Week 47: November 19 – November 25

We have two more weeks left in our Living in The Story journey. For these two weeks, we will read all the Minor Prophets. This is not hard. They are designated “minor” because of their short length, not because they are less important than the Major Prophets.

Suggestion: Plan to read one book of prophecy per day. Ponder again the work of the prophet: not prediction as much as speaking forth God’s word and interpreting current events in light of God’s overarching will.

There is both judgment and comfort here. May we be open to hear each as they apply to us, to the church and to the current events of our world.

Hosea

Joel

Amos

Obadiah

Micah

Nahum

Psalms 128

Psalm 129

Psalm 145

Mark 13-14

Colossians

Justice, Kindness, Humility: Micah and Mark

Week 46: November 12 – November 18

Nehemiah was cup bearer for King Artaxerxes living in the capitol city of the Persian Empire. He received this word about his countrymen who had escaped captivity and remained in Jerusalem:

“The survivors there in the province who escaped captivity are in great trouble and shame; the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been destroyed by fire.”

“When I heard these words I sat down and wept, and mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven…”

Nehemiah petitioned the king and was appointed governor of Judah with authority to rebuilding and bringing order.

Nehemiah’s first-person story of returning to Jerusalem is filled with intrigues, plots, gradual successes and witness to the difficult work of rebuilding. Rebuilding not just a wall and a city but also restoring the religion and culture of a people who had lost their way over many generations.

Nehemiah the governor and Ezra the priest worked together alongside many persistently faithful Jews against the hardship and persecution that has characterized this people of God throughout the centuries.

On a day of re-dedication, the story says:

Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. 

Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

Jews to this day summarize their history with this clever saying:

They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.

Nehemiah

Psalms 10

Psalm 13

Psalm 17

Mark 11-12

Philippians

Ezra and Nehemiah

Ezra and Nehemiah

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah were originally considered a single literary work called Ezra. Although this work was separated into two books by Origen (3d century Common Era) and Jerome (4th century C.E.), the division does not appear in Hebrew Bibles before the 15th century.

At the beginning (1:1–3) and end (6:22) of Ezra, the text asserts that Yahweh had brought about both the return of the exiles to Judah and Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the Temple through the favorable actions of the Persian kings toward Israel. Cyrus’ own decree permitted the rebuilding of the Temple and the restoration of its vessels (6:5), and Darius reinforced these privileges and added to them a curse against any who would attempt to countermand them (6:6–12).

In the Ezra-Nehemiah chronicle, captives were released and sent back to their land with the looted treasures from Solomon’s Temple. The “Ezra Memoir” names Zerubbabel (called governor) and Jeshua the priest as the leaders of this initial effort of rebuilding.

The Persian authorization to rebuild includes not only the work on the Temple, fostered by Cyrus and Darius, but also, because of the mention of Artaxerxes in 6:14, the rebuilding of the walls as well (the term “house of God” in Ezra-Nehemiah may include both the temple and the refortification of the city).

According to the present text of Ezra-Nehemiah, Ezra came to Jerusalem in 458 B.C.E. (Ezra 7:7–8, the 7th year of Artaxerxes) and Nehemiah in 445 B.C.E. (Neh 1:1, the 20th year of Artaxerxes). Nehemiah’s first stay in Jerusalem lasted 12 years, to 433 B.C.E. (Neh 5:14), with a second stay at an unknown time and of unknown duration (but before the end of Artaxerxes’ reign in 424). In 445 Ezra read the law at a public ceremony at which Nehemiah was also present (v 9). All of these dates assume that the Artaxerxes to whose reign the chronology of both Ezra and Nehemiah is correlated is Artaxerxes I (465–424).

the dedication of the Temple in 515 B.C.E.,

the return of Ezra in 458 B.C.E.,

the governorship of Nehemiah, 445–433 B.C.E.,

and his second visit to Jerusalem, no later than 424 B.C.E.

Nehemiah’s first-person story (The “Nehemiah Memoir”) says he was cup bearer for King Artaxerxes living in the capitol city of the Persian Empire. He received this word about his countrymen who had escaped captivity and remained in Jerusalem:

“The survivors there in the province who escaped captivity are in great trouble and shame; the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been destroyed by fire.”

