Posts Tagged ‘Hope’

This is the text of my reflection/sermon shared with the congregation today at Cliftonville Moravian Church:

Today, I want to reflect on Genesis 8: 1 ‘But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and the livestock that were with him in the ark, and he sent a wind over the earth, and the waters receded’.

Our Old Testament passage, Genesis 8:1-19 is rich in imagery and meaning.  In the character of Noah, we see a man who is faithful, patient and perseveres in the face of uncertainty.  During the trials that he faced, he understood, consciously and subconsciously that God had not forgotten him….that God kept his promises. It all took some time of course, to go from the drama of the flood to the deliverance represented by dry land and new and vibrant beginnings. The transition from being ‘all at sea’, to being quite literally ‘grounded’ is a powerful and deeply meaningful image.

But let us step back from this unfolding picture for a moment and reflect on Noah’s actions as the water was omnipresent and the land submersed.  During that time, we read of a man who reaches out again and again in hope and expectation; we encounter a person who has placed his trust in God, that ultimately, all will be well and salvation is very firmly in God’s hand.

Trust, in God’s providence permeates Noah’s existence.  We see that motif reflected very powerfully in our New Testament lesson, especially in the opening verse where it is written: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Believe in God, believe also in me’ (John 14:1).

Noah’s trust in God is a given. He in return is entrusted with an enormous task, despite his very human character flaws and failings. Trust is vitally important; so too is hope – it flows from the foundation of trust that accompanies, and exemplifies a faithful life.

We read of a Noah who sends out first the Raven, then the Dove, calmly waiting for the return, or ultimately for some sense that the waters are subsiding and life is returning to the land; that the wait is over.  Noah then, is the picture of trust in the divine; the dove is the symbol of hope.

Last week, we touched on the contours of hope as we navigated the biblical narrative.  This week, we are drawn once again to contemplate its importance.

Noah’s actions, in sending out those birds, awaiting a response and initially being disappointed, but ultimately experiencing the joy of hope fulfilled.  He lived out the words of the American civil-rights activist and Baptist Minister Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr when he perceptively said:”We must accept finite disappointment but must never lose infinite hope”.  What a maxim to live by! How insightful.

So, the example of Noah and a the words of a contemporary Christian leader fuse together and remind us that yes, we will experience disappointment in our lives, but our hope is infinite; it is build upon the God of love and his omnipotence – the reason that we gather here today to worship and to give witness to a far greater reality than we can even describe.

Consider then, what the great reformer, Martin Luther said: ‘Everything that is done in the world is done by hope’. Indeed it is.  Hope can transform the most despairing of situations, the most anxious of moments, and the most intractable problems that perplex us and seek to wear us down.

The roman poet, Albius Tibillus surely also catches the mood of the moment when he writes: ‘Hope ever urges us on and tells us tomorrow will be better’. And it will. We look forward with hope, despite the turmoil of the world we live in; despite the innumerable uncertainties that perniciously attempt to steal our joy and purpose.  Our hope is so much deeper and broader than all of that; it is un-measurable and unfathomable, but nonetheless it is tangible; we can feel it in our hearts….if only we stand still, and silent, for a few moments.

We honour that hope by living a life that is open to possibility and steeped in the knowledge that God is the source and sustainer of that hope.

And so it seems pertinent to finish this brief reflection with a short prayer.  This prayer comes from a meditation entitled ‘The Gift of The Dove’ and is published in ‘Meditations from the Iona Community’ by Ian Reid.  Iona holds special memories for me; a ‘thin place’, God’s presence is realised in its ruggedness and holiness; that sense of hope permeates the soil, the sea and the air of a place where God’s presence is undeniable.  Hope and presence go hand-in-hand. Here it is expressed in that very prayer; let us pray:

‘Ever-present God, open our eyes to see

the coming of the dove.

As we look over the waters of

our doubts and fears,

enable us to see in the world signs of hope.

 

As we despair over the injustices and conflicts

in our own lives and in the world,

enable us to see in the world signs of peace and reconciliation.

 

As Noah was called to leave the ark and go out into

the world, enable us, like him, to share with others

the visions of hope, peace and reconciliation we

have received’.

AMEN

 

 

Here is the text of my sermon from today’s service at Cliftonville Moravian Church:

Grounded in Reality; Transformed by Hope!

On Wednesday evening, I was teaching dream analysis in Glengormley to a group of therapists and other interested individuals.  Here, in our church, I have spoken briefly about dreams as they occur in the Biblical narrative, particularly in relation to the Old Testament; that is a story I will certainly pick up again in the future – there is so much we can learn from reflecting on those moments and situations where God reveals important truths to us. The form of those dreams varies from straight-forward instruction to metaphor and allegory.

The type of dream analysis I do in a professional capacity is of course a reflection of the kind of Psychotherapy I do – Logotherapy & Existential Analysis, a meaning based approach to confronting the vagaries of life and dealing with them intelligently and purposefully.  At the beginning of last Wednesday’s session, I spent a few minutes providing an overview of the philosophy behind Logotherapy – without an understanding of that philosophy, it is not possible to go very far in making sense of our dreams.

