A month and a half ago I was given the opportunity to spend some time in Lebanon where I, among other things, was able to listen to communal narratives of both inspiration and desperation. My experience in Lebanon, from the incredible mountain vistas to the breathtaking sunsets over the Mediterranean, and most powerfully in the Lebanese people, was unforgettable; however, I also found myself, when encountered with stories of desperation, yearning to be able to articulate a tangible hope into the lives of these individuals I encountered. I yearned to be able to point to a hope that promised something new to break the obvious cycle of desperation.
Early on in the trip, I witnessed a conversation between a Lebanese pastor and three development workers (two Westerners and a Lebanese man who had immediate family in Syria). The pastor began by describing his work with Syrian refugees in Lebanon but then quickly transitioned into a passionate plea for some type of action across the border in Syria, where he had witnessed horrendous atrocities. As he began to go into detail (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-19331551 for a brief description), the tenor of the room changed dramatically to a palpable somberness. This somberness turned to mourning as the individuals in the room recognized the immediate affect the details the pastor was sharing had upon the loved ones of the Lebanese development worker, who was now holding back tears. This desperation was accented by the Western development workers, who, while expressing sincere concern, informed the pastor and, in turn, the Lebanese development worker, that their hands were tied because of organizational constraints, which prevented them from crossing into Syria. Feeling utterly powerless in the face of this desperate reality and not knowing where to turn, the five individuals in the room, myself included, began to pray for hope.
In that moment and since then, I have felt altogether incapable of witnessing to tangible hope in the midst of such an overwhelming situation like Syria. The hope that informs my own life seems a bit ethereal and irrelevant when it encounters these desperate realities, which are so removed from my purview. I believe that one must be able to imagine newness before real change can be achieved. This personal sentiment speaks to larger questions: From where does this hope come? Who is able to articulate real hope in the midst of these realities? How can this hope be articulated?
Very recently, I read The Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggemann, where he posits answers to these questions. He says, “It is the task of prophetic imagination and ministry to bring people to engage the promises of newness that is at work in our history with God” (1978:63). However, Brueggemann sets the stage by declaring that real hope “…always comes after grief…hope expressed without knowledge of and participation in grief is likely to be false hope that does not reach despair…it is precisely those who know death most painfully who speak the hope most vigorously” (1978:69). This grief is the correction to the numbness and apathy that often characterizes human existence and it is this grief which produces a “radical discernment of reality” so as to be able to articulate tangible, immediate hope. This is the same idea expressed by Hebrews 3:14-15, because Jesus has entered into our reality we can be confident the hope He offers is trustworthy. Once identifying grief, Brueggeman urges the mining of our deepest memories in order to locate particular dimensions of God’s faithfulness. In fact, it is bringing public expression to God’s sovereign faithfulness within our own narrative that allows hope to be unearthed: “…a world of spoken and heard faithfulness permits hope” (1978:68).
Therefore, according to Brueggemann, this hope, coming from a position of grief, is based in an assurance in and expectation of God’s sovereign faithfulness in the midst of desperate realities. The individuals and communities that can most convincingly speak of this hope are the ones that, after experiencing similar desperate realities, have chosen to witness to God’s sovereign faithfulness. Perhaps this could imply a unique role for the Lebanese church (and others who have had similar experiences), considering the historical memories of the Lebanese civil war, to speak hope into the current crisis in Syria. Undoubtedly, if the universal church is to be relevant, there is a call to combat the numbness that assumes the status quo is the ultimate reality and to enter into the grief of the world in order to witness to a living hope (1 Peter 1:3).
Joel Taylor is in the final stages of a MA in Intercultural Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena. He is a guest contributor to the IMES blog, and is hoping to move to Lebanon in the future to work in partnership with IMES in the area of Faith and Development. He currently works in an after school program with children, and loves basketball.