To startled shepherds an angel announced, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.” I must admit, as 2017 comes to an end I’m not sensing much joy and good news. Instead, a spirit of fear and division hangs like a cloud over the year. Where can I find the hope promised so long ago?
On the domestic front, mass shootings, natural disasters, and racial strife feed our fears. Globally, North Korea thumbs its nose at the world with ongoing weapons tests, while wars grind on in the Middle East. And, of course, there is the divisive impact of last year’s presidential election. Americans have discordant opinions about President Donald Trump and his policies, but I don’t know anyone who views him as a unifier.
Yet it occurs to me that a spirit of fear and division hung over first-century Palestine as well. In those days Israel was ruled by an oppressive regime, typified by Herod’s massacre of the innocents. Common practices in the Roman empire gave moral offense to people of faith: mothers abandoned a fourth of all babies to die of exposure or wild animals, Romans watched murderous gladiator games as public entertainment, and wealthy citizens engaged in pederasty with their Greek slaves.
Pious Jews disagreed on how to respond to that dominant culture. Zealots, including one of Jesus’ twelve disciples, favored violent revolution; Sadducees and tax collectors found ways to collaborate; Essenes withdrew to desert caves; Pharisees clung to separatist purity laws.
Against this background, Jesus joined history with these words of introduction: Do not be afraid, and I bring good news of great joy. A God of majesty was expressing extravagant love in the least fear-inspiring form imaginable, as a helpless baby.
To me, the angel’s upbeat message illustrates the difference between optimism and hope. We all know optimistic people who instinctively expect things to turn out well—their spirit springs from inside, a natural bent toward belief in positive outcomes. In contrast, hope places its trust in something outside or external, a force beyond our personal control.
I picked up my Bible and read again the Christmas story. In Jewish tradition neighbors gathered after a child’s birth to sing a blessing on the home, but Mary and Joseph, far from home and huddling in a cave that served as a stable, had no such celebration. So, after the angel’s announcement, God provided a choir. Suddenly the sky lit up with a heavenly host who sang “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
After reading the familiar story, I pulled out my calendar and reviewed the year. As a journalist and author, I frequently travel to participate in conferences or to speak on topics related to my books. Had I seen any evidence of the good news of Christmas, any grounds for hope in our fearful, divided world? This is what I found:
- January: I spoke at one of my favorite churches, Holy Trinity Brompton in London. HTB originated the Alpha program, which has introduced the basics of Christianity to some 30 million people. In a city known for its secularism, HTB packs out ten services each Sunday, and I spoke at six of them. Again and again I looked out on a hall full of young professionals—lawyers, financiers, artists, diplomats, musicians—who, sitting on floor cushions, had gathered to worship God rather than taking advantage of the many temptations of a London weekend.
- February: I joined the Japanese artist Makoto Fujimura at Fuller Seminary for a conference centered on Martin Scorsese’s movie Silence, which tells the story of Christian martyrs under the Japanese shoguns. Through his leadership of the International Arts Movement, Mako has spurred a new interest among Christians involved in the arts.
- March: After attending a conference of several thousand ministry workers in Honolulu, I visited Molokai, a national park that honors the work of Father Damien, who transformed a lawless dumping ground for leprosy patients into a civilized, orderly colony. There, as elsewhere, Christians led the way in the research and treatment of leprosy, for they alone had the courage to overcome ancient fear and prejudice.
- April: I spoke to nurses in training at Florida Hospital, the state’s largest, managed by Adventist Health. As their names reflect, many of our nation’s best hospitals were founded as ministries by Adventists, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and various Catholic orders. The one in Florida provides around $700 million in uncompensated care each year, a form of charity typical of nonprofit hospitals and one that gets little notice in the health-care debates.
- May: I met with a group of young Christian writers in Bulgaria. Given the limited size of the Bulgarian reading public, none of them hope to make a living at writing. Their enthusiasm, though, brought to mind again the peaceful revolution of 1989, when millions in Eastern Europe experienced the first gusts of freedom—including the freedom to worship and to write without censorship.
- July: I spoke at the American Scientific Affiliation, and then in October at a BioLogos meeting in Grand Rapids. These organizations comprise top-rank scientists from many fields, who see no conflict between science and their Christian faith.
- September: At another writers’ conference, I spent a week in Alaska, a magnificent and underpopulated state that gives perhaps our best glimpse of unspoiled creation: elk and caribou, mountain goats, whales, sea lions, eagles, puffins and, yes, Kodiak bears. The world of divisive politics seems very far away in the wilderness, where survival is the main goal.
- November: In a most unusual assignment, I was invited by an Orthodox Jewish synagogue in Beverly Hills to support their brunch for the homeless by speaking on the biblical basis of caring for the poor. Honoring the Sabbath with the Orthodox was a cross-cultural experience: we walked instead of drove; I had to speak loudly, with no amplification, in the large synagogue; and for 24 hours no one turned on a computer or cell phone. Unlike some churches, the congregation seemed to direct their attention toward God rather than toward entertainment; the congregation chanted Hebrew prayers for two hours before I spoke.
- November: The following week I spent six days on the Logos Ship Hope, a project of Operation Mobilization. Some 385 young people (mostly in their twenties) from 62 countries serve on the converted ferry, which has traveled to 140 ports around the world. I joined the ship in the Caribbean, where the crew had been helping with hurricane relief, distributing books and literature, staging performances of The Chronicles of Narnia, and serving local churches in practical ways. At meal time I found myself listening to stories of crew members who hailed from such places as Nepal, Denmark, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Zambia, Nepal, Trinidad, Russia, and China. It resembled a youthful United Nations, with one exception: every volunteer had raised financial support to serve for two years with the sole purpose of spreading the good news of their faith.
- December: I joined a group of Christian activists for a spiritual retreat led by Richard Rohr. These folks take their faith seriously, lobbying and protesting on behalf of prophetic causes. Two participants came directly from a jail cell. “It is illegal to pray in the U.S. Capitol!” a policeman announced through a bullhorn as they knelt in the rotunda to pray for just laws. When they tried to retrieve their Bibles, from which they had been reading Isaiah 10, the arresting officer said, “No! You can’t remove those. They’re evidence of the crime.”
When Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God, he used images of small things: a sprinkling of salt that preserves a slab of meat, a pinch of yeast that spreads through a loaf of bread, the smallest seed in the garden that grows into a great bush in which the birds of the air come to nest. As I reviewed my 2017 calendar, I saw abundant proof that what an angel announced to shepherds that first Christmas night—good news of great joy— is still coming true.
The birth of Jesus, attracted little notice in his day, yet he ended up changing the world more than anyone in history. Today, the world lurches along under a cloud of fear and division. None of the hope-filled places I visited made front-page news. And yet the good news continues to transform lives, leaving in its wake joyful evidence of compassion, healing, justice, freedom, scholarship, beauty, and quiet service.
There is one final difference between optimism and hope. Optimism waits expectantly for good results whereas hope summons us to actively join the larger cause. Jacques Ellul, the French sociologist, became disillusioned with the empty optimism of politics, which promises a better world and rarely delivers. Instead, as he wrote in a memoir, he placed his faith in an external hope, that “the powers of this world have been conquered; that through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, death is conquered; that all God’s promises are inevitably fulfilled; and that we are promised the kingdom.”
Ellul concluded, “I can thus say: everything is done. Everything except history. History is no small thing, and we must make it.”
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