I have a vivid memory from a few years ago. I was at a denominational gathering with other clergy, and we were to meet in conversation groups with one another. The theme of this gathering was dealing with conflict in the church. The pastors started sharing war stories with one another and the struggles faced in ministry. They shared stories of conflict, heart break, and darkness. All of this took place in the context of the church. It was not a pleasant conversation. Finally after listening to these struggles someone said, “What bothers me most as we listen to each other and have similar experiences is there is no hope. Where is the hope?”
Hope can often be in short supply. Outside of the scripture one of the places I find hopes is in J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. In most great stories or settings, it is natural to gravitate towards a character and claim them as a favorite. In the Lord of the Rings my favorite character is hands down the faithful and dependable Samwise Gamgee. Throughout the Lord of the Rings Sam was always right besides Frodo. They were hunted, outnumbered, and up against long odds. Despite that, Sam continued one. The reason why Sam is my favorite character though, is because no matter how dark things seemed he never lost hope.
There is a scene in both The Two Towers book and movie where Frodo is on the verge of giving up, and Sam reflects on what they have done so far. In the movie it is stated as such:
“It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back only they didn’t. They kept going because they were holding on to something.”
The difference between having hope and being hopeless is the difference between turning back and pressing on. Sam kept pressing on, because he was holding on to something, and in our lives we can do the same. The life of the apostle Paul is also like one of those great stories, the ones that really matter. He faced hardships, opposition, shipwrecks, persecution and imprisonment. Despite all of that he did not turn back. He kept going because he held on to something greater. In the case of Paul, what he held onto was the grace and life changing grace of Jesus Christ.
In life so many of us, so often could say that we feel pressed on every side, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down. Paul understood these feelings and he wrote about them in 2 Corinthians: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”
The reason why Paul could say this is because of hope. Paul like us, like Sam and Frodo, had a lot of chances of turning back, only he did not. He kept going on because he was holding on to something. Paul was holding on to Jesus. He was putting his eyes not on what is seen, but what is not seen. Instead of focusing on the trials and darkness of life he focused on grace, on love. In the midst of all of the troubles of life, Paul knew true joy. Paul knew that no matter what happened in life, He was loved by God and saved by Christ Jesus. That is something worth holding on to.
One of the favorite hymns in the Methodist tradition speaks to this. In It is Well with My Soul, Horatio Spafford wrote, “Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, It is well, it is well with my soul.” The idea behind this song is no matter how bad life gets, we can still claim it is well with our soul. The reason for this is explained in the next few verses. In the second verse the song states, “Christ has regarded my helpless estate, and hat shed his own blood for my soul.” The third verse continues, “My sin, not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more.”
We can say it is well with our soul because we have something greater to hold onto. We know that even though we are hard pressed we are not crushed because the great love of Jesus has already endured for us. How is it with your soul? Our lives are one of those great stories. The ones that really matter, and they are full of danger and darkness. There are times in our life where we do not want to know how it is going to end because it cannot possibly seem good. Even then, we have reason for hope. We have the promise that God will never forsake or abandon us and we have a love in Christ that nothing, absolutely nothing can ever separate us from. May you claim that hope and come what may in life, may you hold on to that hope. May you be able to stand and proclaim, “It is well with my soul.”