Earlier this evening I read a rather grim essay about the fact that Russians are dying in alarming amounts and young ages. After analyzing the various physical causes that are not the cause of the death, the author cautiously but provocatively points to the Russian experience of death in the 20th century as being one due in many reasons to a lack of hope . In the entirety of the last 100 years, there have only been two brief periods where Russians experienced hope for a better future on a wide scale, during the brief and ultimately unsuccessful periods of reform during Khrushchev’s rule over Russia, when the horrors of Stalinism were rolled back and there was a lot of building for the commonfolk of Russia, and during the similarly unsuccessful period of glastnost in Gorbachev’s Russia during the 1980’s. During every other period of the last 100 years there has been the grim rule of Communists or oligarchs, with little opportunity for a better life for ordinary Russians . What I found most alarming about the result of living without hope was the fact that it placed a burden on the heart that led ultimately to untimely death from cardiovascular disease. Without hope, mankind dies of a broken heart, literally and figuratively. Hope is therefore a matter of grave seriousness.
Reading about the massive and systemic loss of hope among the Russian population, even though it seems far away, took me to a place very close to home. In reading about the Russians of a certain age, born in postwar society, struggling with alcoholism as a way of coping with the desolation, imprisoned by isolation and the feeling of being unnecessary and unloved, dying of broken hearts, I was struck by the figure of my own father. We are not cut out to be isolated and alone in this world; sometimes being able to connect with others is a matter of life or death . So it was for my father, whose long battle against despair ultimately placed a burden on his heart that he could not bear. And it was his life and behavior that in so many ways placed a heavy burden on me that I have wrestled with my entire life. For I too know what it is like to engage in the grim battle of hope against despair, not knowing when and if life will be any less of a struggle than it has always been, or what a toll it has already taken on my heart.
What sort of similarities would my own family background have with the grim life of Communist and post-Communist Russia? In both cases, there appears to be a generational component. Generation after generation grows up struggling and not seeing any progress, and the lack of hope and other related experiences of isolation and abuse are passed from generation to generation, leading to a decline in the birth rate and a rise in the death rate. It is how families and nations die. To fight against that despair is an act of grim determination, and an act that requires a larger community and a larger set of connections that allow people to draw the strength and encouragement they need to overcome the mistaken and bitter lessons of generations of suffering without apparent purpose or deliverance. Eventually, there is only so much that people can take, so either they live recklessly in defiance of the death that comes all too soon, or seek to drown their despair in drug or alcohol, or grimly face the darkness head on and do battle against it. In such a situation, one’s options become vanishingly small, unless we are able to break the cycle of isolation and connect with other people in larger communities, building trust and love, and along with that, hope.
During my early 20’s, I purchased the debut album for Keane which was appropriately titled “Hopes And Fears.” The album, in one fashion or another, along with the later songs and albums from the band, have been the soundtrack for many events of my life . To give but a few examples, at the 2014 Tacoma Weekend, I sang one of the songs from that album, “Somewhere Only We Know,” a song about anxiety and aging which is rather appropriate for my time in life. Likewise, I am listening right now to my Keane station on Pandora as I write this, and I once had the album on heavy rotation whenever I had a long drive. The band’s music as a whole has a certain melancholy feeling to its piano rock, and it is little surprise that its band members have struggled with alcoholism and drug abuse . Their music shows a struggle with hope, and the music is merely a reflection of the struggle in their own lives, a struggle that appears to have gotten better for the band, for which we can all celebrate. Interestingly enough, this change appears to have been accompanied by marriage and a family for the lead singer of Keane .
David, who is known accurately, and often, as a man after God’s own heart, praised God before the assembly in donating resources for the building of the temple, and part of his praise is as follows, in 1 Chronicles 29:14-15:
“But who am I, and who are my people,
That we should be able to offer so willingly as this?
For all things come from You,
And of Your own we have given You.
For we are aliens and pilgrims before You,
As were all our fathers;
Our days on earth are as a shadow,
And without hope.”
Some of us can identify rather personally with being aliens and pilgrims in our own fashion. Part of having hope depends on having a perspective that recognizes that all things come from God. However much or little we have in one part of our life or another, that which we possess is not ours by right but rather it is a gift that we have been given (or withheld) for His purposes. David was aware of this, and recognized that apart from God he and his people had no hope, for our lives are but fleeting and ephemeral, and then we pass on nearly entirely forgotten if we were ever known in the first place.
Nor is hope only an issue for David and ancient Israel. The Apostle Paul had a rather difficult passage on the relationship between hope, character, and tribulations, in Romans 5:1-5: “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” Here we see that hope is bound up with a vision of what the tribulations of life are all about. Having the right context puts everything in its proper place, and makes the valleys of life something that can be confronted when one has the indwelling presence of God’s Spirit. Seeing as we have need of such consolation and encouragement, let us find hope in preserving a vision of the grander purpose for all of our wanderings and all of our striving and searching.
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