Finding hope

November 29th, 2017

The spirit of hope

Advent, the season preceding Christmas, is a season of hope and expectation. The spirit of hope permeates this season even in the secular stories of our day. Consider the stories we tell this time of year, from It’s a Wonderful Life to the story of Ebenezer Scrooge’s Christmas conversion.

Finding hope, however, isn’t always easy and can often take time and work to achieve. Yet even in today’s news, though dark and terrifying, there are signs of hope. The following is one such story.

Brenda Tracy’s story

Brenda Tracy was an accomplished professional, a nurse with a bachelor’s degree and a master of business administration. Yet, she felt like two different people. On one hand, she was the confident professional, and then there was “this other Brenda who was not able to sleep at night and hated herself.”

In a quest to reconcile these warring selves, Tracy sought out counseling. Through that process, she began to deal with both the sexual abuse she had suffered as a child and a traumatic incident of sexual violence she had experienced as a young adult. When Tracy was 24, she was raped by several men, including two football players at Oregon State University. At first, she went to the police about the incident, who arrested all accused of being involved. However, Tracy decided not to continue with the case in the face of threats from fans of the team and the district attorney’s belief that there was little chance of conviction.

Because two of her accused attackers were football players at Oregon State, Tracy had long held onto profound anger against their coach, Mike Riley, who she felt had the opportunity to effect change but did little. After punishing the two players with a one-game suspension, Riley was quoted as saying, “These are very good guys who made bad choices.”

After years of battling with her memories, along with her anger and frustration about Riley’s good-guy public image, Tracy decided it was time to tell her story. She contacted John Canzano, a journalist for The Oregonian, and recounted her horrific experience to him over coffee. He published the story a few months later.

When Riley began to hear about Tracy’s experience, he was distraught. “It made me do a lot of self-reflection,” he said. Riley was a Christian man and saw himself as the kind of coach who took seriously the character development part of coaching. But in this instance, he knew he had been wrong and had failed badly. “It was a mistake, but it was the mistake of a life. Of affecting someone’s life in this horrible way. And that’s just a horrible feeling. No, not a feeling. A knowledge. A horrible, horrible knowledge.”

“Set the expectation”

Tracy had thought for a long time about meeting and confronting Riley, so when Canzano offered to put them in contact with each other, Tracy took him up on it. Riley had recently taken a new job as the head coach at Nebraska and invited Tracy to speak to his team about her experience.

After arriving in Lincoln, she met with Riley for an hour and unleashed the full force of her terrible story as he listened quietly. Riley apologized for all the pain that he had caused her through his inaction, and she forgave him. In fact, she had decided even before she met him that she would forgive him, “Forgiveness was for me. It was not for him. It was for me. It was for me to let go of the hatred I had for this man.”

After her meeting with Riley, she spoke to the 100 members of his football team. There, she shared the story of her rape at the hands of football players like them. Her speech was uncomfortable and captivating and powerful.

Soon after, Tracy was invited to speak at another school, and then another. Baylor, SMU and Oklahoma called asking for her to share with their teams. She eventually took a leave of absence from her nursing career and became, almost by accident, an activist working to change the rape culture that surrounds college football and the laws surrounding sexual violence across the country.

After speaking to so many teams, she began a campaign called Set the Expectation, which includes a pledge that members of the program can sign that clearly states sexual and domestic violence are never acceptable and will not be tolerated. Perpetrating such violence would be cause for dismissal from the team. This past spring, the Penn State men’s basketball team became the first to sign the pledge, followed by the Stanford football team. Stanford coach David Shaw said, “We told our players, this is a pledge to yourself. You’re signing it for yourself. This is how I’m going to conduct my relationships. This is how a Stanford man should operate.”

Tracy is willing to suffer the pain of retelling her story over and over again in order to see change take place. Speaking to the University of Houston football team, she said, “A lot of people look at football players and say you’re the problem. I look at you and think you’re the solution.”

She believes that although the vast majority of the men who hear her speak do not and will not perpetrate violence, they are still the key to changing the culture around sports and our society. Setting a different expectation, a higher expectation, is one way that change is possible. And that’s the source of Brenda Tracy’s hope.

Advent hope

Often, when we use the word hope, we think of it as something disconnected from reality. Hope is frequently viewed as something distant and unattainable, the idea we hold on to as we go through times of despair so that we know there’s something better.

However, while hope can be useful in hard times, it’s also rooted much deeper in our daily lives. Hope is defined not only as a desire for change but also as a desire for change with an expectation that it will occur. In the same way Brenda Tracy’s work brings hope for a world free of sexual violence and assault, Advent fills us with hope for a world made new and the coming of a Messiah who will bring the salvation of all humanity.

The Scriptures we read during Advent operate on several different levels. On one level, they point to an expectation that God will provide the promised Messiah for the people of Israel. On another, they remind us that we have hope today for forgiveness, healing, and wholeness through the work of the Lord who came and died for us. On a third level, Advent points to hope in Christ’s return, in which God will bring all things to completion and the world will be redeemed, fulfilling God’s will for all of creation. In all of these cases, whether it be Israel seeking a savior, us seeking God’s presence today, or the church anticipating Christ’s final victory, Advent is always looking forward in expectation.

Writing for, Justin Holcomb puts it this way: “While Israel would have sung the song in expectation of Christ’s first coming, the church now sings the song in commemoration of that first coming and in expectation of the second coming in the future.”

Whether we’re remembering the hope fulfilled for a Messiah, praying for the hope of God’s work and special presence this season, or praying for Christ’s return to finish what God has begun, we’re filled with the expectation for God to act during this season of Advent.

For Brenda Tracy, hope wasn’t easy to come by. It came in fits and starts and wavered often. Her story is one of resilience, and it’s a story we can admire and hope to emulate. Hope can take time, but hope is also worth it, because hope is foundational not only to our Christian faith but also to our humanity.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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