Faith in the Future: hope

Thinking back over the book “Stranger than we can Imagine”, would I recommend it?
I’m not sure I would – it’s a fascinating look back over the 20th century but it doesn’t leave you with any sense of hope about the 21st-century. And hope, substantial hope in something solid, is what we all really need right now.

The author, John Higgs, acknowledges that an ‘absolute’ to believe in would be ‘brilliant’ but he has nothing to offer or suggest. And we all need to have faith in the future. Having a child is the ultimate expression of hope in the future. To create, to invest or even to plant seeds and grow vegetables is also to express some kind of sense of hope in the future.

I believe that both the reality (current) and the possibility (future) of the kingdom of God is the hope of the world.

As I look around my peers, those sharing roughly the same decade of life was me (I’m in my mid-50s) I see a variety of ways in which they are finding hope. Some friends have been and still are clinging to life itself, having already been struck with life altering or life limiting conditions. Their hope is simply that they will live.

But what about those of us who are rather complacently taking that fact for granted? We still need hope to get us up each day, we need hope to pull ourselves into a future, we need hope that life is worthwhile and meaningful.

Many of my peers are beginning to find that ‘hope’ or reason for existence in the grandchildren which are now coming along. Or they find it in their accumulation of wealth and/or business success. Nothing wrong with either of these two but neither of them are a ‘given’ that can be relied on.

We cannot demand that our children provide us with grandchildren, that is assuming we have even had the gift of children in the first place.  Nor are we all part of “successful” enterprises. I’ve seen so many couples in their 50s or 60s take up a project (usually abroad) where they can see how their time and energy and money have made visible, measurable difference and there’s wrong with that either!

I guess this is all about our human desire to feel like we have left a legacy, made a difference, that our lives have been lived for a purpose.

But what if you are called to bury yourself into what might feel like a deep dark place where nothing seems to grow? Where hopes and dreams become limited? Try dedicating yourself to the needs of a disabled child or a diminishing parent with dementia or even a dwindling congregation for that matter. If that is where you are at, or in some similar situation, then you need to find a better reason for hope than mere prosperity, multitudes of grandchildren or visible signs of significant “success”.

But here is the BIG TRUTH – (forgive the capitals but this is the ‘knockout punch’that most people spend their lives trying to dodge).The BIG TRUTH is that we all need a reason for hope, meaning that gets us out of bed.

All of us need this hope – you may be blessed with a multitude of distractions in the form of children, grandchildren, wealth or successful enterprises but none of these can be relied upon. All of them can bring joy and grief in equal measure.

The truth that gives me hope is that God is present in our world, God knows me, calls me, sees me, created, even me, for a purpose. My contributions to the world particularly when they are part of bringing in the kingdom of God in any way that enriches anyone else are valuable and noted. Knowing this God is what gives me a sense of hope for the future. Deepening my own awareness of the presence of God in our world and working towards our earth becoming more like heaven (‘on earth as it is in heaven’) and less like hell, seeing signs of this kingdom through God’s presence in me and in the world is what gives me hope.

This IS an absolute – it’s called the kingdom of heaven. Jesus repeatedly called it a feast, a banquet, a party, a wedding. It’s an image of joy, community, celebration and belonging.

You are also invited.

Come on in.

feast1

Women, politics and hope

Yesterday evening I enjoyed a lovely meal with a group of girlfriends I hadn’t seen for a while. On previous such occasions the main focus of our conversation would be about the personal details of our lives “how are the kids doing?”, “Where are you going on holiday?”, that type of stuff.

But last night we talked more about politics and cultural shifts in society than anything else. And not in any dry disconnected, impersonal way. We shared deep despair and anxiety about what we see happening around us.

We reflected, and this has been said many times already in the last month, that we have been living through “momentous times” but when I came home from the evening out and heard the news of yet another shooting atrocity, this time in Munich, it struck me that the true nature of this period of history will only actually be known with hindsight.

It had seemed to us, talking quietly in a beautiful garden on a lovely summer evening that the world around us was going mad: children mowed down by a truck at the seaside, an unarmed black man with his hands in the air (a position of total surrender and vulnerability) shot by police in America, racism and xenophobia seemingly legitimised by the Brexit vote.

Our lives are touched by these events in different and personal ways, each of us unique. For Matthew, our son, the love of his life is a wonderful girl called Stine, who happens to be Danish and is planning to come over here to live and find work in order to be with the person she loves. There is nothing wrong in that but will she be made to feel welcome, I hope so. Emma and Ben, our daughter and son-in-law, were on holiday near Nice last week and could so easily have been on the seafront but even when not on holiday they both live, work and travel in places that might be considered terrorist risk areas.

