Hoping and Healing
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Most of the time it’s fun to choose images for our bulletin covers—it’s creative and you get to see lots of interesting art and graphics. But this week was different.
I was looking for images of St. Paul’s Chapel in Manhattan—the little church that was the headquarters for ministry to first responders and early responders after 9/11. And as I saw those images of the inside of the chapel with all the memorials and signs, and the outside of the chapel covered by all the ash, I was taken back there to those appalling feelings of 15 years ago. It was too difficult for me to carry through the plan of putting St. Paul’s Chapel on today’s cover.
So instead I went to what was for me a less loaded image. It’s older hands giving much younger hands a symbol of new growth--green, fertile, hopeful. Handing on the hope to the next generation.
You know, everyone has a story about 9/11, or at least one very vivid memory. Some of us lost dear ones. Family. Friends. Others had their lives altered for ever as they had close scrapes with disaster and chose to make changes. I was at my clergy breakfast a few weeks ago and it was so interesting to see around the table that everyone had been affected in some way.
Barry was in the WTC on September 10, the afternoon before, meeting with a business partner. We still have his ID badge somewhere at home.
Things like this horrible event that hit us in our cores are really hard to shake off. It’s practically impossible, actually. Inevitably we question, “why did it happen?” “Where was God in this?” “Who is to blame?” and “how do I respond to this and move on?”
Certainly the proper response involves owning and processing the feelings of horror and the long-term feelings of grief. This may take decades. We may take these feelings to our graves. And that’s ok.
And along with processing the grief, we may ask ourselves now that 15 years have passed, “So, now, am I supposed to forgive these terrorists?” Jesus told us to forgive seventy times seven times, didn’t he? And the Scriptures shout out God’s forgiveness for us—and we see that in spades in today’s readings. So we know we are to try to forgive as God has forgiven us. That’s elementary Christian teaching.
But when an event in our lives hits us so deeply, it’s really hard to forgive. I’ve learned that the deeper the hurt, the harder it is to forgive. That’s part of being human. Perhaps wanting to forgive—some day—is enough for now.
And so we muddle on and hold things together. Most days we’re in good shape—unless it’s some kind of anniversary. Like today.
Today, therefore, I hope to offer us a spiritual medicine of sorts. Something to cover the pain and ease it. Not a cure-all, but a powerful medication for horror and for sorrow.
Hope. Hope is our lifeline to the true life, our lifeline to healing and to God. It’s a candle in the dark.
Buddhist priest Thich Nhat Hanh has said, “Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.” And I think he’s spot on.
Believing that tomorrow will be better is one way we know we’re hoping.
But here is a deeper theological definition of Hope: “Hope is a confidence in God, whose goodness and mercy are to be relied on and whose promises cannot fail.” [Terrence Prendergast, Anchor Bible Dictionary, “Hope,” vol. 3, pp. 282--283] A confidence—the profound trusting—that God is goodness and mercy and love. We see it today in the gospel, and in the OT and in the NT readings, don’t we? That sure reminder of God’s character of love and forgiveness. We see God’s own celebration when someone has seen the light.
Hope plays a huge role in recovering from grief—as we all continue to do at one level or another. Our entrance hymn today plays with the relationship between hope and grief. So turn to that with me and let’s take a deeper look.
All my hope on God is founded…not on anything humanly created.
Let’s concentrate on Stanza 2: Mortal pride and earthly glory
sword and crown betray our trust.
though with toil and care we build them
tower and temple turn to dust. (that’s very powerful!)
But God’s power, hour by hour,
is my temple and my tower.
The hymn is acknowledging our tendencies to put our faith in the things around us, and reminding us that they will turn to dust. What won’t pass away? God’s love. God’s power.
Now, the words to this marvelous poem set to music go way back to the 17th century in Germany. But the tune. That’s the story I want to pursue with us today.
It was written, as you can see, by Herbert Howells, one of the greatest 20th century composers of Anglican church-music. Howells had a lovely family in England—a daughter and a son. And in 1935 they went on vacation near the sea. That’s where his little boy contracted spinal meningitis, and within 3 days he had died.
Herbert Howells plunged into a terrible and black grief. His loss changed his life. But in the next year, while at breakfast, he received a letter in the morning postal delivery asking him to write a tune for “All My Hope on God Is Founded.” He cranked it out in memory of his son, and it was written by the time he finished breakfast. And the name of the tune is the name of his little boy, Michael.
Howells channeled his grief then and later on, into an amazing catalog of creative output. His grief never fully left him, but hope crept in and kept him going.
And we too dance with grief and hope our whole lives long.
So how do we cultivate the hope that opens up new life?
We cultivate our relationship with God, who is the ultimate object of Hope. We get to know God better and better, and we don’t give up. That means we engage in prayer every day, in reading the Scriptures (which you can do easily by praying Morning Prayer as you have your coffee), we read books that challenge us to grow our faith, we spend considerable time in Christian communities, like this one right here. We receive hope incarnate in the Sacrament of Holy Communion. And we reach out and serve people—as the people of Gander, NFL, did for all those stranded there on and after 9/11. Did you hear the NPR stories this weekend that reminded listeners about the amazing hospitality of the Newfoundlanders?
Or did you see the story this week about the rescuers who stayed overnight with people stranded on a stalled and dangling cable car in the French Alps? There is nothing quite like service to others. It continues to be a fabulous way to take care of yourself, too.
I’d like to end with the words of J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, who was a devout Roman Catholic Christian. May we be able to live by these words, that come from the second book in the Ring Trilogy. I quote:
“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.” [J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers, Haldir to the Fellowship]