What is hope in a time like this?

We live in a world where you don’t need to look far to find discouragement. Australia’s current bushfire crisis has devastated so many in our nation. It has touched the lives of many and the hearts of even more. While there have been countless acts of inspiring heroism and generosity, the crisis can seem insurmountable.

The political commentary around these events has led to even more discouragement and disillusionment with our nation’s leaders. Or perhaps just frustration with the negative and toxic media and social media conversations which sometimes feel like the only constant in an ever-changing modern world.

And that’s just one thing. A volcano erupts in the Philippines. The US threatens war with Iran. Climate conditions worsen as political leaders continue to live in denial. The list goes on.

Our hearts could break a million times a day. We’re left screaming ‘it’s all too much!’ We dial it down, turn off the news and numb ourselves. Then we feel guilty for not caring more. But what can we do?

No matter where you stand, one thing is apparent. The need for hope is as great as it ever has been.

I recently returned from a short trip to Cambodia. This is the third time I’ve been to the small country, and the first trip back after having spent several months living there previously.

Cambodia, of all places, is in need of hope. It is a country recovering from the devastation of war and genocide – all within living memory. The Khmer people are the most humble yet hard working I have met.

The first time I visited the Cambodian Killing Fields and Genocide Museum, I left shaken. God, where were you? I cried.

Time and time again my experiences there highlighted to me both the extent of human need and my own incapacity to meet it. Always wishing there was more I had done, or could do. Indeed, I became a little numb.

What could one white girl in a Cambodian village possibly do? My pale skin, blonde curly hair and tall build only served to highlight my privileged heritage. Everywhere I went people would stare or comment. Yet my celebrity-like status raised a deeper question: what do they see in me?

What are the silent realities behind the friendly smiles, the strange looks, the shy glances? What cards has life dealt us, and where do we stand in position to one other?

I was always welcomed warmly and given a position of honour. Cambodians do incredible hospitality. However, I sometimes felt embarrassed. Why were they honouring me? What had I done to deserve such recognition? Aside from be born with white skin in a rich country, there was nothing remarkable about me. Except for my presence there with them.

My Khmer friends made an effort to check that things were ‘good enough’ for me. The toilet, the food, the sleeping arrangements. While some people may be impressed by an Australian who chooses to live in a Cambodian village, I cannot feel the same way. The people who really deserve the honour are the Khmer people themselves.

I may have put up with a few mosquito bites, different food or extreme days of heat. But my choice to do this has always been temporary. For Cambodians, this is their life. I mean not to belittle it, but rather to highlight their extreme resourcefulness, resilience and ingenuity. Especially in light of the nation’s traumatic past. Whether fitting eight people in a car, finishing wiring the electricity for your house the day of your wedding or hauling an insurmountable amount of stuff on a motorbike, the Cambodians always found a way.

I have been particularly blessed to spend my time among members of the Lutheran Church community in Cambodia. In a 97% Buddhist country, such Cambodians are rare. Their hope, however, inspires me.

I had the privilege of witnessing their joy-filled worship. While at times the language barrier challenged me, at other points it became an opportunity to witness expressions of hope and joy which need no words. Moments where every voice joined as one to sing loudly in praise. Moments of spontaneous singing, dancing or sharing. Times being surrounded by a chorus of voices whispering in prayer, or the gentle way that the oldest members of the congregation were welcomed and cared for with their lack of sight and frail bodies.

On my last day, as an honoured guest, I was given the opportunity to speak. I thanked them for their welcome and shared the encouragement that they had been to me. My friend, Sreylay, asked if she could sing a song with me.

Together we sang Give Thanks. An old familiar tune, yet I had never deeply contemplated the lyrics.

Give thanks with a grateful heart
Give thanks to the Holy One
Give thanks because He’s given
Jesus Christ, his Son

And now, let the weak say ‘I am strong’
Let the poor say, ‘I am rich’
Because of what the Lord has done for us
Give thanks

As I sang, I looked out at these men and women, fighting back tears.

Let the weak say, ‘I am strong’
Let the poor say, ‘I am rich’

My own inadequacy to meet their needs at the forefront of my mind, I recognised the invaluable measure of hope we possessed as a result of our shared faith. They can sing and dance and rejoice, resting on this promise.

So those who are last in this world shall be first in the world to come, and those who are first, last. – Matthew 20:16

We may come from different sides of the world. Tonight they would return to their homes, while I would return somewhere very different to mine. Just the things those eyes had seen, the cries of their hearts, the aches of their bodies. Their stares of wonder and admiration even as I sang in a language they could not understand. Universes apart, yet in Jesus together as one.

In that moment, I discovered hope. Hope is what enables us to give thanks for the very worst of things, along with the best. Hope points us to the presence of something greater than ourselves, and even greater than our troubles. Someone greater.

We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. – Hebrews 6:19

Our hope isn’t one that’s temporary. It’s not wishful thinking. It’s not even talking ourselves into it. Our hope is real and firm and secure. We may not feel it all at once, but we can choose to let the light in.

Jesus entered the dark place for us. And now, he’s letting in the light. We may only catch tiny glimpses of it, as it refracts off the uneven surfaces of life. But it is there, and it is to be trusted.

I can choose to trust the light instead of the darkness, no matter how dim the light may seem. My Khmer friends have found light to set them dancing and rejoicing. And indeed, so can we.

1 Thessalonians 5:16 – 18 instructs us to ‘Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances.’

If I can be honest, this verse used to frustrate me. Always be joyful? Isn’t that a bit presumptuous? In the same way your well-meaning but frustrating friend might tell you to ‘just cheer up’ or ‘be happy’, I felt the burden of trying to produce such feelings on my own.

I realise now this is not what it means. Thankfulness to God isn’t dismissive of our heartache. We can thank him for that too, in a great act of trust. Trust that he is greater. Trust that he is making a way. Trust that he will bring out of it something we can learn. Trust that it can have no power over us, since we belong to a power that is greater.

If God is for us, who can ever be against us? – Romans 8:31

I am no expert on hope. But I can choose, on the harder days, to open up the window, even just a crack. As the light creeps in slowly, like the first light of dawn, I can choose to trust that the sun will rise. The hope will grow brighter. The darkness, your darkness, is very real. In our world today to deny that would be a misstep. But the greater truth is in the light and not the darkness, no matter how thick it may seem. I can follow the light, like a trail of breadcrumbs, for light leads us to the truth.

I am the only way to God, the real truth and the real life. – Jesus, John 14:16

Jesus has entered before us into the darkness and won with his light. He brings us real life.

More than just the silver lining, God’s promises line our realities with gold. Promise that he is making everything new. Promise of an inheritance greater than any temporary pain relief. And such renewal starts today.

Hope. Light.

What darkness do you see? Watch him breaking in with light.

If you would like to consider the opportunity to serve as a volunteer in mission, serving in practical ways, teaching English, teaching in the seminaries and institutions of our partner churches, or in local churches, you are invited to phone Nevin on (08) 8267 7300 or email nevin.nitschke@lca.org.au. For more information, go to http://www.lcamission.org.au/join-gods-mission/volunteer/

Read more stories about volunteering at http://www.lcamission.org.au/category/join-gods-mission/volunteers/