Hope - the word sounds so insipid. We often use it to mean something weak and gutless. I hope it won't rain tomorrow. I hope I get something nice for my birthday.
Perhaps it's helpful to think of 'hope' as a sort of Napoleon Bonaparte of words - a small, ordinary looking word that people often ignore or look down on. It may be small on the outside, but it's big on the inside, and has enough power to change the world.
Hope is belief that the future can be better. A belief so strong that it changes the way you live here and now.
For many people, hope seems to be a weak idea, or slightly pointless, precisely because they have always enjoyed it. I imagine that very few of you are excited by the idea that you are likely to get enough to eat tomorrow. You are not excited by the prospect of food, because you have always had it. Worldwide, one child in three is so malnourished they cannot grow properly: promise one of these children enough to eat tomorrow, and you would get a reaction. You discover how important food is when you don't have it.
Similarly, hope may seem really unimportant - until you discover what life is like without it.
All work is an expression of hope. If you did not believe the work was worthwhile, that it would make the future a bit better - for you or for someone else - then why bother to do it? Why bother to hand in your homework? Why bother to attend school?
The reality is that many kids drop out of school precisely because they have lost hope. They cannot see that anything they do will make the future any better, so they stop trying and drop out.
I work for Crisis Centre Ministries, and we see the effects of a lack of hope every day.
We work with homeless people. Most of our clients are addicts, many are alcoholics, physically sick and in trouble with the law. Some come from broken families and have a history of abuse, but others come from good homes with loving parents. When they come to us, they are generally tired, hungry, sick and needing another fix. Most of them have a complex set of problems that could keep the average minister or social worker fully occupied for years. But more important than any of these details is: they lack hope.
No matter how bad your problems may be, if you have hope, you can work on those problems, get the help you need, and start to see the problems sorted out. It will take time, but life will get better.
On the other hand, if you have no hope, nothing will change. If you don't believe that life can get better, why not keep shooting poison into your veins? If life is pain and misery and frustration and disappointment, and nothing can change that, why not just dull the pain while you kill yourself one drink at a time?
A drug addict with hope can get clean. It's actually not that difficult. An alcoholic with hope can become and stay sober. But without hope - forget it.
So where does this hope come from? How does someone without hope discover hope?
Firstly, people have hope because it's there already. I suspect that faith, hope and love are as necessary to human life as food and water. We cannot live for any length of time without them. Many people manage to scrape by on very small quantities, but they are present, somewhere, whether people recognise them or not. So we are not starting completely from scratch.
Secondly, people have hope because they get it from other people. You may feel that your condition is hopeless. But this person was in just a big a mess as you are right now, and look at them now. They're not perfect, they still have many problems, but life is still pretty good, and it's getting better. Many of our volunteers can say: I know what you are going through, because I was there too.
Thirdly, hope can be communicated just through human contact. When you are on the streets, people either ignore you or treat you like dirt. They look through you, or look down on you. The professionals you come into contact with are probably good people, but they are too busy to get involved - they can't afford to engage at a personal level, so you are just a job, a problem to be solved or an issue to be sorted out.
But when you come into the Wild Goose Coffee Shop - or one of a few other places in Bristol - you discover people who actually care about you, who treat you with dignity and respect as a human being. You can start to believe your life has some value because you are valued.
And, finally, people have hope because God is there. There are two things you have to know: God loves you, and God is powerful enough to be able to express that love in practical ways no matter how big your problems or how dire your circumstances.
For me, and for many others, all hope is founded on this simple truth. Why do I believe the future can be better than the past? Because there is a God in Heaven Who loves me, Who wants the very best for me, and Who is bigger and more powerful than all of my problems.
Of course, this does not mean that the future will be better than the past. God does not wave a magic wand and make all my problems disappear. But He shows me what to do, how to live. And if I respond in faith to what He says, if I am prepared to be obedient to His instructions and love the people around me, then I am walking into the future with this God who loves me, and He promises that the end of that journey is going to be really good.