One of my friends told me about a mutual friend who has worked for a big national UK company for 20 years and is married to an English woman who was asked by a colleague, in all seriousness, on June 24 “what are you still doing here?”. Our friend is French. My own husband’s firm employs numerous foreign nationals partly because there simply are not UK engineers out there to be recruited.

Even in my local, mainly white, mainly middle-class neighbourhood, someone had gone around posting stickers on lampposts each with the phrase “gas the immigrants”.

“Grossly offensive” doesn’t even begin to cover that message. Horrific shades of extreme right-wing Nazi politics which tapped into the downtrodden and those who felt hard done by in Germany. All this and I tremble when I hear Donald Trump declaring that he is the candidate of the poor and the downtrodden.

I’m sure in many places in the UK and all over Europe groups of friends may have gathered on similar sunny evenings during the summer of 1939. They might have anguished and worried about their world ‘going mad’. Possibly they also knew that they were living in “momentous times” but just how momentous would only be revealed with hindsight.

What’s all this shows is that ALL events and ALL attitudes have the potential to be momentous. All it takes to bring about a huge change is for the myriad small actions and attitudes of people to accumulate to a tipping point. Like the myriad of ‘protest’votes that were cast for the leave campaign “because I really didn’t think it would make any difference”. The upside of this argument is that a myriad of small positive actions and attitudes can also make a huge difference.

Who knows how momentous the summer of 2016 might be for our world or what might unfold in the next few years. But, as in 1939-45, so now: it is the individual acts of kindness, generosity, welcome, inclusion, compassion and forgiveness that are the only thing that will turn the tide against the rise of evil.

When Jesus spoke of the end times he spoke about a diminution of kindness “for many others, the overwhelming spread of evil will do them in, nothing left of their love but amount of ashes”. (Matthew 24:11, 12 Eugene Peterson The Message).

The stories we prefer to recall from World War II are precisely those stories of people who took extraordinary personal risks to save the outcast and oppressed (the Jews), those who showed compassion as well as courage. And also those who, when the darkness was passed, worked hard for reconciliation and peace.

As I’ve reflected on all of this this morning, three things have given me hope.

Firstly, a snippet of information from the Munich news story about social media being used positively by ordinary people to rescue terrified people stranded in Munich city centre after the public transport was closed. On Twitter many city centre residents posted #offeneTur which translates #opendoor, meaning that they would be willing to take in any stranded strangers needing shelter or hospitality.   What a brilliant example of the power of ordinary people to make the world a safer place for complete strangers who they recognise as simply other human beings in need.

Can we also be those who ‘hold the door open’ to our fellow human beings who are frightened, rejected, to the the stranger, or to someone who simply speaks English with an accent or has a different ethnic heritage from our own.

(The whole idea of an open door is a metaphor that resonates very deeply within me – struggling as we do with a physically closed door)

Secondly, we watched a brilliant  documentary about the making of the opening ceremony for the 2012 games in London

Imagine: An extraordinary night http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p041g600

This was a reminder of a period in our history only four years ago, when we felt as a nation jaded and cynical, lacking self-confidence. The documentary was a story of how a group of volunteers helped to create the incredible pageantry and story of the opening ceremony in which the lives of ordinary people was celebrated and shown to be powerful.

The opening ceremony was followed by another huge success, not the games themselves necessarily but that other volunteer group called “the games makers”. People who brought transformation because they served selflessly according to values such as welcome, hospitality, kindness, generosity, helpfulness. Values espoused by all major religions but expressed supremely well as the fruit of the spirit in Galatians 5:22.

I recommend this documentary to you if you need a dose of hopefulness in a dark world, to be reminded of the power of creative teamwork and the excitement generated by generous and committed service.

Thirdly, my final encouragement  this week was reading a book called “Wonder” by R J Palacio. A children’s book, it can be read very quickly but is very powerful in its message. Deserving of a review all of its own I will blog about it another time suffice to say that it is the story of a young child going to school for the first time at the age of nine, this child has a severe facial disfigurement due to a genetic problem.

Here is the line that impacted me the most most.

“If it comes down to a choice between being right or being kind: choose kindness”

This has relevance to the political issues this post has been discussing (and aware that not everyone I know, nor everyone who reads this blog or knows me will have voted in the same way all have the same views that I have)

“Faith, hope and love abide” said St Paul, “but the greatest of these is love”

 

 

‘Echoes of a Voice’ – experiences that point us to God

I have just watched an extraordinary film. Moving, beautiful and life-affirming; at one moment hilariously funny and at the next acutely uncomfortable: extraordinary is the only word that will cover it.  

