Thinking Out Loud

February 28, 2019

This Hope

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:14 am

On Sunday Ruth was asked to deliver the sermon at the historic First Baptist Church in downtown Port Hope. Although she spoke from an outline, I asked her if she could write it up to share with readers here…

by Ruth Wilkinson

….we rejoice in our afflictions because we know that affliction produces endurance, endurance produces character, proven character produces hope. This hope will not disappoint us…
(Romans 5:3-5)

There’s a lot of encouragement in these words. The writer is telling us our own story, that he gets it; life has problems, disappointments, difficulties. But we choose to continue, to keep trying, to not give up. We build character – purified strength, a clearer understanding of who we are – and we hope. We look forward to better days, to things becoming easier.

Struggle, perseverance, greater strength, hope.

But doesn’t it seem a bit the wrong way ’round? Doesn’t it seem that hope should be listed near the beginning? Struggle, hope, perseverance, strength.

After all, if we have no hope to begin with, why persevere? What’s the point of strength if there’s no hope in the first place?

Maybe we need to understand — What is hope?

We’re all children of our culture. Our worldview is influenced by what we see and hear, the conversations we have, the values we’re taught by school and friends. So what does our culture say about hope?

The obvious place to start is with a dictionary definition – “To desire with anticipation. To want something to be, or to be true.” To desire. To want.

I hope I get a new phone for Christmas. I hope I win the lottery. I hope there are no essay questions on the exam. I hope she likes me. I want this to be. I want this to be true.

Our culture says that hope expresses itself in our lives in different ways:

Hope is a fantasy:

In The Selfish Gene, author Richard Dawkins argues that only purpose that exists in the universe is the passing on of genetic material. Evolutionary biology and psychology define our entire human reality. Our future, our destiny as a race, our purpose, our goal and our hope is continued genetic reproduction.
As a result, anyone who asks the question, “Why?” – Why are there things in the world like suffering, love, and beauty – is a delusional fool.

Hope is the thing with feathers:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all

I’ve heard it in the chillest land
And on the strangest sea
Yet never in extremity
It asked a crumb of me

~Emily Dickinson

The poet paints a picture of hope as something living in the human heart and part of human nature, hardwired and built in. Hard to describe, but you know it when you see it. A mysterious, wordless feeling that, although things are cold and strange, if we just trust the universe it will unfold as it should and everything will be okay.

Hope floats:

The title of this movie is taken from words spoken by one of the characters;

“Beginnings are scary, endings are usually sad, but it’s the middle that counts the most. Try to remember that when you find yourself at a new beginning. Just give hope a chance to float up. And it will.”

We see hope as something that comes from beyond ourselves, an impersonal, outside force that we find on the surface of all that’s uncertain, difficult and chaotic. It floats along beside us downstream, helping keep our heads above water. A sort of cosmic pool noodle.

But if hope is just part of human nature, if it’s just the universe holding our hand, or if it is just a delusion – doesn’t it make sense for it to be there from the start, giving us a reason to endure?

My culture’s understanding of hope is not helping.

*******

Paul, who wrote the verse we’re looking at, wrote a lot of the New Testament in the form of letters to different people and groups of people. He taught and encouraged the very first followers of Jesus who found themselves figuring out what this was going to look like and how we should live.

Paul had a lot to say about a lot of things. The language he said these things in was Greek. Paul was from a town called Tarsus and Greek would have been his first language. It was also at that time a language that many nations had in common, sort of like English is now.

To understand why Paul wrote what he wrote, it helps to look back at the original language; what did that word mean to those people at that time? If they looked at a dictionary, what would it say?

When we look at the word that’s translated into the English word “hope”, their dictionary would not have said “optimism” – it would have said “expectation.” Not “desire” – but, “confidence.”

Not “I hope I win the lottery”, but rather “I hope spring will come soon.” We know it will. It can’t not. We have that confident expectation.

So when he says “endure, build character, find hope” he’s not telling us to work hard and become a better person so we can feel better about how things will turn out. He’s not saying try hard enough, become good enough, feel better.

He is saying that we’re on a path towards something in which we can be confident; on a path toward an ending that we can trust.

So when he writes:

“All creation eagerly waits with anticipation… in the hope that creation itself will be set free from the bondage of corruption” (Romans 8:20) he’s saying that we have a confident expectation that this wounded, broken world will be made right.

