All Saints’, Dorval
June 14, 2020
Garden in the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone.
Sometimes, when I read the Apostle Paul, I get the sense of an endless succession of abstract nouns, which makes it difficult a lot of the time to get a footing in what Paul is saying. Today’s reading from Romans is an excellent example. Faith, peace, grace, hope, glory, suffering, endurance, character, love – all of them worthy concepts, but compared to Sarah’s laughter at the door of the tent, or Jesus giving his disciples a packing list for their missionary trips, it can be hard to come up with a mental image to correspond to what we read in Paul’s letters, or to see how our ordinary lives connect to these lofty ideas.
But it is very much worth digging into these Epistles and really wrestling with these concepts. I found myself particularly struck, this week, by Paul’s assertion in verse 4 that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”
Our contemporary mindset would stop right at the beginning of that sentence and challenge its first assertion: Suffering produces endurance? Isn’t it more likely to produce trauma, damage, and abuse? We see the evidence all around us of patterns of suffering and its consequences that persist through generations and cause untold pain.
The kind of suffering that Paul describes, though, has two key components that enable it to be productive rather than destructive: meaning, and support. Christians experiencing hardship in the first century AD had strong communities providing help and comfort, and they had a deep understanding of why they were suffering and why it was worth it. In his letters, indeed, Paul is providing both the meaning and the support to the community in Rome and all the others who will read the letter, right down to ourselves in the present day.
Notice that Paul doesn’t say that suffering directly produces character (a phrase that reminds me of a comic-book dad telling his kid to eat his peas or shovel the snow: “It builds character!”). No, Paul acknowledges that before the development of character has to come simple endurance – just the fortitude to get through whatever is happening. Then, perhaps, once the immediate crisis is over, can come the personal work needed to become a better, more self-aware person; and that new character, in turn, leads us toward hope.
Although this all still sounds pretty abstract, I think many of us probably have more of an idea of how it might apply to our own lives than we did, say, four months ago. Suffering, endurance, character, and hope: as we have lived through the COVID-19 pandemic and the other upheavals of 2020, we have come to a much deeper understanding of these things in the world and our own lives.
How would you have defined hope in early March? And how do you define it now? We hope for ordinary things all the time: that we’ll get a job, that our team will win, that someone we love will recover from illness. And God sees and knows these daily hopes of ours, and it’s OK to pray for them (though I wouldn’t recommend that anyone build a theology on the fate of the Montreal Canadiens). But hope, as Paul defines it, and as God offers it to us, is something bigger: it’s the goal of faith, and it’s something we can absolutely rely on, even as it remains, for now, unfulfilled.
One of my most beloved phrases in our liturgy is used during the committal in the burial service: “In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to almighty God our brother/sister” … “Sure and certain hope” sounds like a paradox, because surely if something were certain, we wouldn’t have to hope for it; it would be a present reality. But the hope expressed in this passage and in our liturgy is rather like the hope expressed by the popular phrase “Ça va bien aller,” posted with rainbows in so many windows around the city and the province: even though we don’t know what it will look like, we trust that everything will be OK. The difference is that God, unlike the Legault government, can be counted on to deliver on God’s promises. And we are able to hang onto the hope that God offers because, as Paul says, God’s love has been poured into our hearts.
Although we know that God can be counted on, that does not mean that we can just sit on our hands waiting for the thing we hope for to come to pass. We must each find our way to contribute to the hope for a new, more just, more peaceful world. Paul, reflecting on Jesus’ death for us, speculates about what might motivate someone to die for another – but most of the time, it isn’t nearly that neat and clear-cut. It’s unlikely that one day, you’ll be presented with the simple choice, “Will you agree to die for this other person?” But each of us is confronted every day with a thousand smaller decisions that can add up to something just as consequential.
There have been a lot of jokes lately that 2020 is like an overwritten season of a TV show. But on some level, life that includes fires, plagues, martyrs, and crowds of people demanding the end of injustice should not come as a surprise to Christians. We have always known – or we should have – that life would be a struggle, that suffering was part of the deal, that God had to go to great lengths to bring us back to God’s self, and that our hope lies in the fulfillment of God’s kingdom, not in any earthly tranquillity or success.
As we hope and pray for the fulfillment of God’s kingdom, we celebrate the small glimpses that we see breaking out around us. We celebrate the help of neighbours making masks, buying groceries for each other, and sacrificing in a hundred small ways to keep each other safe. We plant gardens – even ones that we know may not survive, like my little guerrilla vegetable garden in the vacant lot behind my house. We observe small hopeful signs that might have gone unnoticed in the bustle of our previous lives, like birds hatching chicks in a tree in the backyard. We see people, finally, speaking up about problems that have gone on far too long.
There is currently an icon of hope in the Capitol Hill area of Seattle, where protestors have taken over six city blocks and created an “autonomous zone” where, indeed, gardens are being planted, street art created, teach-ins occurring, and necessary supplies are being shared rather than sold. No one knows how long it will last, but in the mean time it is a glimpse into a world where suffering has, indeed, been transmuted by endurance into character and hope.
Where are you glimpsing a God-given hope today? And where can you help to make it happen?