In its most basic of forms, the philosophy of Logotherapy always strikes me as having similarities, and intertwined motifs, with Judeo-Christian theology. It is nonetheless a secular psychology grounded in human experience that is not bound by any faith tradition; it is universal in its application.

But I do often think about how Logotherapy speaks gently to my own faith orientation.  In that respect, I am drawn specifically to the highs and lows of life articulated in the Psalms; Leopold Sabourin, in his book ‘The Psalms: Their Origin and Meaning’, reminds us that the Psalter has been referred to as ‘a microcosm of the whole Old Testament… the epitome of Israel’s spiritual experience’. It does, in my opinion, go far beyond that; it provides the foundation and points towards the Christ of the New Testament.

In Logotherapy, we refer to the ‘tragic triad’ that epitomises our existence: suffering, guilt and death.  No life is spared these three experiences.  Likewise in the Psalter, we see suffering embraced and lamented, not just once but repeatedly.  Consider the Psalmists cry in Psalm 88:18 – ‘O lord God of my salvation, I have cried day and night before you’. And what about guilt? Well, we see it in Psalm 38:4 – ‘My guilt has overwhelmed me like a burden too heavy to bear’. And then of course, there is death; Psalm 82:7 describes its inevitability in poetic terms: “Nevertheless you will die like men and fall like any one of the princes.”

 If the ‘tragic triad’ was where Logotherapy began and ended, then we would certainly be in trouble! But it isn’t.  Viktor Frankl, the founder of Logotherapy, talks at length of the case for ‘tragic optimism’, where we remain optimistic despite life’s enduring difficulties. In her Foreword to Viktor Frankl’s book, ‘Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning’, Claudice Hammond says this – Frankl ‘talks of tragic optimism….that life brings pain, guilt and death and yet, for the most part, we manage to carry on’.  Somehow we manage to get through. And it gets better! Frankl also understood the reality of the ‘triumphant triad’, where there is healing, forgiveness and meaning.

In the Psalms, that ‘triumphant triad’ is also clear to see. Even in the Psalms of lament, optimism remains, seeping through, sometimes at points when we least expect it. How true that is in the reality of our own lives.  Consider again what Claudice Hammond says of Frankl’s philosophy – she writes that Logotherapy is a personal catalyst for radical change and progressive development.  As individuals then, Hammond reinforces Frankl’s philosophy, where she brings us back to our call to ‘turn suffering into achievement’, to ‘use guilt to improve’ ourselves and to utilise ‘the knowledge that life is short as a spur to action’.

Interestingly, the triumphant and the tragic often co-exist in the Psalms, just as they do in our day-to-day lives.  Our Old Testament Lesson, Psalm 39, is one such example, where despair and hope are expressed, and those two realities held in tension throughout.  There is a recognition that hope would be incomprehensible if it were not for anguish and despondency.

Here then, is how that observation plays out in our Psalm.  In the second verse, the Psalmist writes: I was silent and still; I held my peace to no avail; my distress grew worse’, but then goes on say in verse seven: “And now, O Lord, what do I wait for? My hope is in you”. Life, as we know it and as the Psalmist understood it, is never clear cut….the edges are often blurred and our emotions fluctuate. We can feel despair and hope in the same day…..and in the same moment.

It is in the latter half of the seventh verse, though – “My hope is in you” – where we see the entire Christian message writ large.  Our hope rests very firmly in God.  We look to him through our individual experiences of suffering, guilt and the shadow of death and see him radiant in our sights. We call on, and cleave to those words that reverberate intensely in Psalm 55: 22: Cast your cares on the LORD and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous be shaken’.

So yes, we live lives that are frequently difficult. But we also live lives that are grounded in hope and animated by expectation.  Viktor Frankl was a realist; the Psalms, and the wider Old and New Testaments are realistic too – they echo with the stuff of a life lived authentically, the tragic juxtaposed with the triumphant.  From our faith perspective, we can go even further.  Our hope is infinite; it is all around us; it moves as the Spirit moves and it seeks us out.  We must allow ourselves, in the midst of life, to be engulfed in love and transformed by hope.

Although I have spoken in this short reflection in very broad terms of the message of the Psalms, and Psalm 39 in particular, let me finish with some New Testament wisdom, specifically Romans 15:13: ‘May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit’.

Powerful, yet serene, there is nothing to either add or take away from Paul’s striking message to the church in Rome. It is a call to reflect deeply on our journey and gain insight into the radical nature of Christian faith.

And so, it seems appropriate that, in a few moments of silence, we allow ourselves to reconnect with the God who meets us where we are – in the reality of pain, suffering and death, but also in the transformative realm of healing, meaning and hope.  We are met on that journey with a love that knows no boundaries; a love that seeks us out. Let us feel the vigour of the Holy Spirit move among us and within us, in the stillness, and deep peace, of this holy place…………..where we are grounded in reality and transformed by hope.

‘Now unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy, to the only wise God our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever’. Jude 24-25.

