October 2015

Are you a “maybe person”?

Have you considered how you might give someone the gift of hope? The gift will exact a price, which is like the treasure you store up in heaven, writes Garry Everett.

BY Garry Everett

If you could gift someone with anything you like, what would you choose and why? These two questions could provide a considerable period of reflection. They are not pointless questions, for we have at our disposal a wonderful array of gifts, most of which do not require monetary expenditure. The following story is illustrative.

A long time ago an ancient king lay dying. He summoned his wise men and commanded that they bring him the wisdom of the world in one short sentence. After months of discussion they approached the king with their answer. They told him: “This too shall pass”. The king listened and then told the wise men that the sentence was too long! He asked them to try again.

After many late nights a new answer was ready. On hearing it, the old king nodded in approval and breathed his last. The wise men had used just one word: “maybe”.

If you ponder on the word “maybe”, you will realise that it has a number of subtle qualities. It can connote – potential, growth, opportunity, surprise, resilience and open-ness, to name just a few. We might even say that a “maybe person” is one who offers hope. Such a claim would align the wise men’s answer with the well-known scriptural piece of wisdom: “three things endure – faith, hope and love…” (cf 1 Corinthians 13:13)

But what is hope?

This question is akin to that which Pilate asked of Jesus: “What is truth?” The answer could be the same! However, the difficulty in coming to understand the nature of hope has caused some mistaken definitions to occur. Among these inaccurate explanations is the assertion that hope is some form of a wish, a pious resignation, or some form of optimism.

For the Christian, the answer is of a different quality and is always to be found in the same appreciation of lived experience. St Augustine offered a powerful yet simple allegorical approach to understanding hope. He wrote: “Hope has two beautiful daughters: one is anger, the other is courage. You have to be angry enough at the way some things are, and also courageous enough to change them”.

This is a very active view of hope. It is the opposite of keeping one’s fingers crossed and wishing that things will get better. For Augustine, hope is about being and doing – about “being angry enough” (as Christ was in the Temple) and “being courageous enough” to make the changes that will right the matter. You need both. Being angry by itself will not bring hope; nor will changing things without engaging the victim’s and oppressors’ emotions and intellects.

Augustine’s reference to “things” is also important. For Augustine, the “things” were always kingdom things: justice, peace, love. Where these things are not right, the Christian brings hope by acting to restore right relationships.

This understanding of hope imbues the work of many Christian organisations. The St Vincent de Paul Society for example, has a saying about “a hand up as well as a handout”. In other words, giving resources (a handout such as food or clothing) is helpful, but in the end, the aim is to offer hope by way of a hand up to a better quality of life.

Many people who are helped by the Society often greet those who help them with the exclamation: “It’s all hopeless”. Christian helpers could do well to adopt the catch cry prominent in so much of the leadership material of today: “The first and last task of every leader is to give hope”.

Christians have developed another perspective on hope that complements that of Augustine’s. In this perspective, hope is guaranteed by God’s faithfulness to us. In the Christian story, God is faithful to Jesus and to us in life and death, in crucifixion and in resurrection. We have survived to today, and we expect to do so tomorrow, because we hope in God and God’s faithfulness. It is hope that allows us to see God in all that happens – successes and failures.

Again, we should not think of this hope as being a case of “leave it all to God”. We are co-creators and God wants us to co-operate in bringing hope to the world.

Some commentators praise Pope Francis for this quality along with his mercy and joy. In the Church and in the world, he is the living example of John Denver’s words in his song It’s About Change – “There’s a light in the Vatican window…” – the light of hope! Francis exemplifies for all of us that the process of bringing hope is always accompanied by some form of conflict.

As Augustine preached anger and courage together, so Christians have come to understand that hope requires us to confront opposition in all its subtle disguises. We know what God’s priorities are and we know that we can trust in God to support us in our endeavours. “When God is with us, who can be against?”

Have you considered how you might give someone the gift of hope? The gift will exact a price, which is like the treasure you store up in heaven. If you change things for the better for someone, you too will be changed.

I leave the last words on hope to the poet, Wendell Berry, who entreated us to plant trees and “to practise resurrection”.

Garry Everett

Garry Everett has spent all his professional life, as well as much of retirement, as an educator, and mostly of adults. Garry’s enduring interests lie in family, Scripture, theology and Church renewal. At a local level he is involved in social justice and ecumenism. He is also a member of his parish St Vincent de Paul Conference.

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