So this weekend, I was asked a very poignant question, and that question was, "What is the hope that is within you?"
This question was asked in the context of a Deanery meeting in which we were discussing some possible restructuring of parishes, deployment of ministry, and so forth. For those of you unfamiliar with the Anglican/Episcopal structure, for administrative and ministry purposes, each of our Dioceses (think provinces or states, depending on where you live) are further divided into Deaneries (think counties). Each of these deaneries are then further divided into Parishes (think municipalities). It's not the most accurate metaphor, but you get the idea.
If you follow the religious world, then you know that most of what has always been called 'mainstream religion' is on the decline in North America: the Catholic church, Anglican/Episcopal, United, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and many others have seen substantial decline in the last 50 years. What this means is that keeping churches open and active continues to be a challenge given the cost of maintaining buildings and paying clergy.
So we as a Deanery met to address this issue and start coming up with solutions. The facilitator of the meeting dropped that question as the last discussion point, and he suggested that we all walk away and wander around the inside or outside of the church and ponder that one for about 15 minutes before coming back to discuss it in our table groups and then bring it back to the large group.
At first, the question did not resonate with me. I am a typical male: solution-focused and not really given over to introspection and navel-gazing, which I at first took the question to be. Hope is not something I feel on a regular basis, and sometimes it can be hard for me to feel optimistic about the future of the church. I know it has one, and I know that it won't look like what it looks like now, but as I do my part to help this new church emerge, it causes me anxiety if anything.
So I got to thinking about this question, and instead of looking forward (where you would naturally expect hope to reside), I looked backward, and realized I do indeed have reason to hope.
I have been pretty candid on this blog about my struggles with depression. I have dealt with issues of grief, substance abuse, abusive relationships, and a number of other things on this blog. I realized as I reflected on this that I have every reason to hope for the future because I had reason to hope in the past.
Let me explain, and this might be where it gets a bit weird.
I, like most people. have reached a bottom where I felt like that was it for me, I was done, there was no way I was ever going to get past this, pick myself up and get on with life. Sparing you the details, I just thought there was no coming back from some things that had happened in my life, there was no way things were going to be okay ever again. But by the grace of God, I got past them, I worked them out, I overcame them and I moved on.
Now don't get me wrong, I didn't exactly fall on my knees and pray or throw myself at the cross. God and/or organized religion and I have had a rocky relationship over the years, and being the atheist that I once was, I was of course not only reluctant but downright opposed to even acknowledging a power higher than myself, much less relying on it.
It would take a long time for me to explain how things shifted for me, but suffice to say that grace entered into my life through doctors, therapists, friends and family both atheist and religious. Gradually, my sense of impending doom shifted to one of hope and joy.
I know, cheesy religious words, but they are the words I need to use because they describe what I felt and what I feel today.
If you have ever read the Bible and looked at in a large-story-arc way, you will probably realize that the whole story is one of God saving people again and again. Saving Noah and his family, saving the Hebrews from Egypt, bringing them into the promised land, saving them from conqueror after conqueror, and even in the times when they were in occupied territory, never abandoning them.
Yes, you can perhaps argue the miraculous nature of some of the stories, but those are not the points of the stories, and you do yourself a disservice by discarding entirely based on that alone. The point of the Bible as a whole is not so much to be a set of rules and dogma (which of course some parts are) but it was meant to be this great story of salvation, or rescue, of love, faith and hope, of the best of our human virtues being passed down through the generations.
I have experienced rescue, love, faith, all those thing on a deeply personal level. I have, at the lowest points in my life, met God in the faces of caring people who helped me over whatever obstacles were in my way.
I'll be honest: I have great difficulty with the concept of a personal God, an omniscient, omnipotent being who sits up there on a cloud and moves all of us around like so many chess pieces. I do not have trouble with the concept of an immanent God who is the embodiment of love, mercy, justice, hope and compassion in the world. No problem at all. Because I have experienced that.
I have experienced those things in the context of a healthy Christian community. I heard of horrible stories of judgment at the hands of Christian communities, so it is clear that they are not all created equal, but if you are part of a good one, you know the blessings that can be. To be part of a community that supports and journeys with you, not only through the celebrations of life, but through the darker corners of life as well.
And that is my hope. That is what I would want to pass on to my kids. That is what I would want to pass on to future generations. That no matter how dark it seems, that no matter how far we had drifted from our intended or ideal path, not matter how far beyond reprieve we may feel, there is always hope. Our Christian communities are full of people who have good reason to hope.
Walk into any church, and at first glance, you might think, "These all look like pretty normal and perhaps rather dull people", but when you stop to consider that some of those people have lost parents, spouses or children; some of them were in the armed forces, police or fire services and have seen some crazy stuff; some of them have survived cancer, depression, addiction; some of them have lived through abusive relationships, divorces...well, those people are anything but normal or dull.
They are walking example of strength, resilience and hope. I'd be willing to bet if you looked back on your life that so are you. I bet you have been through some stuff too.
The hope that I have and that I want to share is just that: we have all seen some stuff and we are still walking, talking and functioning, thanks to the grace of God.
If you sometimes feel that there is no hope for the future, remember back to times in the past when you thought that. It's ok to be wrong:)