I loved as a kid, called "Charity." I learned it before I'd ever read a word of scripture.

And now these three remain:
Faith, hope, love.
And the greatest of these is love.
1 Corinthians 3:13

A little girl loved her pet too much to let it go yet, but was giving up hope. And I love that little girl too much to not try to help, to do something - whatever I could to try to keep her friend alive. Or to be right there to help her pick up the pieces.

"Abandon all hope" in a place defined by a poet and by generations to follow for its lack of it.

Perhaps Dante had the nature of Hell right. The lack of hope.

Perhaps love, as Paul described it, as the greatest of the three, makes the other two possible. Our great ticket out of the Hell in which we find ourselves as we walk in this world.

Perhaps I needed to be reminded, in the simplest terms, when I struggled most, that our greatest power lies in our ability to love one another. To lift each other out of the gutter back to that place of grace. I've been afforded this over and over in my time in this world.

At the risk of sounding like a Hallmark card, I believe it to be true. The abandonment of hope isn't final. I don't believe that destiny - even when mired in it - to be set in stone. We're reminded that there is something greater than the despair that follows hopelessness.

We're reminded that love always wins.

Kenny Pierce, a Mexican American native of Southern California, came out as a gay man in 1985 at the age of 21. Having walked away from the Catholic Church when he came out, most of his adult years were spent outside of any faith community. His early adulthood was colored by struggles with HIV, anxiety, depression, alcoholism and PTSD resulting from being a victim of violent assaults. Most of his advocacy is rooted in the horrors of the AIDS plague that played out around him in those early years. It was by way of recovery and Alcoholics Anonymous that he found his way back to a faith that demands we build God's kingdom on earth here and now, by our loving compassion for one another. You can connect with Kenny on Twitter and on his blog, Tangentials.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Out of the Dust

This is for those of us who are waiting for hope to show up. For those of us who feel overwhelmed by the pain in this life. For those of us who wonder if we will ever find our way out of the chaos. For those of us who see no way to retrieve what was lost. For those of us who wonder if anything beautiful can be made out of the dust...

Beautiful Things

All this pain
I wonder if I'll ever find my way
I wonder if my life could really change at all
All this earth
Could all that is lost ever be found
Could a garden come up from this ground at all

You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us

All around
Hope is springing up from this old ground
Out of chaos life is being found in you

You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us

You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us

You make me new, You are making me new
You make me new, You are making me new

You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us

Monday, October 13, 2014

When Hope is a Four-Letter Word

Today's guest is Stephen R. Lewis. I first met Stephen earlier this year on Twitter. He was gracious enough to comment on "Tu Me Manques", sharing his love of music with me by posting a link to a song that complimented that post beautifully. He has since been incredibly supportive and encouraging to me in my life and my writing because he takes the time to actually notice. A rare thing, especially in our online world. I've come to appreciate his friendship a great deal. 

Sometimes hope is a four-letter word.
When words recklessly wound - knives piercing the soul.
When they sting and burn - acid etching the soul.
When they explode and fragment - shrapnel shredding the soul.

Yes. Sometimes hope is a four-letter word.

When words are empty and void - betraying the pain.
When they deepen the darkness - distilling the pain.
When they deny the truth - deflecting the pain.
Hope is a four-letter word.

When it tells us,
we have not done enough,
prayed enough,
believed enough,
repented enough,
enough is enough!
Hope is a four-letter word.

If hope is to be more than a four-letter word,
I must enter your darkness, present and listening.
Sitting and walking, leading and holding.
You and me - in community.

Sometimes, hope is more than a four-letter word.

Musical note: I know of no artists who wrestle more honestly with hope and the reality of life than Over the Rhine (start with The Long Surrender) and Rich Mullins.

A well-caffeinated communications, book, and freelance editor, occasional writer, and sometimes critical thinker, Stephen R. Lewis grew up in six countries on three continents and yet finds himself inexplicably living in Indiana. His life has been and inept pursuit of God and grace for himself and for others. Follow him on Twitter @stphnrlws.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Don't Give Up

They say that music is the universal language. I believe that to be true. I also believe that music is the language that speaks to the soul. I know for me, when words alone fail, music has a way of reaching those dark places in my heart. I love how a song, more than anything else, can reach those wounded places and bring hope and healing. This is one of those songs for me. 

I want you to know you are not alone...

Don't Give Up
Peter Gabriel

In this proud land we grew up strong
We were wanted all along
I was taught to fight, taught to win
I never thought I could fail

No fight left or so it seems
I am a man whose dreams have all deserted
I've changed my face, I've changed my name
But no one wants you when you lose

Don't give up
'Cause you have friends
Don't give up
You're not beaten yet
Don't give up
I know you can make it good

Though I saw it all around
Never thought I could be affected
Thought that we'd be the last to go
It is so strange the way things turn

Drove the night toward my home
The place where I was born, on the lakeside
As daylight broke, I saw the earth
The trees had burned down to the ground

Rest your head
You worry too much
It's gonna be alright
When times get tough
You can fall back on us
Don't give up
Please don't give up

Got to walk out of here
I can't take it anymore
Going to stand on that bridge
Keep my eyes down below
Whatever may come
And whatever may go
That river's flowing
That river's flowing

Moved on to another town
Tried hard to settle down
For every job, so many men
So many men no one needs

Don't give up
'Cause you have friends
Don't give up 
You're not the only one
Don't give up
No reason to be ashamed
Don't give up
You still have us
Don't give up now
We're proud of who you are
Don't give up
You know it's never been easy
Don't give up
'Cause I believe there's a place
There's a place where we belong

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Hope in the Uncertainty

Today's guest is Chris Roe. His is the first post in the series, "Finding Hope in Our Stories". He has been a friend of my husband's for many years and has become a friend to me in the last few. He is one of those friends who's not afraid to speak truth into my life, even when its the hard, ugly truth! The truth I need to hear. I love his honesty here in searching for hope in the uncertainty of life.

