‘Tis The Season to be Hopeful

I used to be the guy who started listening to Christmas music in July. I would roll out the Christmas CDs and park them right by the stereo. I would load them in a case to bring into my car. I would pull out the ones that I would listen to regularly and make sure that I got through every single one of them.

That’s kind of what happens when music is your thing and your job. You get caught up in the season and planning takes priority.

Of course, I always used to be the one who was cuckoo for Christmas. But life can sometimes have a way of changing you, of stealing your joy a little.

I’ve had some great Christmas seasons in my past but I’ve also had some pretty crappy ones. The Christmas after my mom died, my dad was in the hospital and acting like he’d lost his mind. It was one of the most surreal and depressing Christmases on record for me.

At the same time, watching my kids grow up and seeing their faces on Christmas morning has been one of the greatest joys that I’ve experienced. If there’s anything that can make me feel like a kid again, it’s Christmas Eve and the experience that comes from having young kids experience the wonder and joy of Christmas.

But as much as I still love Christmas, I think that I’ve grown up a little bit. I’m not talking about growing up like the kid in The Polar Express. I think. I can still hear the bells, but the “why” of Christmas has become so much more important to me and, frankly, I’ve begun to look at Christmas in context with why I celebrate it as well as why it’s important in the grand scheme of things.

Last week was the first Sunday of Advent and it passed me by. I don’t think that I forgot it, maybe I just ignored it, but it hit me on the second Sunday of Advent just how important it was. I was speaking on the second Advent of Jesus and recalling the first Advent of Jesus. It all seemed to be that much more weighty and important to me.

During Advent, each Sunday has a theme: Hope, Joy, Peace, Love. I can’t help but think about those and this pas Sunday, I was thinking about hope. Hope is the thing that propels us along when it seems like there’s nothing left. Hope is what keeps us going when everything inside and outside of us is telling us to just give up. Hope is the thing that keeps us looking around the corner, checking the mailbox, waiting for that phone call. Hope is what keeps us going when everything seems impossible.

Hope is one of the only reasons why I’m still here. In the midst of pain, in the midst of loss, in the midst of uncertainty, I have hung on to hope. When it seemed that darkness would overcome, hope remained a candle that penetrated the darkness.

That’s what this season is to me. It’s a reminder that although God seemed silent, something happened to keep hope alive, to breathe new life into all those places that seemed dead and lifeless. God seemed silent until he came to dwell among us, and even as he lived and eventually died, hope still hung in there, albeit by a thread.

And then he rose. Death had not won. Hope was alive.

Christmas time is always a reminder to me that when it seems that things are the darkest, there is still hope. It may not be realized in my time, it may not even be realized on this side of eternity, but hope is there, waiting patiently for us to believe and trust. We may not understand. We may not be happy about waiting. But hope remains.

We’re coming to the two week mark to Christmas. As I look at all that those two weeks hold, it’s a little overwhelming to me. I’m afraid that I’m going to blink and those two weeks will have passed without me fully understanding the significance of these moments.

Walking By Faith

There have been a number of times in my life when it seems my faith is stretched more so than  others. Times when it seems I have to reach a little further, take a little bit longer of a stride, and that where my feet land is solid ground. These times in life are a bit unnerving and kind of scary. But a life of faith was never promised to be easy or without incident.

I’ve lost a lot of sleep in these seasons, wondering whether I’m making the right decision, wondering whether I’ll be regretting the leap of faith that I’m making. My prayers become prayers for signs and glimpses of evidence that will make me more confident. I want it all spelled out for me and I pray and wait, almost expecting the sky to light up with letters from some kind of divine skywriting plane, telling me exactly what to do.

But that’s not faith. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things that aren’t seen. Faith isn’t simply following a paint by numbers painting and filling in all the pieces. It’s not following some kind of treasure map and making sure that we get all the clues right. Faith is stepping out of ourselves and our strength and relying on the One who created us, the One who sees beyond all time and space.

And yes, it’s unnerving. For those of us who are more analytical, even more so. We want evidence. We want clarity. We want 99% certainty, things we can put our eyes on, our hands on. Things we can wrap our heads around and make sense of rather than things we need to trust and hope for.

Faith is a little bit scary. All right, it may be very scary. But in those moments of leap, those moments where it seems impossible, there is peace. It’s the biblical concept of shalom, more than just our concept of peace being a state of being without conflict. It’s peace and security, a holistic peace that is transcendent. It’s a diving peace that can only be realized and experienced through God.

