In this chapter, I have decided to write about hope, and I do so very deliberately. There are so many pressures in today's world, that it is becoming more and more difficult to hold your head, when all about you are losing theirs. In a way, life is getting faster, and, like the stunt-man with the motor-bike, riding the wall of fire, I have to move at a certain speed, or I'll come crashing down. We may joke about keeping up with the Jones's, but I believe that in our hearts there is a real fear of being left behind, of being passed out, of becoming an also-ran.
I remember an experiment we used carry out in the science-room many years ago, and, before the sophistication of today, it was really exciting then. A petrol can was used, and through a process, the air was extracted from it, and we watched with delight as the sides caved in. Nature detests a vacuum, and once there was a vacuum created in the can, the air on the outside simply pushed in the sides, to fill up the vacuumed space.
Something like that can happen with us, when there is an emptiness inside. There is an open space, as it were, in the heart of every human being, and only God can fill that. We are created in that way, it is part of the maker's design. We can try to fill that space in any way we wish, but it simply will not work. Alcohol, drugs, sex, money, power............all have been tried, and, eventually, were discovered to be false gods, that did not live up to the promises they seemed to offer.
The ultimate disaster of all of this, sometimes, is suicide, which, unfortunately, and understandably, has been enormously on the increase, in recent years. Now, let me say something about suicide, before we go any further. It is not my intention, or my right, to judge someone who commits suicide. I have no idea what goes on in a human mind, before making such a decision, and carrying it out. Nor do I know anything about brain-storms, or the types of depression that can cause the future to look so black that anything is preferable to having to face it; or what happens when life goes into a tail-spin, and gets out of control. The reason I make this clarification is, that, while I need to speak about suicide, I do not wish to pass judgement, in any way, on some poor soul who may have taken this option.
Powerlessness is part of being human, in so far as life is not something I can manage, or fix, like a tape-recorder that mangles a tape. If I know anything about the workings of a tape-recorder, I can open it up, free the tape, clean the heads, and have it going again, without any trouble. Life is not as simple as that. The first time I was carried into a church, to be baptised, I was not consulted, nor was I involved in the decision in any way. The next time I am carried into a church, for my funeral, I will not be consulted either, nor will I have any part in the decision-making that will accompany that, unless, of course, I have specified all of that beforehand. To try to run the show in-between is not possible. I own nothing. One heart-attack, or an accident, and it's all over. Trying to play God is insanity run wild, and it always brings its own heart-break.
A young American Indian boy had reached his teens, and was being tested, before admission into full manhood in the tribe. He was brought into the middle of a jungle, and told to spend a night there on his own. The night was long, very long, and he thought morning would never come. His heart beat faster with every sound, with every movement in the under-growth. Several times he thought of running for it, but had no idea where one could run within the confines of a jungle. He thought morning was never going to come.
Finally, the dawn began to break, and light began to filter through the trees. As his eyes became accustomed to the emergence of daylight, he began to look around him, to take in the view of what was to be seen. Suddenly, he saw a shadow behind a tree, and, as he approached, he discovered that his father was standing there, and had been on guard there all through the night. He breathed a deep sigh of relief, and immediately thought that if he had known his father was there, he would have slept soundly all night!
When I die, and go to heaven, I will discover that my Father was watching over me night and day all my life. If I express any surprise at this, Jesus could say "But I told you that. I told you that your heavenly Father would take care of your every need, and that he is always looking after you." No wonder Jesus said that the sin of this world is unbelief in him. He made very specific and detailed promises, and he hopes that we might begin to take those promises seriously. It is the firm intention of Jesus that, once he has come into our lives, nothing would ever be the same again.
There was a cave in the deepest part of a mountain, and it had never seen light. One day the sun invited it to come up and visit it, so that it could have an experience of light. The cave was thrilled when it saw light for the first time; in fact, so grateful that it invited the sun to come visit it next day, because the sun had never seen darkness. The following day the sun came down, and entered the cave, looked around, in surprise, and asked "Where's the darkness?" When Jesus comes into our lives, he comes as the light of the world, and he says that they who follow him do not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.
Hope is about God coming to write on crooked lines. On a human level, the fall was a disaster, and Calvary was the end of the road, and yet both events were turned around completely, and became occasions of eternal blessings for God's people. It is one of the most remarkable things about the Israelites in the first part of the Bible. No matter how bad things were, they were full of hope that God was with them, and that the Messiah would come, the one who would lead them into freedom.
