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Living Hope: : A Practical Theology of Hope for the Dying

Epworth Press 2006
You’ll have to search Amazon for this one

When is a Book Review Not a Book Review?

Well, this is not a book review in the strict sense though I certainly commend the book to anyone with a curiosity about ‘hope’. I was recently watching a TV program piece featuring two neurosurgeons one of whom had a brain tumour! As the interview with the two proceeded, discussion centred on hope which, notwithstanding all today’s surgical, technological and pharmaceutical skills, is an essential ingredient in healing.

Russell Herbert has written a work titled Living Hope: A Practical Theology of Hope for the Dying. While he has written the work for pastoral care practitioners (and we are all that to some degree) he says his book is not just directed at pastoral care but to Christian hope. He makes the point that “Living” in the title is double-barrelled – it is not only a description but a practice, the practice of hope. Hope is the very stuff of the human make-up but he would argue too that it is a God-given gift.

So he argues that a practical theology of hope must listen to the views of both the psychology and the theology of hope.

In the chapter, Psychology of Hope, Russell names the sources of hope: our life-giving relationship with others; the pursuit of goals because hope is the anticipation of the ultimate infused with a strong sense of possibility; imagination, for hope imagines what is not yet seen; and humour and laughter which enable us to regain a sense of perspective, the feeling of delight, joy, and playfulness even in the face of suffering or fear. He cites Frankl who was a prisoner of war in a concentration camp. Those who survived tended to celebrate the life of heart and mind that, in imagination, leapt beyond their dreadful surroundings. In that camp, Frankl and his friend invented at least one ‘send up’ story a day, or a story about some incident that would happen when they were freed. Patients too often report, ‘If I can laugh, I feel like I still have some power’.

In the chapter, Theology of Hope, Herbert reviews the work of theologians who dealt with something called ‘eschatology’ or ‘last things’. Every discipline has its own language! But Herbert says that, of these theologians, the name of Moltmann brings together insights from all of them into a newer perspective. Moltmann’s theology of hope is no academic exercise but arose from his own joys and pains, his celebrations and struggles of life experience.

As a teenager he was drafted into the German military and in 1943 experienced the annihilation of his hometown Hamburg in which 40000 people were burnt to death. One night he narrowly escaped death as his friend standing beside him was blown to pieces. ‘I cried out to God: My God, where are you? Why am I alive and not dead like the rest?" Later he was taken captive and spent three years behind barbed wire as a prisoner of war. He plunged into a depression of misery, forsakenness, and guilt. ‘I cannot say I found God there’ he said. But I do know in my heart that it is there that he found me.’

Moltmann sees the Easter story as a contradiction between Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection. Jesus, the risen Lord, is the same man who dies on the Friday. He becomes for Moltmann ‘my risen Lord’ too. Only the suffering God can help us live and die. The One who cannot suffer cannot love either. The crucified God suffers in solidarity with us. We discover resurrection hope not in spite of suffering and death but in and through that context. This is where God is to be found. On the path to despair, we discover God who journeys with us.

Following the cross and the resurrection, the Spirit is even more profoundly known to be at work in the world. It is God who brings his kingdom into being but the church does not sit back and wait for it to happen. Christians are to be engaged in mission in the world in the power of God’s Spirit, striving for it and pointing to the future promised by God. The church is no static institutional thing but something that happens. It is the community of hope being gathered together by the Spirit of God. For Moltmann, worship is the moment in which freedom and the joy of a renewed existence is experienced. Joy, play, laughter, celebration, beauty and enjoyment mark the church that lives in the Spirit off from moralistic revolutionary movements and from the work ethic that defines what is useful and valuable only in terms of performance and achievement.

Hope, says Herbert, is more than feeling. Hope is more than experience. Hope is a command. Hope calls for effort, discipline, resolve and endurance. Human resources alone are not sufficient to bring true hope to birth. Hope comes from God as a gift of grace. We respond to what God gives.

Herbert speaks of women and men in various stages of belief and disbelief, suffering and hope, on their life path. The way we care for others is the way we hope. Hope is the mysterious anticipation of the ultimate which some call God.

There is much much more to the book. I have offered only snippets. For me it is compulsory reading to be returned to again and again.

Reviewed by Rob Leivesley, a member of Middle Ridge Uniting Church Congregation in Toowoomba