In these moments of faith, these leaps that seem irrational and impossible, there’s a difference between a nagging sense that it’s the wrong decision and a fear of the unknown that you are stepping into. I’ve stopped to try to determine which one it is during those times. Am I uncomfortable because my “faith muscle” is being stretched beyond what it’s used to or am I uncomfortable because it’s the wrong decision?

For those of us who like to exude confidence and rely on our own strengths and abilities, these faith moments are exactly what we need to be knocked into humility and trust, relying not on ourselves but on God. If we can figure it out and accomplish it within our own abilities and strengths, it’s probably not requiring as much faith of us. Faith isn’t praying and then leaning on our own understanding, it’s leaning on our understanding that God’s ways are higher than our ways and that he knows more than us and is capable of more than we can ask or think.

Faith is a leap into the unknown. Scary? Yes. Worthwhile? Yes. Because afterwards, we find that we’ve got even more confidence for what’s next, the next ask of us.

I’m not sure if faith ever gets easier. Probably not if we are doing it right. But the more we exercise it and see how much we can grow in it, the more likely we will be to want to leap a little further the next time around, knowing what the outcome was the last time.

I’m learning to leap. It’s kind of a scary business, but as I look at my history in walking with God, I can see that the leaps have extended a little further every time. I’m not talking additional feet every time. It’s more like inches, if not smaller. But we can’t look at our growth and progress from event to event, we need to see it as a progression over time. A long obedience in the same direction. Then, when we look back, we can see just how far we’ve come in faith and not in our own strength and power.

Stop Telling Me, Just Show Me

show me don't tell meFor years, I had grown tired of what the church calls evangelism. It just didn’t seem right to me. It felt like an Amway session or a gathering to try to sell someone a timeshare. It didn’t feel genuine and, at times, it felt downright offensive.

Now, I know that Paul wrote in the Bible that the gospel is foolishness for those who are perishing, a stumbling block for some, offensive to others. But the offensiveness should come in the content, not the presentation.

Over the course of my life, I’ve done some of my best learning when I’ve been watching and paying attention to what’s going on around me. I learn better when you show me what to do.

My father-in-law is a contractor. When my wife and I lived close to him, I relished the times when I could work alongside him, learning new things, watching a master at work. The ease with which he would accomplish things was always astounding to me. I wished for the capability that he had and showed often.

While I was working alongside him, he wasn’t sitting there lecturing me about the different steps that he was taking. He would just go about doing the work, asking for the things that he needed along the way. As I watched and learned, questions emerged in my mind and I would ask them as they popped up. My father-in-law obliged to answer the questions, and my education continued.

As I’ve thought a lot about the church lately, I think we’ve stopped learning by doing. We’ve also stopped teaching by showing. Essentially, that’s what discipleship is all about. It’s not saying, “Let me teach you a collection of facts so that you can be smart and know how to be a disciple.” It really needs to be about saying, “Walk with me and I will show you what it means to be a disciple.”

In our errors of teaching rather than showing, we’ve also failed in our witness to the world. Instead of showing the world what it means to love Jesus and be his disciple, we’ve simply said, “You’re not living in such a way as pleases God.” Meanwhile, our lives don’t necessarily indicate anything different either. We say that Jesus changes everything and then we go on living our lives as if he makes no difference at all.

So what would it look like for us to stop telling people how to live and start showing people how to live?

Again, don’t get me wrong here, this doesn’t mean that we never share the gospel with those around us, it simply means that we earn the right to share and be heard by living in such a way that it actually matters to us. I won’t go so far as to say that we need to preach the gospel and use words if we must, but we need to let our actions model the words that we speak.

I was at a gathering not too long ago with some people who have been jaded by the church. They’ve been burned and hurt and they are slowly making their way back to faith. I had adopted a posture of listening to understand rather than listening to respond, so I was doing my best to keep my mouth shut (a fairly significant feat for me).

Finally, the hostess looked over at me and said that she was curious what I was thinking. I shared that I thought it was time for the church to remember that there is an important verse that Peter wrote in 1 Peter 3:15. He said, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you for the hope that you have.” Unfortunately, I said, many people had left out some significant words in there……everyone who asks you.

