It was a long time ago in Belfast during the Troubles.
I was a young student trying to make my way through the city, no mean feat in those days. There were security gates everywhere. Some places you couldn’t go, and some places you wouldn’t have wanted to go!
The day before had seen another bomb near the Europa Hotel. Broken glass was everywhere and people were busy clearing up. Wooden boards had been erected and certain parts of the bus and train stations blocked off. In one place a large sign read, ‘No Exit to Hope Street’.
While Hope Street was and remains an actual location, the sign seemed to sum up the mood of those grim days. Sectarian distrust and resentment boiling over into street violence. Against a backdrop of political deadlock, some on both sides committed appallingly cruel atrocities. There seemed no end, no way out.
Things are better now than then. Not perfect, not by a long stretch, but better. We have an ongoing ‘Peace Process’. It’s flawed just like the human beings involved in it, but hey, we’re a ‘work in progress’!
I took my student daughter to Belfast yesterday.
We drove up and down the Falls and Shankill Roads, past some of the ‘flashpoints’ where there used to be regular trouble. A taxi had stopped by one of the vivid murals on the ‘Peace Wall’ and the driver was taking a picture of his tourist passengers, no doubt to be shared worldwide on social media.
And guess what?
Hope Street was wide open to traffic!
At times our faith in the future can feel fragile enough. Despite all the lessons of history, despite all the noble aspirations of those willing to sacrifice for freedom, peace and justice, human nature seems to keep throwing up fresh generations of smallminded killers. While Belfast appears a little safer on the surface, new ideologies (or old ones in disguise) presently stalk the entire globe prompting new acts of brutality and abuse. Children are bombed in playparks, or kidnapped for the sex industry. For many there still seems no way out.
The ancient world was not so different. A succession of empires notched up some truly impressive achievements, art and architecture, but also featured ruthless economic exploitation, slavery and no shortage of murderous tyrants desperate to control.
Against that strangely familiar backdrop a little group of Galilean fishermen and ex tax collectors made some ridiculously optimistic-sounding claims. Such as finding real motivation and courage in the real love and grace of a real God. Or finding fulfilment in simple lifestyle and brotherly love rather than endless material gain. Or almost cheerful trust in the face of suffering and death, believing the best is yet to come with heavenly resurrection.
And they kind of have a point with that last one, for their Leader has risen from the dead.
But one of them, Simon Peter, puts it far better than me:
‘Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In His great mercy He has given us new birth into a living hope, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade, kept in Heaven for you…’
You can read the whole passage in the Bible, the New Testament, 1 Peter 1 v 3-9.
Jesus Christ has risen victorious over death and evil. So neither the pathetic, wicked acts of humans or the evil powers that inspire them are the end of the story. People of faith can find comfort looking forward to a heavenly inheritance with Jesus.
We’re not perfect yet but hey, sanctification is another ‘work in progress’. Sometimes we limp a little in the short term. Sometimes our wounds still hurt.
But since Easter, ‘Hope Street’ has been reopened.