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