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  • Emma Nash

Hope is not a lottery ticket, but an axe

This is an edited transcript of a presentation given as part of Theology Live, 28th January 2022


I was invited to preach on the Sunday after Easter 2021 at the church where I used to minister, and where I am still a member. We were a year in to the pandemic, with some glimmers of hope but no end yet in sight. A number of people in the congregation were facing very bitter and painful experiences. My husband and I were coming to the end of our 7½ year struggle to have children, expecting to have children placed with us for adoption within weeks, and yet feeling more exhausted than triumphant from all we had endured.


It was the Sunday after Easter. I was, of course, going to preach on resurrection. I also felt compelled to preach on lament. I was aware of all the tears I had cried, as well as the tears of the congregation. They needed the hope of resurrection: not as spiritual platitude; not even as propositional truth; but applied to the living of their very difficult lives. What, I asked myself, did it mean for them to live the truth of the resurrection? What did it mean for me?


I focused on Mary’s tears in the garden of resurrection:


But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” (John 20.11-15 NRSV)


Jesus sees her tears. Jesus meets her tears with kindness. But what next? I asked myself. Jesus has been raised, but we have not yet been raised.


I reflected on some words from the beautiful traditional hymn ‘Great is thy faithfulness’ – strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow. The bright hope is clear – the hope that, one day, we, too, and those we love, and all we have lost, will be raised from death. But where is the strength for today? What are we to do today? This is what I found myself saying:


And strength for today

knowing that Jesus is alive

that he sees our tears and meets them with loving kindness

that he is with us, perhaps unseen or unrecognised.


And so, just as Jesus got up from his grave-clothes

and left the tomb

leaving death behind

and rising to new life,

so we can get up and carry on living.

Defying all that drags us down

living resurrection lives now

lives that announce hope to a world that so desperately needs to hear it.


And that hope starts with our tears.

As we cry, we express the feeling that the world should not be this way

and needs to change.

And our tears can become determination,

compassion for others,

defiance.

And beautiful things begin to grow in the garden of resurrection

as we weep together,

comfort each other,

hope together,

speak out against injustice,

run food banks,

join protests,

write to MPs,

raise money,

start charities,

write books,

become eco churches,

speak good news

practice good news

enact good news

proclaim good news.


We will not stay lying down in the tomb

because Christ is risen

and we rise with him.


In this paper I will be exploring some possibilities which might contribute to a practical theology of resurrection. I am particularly holding in mind people who are coping with deep sorrow and loss, and asking what resurrection might look like for them. I will be reflecting further on some of the ideas I explored in my book, A Pastoral Theology of Childlessnessideas which have crystallised further since I finished writing the book a little over a year ago. I will also be ‘reverse-engineering’ my sermon, examining words I spoke from intuition – or, perhaps, inspired by the Holy Spirit – and asking how they might be of help to people seeking resurrection after loss.


Firstly, I want to suggest that the three-day event of the cross, grave and resurrection is a journey which has resonances with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s grief cycle. Kübler-Ross identified denial, anger, bargaining and depression as very common expressions of grief, sometimes culminating in acceptance (Kübler-Ross, 1969). While working on my book I explored the various ways in which we can see the pain of infertility, pregnancy loss and involuntary childlessness on the cross and in the grave of Holy Saturday. On the cross of Christ we can see reflected the intense, acute pain of grief, of infertility, of a terrible diagnosis, of our hurting bodies. In the grave of Holy Saturday we can rest, once the worst has happened, and we now have to live with our loss. We can sit there with our chronic pain – the pain, whether physical or psychological, that goes on and on and on. And if and when we reach a place of acceptance, we may find a form of resurrection. To say that the grief cycle culminates in acceptance is not to say that grief is something people ever ‘get over,’ but that a kind of peace can be reached once our loss has been fully mourned and integrated. In my book, I tell the story of talking with a young mother-of-three at my church’s toddler group and mentioning my failed IVF attempts, saying, “I’m at peace with it.” Being an external processor, it was only once I’d said this to someone else that I realised it was true. I was not okay with my childlessness – it still hurt – but it was a pain that I had integrated, befriended, learned to live with, and which had lost much of its sting. I had been raised from my grief through coming to accept it.


And we get to resurrection only through the cross and grave. We get to acceptance only through the pain of the other stages. First, we have to grieve – to fully feel the pain of our personal crosses. Something I found myself reflecting on at length in the process of writing my book was the importance of letting ourselves and letting others feel pain, and not trying to deny it, minimise it, or attempt to take it away with shushing, scolding or spiritual platitudes. Sorrow has to be felt to be overcome. The image of Christ’s body in the grave of Holy Saturday can be helpful here: Christ did not jump triumphantly straight from the cross to the resurrection, and neither do we. We perhaps need to dwell for a time in the quiet of the grave. This is where we find ourselves when the funeral is over, the diagnosis given, the blow fallen, and then we have to learn to live with the pain, with the obliteration of our hopes. And it may be that the resurrection of Christ is precisely what allows us really to grieve our losses, because we can hold both despair and hope simultaneously. We can affirm that hope has been obliterated – because Christ really died, and for a time, he stayed dead. We do not need to hold our pain at bay in order to leave space for Christian hope. We do not need to tell others that their pain does not ultimately matter, that they are not really without hope. Christ really, bodily died – but then Christ really, bodily rose once more. Thus we can affirm the paradox that hope rises once more even once all hope is gone.