“When I heard these words I sat down and wept, and mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven…”

Nehemiah petitioned the king and was appointed governor of Judah with authority to rebuild the walls and bring order to the city. (The “cupbearer” attested throughout centuries of Persian history and legend was generally a favorite and trusted youthful official.)

The Ezra-Nehemiah story is filled with intrigues, plots, gradual successes and witness to the difficult work of rebuilding. Rebuilding not just a wall and a city but also restoring the religion and culture of a people who had lost their way over many generations.

Nehemiah the governor and Ezra the priest worked together alongside many persistently faithful Jews against the hardship and persecution that has characterized this people of God throughout many centuries.

On a day of re-dedication, when the priest Ezra read the Law to the assemble people, the story says:

Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. 

Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

As I write this, sisters and brothers across the globe are faced with the deep challenges of rebuilding. In 2017 a trio of hurricanes devastated parts of Texas, much of Florida and all of Puerto Rico. Raging fires destroyed forests, homes and businesses all along the West Coast. Back to back earthquakes shook the foundations of Mexico. Wars in Syria, across the Middle East and in Africa continue to force people from their homeland. Rebuilding a life takes a lifetime of work.

Jews to this day summarize their history with this clever saying:

They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.

May the joy of the Lord be our strength!

 

Several portions of this article are quoted from the Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary. (Quotation noted with italics.)

Outline of Ezra-Nehemiah

I. Return from Exile and Rebuilding of the Temple (Ezra 1–6)

II. The Initial Work of Ezra in Seventh Year of Artaxerxes (Ezra 7–10)

III. Return of Nehemiah and Rebuilding of Walls of Jerusalem (Neh 1:1–7:72)

IV. The Climax of the Work of Ezra and Liturgical Responses (Neh 7:72–10:40)

V. Further Acts of Nehemiah; Related Matters (Neh 11:1–13:31)

 

Image from Aleppo, Syria by The Independent, 2016.

Who Is My Neighbor?

2017 was a tough year for hurricanes. America was hit by a back-to-back trio of hurricanes that left our whole nation reeling. But besides all the devastation, there were numerous heartwarming stories about people helping people.

In Houston, after Harvey, Mattress Mack opened up his furniture store for anyone who needed a place to stay. Families hung out on his sofas. Men, women and children slept on his beds. In an interview, Mack said he was moved by his faith. “I had to do this. What else could I do?” he asked.

In Florida, after Irma, as in South Texas, churches, mosques and synagogues opened their doors for their neighbors. Restaurants reopened as quickly as they could and cooked up huge meals to deliver to rescue workers. One millionaire couple opened their mansion for several days to house 70 foster children whose shelter had flooded.

In Puerto Rico, after hurricane Maria, Michelle Narvaez waited in line for an hour in order to buy groceries at twice the normal price. She brought her supplies home, cooked everything she had (because she has no electricity to refrigerate) and shared it with her neighbors. Then the next day, she would go back to the store and do the same thing all over again.

The helping ministry for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Week of Compassion, has been working overtime helping our neighbors who have experienced floods and fires and famine across the globe. I am so proud of my denomination for these impressive acts of compassion in Christ’s name.

It is powerful witness when neighbors reach out to help one another across all our typical differences and divisions. Animosities fall away in the face of disaster.

Compassion builds bridges. Even if it is just for a while.

So my question is: How can the church become a real force to shape our world for compassion all the time? Not just during a crisis, but every day?

Luke tells us about a conversation between Jesus and a shrewd lawyer.

A lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, the lawyer asked Jesus, “But who is my neighbor?”

Here is Jesus’ answer:

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’

Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Do you see how Jesus flipped the lawyer’s question? Instead of “who is my neighbor,” Jesus asked: “will you be a neighbor?”

The lawyer began well. His answers about loving God and loving neighbor are spot on. Except, I think, for this: the man seemed to believe that love is a noun.

