During deployments, I spent a lot of nights staring at the ceiling, planning my husband’s funeral. I planned the venue, the music, the slideshow. I made contingency plans: not just what I would do if a notification team came to the house, but what would happen if I was gone when they arrived, if I came home from the grocery to find them in the driveway. It was an aspect, I discovered months into one deployment, of what the experts call anticipatory grief. To me it was common sense: I couldn’t control his safety, but if I could plan ahead I might be able to survive if he died.
I don’t know if I was born with a marker in my DNA for anticipatory grief, but it has been with me as long as I can remember. As soon as impressions of my own consciousness began to occur, around age five, I can recall lying awake at night with the tears running into my ears, planning what I would do when my ragged middle-aged tabby cat died. Grace was purring loudly on my chest, but the only way I knew to bear the knowledge that someday I would have to live without her was to envision myself in that reality.
Anticipation has served me in less fraught situations as well. Trying to decide which college to attend, I could think not only about the merits of various English departments, but about what it would be like to spend nine months on a small green campus under a blue sky that stretched as far as the eye could see and to spend those same months crisscrossing brick and concrete paths under dripping trees in the rain. Even rearranging the furniture can be helped along by imagined living in a not-yet-visible space.
Over the last year or so, as the pandemic has altered every aspect of life, anticipation has become increasingly complicated. I certainly don’t have the energy to rearrange furniture. Most of the significant decisions I’ve had to make haven’t come with enough information to envision outcomes with any reliability. And there are physically too many worst-case scenarios to think through all of them. That way madness lies.
In this unimaginable space, I found an essay by Henri Nouwen called “The Path of Waiting.” Published in 1995, not long before his death, it could have been written this year. I found myself particularly drawn to his description of hope. He writes that focusing on our wishes while waiting can turn into an exercise in the power of positive thinking, an unconscious attempt to control the outcome. Hope, he says, has a different focus:
“Hope is trusting that something will be fulfilled, but fulfilled according to the promises and not just according to our wishes. Therefore, hope is always open-ended.”
These past months, I’ve spent a lot of early mornings rocking in my hand-me-down glider, watching the dark trees emerge from the greying sky, pondering Nouwen’s words. I can see that hope can’t ultimately be pinned to things turning out okay. The worst has happened too many times, to too many people, for that. It’s harder to see what it means, practically, to hope because of the promises.
I’ve been thinking about those promises. The Bible is full of them; the first few to come to mind were these: “The God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed” (Daniel 2:44). “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of [that] throne” (Psalm 89:14). “Of the increase of [that] government and of peace there shall be no end”(Isaiah 9:7). This is good news, well worth hoping for. Sometimes it feels awfully far away.
Rocking and thinking, it has occurred to me that the promises show something of the promise-giver. They reveal aspects of the divine priorities, the divine character. They point to a God to whom love and justice are essential and not in conflict, a God who isn’t threatened by the big picture that I don’t understand or the details that threaten to overwhelm me, a God who keeps promises. And as the writer of Hebrews reminds me, this God has also promised never to leave me alone.
My last trip before our area shut down was to spend time with new accessions to the Elisabeth Elliot papers at Wheaton College’s Billy Graham Center Archives. I’ve spent this pandemic year surrounded by Elliot’s words—books, newspaper and magazine clippings, grainy photographs of yellowed letters and faded journals—writing the last chapters of her biography. Even away from my desk I often carry her words in the back of my mind, rolling them around and around as I chop carrots or put rice on to cook.
Nouwen’s definition of hope brought one phrase from Elliot vividly to the front of my mind. In 1958, the day before leaving on her first visit to the homes of the people who had killed her husband not three years before, she wrote to her parents and in-laws:
“Don’t forget that I can receive mail all right—they’ll be dropping it to us. But just how we’ll get anything out of there for a while we do not know. So don’t worry. Perhaps I can get Ruth Keenan to drop you a line whenever Johnny goes over, just to let you know that things are o.k. But then, if she forgot it, you’d be sure I was dead! Well—start trusting the Lord. Not trusting Him that I’ll live, or that things will go well, just trusting Him.”
Elliot knew as well as anyone can that the worst does happen. She had come to believe that there was a difference between trusting God to do something specific and trusting God. She, too, was putting her hope in the promises and the character of God.
Pondering Nouwen’s and Elliot’s words hasn’t solved all my problems. I still can’t envision what the next year will look like. I still lie awake sometimes, mentally groping in the dark, wanting to envision the future and plan a safe path to walk.
But as I think about Nouwen’s definition of hope and Elliot’s definition of trust, I find myself fumbling toward another way of anticipation: a looking ahead to the fulfillment of the promises, an expectation that whatever else is coming, God will also be there.
I am beginning to think that this is what it means for hope to be open-ended—to open my hands and hold my wishes more gently, to make space for God to fulfill the promises in ways I can’t necessarily imagine.
 Elisabeth Elliot, letter to family, October 5, 1958, papers of Elisabeth Howard Elliot, collection 278, box 4, folder 6, Billy Graham Center Archives, Wheaton College, IL.
 Cover image by Christian Lue.