The Transcendence of Hope

You will have read that we were just in California for Christmas. Eighteen months ago, Ngaire and I visited Bethel Church in Redding, Northern California. For Ngaire, it was her third visit. Many thousands of people have experienced healing through visiting this place; of this I have no doubt. Ngaire herself, as I have mentioned before, after her first visit to Bethel, went from being highly symptomatic to symptom-free for the eighteen months following. However, after the two subsequent visits, there was no difference. In fact, it was after our last visit that she began to require oxygen therapy twenty-four hours a day.

So why wasn’t she healed? I don’t know. That’s not what I’m writing about today. I will share some thoughts in the future, though.

As the trip was a kind of pilgrimage, it was, almost entirely, contemplative; we read much, talked much, absorbed much, stepped across the “physical divide” much and listened to music, some of which we had just bought.

There was a palpable sense of otherworld-ness as we left the town, escorted down the long driveway of Bethel Church by a bald eagle floating parallel to our car. The new music that we had playing filled us with a sense of hope and seemed to confirm our feelings that healing was imminent.

Yesterday I played that same music for the first time. Instead of melancholy, it again filled me with a sense of hope. Part of me thought that that was quite bizarre. After all, didn’t that hope disappoint? Not only was Ngaire not healed, but she became rapidly worse and continued so until she died, twelve months later.

I think that like many of us, I have had a belief that hope is what you do, so that when something happens to us that is contrary to what we had hoped, our hope is therefore diminished, not to be trusted, or even destroyed. Ngaire died, despite our best hopes; but I think I’m starting to see that our hopes are not Hope.

What if Hope has a life, strength and potency all of its own? What if Hope is something on which we draw, rather than something we whip up or project onto our future as a kind of semblance of our faith?

A few blogs back I spoke of some of the things that I have learnt about faith. One of them is that faith is not about having an expected outcome. While we were away over the Christmas period, I heard a young man say that there is no such thing as an unanswered prayer. His statement got me thinking again about how we have made so much of what we believe into a set of mantras so that we can put God into a manageable framework that helps us to keep things under control and to bring us, hopefully, an expected outcome. If we don’t do that, then God dwells, at least partly, in the unknown and mysterious; this doesn’t work for us.

So our theology becomes a series of “therefores” e.g. God wants to give me good things, and he is a loving father, therefore there is no such thing as unanswered prayer, because he’s just busting to bless me – a little simplistic perhaps, but the problem with so much of what I have learnt is that it is part of this derivative system of belief: the great therefore.

The real issue here is that, depending on what form of logic you use, you can make virtually anything mean what you want it to mean, rather than necessarily what it is saying; just read Plato. But I digress…..kind of…because I was talking about hope.

In the oft-quoted chapter thirteen of the letter to the church in Corinth – a favourite for virtually anyone’s wedding – Paul talks profoundly about the nature of love, that it is, in its purest form, entirely selfless. He then wraps up the chapter with, “These three remain: Faith, Hope and Love, but the greatest is Love.”

He might as well have said, “When everything you believe is boiled down, this is what you’re left with: Faith, Hope and Love.” And it seems that Love is what makes sense of it all.

When I have thought of love, it has usually been associated in my mind and heart with a feeling, something that comes from within, establishing and/or confirming an emotional relationship with another person. But what if those feelings are simply the “exhaust” of a far greater engine? Of course, this is not a new thought with regard to love; greats have shared their wisdom for thousands of years, and the great commonality is that love – real love – is entirely selfless. It is not about what I get; it is about what I willingly lose for the sake of another. In a marriage or life partnership, the beauty in that mutual sacrifice is the gateway to oneness.

Love then, is a way, not a feeling.

So, as I ponder Hope and how it still makes its presence felt in my life after being so disappointed, it really doesn’t make sense unless seen in the context of the way of love.

Maybe people could say that I’m trying to find reasons why my beloved Ngaire died thirty or forty years before her time.