“But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:25) he means that however long it takes, we can be patient, holding to our confident expectation.

“For whatever was written in the past was written for our instruction, so that we may have hope…through the encouragement from the Scriptures” (Romans 15:4) is stating that we’ve been given a written record of how God has worked through history, so we can look forward with confident expectation to what He’ll do next.

***

“This hope will not disappoint us…” (Romans 5:5)

We watch the news and see governments who should make things better often make things worse.

Our heroes and public figures who we expect to set an example often make things worse.

Industry and employers we rely on to lay a foundation often yank that foundation out from under us.

The doctor gives us bad news.

And our optimism takes a hit.

Our culture says that hope is a feeling, an emotion, a sense of something we long for. A feeling that something is wrong in the world and ought to be made right. So we hope.

• We want our relationships to be made right.
• We want the government to make good and just laws.
• We want medical science to find answers for things that are scary and painful.
• We want technology to find solutions and to correct the damage done.
• We want employers to open doors, to meet our needs and make lives more secure.

How can we have confident expectation in a world where people and institutions let us down?

We can’t.

***

So what is this hope that will not disappoint us?

One of the people to whom Paul wrote letters was named Timothy. His first letter to Timothy begins with this:

“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the command of God our Saviour, and of Christ Jesus our hope.”

Christ Jesus, our hope.

When Paul writes about hope, he’s not writing about a feeling that everything will be ok, or about good karma, or the potential of humanity to make the world a wonderful place.

He’s writing about one person.

And NO, this Hope is not a delusional fantasy. This Hope is the ultimate reality who painted his self portrait when he created us, who came to earth in our skin with a face to see and a voice to hear, who left footprints in the dirt, who left behind the recorded life of a human being.

And YES, this Hope does live in our hearts, bringing us comfort – but even more! He doesn’t sing a wordless tune, asking nothing from us. He sang the Psalms with His people, He spoke, He taught, He called people by name, and gives us a chance to understand the big picture and a chance to work alongside Him to bring it to life.

And YES, this Hope does comes alongside, keeping our heads up, carrying us over chaos and darkness
— but even more! He didn’t just float downstream on the surface of the chaos and darkness, he stepped out onto the surface of the chaos and darkness, he turned the storm into a sidewalk to come meet us to where we are in our hard times, to be the strength that we need to persevere, to teach us how to grow and become stronger and purified in Him, and in our knowledge of who we are in Him.

And this knowledge turns our focus – not to the hard times, not to the hard work, not to the pain of being purified and strengthened – but to the One who is our confident expectation.

And this Hope will not disappoint us.

Another person who wrote a lot of the New Testament was John. John had an experience that he tried to describe for us – what he saw of the big picture.

This is our confident expectation:

We will see a new heaven and a new earth, because the first heaven and earth will have passed away, and there will no longer be any storm-tossed, chaotic sea. We will see the Holy City, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, adorned in strength and purity like a bride.

We will hear a loud voice from the throne calling out, “Look! God’s home is with humanity, and He will live with them. They will be His people and God Himself will be with them.

God Himself will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Death will be gone.

Grief, crying and pain will be gone because creation will have been set free from the bondage of corruption.

And the One sitting on the throne will say, “Look! I am making everything new!”

The one sitting on the throne.

This is Christ Jesus. Our Hope.

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July 10, 2017

If I Pray It But Don’t Live It

Yesterday and today we’re featuring the better writer in the family, my loving wife Ruth Wilkinson. This is a liturgical type of reading she wrote for our church service last week.

If I pray “Our Father”
and then fail to come to you as a child, trusting and learning –
Forgive me.

If I pray “who art in Heaven”
and then spend all my energy on earthly things –
Forgive me.

If I pray “Holy is your name”
and then, carrying your name, live unholy –
Forgive me.

If I pray “Your kingdom come, your will be done”
and then fail to listen for and obey your voice on Earth –
Forgive me.

If I pray “Give us our daily bread”
and then ignore the immediate and desperate needs of others –
Forgive me.

If I pray “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil”
and then choose to go where I know I’ll be tempted –
Forgive me.

If I pray “Yours is the kingdom”
and then fight for my own rights and my own way –
Forgive me.

