Hope sessions

A polar bear owns a cafe.  One day, he’s chatting with one of the regulars, a penguin, when in walks this panda…

No, that’s not the start of a corny joke.  It’s the setting of a visually stunning but incredibly offbeat Japanese anime (cartoon) series entitled Shirokuma Cafe (i.e., Polar Bear’s Cafe), based on a manga (comic) of the same name.  Polar Bear is an even-tempered and good-natured fellow, who has a penchant for bad puns.  Penguin is more acerbic and high-strung, especially compared to the lazy and narcissistic Panda.

Together, the three live in a world in which animals and humans freely interact in sometimes incongruous ways.  Humans work for Polar Bear at the cafe.  Several of the animals (including Panda) have jobs at the local zoo just being themselves so the humans can gawk and coo at how cute they are.  But animals can also visit the zoo, albeit with some restrictions: polar bears, for instance, are prohibited from entering the polar bear exhibit, because, well, it would just be too confusing.

You get the idea.

In one episode, a group of the animals is gathered at the cafe after work.  Panda complains about his job, and what began as a friendly get-together quickly turns into a gripe session.  Llama complains that nobody notices him, despite his long eyelashes.  Otter complains that people think it’s cute when he floats on his back, cracking shellfish on a rock on his tummy–but they don’t understand how much it hurts.  Anteater complains about…eating ants.

It’s both funny and surreal to listen to their litany of woes.  In the end, Panda, who started it all, shows himself to be the most self-absorbed of the lot by sleeping through the conversation.

I was so captured by the quirkiness of the episode that it didn’t occur to me until much later: isn’t this what we often do when we get together with friends?  Things start out well enough.  Then someone complains about his job.  Or her husband.  Or “kids these days.”  Or how life used to be so much simpler before…fill in the blank.  Too often, these conversations seem to make complaining an end in itself.  Someone who wanted to say something encouraging would sound decidedly off-key.

I’m not saying that we don’t have legitimate problems and grievances, nor that we don’t need someone to listen to them.  We do, and there needs to be a place for that.

But Christian fellowship that deserves the name must be more than this, even under the guise of asking for prayer requests.  We don’t want to pray simply for God to change our circumstances.  We want God to change our hearts.

I’m reminded of the apostle Peter, who wrote these words to a scattered and persecuted church: “regard Christ as holy in your hearts.  Whenever anyone asks you to speak of your hope, be ready to defend it” (1 Pet 3:15, CEB).  The community of believers needs to be a place where we listen compassionately to one another’s troubles.  But it also needs to be a place where the reverence of Christ and the pursuit of holiness are encouraged, a place where a specifically Christian hope is nurtured.

When we find ourselves being pulled into the negativity of a gripe session, particularly among the faithful, what could we do to turn the conversation compassionately toward hope?