We are in the midst of a global pandemic that is turning the world inside out and upside down. Assumptions we held with such ease only a few months ago about our invulnerability in the modern age to the scourge of contagion have been emptied. Our blindness to the debilitating effect of social inequalities has been revealed. Former confidence in systems of government and economics has been eroded. We are left feeling disoriented, our minds spinning in confusion and anxiety.
Seventy five years ago, the world experienced another such cataclysmic disorientation. When the atomic bomb was first exploded on July 16, 1945, at Trinity Site in southern New Mexico, humanity discovered that it had within its power its own destruction. The magnitude of that destructive potential was fully revealed three weeks later, when it was unleashed on the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (August 6 and 9). About 140,000 people were killed instantly at Hiroshima (about the number who have died of covid in the United States), and another 75,000 at Nagasaki three days later. Thousands more died in the succeeding days, months and years due to the effects of radiation. Never before had such awe-ful power been placed in human hands, and as a result, never again will we be able assume that we will not be the instrument of our final undoing.
While these two events have at one level little in common—the one is the result of a natural viral mutation, and the other of the moral dilemma of the human will toward violence—they do share in common the sense of disorientation they produced in the human soul. So it is with that sense of convergence that we enter into this service of “Loss, Mourning, and Resilience,” acknowledging both the terrible losses the human race experienced then, and now; and the tremendous capacity for hope that was still intact even then, and now.
When Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before his death, his instinct was to pray that he might not have to undergo this torment. It is a prayer of loss, of fear, and of dread—what is sometimes called his “agony” in the garden.
Our prayers during this strange time are also ones of agony. We pray for our own health, for comfort for the dying and grieving, for the safety of teachers and students, for wisdom among our leaders. We may not look out upon a world physically destroyed, as the survivors did in Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the bomb, but we do look out on lives tattered, a social fabric frayed, a future thrown in doubt.
And where, in the midst of such angst, do we find hope? This is where the story of the cranes comes in … perhaps you know it already. Sadako Sasaki was two years old when she was irradiated in the bombing of Hiroshima, caught in the radioactive black rain that fell after the blast. Predictably, she developed leukemia a few years later. While she was being treated in hospital, she undertook the task of folding one-thousand paper origami cranes, appealing to a traditional Japanese story that anyone who does so, will have a wish granted.
Stories vary: some say she didn’t finish the thousand cranes before she died in 1955 at age 12; some say she far exceeded her goal. Either way, for her folding cranes was not just a sign of hope, but hope itself. Because hope, you see, is not something we feel—it’s not an emotion we have to try to dredge up inside of us. Hope is something we choose to do. Hope is in the way we live, not the way we feel. Hope is a practice, an act of resilience, despite our worst fears.
When John Lewis got up off the pavement of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, where he had been clubbed, to march another day, that was hope. When Gandhi fasted for peace in the midst of civil conflict, that was hope. When a mortally wounded midwife trembling in an underground bunker the night after the bomb was dropped rose up to deliver a baby, that was hope. When Jesus turned away from his agony in the garden, and went out to meet his betrayer, that was hope. And when you choose to make what you can of this day, even while you may be shut in or jobless or afraid, that is hope. Hope is the folding of a crane.
Because of Sasaki, the origami crane has become a global symbol of hope. Now anytime you see one, its simple elegance and strange complexity evoke not just a sense of beauty, but the possibility of peace. As part of the Peace Memorial in Hiroshima, a statue has been erected that depicts Sasaki holding one of her beloved cranes up to the sky. At the base, an inscription simply reads: “This is our cry. This is our prayer. Peace in the world.” So if the folding of paper cranes by a little girl could provide such hope in the world, then I leave you with this question: What might you also be able to do, to bring hope into these similarly dark times? Amen.