Departures is a Japanese film directed by Yojiro Takhita, an Oscar bid in 2008. It tells the story of a young man who looses his job as an orchestra cellist and returns to his home town with his young wife. He is desperate for work of any kind and replies to an advert that sounds like a travel agency. He is hired before he realises that dealing with ‘departures’ actually means dealing with the ‘departed’. Taken on as an apprentice in ‘casketing’ he is taught how to prepare bodies for their cremation, but not in some back room of a funeral parlour rather through an intensely moving ritual performed in front of the grieving relatives in which the body of their loved one is washed and dressed with the utmost tenderness and respect, before being laid into the casket.

Daigo is initially appalled by the idea of handling dead bodies (his wife even more so) but he comes to realise the healing power of this simple but profound ritual in the lives of those who call for his services.  The biggest surprise of all is the healing power it has in his own life…

Given that it had almost as many corpses as characters and a huge cast of grieving, angry, distressed, hysterical relatives, it neither descended into despair nor gave way to ‘schmaltzy’ sentimentality. Yes, you probably will cry, but those tears will not have been manipulated out of you by cinematic contrivance. Instead, like a deeply vibrating note from Daigo’s cello (the music is beautiful), the film simply portrays some of life’s bleakest moments and your own  memories and emotions cannot help but resonate. That makes it sound like an experience you’d be unlikely to want to pay for but this is a really great film, I’d encourage you to see it. Especially if, like me, you have any part to play in funerals ( I promise you,  taking an Anglican funeral will seem like a walk in the park compared to this!) 

If you’ve ever given birth you’ll no doubt remember the intensely intimate and dependant relationship you had with your midwife during labour  and being the professional taking a family through a funeral is a similar kind of privelege, only at the other end of life.

Departures turns out not to be a story about loss at all but rather a story about embracing life, something we can only do when we equally embrace our losses and griefs.

I loved it. It’s slow-moving and visually very beautiful (I felt as if I’d visited Japan) and also culturally fascinating. It spoke eloquently about the value and power of ritual to allow us to articulate our grief. No wonder it is the emotionally constrained Japanese who have formulated this extraordinary ceremony.

Why didn’t it depress me? It was a film full of funerals after all. Because, as one of the friends who watched it with me said, ‘it was full of hope’.  It wasn’t a neatly articulated hope, succinctly expressed in some slick soundbite:  but it was the hope that relationships are more important than achievement, individual lives count and love matters more than anything. 

Something else has given me hope this week. I have been reading a Christian ‘apologetic’ book. That strange term is simply the name we give to a piece of writing that defends a set of beliefs.  This one is a recent book by Tom Wright called Simply Christian. There are very few really good apologetic books: they are either too obscure to be of any use to anyone not prepared to take a crash course in theology or so simplistic and formulaic they make the Christian God sound predictable, containable and more like a slot machine (‘line up the oranges and you have won eternal life’!) than the wild, mysterious, boundless God I believe him to be. 

However this book is shaping up to be different. So far the author has not insulted my intelligence but has required of me a reasonable knowledge of the forces that have shaped the culture of western societies for the last few hundred years.  (A Radio 4 listener would cope).  I confess I’m only 4 chapters in but so far he has approached the whole idea of belief in God as if it were a reasonable idea based on the ‘echo of a voice’ that we all hear in our common human experiences. Experiences such as:  our shared desire for justice in the world, combined with our common frustration that the world is not a safe or fair place and that this is largely due to our own inability to make it so. The fact that we all value relationships most of all but we all screw them up as well. The fact that we appreciate beauty but everything turns to dust eventually. The fact that death feels like an aberration, the sense that we were made for something more, that this can’t be all there is. To me, these seems like good places to start the process of wondering whether there is an ‘other’ somewhere in the universe who tells us this is not how it was meant to be and calls us to a relationship we can’t screw up (because it depends on someone whose love will never fail us) and a life that doesn’t end as ashes in an urn.

The book reminded me why I am a Christian. The film reminded me why I’m glad to be one. In the face of  loss and grief or  the brevity and seemingly random misery of life and death, everyone finds a ‘something’ to hang on it.  In Christianity I’ve found not a ‘something’ but a someone who offers me hope.  And this hope is not some wimpy bit of wishful thinking but something far more substantial and active. The Bible calls it a ‘sure anchor for the soul’, it’s the hope that there is a God, he did make us for more than just this life and he does like us.

Tom Wright's book cover

If you prefer to hear Tom Wright speak you can listen to a series of lectures called ‘Simply Christian: why Christianity makes sense’ on YouTube start at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hWn-vt7SeNo