Romans 5:1-5; 12:9-12
The Rev. Tom Herbek
July 19, 2015
In 2008, writer Barbara Kingsolver was the commencement speaker at Duke University. She opened her speech by saying: “The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. The most you can do is live inside that hope, running down its hallways, touching the walls on both sides.”
It seems to me that, before we can be people of faith, we also need to be people of hope- or, at the least, the two (faith and hope) are so intertwined that it would be impossible to have one without the other. A long time ago Emily Dickinson wrote that “hope inspires the good to reveal itself.” When we think about something that we face, thinking about it in a hopeful way changes us, which then changes our experience of the obstacle in front of us, which sets into motion hope-filled energy that creates new possibilities for the future. Hope is very powerful.
Yet hopelessness can be very strong also. “Hopelessness has at least as much to do with what we bring to life as it does with what life brings to us…. What breeds hopelessness is the failure to pursue the possible in the imperfect…. The challenge of hopelessness is the challenge to take our place in life, knowing that it is as much our responsibility to shape life as it is for life to shape us.” (Joan Chittister, Between the Darkness and the Daylight)
When you look at the stories that make the news, it is sometimes hard to remain hopeful when we hear over and over again about the worst of humanity. It can feel overwhelming, and- unless we can find what we hope for- perhaps it is. That’s why figuring out what we hope for is so crucial, especially today.
When he addressed the graduating class of Kalamazoo College in 2009, Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie offered 5 suggestions for keeping things in perspective:
Suggestion 1: Please think about what you value. (He suggests that it needs to be something other than financial success).
Suggestion 2: Please read books. And I don’t say this because I am a writer who needs to earn a living (well, that’s not the ONLY reason!), but because books are still the best ways to truly come close to understanding complexity in our very complex world. When we read, we become alive in bodies not our own. It seems to me that we live in a world where it has become increasingly important to try and live in bodies not our own, to embrace empathy, to constantly be reminded that we share, with everybody in every part of the world, a common and equal humanity.
Suggestion 3: Please remember that there is never a single story about anything. I once spoke at a university in Oklahoma and a well-meaning student had read Purple Hibiscus and said that it was such a shame that Nigerian men were like the abusive father character. I replied in irritation that I had just read a novel called American Psycho and that it was a shame that all young Americans were serial murderers. It would never have occurred to me to think that just because I had read a novel about a young American character, he was somehow representative of all Americans. This is because I had many stories of America. Please try as much as you can to have many stories of the world.
Suggestion 4: Please think about how little you know. Leave room in your mind to revise opinions, to avoid smugness.
Suggestion 5: Please make room for hope and fear. To write fiction is to jump into this journey not knowing where it will end but wanting to go on the journey anyway. To write fiction is to start a long walk knowing you will trip and fall down many times but are still keen to take the walk. I cannot tell you how many times, in the course of writing my first novel, which was a deeply emotional book for me, I felt filled with terror, with uncertainty, with fear. I would climb into bed and eat lots of ice cream. But I knew, because I had made this choice to write fiction, that after all the ice cream bingeing, after all the dark and deep depression, that I would get up and keep writing. It seems to me that this is not a bad way to look at the rest of your life.
–The World is Waiting for You: Graduation Speeches to Live By
Sometimes we expect a life that is devoid of fear, but that is not possible. There are things we all fear – from entering school to retirement, from growing up to growing old. And when we look at the violence and tragedy in our world today, if we are honest with ourselves, there is an element of fear in what will happen to the human race. Yet, even with the fear, even realistic fear, we must balance it with hope. Without hope, it is hard to believe in anything. In her book, God is Always Hiring, Regina Brett tells a story that gives me hope:
The Lost Boys of Sudan are no longer lost and no longer boys. The six men sang to bless the medical supplies bound for South Sudan as a forklift hummed around them. Six of the Lost Boys came to help pack 10,000 pounds of medical supplies into a 40-foot-long cargo container bound for South Sudan. It is so poor there, one in seven children die before turning five. People walk two hours to a clinic or wait for help under a tree. There is no hospital, no equipment, no beds.
Majier said the shipment will show the people of Sudan that someone cares. “That is true love, to care about someone you don’t know,” he said.
Dr. Lee Ponsky started MedWish International in 1993 when he was just 20. He wanted to be a doctor and ended up working one summer at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Cleveland. He wanted to go somewhere else and make a difference. He has made it his life’s mission to collect local medical supplies that would end up in landfills and send them to poor countries all over the world to save lives.
As a medical student working in a clinic in Nigeria, he saw doctors make their own saline, use fishing line for sutures, and run out of clean water during surgery. It was Lee’s job to wash, powder, and sew up medical exam gloves to use again.
Lee graduated from the University of Rochester, and then he got his medical degree at Case Western Reserve University. He started the nonprofit MedWish in his parents’ garage. He later became chief of urological oncology at University Hospitals in Cleveland.
He calls MedWish his hobby. Some hobby.
The Cleveland Clinic donates the use of the 38,000-squarefoot warehouse that he has transformed into an international medical supply depot. MedWish collects and distributes medical supplies from 50 hospitals and nursing homes from Cleveland to California. MedWish ships to more than 90 countries, from Belize to Zambia. It takes no government funding and runs solely on donations.
People drop off walkers and wheelchairs, unopened gauze and gloves. Most donors prefer to be anonymous. One nursing home donated beds. A hospital donated sleep sacks for babies and burn dressings. The warehouse is full of hospital beds, incubators, operating room lights, mattresses, examination tables, IV poles, infant airways and bottles.
There are stacks of beds, wheelchairs and dialysis machines, incubators and operating lights ready to go.
“Everything you see in this warehouse would be thrown in a landfill,” Lee told me. “What we throw away is gold in other parts of the world.”
I love the small sign attached to the office refrigerator: THE PERSON WHO SAYS IT CANNOT BE DONE SHOULD NOT INTERRUPT THE PERSON DOING IT. MedWish runs with the help of donors, volunteers, and special-needs students paid to sort items.
Huge banners on the wall remind everyone of the mission. Each shows the face of one child from Africa, Central America, the Middle East, and South America.
The Lost Boys smiled at the pallets of bandages, gauze, ointments, IV poles, exam tables, wheelchairs, stretchers, gurneys, beds, and mattresses headed for South Sudan.
“Thank you, thank you,” the Lost Boys said, almost in song. They wanted to tuck something else into the shipment. They sat at a table and wrote letters to put inside the cargo container. Slowly and carefully; they printed words of hope for people on the other side of the ocean.
“This gift from MedWish is just a beginning,” Majier wrote. “Keep praying and trusting in God Almighty. This gift, I hope, will make a difference.”
Lazarus Makhoi paused a moment, then wrote the words he had wanted to hear all those years ago when he was that boy in a refugee camp:
“I didn’t forget about you.”
That is the message that we all want to hear. That is the message that we are being called to.
We are the hands and feet and voices of God, the God of hope and compassion, even in a world of violence and tragedy.
As Emily Dickinson once said so well: “Hope inspires the good to reveal itself.” So let us figure out what we hope for, and then let us use our hope in efforts to inspire the good to reveal itself.
And once hope is revealed, let us be the hands and feet and voices of our hope-enabling and compassion-filled God, in this community and in our world, so that those who want to hear it so badly will know: “I didn’t forget about you.”