The Challenge of Hope

This week, I learned about “uppgivenhetssyndrom.” Perhaps you have heard of it? It is specific, it appears, to Sweden, and translates to “resignation syndrome.” According to a story in the New Yorker this week, it is afflicting the refugee chi
ldren there, who, upon
learning that their family will be deported from Sweden, go up to their beds and fall asleep, like Snow White. One 13-year boy Georgi, who eventually woke from one of these long sleeps, described it as lying in a coffin under water; if he moved or broke the glass, the water would come rushing in. Goergi was a bright, energetic, boy who had come to Sweden with his family when he was 5; by 13, he was fully integrated, and a leader in his school. But that same year, his family was denied asylum, and told they would have to return to Russia, a country that Georgi and his younger brother no longer considered their own. In December 2015, they received the official notice, told to prepare for deportation in April. That same day, Georgi went up to his bedroom and lay in his bed, and refused to eat.  He didn’t wake up. When a doctor inserted a feeding tube into his nose, he did not move. He had no disease, and had suffered no injury. He had lost, according to the doctors diagnoses, the will to live. He had lost hope.

Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.”

Does this not sound a little like Lazarus, who Jesus risks his own safety to save? At first, we are told that the illness that Lazarus suffers does not typically cause death. Then we understand that Lazarus has died, and Jesus announces his intention to wake him. He travels to the tomb where Lazarus has been lying for four days now. Lazarus, come out, Jesus calls. And Lazarus comes out, bound as one prepared for burial.

Let us return to little Goergi, lying in his bed, all hope lost. No one was able to wake him. Cruel fate had brought him to a land where he could succeed and contribute.  Bureaucracy would send him back. And yet, around him hope remained: his family sat by his side day after day, speaking to him. His teacher visited him once a week to tell him what he was missing in school. His friends came to urge him to wake, to tell him how much he was missed. Indeed, Georgi had both his Martha and his Mary; the practical presence that got things done, and faithful presence that trusted that things would work out. Together, he was kept alive, and his family remained in limbo, not accepted in Sweden, nor sent to Russia, lingering in the space in between, just as Georgie was between life and death.

For indeed, what are we without hope? Without knowing that, whatever comes next, we will manage, we will be loved, we will be cared for? What happens to us if we stop believing that God walks with us? Or if we start believing that there is nothing to hold on to? Hope is the breath of life. And Jesus offers it to Mary and Martha in two very specific ways – in the immediate, he resurrects Lazarus from the tomb, and in the long-term, he promises the resurrection at the end of our days. We need both of those to live on: the hope that we can carry forth in this day, and this moment, whatever pain we might be feeling, whatever trial we are facing – that is the hope of the gospel, the life lessons that Jesus offers us.  Those lessons that tell us to set aside our own troubles and serve others – for in doing so our own trouble is diminished.  The lessons that tell us to forgive, so that we might have resilience in relationships. The lessons that tell us to love, so that we might have the healing medicine of joy. But Jesus also offers us hope in the distant – the hope of the resurrection – the hope that in the end, we matter, our lives matter, and that the journey along the way is worth the weight we carry. That is what Jesus tells Martha and Mary – he raises Lazarus from the tomb on that fourth day, but he promises Lazarus life at the end of days.

There is, in fact, only one cure for the children who suffer from resignation syndrome: the restoration of hope. In May, five months after he had fallen asleep, his family learned that they would be allowed to stay in Sweden. His parents rushed upstairs to tell Goergi, but he did not awaken. His friends came over to tell him he could stay forever, but he still slept. Finally, one day, he opened his eyes, and over weeks, he came back to himself, slowly returning to normal. Later, he would say, he didn’t want to fall asleep – he was angry first about what had happened, and then, he says, he became something else: “all my will, I didn’t have it anymore,” he said, “I felt like I was deep under water.”

There are times when we all feel like this, trapped under water, bereft of hope. But that is what Jesus offers – not a hope that is perfect, not a hope that is golden, not a hope that is easy. There is the hope that we can get through the day – that we can rise from the bed we have made, or the bed that has been made for us – just as Lazarus did. And then there is the hope, that when we arrive at the end of our days, we will know God, who deems our lives worthy.  To watch where we step, and to look ahead where our steps lead, this is the challenge set before us by the gospel. And to know that Jesus is there, not just to resurrect us at the end of days, but to lift us out of the water each and every day.

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