Transformations in God’s Hope

Rev. Shinwan Pan
Hannam University, Korea

(A sermon delivered to kick-off the 2-day ACUCA conference held at Hannam University campus)

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; look, new things have come into being! (II Corinthians 5: 17)

Officially, the pandemic’s gone, but it has already produced many painful losses. One of my neighbours lost her father without saying goodbye. At his illness, she rushed into his hospital bed but found that he had already fallen into a coma. And, to make matters worse, he was forced to be buried in a hurry without a funeral, and without a memorial service. She was not allowed to say, “I love you.” she had no chance to say, “He is a great person and wonderful dad.” And she did not get the support she deserved.

Even on this beautiful campus, few students had been seen for more than 2 years. It looked like a ghost town. All of the buildings were locked, and prohibited from entering without an authentic ID. It means our young students experienced persistent and multiple losses. They lost some human contact with their professors, friends, and classmates. It was almost impossible to make new friends and spend time together. They lost the opportunities to explore what they were interested in. One of my students said, “Last year it was the most difficult time I’d ever had. I had no pleasure or happiness at all. Moreover, I had no interest in having fun. My sense of fun was gone. I was losing control of my mind.”

The young students also felt that their future was broken and their ways to success were shattered. They saw their routine way of living broken down. Suddenly they felt they were forced to lose control of most of their daily lives. Therefore, they saw fear, anxiety, and despair increasing. And their sense of meaning was disrupted. Borrowing the theologian Paul Tillich’s term, it may be called “the shaking of the foundations.”

When something terrible happens and the sense of meaning disintegrates to some degree, embarrassment or emptiness soon follows. It’s called ‘crisis.’ In the case of a crisis, suddenly and severely we have lost confidence in the self, the world, and the future. The more terrible it is, the greater the crisis is.

At last, sooner or later, this disruption in the sense of meaning brings about changes in the ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. The bigger the crisis is, the greater the change is. It means, the more terrible pandemic we had, the more terrible consequences followed. Even violence against the world or the self may ensue.

Today’s Bible verse is II Corinthians 5: 17. It tells us that we’re “new creations.” It says, “everything old has passed away; new things have come into being.” The sentence “new things have come into being,” can be equally translated into “the old has become new.” It’s about human change. Change means ‘becoming somebody different,’ or ‘becoming something different.’ But, new creation is more than change. So, I prefer the word ‘transformation’ rather than ‘change.’

What‘s the transformation? In a crisis, we’re eager to go back to the past. In other words, we‘re preoccupied with thinking, if only it were not for the crisis, or if only the viruses could have been gotten rid of. In fact, it‘s impossible to return to the past. It‘s just wishful thinking to deny the stressful reality. Even now, it’s impossible to avoid its painful and stressful consequences in many different areas. So, it is also impossible to return to the old self. How can we erase the painful experiences of the pandemic in our memories? Absolutely not. We can‘t delete them because they‘re essential parts of ourselves. They can‘t be deleted, but they can be reorganized. Even the smallest one or the least one, will not disappear from my memory. To relieve the pain in the memory, the past is reinterpreted differently and reorganized into the new self. This is the reason why we are a new creation. That’s why transformation is preferred rather than change. The transformation is proclaimed in today’s Bible text.

Another question pops up. The transformation is for better? or for worse? Every crisis has an impact on us. Certainly, the pandemic has impacted us. Is it positive? or negative?  St. Paul’s phrase, “new creation” implies human wholeness, as written in Romans chapter 8. In the chapter he talks about “those who live in accordance with the Spirit (v. 5).” And he says, “the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace (v. 7).” Now, ‘life and peace’ sound appealing more and more globally. It’s the transformation for the better. But he also talks about the negative transformation. The negative transformation is the pessimistic reality of “those who live according to the flesh (v. 5).” According to him, it’s the vicious cycle of “living in fear,” “purposelessness,” “decay,” and “death.”

What happens after the crisis? Now, what’s going on in our colleges and universities? Particularly, how about our students? After the pandemic, are they transformed for the better? or for the worse? In fact, there are more and more indicators of their mental health deterioration. Their levels of anxiety or depression have increased. And hatred and violence are escalating domestically and globally. Then, to carry out the positive transformation, what are we supposed to do?

How do we shift from the negative transformation to the positive transformation? St. Paul’s positive transformation begins when we are Christians or believers. The Bible verse says, “If anyone is in Christ.” It means we are in the right relationship with God. It’s called faith traditionally. Now, the word ‘faith’ sounds too simplistic or too static. We live in a highly individualistic society. We have the assumption that every element in the world is an agent, acting actively and spontaneously. Even the relationship is not the entity but the process. And no individuals are predetermined how to think, how to feel, and how to act. So, without autonomy, there is no relationship. In other words, without autonomy, there is no intimacy. So, the right relationship presupposes autonomy and intimacy. Now, it’s better to think of hope, to understand faith. Hope has validity in referring to our right relationship with God.

Hope is not optimism. Optimism is the belief that positive outcomes are inevitable. But, hope is a motivation to work hard and endure hardship toward a goal, even if we’re skeptical of any possibility of a positive outcome. So, in hope, we can approach God, even in situations where we are skeptical of God’s provision. In other words, hope means not taking God’s provision for granted, but it’s a mindset facilitating our work towards God’s purpose, even in terrible hardship. Hope involves not just being motivated, but also feeling confident that we can achieve goals. Our hope in God is the confident affirmation that God will complete what God has begun. According to psychologist Charles Snyder and his colleagues, hope has another component, the pathways of thinking. When we get a pathway thinking, we can think of many different ways of achieving goals. Our hope in God is also the belief that God will make use of many different and creative ways to perform God’s will. God’s hope enables us to formulate new ways to get over hardship and reach God’s purpose. Therefore, hope is especially beneficial for people in challenging situations

With the hope for God, the shift to positive transformations will take place. With hope for ourselves, the hope for our neighbours and strangers, with the hope for the world and the future, we can stop the negative transformations and move to the positive transformations on our campuses.

We are the VIPs of our universities and colleges. We’re working to cultivate God’s hope in our students, staff, and faculties. We are also engaged in promoting God’s hope in our societies and countries. How is it possible to nurture it?

Hope really matters in the minority. Hope is especially crucial when we’re suppressed or oppressed, and especially when we’re in need of some powerful motivation to help us find new ways to reach our goal and work hard towards its achievement. In St. Paul’s lifetime, Christians were minorities. In Asia, most of us, Christians are minorities. How can minorities influence the majority? How can minorities shake the confidence of the majority and make the whole society seek out new information about the situation and look for God’s hope? According to social psychologist Serge Moscovici, the key factor in minority influence is consistency. There’s temporal consistency, it’s the consistent attitude across the past, the present, and the future. On the other hand, there’s situational consistency, it’s the consistency between in-class and out-of-class, or on-campus and off-campus. It means that when we live in the consistent hope for God, we can cultivate God’s hope in our students, higher education institutions, and societies. Especially when we are forced to be positioned in dire and terrible situations, our consistent hope for God can cultivate God’s hope.

We’re called to be a new creation. We deserve positive transformations. This transformation begins and grows in our hope in God. God’s hope can be cultivated by our consistent God’s hope.

May God’s hope be with you!