Be Joyful in Hope

faith believesOn Wednesday evening as part of our Lent course, a group of us from church studied a passage from Romans 12: 9-21. In the CEV the chapter is entitled ‘How to live the new life of Love’. How to… indeed… that is the question.

This passage gets really specific. 21 instructions follow one after the other, after the other. All fleshing out what it means, what it actually looks like to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ (the second of Jesus’s two commandment summary, the first being to love God). It means hospitality, respect, sharing what you have, blessing those are mean to you, not thinking too highly of yourself, not paying back evil for evil.

It’s a pretty tall order!

We all aspire to it but, let’s be honest, there are bits in there that are downright difficult.

This time though, the phrase that ‘shimmered’ for me when we read this passage reflectively was ‘Be joyful in hope…‘. The amplified version says ‘Rejoice and exult in hope‘.

How is this possible for any of us when we are in the middle of any story of pain, uncertainty or even just find ourselves in a situation that makes us anxious for which we don’t yet know the ending.

What came to me is that it’s only possible to be ‘exultant in hope’ if you know how the story will end. If you are confident that things will, eventually, one way or another turn out okay, you don’t know how, you don’t know when but only if you are sure that one day ‘all will be well’ then you CAN be exultant in hope’.

I am a sucker for films with happy endings. Actually I’m worse than that, I do my best to avoid films with sad endings. Before watching a film, I will ask around about the ending ‘I don’t know want to know how it ends’ I say, ‘I only want to know if it’s sad or happy’.  Is is a ‘weepy’ or a ‘whoopee’?

Then I can relax. I don’t then mind how bumpy or scary the story is along the way because I have the security of knowing that ultimately it will turn out okay.  Yes, you may think I’m pathetic as far as this analogy relates to films and I’m willing to admit that I am!

But it’s true of life, how can we face the unbearable sadness all around us unless we have hope? Big scale issues like the pollution, the oppression, the inequality between the rich and the poor and small scale personal tragedies: illnesses that become terminal, sicknesses that becomes chronic, accidents that happen meaninglessly and violence that robs lives.

Being an optimist that things will ultimately turn out okay in the face of that long list can sometimes feel as unlikely as whistling a melody in a storm and hoping your tune will be heard.

But Paul wasn’t an unrealistic optimist. He asked us to be ‘joyful in hope’ because there really is certainty that ‘all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well’ (Julian of Norwich in her Reflections on Divine Love). He bases his hope on the historical fact of the Resurrection: death is beaten. It has been dealt a mortal blow, and although death still reigns now, it will ultimately be done away with. And God ‘who does not want anyone to perish’ will have his heart’s desire, the people he created in order that he might love them and that they might know His love in return.

‘God will be forever God, all loving, all holy, all compassionate and we will grow in our knowledge of God, discovering ever greater depths to that love and compassion and goodness; and God’s love will not let God rest until all of God’s creatures have been drawn into the ambit of that love and compassion and caring… This is how highly God regards us, how deeply God loves us; and it is beyond our computing, beyond our comprehension.’  Desmond Tutu from In God’s Hands  the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book recommendation.

Another voice, from the opposite end of the theological spectrum, says the same thing:

There will be pain, and then great joy. In the end, joy wins. So if joy has not won yet, it is not the end’ 

(John Ortberg in Soul-Keeping, easily the best book I read last year.)

And to go back to that list of 21 commandments – how or why do we try to live that way? Desmond Tutu again ‘God hopes that we, who have experienced the wonder and depth of God’s love, will be enlisted in God’s team, to seek to draw in those outside, by emulating God’s ways. We are enlisted to attract the recalcitrant, ultimately by love, by compassion and by caring. After all many in the Ancient world were drawn into the Church when they witnessed just how these Christians loved one another’.

The Bigger Picture

The day I left for Mozambique I opened my email in the morning. In one, a close friend from my small group at church shared that she had been praying for me and had been given the picture of world as seen from space and gave me words of encouragement that she felt God intended my trip to give me a wider perspective on the world. In the same batch of emails, another friend sent me a NASA link to video images of the world taken from outer space! When God co-ordinates two people with the same message – it’s not a bad idea to listen up!

I am indeed gaining a wider perspective on the world and its problems. That my trip was framed by these images at the beginning and affected by the Public Sector Strike at the end has given me real pause for thought. Thank you to the many who prayed for me, my worst fears about long delays and a possible overnight stay in Johannesburg were not realised. The journey home could not have been smoother and at 7am in Heathrow there wasn’t even a queue at passport control.

Now I know that Jeremy Clarkson has been in the news over incredibly crass comments he has made regarding those public sector workers who went on strike and what follows is not a comment on their right to strike, which I wholeheartedly support. It’s merely a reflection on what we see as our needs seen from a bigger perspective.

Here is a man I saw in Beira

When I glimpsed him from the car, it was not just his condition that impacted me. The words on his T shirt read (in Portuguese) ‘we provide opportunities for all’. It’s a poignant image: this man’s opportunities being very clearly limited. As  he walked away I quickly took this photo because it spoke so loudly about what life is like for so many in the third world. It’s very unlikely that this man has a pension and he lives in a country where there is not even a free health service.  He likely survives by begging or maybe, if he is lucky, he has family and friends to care for him.

I’m not saying that we should not stand up for ‘our rights’  or bring pressure to bear when we are being badly treated, I am saying that when we do so we should also remember the poor, those who have nothing and remember just how rich we are. We live in a country where there is clearly enough disposable income to support the  300 new Starbucks Drive in cafes that were also announced this week. Don’t get me wrong, I love coffee and this investment is great news in terms of job creation but it’s a reminder of just how wealthy we are.

This morning on Radio 4 there was an almost good news story: the number of people giving to charity has remained stable in spite of the economic crisis. The trouble is that, due to inflation, the value of their giving has gone down significantly. But still, 6 out of 10 adults give regularly (good news) and women age 45-60 are the most likely to give to charity, usually a medical research charity (not such great news? it just strikes me as slightly self-serving – by all means let’s search for a cure for cancer but let’s also carry the already available and simple cures for many other life threatening ailments out to those who need them)

On arrival at Johannesburg airport I picked up a book by Desmond Tutu called God Has A Dream, I had read it right through in the six hours I had before take off! It was the opening paragraph that grabbed my attention:

‘Dear Child of God, I write these words because we all experience sadness, we all come at times to despair and we all lose hope that the suffering in our lives and in our world will never end. I want to share with you my faith and my understanding that this suffering can be transformed and redeemed’

Desmond Tutu is a man who radiates hope and has somehow held on to a faith in loving and all powerful God in the face of more horrors, poverty and atrocity than you or I are ever likely to see. His vision of a God who loves us and wants to partner with us to transform the world helped restore my own confidence in the bigger picture. His faith feels contagious. He is warm and fuzzy and will be far too liberal for most conservative evangelicals but I think anyone who has managed to keep faith and hope alive in such difficult times has something worthy to say and deserves to be heard.

If you would like to donate to Casa Re’om, the home for street boys that I went to visit, here is a link that tells you how you can: http://www.stmatthews.org.uk/Articles/289436/m2o_Rugby/Connect/Outreach/Mission/Casa_ReOm/Casa_ReOm_Christmas.aspx