We feel the pain of our crosses, we dwell for a time in the tomb, then we may rise from our grief. We are forever changed by it, just as the risen Christ still bore the marks of his crucifixion. But we have reached the other side. Of course, the grief cycle has been misunderstood (as Kübler-Ross herself noted); some have treated it as a kind of linear process or set of fixed stages through which all people pass. The reality, of course, is that people experience grief in different ways, at different times; people may seem to “move forward” and then cycle back. Even my hard-won peace at the failure of my attempts to conceive was shattered, a few years down the line, when my husband and I hit a major obstacle in the adoption process, and I felt for a time just as raw and devastated as I had been in the aftermath of my failed fertility treatment. Perhaps, unlike Christ, we sometimes find ourselves back on the cross, or in the grave once more.


Perhaps living the resurrection could be living in the acceptance we may reach once we have properly grieved. But I wonder, too – and this was what surprised me in last Easter’s sermon – whether living resurrection could be an act of defiance, of protest, of rebellion – an uprising. Anhistemi, one of the two Greek verbs used in the New Testament to refer to the resurrection, carries the connotation of a political uprising, and this is what planted the seed of an idea in my mind (Brown, p. 259). It suggested to me a way in which we might live today the truth that we are both raised and not-yet-raised. Perhaps living resurrection today could be viewed as participating in an uprising initiated by Christ on Easter Day.


Rabbi Harold Kushner, who lost his son to a rare genetic disorder at the age of 14, wrote of defiance in the face of tragedy. His well-known and much-loved book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, is pastoral rather than intentionally theological, but there is some beautiful pastoral theology there nevertheless. When a terrible thing happens, he argues, ‘[w]e do not try to explain it. We do not justify it... We do not even accept it. We survive it. We recognize its unfairness and defiantly choose to go on living’ (Kushner). I was struck by his insistence that we do not even accept it. We survive it. So often I have spoken with people facing personal tragedies far more painful than my own, who seem to feel that true faith requires quiet acceptance, docility, trust that there is a reason known only to God. What if it were OK to get angry and stay angry? What if resurrection faith were about living in defiance of all that drags us down? What if the resurrection were an image, model, metaphor of protest?


My thoughts on resurrection and protest never quite coalesced as I was writing the book, but they suddenly came together during that Easter sermon. I thought about Christ standing up, leaving his grave-clothes behind. I imagined what it might look like for us to stand up and leave our grave-clothes, rising to new life now, while we wait the not-yet of the end of all things and the final consummation. Later still, I came across this quotation from activist Rebecca Solnit’s book, Hope in the Dark (Solnit, 2016). She writes: 'Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency'. I was thunderstruck. She continues: 'Hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth's treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal... To hope is to give yourself to the future – and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable' (Solnit, p. 4).


Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. I wonder if this is sometimes how we think and speak of resurrection in church life. A lottery ticket that guarantees us new life in the new heaven and new earth – albeit a ticket we cannot redeem until the end of all things. But what do we do in the meantime? Hope, Solnit argues, is not a passive satisfaction in thinking of the future, but an active yearning toward a better future. Hope is an axe you break down doors with.


Rebecca Solnit does not write from a faith perspective and thus the God dimension is missing from her excellent work. Hope, for her, is entirely down to us, as we wield the axes and break down the doors. This feels like a monumental task, however, weighed down as we are by grief. In his 2008 book Surprised by Hope, Tom Wright also argues that hope requires action, this time from the point of view of biblical theology. Wright argues that a biblical understanding of resurrection propels us to take action. The resurrection of Christ is the breaking in of God’s kingdom on earth; a foretaste of the new heaven and the new earth which God is bringing about, and toward which we can start working right now. The church,’ he argues, ‘is called to a mission of implementing Jesus’ resurrection, and thereby anticipating the final new creation’ (Wright, p. 224). He argues that the resurrection both points us to the new creation and gives us the energy to roll up our sleeves (Wright, p. 233). As people of resurrection faith, we rise up and start to make the hope begun with the resurrection a lived reality. We know that this is a work God has started and that God will finish, and this gives us the strength to play our part. We break down the doors of despair, of sickness and pain, of racism, misogyny, homophobia, poverty, oppression, climate destruction, using the axe God has given us. We will not stay lying down in the tomb because Christ is risen and we rise with him. We rise with an axe in our hands.


