In an age of mass media, Facebook updates, and Twitter feeds, national trends sometimes trump local observation. Sources of disappointment and catalysts for outrage are as close as the click of a mouse or the tap of a phone. Oddly, the digital chatter about distant realities prevents us from noticing what is right in front of us.
But what if it’s what we don’t see that is the source of encouragement? What if good news is right under our noses? While our disappointments might be global, our hopes might be local.
We asked some friends of Comment, from diverse stations and vocations, to give a glimpse of the places where they find hope. And we’d love to hear from you in the comments: What are the things you see—but we probably don’t—that give you hope?
—James K.A. Smith, Editor
Hannah Meijers is a student at Calvin College, majoring in philosophy, and recently served as an intern for Comment magazine:
I am a student, so come the middle of July my corner of the world means a summer job. In my experience this is a corner where it’s often very easy to let the hope be September. It’s easy to let the hope of a summer job be its end and that long-awaited return to a place where every new class and every late-night conversation seems to fairly drip with potential, with something grand and exciting.
However, this summer I have a job with the city marina. My days are filled with boat launches and mast steps. We pump gasoline and empty out waste tanks. We sweep goose droppings off of boardwalks and pick garbage off of shorelines. I’ve learned intricate knots and fancy nautical terms. I’ve touched baby ducks smaller than my fist, gotten a killer shoe tan, and seen the sun in the evening turn the whole bay pink. Though I’m still excited about a return to school in September, I’m also learning to be excited about work. I’m finding lots of reasons to hope right here.
For, not only are the ducklings adorable and the water beautiful, but the marina itself is a strange bustling organism. We have our own procedures and our own rhythms of busy and slow days. We have our own problem boaters and our own loyal customers, and even as summer students we are expected, not just to check in and show up; we are expected—at least for the season—to care. We are expected to have a finger on the pulse of the place, to know which boats are where and for how long, to recognize people and smile and wave.
On one level this means that I am becoming concerned with signs of hope that won’t mean much of anything to anyone not working at my marina: the Canada Day long weekend went off without a hitch; we got new, better “Reserved” signs for our transient docks; the geese haven’t eaten our flowers. On another level the caring itself has me pretty excited—eager in a new way for a real future of work that might not need a September and that doesn’t seem quite so daunting as before, hopeful that maybe in summer jobs all over the country, others are caring too.
This spring I spent a day at Fuller Seminary’s campus here in Phoenix, where N.T. Wright was speaking on the life and teaching of the Apostle Paul. During a wide-ranging Q&A time following one of the lectures, someone asked Wright how he managed to maintain a sense of hope while serving as Bishop of Durham, given the problems he inevitably encountered within his congregation, his diocese, and in the Church of England as a whole. Wright acknowledged that he dealt with his share of discouragement, but that being a bishop gave him a unique vantage point to continually see pockets of hope throughout the diocese—even when other challenges near and far would have prompted despair.
I’m not a pastor, nor am I a bishop, but I found myself resonating with his response as I reflected on my own work. Here in Phoenix, after all, we have good reason to be discouraged as well—and not just because it’s that time of year when temperatures hover well above the triple digit mark. Bad as that may be, even worse is the fact that our city and state have come to serve as punching bags. You may have seen the recent article, for instance, that declared in no uncertain terms that Phoenix is “the worst place ever.”
But some of us genuinely enjoy living here, believe it or not. I happen to be one of those people. I love the big skies punctuated by desert outcroppings. I’m inspired by the can-do attitude I encounter among our city’s entrepreneurs, artists, and activists. I’m grateful for the abundance of flavourful Southwest cuisine like the carne adovada at Richardson’s. And the list goes on.
Phoenix has its share of challenges, to be sure, and complicity in this city’s brokenness is something we cannot ignore. But I believe there is good reason for hope, even here in “the world’s least sustainable city.” I sometimes find myself discouraged when I read the news, hear about the latest proposed boycott, or consider how few of my neighbours’ names I’ve actually gotten to know. But when I come across signs of life in otherwise hidden corners of our city, my imagination is stirred and my hope is renewed.
Chris Schoon is Senior Pastor of First Hamilton CRC and a doctoral candidate (Th.D.) at Wycliffe College (Toronto School of Theology):
I find hope in the cultural counter-narratives that are flourishing around First Hamilton Christian Reformed Church. We continue to hear about how young people in Canada are walking away from church, if not from the Christian faith altogether. Yet, well over half of those at our Council leadership are in their twenties and thirties. They have taken the lead in building projects, in walking alongside immigrants, and in caring for widows; and they do not shy away from difficult conversations. Teenagers and younger children regularly participate in worship leadership and university students (and recent graduates) that have engaged in our community. Not only are they participating in small groups and serving with our youth group and Friendship Ministry, some of them are also taking the lead in responding to global issues of injustice. For all the anecdotes of youth leaving the church, I see many youth embracing a robust vision of being the church.