The church needs to do a better job of living questionable lives, lives that cause people to ask questions. We need to do a better job to not only speak about the difference that Jesus makes in us, but also to show it and live it out. In so doing, I am convinced that people will see that difference and then we can live into Peter’s words as they begin to ask us why we’re different. In responding to their questions, I think it will look and feel a little less like a pitch for a timeshare and more like the reason for the hope that lives within us and has changed our lives.

A Craning of the Neck

The last few days have been kind of rough. It hasn’t had anything to do with my immediate family, but rather my church family. Deaths, both expected and unexpected. Sickness. Diagnoses. In a season of the church where hope is among the four major values focused upon (along with peace, love, and joy), it has seemed somewhat elusive.

When my mom was sick and eventually succumbed to cancer, the words of Romans 8 were powerfully meaningful to me. In the original Greek language of the text, the word translated in English as “eager expectation” had a particular meaning that stood out to me. It literally means to crane the neck and look around a corner.

I love word pictures and the picture that emerged in my mind was one of hope and expectation, something that marks the Advent season of the church. It’s a season of waiting. We sing songs of waiting like “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.”

Multiple times in the last few days, I have reminded myself and others that what we are experiencing is not the way things were intended to be. Having to break hard news to someone and watch as a family experiences one blow after another of tragedy is just not the way it’s supposed to be.

Still, there is hope. God’s promises are true. I believe it, but like the father in Mark 9 who desperately hopes that Jesus will heal his son, I need to be helped in my unbelief. Knowing and believing without seeing is where faith comes in.

Fielding the questions of my ten year old son about belief, and heaven, and the difficulty of believing has been sobering as well. I refuse to give him pat answers to questions that plagued me for years because the church was never willing to be honest with them.

As I feel like I’ve said so many times, there is nothing wrong with doubt, it’s what you do with it that matters most. My doubt leads me back to God’s promises. There were periods of the silence of God, hundreds of years. And now, it seems, we are faced with thousands of years of the silence of God. Does that mean he has abandoned us? No, I don’t think so.

Instead, we wait in anticipation, craning our necks around the corner to see if we can just catch a glimpse of what is ahead, what wonder might be waiting around that corner. Any little glimpse will reignite that hope in our hearts.

Surprisingly, in a cramped hospital family waiting room, stuffed with people who had only known each other for a short period of time, I sensed that hope and expectation. In the midst of tragedy, I heard stories of hope. I saw images of hope. I could almost feel the sense of hope palpably.

Don’t get me wrong, tragedy, grief, hurt and pain still suck. I’m not going to sugarcoat that, but I see in the darkness that there is a light, no matter how small. In the Apostle Paul’s words, “Hope that is seen is no hope at all.”

As far away as God might seem, I am comforted by the words that end Romans chapter 8. These words are the words that I choose to propel me forward during times like this.

“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Hope in the Dark

The Golden ThreadIn his note at the beginning of his wife’s book, Mark Zschech mentions the Japanese art of Kintsugi, a repair method that takes broken pieces of pottery and puts them back together with threads of real gold. This repair method and art form not only restores a piece of pottery that might have otherwise been rendered useless, but it also brings more value to the piece with these threads of gold. Just like this golden thread in a piece of pottery, so is God’s redemptive work in our lives through the various things that break us down and seek to destroy us.

Once upon a time, I was a worship leader in Asheville, North Carolina. Through various connections, I had the privilege of being part of a musical team that supported many of the conferences that came through the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove. Among the conferences that came through which I was privileged to be a part was a Hillsong worship conference back in the days when Darlene Zschech was still the main worship pastor there.

Spending a week with her and her team was a memorable experience. Many of the songs that I and my church had been singing for years had been written by Darlene and this team. To spend time with them and see their heart for Jesus and for worship gave me the opportunity to see that these songs were not just simply ways to earn a buck, but they were from the heart and lives of people who were earnestly seeking Jesus.

I say all this because I think that slight glimpse into Zschech’s world has shaped my perspective on this book. In that brief time spent with Zschech and her team, I could see how genuine and authentic she was, there was nothing contrived in her at all. She came across as so real and it made such an impact in me and my wife who also attended the conference.

So, as I read “The Golden Thread,” I could hear her speaking the words on the page to me. I could feel the emotion that she felt and I was inspired by the faith that I had seen up close and personal.