Possibly, but perhaps there’s another way of looking at it. C.S. Lewis, in A Grief Observed, said, “Nothing will shake a man…out of his merely verbal thinking and his merely notional beliefs. He has to be knocked silly before he comes to his senses. Only torture will bring out the truth. Only under torture does he discover it himself.”

It is no longer good enough for me to believe a self-serving theology of heaven and prosperity – which, one would think, includes the ongoing presence and love of my life partner – no matter how worthy, if God is not on the same page.

Again, as Lewis says, “My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered from time to time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence?” And again in the same vein, “I need Christ, not something that resembles him.”

I guess this means that I’m discovering the transcendence of hope, because the way of love is transcendent, and that is what makes sense of hope; it is not only superior, but outside of space and time, with a strength and nature of its own that is not dictated by the whims of our desires, no matter how strongly we feel, no matter how painful the path.

 

1. All C.S.Lewis quotes are from A Grief Observed – First published by Faber and Faber 1961

Can Someone Explain Australia Day to Me?

It’s time for a little departure from what has been the normal subject of my blog over the last six or seven months.

I am an Australian, from as far back as I can work out, on my father’s side. With the exception of a couple of years in the U.S. in my twenties, I have lived, been educated, worked, paid taxes, married and raised children here; but I never know what to do with Australia Day.

To begin with, what exactly are we celebrating? The date itself relates to the founding of the colony of New South Wales on January 26th, 1788, although the actual proclamation didn’t take place until the 7th of February. It’s probably enough that Captain Phillip landed in Sydney Cove, with a few others, on the date that we now celebrate; the rest of the First Fleet followed in dribs and drabs over the next few days after some complications in Botany Bay.

How odd, that we should celebrate the foundation of a penal colony: The official formation of a village where the refuse of Britain could be safely spewed out on the shore about as far from Old Blighty as was then possible. At best this is melancholic, at worst, tragic, and certainly as worthy of celebration as the death of your favourite pet. As a friend recently commented, “Most countries celebrate the date of their freedom from colonial oppression, but we celebrate going into it.”

The other issue is that this date also signifies the beginning of the almost total demise of the indigenous people of this country – an often-merciless slaughter, most often without just cause.

Yet, “Happy Australia Day”, is the cry.

It is true, we do have a lot to be thankful for. We live in one of the pre-eminent democracies of the world (albeit with a unelected Head of State, Queen Elizabeth, incongruously born into that position); we have freedom of which most countries couldn’t dream, and an exemplary standard of living and level of free education. We’re one of the few democracies that haven’t had a civil war, or a war of independence. Compared to many nations, we’ve managed the whole immigration/multi-cultural thing reasonably well and now are moving quite smoothly into the second and third generations.

Yes, all in all, we have a lot to celebrate, but when I vocalised my ambivalence about Australia Day, a friend asked me if I wasn’t even a little bit proud to be Australian. It made me think and, to be honest, I don’t know whether or not I am proud to be an Australian. Thankful, yes, absolutely, but proud…I don’t think so. Pride can be a dangerous thing.

There are so many nations around the world, some of whom are very close allies, whose citizens are so inculcated with patriotic national pride that it smacks of elitism and borders on racism. “Surely the rest of the world would want to be like us!” Is the almost inherent inference in such an attitude. More than this, one of the chief dangers of such self-belief on a national scale is the desire to make the rest of the world either like them or amenable to them. Such hyper-patriotism also seems to create intolerance of cultures that are unlike theirs, and especially of those that are unwilling to be like theirs. Perhaps because we have been drenched in such culture through our television media for over half a century, we have come to view it as normal or acceptable.

But when I see cars draped in flags and people painting their faces, I find myself at once concerned and ambivalent. I’m concerned because I see the danger inherent in walking too far down this path. For example, I saw a sticker on a car recently, which said, “Australia – Love it or leave it!” The problem really is not just that this is a very ugly, elitist statement – dare I say, red-necked – but also that many people won’t see a problem with it; yet, it is the epitome of intolerance.