I have a dear friend lying in a hospital bed battling for every breath. Cystic fibrosis has robbed him, at the age of forty-two, of the ability to breathe on his own. I HOPE he doesn't die...but he's probably going to pretty soon. He's fought valiantly, and I HOPE God will turn it around.

I have two kids, a six-year old son and a four-year old daughter. I HOPE they grow up into healthy, smart, well-adjusted, God-loving adults. I HOPE that they choose life-giving relationships in friends and partners.

I have a wife who is awesome. I HOPE we grow really old together and love each other fiercely until we die.

I run a ministry. I HOPE it makes an impact in the lives of  people.

I run a business. I HOPE it is profitable.

And I don't know if any of it will come to pass.

I am sad that my friend is dying. I am nervous that my kids will be affected by the brokenness of our world, and especially my own in such a way that it interferes with what I HOPE for them. I am sometimes unsure of my lovableness (is that a word?) and try hard to prove myself to be worthy of my wife's awesomeness. I guess, we should call that insecurity.

Most days I would much rather have assurances than hope. Guaranteed outcomes that involve the least amount of pain or even discomfort. And I'm not even going to try to tell you that what I really want is HOPE in the uncertainty.

I want certainty.

But I am not going to get it. Neither are you. That's not the way this big fat gamble of life and love that is our existence works.

God told stories and made promises. Most of them we've been mis-taught for generations. We've been told if we do this then God will do that and life will be good, or at least better. His promises though seem to be not about outcomes, at least as we understand them, but rather about his presence in the midst of all these unfolding stories that I/we HOPE turn out alright. They seem to be about his care and comfort while we hold on to our ragged tatters of hope.

And it seems to help. It seems to heal. It seems to hold. So far at least...and as for the future...I HOPE it will then too.

Chris has experience as a favored son and a branded outcast in church. He's a husband and a father. He's a Sunday School dropout, and recovering from years of working really hard to be 'good'. He's been a college minister, a pastor, a sales manager with high blood pressure, a driving range flunky, a wanna-be blogger, and a non-profit founder/director (Encounter Ministries 2004). He's been challenged to two fights in his life; one in a comedy club and one in a church after a prayer meeting. he spends his life fighting for the hearts of anyone who doesn't yet fully believe that God loves them beyond their wildest dreams. You can connect with Chris on Twitter or through Encounter Ministries.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Finding Hope in Our Stories

This month marks the two year anniversary of when I began blogging. I'm not exactly sure what I expected when this journey began. I do know that I was hopeful. Hopeful that I could make some sense out of my life and hopeful that just maybe God could use my experiences to help others. Below is the post that I began with on October 3, 2012.

Out of My Winters

"If you have words, write them. If you have brushstrokes, paint them. But by all means - do it out of your winters." Elora Nicole, A Deeper Story

When I first started writing, doing this, a blog of all things, was the furthest thing from my mind. I truly thought it was just for me - to try to put some sense to my life - to put some order to the chaos that has accompanied me in this journey. Some of the writings come from deep in my past and others from my more recent past but they are all filters that I see my present through. For better or for worse they impact me today sometimes more than they did at the time they happened. Emotionally I feel like a game of 52 card pick-up and this is the scramble to put all the cards back in order! So no, maybe not just for me...

Out of my past. No matter how awful I feel it is, or how much I want to deny a good portion of it, there is redemption. He has walked these roads with me and is made strong in my weakness. God certainly seems to have something else planned for these very private words. Out of my past, the long buried insecurities and shame, He is trying to teach me. And just perhaps, someone else needs to hear the same things I do.

So, I will write out of my winters, clinging to the promise of spring. Trusting that He does indeed make all things new.

Somewhere along the way, that hope faltered. the promise of spring slipped out of my fingers. I'm not sure any longer that anything can truly be made new. I'm left with more questions than answers. More doubt than faith. More despair than hope. So I'm left wondering...

What exactly is hope?

I went to my friends on fb and Twitter and asked that very question. My intent when I asked was to take the answers and write a post of my own. It couldn't be done. The answers were so very different. They were as varied as the people who gave them. There wasn't really one thing I could take away from their answers and make any sense of in a single post and do it any justice at all. So I asked some of those that answered to write posts of their own on hope. What it may mean to them. What it is to them. How they see it and hold onto it.

I'm excited to say that they are all different in their approach and all really good. I can't wait for you to read them! The first one will be coming to you on Wednesday. Beginning next week, posts will run on Mondays and Wednesdays. I will do a simple something on Fridays to round out the week. Could be photos or songs, maybe verses or quotes, but will definitely be inspired by hope.

I think sometimes we find the answers we seek in the stories of others. That out of our winters the promise of spring does come. That we can trust in the hope that all things are indeed made new. We need those me too moments. And that's why our stories are important. The good, the bad, and the ugly. Our voices matter. No matter how insignificant we feel they are.

Because someone out there needs to experience a me too moment...

See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.
Isaiah 43:19