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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Entries in Sermon on the Mount (4)

God's Now

Jesus said some pretty outrageous things; sometimes you just have to wonder if he was serious. Maybe when we see him face-to-face he might say, “Oh, the Sermon the Mount? I was just yanking your chain.” Or not. Perhaps he meant what he said.

“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:34)

These words are a crazy combination of challenge and promise. The promise is perhaps a negative: each day comes with just enough trouble. It’s not the sort of promise you’ll find in a book of Bible promises or some promise-a-day software. The challenge is that Jesus suggests tomorrow isn’t worth the worry. Really? How, then, can I prepare?

These words from Jesus are an invitation to exercise the discipline of the present moment.

Each of us lives one day at a time. Rich or poor, young or old, we all experience time in a sequence of days. We cannot jump ahead by a day or a year. We cannot recreate the past, as in the movie “Groundhog Day” where Bill Murray, a self-centered fool, is given the opportunity to live the same day over (and over and over) until he gets it right. No: the days march by in line, one after another.

Who came up with such an arrangement? Well, God did. Although he lives outside of time, he set the cosmos in motion, and in so doing, set us into a world of time. “So what?” we are tempted to think--until we consider that God looked upon all of his creation and said, "It’s good. It’s very good.” The goodness of creation reveals that the daily march of our lives, the day-upon-day progression of life, was set up by a wise and loving Father. He created time for our good. He created the daily, but we have added the grind.

Still, many of us feel trapped in the present moment. Our past has hemmed us in: we think our foolish choices have brought us this far and the present moment feels like prison. Others look forward from this present day and conclude the path of our lives is already set. Forces are in motion, we think. The future has been determined by past events.  We begin to think our own lives are beyond control.

We’re not alone in these thoughts. Some of the greatest men of faith had remarkably bad days. Days in which they felt captured by the past or faced an uncertain future. Moses must have been having a really bad day when he began to pray the prayer in Psalm 90. Moses observed that God lives forever, and we are lucky to hit eighty years. Everything dies. “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12) Moses must’ve been a real buzz kill at parties.

Then the Spirit of God hinted at what Jesus would teach years later: “Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.” (Psalm 90:14) Moses began to get the message. The final verses of this Psalm/prayer begin to look up. God’s mercies are not yesterday’s mercies, nor are they a pipe dream for tomorrow. They're here now. In the present moment. There are new mercies for each new morning.

I like to imagine Jesus reciting Psalm 90 while he walked in the Galilean countryside. I can see him watching plants putting forth flowers, birds finding food, feeling the breeze on his cheek. Jesus smiled: perhaps he wondered what Moses was getting so worked up about. Jesus launched a message about today. Today, he said, the Kingdom of Heaven is breaking in. Maybe it didn’t yesterday, who knows what will happen tomorrow, but the Spirit is bringing the righteousness, joy and peace of the Kingdom right now to those who hear and rejoice.

His words are a call to practice the discipline of the present moment. Jesus is not against the past: he encourages us to remember the past, but only so we can have confidence that God is with us today. What he did for others in the past he will do for us. He’s not against the future. Dave Ramsey can relax: I’m sure Jesus had a 401K-retirement account. But he wasn’t invested in the future; his investment was all in the now. It’s common sense to learn from the past; it’s dangerous to live there. It’s prudent to plan for the future; it will drive you crazy to try to control it.

So we’re left with the wisest, most radical, sanest advice ever given:

“Seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

Give Me Your Opinion: Would Jesus Ask of Us the Impossible?

In years past I’ve taught the Sermon on the Mount as part of an applied Christianity course at a small Baptist college. My class of twenty students prayed, read, and talked about what these words mean for us today. Was Jesus serious? Did he really mean everything he said? During the course I asked my young friends, “How many of you think it’s possible to fulfill Jesus’s teaching in your everyday lives?” Only one person out of twenty raised a hand. One.

Does this strike you as a problem?

Why would 19 out of 20 students invest a semester studying a sermon they had no hope of fulfilling? One student suggested, "He taught the Sermon on the Mount so that we would know we were sinners--we can't live up to it?" Really? The greatest Teacher in the history of the world shared his greatest sermon--just to show us that we're pathetic losers?

