Where is hope?
Assistant Rector's House, December 2001
We were talking about prayer at the Thursday morning Lent Group, and someone said “if only one’s prayers seemed to be answered just a little, even occasionally.” This was with reference to prayers for those parts of the world which seem to be perpetually war-torn, famine-ravaged, unjustly oppressed, caught up in disaster. We go on praying - for the same places day in day out, year in, year out (can you remember when we first began to name Ireland or Israel in our prayers?) - and still there seems no change, no hope for the future; still one group hates another and killing continues.
And yet our faith is centred on the resurrection of Christ which promises that out of death will come life, out of darkness light, out of despair hope. “Endless is the victory thou o’er death hast won” we sing at Eastertide. Death has lost its sting - but so often there seems little evidence of this, as the shadow of the cross appears to dominate the world, and the promised Easter hope appears in short supply.
It could be that we looking for answers to our prayers in wrong places and not recognising God’s ways of answering. Perhaps we should seek signs of hope, not in the power centres of the world, not in dramatic transformations of political systems, these will change in the fullness of eternity, but we are still in the ‘not yet’. A new order will come, but perhaps we will see it emerging, bit by bit, from within the lives and example of those who are hurt and down-trodden, from among the weak, the ordinary, the truly holy of the world.
The first person to recognise that Jesus’ death would not be the end, the first hint of his imminent resurrection came when the criminal who hung beside him on another cross said the words ‘remember me when you come into your kingdom’. For those who had ears to hear, right in the midst of the agony and degradation, words of Easter hope were uttered. We see signs of hope, we recognise answers to our ongoing prayers, whenever people defy our expectations and amid the badness/sadness show forgiveness, tolerance, insight and incomprehensible loving.
The prayers of the world are answered when a parent goes on loving the delinquent child who is ruining their life - when a dying person lives in dignity to the end, giving more than she receives - when an Israeli doctor is treating Palestinian victims without payment - when a Palestinian doctor remains working in an Israeli hospital because in illness, race does not count.
We saw signs of hope, and answers to prayer, when leaders of many different faiths prayed together in Assisi in 1986 upsetting some of their fundamentalist followers - when Jews, Muslims and Christians campaign together for peace in Jerusalem, in the desert and at army check-points. We saw signs of hope when the Pope prayed for peace with Jews at the Wailing Wall, with Muslims in a Syrian Mosque. Conversely, we see signs of despair when leaders of nations purport to pray for peace whilst preparing for wars using methods of mass destruction, whether nuclear or biological weapons or instruments of torture.
Persistence in prayer matters, because our prayer is being answered all the time. For how many decades was our prayer for the ending of apartheid in South Africa? And change did happen there. God is persistent. Gradually, gently, he works with the material at hand, human beings with all our failings and all our potential. God’s love is persistent.
I had a week’s retreat recently in a convent in the Yorkshire moors. The sun shone for five days (unbelievably). On first impression much of the large garden and surrounding countryside was still immersed in winter bleakness. But on closer attention the sun illuminated another reality. Flowers of all kinds and colours blossomed everywhere, sparkling in some hidden and unexpected places, under stones, among thorns and dead branches.
May the light of the Risen Christ this Easter, illuminate the reality of God’s new creation blossoming among us. May we notice all the little resurrections and give thanks for the gifts of hope and answered prayer.