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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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.

Asking the Right Questions

Once there was a boy sitting on a porch, with a dog next to him. A salesman approached the porch and asked the boy, “Does your dog bite?”

“Nope,” said the boy.

The salesman stepped on the porch to ring the doorbell and the dog viciously bit his leg. “I thought you said your dog didn’t bite!” screamed the salesman.

“My dog doesn’t bite,” said the boy. “But that’s not my dog.”

Sometimes asking the right question can make all the difference.

One of the great obstacles in becoming a follower of Jesus is learning to ask the right questions. The disciples wanted to know who among them was the greatest. The Pharisees wanted to know by what authority Jesus did his powerful works. Pontius Pilate wanted to know, “What is truth?” when Truth Himself was standing right there. It’s clear they all missed the point. What is not so clear is the fact that we, too, can miss the point.

The questions we bring to Jesus can make a big difference in our journey of transformation. We live in a religious culture that craves correct answers. I’m afraid Evangelical Christianity places correct answers above relationship with God. Now, there’s nothing wrong with correct answers: we won’t get very far believing that two plus two equals twenty-two. But you can do the math all day long and still not know God.

“There is today no lack of Bible teachers to set forth correctly the principles and doctrines of Christ . . . strangely unaware that there is in their ministry no manifest Presence, nor anything unusual in their personal lives.”  ~ A.W. Tozer

What Tozer wrote in the early 1960’s is even more acute today. We have come to God with our list of questions, eager to hear the answers we think are important. We have come to the scriptures with our values and world-views, eager to read into the text those things we think God wants the world to know. We have done this. The church. We have insisted that God speak to our values rather than learning what is on his heart.

I believe we have valued knowledge over experience and relationship. Knowledge is easier to grasp. We can master a subject.  Yet there is a kind of knowledge that comes only from experience. It’s the difference between studying the physics of a curve ball and learning to hit one. In the arena of Christianity, it is easier to relate to a book (the Bible) than it is to experience relationship with the Lord Himself. Again, I'm talking about you and me, the church. One reason we reduce evangelism to the narrow message of “Jesus died for your sins” is that it does not require relationship with Jesus on the part of the believer or the prospective believer. The Great Commission--to make disciples--costs everything on the part of the believer and the prospective believer.

Do we really want to know Jesus, or simply know about him? How long would it take to know him? Consider these amazing words from the Apostle Paul, who had walked with Jesus for decades when he wrote:

I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ . . . I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.” Philippians 3: 8 & 10 (I omitted verse 9 in order to emphasize Paul’s point.)

Every follower of Jesus should ask this question: if Paul still desired to know Jesus more and more after two decades, how much more is there for me to experience? Paul was not hungry for doctrine about Jesus. He wanted Christ himself.

Jesus understood the powerful attraction of religious doctrine when he said, “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me.”  Sadly, as he spoke to religiously-minded people he concluded, “yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”  (John 5: 39 - 40) Correct doctrine is important, but it is not the reality. It is the doorstep, not the door. The menu, not the meal. It is the skeleton, not the living body.

The first and greatest commandment is to love the Lord. Love is relational and experiential--and yes, love depends upon the truth as well. We can take a lesson from our own children: we want them to love and trust us, but we do not require that they understand us in every respect. They can even repeat our words back to us, but it does not guarantee that they understand what we have said. In many cases the understanding will come years, even decades, after we are gone.

What questions do we bring to the Lord? What questions do we bring to the scripture? The best answers wait upon the right questions.

Observing Ash Wednesday

“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

These words from Mark 2:17 demonstrate for us again the genius of Jesus and serve as an introduction to Ash Wednesday, a somewhat mysterious date on the Christian calendar which marks the beginning of Lent. It evokes the past, encourages us to focus on the present, and points us toward an inspiring future.

In some parts of the country you could go about your business all day and never encounter a reminder that this is Ash Wednesday. Or you could look up from your work to find someone near you wearing ashes on her forehead in a mark that looks something like a cross.

Ash Wednesday is about preparation, and the beginning of preparation at that. All of the Lenten season is focused upon preparation for Easter. Ash Wednesday is about how we can begin those preparations. It is “to make a right beginning of repentance,” as the Book of Common Prayer puts it. We are reminded of “the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.”

Ash Wednesday is the day when the journey toward Easter begins. I would like to suggest that Ash Wednesday helps us begin our preparation for Easter in three ways: by teaching us to mourn the past, to examine the present, and to look forward toward an inspiring future.

Mourning the past
The ashes of Ash Wednesday come from the palm leaves that were burned after last year’s Palm Sunday. Throughout the Scripture, ashes speak of mourning and regret. To mark his sadness, Job covered himself in ashes.

Jesus reminds us that repentance (true regret) can include sackcloth and ashes. The ashes from last year’s palms remind us that although we may have received Christ enthusiastically at the beginning of our Christian walk, we have perhaps lost our first love.

What better call to return to our first love than to be marked with the ashes of our past enthusiasm? These ashes also remind us that the original celebration of Palm Sunday gave way to the crucifixion less than a week later. Psalm 51 is an excellent reading for Ash Wednesday. It is a Scriptural guide to repentance.

Examining our present
When Jesus challenged His listeners to consider the truth that those who are healthy do not need a doctor, He was asking each one of them to examine themselves. Only those who agree they are sick will submit to a doctor, and only when we acknowledge our sin can we receive His forgiveness.

Ash Wednesday is an opportunity to examine our need afresh and to affirm that we will always need a Savior.

Do we agree with Jesus that we are still in need, or having received Him as Lord and Savior at one point in time, have we forgotten that our need is daily? Colossians 2:6 reminds us “Just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in Him.” Or as one pastor said, “The way in is the way on.”

Looking to the future
As Ash Wednesday begins our voyage through Lent, we are also aware that our final destination is Easter Sunday. And Easter Sunday is more than a commemoration of the past. It is also about hope for the future. We have all seen what commemoration looks like when it has lost its spirit.

Some people celebrate Holy days (holidays) without ever encountering the meaning: Thanksgiving Day without the giving of thanks, Christmas day without a living Savior, and Easter Sunday without a risen Lord.

But the glorious message of Easter is that He is risen! We can prepare for Easter by reflecting on the promise of resurrection. I Corinthians 15: 20 reveals, “Christ has indeed risen from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.”

This wonderful verse assures us not only of Christ’s resurrection but also our ultimate destiny: that we too will be resurrected, and our loved ones in Christ. His resurrection is the promise of ours, complete with an eternal future of joy.

There are riches waiting in Ash Wednesday, especially for many of us who are unaccustomed to a formal church calendar. No matter how we mark the day, whether with ashes on our forehead or with reflection on the meaning of Easter, Jesus invites us journey on to Easter Sunday with Him.

 

(I wrote this post ten years ago for the Billy Graham organization. It originally appeared here.)