My memories of the first time I taught a weeklong seminar at Ghost Ranch about getting from pain to hope through writing include the striking suffering of two women in the class.
One had been abused as a child, but until that week hadn’t spoken publicly about it. The other’s husband had just deserted her. She was utterly blindsided.
The first woman finally put the story of the abuse on paper and revealed herself as a terrific and gritty survivor, even as a child. The second woman approached her pain with surprising humor and had all of us laughing through our tears.
I can only guess what kind of writing will emerge this year when I teach “Turning Our Pain Toward Hope Through Writing” the week of Aug. 11 at Ghost Ranch, our national Presbyterian conference center in beautiful northern New Mexico. What I’m sure of is that I will leave renewed after hearing and reading stories of personal and corporate pain and eventual hope. Maybe your story will be among them.
Before we begin writing in this seminar, I will spend some time talking about what Christianity means by “hope” and how that differs from standard worldly optimism.
Author Philip Yancey crammed that sharp difference into two tight sentences in his new book, “The Question That Never Goes Away”: “Optimism promises that things will gradually improve. Christian hope promises that creation will be transformed.” Until that transformation, we wait — sometimes in pain, sometimes in joy.
As the great French Reformed Tradition writer Jacques Ellul noted his book “Hope in Time of Abandonment,” we cannot get to hope until we have no other options. When we finally recognize that we are alone and without resources, we can shake our fist at God and demand that God be God, he says. Without hitting that bottom, we’re still relying on our own resources.
But to get to hope we have to name our pain, whether it’s child abuse, spousal abandonment or something more societal, such as ecological ruin. That’s what we’ll do in this Ghost Ranch class, but we’ll do it in a spirit of retreat, taking time and space to drill deeply into our suffering.
I’ve been teaching at Ghost Ranch nearly every summer since 1995, and I’m eternally grateful that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has this kind of conference center resource, along with the Montreat and Stony Point centers. Each of them struggles with financial issues and the denomination no longer offers much, if any, direct financial support to them. But they are treasures that we would do well not to ignore and lose.
They are places where ministry happens, where finite lives are put back in touch with the eternal, where people who have lost their centers can be reintroduced to their souls.
I’m not a professional counselor, nor a teaching elder. I am, rather, a fellow pilgrim who has spent a life learning the power of words — a power God first demonstrated at the creation. And it turns out that’s enough to help others tap into that power to move from pain to hope.
BILL TAMMEUS is a ruling elder at Second Church in Kansas City, Missouri, and former faith columnist for The Kansas City Star. Visit his “Faith Matters” blog. Read about his latest book. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org