When Hope Fails (lessons from the homeless shelter)

Ever been disappointed at Christmas? Maybe Santa didn’t bring you the gift you wanted, or maybe you found out that Santa isn’t even real. Ouch. Lots of disappointed kids out there with that one.

I regularly see both disappointment and hope in the front office of our area homeless shelter, where I volunteer once a week. Bed-seekers come in almost every morning, carrying what few possessions they own, sometimes with a baby on the hip and toddlers trailing behind. If we have a bed available, they start the screening process. But often there are no beds available, and we tell them to check back soon, because it could change over the course of the day. Then sometimes they wait while we copy their ID cards and get them on the list. Other times they leave, going who knows where.

This week I met a woman who had crashed head-first into her own loss and disappointment. She was probably middle-aged, attractively tall and thin, with shoulder-length blond hair. At first I thought she was a bed-seeker, because she walked with a slow slump, punctuated by a nervousness that I usually see in those needing a place to stay. But she didn’t want a room for the night, she wasn’t homeless. She just had something she wanted to donate.

It was a white plastic bag, which she clutched tightly as she held it out to me.

“Do you accept donations of personal products?” she asked directly, almost coldly. Her voice was strong and clear, as if she had rehearsed the words many times.

I could tell she had been crying. Tears stuck to her eyelashes and threatened to spill over, though she was doing her best to keep it together. When I gently smiled at her and said that yes, thank you, we will definitely accept donated personal products, she did not smile back but continued with her rehearsed statement.

“Some of the boxes have been opened, but the individual packages are still good. I can’t use them anymore… I just had a hysterectomy. I just thought I would give them to someone who can still use them.”

I thanked her and asked if she wanted a donation receipt, which she declined. Then she left. I watched her from the window as she walked away, and noticed that she made it to the parking lot before she reached up to wipe the tears from her eyes.

Deep disappointment. Pain and loss, grief and brokenness.

I don’t know anything about her, besides what she told me. But I do know that she won’t ever be okay until she accepts that a baby will not grow within her womb. She must accept it, or the disappointment will ruin her life.

We’ve all been there at one point or another, when we can choose to accept things as they are. Acceptance of reality is a doorway to real hope. That’s because those who find real hope have finally let go of all the false ones, the dreams that nobody ever promised us. We weren’t ever promised happiness, wealth, health, a perfect family life, success, beauty, youth, or even physical comfort. False hope always disappoints.

This Christmas, rest your hope on something true and eternal – a baby. Not yours, or mine, or the one you wanted but never could have. Not the grown baby you already raised, or the kids who still actively need your help moving into adulthood.

Rest your hope on the baby that was born in a manger, in some corner of a dirty barn because there was no room at the inn. That’s real hope – not this shiny, glittery, materialistic thing we now call Christmas.

Real hope does not disappoint us.