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How to persevere when hope is obscured

Photo by Chad Peltola on Unsplash

I work with a lot of clients right now on how to persevere, even when hope is hard to find. Where do we find our sense of “normal”? And what happens when the immediate crisis subsides, but the world has changed right under our feet?

I have learned three terms, often used in finance, that help describe these shifts and how we weather them.

The first term is disruption — the idea that many of our usual ways of doing things are temporarily suspended, but once the immediate crisis passes, we will go back to “normal.”

The second term is displacement, where the crisis doesn’t just disrupt life, it shifts stuff around. There’s no going “back” when the crisis passes; you’re in a new place and must find fresh ways of doing things.

The third term is destruction — the most self-explanatory but also the most painful. Some aspects of life before will not return.

Think about these words as if we’re crossing a river. Disruption is when there’s traffic on the bridge — we may have to wait for a while, but once things clear out we can proceed as usual.

Displacement is when we discover our favorite bridge is closed, and traffic is being re-routed to another bridge way down the road. We’re delayed, and maybe there’s a toll we didn’t expect, and the kids are cranky in the back seat. But at least we’ve arrived, only not really, because the detour puts us in a totally different town.

Destruction is when the bridges are all washed out. We must swim, build a ferry, or learn to be content where we are.

Health crises, marital issues, job losses … every major transition in life has the potential to be a tumultuous mix of disruption, displacement and destruction. I don’t know a single congregation not struggling with these. What did COVID do to our children’s Sunday School, for example? Was it momentarily disrupted, jarringly displaced or stealthily destroyed right under our noses? Our country’s necessary and overdue discussion of our racial history also has bits of all three elements, as we figure out what systems and structures have outlived their usefulness in favor of more equitable ones.

How does hope interact with each of these shifts? When faced with disruption, hope can be swapped out with patience. The hard times will end; good times will resume; if we sit tight, we will weather the storm. Displacement requires a more intentional sort of hope. We can’t simply wait for the tough stuff to end; we are invited to take action: scanning the horizon for viable options, working collaboratively, engaging in faithful experimentation. Destruction requires the most robust hope of all, a belief that something redemptive can emerge from the smoking rubble.

In exploring these three terms with church leaders, many have sought to reframe these ideas theologically. Scripture has its fair share of temporary disruption, though the bulk of the story seems to be a series of displacements: the exodus of a people from enslavement, their exile into a foreign land, the nomadic ministry of Jesus, the missionary journeys of the early church. And there’s plenty of straight-up destruction. The Temple in Jerusalem is leveled and rebuilt, twice. Kingdoms rise and fall. But Christians, at their best, do not believe in wanton, purposeless destruction. Destruction is often essential for new things to emerge. I love Frederick Buechner’s reminder that in the Christian story, the worst thing is never the last thing. We can “cheat,” skip Good Friday services and just attend Easter if we want. But Jesus couldn’t be resurrected without dying first. That “Yes” has no significance without the force of the world’s “No” trying vainly to assert itself.

The Rev. MaryAnn McKibben Dana is a writer, free-range pastor, speaker, and ministry coach living in Reston, Virginia. She is author of God, Improv, and the Art of Living and the forthcoming Hope: A User’s Manual.