Boy in hospital
Photo: Stockbtye/Thinkstock
The Rev. Ed Bacon shares his favorite story of hope and reveals why everyone has their own message of hope to share with the world.
When I think of hope, I think of this story about a retired schoolteacher who volunteered to visit and teach young children at a large hospital.

One day, the phone rang and she received her first assignment as a new volunteer. On the other end of the line was the classroom teacher of a young boy who had been hospitalized and needed tutoring during his stay in the hospital. The volunteer teacher took down the name of the boy and his hospital room number and was told by his classroom teacher that this boy had been studying nouns and adverbs in his class before he was hospitalized.

It was not until the visiting teacher got just outside the boy's hospital room that she realized he was a patient in the hospital's burn unit. She was prepared to teach English grammar, but she was not prepared to witness the horrible look and smell of badly burned human flesh. She was not prepared to see a young boy in great pain either. Everything around her made her want to hold her nose, to turn around and to leave faster than she came.

But something inside her kept her from walking away, so she clumsily stammered over to his bedside and said simply: "I'm the hospital teacher. Your schoolteacher asked me to help you with your nouns and adverbs," and she began to teach.

The next morning when she came to work with the boy, a nurse from the burn unit rushed up to her and asked her, "What did you do to that boy?"

The teacher began to apologize profusely, but before she could finish, the nurse interrupted her. "You don't understand. We've been really worried about him and his condition has been deteriorating over the past few days, because he had completely given up hope. But ever since you were here with him yesterday, his whole attitude has changed and he's fighting back and responding to treatment. It's as though he decided to live! What did you do?"

When the nurse later questioned the little boy, he said, "I figured I was doomed—that I was gonna die—until I saw that teacher." And as a tear began to run down his little face, he finished: "But when I saw that teacher, I realized that they wouldn't send a teacher to work on nouns and adverbs with a dying boy...would they?"

Why everyone has a message of hope inside
Rev. Ed Bacon
Photo: Cam Sanders/All Saints Church Pasadena
The great scientist, priest and mystic Teilhard de Chardin famously said, "The world of tomorrow belongs to those who give it the greatest hope."

I believe that the greatest hope any of us can give the world is the hope we were created to give when we were made. God created a work of art. Each work of art has a message of hope inside it to give to the world. Nothing we do can erase that message of hope God planted in us when God created the work of art called "You." We have a responsibility, you and I, to know and embody the hope to which each of us has been created.

Arden K. Barden has written, "It is not the way we deal with our human situation that is the basis for hope...hope is the basis for how we deal with our human situation."

In his last Christmas Eve sermon, Martin Luther King Jr. preached about his dream having been turned into a nightmare in the church bombing in Birmingham, the increase in poverty during his lifetime and the war in Vietnam, which was then escalating. Then he said: "Yes, I am personally the victim of deferred dreams, of blasted hopes, but in spite of that I close tonight by saying I still have a dream, because you know, you cannot give up on life. If you lose hope, somehow you lose that vitality that keeps life moving, you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you to go on in spite of all. And so today I still have a dream." (Martin Luther King, Jr., "A Christmas Sermon on Peace," The Trumpet of Conscience, p.76)

Windred Newman said: "There are no hopeless situations. There are only people who think hopelessly."

The reformer Martin Luther said 500 years ago, "Everything that is done in this world is done by hope."

What is the hope for which you were created?

Two things stand out in what I've learned so far about hope. The first is that from Martin Luther King to James Baldwin to Nelson Mandela to Desmond Tutu, they all refer to themselves, using one image or another, as "prisoners of hope." Cornel West in his wonderful book on the moral obligations of living in a democratic society, wrote: "To be part of the democratic tradition is to be a prisoner of hope. And you cannot be a prisoner of hope without engaging in a form of struggle in the present moment that keeps the best of the past alive. [Whether that struggle is a personal struggle with yourself, an interpersonal struggle with your friends, colleagues, or family members, or a struggle at the office, or a struggle on the political level.] To engage in that struggle means that one is always willing to acknowledge that there is no triumph just around the corner, but that you persist because you believe it is right and just and moral to persist. As T.S. Eliot said, 'Ours is in the trying. The rest is not our business.'" (West, Cornel, "The Moral Obligations of Living in a Democratic Society," The Good Citizen, p. 12)

Nelson Mandela on the power of hope
Nelson Mandela
Photo: Carlo Allegri/Staff/Getty Images
In his autobiography, Nelson Mandela wrote: "I never lost hope that this great transformation would occur. ...I always knew that deep down in every human heart, there was mercy and generosity. No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite. Even in the grimmest times in prison, when my comrades and I were pushed to our limits, I would see a glimmer of humanity in one of the guards, perhaps just for a second, but it was enough to reassure me and keep me going. Human goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished." (Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom, p. 615)

The second thing I have learned about people who give others hope is this: there is this sense in them that "the good" will prevail in time, no matter what. Desmond Tutu calls it his belief that the universe is moral; he reminds us of all the bloody tyrants whose regimes inevitably bit the dust. Dr. King spoke about the arc of the universe bending toward justice. The good will always win in time.

Finally, Rebecca Solnit says that hope is not "like a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. ... Hope is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency; because hope shoves you out the door. ... Action is impossible without hope." (Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark)

What is the hope for which God created you to bring to your world, to your family, to your business, to your friendships? Is it to teach a child in the hospital his or her nouns and adverbs, or is it to do your part to bring global peace? Whatever it is, be a bringer of hope. You will thereby be your true self—the person God made you to be.

The Rev. Ed Bacon is a guest host for the Oprah's Soul Series radio show. He is also the rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California. If you're interested in taking the next step, you can hear his sermon on forgiveness from Christmas Eve or you can download the text of his sermon.

Keep Reading from Rev. Ed Bacon:
How to forgive
Face your fears head-on
Understand your existance


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