I’m often asked how I can remain so hopeful in the face of such shocking poverty and injustice, the kind of which I’m forced to confront all too frequently in my line of work for aid and development organisations. I’d be lying if I said that I’d be anything but a mental wreck if it wasn’t for the hope I cling to. A hope that assures me that it was never meant to be this way, nor is it going to stay this way. It’s the source of this hope that I want to share with you.
This isn’t a piece aimed to ‘convert’ you or anyone else to any kind of ‘religion’. Rather it’s the story of how I came to faith, and it’s the story of a refugee child from the Middle East, born to an unmarried teenage mum, born under oppression and into poverty, whose life and teachings provide the most powerful example of how we are to engage this world in a way that seeks justice for the poor, confronts those who oppress, and calls forward a future day when pain, war, suffering, addiction and the exploitation of our environment will all be things of the past. I’m talking about Jesus. He is the source of my hope.
Coming to faith in fits and starts
Some people can point to that exact moment in time when they finally ‘believed’. That moment when their ‘eyes were opened’ and everything they thought they knew about God, life, themselves and the world changed all at once. Not me.
My journey to faith came in fits and starts. Growing up in the relative affluence and comfort of Sydney’s North West, where there was a Church in every neighbourhood, I was exposed to Christianity from a young age. However, the message I heard preached – one that seemed to focus mainly on my own sin and therefore my need own need for personal salvation – didn’t really resonate with me. It wasn’t that it was ‘wrong’ teaching (although looking back I do feel that it was in parts a bit ‘narrow’ in its focus on personal salvation rather than God’s holistic redemptive plan for all of society) but more due to the fact that I was a headstrong teenager driven by my own desires, fuelled by an implicit belief in my invincibility and let’s face it, pretty darn arrogant.
So whilst I attended church throughout my teenage years, where I was supported and encouraged immeasurably by my Pastors and a number of key mates and youth leaders (you know who you were), what I heard on Sunday had little effect on how I partied on Saturday or set off for school/uni/work on Monday. The disconnect in my own life was so apparent to others that I even earned the title ‘WWC’ (World’s Worst Christian) from my school mates.
It all started to change when I went as a wide-eyed 18 year-old to volunteer amidst the damage and destruction left in the wake of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. As I heard story after story of families losing everything, and after one particularly moving encounter with a young boy of my exact own age (you can read about that here), I realised that I simply did not have the answers for the questions that were flooding my mind. One in particular…
How can we live in a world with so much wealth and prosperity, and yet so much suffering, poverty and injustice?
If this ‘God’ that I’d heard about during my youth was going to be the God that I put my faith in as an adult, then He needed to have the answers to these pressing questions of mine.
The turning point
On returning home from this life-changing trip, someone handed me a copy of Reflections from the Scorched Earth, a book of memoirs and reflections written by Ed Walker, the then longest serving member of Tearfund’s Disaster Management Team. If I thought I’d seen some pretty heavy stuff, Ed had seen far worse, having served in some of the world’s worst conflict zones and humanitarian disasters. And yet as Ed recounted story after story of violence, rape, death and starvation, he somehow managed to hold onto an unshakeable hope and optimism, which at first take, seemed rather unbelievable, if not completely out of place.
It was in Ed’s book that I first laid eyes on Isaiah 58, a passage of scripture from The Bible intended to instruct its original readers as to what God truly wanted from his followers:
“This is the kind of fast day I’m after: to break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed, cancel debts.
What I’m interested in seeing you do is: sharing your food with the hungry, inviting the homeless poor into your homes, putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad, being available to your own families.
Do this and the lights will turn on, and your lives will turn around at once. Your righteousness will pave your way. The God of glory will secure your passage. Then when you pray, God will answer. You’ll call out for help and I’ll say, ‘Here I am.’
If you get rid of unfair practices, quit blaming victims, quit gossiping about other people’s sins, If you are generous with the hungry and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out, Your lives will begin to glow in the darkness, your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight.
I will always show you where to go. I’ll give you a full life in the emptiest of places – firm muscles, strong bones. You’ll be like a well-watered garden, a gurgling spring that never runs dry.”
Here was the call of a God who was clearly not ‘removed’ from the suffering of the world, but rather intimately and personally involved in it. This was a God I could follow, this was a vision for the world that I could give my life to.
Why share this with you now?
Whenever I share stories from my work and my time spent in developing countries and poor communities, my hope is always that they would serve to ‘inspire people to realise their potential and their responsibility to make a difference in this world’, especially for the poorest and most vulnerable amongst us. However, until now I have always been reluctant to share too explicitly about my faith – the ultimate source of my hope – mostly because I wanted my writing to remain accessible for people who were not of faith themselves (a goal I’m still strongly committed to as I believe all of us have much to teach and learn from each other regardless of our religion, race, gender, worldview or sexuality).
However, the more I continue to spend time in countries and communities wracked by the injustices of poverty (and inversely in the West, which is becoming increasingly suffocated under the weight of its own wealth and insatiable consumer-driven greed) I’ve realised that to not speak of this ultimate hope is to only share half of the story.
People everywhere, but especially those living in poverty, need more than money, food, water and medicine to live. They need more than micro-finance programs and income generation schemes. Put simply, they need more than any development agency, government, rockstar activist or multi-billion dollar philanthropist can give them. They need hope, they need dignity and most importantly, they need justice. The assurance that what they’ve suffered and endured hasn’t gone unseen and won’t go unanswered for.
A reason to hope
It is in God’s redemptive story for this world, that I believe we find this hope. The Bible, from start to finish contains more than 2000 verses directly related to the poor and is filled with dozens of stunningly beautiful, hope-filled images as to what the future of this world will be like.
It speaks of a world where;
Instead of extreme poverty that continues to take the lives of over 18 000 children each day…
The sound of weeping and of crying will be heard no more and never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days. (Isaiah 2:4)
Instead of the poor being stripped of their rights and exploited for their land and labor…
No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant food that others eat. No one will not labor in vain, nor will bear children doomed to misfortune. (Isaiah 11:6)
Instead of war, violence and death…
Swords will be beaten into ploughshares. The wolf and the lamb will live together. (Isaiah 65:17-25)
An invitation to take your stand
I said at the start that this was not going to be an attempt to try and ‘convert’ you to any religion. And it is not. Instead, this is an invitation to see the world in an entirely different way. To step into an entirely different story. A bigger story. A story where the last shall be first and the powerful made low. Where love always wins and justice never ceases to prevail.
There’s no other place to finish this note than on the person and work of Jesus. He was and still is the complete representation of this ‘hope made flesh’ in the form of a man who walked among us, served the poor, healed the sick, embraced the leper and forgave the sinner. The suffering servant whose humble life and teachings posed such a radical threat to the powerful and elite of His day, that they ultimately had Him executed. And yet for who, even death itself could prove no match, nor bring an end to what His life stood for and proclaimed.
The call to faith was never meant to sound like a guilt-driven threat. Nor was it meant to be hurled at people impersonally from a street corner soap-box. Rather, the call to faith is an invitation. An invitation to; surrender the need to ‘play god’ in our own lives and to give up the notion that we have to ‘save the world’ all by ourselves, to abandon our addiction to the kind of rampant consumerism that exploits others and damages this earth, to see as counterfeit our cultures’ insatiable appetite for sex, money and power, and ultimately to recognise our own part in this mess and to respond by turning from doing wrong to taking our stand in the restoration of this earth to its’ full potential and ultimate glory.
Will you join me?
Question: Does this story of finding hope in this world resonate with you and leave you feeling inspired? How do you hold onto hope in this world in your own way?