Just before the cold snap when winter finally hit for real, one of our members saw a robin. It was sitting in a tree at her house, puffed up as far as possible to hold in the warmth. We chose not to speculate too much about what it was doing there or what a robin finds to eat here in the middle of January, but that image was just striking. I think it was an image of hope.

Hope doesn’t wait until the future is obviously on its way. It doesn’t wait for a tangible sense of how things will work out. It doesn’t even count on the idea that things will work out positively in just the way we’re used to. Hope is the kind of bird that shows up in the wrong season, fluffing its feathers against the cold. It knows, even in the dead of winter, that spring is yet coming.

According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, when we talk about hope, we must be careful not to fall into talking about optimism instead:

People often confuse optimism and hope. They sound similar, but in fact they’re very different. Optimism is the belief that things are going to get better. Hope is the belief that if we work hard enough together, we can make things better. It needs no courage, just a certain naivete, to be an optimist. It needs a great deal of courage to have hope.

Using Rabbi Sacks’ distinction, the story of Jesus rejects optimism at every turn. No one is more aware than Jesus himself of the challenges he faces and the power he confronts. He knows that the time will come when everyone – his followers, his fans, and seemingly even his God – will abandon him. Yet he continues in hope, trusting that his path of love will indeed transform the world.

Hope is the cross I sign on my sons’ foreheads at bedtime, not just to acknowledge that the human road leads to darkness and death, but also to affirm that through and at the other end of that darkness, life is ultimately renewed in Christ. And in its own way, hope is feeling them learn how to mark the same cross on my own forehead. We haven’t talked about what we mean by this symbol, so I suspect their theologies of that moment are less abstract than mine. All the same, I trust that God’s creative power is at work, turning a simple ritual exchange into a testimony of love that endures through all things.

Lent is a season of hope. It invites us to open a space, to till the ground, to create a new possibility without really knowing what will become of it. Rather, we’re able to say that we know good will come of it, whatever precisely that looks like. We know God can transform and renew the world, even and especially through the path of sorrow and self-giving. We don’t have to know what that renewal will be like and how it will happen, but we seek the wisdom and grace to recognize when it starts to take shape. Hope is ultimately about being attentive to what God is doing, being open to how we might be part of God’s work, and finding the courage to take the risk of following.

As it happens, it will be during Lent that we convene a group of Hope’s members to focus on this attentiveness in our life together as the church. The timing of this work came about in part because of our eventual pastoral transition, and in part through the possibility to work with an experienced community organizer through the Presbytery of Northern Waters. As we pay attention, our first job will be to understand clearly who and where we are, as individuals, a church, and a wider community. From there, we can start to imagine what God might be doing next, with emphasis on that tentative word might. Our own imaginations can come up with plenty of ideas, but hope is always ready to be surprised by God’s yet more wonderful possibilities.

May the God of hope continue to go with us.

In Christ’s peace,