The Sermon on the Mount has been regarded as the essence of the Lord’s teaching. It’s been called the constitution of the Kingdom of God. But like many famous Bible passages, or much like our worship, we honor the ideal and then return to the “real world.” We leave His words behind. Granted, these are challenging words from Jesus. Here's just a small sampling, all from Matthew 5, 6, and 7--the Sermon on the Mount:

  • Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (5:19)
  • I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. (5:22)
  • Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (5:48)
  • Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. (6:25)
  • For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks find; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. (7:8)
  • Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. (7:21)

Why would Jesus teach the impossible?

The Sermon on the Mount brings this question into sharp focus, but it applies to everything he said and did--why would Jesus ask the impossible of us? If he is the Master of Living, would he demand of us what we cannot give? It’s hard to imagine Jesus is the kind of person who would say “be warm and filled” to a beggar without helping the poor man. Would he do the same thing to those who love and follow him? Why would we think of Jesus as commanding the impossible of his disciples? As students of Jesus, our answer makes all the difference.

I invite you to share your answer in the comments section--I'm eager to read your opinion.

God of the Present Moment

Every day is a god, each day is a god, and holiness holds forth in time. I worship each god, I praise each day splintered down, splintered down and wrapped in time like a husk, a husk of many colors spreading, at dawn fast over the mountains split. ~ Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm
“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” ~ Matthew 6:34

In last Thursday’s post I imagined the financial advisor reading the words of Jesus, pushing his chair back from his desk, thinking, “Surely, he can’t be serious.” Yet there, in the Sermon on the Mount, we find Jesus recommending living one day at a time in the manner of birds and flowers.
The Father--in his divine wisdom--decreed that we should live one day at a time. His decree did not come with words, but by his actions: he created the world in such a way that it is impossible to do anything other than live one day at a time. Each person drawing breath on the planet is allotted only the present moment. Riches cannot buy anything else, nor can intelligence or imagination. We are time-bound creatures because that’s the way he wanted it to be.
The Spirit invites us to reflect on his work called “time.” What lessons can we learn from his actions? I’d like to suggest at least five life-giving benefits of grasping God’s wisdom for the march of days:
He invented life’s rhythm. “And there was evening, and there was morning.” The stanzas of the creation poem contain a rhythm which translates into any language, and a universal experience accessible to any person. Genesis is more than a report from the past. It is the pattern for the present. We were made for the straight-time of everydayness. For example, our family life flows more smoothly when school is in session, when each day is a metronome of time and task. If we move away from the rhythm of a daily schedule we are a people playing our own music, out of sync with one another.
He is aware that the days add up. There were 25 years between God’s promise to Abraham and fulfillment. That’s just over 9,000 days. 9,000 evenings Abraham rested his head on a pillow and asked, “When, Oh Lord?” 9,000 mornings he woke with anticipation, looking for the fulfillment of divine promise. Between promise and fulfillemnt lies the present: ongoing and daily. The Father knew Abraham would have to experience each day one at a time--9,000 of them--and still God chose to speak 25 years before the fact. We, too, can experience the forces which shaped Abraham into the father of faith. Every mother waiting to conceive a child understands Abraham; each single person waiting for a spouse feels the emotions Abraham must have felt; even the oppressed people of the earth awaiting justice drink from the well of Time, supplied by springs of hope in God’s goodness. In our waiting we learn to trust that he is good, even if we are empty-handed in the moment.
Each day is the Father’s antidote to worry.  Prudent and responsible people plan their future, but far more of us try to secure our future through the power of our own efforts. But no amount of planning can anticipate the days ahead. It’s true: there are plenty of Bible verses about the wisdom of planning, but rare is the person who can draw up plans and then leave them on the altar of the God who holds the future. The scripture is filled with treasures extolling each moment lived in relationship with the Creator: “his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” How many of these passages find a place in our thoughts each day? Those who embrace the dew-fresh experience of God’s daily mercy are free from taskmaster of worry. Those who depend on their own plans more than they depend on the Creator of Time need to discover the treasure of time wasted with God.
Each day is God’s balm for the past. The mass of days and months gone by are a heavy burden to carry. We were not to meant to live in the past. Two small words in our thoughts can combine to form brain cancer: “if only.” If only I had chosen differently. If only they had not cheated me. If only I was not the one left behind. God does not expect us to deny or forget our past, but he knows that the weight of by-gone days is too heavy for anyone to bear. The balm for “if only” is a simple question we are free to ask every day: “what now?” To ask the Father “what now” acknowledges that we are not alone, that the promise of his presence is real to each of us each day. But we must be sure ask! The loss of loved ones, the shame of poor choices, the scars of abuse can all become part of our testimony today if we will walk with the One who is the Eternal Now. To ask what now is to recognize that we are in relationship with the One who has power and grace to redeem the past and set us on the path of life each day.
And yet, the days are gods: Annie Dillard was on to something. Our senses can be overwhelmed by the clamour of the present, demanding our full attention and even our worship. Each day I awake to a rush of light and sound that competes for my attention. The alarm calls my name. My calendar demands attention, the television tells me what is important today. The still small voice of God is always present, but it is not the only voice. The gods of Everydayness demand tribute. How should we live?
The present is only valuable when it sends us to the Father. It is an enemy if we find ourselves sucked into the urgency of now apart from the grace of the Eternal Now. Inside the husk of time is the God who exists outside of time. Each day is only valuable to us as we learn to grab the grain, break the husk, and discover the Ancient of Days inside. 

