By Lewis Smedes (1921-2002) in Standing on the Promises, 1998, pages 58…81-84.
Tammy Kramer was chief of the outpatient AIDS clinic at Los Angeles County Hospital. She was watching a young man who had come in one morning for his regular dose of medicine. He sat in tired silence on a high clinic stool while a new doctor at the clinic poked a needle into his arm and, without looking up at his face, asked, “You are aware, aren’t you, that you are not long for this world—a year at most?”
The patient stopped at Tammy’s desk on his way out, face distorted in pain, and hissed: “That S.O.B. took away my hope.”
“I guess he did. Maybe it’s time to find another one.”
…There was an old cavalry motto that went like this: “When your horse dies, dismount and saddle another.” To that good ‘horse sense,’ I would add a piece of ‘hope’ sense: when a hope dies, let it go, and saddle another.
Hope does not have to die when hopes die. It only needs to be readjusted to fit the new reality that the death of one hope left us with. Call it “hope adjustment”—getting old hopes in sync with new reality.
I suppose you could say that this is what my mother did when my father fell back dead on his pillow that hope-killing Monday morning. While he was alive, my mother could live off crumbs of hope from my father’s table. But when he left, her secondhand hopes died with him.
Her new reality was that at age thirty she was alone in a strange land with five small kids to feed and no job skills to earn the money to feed them with. The New Deal and public welfare were eleven years away. She understood English little and spoke it less. She had no relatives on the continent. The only people she had were a couple of upright neighbors whose Christian counsel to her was that she should give two or three of her children away. This was her new reality.
Did she have any hope left to adjust to her reality? Not many hopes. But hope? Yes, she had one.
Every night, when she had finally gotten us all to bed and all the lights were out, she would get on her knees in front of a wobbly kitchen chair and make her appeal to heaven with desperate cries. I slept in a small room within easy earshot of the kitchen, and I waited for her parting petition, which was the same every night. She named each of us, beginning with Jessie, the oldest, running down through Peter, Catherine, and Wesley, and then finally me, Lewis. It was as if she were holding all of us kids up for God to see what He had left her with…
Saturday nights were toughest. They were the nights when, after doing the whole week’s chores in one day—without benefit of a gas stove, bathtub, telephone, or hot tap water—she had to get us all scrubbed for the Lord’s Day. Sometimes, done in and at her wit’s end, she would leave the five of us squabbling and whining in the kitchen and closet herself in the bathroom, sit on the toilet seat, bury her face in her wet apron, and slowly rock back and forth. On the forward swing she would bawl in wordless heaves, and on the back swing she’d suck in an unbelievably long breath for the next heave.
The five of us didn’t know what to say to each other. We stood around looking at each other, silent, then giggling some, ashamed. I looked at her through the keyhole and wanted to cry. Then my sister Catherine would relieve our awkward guilt by shrugging it all off with: “Ma is having her Saturday night fit again.” We giggled. A child’s cruelty? I don’t think so. It was the only way we could lift the unbearable burden of being the cause of our mother’s despair.
In the vacuum of God’s terrible silence, in the emptiness of her lonesome abandonment, she was reducing all the hopes that she had borrowed from my father to this one, open-ended, fallback hope– hope that God would come, hold her up, and keep her going. My mother was adjusting her share of my father’s big hopes for big things to her own hoping for almost nothing at all. But the adjustment was not from hoping for big things to hoping for small ones. The adjustment was from hoping for things from God to throwing herself on the lap of God; just to keep some mustard seed of hope alive.
Life is a series of hope adjustments. To let old hopes fade away and to settle on new ones. This is to grow up as a human being in a world that can grind any hope to dust.
If our hopes of having a nest full of children died from acute infertility, we can adjust our hopes to fit other children we love, children we adopt or children we teach. If our hope that our children would be stars that lit up the sky died when it became clear that they were able only to light a small candle, we can adjust our hope to the possibility that they may light up one small nook of their small world.
Getting old is prime time for hope adjustment. As we creep into the geriatric stage, we begin to accept the fact that many of our highest hopes are not going to be realized. So we lower the level and narrow the gauge of our active hopes, and leave the unfulfilled big ones with God…
I find that my hope mellows some with age, with my early discontent with the way things were is melting down to gratitude for the way things are. I am sometimes stunned by how much better my life is than I once dared hope it would be. And I find myself (bit by bit) adjusting my earlier hopes that were born of discontent with the way things were, to a more serene hope that I will be content at last with whatever God wills to give.
Isaiah 49:23c — You will know that I am the Lord. Those who hope in me will not be disappointed.
Romans 5:3b-5 — Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
In you, Lord my God, I put my trust…
Show me your ways, Lord, teach me your paths.
Guide me in your truth and teach me,
for you are God my Savior,
and my hope is in you all day long.