What might that defiance, that we will not stay lying down, that door-breaking, look like, I wondered? Some of the suggestions I gave in the sermon extract quoted above involved practical action such as comforting one another, running food banks, raising money and starting charities. Some suggestions involved hopeful speech: speaking out against injustice, writing books. Some were explicitly about protest, such as joining demonstrations and writing to MPs. I also listed ‘becoming eco churches’ – and when you read what is involved in becoming an eco church, you receive a very comprehensive picture of what it means to rise up against the climate emergency and the destruction of our planet. The very comprehensive questionnaire, developed by A Rocha, asks about the impact of environmental concerns on every aspect of your church life, both corporately and individually. To become an eco church, you need to consider how you use your buildings and any land you own. But you also need regularly to preach, teach and pray about environmental issues. And as well as considering environmental issues internally, you need to demonstrate that you are involved in local community engagement around these issues, such as getting involved in conservation work and working with other agencies. You need to think about the small choices you make in shopping for and preparing meals provided by the church, as well as your church’s contribution to global creation care. You need to speak, practise, enact and proclaim good news for God’s creation in every area of your corporate life as a church as well as in the individual lives of church members. This is a fantastic model for considering what it means to join the resurrection uprising. This uprising involves practising hope both personally and corporately; in the way we use large sums of money and property as well as the way we shop for food; in the choices we make in worship and teaching and the things we choose to do in our communities.


Finally, let us consider how the suggestions I have made might actually help people coming to terms with loss. I want to suggest that using the three-day event of Christ’s cross, grave and resurrection as an image of the grief process gives people permission to feel intense pain, even hopelessness, and not to move on from that pain and that hopelessness too quickly. We need not see intense sorrow, even despair, in the face of tragedy as evidence of a lack of faith when we remember that Jesus Christ suffered and died, and stayed dead for a while. He did not leap triumphantly from the cross straight to the garden of resurrection, and neither do we. A biblical understanding of resurrection – that Christ died, body and soul, and then was raised from death by God – allows us to hold the paradox that hope can be obliterated only to rise again once more.


How might it help people coming to terms with tragedy to be invited to take part in a resurrection uprising? Let us return to the conclusion of my Easter 2021 sermon:


And so, just as Jesus got up from his grave-clothes

and left the tomb

leaving death behind

and rising to new life,

so we can get up and carry on living.

Defying all that drags us down

living resurrection lives now

lives that announce hope to a world that so desperately needs to hear it.



We will not stay lying down in the tomb

because Christ is risen

and we rise with him.


If resurrection is a protest against disease, despair and death, then our protest affirms: firstly, that these things are not OK; secondly, that things can and will be made better; and thirdly, that we can be part of making things better. As I cannot speak for others facing other losses, let me finish by using the very personal example of my own infertility. One of the biggest challenges in coming to terms with permanent infertility was the fact that people kept trying to tell me that it was OK. They reminded me that children were hard work, or that God had a perfect plan for me; there were very few people who were able to accept my sorrow, anger and bitterness as they were. A biblical understanding of resurrection affirms that, for me, hope has been obliterated because I will never have a baby. Furthermore, the image of resurrection as uprising continues to affirm that my infertility is not OK. I rise up, not because what has happened to me is all right really, but in protest against it. I rise up because Christ has risen, and has put an axe in my hands. One of the doors I attack with my axe is one of silence – people just do not talk about infertility and involuntary childlessness, for all kinds of reasons. For me, there was no courage involved in breaking that silence. I needed to speak. I had to speak, and to be heard.


If living resurrection is rising up in protest, then I have the hope that things could be better, and that I myself can contribute to the making of a better world. Part of the bitterness of infertility and involuntary childlessness is the powerlessness that it brings – the loss of agency in the face of your body’s inability to do what others do effortlessly. Participating in a resurrection uprising gives me back some of the agency I have lost. It invites me to shape a world where involuntarily childless people do not remain in a conspiracy of shamed silence. A world where we are able to comfort one another more easily because we are able to talk to one another about what we are suffering. A world where fertility issues are better understood, along with the impact of funding decisions around fertility treatment. As I rise up in protest, I discover that I can co-create with God, breaking down doors and building beauty from the debris.






Bibliography


Brown, Colin, 1978, ‘Resurrection’ in Colin Brown (ed.), The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology Vol. 3., Exeter: Paternoster Press, pp. 259–309.


Kushner, Harold S., When bad things happen to good people, 20th anniversary edition (London: Pan Books, 2002), kindle edition


Solnit, Rebecca, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2016)


Surprised by hope : rethinking heaven, the resurrection, and the mission of the church / N.T. Wright.

N. T Wright, (Nicholas Thomas)

New York : HarperOne, c2008.

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