Holding the Tension Between Despair and Hope
In my kitchen I have an old Amazon show - it’s a device kind of like a very small television. It runs off of the internet and connects to photographs that I have uploaded and saved to Amazon photos. In the ten years I have been here I have taken hundreds and hundreds of photographs of our life together. These photos rotate through my Amazon show, like a little movie that plays all day every day, reminding me of the people here and the many things we have done together. Some days I see pictures of our children, many of whom are now teenagers or grown adults, carving pumpkins. Or I see photos of worship services or meals and events with people who are no longer with us, many of whom have died. And then there are the photos of our life together over the last 18 months of COVID time. Photos of Halim and I leading worship in an empty church when people could only join us on zoom or Facebook Live. As these photos rotate through my kitchen I experience many different emotions, love and hope, sorrow and loss.
I want to reflect for just a moment on my experience of being a parish priest these days. Your experience of church life is o doubt different, although there maybe some overlap in our worries and our hopes.
When I was ordained twenty two years ago, leading a parish was a very different reality. It was, in many ways, much more simple. People came to church because that is what people did, it’s what families did. For many of us, church was one of the anchors of our life.
But that is not the case anymore. Many people have just stopped attending church. Life is too busy, people are too tired. For others church might still be an obligation, a place where one goes to ensure one’s salvation and place in heaven. For some church might be a place to rest from the trials and tribulations of life? Or maybe it is a place to learn about God and grow one’s faith? Or maybe its the place where one attempts to find some sense of meaning and purpose in life?
For the parish priest, for me, church holds this constant tension between being my job and how I make a living, and the place where I try to navigate a faith life, or at least not lose my faith. It’s a complicated dynamic, one I navigate by paying close attention to my interior self and how and where I feel God’s presence.
I have always been a person of faith. I come from a family of religious people, for whom their religion and the teachings of their faith defined their lives, their values and beliefs. I also come from a family in which some of the people, maybe the majority of the people since my grandparents time, struggle with faith, don’t go to church, aren’t sure they believe in God, or simply don’t care. They’ve rejected the church’s teachings and have chosen to live life with other values and beliefs. So, in many ways I am both like my family and different from them. I have wrestled with my faith and my beliefs and how I practice and learn about the faith. I have chosen to be a Christian.
Most days my work is filled with a keen, nearly overwhelming, awareness of loss and despair. Being a parish priest is Jobian work. Every day, some more than others, feel like the reading from Job. It is a near constant state of navigating criticisms, my own self-imposed criticisms or from others along with a barrage of fears and failures, all of which are exponentially more as we live in COVID times. Change is constant. The demand to pivot seems endless. The rhythm I once knew and loved in parish ministry has been drastically altered.
I know you all feel this too, the radically altered rhythm. And you each have your own set of fears and anxieties and losses and despair.
I suppose we are all living a Job like life. The psalm gets at this too.
And in the midst of this I decided to write an entire series on the cycle of blessings and the idea of hope, with the theme of living into a future with hope. This is the series that is being emailed to you every day, an invitation for you to reflect on the possibility of hope even as we all are living through extreme challenges.
Kevin Kling writes plays and novels, always with a good bit of humor and irony. In a 2012 interview with Krista Tippet’s On Being he said a few things that help articulate what I am living, and perhaps what you are too. He said, “The heart is an instrument, once broken, never repairs the same. I use the word “trauma” in my work, because a loss is a loss, whether it’s a heart, a limb, a promise, a person. It’s all loss, and it’s all trauma, and it’s all things that are broken that can’t be cured. You can’t go back. But you can heal it, and that’s an important thing to know.”
The kind of hope that I am thinking about and observing is a hope that has been shaped and formed because of living through difficult circumstances. It’s a hope that has lived or is living through the trauma of these times, of broken hearts and deep loss. Some days the effort feels overwhelming. And yet the effort to go on living, is a sign of hope.
I used to try and plan out my life. If I did this or that could I prevent myself from experiencing pain. Or prevent my family or the congregation from pain,
That kind of thinking and planning is ultimately futile, and only leads to a high level of stress. Because no amount of planning can prevent pain or prevent death. So even when I can imagine a better future, I still have to live through the pain of right now. And in truth the pain of right now never goes away, not completely. That pain is always in tension with the sense of hope.
I hear some of this in the reading from Hebrews - that in the midst of life’s challenges, God sees deeply into our reality and loves us.
For me it’s how do I manage to hold these two realities together without resentment and without a lot of despair and without some sort of rose colored lens optimism? Because any of those distorts the impact of this both/and reality of hope and pain.
What I am thinking about a lot these days is even in and through these really painful difficult times of a chronic pandemic and our inability to live life as we always imagined, to travel and gather together, to have meals and to worship in person and to sing without a mask on, to do the things you and I imagined with our shared congregations, I think that there is still a vibrancy to life that gives me hope.
And that hope is formed by some deep reflection in which I wonder about what is my life for? And what is the meaning and purpose of Christ Church and Mother of the Savior? Whether either congregation or both congregations live or die, and none of us knows the future in that tangible way, we are here now. And what are we here now to do, to be a part of?
I think we do have a purpose, we meaning Christ Church and Mother of the Savior, and our Partnership in Faith. What that is, exactly, is still evolving. But I also think we are trying to live into this unknown and uncertain future with a bit of fear and trepidation about death. I mean especially with COVID either one or both of these congregations could die. I’m not naïve about that and I am crystal clear about its potential. But I can’t live in that space of death as the certainty of our future. I mean, we all get there eventually. Everything has a life span. But I can’t predict it, nor can anyone else. So we live with death as a potential reality but so is life. The Gospel points to this. It begs the question, what does it mean to be rich. I think Jesus tells us that we often confuse being rich with having money, but that’s is not the kind of wealth that God gives us. Instead we are rich when we can hold together the two ends of the spectrum of despair and hope and find a way forward.
That’s the dilemma of a life of faith. One can decide to seek what it means to live a life of meaning and purpose, even with a very uncertain future. Or one can just lean into death, become nihilistic, live with pain, cynicism, depression, and just wait to die. But that, for me, is like wasting the possibilities of this gift of life. And I do believe that God has given us life as a gift and that God is with us in our pain and uncertainty, and God is saying even still, even with all of the uncertainty of life, your life has meaning and purpose. God hopes that we live that way. And for me, the daily challenge of living between the tension of despair and hope is effort to travel through the eye of the needle and come out on the other side, wiser, more compassionate, and more aware that God loves us all along the way.