“The Golden Thread” is more than just Zschech’s story of being diagnosed with cancer and going through treatments to become cancer free. It is a story of faith and inspiration and while she shares personally in the book, she continually points back to Jesus throughout. What does it mean to want Jesus more than anything? How do you walk through the valley of the shadow of death and maintain your faith? What happens when God’s will and yours don’t seem to match and you are left with disappointment?

Above all, “The Golden Thread” is Zschech’s emphasis on worship through all the seasons of life, no matter how difficult. As she writes, the goal of worship, “should always be to see Jesus and to experience His presence.” While we often might try to make it about us, Zschech reminds us that we shouldn’t be the focus. Worship isn’t about what we do with our lips, she says, but what we do with our lives.

Zschech writes that her cancer treatment, “actually gave me a pass into some people’s worlds where I had previously had no authority.” The shared experience of facing the disease allowed her in relationships, but also in this book, to be invited into the lives of others who were struggling through the “Why” of a diagnosis or other crisis that had somehow arrived completely uninvited into what had been a fairly pleasant life journey.

As I read “The Golden Thread,” I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if one of Job’s friends in the Bible had actually been through difficulties themselves. Would they have come across more compassionately? Would they have sounded more like Zschech sounded in this book?

The message that runs through this book much like the golden thread for which it is named is about hope and the fact that while the world and everything (and everyone?) in it may seemingly abandon you, you are never alone or pushed away by God and you will never be abandoned. Hope in Jesus is the only thing that is sustainable throughout the difficulties of life that we face.

There are insights throughout this book that apply to so much more than simply cancer diagnoses and difficulties in life. Zschech speaks of forgiveness and the need to embrace it in order to be healthy and move on. She speaks of the holy discontent that boils up within us that we need to follow, always remembering that those around us are people to be loved, not problems to be fixed.

Having finished a book by another worship leader not long before diving into this one, I was skeptical of just how I would respond to it. I was pleasantly surprised and encouraged when I found myself wanting to keep reading rather than putting it down.

If you are seeking encouragement during dark times and difficulties, Zschech’s words may encourage and uplift you. While she shares out of her own experience, her insights and the application of them can be beneficial to far more experiences as well. “The Golden Thread” is a book filled with hope that points the reader to the only hope that is real and long-lasting, the hope of Jesus Christ.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Booklook Bloggers. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

The Legion of Decency

People who know me well know that I’m a bit of a cinephile, a film buff. Although I’m not completely sure where my love of film came from, I know that I’ve passed it on to my kids, for better or worse. I may or may not have been a little more liberal in my permission of what my kids have seen than my own parents were for me.

The other evening, my boys and I were watching Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. Unprompted, my oldest announces to me, “These filmmakers are better Christian filmmakers than Christian filmmakers are. People playing God and paying the price.”

It was a moment of pride for me. He’s obviously picked up on my disdain for sanitized storytelling in the form of the Christian market. I’m convinced that Christians have a tendency to whitewash things and offer storybook versions of reality rather than embracing the difficulties and challenges of life. I’m all into fantastic storytelling, but when those fantasies are depicted as reality, I struggle.

Maybe it’s because I’ve had some challenges in my life. Maybe it’s because I like to call the elephants out in the room. Maybe it’s because I’m tired of false prophets portraying the Christian life as easy and full of rainbows and unicorns. Whatever it is, I’m tired of that sanitized storytelling.

When I was a teenager, I was a big Stephen King fan. My fandom has been tempered in my adulthood, mostly because I haven’t had the bandwidth to read very many 500+ page books. His book “On Writing” made an impression on me in my own writing and how I look at art. He comes to a place in that book where he speaks of the Legion of Decency and how some writers, for the sake of said league, sanitize their dialogue at the sacrifice of realism. In fact, he writes, “The point is to let each character speak freely, without regard to what the Legion of Decency or the Christian Ladies’ Reading Circle may approve of. To do otherwise would be cowardly as well as dishonest….”

When I read those words, something clicked within me and I realized why I had struggled with so much of what had been labeled “Christian fiction” or “Christian film.” While I struggled with the storytelling a little, I struggled more with the lack of three dimensional characters. As King says, when your character hits his thumb with a hammer, he probably doesn’t shout, “Oh, sugar!” There may be certain characters that do, but if we’re honest, that’s not really being honest.

