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Living in Faith

The true test for President Obama will be bringing about a new world of peace and prosperity without disturbing the current standards of living

By Keith Howard

My friend Aaron and I happened to be in Washington, D.C., the day after the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States. It was a historic occasion not only because Obama will be the first African-American president, but also because he signifies a fundamental shift in worldview.

A great ache for hope fertilized the soil out of which Obama’s campaign grew. The intensity of this hope varied among those we visited.

At Sojourners magazine, the mood was delight and wonder, seasoned with cautious optimism and the sobering awareness of the challenges ahead. For almost nine years, Aaron served Sojourners as a writer, editor and board member, and shared this Christian community’s dedication to social justice. In Aaron’s time, the offices were located in a poor, problematic area of D.C.

During our drive from the airport to Aaron’s old office, a mantra began to emerge: “This looks nothing like when I was here.” Blocks where it was once simply unwise for him to walk have been renovated. Old slovenly buildings housing marginal businesses are gone. A new subway stop sits across from a modern mall with anchor tenants such as Staples and Target. A Starbucks seems never more than a couple of blocks away. The streets are clean; pedestrians move freely, their eyes devoid of the need to scan for threat.

The metamorphosis has only transpired in the last couple of years, but the preparation for it took decades. Nevertheless, the neighbourhood stands as a shining, visible witness to the possibility of transformation. Transformation was realized even in places that seemed to bear the worst of urban decay compounded by bureaucracy, partisanship, racism and neglect.

My spirit began to wonder: If transformation can happen here then maybe it is possible, and hope is the more solid option.

Perhaps, like me, you have experienced transformation — moments of amazement where you’re simply left to bear witness.

If this life might be rebuilt after this breakdown, this illness, this abuse, then who knows what might be possible? If this meeting could happen under these circumstances, then who knows what might be possible? If this congregation can live again . . . ?

Testimonies are particularly important both in times of arrogance and of fear. As projections from the political and economic elite place a darkening sky over the future, some speculate that troubled times will push people to seek comfort in the church. I have my doubts that organized religion now symbolizes a haven. But if hope is sought, the gift of the church is not in cooing words of solace. It’s in the book of testimonies that we carry and to which we return, stories of a God who proves capable of acting despite the driest of valleys and the tightest of sealed tombs.

Who knows what might be possible?

The Canadian in me immediately qualifies this hope with modest expectations. I am reminded of a phrase the CBC called “characteristically Canadian” a few years ago: “as good as possible under the circumstances.” But I shall strive to be more Christian than Canadian this year and dare to imagine.

God is at work creating opportunity. The news is both amazing and terrifying.

The problem with the Christian view of hope is that God is not containable. The Christian stories reveal a God who brings about radically new life and who calls us to a life of greater liberation and abundance. God calls us out and challenges us to trust. Comfort and maintenance of the status quo are not usually the priorities.

Even though a part of me wants to remain open to the new possibilities that God presents, the unsaid subplot is that I want to maintain my current level of comfort. A genie with three wishes seems more efficient and convenient.

Of course, this spiritual resistance is not new to the people of God or to me. I like a chocolate bar with my Diet Coke but would prefer to count only a single calorie. I would like the church to change while preserving all the things that nourish me. I like new music as long as I know it.

Such may be the test for President Obama. How to bring about a new world of peace and prosperity without disturbing the current standards of living of the comfortable? It is a demand with which God is also familiar.

Scripture: 1 Peter 3:8-15
Hymn: 654 (Voices United), All My Hope on God Is Founded
Author's photo
Rev. Keith Howard is a Victoria writer and executive director of the United Church Emerging Spirit campaign.
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