Lighting Candles In Smoky Times

In the face of the world’s griefs, again and again, we reach for hope.

A new year and the same old aches. The headlines change, and the photographs are different, but we still watch and worry, adding the names of far-off places to our church prayer lists. This year began with Australia’s massive bush fires. How do we answer? With prayer? Grief? Action? Donations? As with news of any disaster, it can be hard to know where to start.

In October, I wrote in my column about trying to find a faithful response to the world’s hard news. I hoped that grappling with the world’s sorrows could be an act of faith and I hope that still. I hope that attention can deepen into meaningful action and that we can meet the needs of the weary world through our work together as the church. In the face of the world’s griefs, again and again, we reach for hope.

An Australian friend recently posted a photograph on social media of her tabletop decorated with a white cloth and four small candle holders, each marked with a letter, spelling out the word HOPE. Sarah Agnew is a minister with the Uniting Church in Australia and her photograph felt to me like a pull back into the season of advent as well as a call towards the new year. Previously, she’d been posting about Australia’s fires and the dangerously smoky air that filled her neighbourhood, so this image of hope’s candles was poignant and tense. Four burning lights offered in a smoke-darkened time become a strange solidarity with those who fight the flames.

As well as being a minister, Sarah is a poet who writes about flickering hope and sacred encounters, and in 2017, she published Blue, Koala? an illustrated story about living with depression and finding companionship through hard times. The central character is Koala Blue, who hides herself away in a cave and, over the course of the story, her friends learn how to wait with her, offering her gentleness rather than solutions while she learns again to look for hope. The story is told in verse and movingly illustrated by Grace Mitchell, touching a wide and varied audience. It’s the sort of book that is wise enough to speak to children as well as adults. I imagine finding it on a coffee table in a university chaplaincy office or on a library shelf in a quiet church, places where it might be read by someone who needs its message of gentle, patient compassion. My own family’s copy is often found under our youngest’s bed where he can reach it without getting up. He tells me the best part is the picture of the friends waiting together, looking down into the hole. He knows there is something sad and even dangerous that Koala Blue faces in that dark place, but he likes how the friends are all there, waiting, and how the poem says that she could hear their voices as they talked together.

Gentle stewardship
I’m glad this is what he values. Our world needs more of this kind of hopeful solidarity and gentle stewardship of our neighbours, ourselves and the world around us. We need to be more attentive and notice when we ask – or take – too much. We need to learn new and better ways to treat each other well. We need space where we can listen and wait. We need to scale back our own hunger and learn to adopt simpler ways of living. We need to offer and rely on the comfort of the gathered community.

Letter by letter, this is how we spell out hope.


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