I’m not advocating for letting kids watch movies with objectionable material just because those films let their characters be true. Parents can choose what’s appropriate for their kids to watch. As my mom always used to say, I don’t have to subject myself to that kind of language.

I agree, Mom, but I also don’t have to pretend that language doesn’t exist. Sometimes people swear. Sometimes those people happen to be Christian, too.

I recently read a book, a tribute to Madeleine L’Engle. It was such a fascinating read to me because people just didn’t know what to do with her. To Christians, she was too secular. To secularists, she was too Christian. She wasn’t a fan of the line between sacred and secular and so she chose to not adhere to that line. She blurred that line, not in an irreverent way, but in a real and honest sort of way. Her faith came through in her books, but she didn’t sacrifice her characters or her storytelling simply because of her faith.

I guess that’s kind of the heart of what frustrates me. Can’t we just have storytellers who happen to be Christians? Can’t we have musicians who happen to love Jesus? Why do we have to throw the Christian label on everything so that it can be approved by the Legion of Decency?

Frankly, the Legion of Decency has never done me any favors. It didn’t change the fact that my mom got cancer that killed her and my dad died of a broken heart, both literally and figuratively. It didn’t change the fact that my heart was impacted by a virus I had when I was in high school. It didn’t change the fact that one of my best friends lost his little boy at six months to cancer or that a relative delivered their first child stillborn. So, whether the Legion of Decency likes it or not, I honestly say that those things all suck.

That’s why I hold on to hope in something other than what I see around me. But just because I have that hope doesn’t mean that I have to sanitize everything else. The less sanitized that we admit things are, the more awesome that hope comes across. And I really think that hope is awesome, something far beyond anything I could conjure up on my own, and if we’re really honest, the story of how we gain that hope might fly in the face of the Legion of Decency.

 

Pressing On, Pressing In

So, I’m learning a ton about myself, a ton about faith, and just a ton in general. There have been multiple times in my life when I’ve felt like I’m drinking from the firehose, this season is certainly one of them.

For anyone who has been following my story, my family and I are launching out and planting a church in the next year. It’s something that’s been on our heart since we left Asheville, North Carolina almost eleven years ago.

There are a number of reasons why it’s taken us this long to do it. To be honest, I think that God had a lot of work that he needed to do in me before I was ready to launch out. And honestly, I still don’t know how ready I am, which is probably a good thing. If I felt completely ready and capable, I would probably be relying on my own strength rather than the strength that God gives me.

Since we made our announcement about the plant, I’ve gone through all kinds of waves of emotion. There have been moments of joy, moments of sorrow, moments of doubt, moments of confidence. One thing that is consistent is my daily realization that I cannot do this alone. Not only as an individual, but also not without God’s help in all of this.

I was educated as an engineer. Two degrees. Some people are tired of hearing me say that, but I bring it up because engineers pride themselves in having the answers. In fact, I always prided myself on having the answers to questions that still hadn’t been asked. But where we are right now, this reliance on things that we can’t see, it’s totally out of my norm, I just don’t usually operate this way. I want answers. I want control. I’m not finding a lot of either right now, and I think I’m okay with that.

But this is a different season. I’m trying my best to press on and to press in. I am doing my best to trust and to have faith. I don’t have all the money that I need for the upcoming year. I don’t have all the particulars of what this church that we are starting will look like. I don’t even know for sure where it is that we will be meeting. And you know what? I’m actually okay with all that, and I think that it’s perfectly acceptable.

It’s actually a big step for me to be where I am and I didn’t get here on my own. Some may think I am being reckless. Some may think I’m hanging on to outdated beliefs. I have seen too much in my life, both good and bad, to not believe.

So, we’re pushing on and I am excited to see what God will do. While I may have some unique strengths and gifts, I know that none of this can happen without God. Like Moses in the wilderness, I stand where I am saying, “If you do not go with us, we will not go from this place.” That’s my sentiment. Exactly.

I’ll keep updating here. I’ll keep hanging on to the faith that I have. After all, faith is the assurance of the things that we hope for, the things that we can’t see. Here’s hoping and here’s faithing!!

What Are You Hiding?

In the wake of the suicides of two prominent public and successful figures, many are reeling and wondering just what happened. How did two people who had experienced such success find themselves in such darkness and despair that they felt the need to take their lives? How did it come to this? And the question that haunts me more than any other is, “Did anyone really know how bad it was?”

