Baptised Into Fiercer Hope

Added about 10 months ago by Bill Topping

GUEST BLOG: Bill Topping, a Methodist lay worker, reviews Like There’s No Tomorrow by Frances Ward.

Readers of Like There’s No Tomorrow are invited on an intimate and profound journey with the writer. One that sees her “despair baptised into fiercer hope.” Many of us can identify with this despair Ward refers to. It is that pain and turmoil we feel at having found ourselves “entangled in forces and changes that threaten our very exisLike There's No Tomorrowtence in the world of today.” And yet, as Ward’s imagery of being “baptised into fiercer hope” suggests, this book is one that offers a glimpse of a restored “quality to life” that would not only sustain us onwards but empower us to, “continue to live as if there’s no tomorrow, with a fierce hope and a fullness of engagement and action that transform the pain into something positive.” This is a book about an individual’s pilgrimage from despair, through lament, to a state of fierce hope. It is a book about the state of the world, in particular the climate crisis, and our role as a Church within all this. It is a book that combines, theology, poetry, history and geography– a theopoetical rallying cry to us to turn to a fierce hope that will motivate us to action.

Ward (an Anglican Priest, who has stepped down from full-time work after 30 years of ministry, just as her husband begins his ordained journey) employs two parallel methods to lead readers through this book. She uses her experience and journal entries of a six-week long canal boat voyage through the heart of England alongside extracts from literature, including extensive reference to the Psalms, poetry – with plenty of the author’s own work – novels, philosophy and theology. These two strands to the book reinforce each other in a dance that allows the reader to both picture the environment Ward and her boat slowly travel through, and to engage with God “through poetry, metaphor and the imagination.”

As we travel with Ward and her companions, who rotate throughout the book, we are introduced not only to the landscape as it is now, but to a detailed and fascinating insight into how it has come to be, all the while linking it in to how this might inform our approach to our world now in the face of catastrophic climate change. As Ward vividly describes her navigation of the Braunston Tunnel for example, (opened in 1796 and 1,867 metres in length) she admires the creativity of the engineers and their inspiration to conceive of, let alone build, such an impressive construction. She adds: “we need to stir that same ingenuity now, to relinquish and restore in order to survive.”

It is her knowledge and relationship with the Psalms however that I found particularly moving:

In these 150 songs there is the whole range of human experience, ranging from joy to lamentation, celebrating the beauty of the natural words, and the tragedy of a broken relationship.

Ward describes a similar process to being “baptised into fiercer hope” when she says of the psalms: “They take you right to the uttermost pit of hatred, yet enable you to find God there.” The psalms give us permission to truly lament, something that is, “the antidote to despair.” Her use of the psalms in this book (27 in total), which clearly so help her, certainly offers the reader a reminder of the rich and fruitful resource we have been gifted. I certainly commit to engaging more with the psalms as a result of reading this work. Methodists have a morning and evening prayer in the Worship Book, perhaps a more intentional pattern of encounter with such resources would lead to a more intimate relationship with the psalms.

This book comes at an important time and paradoxically, but impactfully, uses a slow and thoughtful illustration of a canal-boat journey to highlight the fact that the “softly-softly approach isn’t working.” Ward finds a skillful and thoughtful balance between emphasising the urgency of our catastrophic situation, alongside inviting us to discover a “deeper flow” to life that contributes to us belonging in this world – God’s creation – “with a greater sense of reverence and holiness.”

Alongside learning a great deal about the canal system in the UK, its history and the natural world that calls such habitats home, Ward also introduced readers to the academic theory of experts such as Jem Bendell and Iain McGilchrist – both of whom offer wisdom on what humanity must do to tackle the apocalyptic problem it faces. Ward is rightly critical of the economic system of neoliberalism and its contribution to the crisis we face. She talks of us, “being seduced away into that individualistic market fundamentalism, incremental, atomistic set of petty concerns which prevent the analysis that might lead to other economic models based on sustainability.” But Ward is confident that God’s grace will break through, “because God’s grace is already there.” It is this fierce hope that she has reached from despair, via lament, that offers her motivation to act, and seek to motivate others to act and grow in love.

This book has prompted me to immerse myself more deeply in the psalms. It has encouraged me to think of small practical ways I can live a life more lovingly in this world (seasonal eating, swiftboxes) and to explore the joy of canal-boating. Fundamentally however it has highlighted the appropriateness and necessity of lament, in order to work through despair and have a chance of being baptised into fierce hope. A church and a world full of people with hope, fierce hope, is a church and world with a chance.

Bill Topping is a Methodist Lay worker in York. He is currently going through the candidating process with the hope of becoming a Methodist minister and had to review and reflect on Like There’s No Tomorrow as part of that process. You can get your copy of Like There’s No Tomorrow here.

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