But I am also ambivalent because of what I said earlier about the day we celebrate – what it means foundationally with our nation being established as a penal colony, and what that in turn meant for the first inhabitants of our land.

Don’t get me wrong, I do see this country as my land, and I am grateful, thankful and happy to be an Australian; I like the sense of community that seems to be growing in local barbecues and breakfasts around the place on Australia Day. But I don’t like the way our National Apathy lets us slide into things without grappling with the issues associated with them, in this case, genocide and oppression. Perhaps there are those who may consider such an opinion to be a “bleeding-heart view of history,” as if that was something bad. I don’t quite understand why it is bad to be upset about such a tragic history, and to want to do something about it.

It is also quite Australian to be pragmatic and say, “Hey, that was a long time ago, mate. Just grab a beer and get on with it.”

There’s a lot to be said for that approach. In many ways, it gets the job done, but there’s one very big problem: it ignores the wounds, the pain and the sentient truth that has gone into the shaping of our culture in a negative way: the elephant in the room that we have been ignoring for generations. If we understood the disdain that was felt by the British for the colony of New South Wales and the fact that many saw it as worse than a death sentence to be sent here, and if we understood how thousands of indigenous families, fathers, mothers and children were obliterated because they stood in the way, creating an aching chasm in the ethnic psyche of those who were “lucky” enough not to be wiped out – along with their descendants – we may view the celebration of this day a little differently.

While then Prime Minister John Howard was technically correct in saying that we can’t be held responsible for the crimes of our antecedents, what we do have is the ability to grasp the issues involved and do all within our power to make amends.

We need to step away from our polluted, penal heritage and say, as a nation, “That was not acceptable. We are better than that,” and bury January 26th as the ignominious moment in history that it was.

We have had an apology from a Prime Minister to the indigenous people of our land, and I was among those who wept while listening to it. I believe that it began a healing which still needs to be struggled for. I also believe that to step away from the celebration of January 26th as Australia Day would demonstrate something powerful to our indigenous brothers and sisters: That we, as a nation do not consider what happened to their ancestors was right, nor do we in any way, directly or indirectly, sanction it. To determine to celebrate Australia Day on another day would help to illustrate this very strongly.

It is also time that we were free to celebrate our “unity in diversity”. At the moment, we’re not. Sociologists for decades have studied the “cultural cringe” – that national inferiority complex that often rears its ugly head when we, or one of our leaders goes overseas, or when a reporter asks a visiting American celebrity,  as if we needed their validation, “So, what do you think of Australia?”

It’s the chip on our national shoulder that, I believe, emanates from our national beginnings and makes us do the kinds of things we would never do at home, like embellishing our or our country’s achievements, our country’s size, grovelling before Presidents, etc. It is time to break free as a nation, reject our oppressive beginnings and choose another day.

So what day would it be? January 1st has been bandied about – the date of the federation of the Commonwealth of Australia – fairly obvious, I would’ve thought. So much more obvious than January 26th, but the average Aussie wouldn’t like having to telescope Australia Day into New Year’s Day, effectively making one party when you could have two – not very Australian.

I’m all for finding a day in August. In New South Wales we have a dearth of holidays between June and October, so August would break it up nicely. We could just select a day, without having to ask Her Majesty, and boom, there you go.

In our present shape as a federation, we’re a young country; so while we’re young, let’s get it right. Let’s find a day that fits for us to celebrate the great things about our nation, in an Australian way, without adopted affectations; and let’s decide not to commemorate so much of what’s bad about our nation’s beginnings, because that’s what we are doing at the moment, whether we realise it or not.

