The group of friends, 5 adults and a toddler, sat around the kitchen table, looking at a large photocopied map. The map was a plan of the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston in Berkshire, the place that designs, manufactures and maintains Britain’s multi-billion-pound weapons of mass destruction.
Around the kichen table, armed with felt tips and crayons, the 5 adults and a toddler began re-designing the site. A micro-brewery went in here, a deer sanctuary there, a hot tub with a bar, a church and a mosque, and some allotments, all found their places on the plans.
When the re-designing was done, mum and toddler stayed behind to do prayer and emailing, and the other 4 piled into the car and headed off to Aldermaston. Two of the friends waited by the car with cameras at the ready, the other two climbed over the fence, and began wandering the site, placing labels, attached to big glow-sticks, where their imagined new developments would go.
It was 45 minutes later that the MoD Police turned up, seven officers, with dogs and guns. The two friends explained what they were doing – surveying the site for these exciting new developments – and invited the police to join in. As they were taken off to Newbury police station, some of the officers chipped in some bright ideas of their own.
For the few hours they were in custody, the two friends prayed and sang. In their interviews, they told the Police Officers of their vision for a transformed world. They were released on bail, and a few months later the charges were dropped, without explanation
What do we mean when we talk about hope?
Because it’s not remotely the same thing as optimism. It’s not a fuzzy ‘things can only get better’, ‘always look on the bright side of life’ feeling, or a carefully-evidenced prediction based on the best available data, like a weather forecast, say.
Hope is a choice. A choice in 4 dimensions:
1. Hope is a choice to imagine the world differently – not ‘what’s the most likely future?’, but ‘what could the future look like?’
2. Hope is a choice to desire, to passionately long for that imagined future to become reality
3. Hope is a choice to believe that it can & will come true... As one radical Christian activist, Jim Wallis, puts it, “Hope means believing in spite of the evidence, and then watching the evidence change”
4. And hope is a choice to act – to start living as if the hoped-for future has already become reality
Take Isaiah’s vision (Isa.35:1-10), for example:
- a dry, dead desert bursting into life;
- springs and streams and pools of water bubbling up from parched ground;
- plants and flowers springing up and blossoming abundantly;
- places of fear and danger made safe and happy;
- a fearful, exiled, grieving people getting to their feet and coming home, singing for joy as they walk, their weak hands made strong, their feeble knees made firm.
Or take John the Baptist (Matthew 11:2-6) for another: the great ‘ground-clearer’, road-builder, sending messengers from his prison cell to find out if Jesus is the one he’s been preparing the way for. And what does Jesus say? “Go and tell John what you hear and see... recognise the kingdom of God when you see it – people’s bodies are being made well, life is coming where there was death, the poor are for the first time waking up to good news...” Does it look like the kingdom of God is springing up around you? Then that’ll be exactly what’s happening!
And what about Mary? The church invites us, on the 3rd Sunday of Advent, to the Magnificat, Mary’s song of the powerful brought down and the rich emptied out, of the hungry filled with good things and the humble lifted high. One Yes to an angel, and Mary – an unmarried girl with a tiny child growing in her womb – has become a revolutionary. She sings of a world turned upside-down – and she sings of these outrageous, impossible, world-changing things as if they have already happened. Mary has chosen hope – she has chosen to live as if the world has changed into the world of God’s promises
So here’s the deal:
God invites us to imagine a different world
- a world where the places of death and danger and dereliction blossom with streams of water and beautiful flowers
- a world where people live in safety, and peace, and delight with their neighbours
- a world where bodies are made well, the hungry are full, and the poor wake up to good news for a change
God invites us to imagine this different world, and to long for it with all that we are
And God invites us to believe it is possible, in spite of the evidence, and to live and act and talk and sing as if it has already happened – and to watch the world change around us. That’s the deal – that’s what Christian hope means.
But what does it mean for us in our neighbourhoods? Here on the Firs & Bromford estates? Or wherever you, reading this, find yourself? What would Isaiah, and John, and Mary see, and sing of, right here?
Here in Hodge Hill, at the beginning of November, in our first ‘Big Conversation’ as a church here, we identified 5 signs of the kingdom of God in our neighbourhoods, 5 ‘markers’, by which we might recognise God’s new world springing up around us, and which we will seek to nurture and encourage where we find them, and plant them where they are not. Those 5 things are: compassion, generosity, trust, friendship and hope. It’s the beginning of our own work of ‘imagining’ our neighbourhoods as they can be – as God longs for them to be – as truly ‘flourishing’. Our next task is to be equipped to go out and look and listen for these things, in the lives and relationships of the people of our parish, and in the work of volunteers and organisations around the place. And to celebrate those things where we find them. And to long for, and believe in, and begin to incarnate those things where they are not.
But for each and every one of us, the work of hope begins right now.
Let’s put our faith in Isaiah’s promise, that God will strengthen our hearts (however fearful), our hands (however weak), our knees (however fearful).
Let’s start looking and listening around us, like John the Baptist’s messengers, to signs and whispers of the kingdom of God, that new, transformed world, coming in our midst.
And let us, like Mary, say our ‘Yes’s to God, and live and act and talk and sing as if that new, transformed world has already come.
And we will begin to see the world change around us.