Hope is at a premium

Hope is at a premium. This century has seen the fracturing of a former sense of security. Old orders fall away daily. Hope generated by the end of the Cold War has evaporated. Forces of darkness and war loom over every continent, writes the Revd Graham Sykes. 

Poverty caused by multiple wars, terrorism, systemic corruption and long-term economic mismanagement on a global scale has meant that millions of displaced people hopelessly sojourn in lands not their own. Global government agendas, even the United Nations, offer no real solutions to human turmoil and suffering. In the UK confidence is eroded in every single one of our great national institutions, whether it be because of safeguarding, austerity or dishonesty about policies. The Church of England is not exempt as we face the revelation of the sins of past and present. Hope is corroded on all sides.

Hope is at a premium in the work of a hospice chaplain, daily facing the deep crisis of hope in patients’ families and visitors. It is at a premium among staff employed by the NHS. Many wonder how chaplains not only survive but love the job. This is where Bishop Steven’s three Cs: contemplative, compassionate and courageous are helpful. They are a tool not only to become more Christ-like but also to become a better disciple and a more effective minister. They can apply in parish, workplace or place of leisure. All are places where suffering is experienced and the existential questions of life surface.

When hope is at a premium contemplation on the situation, on scripture and, most importantly, on the nature of God is absolutely essential. A good methodology is to seek the ‘Good News’ in every situation. Many things are coming to light that have been for too long hidden in darkness. Know the truth and it will set you free. Revelation of corruption in all its forms is good news. Though painful to live with it gives us a chance to address it. Jesus was born into a hopeless situation under Roman occupation and oppression. His three years of public ministry was spent reaching out to hopeless people, healing them, rehabilitating them into the family of God and restoring hope. God never gives up on the world. The calling of disciples is to go and do likewise. Hope is a gift from God born out of the hopelessness and despair of Good Friday exploding into the light of the Resurrection of Easter Day. Disciples are equipped by hope in every situation.

Compassion is born out of the hope that is sustained, regenerated and grown through contemplation. Compassion enables disciples to absorb and hold despair without denial or platitudinous attempts to negate it. Compassion sits with suffering and feels it, contemplates it and wants to fix it but feels the pain of knowing it can’t be done – not by human beings anyway. There is no quick fix. Compassion is when despair is trumped by hope born out of contemplation that knows that God does not will this suffering but that he feels it. Becoming more Christ-like is about seeing, feeling, experiencing and dwelling in the place as God does.

Contemplation and compassion breed the courage not to rush in with words but to sit and dwell, to listen and absorb, to be undefended in whatever response a suffering person may throw at you. To live with anger, frustration, tears and pain filled silence. The sin of Job’s comforters is that their lack of contemplation left them compassionless and wanting to fix the unfixable. They missed two deep mysteries: that the existence of freedom in the world means that suffering happens and that God’s love conquers all suffering and death.

I am mystified by the response of many of the people I have helped through my work. By dwelling with them and speaking out of contemplation just a few words have made an enormous difference to them and restored hope. My theory is that the very process of a contemplative, compassionate, courageous presence with them brings them a glimpse of the love of God. That is ‘Good News’ when hope is at a premium.

The Revd Graham Sykes is a team chaplain at the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.