Searching for Human Goodness
A few months ago, my husband and I moved from Abilene, Texas, to Boston, Massachusetts, so that I could begin working on my PhD at Boston University. We’ve enjoyed wandering through historic neighborhoods and museums, and we have definitely indulged in our fair share of clam chowder. This city has been good to us! And yet, these past few months have been full of heartache too, as each day seems to begin with worse headlines than the day before. The world is filled with hate, natural disasters, genocide, wars and rumors of wars. The headlines sit heavily on my chest as I wonder what to do. A few weeks back, we were walking downtown when I saw a man standing outside of the Old State House at the site of the Boston Massacre. The man, who was experiencing homelessness, was throwing himself upon the possibility that there may be some generosity in the hearts of passersby. He held up a sign that simply read: “Searching for human goodness.” His eyes were light blue, framed by crow’s feet as he offered a smile in my direction. I couldn’t take my eyes off of him; his hope was the single beacon of light that I could see in the midst of a week filled with wreckage. We had started to cross the street, and as we walked away from him I held onto the image of his hope-filled eyes.
Lately I have been feeling fresh out of hope. I know as a professing Christian, and especially as a preacher, I should probably avoid confessions of hopelessness. But if I’m being perfectly honest with you, the weight of the world is too much. Some people would respond to me and say, “You just need to give it over to God. Stop carrying that burden.” But that answer does not satisfy me. Our world is filled with hate and greed, and the earth in turn seems to be spewing us out; I live here and you live here. We can’t ignore the madness, so I will not relinquish this burden. I’m reminded of the psalmist who cried out in the sixtieth psalm:
O God, you have rejected us, broken our defenses; You have been angry; now restore us! You have caused the land to quake; you have torn it open; Repair the cracks in it, for it is tottering. You have made your people suffer hard things; You have given us wine to drink that has made us reel. … O grant us help from the foe, For human help is worthless.
If you read the psalm in its entirety, you will hear the psalmist’s petition for the help of God, the only one who can make the world right again. And yet, you will also hear this despairing assessment of humankind: human help is worthless. How far we have drifted from the vocation of Eden. We were once “very good” creatures, tending to the earth in harmony with God. We were helpers to one another; we were a team whose mission was to honor the creator by enjoying and caring for creation. Yet, here we are, in this hell we created for ourselves. Is there any human goodness left in the midst of so much chaos?
Surprisingly, I believe so. While it may feel at the moment like human help is worthless, and like there is no end in sight to our suffering, I have also witnessed human arms plunge deep into murky flood waters to rescue people and animals. I have seen humans choose to sacrifice their last rations to another who is in need. I have seen college students set up fundraising events online to send money to suffering global communities. I heard about a worship ministry retreat in Alabama that spontaneously welcomed hurricane refugees into their midst, hugged them, and cried with them as they sang, “I will not fear the war, I will not fear the storm. My help is on the way, my help is on the way.” Earlier in the summer, I witnessed people all over the country rise up against hate speech in defense of the marginalized. And just when I wonder if the goodness is true, I receive a phone call from my brother who just wants to encourage me as I begin the most difficult chapter of my academic career.
Human help is not worthless, and there is human goodness to be found. Perhaps this is the hope of God in the world: the eternal love and light of God emanating through willing vessels to restore our fragmented world. And if I feel like there is a shortage of hope, maybe that’s my cue to get to work. Perhaps God has been allowing my heart to feel burdened so that I will finally rise from the despair and help someone.
The homeless man outside of the Old State House had come to know hope, in ways that I have struggled to accept. Every day, his hands, his smile, his eyes, and his words are the occasion upon which people choose to create hope. He is drawing hope out of the masses, and challenging us to lean into our goodness. I want to be part of that hope. I want to give way to goodness.
So just last week, we ventured out downtown again. As we approached the Old State House, I saw him—same sign, same smile. I ran to him, thrusting money into his hand, and with tears in my eyes I said, “I’m searching for it too. And I think you may have helped me find it.” He held my hand for a moment and with a raspy voice said, “It’s all around you, and it is within you. Never give up hope. God is good, and you are too.”