DEEPER HOPE

Deeper Hope:

An Abiding Virtue

This book explores the meaning -- and application -- of Christian Hope. It takes the fuzzy concept of Hope and reveals it in everyday settings

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The Day the Cows Repented

No details. Just an eight-word prophecy of destruction, delivered by a strange-looking foreigner. A man with ragged clothes and ugly skin walked through the heart of a great city and repeated himself over and over: “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”

This is the story of a God named Yahweh, a man named Jonah, and a city called Nineveh: a city 600 miles away from Jerusalem, a city known for its wealth, its size—and its barbarity. God sent a nobody (a Jewish prophet) to warn the Assyrian city of Nineveh that destruction was coming. Without advertising in advance, without setting up a diplomatic meeting between representatives of two countries, God’s message was plain and direct: in forty days your capital city is doomed.

And then something remarkable happened. The people of the city listened to the message. Really listened. From the city streets and among the storefront shops a grassroots response grew. People believed the message and took action: they repented. In the ancient world there were protocols for repentance, outward actions that signaled you were turning around. The people of Nineveh quit eating. They took off their work clothes or party clothes and dressed in burlap sacks, rich and poor alike agreed on these signs as a response, “We hear you, God of Israel, and we will change.” Even the king of Nineveh, isolated in his royal palace, became one with his people, fasting and shedding the royal silks. He took the cold ashes from the fireplace and poured them on his head.

Just in case there was someone who had not yet gotten with the program the king sent out a formal notice: “Everybody: repent.” And the king meant everybody: his decree went a step further and demanded that the livestock of the city should join in these acts of repentance. “Stop feeding your animals,” he said, “Let them repent with us.” Can you imagine the noise rising up from the city as from every stall, every pen, and every chicken coup the animals began to complain? Even the lowing of the cattle rose up as a prayer of repentance. It was the day the cows repented. And Yahweh heard. He saw that from great to small, from human to bovine, this group of people was willing to change their ways.

Here’s the thing about God: his pronouncements of judgment are not final; they are invitations to repent. The message delivered by the prophet had started a countdown to destruction, but God could stop the clock—and he did so when he saw the response rise up from the streets and reach the highest levels of government. These people took judgment seriously, and God took them seriously. Crisis, averted; peace, restored; mercy, bestowed.

Here’s the thing about repentance: anyone can do it, apparently even your livestock. You don’t have to be a religious person. You don’t have to be a citizen of a select nation. To anyone willing to change God gives the grace for change. Repentance is the outward sign of an inner willingness.

And here’s another thing about repentance: it’s not about the messenger. One of the most surprising aspects about the Old Testament book of Jonah is that Jonah, the prophet, is the “bad guy” in this story. Even though he hears a message directly from God, he has no intention of delivering it because he thinks the people receiving the message do not deserve God’s mercy (check out Jonah 4:2 for the interpretive key to the entire book). Jonah tries to get as far away from Nineveh as he can—but he’s overruled by God (and an enormous fish). Jonah finally delivers the message. You can imagine the begrudging, snarling tone of voice as Jonah walks through the massive city for three days. The people respond, but he’s livid when the people of Nineveh repent. He cares more about having a shady hillside perch so he can watch the fire and brimstone fall. Even though the messenger is filled with hatred for these people, they receive the message. Even though the messenger delivers the message in the most perfunctory way, they receive the message. Even though the messenger is rooting for their own destruction, they receive the message. Wouldn’t it be a tragedy for you or me if we let someone else get in the way of our repentance?

But that would never happen in our day. It would never happen to you or me. It only happens in old Bible stories, right? Right?

 

 

 

Does Leadership Have To Be Lonely?

In preparing for a meeting among pastors, a friend of mine asked me to reflect on the meaning of friendship for a church leader (but really: any leader). I sketched out an answer, probably more than he was looking for, and I share it with you all here. What is your experience at the intersection of “leadership” and “friendship?”

What did friendship mean to me during my years as a pastor?

I’d like to provide three types of answers to this question: what was going on inside of me during those years, how my friends helped my work as a pastor, and a brief mention of the different kinds of friends I had.

What was going on inside of me during my pastoral years:

I was guarded and private, and it wasn’t healthy. The way I’m wired I tend to process things internally, without conversation, except the conversation in my head—and sometimes that’s Crazy Town. I believed that by keeping my thoughts to myself I was protecting my image, my reputation, and my employment. What I was really doing was cutting myself off from one of the ways the Spirit wanted to speak to me. Here is a trustworthy saying: God speaks through other people. Give other people room to speak.

I had a distrust of people new to the church, which I think is wise: I never gave ministry responsibilities to someone until a person had been with the church for six months or more. But I also had a fear of more established people in the church, and that’s unwise. I wanted them to “do ministry,” but rarely shared with them what was going on inside of me. We are not meant to do our work alone.

How my friends helped my work as a pastor:

I never knew the greatest help I had—people who prayed for me, forgave me, and were patient with me. These are hidden things that only become known years later, but they are very real things: how else could my friends help a guy who was a closed off as me? My more charismatic friends would not only pray for me, they would listen to the Lord’s voice and humbly deliver to me what they heard. They didn’t try to enforce what they heard (you know, “God told me to tell you . . . “) but always offered what they had, much like a UPS delivery driver (“Here’s the package, I hope it helps: see ya’.”). In retrospect, I wished I would have actively asked for their opinions more. Of course, there were other more visible helps as well. Encouragement—especially encouragement that is specific—is a great help.

