It seems today, many of the thoughts that we have been able to push back in our minds have become the loudest voices in the room. We must answer them back—for now we know that if we don’t engage in that conversation, we won’t be able to move forward in many ways.
I am not going to even try to suggest a list of things we might have in common around that topic, but I feel safe in assuming you know just what I am talking about.
Over the years as a priest in the Church, I always felt a duty to have the right answers, to say the right things at the perfect time and help people work through difficult questions. Most clergy have a host of familiar and formal doctrinal responses ready to go. Like a good number of people, I found comfort in them, or at least that I had a place from which I could say, “time to move on!” Most Christians share these answers too, so I know I am not alone there. To this day I feel a sense of duty to study, share, teach, and provide hope every day.
Because I am a bishop, it is also my duty to ensure that there are clear pathways to ensure that the ongoing life of our communities of faith can safely journey on, while at the same time calling people to find, as the admonishing funeral prayer of the Book of Common Prayer reminds us: “to be deeply sensible of the shortness and uncertainty of human life and to work for the confidence of a certain faith, so we may rest in the comfort of a reasonable, religious and holy hope”.
If anything, the realities and shifts we are facing because of the pandemic we are living through have opened a door for some honest thinking. We have to face reality.
Many think that young people have “left the Church” or simply stopped caring. I don’t believe it for a second. They are critical thinkers as they travel their roads seeking authenticity and meaning. My experiences, whether socially, academically, or theologically, in which young people share insights and ask questions, fill me with hope. What kind of questions? “How can life be both beautiful be sad?” “How do we define happiness and security in the midst of loss and ongoing change?” Where is the hope of going on when we are mourning?” “Why do people hate those who are different?”
Young people don’t want doctrinal or traditional answers to questions: they want and need honest hearts, to come alongside and honestly share our doubts and risky personal experiences. We who are older need to be mentored by young people who are living “unprotected” in the real world. We who claim to be people of hope and faith need to learn just what being honest about our own doubts and fears means.
This pouring out of thoughts is to share a few thoughts about hope, faith, heaviness and fear. They are obviously different; however, they are all members of the same “bubble.” Sorry! I couldn’t resist that term. They are indeed members of the same family.
I want to start with a conversation that I had recently with a lay person in our diocese. They had recently lost a child. This child was in the middle of building a life, and moving forward in a promising career. The parent said something like: “I have prayed again and again. I have prayed as much as anyone has ever prayed. God answers some prayers, or so they say. But tell me: why did she die?”
I have had that same conversation in many ways with many people over the years.
Perhaps you have too?
How many times have you heard someone say: “Prepare for the worst, but hope for the best.”?
So, how might we prepare?
I suggest that there are two ways of approaching it.
First, the traditional “churchy” way is to give the same pat answers: God knows best. There is a bigger reason. When we die, there’s a better place. All you can do is believe. You must have faith!
The second is to approach things with hope.
I have learned over the years, that while Christian people often speak of hope and faith in the same breath, they are different. Perhaps we haven’t learned this.
Perhaps we have built walls around ourselves so that we don’t have to explore some tough unbearable questions about tough unbearable realities. It does not have to be that way.
Faith is a belief that there is a greater power in charge of things. To many it is God. To us who follow Jesus, faith has to do with our connection to heaven that was made through God becoming one of us when Jesus was born. It stands to reason then that the relationship we have with the person of Jesus is described as individual, intimate, loving, and concerned.
That is what we expect it to be. We long for it. It’s not unreasonable for anyone to expect or “hope” that our prayers will be answered. If we are being honest, we will admit that we are a people who look for hard and fast evidence.
We spend a lot of time praising God for goodness and mercy, but we don’t spend a lot of time remembering Jesus’ cry on the Cross: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
In my life as a priest, I have been asked to join in prayers of thanksgiving for blessings received as an answer to prayer, and also hear cries of anguish and anger when prayers seem to have been ignored. People want to have blind faith in God, but when things go wrong, how can we continue to hope? What is hope anyway? Can faith and hope exist as separate realities?
There are loads of opinions about that.
St. Paul, in Hebrews Chapter 11, provides as challenging a definition of faith as you can find anywhere: Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, (based on) the evidence of things not seen.
People who are hopeful and outwardly optimistic often become targets of those of us who tend to be more cynical in our outlooks. By the way, some of those cynics are those who identify as people of faith. You have heard many who say it’s silly and naive to be hopeful and optimistic in the midst of cold hard facts and grim realities of life.
I’m on a roll now, so because we are being honest I’ll add this tough observation: There are many people of faith (as well as those who do not profess to be religious in any way) who feel that pessimism, sarcasm, fear, and anger seem like much more effective and useful responses in dealing with a crisis than just being “hopeful.” All you have to do is browse around social media and read a few comments. You will see that this is true:
1. There are people of faith who have hope.
2. There are people who have little time for blind faith who also have hope.
In my life, I have met many people who are faithful and committed to the community and doctrines of Church, who have told me they have faith, but no hope. In contrast, I have met people of faith who told me that it was through the testing of belief (their faith), that they moved on to find hope.
What’s the difference between faith and hope?
Every hopeful person I have ever met has some narrative of hardship that includes ways that they have worked things out and how their hope grew in, and through a time of hardship.
These stories of hope and wisdom come to us as a gift through journeys taken by fellow pilgrims.
It’s important to patiently listen when they are being shared.
There is a peace when one realizes that difficult things and times come to us all without exception. That can only be learned through experience. When I hear people saying “why shouldn’t it be me?” I listen, because I know some honest and experienced insight is going to be offered.
Let me suggest a framework for a definition of hope.
• Hope is that which enables us to keep going through times of upheaval, difficultly and uncertainty.
• Hope requires a desire in your heart to move forward.
• Hope requires us to be humble enough to accept that we do not have all the answers.
• Hope requires effort to move forward in the face of reality.
In other words, hope requires action. Hope takes work.
Sorry, I am not able to give you a list of the types of action you specifically need to take. If we were having a one-on-one conversation, or you were with a group, insights would probably come to you. That’s one reason why we gather our community of faith for study, fellowship, or worship.
Not everyone is free to act in the same way. The type of action I am suggesting depends on your circumstance and context. Think about:
- People in prison,
- People who are in devastating relationships,
- People who have illness that cannot be cured.
- People who live in poverty.
- People overwhelmed emotionally and physiologically, who cannot find a way through.
I find hope in community. Jesus resides here as one of us, in our broken, stubborn and dysfunctional Church. Jesus reminds us over and over how in the context of community we can create an environment of hope. Even if we can’t fix things, everyone can still take hope that we are not alone. Loving and unselfish actions of others give us hope that our faith is not in vain. When we are together in heart and mind as honest pilgrims, who care for each other no matter what, hope can help us all move forward as individuals and as a people. Imagine this: we take a small step because we hope things will work out. When we see it working, even a little, our hope increases even more. Hope, once a flickering ember, can become a growing flame. In the flame we see how faith becomes a substance of things hoped for. Give it a try!
My life experience has called me to hope in love. Love’s hope has gifted me with faith. I have both faith and hope that we will always be able to move beyond fear.
I know that this requires effort, but we have the tools we need for this. We have the spirit of creation’s light inside us. We do have each other; we do have love. We do have our sacred narrative of a God who became one of us.
It’s important to make an effort to hope every day not to abide in fear and darkness. Why? Because we know that to choose to abide in darkness, is to miss countless opportunities in the midst of hardship, confusion and difficulty, to have our hearts and minds…our very lives transformed by grace, faith, love and hope.
Let’s work at it together! I pray we can.
From the Epistle to the Philippians, Chapter 4:
In every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.