Last Sunday I sat in Christian formation and felt the familiar rise of emotion. I have been enjoying this class each week as it encourages me to think, and it hasn’t failed yet to rile me up. As we discuss different stories and themes from the Bible, usually the Old Testament, I am struck by how many different ways there are to understand certain things and how rather than floating on a boat of apathy in a peaceful sea of uncertainty (which is where I thought I still was in this process of faith shift), I find I have replaced many of my former beliefs with rather strong ones that are often in opposition to the ones I once held. This group gives me a chance to examine those, and to find ways to share them out loud in hopefully respectfully kind ways, while also learning to listen to competing viewpoints with a critical ear (not just critical to their side, but just as much so to mine). Still working on that.
Most of the time I just listen, it often takes a few hours or days for me to fully process the conversation we had and decide how I feel about it. And this Sunday, the emotion that rose in me was stronger and very different than that which I have been feeling. It was grief. Strong, undeniable grief. The kind that causes your face to flush and your breathing to rise as you fight the urge to burst into tears in front of a group of people you hardly know.
The theme we were discussing was the Exodus. What this central story from the Old Testament meant to the Israelites and what it can mean for us. Hope. Hope was the word that was coming out of the story. Hope that no matter how low we drop, how horrible the circumstances that surround us, we will come back up again. We will be delivered.
I listened as one person after another shared what that meant to them personally. And because one person specifically brought up something that had happened to his daughter when she was just an infant, and was sharing how he coped with and still copes with the permanent effects this had on her, my gut wrenched with pain. This conversation had suddenly veered too close to home. The words he shared were very similar to words that I have shared in the process of grieving the loss of my 7 month old daughter. They were words of searching, searching for purpose in the tragedy, for hope for himself in the midst of his daughter’s pain.
But, oddly I found myself resonating much more with another man who shared something that was rather different in focus. Instead of looking for purpose in his own story, he instead focuses on presence. God was there and is there in the midst of it. And for him, that was enough. Someone else tried to explain the purpose of pain in the world, or the reason for it, but the explanation was not enough for me. I’ve heard it before and it no longer made the sense I used to think it did. And then another woman shared a hope that went beyond herself and to her family, the hope she held that they would survive and thrive even if she were to die from the cancer that she had just been diagnosed with.
There was so much emotion writhing in my gut. I spoke once, and it was only to share the less than cheery fact that in the story of the Exodus, the people that were brought out of Egypt, were not the same people that entered the land of Canaan. A whole generation died in the wilderness, waiting for the promise they were given. The hope of the Jews is not an individual hope. It is a collective one. WE will be saved. WE will rise again. WE will gain our promised land.
Why was it that that one part of the story is the only one I felt compelled to comment on? Why did some of the hope that was shared in that circle Sunday morning sound so hollow to me, while other versions of it resonated? Why did the whole conversation leave me feeling so unsettled? It was as if there was nothing answered for me, but rather a stirring of the waters that left everything murky and dark and confusing.
As I talked it over with John Sunday evening, while the echo of the emotion still sounded in my shaky voice and the tears I hadn’t cried that morning wet my eyes with just a touch of sadness, I realized that I felt unsettled because there were no simple easy answers to the questions that pain and suffering stir up. The world does not appear to work in a purposefully ordered way. God does not appear to work in a purposefully ordered way. The only thing I could cling to was that an individual hope was not enough. Because too often an individual hope is proved false. What happens when 58 people’s lives are cut short by a senseless shooting in Las Vegas? Where is the hope for those people? What happens when someone continues to live in despair and pain even after crying out continually to God to save them? What does hope mean to them? What happens when a 7 month old baby girl dies for the inexplicable reason that her body was just not born as perfect as it should have been?
An individual hope focuses on ourselves. It looks for what happens to me. How can I find hope in the midst of the senseless violence? How can I go on after the death of my daughter? How many blessings do I have that others don’t? These aren’t entirely negative questions. It is normal for us to find the personal relevance within the questions. It is normal to look for purpose in the pain. I believe that we have to do that to a certain extent in order to survive.
But I also believe we are missing something much greater when we focus solely on an individual hope. In our US culture, an individualistic point of view is common and expected. Our faith has to do with the individual. Our salvation has to do with the individual. Our hope has to do with the individual. The majority of Christian faith that I have seen in the US tends to be rather hopeless rather than hopeful. We have given up on a world that does not appear to be getting any better and began to focus on a hope that only truly exists in the afterlife. Even there that hope is limited, limited only to those who somehow individually find their way to God. This is not the way that everyone has or does live. The Israelites hope was collective. I am not as well studied in this as my husband, but I believe that their identity as a nation was much more important than their individual identity. Why else would a story in which nearly everyone dies, still be a story of hope? Where a remnant remains, there is still hope. Hope that the nation, the community will survive.
This is a hope that is so much bigger than the individual. This is a hope that goes beyond one person. This is a hope that can look at senseless suffering and say, “Things look bleak. But I hope for a day when people live in a world where violence does not take lives. I hope for a world where all people are cared for. I hope for a world where peace is the rule of the day. I believe in the kingdom of God. I believe that it can and will exist.”
I find greater peace in this absolutely almost foolish hope than I do in the attempts to find purpose in the suffering. This hope for me goes beyond death, because I can hope that even if it doesn’t happen in my lifetime, it can still happen in someone’s. And the weird crazy thing about this type of collective hope is that when enough of us believe it can be true, then it actually begins to hold the possibly that it will be.