The Single-File Parade

Last night I dreamed of a parade, and a strange affair it was. Interminably long, an odd single-file line of marchers walked past, each person a virtual twin of the one before them, yet with only the slightest differences. After a thousand or so had passed by the small changes had added up to someone who looked very different from the marchers so far ahead. On and on went the line: 25,000 long, perhaps 30,000 or more before I woke. Above each one arched the sun and the moon in their turn, casting golden--then silver, light upon each person. Some marchers danced, others wept, still others trudged in dreary sameness. 
Through the night I dreamt and the parade continued by, each member ever-so slightly older than the one before. As I began the transition between sleep and wakefulness I realized I had witnessed the march of a single lifetime: 70 years, or eighty if our strength endures. I was awake, and the revelation was complete: we experience life in a single-file parade of 25,000 days or more, each one so much like the day before, yet unique as if a new creation.
Which of us has ever lived life backwards? Even Benjamin Button, who grew from old to young, lived his life in a succession of days, one after the other, never two together. The days march in line, each one connected to the previous, linked to the next, but never overlapping.
It is a quiet revelation, but no less true: God created the march of days and has ordained that each one of us will experience them in the same manner. Which of us has ever lived two days simultaneously? Or jumped from day 4,000 to day 7,000? It is beyond us to do so, though in our hearts and thoughts we may try. It may seem like a no-brainer, but we all are given the gift of life one day at a time, and our attempts to live them out of order come at great expense.
“Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself,” said Jesus. Then he added one of the strangest promises found in scripture: “Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6: 34)
Yet some people are obsessed with future days. The financial advisor pushes his chair away from his desk after reading these words and thinks, surely he can’t be serious. The student facing final exams in the coming weeks wonders if Jesus has lost his mind. The family trying to find the money for the next mortgage payment are convinced he never had a bill to pay. For each of them, sleep is a fair-weather friend. Meanwhile Jesus rambles on about birds and flowers. He instructs us to seek first God’s Kingdom and everything else will be magically “added to us.” Clearly, he doesn’t get the same emails we do.
The Creator, who exists outside of time and space, has ordained that should live in a world mediated by the passage of time. God set the whole thing up: we live our lives in the succession of days one after another because he wanted it to be so. Have we ever considered the fact that God chose this manner of living for us? He designed our minds, our hearts, our bodies, and our souls to live in this moment and not any other. He demonstrates his wisdom and care for us in the passage of time: we do not have to drag the past along with us nor bear the burden of future days on our shoulders all at once.
The past can store the treasures of lessons and memories, the future can be the repository of hopes or fears, but both of them are inhospitable homes for our hearts--or his Spirit.
He is the Eternal Now. God’s presence is available to us only in the now. We cannot experience his presence in the future because we do not live there. We cannot experience his presence in the past because we have moved on. His presence is here for us today. We do not need to worry about the future because he is not bound by time. He sits in the future and awaits our arrival. He’ll be there when we get there, but wouldn’t it be a shame to miss him in the now?