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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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.

Paining, Gaining, and the Lottery: What's Our Task?

I ran into this guy at the grocery. He was ripped. I could tell by his gym shorts and spandex shirt. I couldn’t help but staring: he had (maybe) 5% body fat, uber-cool tattoos up one arm, and salt’n’pepper brown hair. This guy was an absolute Adonis, and he caught me staring.

“Hey, man. What’s up?”

“Um, yeah. I won’t lie: you’re really fit, and that makes me feel a bit self-conscious.” A bit? I’m a puffy, pear-shaped suburbanite on the north side of 50—way to the north.

“Well, thanks. You know, I own a gym: you could shape up in no time.”

Call it the ultimate impulse-buy, but right there in the baked goods aisle the guy sold me a six-month membership (owner’s discount, he said). He pulled out his phone, swiped my debit card, and charged me his fee before either of us got to the checkout lane.

It took a day or two, but since I’d already spent the money (and before my wife saw the charge) I found my best cut-off sweat pants, my favorite XL T-shirt, and drove to the gym. I took a deep breath and pulled the door open. I should have turned around right there. The mural on the lobby wall shouted in four-foot letters, “NO PAIN, NO GAIN.” Then I heard someone scream. The guy at the grocery store didn’t say anything about pain.

Forget spoilers, let’s just fast-forward to the climax: I’m still a puffy, pear-shaped guy. He sold me the membership without a word about the work, because the product looked good. I had no idea about the paining and the gaining.

Right: so maybe I made this up (or did I?).

Certainly there are segments of the church that want to make following Jesus sound like boot camp. The tougher the better. “None of this greasy-grace,” says the Drill Sargent. “God wants everything you have, and if you’re not willing to pay the price, don’t waste your time.” Call it Xtreme Faith. Sweat equals holiness.

Just as surely there are other segments of the church focusing on the promise of Heaven. “There’s nothing you can do to earn God’s love and forgiveness,” says the Cruise Director. “God loves you just the way you are.” Call it Win-the-Lottery Faith, holiness optional. (In this second case, I suspect that one reason this part of the church sticks with heaven-preaching is because we can find ourselves changed in an instant—an instant that comes after we breathe our last.)

Of course, both presentations are overstatements; the call to follow Jesus is completely different. We can’t get mixed up with a self-sacrificing God without embracing death to ourselves. And this is displeasing to both camps: we don’t become Xtremely Faith-Fit by feeling the burn of our own efforts, and neither to we experience deep change by remaining in the baked goods aisle. The radical truth of the gospel reveals a people hooked up with a dangerously-loving God who is not impressed by our own righteousness, nor is he willing to let us remain comfortably self-serving. God doesn’t have a gym, but neither does he have a spa.

Here’s how Paul and Barnabas wrapped up their first missionary expedition:

But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having persuaded the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead. But when the disciples gathered about him, he rose up and entered the city, and on the next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe. When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed. (Acts 14:19-23, ESV)

Did you catch the content of Paul’s “encouraging” message? Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. This incident must have been formative in Paul’s life of faith. Years later he encourages his protégé, Timothy:

You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra—which persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me. Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (2 Timothy 3:10-12)

Timothy’s maturity was no accident; it was an inevitable result.

Transformation isn’t our task, but it involves our compliance. We present ourselves to the pressure of the Potter’s strong hands. Dallas Willard says it differently, and better:

A part of our problem with understanding hell comes from the way we think about heaven. We think about heaven as some kind of comfortable resort, but the greatest thing about heaven is going to be the presence of God. He has allowed us to avoid him here on earth in some measure if we want to, but if you go to heaven, God’s the biggest thing on the horizon. You’re no longer going to be able to avoid him. And that would be the supreme torture if you haven’t gotten over thinking of yourself as God. That’s why I sometimes say that the fires of heaven burn hotter than the fires of hell.