There are other signs of hope around our congregation as well. I think about the well-educated, the young families, and a newly retired person who, instead of living in more stable neighbourhoods, are forming a multi-generational, multi-household community together in the city, literally alongside the train tracks. There is also a senior member who rather than retiring, saying, “I’ve done enough,” is responding to an identified need for companionship in our neighbourhood by hosting a bi-weekly knitting group.
When I reflect further on what gives me hope, the women in our church who are playing pick-up basketball at the local park each week as a way of being present with each other and in our community, the fifteen-year-old who is passionate about prayer within the life of our church, and the co-ed church softball team that is cross-generational and has welcomed non-church members onto the team also come to mind. I would be remiss not to mention the hope I find in the collaborative engagement that our members are making within our city, whether through the Hill Street Community Garden or the cross-denominational mission efforts of our True City Hamilton partnership. Together these ordinary glimpses of hope remind me almost daily of the greatest cultural counter-narrative: God is with us and is even now at work making all things new.
Matthew Beimers is principal of Surrey Christian Elementary School in British Columbia:
I never knew that Thomas the Tank Engine was part of the kingdom of God. Walking through the grade 1 class, there was the usual buzz as kids were working on various art pieces, but this one boy stood out as he was very quiet and very focused. I watched how intent he was at drawing and colouring his picture; I am sure that no one was more loyal to this train.
I marvelled as I watched the teacher, Mrs. Meyer, work the room, offering words of encouragement and reacting with awe and curiosity as she responded to every question and cry of attention. It was a beautiful moment as she honoured the work of each child.
As she walked by Shawn’s desk, she casually observed Shawn working on his train, and she just tossed a small comment Shawn’s way. She simply said, “Shawn, you are an artist.” Shawn never looked up. I don’t even know if he heard her.
But Lacey did.
“What did you say, Mrs. Meyer? What did you say?” Her voice rose with excitement. “Mrs. Meyer, did you say Shawn was an artist?” She could barely contain herself. In fact, she didn’t.
Without any prompting, she got up out of her desk and started calling out to the class, “Hey everyone, did you hear that? Shawn’s an artist, Shawn’s an artist.”
She didn’t know what to do. In her presence was a real artist. She walked over to the desk. I am not sure if she ever talked to Shawn before, but she slapped him on the back. “Way to go, Shawn, you’re an artist.” As if the good news was not enough, she beckoned “Hey everyone, Shawn’s an artist. Shawn’s an artist. Come and see what Shawn is doing!” Pretty soon I heard kids saying, “I didn’t know Shawn was an artist, did you?”
Soon the whole class filed by. Not once did Shawn look up. He gripped his pencil and kept working on his train. Soon, people returned to their desk, and the murmur died down. I heard Lacey remark once more to herself, in disbelief, “I can’t believe Shawn’s an artist.”
There were so many things going on in the moment. It is a gift to witness children, in their own way, make earth as it is in heaven. It was a good moment, a holy moment. It reaffirmed for me that one goal of Christian education is to help children, in community, develop the gifts that God has given them. But maybe even more importantly, it is to help children discover the gifts they don’t even know they have. That morning, Lacey helped Shawn, and everyone else, realize that he is indeed an artist. In that room, on that day, a six-year-old girl, without knowing it, was helping a little boy see himself anew. Who knows what that might mean for the kingdom of God?
Some of the deepest wells of my hope are found in the new parents who walk through the front doors of our Christian school with a unique vision for their child’s education. I am in awe of these parents. They come searching for an institution with which they can partner and to whom they can entrust the people they love the most, their children. As a school, it is humbling and honouring when parents believe our vision and their vision overlap in such a way that it will help their children flourish in the world.
The questions that these parents ask give me hope. Quite often their questions indicate a longing for an education that equips their children with much more than just university preparation and upward mobility. Their questions signal their concern about the various ways that culture might be (mis)shaping the desires of their children. Yet, in spite of that, they do not want to run away from the world; they want to partner with a school that helps their child and family better understand what it means to engage the world in the servant way of Jesus. These parents understand that there is deep brokenness in the world, but long for their children to be active participants in the restoration and renewal of the square inch to which God has called them.
These parents give me hope because their deep desires for their children revolve around their child’s virtues and dispositions being transformed through the good news of Jesus Christ. These parents ask questions about the various ways their child will participate in service opportunities with organizations and people in the very neighbourhood where our school is placed. They want their child to understand what it means to participate and contribute to the common good at a young age, hoping that this participation becomes intuitive as their children mature.
These young parents give me hope because they understand that these are their children and they are ultimately responsible for the education of their children. They don’t view the school as a mall, as if education was a commodity they are paying for. Rather, they are fully involved in their child’s education, partnering with us whether by volunteering within our building or engaging children with good questions and conversations at the end of a long school day.
That young parents have such a robust vision for education gives me hope this day.