Now that I have been “unpacked” for about a week, I have been able to walk around Camp Sabalu-Harrison toting my green “Hope” bag over my shoulder. PCCers should recognize this plastic grocery bag from last year’s Advent season. A year ago, all of the members of our church’s leadership were given a seasonal (and reusable) tote bag filled with barn hay. Throughout the weeks of Advent building up to Christmas Eve, we were encouraged to fill the nativity manager with handfuls of our hay whenever we served the God. Service was defined in a variety of ways from “doing” something for someone else, praying about the darkness of the world, or simply, being a witness to the Good News of the season. I remember dumping a whole bag of hay into the manager one day, on behalf of one of our members, who was fighting for his life in an intensive care unit in Baltimore. I figured struggling to live after days of painful, debilitating illness was definitely a testament to how we all should honor the life that we have been given, even when giving up would be a welcome relief.
Somehow, I have ended up with quite a few of these “Hope” bags. They are immensely useful because they don’t get dirty and can hold just about as much as I am able to carry over one shoulder. Of course, a bright green bag with “Hope” written across the side is not part of the Army uniform regulations. Though I am risking a scolding and have a perfectly acceptable black backpack that I could use alternatively, I can’t help myself from choosing my “Hope” bag whenever I need to ferry things from one place to another.
A few days ago, I got a wonderful shipment of cookies from my mother. Though I had a sermon to write and a Sunday bulletin to prepare, I knew that keeping those cookies in my office would only cause me trouble. The temptation to eat them was just too much. So, I packed my “Hope” tote full of peanut butter, chocolate chip, and oatmeal raisin cookies, and I headed for the detention center. It wasn’t until I was inside, walking down the long corridor where Afghan detainees as well as US soldiers and Afghan Army live and work, that I realized how radical this four letter word is, particularly in a facility that houses persons accused of terrorism.
Day after day, hearing stories about girls schools being targeted and bombed and getting news about more American and partnership soldiers (not to mention innocent civilians, too) being killed by IEDs, it’s easy to lose sight of hope. I am in the business of hope, and there are many days when I wonder if having hope is just plain foolish. With the news headlines ever dismal, hope seems far from smart or even practical. And, yet, as we prepare for this Advent season in Afghanistan and everywhere, hope is exactly what we need. It’s not the easy, cheap kind of hope that many like to toss around too carelessly, but it is the kind of hope that breaks open the heart. It challenges us to be open to the possibility that something good, something of God even, can emerge out of the ashes, even when nine times out of the ten or even ninety-nine times out of a hundred, we have been deeply disappointed and hurt. Hope helps us remember that even someone who has chosen a lot of bad and hurt a lot of people in the process, can still turn toward goodness.
As long as there are cookies to share and aging Halloween candy to pass out, I will continue to carry around my non-regulation "Hope" tote bag. If anything, it helps me remember who I am and what I am called to witness here. Some days there are plenty of things “to do.” Always there is reason to pray. And, holding on to my own version of “Hope,” and on some days, remembering to share it, I also bear witness to the Good News. After all, tIs the season!!