This past week as I was going over the lectionary readings, I found myself being drawn to the Apostle Paul’s words in the Book of Romans that speak of suffering, and ultimately, hope. I was probably drawn to those words because my own understanding of hope has been challenged recently. There are two stories I would like to share with you today about hope. One is a Christian story and the other one is not.
A year ago, I was traveling around the Holy Land as a part of a seminary study tour. We spent some time learning about Muslim and Jewish perspectives on religious and political issues in and around Jerusalem and the West Bank, however, we spent the majority of our time learning about the Lutheran churches in Palestine and the struggles of the Palestinian people. We visited churches, schools, refugee camps, Israeli settlements, Holy sites, nature reserves, and more. We spoke with pastors and parishioners, attended church services, and broke bread as honoured guests in private homes, a series of acts which, together, made us not tourists, but friends. In the shadows of the separation wall and armed guard towers, we listened to their stories about the decades old Israel/Palestine war. We waited and wondered as we made our way through security checkpoints, sometimes by bus and sometimes on foot. We caught a glimpse of the daily struggle of the Palestinians.
The daily violence and terror the Palestinian people face is something we might never truly understand. Nor the magnitude of the historical and political injustices that oppress and crush the human spirit. Still, everywhere we went, we heard about an undying hope for justice, hope for an end to the occupation, hope for a return of confiscated lands, hope for reunification with family, hope for a future. We marveled at the strength of those who, despite their suffering, found endurance, character and hope in their situation.
Since that time, you may be aware, violence has erupted in and around Jerusalem. Israeli’s are killing Palestinians, Palestinians are killing Israeli’s. And more recently, a friend of mine, told me about having ISIS pamphlets delivered to homes in Christian neighbourhoods, threatening to inflict violence upon Palestinian and Israeli Christians.
People are suffering physically and psychologically, people are scared to leave their homes due to do indiscriminate killing in the streets, he told me about how his father, a man who had honoured us with a great feast, was walking down the street when his companion was shot out of nowhere. What really hit me in our conversation was that he was really struggling to find even sliver of hope in the situation. I didn’t know what to say in that moment because I have never really been at a place of no hope in my life.
A few days later, a time when I was still reflecting on this conversation. I had another powerful experience that somehow relates to the theme of hope and hopelessness.
I went for a walk with my family on Thursday. I was really excited because Lumi learned how to ride her bike without training wheels this past week in Thunder Bay; I wanted to see her in action. It was a beautiful spring day, sunny and warm, the birds were singing, everything blooming. The kind of day where it is easy to spot God’s handiwork. The majesty of God’s intelligent designs.
We traveled along the Iron Horse Trail to Victoria Park and we picked out a picnic table by the playground, where a little girl with no shoes, who couldn’t speak English, came up to us very excitedly. She pointed to herself and then to Lumi’s bike, motioning that she would really like to ride the bike. Test one. We resisted the urge to judge this little girl, that she might take off with the bike, and said politely that of course she could. Our hope in humanity was rewarded. I don’t think I have ever seen a kid so happy to ride a bike. I later realized how important it must have been for her.
I was sitting on the picnic table with baby Vilja on my lap while Hilla and Lumi played in the park, the little girl still biking up a storm. After a little while, the little girl’s mother, who had been sitting under a shady tree in the distance, came to us carrying her other child, a baby. She could not speak English either. She gestured somehow that she wanted to swap babies. Test number two. Can I trust my baby with this complete stranger? I was put on the spot. To be sure, I had fearful thoughts cross my mind, will she get hurt, but I chose to reject that fear despite her somewhat ragged appearance. We swapped babies. In that act we somehow shared our common humanity and our deep love for our children. I thought it was an act of courage on her part to approach despite not speaking my language. Upon reflection, it seems like she wanted to show gratitude for bringing joy to her other daughter and all she had to offer was this act of friendship.
I asked her where she was from and with the few words of English she could muster, she said Burma. mother, father, Buddhist, Indonesia… and she managed to motion that they had been killed. I will never forget the haunted look in her eyes as she fought back tears. We played with the babies for a little while longer before saying good bye. As we were saying good bye that haunting look returned to her face, and I will never forget it, it was the face of someone who knew what it was like to experience an absence of hope. It was clear that they were refugees and that they had fled for their lives, abandoning everything they knew.
For reasons not fully known, that experience had a deep impact on my wife and I. There were several instances in the exchange that challenged my Christian values, to not judge, to be kind, to love my neighbour. This woman had much to teach me about hope, about my Christian faith. This experience has stirred in me a greater appreciation for the things in life that I take for granted.
Upon further reflection, it struck me that I don’t really know very much about hope, at least not the kind that Paul talks about in our reading from Romans. Paul tells us that suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character and character produces hope. I cannot claim to have suffered or endured. Yet I am grateful to this woman for teaching me that I can have hope that the Holy Spirit moves in us and through us , was put there by God and is nourished by the Gospels of Christ.
In light of all this, I have been wrestling with so many questions, after all, hope, like any other word, has many interpretations. But what is hope? Is suffering a necessary condition of hope? Can we only have hope when we despair? And what is the difference between hope and desire. Is a hope a desire for something that is not, or not yet? If everything is going perfectly well in life are we capable of hope? These two experiences that I have shared with you have opened my eyes to the fact that I haven’t had to suffer as these people have suffered and so my hope has never been put to the test. What do I really know about hope? I am sure that many of you have had experiences in the past which have tested your capacity to hope.
Today, as we celebrate Trinity Sunday, we are reminded that our faith challenges us to continuously deepen our understanding of God. There are no easy answers, but God comes to us through the various persons of Trinity. Jesus leads us by example and suffers among and with us. God shows God’s love and wisdom through the act of creation. The Holy Spirit sustains us but also gives us strength to do God’s work in the world. Three expressions of the one fundamental truth. And I’ve wondered these past few days whether hope itself is a multi-faceted expression of the Holy Trinity.
Hope might be expressed as an otherworldly, or Christian hope, a hope that speaks of the disembodiment of the spirit, unshackled from this body and this physical plane, re-united with God and the fellow spirits beyond this life, including the one who sits at the right hand.
We have hope for this world too; hope that the Holy Spirit somehow works in us and through us spilling out into the world, especially in those places where there is little to no hope left.
We find hope in Jesus’ suffering, that no matter how broken the human experience can become, Christ has the power to redeem and restore and to nourish our faith.And with that, I hope you all enjoy the rest of your holiday weekend. Thank you for being here today. You are appreciated.