AMEN

Rudyard Kipling was an exquisitely talented poet.  There are many poems that I could pick out as specially noteworthy, but for me, ‘When Earth’s Last Picture is Painted‘ is one of his best.  Here it is:

When Earth’s Last Picture Is Painted

When Earth's last picture is painted and the tubes are twisted and dried, 
When the oldest colours have faded, and the youngest critic has died, 
We shall rest, and, faith, we shall need it -- lie down for an aeon or two, 
Till the Master of All Good Workmen shall put us to work anew. 
And those that were good shall be happy; they shall sit in a golden chair; 
They shall splash at a ten-league canvas with brushes of comets' hair. 
They shall find real saints to draw from -- Magdalene, Peter, and Paul; 
They shall work for an age at a sitting and never be tired at all! 

And only The Master shall praise us, and only The Master shall blame; 
And no one shall work for money, and no one shall work for fame, 
But each for the joy of the working, and each, in his separate star, 
Shall draw the Thing as he sees It for the God of Things as They are!

Kipling’s poem is positive, expectant and hope-filled. He reminds us that when our time on this earth comes to a close, the good shall be rewarded by remaining in God’s presence; peace and contentment will abound. In the words of the mystic Julian of Norwich, “all shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

You can also view an excellent animated version of the poem courtesy of youtube:

This blog posting is the text of a sermon entitled ‘Stepping Out into the Unknown‘ preached by me on 4th January 2009.
My text is Matthew Chapter Two, Verses Nine to Ten:

 “When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.

One bible commentator once made the observation that there are few passages in the entire canon of scripture that have received more diverse interpretations than this one.  Both the scholarly and popular debates concerning this passage revolve around its historicity; in other words, does it relate to an actual event, subsequently recorded by the writer of Matthew’s Gospel, or is it simply a fictional story told to get across a purely theological message?  Some commentators have made the point that the history versus theology debate provides us with what is, in essence, a false dichotomy.  There is, in reality, no need to choose between historicity and ultimate meaning because the writer of Matthew was concerned with both.  He recorded history, not simply for the sake of it, but rather he drew on the factual to illustrate and to inform the theological meaning that was at the very core of the event itself.  One of my favourite New Testament commentators, William Barclay, made essentially the same point, although he did it much more eloquently, when he said of this passage:

There is not the slightest need to think that the coming of the Magi to the cradle of Christ is only a lovely legend.  It is exactly the kind of thing that could easily have happened in that ancient world.

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I have finally got round to watching Velcrow Ripper’s award-winning documentary, ‘Scared Sacred’.  Against the backdrop of a world overwhelmed by turmoil and suffering, Ripper sets out on a unique, and often difficult, pilgrimage.  His task is to visit what he calls the ‘Ground Zeros’ of the planet, and in doing so, he poses the question – ‘is it possible to find hope in some of the darkest moments of human history?’

To answer his own very pertinent question, Ripper travels to the toxic wasteland of Bhopal, the minefields of Cambodia, war-torn and fear-ridden Afghanistan, New York in the aftermath of 9/11 and the ruined cityscapes of Bosnia.  He talks compassionately to the survivors of Hiroshima and gains insight from those who have suffered most in the Israel-Palestine conflict. This he does with consummate skill, resulting in a beautifully crafted and emotionally intense documentary which charts Ripper’s five-year sojourn to discover if wounded humanity can transform the ‘scared’ into the ‘sacred’.

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One in three people will be affected by cancer at some stage in their life.

One in four of us will experience some sort of mental health issue at some stage in our lives.

Although the statistics on the incidence of these two diseases are similar, societal perception is poles apart.  Mental illness is just not talked about; it is still seen in many quarters as a sign of ‘weakness’, or a ‘character failing’.  Diseases such as bipolar disorder are often characterized thus, despite the overwhelming evidence that they have a biological basis, just like cancer and diabetes and a plethora of other common illnesses.  That there is growing evidence, and an almost universal acknowledgement in the research community that genes are a major player in bipolar disorder, it seems nevertheless to have made little impact on the public understanding of this disease.

Why is that we are more willing to be sympathetic towards someone who has a malfunctioning pancreas and less sympathetic towards an individual who has a biochemical imbalance in their brain?  Is this covert form of discrimination acceptable?  Here is what the mental health charity ‘Mind’ have to say:

‘Mental illnesses are some of the least understood conditions in society. Because of this, many people face prejudice and discrimination in their everyday lives. However, unlike the images often found in books, on television and in films, most people can lead productive and fulfilling lives with appropriate treatment and support.

It’s important to remember that having a mental illness is not someone’s fault, it’s not a sign of weakness, and it’s not something to be ashamed of’.

Some church communities are excellent in ministering to those who are mentally ill; many are not, mainly because mental health issues are ‘swept under the carpet’ and not tackled head on.   This does a disservice to the Gospel message of love, acceptance and understanding.  For example, in John 13:34-35 it is written: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  This love is not discriminatory; it is not a love that is restricted as human love is by prejudice and misunderstanding.

Christianity is a faith bathed in hope – hope for the dispossessed and marginalised, hope for the misunderstood and the forgotten, hope for those who struggle daily with the burden of mental illness, and hope for those who find mental illness difficult to understand and to accept.  We are gently reminded of  this great hope in Philippians 4:6-7 (ESV), where Paul writes: ‘Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus’.

Scott