The Path of Healing

So, now we are back home and life has resumed as normal. North-American Christmas has given way to the beautiful post-Christmas summer of Sydney: fresh, seasonal avocadoes, mangos and watermelon, along with the smell of gardenias, the ubiquitous barbecue, cold drinks and sun on skin.

Although we bathed in the peace of our time away, there is a great sense of home and rest in Sydney at this time of year; everyone is in a relaxed mood, the air is warm, the traffic light, and it’s all about relaxing and spending time with friends, for as long as we can make it last.

I love this time of year here.

Being back has had me reflecting, in a peaceful way, on the journey of the past nearly-six months; I have written about grief and all of its facets – at least, what I have been able to identify within the context of the relationship that Ngaire, our boys and I shared; I have had marvelous conversations with friends and family – life-filled conversations – that have gone deep and helped bring a measure of peace and understanding; I have sat to write many times, having experienced an aspect of pain or loss, and in the engaging, found profound, unexpected truth.

Though I don’t anticipate that this journey will ever fully end, I have found myself in a different headspace lately; some of the things of which I have been apprehensive have taken on elements of peace, and become building-blocks for the future: unexpected but deeply appreciated.

Today is Ngaire’s birthday. Birthdays in our family would normally be mini festivals that stretch over at least a few days; this was something that Ngaire instituted and perfected – an honouring of a person that would leave them in no doubt that they were loved. This practical and caring demonstration of my love is what I am unable to give today; but this now leaves me with melancholy more than pain.

Now, most of the time, when I think about Ngaire, I see her smiling, vibrant and full of life. I don’t know how or when that happened, but I am glad for it, and in many ways, feel that it happened in spite of me. This brings me to what I have really been thinking about.

It would seem pretty obvious that grief is a process that the bereaved person goes through and, no matter how well supported they are, is quite a solitary journey. It occurred to me recently however, that Ngaire has been my almost-constant companion through this process. I am coming to understand that how I thought of her through this process is an indication of what I was going through. For example, throughout much of this period, my mind has gone over and over her last weeks, particularly her last day. The pathos of her frailty and weakness has at times been overwhelming in my mind. It has screamed at my ineptitude at not being able to save her and laid bare the inadequacy of my support, provision and care for her, all of which laid an axe to the root of my perception of who I was, as a man and husband.

Over time and particularly through our “time of peace” away over Christmas, I have been able to let go of many of these feelings. I know that there was nothing that I could have done, and now my heart is beginning to agree with my head. Now, I think far less of the tragic moments before her death and more of the happy, healthy, vibrant girl that Ngaire was for most of our life together.

People often say to someone who is bereaved, “remember the happy times – let them be a strength to you.”

I get the sentiment, but it seems to me that it would require a “short-circuiting” of the whole process of grief. One thing that I have been discovering on this journey is that the engagement is everything. Pain can be a good thing if we, with our limited, pain-minimising Western understanding, can clasp hands with our inner life and walk through the pain. It’s the old in and through.

I know there are different kinds of loss; I can’t imagine – or perhaps I can – of losing a child or another close loved one through sudden, tragic circumstances; I couldn’t begin to fathom the pain of those who lose many members of their family in a car accident, and find themselves alone in their anguish.

This I do now know: grief is the path to healing; if I do not engage in the pain and walk through it, I will become misshapen by it. I also believe that a key is the need for me to continue to give as well as receive love; in the giving, the flow of life is restored, little by little.

I don’t pretend to undertsand this whole thing; that mysterious, peaceful time overseas has brought restoration deep within, but I don’t know how or why. It is as if God, has, as I mentioned in the last blog, tied it all up and said, “Here, tuck that away. Don’t be afraid to refer to it as often as you want, but it’s gift to you will now be peace.”

Ngaire is still my companion, but now there is peace and, dare I say, even a modicum of joy for who she was. I still miss her, every day, but now I see her smiling. She was also a twin, so today is her beloved sister’s birthday too. Everyone has their journey, so we need to tread gently.

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