It was a bitter morning, ice sugar-coating the bare metal of my Warrior armoured personal carrier. We had to stop every twenty minutes or so to thaw out our eyes in order to see properly, huddled down in the turret, the wind-chill taking the temperatures well below -20. Winter in the Balkans. All you could see was a hand, awkwardly sticking out from a pile of frozen dirt, reaching out, yet lifeless. Instinctively you knew that hidden beneath the still crust were more..many more, each with a silent story that would never be told. Somehow worse than the deaths were the stories from the living, those that had survived ethnic cleansing, displacement, imprisonment, torture. The brutality that often accompanies any form of conflict. Hard for a young army officer, so far from home, to even comprehend, never mind understand. How can we ever understand such things. And yet none of the above shook me as much as what I came face to face with for the first time in my life in the eyes of those that had survived.
The empty eyes of hopelessness.
Sometimes events well beyond our control come and shake us. We had a great family Christmas this year celebrating my mother-in-law’s seventieth birthday. Three weeks later my father-in-law was dead, struck by a mystery virus. Nearly 1000 people died yesterday, more will die today, and tomorrow. For so many the shock of this previously distant pandemic is maturing past the increasing numbers of the dead towards the uncertainty of the living. Twenty-four hour news cycles have moved swiftly past predictions of how many will die. 948 yesterday, headline news in Italy only two weeks ago, and now hardly noticed here amongst the clamour for answers as to when all this will all end. The nation is looking for hope.
Before we moved to Cornwall I worked overseas for a while in several countries that had suffered war, famine and natural disaster. I spent time with young men in African prisons, sentenced to death and yet dancing, shackles ringing out like tambourines as their tear streamed, beaming faces shone with hope. I worked with large groups of women who had been victims of rape as a weapon of war, watching them dance, sing and embrace each other, their songs of joy breaking through the tragedy of their lives. I visited a community in Spitak in the high plains of Armenia, the epicentre of a long forgotten earthquake, themselves forgotten in the aftermath of Glastnost. As over 100 of them crammed into the front room of a house, bringing with them the little food that they had to share, any pity I had soon turned to the crushing humility that comes with witnessing people that had so much more than I did. For as they jostled, laughed and sang in words that I couldn’t understand, their hope broke through the reality of their predicament and it was my turn to weep. There was no denial in any of these stories; life was and remains hard and uncertain. There is also no denying that they were all united, across such different contexts, by the fact that they had all found something far more precious than, in some cases, even their own lives.
In some ways I’m glad the churches are closed for a season; I suspect secretly there are many who feel the same. It’s good for us. For none of the stories above happened in church. In the first, there was no church in prison to attend. In the second, the women were not allowed to go to church. In the third, the church and been destroyed over 30 years ago and had never been rebuilt.
As a young man, on the side of a cold mountain, faced with the hopelessness set before me, I was lost as to what to do. I wanted to help, I felt called to tell them all about what I had learned in church as a child; my God. And yet I felt empty. For whilst I had a thin and fledging faith, I didn’t have the depth of hope or love to share. It’s hard when you recognise that although you thought you had it all, you don’t actually have what you really need. It’s even harder for your neighbour who needs it too.
The Bible tells us that often what is set before us are choices that either present themselves as blessings or curses, things that bring life, or bring destruction. I was faced with the reality that all that I thought I had in my life would be a great blessing, when actually it just didn’t cut the mustard. I thought that so many of the things that were life giving, were actually the very things that were destroying me from within. I was faced with a stark choice, a choice that I still have to make every single day.
Where does my hope come from?
Easter is upon us, a time that usually races by with great activity; not this year perhaps. Perhaps this year it is even more important to think about the simplicity of the message of Christ. In order to bring us the hope that we need in this time, God had to suffer our death. God came and dwelt amongst us, he also died amongst us so that our faces may too may be filled with tears of joy in the midst of what we may be suffering.
On that mountain-side I began a long journey that still continues this day. A journey of simply accepting that we were never meant to go through this alone. We were never meant to have eyes filed with hopelessness. For, as we are stripped of so much of what we have become accustomed to, maybe we will all find afresh, or even for the first time perhaps, the God who loved us more than his own life and who simply wants to stand with us, filling our hearts with the faith, hope and love that is his Easter gift to all of us.
That God is Jesus Christ, and I commend him to you afresh this Easter.