We live in an age of information. We get up to the minute news details from around the world. At our fingertips lies more information than generations before us could gather in a lifetime. We call ourselves “connected” but deep down inside, there are so many who are alone, afraid, and in desperate despair.

I’ve been through my own struggles lately, none which have led me to the sickness unto death. Struggles are one thing, but where do we go with them?

My thoughts on my own recent struggles and experiences are raw, but one thing that has emerged larger than life to me is that we are rarely honest people. We love to cover things up. We will divert and project and use all kinds of tactics to ensure that no one has a clue what’s really going on inside of us.

Even the answers that we give of our despair are untrue. We tell ourselves lies, and we tell those lies to others. Why? Why are we trying to hide? What are we trying to hide? What keeps us from confronting the truth of the situations in which we find ourselves?

I am a student of people. I watch, I learn, I gather information. Over the years, I have been both frustrated and intrigued to find that the answers that people give and reasons for their actions are rarely true. I’ve rarely received an answer when asking for a reason or rationale that I haven’t felt the need to mine, dig deeper, and discover the real reason behind the reason.

In an age when we are all supposed to feel closer than ever, we couldn’t be more further apart.

I have been blessed by many things in the midst of this world, but three stand out to me.

First, I have a family who I love and who loves me. My family has gone through transitions in the past few years, losing my parents, losing other loved ones, but we adjust. I am grateful for what I have in the form of loves ones.

Second, I have a select group of friends with whom I feel I can be more honest and open. Some are near, some are far, but the benefit of having those who I feel no need to hide from, whom I don’t need to don a social media presence before, that benefit is invaluable.

Third, my faith in Jesus Christ. Yes, critics of Christianity have criticized it as a crutch. Many horrid things have been done in the name of Jesus, but putting the blame for those things on Jesus hardly seems fair. Call it a crutch if you will, I know the depths of despair from which I have been rescued because of the hope and faith that I have. While that certainly can’t be distilled down into any empty statements suggesting that Jesus is all you need to avoid despair, depression, and suicide, I know that the smallest glimpse of hope has saved me and helped me to seek help in trying times.

I want to be part of a community that knows how to be honest with one another, even when it’s awkward, even when it hurts, even when it’s uncomfortable. I have seen the alternative and it’s been less than appealing to me.

And when we can’t be honest with each other, when we feel the need to hide, can we dig and probe and ask questions to get to the bottom of the despair that’s plaguing our hearts? Can we not settle for, “I’m fine” when we know that it’s less than an honest answer?

Two passages from the Bible come to mind. The first from Proverbs 20:5, “The purposes of a person’s heart are deep waters, but one who has insight draws them out.” It takes time and trust to get to the deep waters of a person’s heart, are we willing to spend that time? One who has insight and wisdom will take the time and will do their best to draw it out.

I am also reminded of the words of the Apostle Paul from one of my favorite passages in all of the Bible, Romans 12:

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

As much despair as there is in the world, there is always hope, we can always find it if we look in the right place. I hope and pray that wherever you are, wherever I am, that we might be honest enough with those around us that we can face our despair and find hope in the midst. And if we can’t be honest, for whatever reason, I pray that there are those around us who will take the time and do the hard work of loving us and drawing out the purposes of our hearts so that we can move towards hope and peace.

Passing Hope

Monday 12.04James Taylor famously quipped, “The secret of life is enjoying the passing of time.” Much better to enjoy the passing of time than regretting it, I guess.

I go through seasons of reflection and introspection, sometimes it’s dependent on circumstances, other times it’s dependent on the literal seasons of the year. It seems that the approach of the Christmas season makes me notoriously reflective. It hasn’t hurt that I’ve experienced some loss recently as well as observed the losses of others all around me.

Entering into the Advent season, I’ve never been a traditionalist in the sense that the four themes of Advent always seem to get jumbled in my mind. Part of that might be my aversion to be told what to do while the bigger part of it may very well be my own affinity for falling into repetitive traps that suck the significance and meaning out of seemingly poignant experiences and traditions.

Hope. Joy. Peace. Love.

While I’ve avoided the prescriptive approach to these themes, my preparation this year has me second-guessing that approach, or anti-approach. It seems to me that hope is the logical and, dare I say, perfectly appropriate theme to begin Advent.

