The Complicated Hope of Clarence
A story of strong but lopsided hope— and hope for strengthening it
I want to tell you about the complicated hope of Clarence.
That’s not his real name, as you might guess. This story is a real one; however, it is not unique. I’ve experienced nearly identical conversations many times— so many times that I often fall into the trap of not noticing. I’m guessing you’ve had conversations like it, too.
Clarence was in his 80s. He had attended his church since right after high school when he married Virginia. Virginia taught Sunday School to the children; Clarence taught one of the adult classes. At the time, it was a massive church— well over a thousand in Sunday School and worship each week— a megachurch before that term had even existed.
Now, the church was down to a hundred and fifty or so on a good week. The congregation’s sanctuary and classrooms matched its former size and now dwarfed those who were left. The greeting during worship was lively but meant doing a lot of sideways shuffling between pews to reach the next person.
Clarence had watched the pews get a little thinner week after week after week— since the 1940s, save for a brief upturn in the 70s that did not last. Clarence’s faith was strong, though, and he was always joyful. His spirit spread to everyone he talked to, and there was no such thing as slowing him down.
I was talking to Clarence one Sunday morning, selfishly soaking in his radiant faith. It was his birthday week, and he still felt the pain of Virginia’s death not long before. He made the standard jokes about old age, then added that he looks forward to dying.
I wish I could relay to you the tone of his voice and the look on his face as he said he looked forward to his death. It was pure faith and “Blessed Assurance,” to quote a hymn I’m sure he knew well. He wasn’t making a point about theology; he was just being honest about his eager anticipation of the next journey, whenever it came.
After a pause, he added with a big smile, “Of course, I hope it doesn’t happen anytime soon!”
His chuckle, though, got interrupted by a falling expression, looking across the sea of empty pews a few minutes before worship was to start.
“But I do wish things looked better here. There used to be so many people here. I just don’t see how things can keep on this way.”
Clarence had tremendous hope in God’s bigger, ultimate design. But he had lost hope in the world presently around him. In this conversation, we see that there is nuance in our hope. We can even break it down into component parts. To use my words, Clarence had strong “ultimate hope” (hope that comes from beyond ourselves) but weak “practical hope” (here-and-now hope in this world.)
I have seen Clarence’s lopsided hope mirrored in SO many congregations in this era of congregational decline. Usually, it takes the form of apologies that, “There used to be a lot more people here,” from church members who really do have hope in God’s goodness in their hearts. They’ve just given up (or are in the process of giving up) on the situation here.
God works to restore our hope in ways unseen (ultimate hope), but we can take action here and now to become more hopeful, too (practical hope.) If we can understand how our hope works, we can actively take steps to strengthen it.
This is my second post. Thanks to everyone who subscribed after my first post! There is much more to come. No promises, but perhaps next week I’ll dive a little deeper into how practical hope works, drawing on the well-researched field of hope psychology. It is profoundly useful in ministry.
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