It is one of the tragedies of history, of course, that the Israelites thought with an earthly mind-set, and the only kind of freedom they could think of was freedom from their enemies, from the Egyptians, from the Romans, or from what ever or whoever the oppressor was. When Jesus came to set them free, they tried to make him a king, so he could lead an army into battle. They failed to understand that the greatest enslavement takes place within the human heart. A recovering alcoholic in A.A., knows more about enslavement and being freed from slavery than the Israelites ever did.
Through experience of our own brokenness and powerlessness, we can come to really appreciate freedom, if we choose to let God be God, and watch him do for us what we ourselves could never do. God doesn't take away the struggles, but he guarantees the result, and the outcome, because, just as he came to the apostles, walking on the water, he comes to us in the struggles. The first and surest way for me to come to know Jesus personally, is when I call out to him in the midst of struggle. The widow of Naim was in the depths of hurts and helplessness, when Jesus came along, and, again, it was like the sun entering the cave, and dispelling the darkness.
There were two boys one time, and one was a pessimist, the other was an optimist. One would find something wrong in heaven; he could never appreciate what he had, because he was always conscious of what he did not have. The optimist was full of hope, and, even if his team was beaten by ten goals, he was quite hopeful they would win next time out. Anyhow, the pessimist was put into a room full of toys, and the optimist was put in a room filled with manure from the farmyard. After an hour, they were checked on. The pessimist was sitting in the middle of all the toys, and he was crying. When asked why he was crying, he replied that he was crying because there was no drum!
When the door of the optimist's room was opened, he wasn't aware of that, because he was really busy with a small shovel, and he was shovelling the manure from one corner of the room to the other. He was interrupted, and asked what he was doing, and he replied, with his eyes filled with excitement, "With all this manure, there's just got to be a pony here somewhere!"
And that, my friends, is the difference between hope and despair. Of course, we have to struggle, to shovel, and to work hard, but Jesus guarantees the results. That is an extraordinary aspect of the Christian faith. As I attend a funeral, and see the tears of genuine anguish, I would be present at a school for despair if that was the end of it all. However, as Christians, we believe that it certainly is not the end, and the very best is yet to come.
One of the dimensions of life is that nothing ever remains the same. Everything is in a state of constant change. We are growing older by the minute. All the cosmetic surgery, and wrinkle-smoothing face-cream cannot stop the advance of time. In a way, I seem to just succeed in making ends meet, when something happens and moves the ends. Only God is constant, the same yesterday, today, and always. Any kind of stability in my life is bound up with my relationship with God. Without God, I am like a weather-cock on top of a church, that is constantly at the mercy of the wind, and has no control over which way it points. This is a very stressful way to live, and there is a constant lack of ease, or dis-ease in my spirit. Jesus told us he came that we might have life, and have it to the full. He offers us his peace, and his joy, which, he said would be pressed down and flowing over. I repeat again and again that Jesus gives me nothing, while offering me everything. It is totally up to me whether I am open to his gifts.
Sometimes I have to be totally broken before I am prepared to open my heart fully to him. When I'm on the broad of my back, there is only one way to look, and that's up! It is generally accepted that there are no atheists in a rubber dingy in the middle of the Atlantic. When Jesus spoke about his spirit, he said that the Spirit would remind us of all he had said to us. Quite often, it is a question of forgetting, and we then cry out to God, as if he were at the other end of a 999 telephone line. God will be there, of course, at all times, but it is more advisable to avail of the help of a light-house, than to have to call on a life-boat. There is no need to wait for disaster to strike, because God is just as reliable in prevention as in curing.
There is a rapid growth in preventative medicine in recent years, where more and more people are taking steps to preserve and maintain health, rather than wait until it is necessary to heal an illness. I often think that a doctor may very well know more about diseases than about health, because that would be the stress during the course of training. Christianity is very positive, and it gives reasons for doing something, rather than reasons for avoiding something else. Jesus speaks of coming to him to find rest, rather than avoiding something else that might upset us. There can be a level of pessimism in the world that can be soul-destroying.
A man had climbed out on a bridge, and was threatening to jump in the river. A policeman was making his way along the bridge, and was trying his best to engage the man in conversation, to distract him. Eventually, he got quite close to him, and began talking to him. He tried to reason with him, and he even suggested a bargain. The policeman would listen for five minutes while the man told him what was wrong with life, and why he wanted to end it all, if the man was prepared also to listen for five minutes while the policeman told him what was good about life, and why it is worth living.
The man agreed to this, and began a long list of things that made life impossible, and that made this world unbearable. The policeman had quite a job to stop him at the end of the five minutes. It was then the policeman's turn to speak for five minutes on the positive aspects of life and the world. He began with a few, and, after a while he ran out of something to say, so he reached out, took the man by the hand, and they both jumped in the river!
