Finding hope in a hopeless world
My friend told me he had a hard time not falling into complete despair as he watched the Amazon burn. I agree with him. What is our source of hope in our world of chaos? We feel so limited in what we can do to impact the horror that surrounds us that our sense of helplessness eclipses any glimmer of hope we may have. Or at least that’s how it feels some days.
When the G7 leaders met last week, that is the executive leaders of Canada, France, Italy, Germany, the United States, Japan, and the United Kingdom, they decided to donate $20 million to Amazon relief. I laughed at that puny amount because the U.S. spends as much money in Afghanistan every four hours. However, even that minuscule amount of money was rejected by Brazilian strongman, Jair Bolsonaro (who, by the way, was commenting on a Facebook meme a few days ago mocking Emmanuel Macron’s wife—class act). Apparently, Trump thinks he’s doing a fine job.
Prayer is the key to our existential hope
I only mention this to reiterate the point that we feel limited in what we can do to combat the horror around us, and even the little bit that we can do is often hampered in one way or another. Seems to me like we need more sources of hope, existential hope, for our world, for our survival, or our wherewithal. I think we are desperate for that. And in my experience, an interior life, one tended to by prayer, combats desperation. It also fuels in us the work that God has given us to do. I want to talk about the essentiality of prayer here. It was one of my wishes for 2019 that we’d pray more and I hope we can keep doing that. There are many ways to pray, and I’m partial to many of them, but any prayer practice is elemental to delivering us more hope and connecting us with God in a practical way.
David Bentley Hart ends his erudite book, The Experience of God, concluding that the best way to experience God is through prayer. He says:
“If one is left unsatisfied by the logical arguments for belief in God, and instead insists upon some ‘experimental’ or ‘empirical’ demonstration, then one ought to be willing to attempt the sort of investigations necessary to achieve any sort of real certainty regarding a reality that is nothing less than the infinite coincidence of absolute being, consciousness, and bliss. In short, one must pray: not fitfully, not simply in the manner of suppliant seeking aid or of a penitent seeking absolution, but also according to the disciplines of infused contemplation, with real constancy of will and a patient openness to grace… so as to find whether the spiritual journey, when followed in earnest, can disclose its own truthfulness and conduct one into communion with a dimension of reality beyond the ontological indigence of the physical” (Experience of God, Yale, 2013, p. 327-328).
What Hart is saying here is if you are willing to do anything that it takes to experience God, if you must “empirically” experience God, then try out prayer, specifically contemplative prayer (look up our prayer series on Martin Laird’s book Into the Silent Land and A Sunlit Absence on Daily Prayer, Water). He tells us to do it willfully and patiently, so that, done with seriousness, you can approach a reality of communion with God that exceeds the physical realm we dwell on. Prayer allows you to escape the “ontological” limits of physicality and moves you toward the supernatural and metaphysical. Put another way, if you want hope in our hopeless world, maybe you have to look somewhere else.
Prayer is how we experience God and how we collect hope
Hart simplifies his earlier statement this way: “Contemplative discipline, while not by any means the only proper approach to the mystery of God, is peculiarly suited to (for want of a better word) an ’empirical’ exploration of that mystery.”
Robert Farrar Capon joins him: “The habit of contemplation [is] the ability to sit down in front of something and care enough to let it speak for itself.” Martin Laird, who I linked above, says that prayer is a way to empty our minds so as to encounter God. He says our minds and our thoughts separate us from God. Henri Nouwen says that, “Prayer is the most concrete way to make our home in God.”
Contemplation then strips us of despair, so that we can commune with God, and my argument is that the hope we collect from that intimacy with God is exactly what we need to re-enter the world and face its trouble. And we all have that vocation, I think (unless we are called to the monastery, but the monastery is for those who have the call, not merely those who wish to escape).
Christians need to face the trouble of the world in order to rescue people from it and enlist them in our mission of alternative community, one that thrives under the powers and despite the horror, talking back to the principalities of the world, while creating a caring, gentle, healing alternative to them in the church.
I know all of this may seem hard for you. It may seem odd. It may seem pointless too. I know what you may be thinking, “My response to Bolsonaro and the Amazonian fires is to pray?” That’s at least one of them. And that’s certainly my advice if you have seemed to run out of options, if you are in despair. That’s what Hart says above, attempt all the “investigations necessary.”
Prayer gives us access to an endless well of hope
I’ve had this idea in my mind for a while. When the material world fails us, and we don’t have hope, where do we turn? I keep turning back to God. I have to keep turning back to God because I don’t think a new circumstance on earth is what I am looking for. The hope that wells up from a new presidency, or a new political apparatus, or a new relationship, a new marriage, a child, a new job, or another materiality dries up quickly. We need access to an endless well, one of living water, one that causes us to never thirst again. Like Jesus tells the Woman at the Well in John 4:13: “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
All of the above-mentioned masters of prayer are saying the same thing: prayer connects us to God—it frees our mind, it gives a chance to “empirically” explore God, it’s “concrete,” not merely abstract. It’s realer than reality. But the truth that they are sharing is in all of us. We don’t need to become masters or monks to access it.
Taylor finds faith in her desperation
I learned that this week as I was listening to Taylor Swift, yes, Taylor Swift. On “Soon You’ll Get Better” in her 2019 release Lover, she sings of her mom’s cancer diagnosis. It sparks faith in her, as she returns to her country roots. She sings, “Holy orange bottles, each night, I pray to you / Desperate people find faith, so now I pray to Jesus, too.” She moves toward theology, a theology of hope. Spencer Kornhaber, of the Atlantic, says she shifts, “from the secular, imagistic, everything-is-enchanted sort of mysticism Swift has always excelled at to one rooted in actual theology.”
She prays to Jesus for her mother, “soon you’ll get better.” And her move isn’t merely the result of the cultural Christian residue that rubbed on her in her Tennessee home. I think it’s real. She turned thirty this year, and when she was telling Elle magazine thirty things she learned before she was thirty, she said:
“I’ve had to learn how to handle serious illness in my family. Both of my parents have had cancer, and my mom is now fighting her battle with it again. It’s taught me that there are real problems and then there’s everything else. My mom’s cancer is a real problem. I used to be so anxious about daily ups and downs. I give all of my worry, stress, and prayers to real problems now.”
Her faith broke open my heart. It gave me hope too. Her desperation leads to faith. And I hope yours does too, as we watch the Amazon burn.