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 First Word of the Good News

Imagine receiving a message so good that it caused you to re-think your entire life. The bank made a mistake years ago calculating your mortgage and now suddenly you discover your house is paid off; or a total stranger has paid off your student loans; your abusive husband has turned a corner and now treats you like a queen; the doctors call to say the diagnosis was wrong and you don’t have cancer after all.

All of these examples represent the best kind of news: no more coupon-clipping; your future is no longer clouded by debt; no more walking on egg-shells, afraid that some trivial event will anger your spouse; your fears of endless treatments and therapies vanish in a moment. A new reality has come from afar and has pitched its tent with you. The old reality is gone; and new day is born.

But you quickly discover a problem: the morning after the good news arrives you wake up still worried about money, still afraid that your husband will relapse, or you wake up in a sweat thinking about hospitals and death. And no wonder: we have spent years, even decades, thinking about life based upon these problems. Financial woes have been daily woes. Fear of abuse is factored into every choice you make. Health concerns are like a houseguest who has moved in forever. Even though good news has come, old habits die hard, and it feels like habits of the mind have made a permanent place in our thoughts. Reality has changed but our ways of thinking have not. Our old ways of thinking must be put to death.

To receive good news, to really receive it—to take it in and discover a new freedom—requires a new way of thinking. This new way of thinking has a Biblical name: repentance. I know: you thought repentance meant things like remorse, determination, trying harder, or feeling guilty. Someone has lied to you. At its very core the word repent means rethink your life. The trick is: you have to have a valid reason to rethink your life. A positive mental attitude is not enough; simply trying harder won’t change your world. There must be some hard-core reality that changes the equation, wipes away the past, or presents a future filled with joy. Better yet, all three: Jesus presented this hard-core reality when he said, “The Kingdom of God is breaking in. Right here, right now.” He wasn’t describing some new program or advocating a new philosophy. Jesus proclaimed the world would be forever different because God had come down and he would do whatever was necessary to set people free.

 God would not be stopped: the old order of things is scheduled to be demolished and a new order is becoming real. He invited us to move to the side of victory with these words: “The time has come. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news.” Grace comes with good news and a requirement: rethink your life because everything has changed. Repentance is a rational response to God’s grace.

Repent is the first word of the good news. Faith and hope come as we rethink our way of life based upon what God has already done. Good news requires that we rethink our way of life. Have you recalculated yours in the light of his Kingdom? Jesus declared that a new reality was breaking into the world; the Kingdom of God was at hand. A new reality means new possibilities. The old ways of thinking and acting are no longer effective (if they ever were). In light of a new other-worldly reality we should re-think our methods, our preferences, and our lives.

Repent is not a word we heard much these days. In popular culture you might see an angry prophet holding a sign with the word splashed in blood-red paint. Even in churches tend to lean into the angry side of the word. I suspect that for many of us it’s difficult to separate the word repent from feelings of anger and judgment. But hidden beneath the surface of popular meaning is a spring of fresh water: the word repent signals an opportunity to begin again. Repentance is the ultimate mulligan: the do-over everyone is looking for, the chance to break from the past and discover a hope-filled future. 

The good news of the Kingdom of God is not simply about going to heaven when we die. It’s about heaven breaking into earth right now (see Matthew 6:10). The king has come to set up his kingdom among us. The king is building his castle in the here-and-now, and he invites us to come live with him not after we die, but today, and each new day. So how do we get in on the new possibilities of a life with God, living in a new reality? The door to this new Kingdom reality is lettered in gold leaf (not blood-red) REPENT. 

But repentance is not simply the doorway into life with God; it is the hallway that leads to every other room in the King’s castle. Let’s discover together these new-kingdom possibilities, the hope that life-change can be deep and lasting instead of the roller coaster ups and downs so common to diets and prosperity plans and organizational methods.

 

Do The Teshuva!

From the Charleston to the Mashed Potato to Flossing, every dance move needs a name; but if you want to do the Teshuva, you’ll need a Rabbi to show you how.
    Teshuva is the Hebrew word for repent, or return. In it’s various forms the root of teshuva is used nearly a thousand times in the Old Testament. When Adam is fated to return to the ground (Genesis 3:13) at the end of his days, the root word is introduced for the first time. Throughout the Old Testament the connections between “return” and “repent” run deep and strong. When Jesus told the parable of the Prodigal Son, every Jewish listener understood the depth and significance of the words, “I will arise and return to my father.” (Of course, the Lord’s story ends in a surprising and unexpected celebration of the return!)
    Rabbi Maimonides was a 12th-century teacher and Torah scholar who quite literally wrote the book on teshuva, The Laws of Repentance. Christians and Jews alike have leaned on Maimonides’s work for centuries, discovering the elements of regret, confession, penance, and even restitution that comprise the ingredients of repentance. Indeed, if Teshuvah were a dance, Rabbi Maimonides has laid out the steps.
    The famous teacher located repentance in the act of confession, because no one will confess unless they first regret their actions and want to take concrete steps to return to the kind of life they had before sin worked its destruction in their hearts, their, minds, their families, and their communities. Both as individuals and as a community, the people of Israel understood the importance of taking action—an action of confession.
    In a ceremony known as Yom Kippur, the nation-wide day of repentance, the high-priest over the entire community of Israel would confess the sins of the nation. Their regrets brought them together; their confession brought their sins to light. Regret is the first step in the great dance of repentance; confession is the second step. Regret motivates the return; confession completes the return. And I a a community context, this repentance was done together, acknowledging the sins of the community.
    The Old Testament teshuvah dance also contained an individual element: when I have sinned I need not wait until the national day of mourning and confession—I could bring a sacrifice to the priest, and confess my individual sin. There first two steps of the dance are here again: regret brings me to the priest; confession begins the cleansing. But here, in the individual repentance of my personal sin, there was one more step in the dance: restitution—a return of what was stolen or damaged as a result of my actions. Moses, the Lawgiver of Israel, laid out these steps for the people of Israel:
“When a man or woman commits any of the sins of mankind, acting unfaithfully against the Lord, and that person is guilty then he shall confess his sins which he has committed, and he shall make restitution in full for his wrong and add to it one-fifth of it, and give it to him whom he has wronged.”
‭(‭Numbers‬ ‭5:6-7‬)‬‬‬
The individual teshuvah dance is three steps: return to the priest, confess my sin, and make the damaged person whole.
    Regret. Confession. Restitution. These are no longer in vogue, even among the religiously minded. And to be sure, this is the Old Testament picture of repentance, the three-step teshuvah. In God’s great economy, this picture of repentance is transformed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Still, “Rabbi Jesus,” a thousand years before Rabbi Maimonides, was making all things new—including repentance.
    In Jesus’s ministry, how important is the call to repent? It’s the very first word of the good news. Jesus calls us to repent no less than our brothers and sisters the Old Testament age. And yet, the Lord carefully preserves these three steps and invites us into a dance grander and greater still.

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.