If I pray “Yours is the power”
and then live according to what my neighbours or friends or society might say or do –
Forgive me.

If I pray “Forgive me”
and then hold grudges and dig in my heels –
Lead me in your way.
Give me your strength, your grace and your love for those around me.

So that I can pray “Amen”.

“So be it.”

“Cost what it may, this is my prayer.”

Forever.

Amen.

November 21, 2016

Make Bethlehem Great Again

make-bethlehem-great-again

Every year my wife performs at a really cool thing they do in our part of the world where people take a 25-minute walk through the various stations or aspects of the Christmas story called The Bethlehem Walk. After entering, groups wait in a waiting area until their number is called and while there, they listen to live music with choirs, soloists and contemporary bands performing Christmas-themed music.

Lately I’ve been joining her on some of these excursions, and this year I played two songs, and backed her on two; she did the rest herself. While doing a very hurried sound check, I asked the people in the waiting room how many were there for the first time, and then said, “We’re gonna make Bethlehem great again.”

People liked that line. After that, my contribution to the evening went downhill.

But she did well. Here’s a sample of her songwriting.

 

May 29, 2010

If a Tree Falls in the Forest, and No One is There to Hear It…

Today’s item is a joint-post between this blog and my devotional blog, Christianity 201.


I got some rather flukey traffic this week which drove the stats to a record high.

Then there is Christianity 201, which I do mostly for myself. It has readers, but nothing close to this one. I enjoy blogging at Thinking out Loud, but I enjoy searching my own heart to come up with things to post to C201.

The contrasting stats reminds me of something that happened last summer, which my wife blogged as part of a longer piece:

…Boston was one of our most recent expeditions. Really interesting city (American history machine aside). Cool architecture, good subway, Chinatown, really easy to get lost, terrible maps, good food. Perfect. Some historic churches. Mostly for “freedom” reasons, of one kind or another.

We chanced upon one that really struck me. Not as old as some of the others, probably. No “Paul Revere slept through the sermon here” plaques. But a lovely red brick building, tucked away in one of the more serpentine neighborhoods. We climbed a few steps to a back door and found it unlocked, so we went in. Found ourselves in a foyer of sorts, creaky floored and unlit. There was another door in front of us, so we pulled that one open. Creak. Stepped to the threshold. Creak. Peeked through the door. Creak.

It was beautiful inside. Warm and hushed and soaring. Stained glass windows, old dark pews, draperies and candles. It smelled of polished wood and wax and flame and time and prayer. But we didn’t go in any further. We closed the door and left. Creaking all the way…

…You see, the reason why we left without really going in is that when we opened that inner door, we heard something.

Someone speaking. One voice.

One voice echoing through the room, over the pews, off the windows. The pews that were completely empty, the windows that were telling their stories to no one.

One voice, chanting in what might have been Latin. Reciting a text that no one would hear. Except the speaker and God himself. Because they were the only ones in the room.

As we left, we looked at the sign on the fence outside. “5:00 pm. Mass”. It was 5 pm. So the Mass was being said. Whether anyone was there to hear it or not. It had to be said.

Why? I have no clue. But it had to be said. If only to the antique pews and the priceless glass and the glowing candles and absolutely not a living soul. Haunted and driven by tradition. Disregarded by life and humanity.

…Church with a sermon and no congregation.

You can read her article which, in context, has a whole other set of meanings, with the most inescapable being what you get from the second last paragraph: Tradition; irrelevance; religiosity.

Christianity 201 is different, however. This is blogging in the original “web-log” sense of journal-keeping. It remains available for future discovery; readers driven perhaps by items I have yet to write.

(Have you ever noticed how close “stats” sounds to “status?” So stats-seeking is really status-seeking.)

And all of it of course is being read by some people already. I’d probably do this even if there weren’t any readers. Having tasted both the highs and lows of statistics, I’m not sure that one is better than the other. It’s somewhat similar to what I wrote about the contrasts between the large church we attended two weeks ago, and the much smaller one we attended last week.

Still, I don’t know how that Boston cleric could do it. Something unseen drives him to go through the forms of the mass even though no other humans are present…

…Although, I wonder if later that day, he suddenly remembered hearing the door creaking and sensed that an individual; no, wait; a couple came in, listened for a minute, and then left?

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