The hope that you have
The theme of our service today is 'one refugee without hope is too many', and I am glad that we are focusing on this issue. But when I pondered the topic for what I might say about it I realised that I wanted to go wider, to say that 'one person without hope is too many.' And to ask each of us the question, 'from your experience, why do you hope, and what do you hope for?'
You might be familiar with the verse from 1 Peter that in my former Christian experience was routinely quoted as a text to support the practice of evangelism:
1 Peter 3.15 – “make your defence to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you” (NRSV) or in the NJB: “always have your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope that you have.”
In my background, the cognitive aspect of this verse was emphasised... the ability to give an accounting, or a reason for your beliefs. Notice the nifty way that 'beliefs' got substituted for 'hope.' It meant being prepared with an answer to the question 'what must I do to be saved?'which amounted to a persuasive explanation of the transaction that took place when Jesus died on the cross. It may have had very little to do with our personal experience of finding hope in the midst of despair or sorrow, or holding on to the goodness of God in the face of change and confusion.
It is likely that this letter of 1 Peter was written to people suffering intense and horrible persecution. Probably the 'hope' of these early Christians had to do with their sense that the end was coming soon, and that there was a resurrected life for them to step into after the trials of this one ended. I suspect that the answer that they had ready for the question 'why and in what do you hope?' would have had something to do with a Lord Christ who had entered into suffering ahead of them, and been raised from the dead, and that in the midst of the brutality of this life, somehow this risen Christ was in all and over all, working things out for the good, whether now or later.
I think that 'hope' has to be understood differently in different contexts, in different times, and needs to respond to whatever it is in our current world that erases or extinguishes hope. For these early Christians, it was the threat of great suffering. What is it for us?
As our focus on world refugee day has reminded us, for some people the very basics of life are precarious, and every day is a painful trial. In the midst of persecution, deprivation, suffering and grief, what hope does faith in Christ offer?
For others, there is relative comfort and ease in a material sense, but a life lived with the burdens of mental and emotional pain. What does Christ say to this kind of distress?
For others, the questions of meaning and purpose, questions of the value of my life and whether I am worthy to be loved, and whether I have a contribution to make, undermine hope. Where is Christ in these questions?
Still others suffer from our peculiar modern diseases of overwork, stress, disconnection and loneliness, and lack of a sense of community or intimacy. What does Christian hope look like here?
The point I am trying to make is that there isn't just one answer – or at least, the hope of Jesus Christ is inflected in multiple ways through multiple sorrows. When we speak to the hope-less-ness of the world, we need language that fits the particular shape of that which has been lost, and we need to know from the inside what we're talking about. We do Christianity a dis-service when we slap the 'Jesus' band-aid on all the problems of the world without living into our own experience of being grasped by hope in the midst of confusion and pain. There are as many 'accountings for the hope that is in us' as there are experiences of losing and finding hope. It is not a question of learning how to tell 'the' story, but it is a question of learning how to tell 'our' story. And having a story to tell means being willing to go on the precarious journey where we choose – or are forced by circumstances – to trust God for our very lives.
Margaret Silf, in her book Inner Compass writes about the calling of Christians to be 'expert witnesses' – to the living reality of God. But she's not talking about our nifty arguments or our ability to explain our faith in words. She's talking about taking the risk of embarking on a real journey of trust, where our experience of meeting God in the midst of change and difficulty speaks for itself in our transparent vulnerability. Because the word 'expert' is related to the word 'experience', from the Latin 'experior' – “to try, prove, test, undertake, attempt, risk, undergo, experience, contend with.” Expert witnesses to the reality of God need simply to speak from where they've been and what they've seen, and then only if asked. Prior to that, their 'expertise' will be seen in the depth and grounded-ness of their lives.
In this world there is so much pain and difficulty – from the crisis of refugees leaving their homes to the person whose baby is diagnosed with multiple disabilities to the parent and breadwinner who is facing redundancy, to the person who sits at their computer at home wishing they had a real flesh and blood friend to visit them. In our own experience of facing change and distress, have we risked opening our raw and vulnerable hearts to God and praying, not so much for things to be fixed, but for God to meet us and become real to us in the midst of our pain? Or have we just sorted things out as quickly and as painlessly as we can?
Have we risked trusting God to have our backs as we reach out to others with honesty and vulnerability, knowing that we might get hurt? Have we been willing to name our ordinary experiences and feelings as we go through a day as the nudges and invitations of God? Have we tried to press pause on all the ways we anaesthetise ourselves from pain, and all the ways we try to distract ourselves from the here and now, in order to listen for the voice of God in the pain of the present moment? Have we discovered that when unwanted and unchosen things happen to us, that even here, God is bringing us an invitation to go deeper? Can we say, in our own words, that in the midst of loss, we knew ourselves to be not alone?
All these things are expressions of a life of faith – faith practised in day by day reality. And if all we've done is learned how to talk about faith, or in many of our cases, how to dismantle the doctrinal edifice of a former faith, then we will have very little to say about where hope is in the midst of the struggles of life, and very little to offer anyone else who is drowning.
You will have heard me speak before of a woman I visit who is suffering from MS and who is struggling and lost in the midst of her torment. Because of damage that she's experienced to her brain, anything I say has to be simple, brief, and grounded in the concrete. I can't talk with nuance, qualification, complexity. I have to say what I know, and what I have found to be true. 'Do you know God?' she asks me. 'How?' she says. 'Why me?' she asks. In these visits I discover the poverty of my faith when the interesting ideas are taken out of the picture, and I have to rely on my own experience of God's goodness in offering her a slender thread of hope. She doesn't want to hear that God is good because Jesus died on the cross. Maybe one day she will come to understand that, but right now she needs to come to an inner knowing that her life is still worth something, and she is still lovable when all of her previous ways of measuring worth have been taken away. I won't be able to talk her into this. She needs to feel it from me, and feel it in me. The only reality in that situation is what I have come to discover for myself.
As a Christian community, when we encounter in the world, or in our own midst, the multiple ways that people lose hope and feel despair, what do we have to offer? How are we encouraging the fully lived and risky lives of faith in each other that will make us 'expert witnesses' to the reality of God? And to what extent do we provide sanctuary for the hope-less out of our own conviction that there is indeed reason to hope? One person without hope is too many. We were not created for despair, but for the joy of communion with God. May we learn from our own experience what it is to be hope-bearers in a world that has precious few grounds for hope – let us do that for each other, and together, let us be that for all those whose lives touch ours.