The Space for Hope

(A message by Katherine Smith, given during the celebration of Christival at Trinity Baptist Church, Conyers, Georgia, via Facebook, October 18, 2020)

Our Scripture today comes from Isaiah 40:28-31 (The Message)

God doesn’t come and go. God lasts.
    He’s Creator of all you can see or imagine.
He doesn’t get tired out, doesn’t pause to catch his breath.
    And he knows everything, inside and out.
He energizes those who get tired,
    gives fresh strength to dropouts.
For even young people tire and drop out,
    young folk in their prime stumble and fall.
But those who wait upon God get fresh strength.
    They spread their wings and soar like eagles,
They run and don’t get tired,
    they walk and don’t lag behind.

God is Creator of all you can see or imagine! What a beautiful verse! Added to this, Romans 1:20 tells us that God’s invisible qualities, God’s divine nature, can be seen throughout creation. We don’t have to use our imagination to see the strength of God in lions, God’s humor in the platypus, the Lord’s tenderness in the butterflies and hummingbirds, the majesty of God in the splendor of mountains, protectiveness through a mother elephant, or God’s grace in the seasonal changes of growth, harvest, and rest. Psalm 19 tells us “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” If you ever lose sight of the Almighty, the natural world takes us hand in hand to God.

Nature does more than help us see God’s qualities though – nature also helps restore our souls! A walk among the trees helps lower stress hormones. Even viewing parts of creation can reduce anger and fear. Think about the fun of watching puppies or lion cubs at play! We smile as we see the first awkward steps of a baby giraffe or zebra. There is a reason that movies about penguins are so popular – they are adorable! The sounds of nature fill us with peace – if we can find a place away from the noise of life. A gentle rain. The waves on a beach. A mountain stream. Or even the roar of thunder or of a waterfall. God gave us an abundance of beauty to help us heal, to comfort us, to restore our bodies as well as our souls! It is clear we are to be in partnership with the created world to care for each other and to thrive.

The world around us is also resilient. Resiliency is the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; or a toughness. Immediately, the life of John Lewis came to mind as a wonderful human example of resiliency. Despite 40 arrests and numerous physical attacks and serious injuries – including massive head trauma received during a peaceful march for civil rights in Alabama – Congressman Lewis went on to receive the John F. Kennedy “Profile in Courage Award” for Lifetime Achievement. What an example he was for us!

Nature is resilient, also, to a point. This is the now famous before and after picture of the India Gate war memorial in New Delhi, India. The picture on the left was taken in October of 2019 ‘before’ the advent of COVID 19 [Anushree Fadnavis/Adnan Abidi/Reuters].  After a 21-day nationwide lockdown – April 8, 2020 – the view is quite different!

If you look closely, you can see this resilience in action! How many times have you pulled up the same weeds that grow through the cracks in your sidewalks? Or seen nature ‘reclaim’ an old abandoned barn? Even our forests, so badly damaged through fire or drought, quickly turn green again with new life. 

But nature cannot always recover, as we’ve seen in the destruction again and again of natural resources such as the rainforests of the Amazon, or of lives adversely affected by environmental racism or climate change, or of countless species lost on a daily basis. We do not want to shut down the world in order to try to ‘fix’ our environment, though. I simply want to point out that there is a large part of our natural world that is resilient – that can be restored if we come together to work for healthy and systemic changes.

Countless sermons draw from the story of ‘Doubting Thomas’ found in John Chapter 20. They usually highlight the need to have faith without seeing first, as is appropriate. This same story, however, is about accepting the truth that someone could be wounded and resurrected at the same time. Jesus appears before his disciples in his resurrected form – not perfectly healed but instead still bearing the scars of the nail marks in his hands and the spear hole in his side. We humans and the world we inhabit are wounded, deeply; and at the same time, there is resurrection and transformation; resilience and hope. With Earth and humanity so wounded – with the climate crisis, species extinction, toxic oceans, refugees, poverty, and so on – our true calling as Christians is to care for all of creation, human and otherwise, in its beauty, bounty, and in its wounded-ness.

In 2016, author Rebecca Solnit wrote this about the current climate crisis: “We don’t know what is going to happen, or how, or when, and that very uncertainty is the space of hope.” Though she wasn’t specifically writing for a Christian audience, her words sound almost biblical! Romans Chapter 8 tells us “For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees?But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” [Rom. 8:24-25] So what do we do while waiting in the “space for hope”? Perhaps Saint Francis of Assisi gave us the best advice: “Start by doing what is necessary, then what is possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”

So what is necessary and even possible?Prayer! From beginning to end and throughout our work, we must consider prayer our cornerstone. Wisdom, strength, and patience are but a few gifts drawn from prayer and needed for resilience and restoration.

What else is necessary? Care of your own spiritual life. The challenges of caring for people and the world around us are daunting! Grief, depression, and anxiety are real and a part of what makes us human. Taking time for yourself – time for Sabbath, to heal, to pray, to study, to prepare – are vital if you want to continue the tasks we have been given.

Sometimes we need to be made aware of the vulnerable around us. In the midst of the questions and confusion that bombard us each day, the faces of the poor and marginalized get lost. Pastors and their congregations are often best placed to recognize the suffering and to help those facing the grief and lament of this ravaged planet and the lives – human and otherwise – that we are losing. They also can point out issues of justice on behalf of the poor and the environment, as well as lead people to action. Who are the vulnerable people in your communities? What natural areas might be harmed by rising waters, drought, or even colder or warmer temperatures? Where are the landfills and pipelines now, and who is making those decisions for your community?

This year’s Christival theme – “Hope Through Our God Who Saves and Heals” – is profoundly appropriate! When we become afraid by the turmoil around us, our God is present to provide comfort and peace. Sometimes this peace comes directly from the Holy Spirit, other times through the actions of a friend. Often it comes in the disguise of our furry friends who live with us, or in the simple beauty of fall leaves, or even in the glow of the sunrise on a new day. God works through the natural world around us so that we would not lose sight of his presence. We are responsible for making sure that others have that same opportunity, as well! We are standing on holy ground – we must act like it!

I leave you with these words of St. Francis, as well as more amazing photos:

Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures, especially through my lord Brother Sun, who brings the day; and you give light through him. And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor! Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars; in the heavens you have made them, precious and beautiful.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air, and clouds and storms, and all the weather, through which you give your creatures sustenance.

Be praised, My Lord, through Sister Water; she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire, through whom you brighten the night. He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth, who feeds us and rules us, and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.