Hope and change in circumstances are often linked. Giving Hope, Changing Lives is the strapline for Birmingham’s Social Inclusion Process which aimed to make life better for the people of the city. We often hope people will get well soon, have a lovely holiday, get over their divorce quickly – in short we hope that circumstances will conspire to bring them happiness.
But for many people circumstances will not change to bring them happiness. The diagnosis of a terminal illness is rarely revoked, mental ill-health can persist, deep-seated lonliness is often hard to alleviate and a bereavement cannot be reversed. In these situations happiness has to be found within the situations, hope is not about looking for a change in external circumstances.
This is what I found so striking in documentary screened by Bringing Hope, an organisation dedicated to being alongside families and communities affected by serious crime and violence. During the documentary, entitled Inside Out, a prisoner, only named as Prisoner A, explains what Bringing Hope means to him. He says that the hope they have brought is more than a light at the end of the tunnel but is something that means every day, despite the restricted circumstance of prison life, is no longer a Groundhog Day but has potential for good, he can see that day as a gift. I wanted to stop the film and jump up and ask the team at Bringing Hope how they did that. How could they literally bring hope without any possiblity of change circumstance.
In his beautiful meditation on the Eucharist, With Burning Hearts, Henri Nouwen talks a lot about how sadness can be transformed. Nouwen retells in great depth the story of the dicsciples who are walking to Emmaus when they encouter the risen Jesus (Luke 24: 13-35) and in the second chapter he focuses on the role of the stranger who listens to our story and transforms it. He says: “The loss, the grief, the guilt, the fear, the glimpses of hope, and the many unanswered questions that battled for attention in their restless minds, all of these were lifted up by this stranger and placed in the context of a story much larger than their own. What had seemed so confusing began to offer new horizons; what had seemed so oppressive began to feel liberating; what had seemed so extremely sad began to take on the quality of joy! As he talked to them, they gradually came to know that their little lives weren’t as little as they had thought, but part of a great mystery that not only embraced many generations but stretched itself out from eternity to eternity.”
I wonder if that is what had happened to Prisoner A in the documentary? Perhaps really good listening and understanding had helped him see his story in a new way and find ways of living that good bring joy in terribly sad and difficult circumstances. Perhaps too he was challenged to look at himself truthfully and see both the potential and the pain inside himself.
Nouwen goes on to say that this was not sentimental and soothing conversation. Jesus told the disciples that they were ‘Foolish’ and ‘Slow to Believe.’ I think I’d get a bit defensive if my spiritual director or priest said that to me. But Nouwen says the directness cracks open a cover of fear and self-consciousness leading us to tear off our protective devices and begin to see a spectrum of opportunity.
I am lucky enough to have people around me who will listen and understand my story and offer gentle challenge where necessary. (Perhaps we need to make sure that we all have those people and we all are those people for each other.) One of those people challenged me by retelling a sermon she had heard about Jesus on his journey to his crucifixion, Jesus in the most horrific circumstances that could not be changed. She said Jesus had three options, three possible ways of being. He could have been angry and defiant, he could have been resigned and defeated or he could, and did, embrace what was before him – entering into it dignity, with (com)passion. Faced with difficult circumstances I know anger or resignation both come naturally – Jesus’ third way offers more a challenge.
In World Without End, written by Helen Thomas in the 1920’s, she says this: “…I came to realise that everything that is part of life is inevitable to it and therefore must be good. I could not be borne high upon the crest of ecstasy and joy unless I also knew the dreadful depths of the trough of of the great waves of life. I could not be irradiated by such love without being swept by the shadow of despair. The rich teeming earth from which all beauty comes is fed with decay; and out of the sweat of labour grows the corn. We are born to die; if death were not, life would not be either. Pain and weakness and evil as well as strength and passion and health are part of the beautiful pattern of life; and as I grew up I learned that life is richer and fuller and truer the more you can understand not only in your brain and intellect but in your being, that you must accept it all; without bitterness the agnony, without complacency the joy.”
Taken to an extreme this kind of philosophy makes me uncomfortable. We cannot sit back and accept injustice and oppression as part of a natural order. But neither can we avoid sadness or eliminate pain for ouselves or others. I don’t ever want to stop trying to change structures that oppress people, systems that cause unhappines or prejudices that spark violence and hatred. But sadness, isolation, fear and loss are always with us and with our neighbour and if we can find ways of bringing hope and sharing joy within difficult circumstances I think we have found ourselves an important mission.