The different kinds of friends I had:

I had “old friends,” people who had known me for years, and had taken the effort to stay in contact, even though we were distributed all of the country. These guys were people with no interest in the direction of the church, or no desire to be given position: they only cared about me. That’s valuable!

Other friends are those would’ve been my friends whether I was a pastor or not. Some were in the church; some were not. You can’t “talk shop” all the time: Even with friends inside the church is was great to have people to talk with about music, movies, and books. Good friends allow you to have a life outside of the church—and provide the opportunity to do so.

Finally, my biggest single regret is not befriending my spouse more. In a misguided attempt to “protect” my spouse from church crap, I closed off that portion of my thoughts to her. She sensed it, and it was painful to her. It was a bad move because no human was more on my side, and I chose to keep a big part of my life (my thoughts and feelings) separate from her.

The Hard Work of Making Inspiration Plain

Storytellers, poets, songwriters, historians, correspondents, legal scholars, apocalyptic dreamers. Perhaps it’s blindingly obvious: the books of the Bible were written by . . . writers. The Holy Spirit breathed upon each one, opened their hearts and ears and eyes to the spiritual realities around them. But they were still writers. They struggled to capture the inspired moment of clarity and present a finished work capable of blessing generations to come.

Peter described it this way: “the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow.” (1 Peter 1:10-11) Even though the Spirit was their guide, they searched intently. It was an inspired collaboration.

The prophet Habakkuk (that discontent whining wondering man who in turn inspired the Apostle Paul) recorded the process of capturing a flash of divine inspiration. Although the scripture is complete, inspiration still flashes today. Since we carry the inspired good news, Habakkuk’s words are a lesson for us as well:

"I will stand at my watch 
and station myself on the ramparts; 
I will look to see what he will say to me,
 and what answer I am to give to this complaint. Then the Lord replied: 
 Write down the revelation
 and make it plain on tablets
 so that a herald may run with it. 
 For the revelation awaits an appointed time; 
it speaks of the end 
and will not prove false. 
Though it linger, wait for it; 
 it will certainly come
 and will not delay." (Habakkuk 2:1-3)

Here are four observations capable of making us partners with the Spirit’s inspiration:

I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts . . .” We ourselves create the space to receive revelation. Habakkuk purposefully took up the position of watchman: he was alone and vigilant, eager and confident that the Lord would speak to him. He was not disappointed; he had prepared himself for when the moment came. When we create space for the Spirit to come, he willingly accepts the invitation.

Make it plain . . . “ God favors clarity. Beauty and art flow from inspiration, but we must make it plain. Our part is the clear expression of what he illuminates. There is a time to scatter rose petals among our words, but first comes content. Our words should carry a meaning clear enough that others may run with the message.

The revelation awaits an appointed time . . .” Even revelation requires timing. Strangely, the appointed time is seldom in the heat of battle. When social debate rages back and forth in public media we are exposed to the heat of passion, but not much light. The prophets spoke to their day, but the prophetic message carried eternal weight. Neither human emotion nor intellect equal divine revelation; it comes only from God, and it requires his timing.

Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come . . .” That's right: wait for it. Habakkuk stationed himself. He also waited. In the rush to say something important we often miss the opportunity to hear something eternal. Waiting is the discipline of writers who speak to generations. You can speak to the moment or you can speak to the ages; you can rarely do both.

I believe in the inspiration of the scripture, but I don’t believe the Holy Spirit used robots to mouth his words. We have a role to play, a role that compliments the word of the Spirit. Habakkuk shows us how it’s done.

Grace

Grace is the victim, dead in the dust.

Grace is the trail I leave behind.

Grace is the posse’s pounding pursuit.

Grace the Marshall who takes me alive.

 

Grace is the jailer who hears me curse.

Grace is the cellmate who hears me cry.

Grace is the parson who visits the jail.

Grace the lawyer at my side.

 

Grace is the verdict.

Grace is the sentence.

Grace the appeal, denied.

Grace the guilt that bids me die.

 

Grace is the sentence, carried out.

Grace is the rope that does not break.

Grace is the hush of the people who watched.

Grace the undertaker who paused at my grave.

 

Grace is the new light of a new day.

Grace is new clothing shining in white.

Grace is the feast that never ends.

Grace is my victim, seated beside.

 

 

Gazing at the Unseen

Have you ever stared off into space, not really focused on anything? Me too. In my experience such a gaze comes with another lack of focus: I find that my thoughts stop as well. That inner dialogue constantly yakking in my brain goes silent at the same time my vision goes blurred. (I know what you’re thinking: maybe he’s had a stroke!But I assure you I haven’t!)

Perhaps there is a physiological explanation for this kind of pause. I dunno. But there’s definitely a spiritual one. Consider this passage from the Apostle Paul:

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

Strangely, Paul says we “fix our eyes . . . on what is unseen.” How does one do that? How do we focus on what we cannot see?

Here is an exercise in meditation: to look beyond what is seen. Do you see the opportunity? This short passage begins with “There we do not lose heart . . .” The way toward hope, the discipline of hope, is to patiently discard every thought, every idea we can generate about our life or situation, and to gaze upon the unseen, to listen to the unspoken. In short: to simply be with Him.

Try this sometime: in a quiet place and in an unhurried way, set aside your ability to reason or even to verbalize your thoughts. Let your eyes and mind stare into Heaven’s space. You needn’t fear: if we ask for the Holy Spirit’s presence we can be sure the Spirit will meet us. Some of our most hope-filled moments will come not from what is seen, thought, or heard, but what enters our heart.