What are places of hope? Where do we find these places that give us inspiration? The truth is that most of us, as we age, become more aware of the suffering around us. Some of us become very clever at denial, living in our own little world, but most of us face the challenge of suffering every day. And as we age we are more aware of others’ suffering and our own. There are some strange manifestations of this; some will say “what is the world coming to?” as if suffering is somehow new or worse than it was. I always want to remind these people about the Holocaust, slavery, the crusades, witch trials, etc…but my wife says it wouldn’t make any difference, people tend to only believe their own experience. And speaking of that I find it even odder that very smart adults manage to go through life with a child-like faith, believing God has protected them because of good behaviour. Meanwhile all around them are innocent people suffering, but this apparently has no impact on the world view of these child-like believers. I remember the Sunday after 9-11 when all of the people jammed into church had this “how could this happen to us” look on their face. We manage to live in our own little bubble.
Once we become aware of suffering we have to come to terms with its meaning in our lives. Fundamentalists like to blame, they believe those who suffer do so because the sufferer has done something morally wrong. Evangelicals often see matters of faith very personally, that God is testing them, or using them, or showing them, something deeper in matters of faith. Roman Catholics are the most accepting of suffering of any faith group I know, they see it less as a punishment or twist to their life story and more as an opportunity to witness, to live with suffering allows others to see how faith can sustain and explain.
I love the way Jean Vanier of L’Arche explains suffering, he sees it not as a test, a punishment, a twist in the road, a witness, but more as a pretext to compassion and empathy. Vanier says that when we confront our suffering, the suffering of the other, we move to a place of connection, of a sisterhood and brotherhood that fits us together as family. Vanier says that in the moment we see the other as part of us and see their suffering as our suffering we become human and we open ourselves to a new kind of relationship, one based on seeing the beauty in the other. In our frailty there remains profound beauty, seeing that beauty in the other allows us to be who we are meant to be.
If you accept all of this then you need to look for sign, places and people of hope. Like an ark they sustain, protect and gather us together for the journey of life that lays ahead. Churches can be such places and they often are. But other places are hope-filled; hospices, nature, a dining room table, a drop-in centre, a park, a community garden, sacred places that belong to other faiths. Sometimes I come upon such places and sometimes I need to seek them out.
As we enter 2017 I am conscious of the need to find these places of hope and to settle into them when needed, even when I am not immediately in need of them. Bethany can be a place of hope, I have experienced this. But being intentional about how we do this and when we do this is part of my role. I eagerly look forward to fostering this spirit.