Failure, or fear of failure is often cause for anxiety, concern, and worry. I can lose control of my life, and give others power over me, so that I am always trying to be what they expect me to be. I can be a people-pleaser, with no boundaries of my own, and I simply cannot say 'No', so that I find myself agreeing to something that was not of my choice.
I remember seeing an item on television one time, where a man was attempting to get into the Guinness Book of Records for spinning plates. He had a pile of plates, and very light rods, and the idea was to put a plate balancing on one of the rods, and to set it spinning, so that it would continue spinning for some time, before collapsing. The target was to get 84 plates spinning at the same time. It was nerve-racking even to watch him, because by the time he got to set up the fifth plate, the first one was losing momentum, and had begun to wobble. The audience got into the spirit of things, and they were screaming as plates wobbled dangerously, and the man got back to them just in time to give an extra flick.
I remember taking a break from work a few years ago, and the feeling I had was of walking away from the plates, and letting them all crash down. I had a great sense of freedom. Regaining control of my life, and taking back the power I may have given others over me, is a very positive step towards healthy living. I've said it several times already, and I say it again: in life, the miles stretch out ahead, but the things that trip me up are inside me. I may have such a poor self-image, that I crave affirmation and approval from others, and will do anything to get that approval.
Of all the apostles, Peter is my favourite. Peter seemed to always get it wrong, but there was never any doubt that he had a good heart. It is obvious Jesus was very fond of Peter, even if he had to call him to order on several occasions. On two special occasions, Peter showed what he thought of Jesus. When some of the disciples walked away, because they didn't like what Jesus was saying, he turned to Peter and the others, to ask "Will you also go away?" To which Peter immediately replied "Lord, to whom can we go? You alone have the words of eternal life."
On another occasion Jesus asked the apostles who they thought he was, and Peter immediately replied "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God, who has come into the world." Yes, Peter had the basics very right, indeed, and I'm absolutely sure that he was under no illusions about his own power and strength. In the Garden, he may well have been one of the first to run. Later that night, he was terrified of being exposed as one of Jesus' disciples, so he strongly denied that he knew Jesus. Later, Jesus looked at Peter, and poor Peter just melted. He went away, and cried his eyes out. He was not afraid or ashamed to admit that he had got it wrong.
On the very same night, Judas let Jesus down as well, and got it very wrong. However, his biggest mistake was to think that this had put him outside of Jesus' love and acceptance. And so Judas went out and hanged himself, and there was nothing Jesus could do to stop him. No wonder Peter later wrote in one of his letters "Always have a reason to give to those who ask you the reason for the hope that you have." In other words, Peter considered that a Christian is someone who always has great hope, and when others notice this, and asked about it, it is important to be able to tell them why I have such hope.
I remember helping out one time in a Hospice situation, where I would call each evening to say Mass with a group of the patients. It was a Friday, and I was going down the country for the weekend. I noticed that Annie was getting very weak, and it was unlikely she would be here when I returned on Monday evening. I prayed with her, blessed her with oil, and spoke to her about dying. As I was leaving her, I held her hands and said "Annie, God might call you over the weekend. Will you be afraid to meet him?" Instantly she answered, "Father, I'm sure he's going to be awful glad to see me."
The saint is not the person who loves God, but the one who is convinced that God loves her. The more of my life I can hand over to God, the less burden I have to carry. I sometimes think of Jesus suggesting to me that we swop crosses! He tells me that I am sometimes burdened down with cares, worries, and decisions that he came to take from me, if I would only allow that. He knows they are too much for me, and that I cannot manage them on my own.
On the other hand he wants to give me his cross, which, he says, I must carry if I am to be one of his disciples. His cross is not too well understood. Someone gets a stroke, a baby is born with some physical or mental handicap, or a person is crippled in an accident. To speak of such things as crosses, is to greatly misunderstand the cross of Christ. Such happenings are not crosses, because they happen to pagans and atheists as well. The cross is always a good, is always a blessing, and such things are certainly not blessings in themselves, even though, with God's help, they can be turned into blessings.
A cross is anything I have to do as a direct result of my decision to walk in the Christian way, to follow Jesus, to take him seriously. If I decide to walk in his way, then I have to forgive, I have to share, I have to pray. This cross is made up of the splinters of daily living, and that's what Jesus means when he says that I must take up my cross everyday, and follow him. It is a wise saying that the person who has a 'Why' for doing something, will always find a way to deal with the 'How'. We are followers of Jesus, God-among-us, to whom nothing is impossible. At best my life is often a choice between faith or insanity! I am strongly suggesting faith, because life is just too changeable, and too unpredictable for me to be able to manage it. It is a long long way worse than trying to keeping 85 plates spinning at the same time!