It’s easy to lose hope. It’s easy to lean on false hope. Finding hope with staying power is more elusive and difficult. Where the people of God were at the time of the birth of Christ was a place of desperation, where hope had become elusive, maybe even completely lost and abandoned. The silence of God has a way of doing that to us, removing our hope.

But I learned a new word last week, a word coined by J.R.R. Tolkien years ago called eucatastrophe. It’s defined as a sudden and favorable resolution of events in a story; a happy ending. I wonder if the significance and poignancy of a eucatastrophe is made greater based on the length of time that has built up before it finally arrives.

If the eucatastrophe Jesus’ first arrival on Earth was significant after God’s centuries of silence, I can’t help but wonder how much more significant Jesus’ return will be after God’s millennia of silence.

But hope is found before the eucatastrophe ever comes. In fact, hope builds in the anticipation and the waiting for the resolution and the happy ending. Without that building anticipation, hope can’t exist. Without the tension of conflict and the longing for anticipation, hope cannot exist.

Ironically, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.” The why of our lives gives us hope we need to endure the how of our lives. Hope propels us, it sustains us, but it’s not just any hope, it needs to be permanent hope, long-lasting hope, everlasting hope.

So, that’s the question that I pose as I enter into this season of Advent. Where do I find hope? Where am I looking for hope?

I know that I need hope but I fear that my impatience for it can drive me to settle for cheap alternatives and substitutes. Hope can sustain us through our impatience but it can also be diminished if our impatience gets the better of us.

Advent is a season of waiting and anticipating, of hope, joy, peace, and love. As I enter into it, my prayer is that my desire for resolution will not be too quickly quenched by cheap alternatives of hope but that instead, I find hope in the one place that this season is really all about.

 

How Do I Hold This?

On my way to an appointment yesterday, I got a text message from my wife with an update on the father of one of my son’s friend’s dad. Any time I hear the words, “It’s not good,” I always feel like a boulder gets firmly planted in my gut. My shoulders sag, my heart aches, and I do my best to keep the waterworks from starting. Tears seem inevitable, yet I still try to contain them.

There’s so much hurt, pain, and brokenness. I get so frustrated with those false prophets who say that God never gives you more than you can handle. That’s a load of garbage. I can’t find one place in the Bible where it even remotely says that. In fact, I think it says the opposite, that in this world you will find trouble and that if you choose to follow after Jesus, pain will be part of the journey.

As I sit here feeling the weight of all the stuff swirling around me, I keep asking myself, “How do I hold this?” How do I hold onto hope while standing in the face of turmoil?

I’ve always struggled with those who consider themselves Christians and who talk about an absolute assurance with no doubt. My speculation and cynicism makes me think that they’ve never really experienced anything significantly difficult in their lives to be able to hold to that. I’m not saying that I doubt God, but I certainly wonder about his ways at times.

When you’ve seen a godly man like my father who served God for years as a pastor come to a place of brokenness and defeat in his final years and months, it’s hard to have such bulletproof assurance. Again, hear what I am saying, I still believe, but like the man in Mark 9, I continue to ask God to help my unbelief.

I honestly don’t know how people do it without hope and without faith. I recently read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book “Between the World and Me.” It’s a heartbreaking read of a father’s letter to his son. But that father has no hope and without hope, it’s hard to just know what to do about the future. What are we sailing towards if we lack hope? How do we step with one foot in front of the other without hope?

In the words of the old hymn, “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” The problem is, sometimes I wish that my hope could be founded in something that I could see and even touch. Sometimes I wish that I could get a little glimpse of that hope for myself rather than having to hold onto God’s promises. It’s not that I don’t think that they’re true, it’s just that sometimes you want something a little bit more tangible.

After hearing of some more difficult news this morning, I almost told my friends that I think it’s time for a prayer meeting. What else is there to do?

While it might seem that I am in despair, I’m not. There’s a difference between discouragement and despair. Despair happens when we lose hope, and I haven’t lost it.

I’m reminded of the words of the prophet Habakkuk in the Bible. Despite the difficulty of the circumstances surrounding him, he still maintained his hope in the Lord when he wrote the following:

Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.

The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to tread on the heights.

My circumstances and the circumstances of the people around me don’t need to dictate my response to them. If those things bring me to my knees, then they draw me closer to the One who holds all these things in his hand…..so that I don’t have to.