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August 22, 2008

Tentative or Extravagant Hope

[S]he who has never hoped, can never despair.
--George Bernard Shaw

It seems we can't have one without the other - hope and despair. But truth-be-told, we don't want that package deal. We're afraid to hope precisely because we do not want to know despair, pain, suffering, disappointment. We work to keep our hearts intact and (hopefully) despair-free. This kind of tentative hope though, has profound impact - on our identity, our relationships, and our actions.

Tentative Identity. Have you noticed how much easier it is to name your sins, failings, and deficiencies, than your beauty, talent, and desire. We dare not speak with hope about or for ourselves. It's self-centered and presumptuous, isn't it? So we compromise. We tone ourselves down. We rarely acknowledge our deepest longings because they create potential for disappointment. We can't dare to believe that we can be, offer and do so much more. We still hope, sort-of, but only tentatively.

Tentative Relationship. To give ourselves over to another, no holds barred, we have to risk. And despair's just knocking on our door, isn't it? I have a dear friend who has been deeply disappointed by past relationships. In her 30s and single she longs for a man she can trust, love, and marry. Dating again she recently said, "Ronna, he's almost too good to be true. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. I almost can't bear to hope that he's the one." I pray the whole shoe-dropping thing doesn't happen, but her tentative hope and fear of despair may keep her from the amazing, glorious joy of relationship.

This is not unique to single women; married women also know much relational disappointment. Early seasons of hope give way to the reality of day-to-day life. For some, hope has been nearly irreparably damaged through unbearable harm, betrayal, and abuse; for others, despair has come through divorce or death. To continue hoping is difficult. Though our hesitancy may be legitimate, it hardly enables the full, abundant life we desire. We hope, but only tentatively. Anything more feels too risky.

Tentative Action. Tentative hope impacts how we behave, what we're willing to give (up), and all that we do. Consider your work - in church, business, ministry, home. Do you take action, speak boldly, tell the truth? At first blush, these seem like simple, assumed categories, but my experience as a woman (and that of many others) knows these to often be deserts fraught with hidden landmines. To hope that my actions or words will be seen, heard, and have impact vs. being misunderstood or ignored, can feel na?ve and foolish. To name truthfully what I experience as a woman, what I agree (and disagree) with - can feel downright suicidal, and at least impractical and futile. Instead, I make myself less, edit my words, play the game. I hope things will be different, but only tentatively.

Take heart. Better yet, take hope! There's a story in all four Gospels of a woman who anoints Jesus' feet (Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14-3-9, Luke 7:36-50, John 12:1-8), and her hope is the antithesis to anything tentative; it is extravagant. She is extravagant.

Extravagant Identity. We do not know details of her life, yet because of her "reputation" we can surmise she is more familiar with shame than acceptance. Self-contempt likely overrides nearly all other emotions. Not hard to imagine, but in my opinion, completely wrong. This text invites us to reckon with a woman who doesn't believe what others think of her or let such determine what she thinks about herself. She sees herself as she truly is: a beautifully hope-filled woman without a shred of tentativeness. Her very identity embodies extravagant hope.

Extravagant Relationship. Even though she cannot safely trust others' response to her, she moves intentionally toward relationship, toward Jesus. She does not keep her head down, unwilling to look into the eyes of her accusers. She does not cower or wait tenuously in the shadows to see if she is noticed. I imagine she walks boldly and calmly into a dangerous setting filled with men of power and esteem, surrounded by those who would accuse and harm. She does not allow her own history of mistreatment to shut down her heart. Her yearning for relationship with Jesus is hardly tentative. She holds fast to extravagant hope - hope in a relationship that was nearly beyond hoping for.

Extravagant Action. She enters this accusation-filled home and stands before a seemingly off-limits man then begins to weep tears down on Jesus' feet and anointing them with an expensive perfume. Wasn't it enough that she walked in, let herself be seen and known, and risked getting that close to Jesus? Restraint would seem the better, safer course: less chance of being shamed, being exposed, knowing despair. We want to tame her, tone down her boldness, and quickly return to our familiar, tentative ways. But she does not allow this reality. She is an unpredictable, surprising woman who willingly, courageously chooses to act. And what is the result? She is safe, seen, named, loved, and honored. Hardly tentative. She acts with extravagant hope.

Easier said than done, but deeply desired: to hope extravagantly; to be extravagant, even with the simultaneous reality of despair. What would that kind of hope look like for you? In identity? In relationship? In action? Let's walk boldly like this woman did - with extravagant hope and toward extravagant experiences of self, others, and God.

What she has done will be told anywhere this good news is preached all over the world.(Matthew 26:13)

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Thank you for this beautiful reminder that we should not just settle for less in fear of experiencing despair. To take the risk (a profound risk in that day) like the woman at Jesus' feet is an encouraging example of how we can live, especially when you see his response. The fact that you contrasted tentative with extravagant made this story so meaningful for me as I sometimes fall into "tentative" because it is so safe. But safe takes little courage and reaps less "extravagant" joy. Thanks

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