The angel told Mary “Nothing is impossible with God.” Think about that: Nothing is impossible with God. Or to put it another way: With God, anything is possible. Has a more hopeful statement ever been made?
In this season of Advent, we strengthen our faith by focusing on four pillars: faithfulness, joy, peace, and hope. Throughout this season of waiting, these themes become deeply intertwined in us, like the branches of our Advent wreath. It becomes impossible to talk about or think about any one without stumbling into the others. It’s sort of a theological version of “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?”
Especially in this pre-Christmas season, though, I can’t help but think that the place to start is hope. When we have hope, we can be more loving, more faithful, and more peaceful. We have to remember though that holy hope is a pale imitation of the word that we so often throw around. We say “I hope we’ll have good weather that day” or “I hope I get that special thing for Christmas.” This is human hope…
In this season, we have an opportunity to nurture and foster a much deeper and more profound kind of hope, a sense that everything that seems impossible to us is, with God, is perfectly possible. We must embrace a sense of hope that banishes fear and doubts and pushes us forward into doing all the things that we think cannot be possible.
Last week, I spent an hour or so in the waiting room of the Lucille Packard Children’s Hospital…and the time reminded me of this kind of hope. I saw young boys and girls, some in wheel chairs and others bald from chemotherapy. There was a little boy playing and after noticing his bright smile I noticed that he had no hands. And yet this waiting room was filled with hope, with parents patiently and faithfully caring for their children, loving them as parents are meant to love children, and waiting for the doctors and nurses to bring them news. At the time, I thought how very hard it must be to continue to hope…and perhaps even harder to let hope go. The hope of these people is inspiring and yet I cannot begin to understand what it must like.
I realized that to talk about hope this morning, I had to turn to a simpler example that is perhaps not quite so profound, but certainly more accessible. Today, I want to tell you how Hope came into my life just last February. This hope, at least at first glance is not the holy Hope that I’m talking about, the hope that fills the parents of sick children. And yet my experience points toward that kind of hope, and has taught me about how holy hope takes root, grows, and finally is born in unexpected and life-giving ways.
For years, my daughter Anna has been begging us to get a dog. I told her that we have too many animals already, including guinea pigs, rabbit, and a cat… and that bringing in yet another member of the natural food chain, one at the top in fact, would be foolhardy. I pointed out that the house is small and that we are busy. I reminded her that we do not have a yard where a dog could run and play and that I am actually allergic to dogs.
She responded with a 22-page PowerPoint presentation. It outlined the science behind the claim that families that have dogs are happier and healthier, and that dogs reduce anxiety and depression in their caregivers. It outlined a step by step care plan of how this dog would be well taken care of with minimal impact on the family.
I resisted… Then she showed me a picture of a dog that she had found on Craigslist. The dog had blue eyes and black fur. She was a mid-sized Husky mix that was about two years old. The woman who rescued her had named her Hope.Her story was sad… .she had been staked out in the yard of her owners for most of her life. She was skinny and nervous. I had a sinking feeling… I said to Anna, “I can’t believe that I’m saying this, but I think this is our dog.” So, I emailed the woman and we went to Salinas to “meet the dog,” which my sister rightly predicted is code for “go and get the dog.” I learned a lesson about holy hope: It comes to us in unexpected ways and at unexpected times.
The first days of having a dog were not easy. After some discussion, we decided that we would keep the name that she had been given as a testament to the possibilities that it called out. Hope was a strange combination of standoffish and clingy. She got very upset if she was ever left alone, but when I talked to her she would just stare at me, not blinking or moving. She never wagged her tail and she rarely barked. In her first hours as part of the family, she jumped on the guinea pig cage and one of the beloved creatures met an untimely end. Anna, even as she cried for her lost pet, defended the newcomer stoutly saying “She was just trying to play… She didn’t mean any harm.” I learned a lesson about holy hope: It doesn’t have to be perfect to be wonderful.
As a family, we worked together to figure out how to fit an active, crazy dog into our lives. We gave up our gym membership in favor of dog walking. We discovered every dog park within miles. We even made dog park friends and arranged for doggie playdates. One day, after a particularly long and vigorous walk that took us all over the neighborhood, I looked up from my work and saw Hope lying peacefully on her back, dead asleep, with all four paws in the air. I learned a lesson about holy hope: When we make room in our lives for it, hope brings peace and contentment, an ability to enjoy the quiet moments, and to trust that it will remain with us.
Slowly but surely, we all learned to live together. We took Hope to dog training classes and she learned how to sit, stay, and come. At home, Anna taught her to give high fives. On our early morning walks, Hope and I started going to a big field where lots of dogs go to run. As we built trust, I started letting her off the leash to romp with the other dogs. I watched her run top speed across the field, and then turn to bound back when I clapped my hands to get her attention. As Hope ran, she almost vibrated with joy and watching her gave me joy as well. I learned a lesson about holy hope: It allows us to become who we are and do what we are made to do, and all simply for the joy of it.
Soon, it felt like we had always had a dog. We fell into a routine, of feeding, walking and hanging out with the dog. At first, Hope seemed to be always waiting for Anna to come home from school. When she heard the door, she would rush from wherever she was to greet her girl. Then, as I went about my day, I found myself talking to Hope, just nonsense…and I noticed that she would wag her tail in response. One day, I came home from a business trip—and Hope jumped four feet in the air when she saw me again. I felt loved. I learned a lesson about holy hope: It brings us to places where we can love and be loved.
When we welcomed Hope into our lives, we became part of a bigger story…One that tells us that we have the power to change terrible things that are happening if we are willing to step up and accept the challenge. When we make room for hope, we simultaneously offer a space where peace, joy, and love can grow. For us, Hope came in the form of a dog. Our faith tells reminds us that hope always comes in unexpected forms, and that we are given these days and weeks of Advent to make ourselves ready to welcome hope into our hearts. As the angel said: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.” Nothing is more hopeful than that.
Preached by the Rev. Hailey McKeefry Delmas at Episcopal Church of Epiphany on Sunday, December 17, 2017.