Jesus’ parable, however, teaches us that love is a verb.

Love God. With heart, soul, strength, mind. Every thought, every feeling, every action, every ounce of our being is to be shaped by and powered by the love of God.

Or maybe I should say it this way: everything we are and everything we do is to be powered by God’s own love

When Matthew and Mark tell of a similar encounter, Jesus calls these two loves “commandments.” The greatest commandment is to love God. The second is like it: love your neighbor as yourself.

So have you ever wondered why God commands love? Isn’t love a feeling, an emotion? How does one command our emotions? Someone tells you: don’t be angry; don’t be sad. Or: Snap out of it. Be happy. Are you able to control your feelings so easily? I’m sure not. There is no way deep human gut reactions can be commanded.

But the kind of love that God calls for is not a feeling; this love is not just an emotion. Love is a verb. The commands are for complete allegiance to God and acts of mercy to others.

One of my favorite phrases in this little story says our hero was “moved with pity.” The man did feel something. His heart was broken for the broken man crumpled at his feet. Pity-Compassion-Mercy moved his heart. And then moved his hands into action. He couldn’t do everything but he could do something. He did what he could.

Love is a verb.

So who is my neighbor? Anyone who needs mercy.

And who is the neighbor? Anyone who does mercy.

We call this little story the parable of the Good Samaritan because it highlights the differences and divisions that normally operated between Jews and Samaritans. Any Jew hearing Jesus tell this story would have been shocked to see the despised, half breed Samaritan as the good guy. But they also would have been aghast at the hard heartedness of the priest and the Levite in this story.

Any faithful Jew, even to this day, prays the Shema every morning and every evening:

Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.

The religious characters in our story must have prayed these words over and over again throughout their life. But maybe they were only words to them. Maybe they believed love is a noun. Evidently every ounce of their being had not been shaped and powered by the love of God.

Or again, shaped and powered by God’s own love.

I say it this way because we humans have zero ability to truly obey these two core commandments. In our broken, bent-into-ourselves self-centeredness, we can never muster enough love within ourselves to fulfill these commands.

So that brings me back to my original question: How on earth can this broken body of Christ ever hope to become a real force shaping our world for compassion?

Only by this:

By allowing God’s love to love through us.

By permitting God’s love to transform our heart, soul, strength and mind.

By opening ourselves up to the love that is the very being of God and letting this movement of love move us to action.

Only then will the body of Christ break through its crippling paralysis and navel gazing and become transformed into a movement of welcome and compassion and mercy.

Only then will the church be able to give witness to the gospel.

The gospel. Remember what the gospel is: “God so loved the world that God gave the only begotten Son.”

Love is a verb. If God acted with such mercy and compassion for the whole world, then what should be our own response to this good news? Love God. Love neighbor.

Our world is starving for love. We are inundated with animosities and divisions and fragmentation; with hatred and violence and disdain; with blame and shame and apathy and hardness of heart.

All around us, neighbors are yearning for love and acceptance and hope.

Who will show them mercy? Who will be their neighbor?

Amen.

Week 45: November 5 – November 11

Ezra, Revelation and the New Jerusalem

The book of Ezra tells the story of Israel’s return from Exile in Babylon and the early reconstruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Ezra was a priest, a descendant of Aaron, who was given responsibility and authority by King Artaxerxes. In his record, he relates some of the challenges the people faced.

The first temple is referred to as Solomon’s Temple and this replacement is called the Second Temple.

This week we complete our reading of the book of Revelation. These final chapters offer the vision of the New Jerusalem “coming down from heaven.” This holy city is not created by the work of human hands; rather it is gift and grace from the hand of the Creator who is “making all things new.” In the New Jerusalem, there is no temple because “its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb…”

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 

And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”

I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.  And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.  The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.  Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

It sounds odd and even hurtful for us moderns to hear Ezra’s condemnation of the religiously mixed marriages he saw and his demand that the returned exiles should put away their wives and children. Here is an example of the high standard for purity and holiness that was expected of God’s people. The lines drawn between Israel and the nations was stark; crossing those lines, they believed, would lead to unfaithfulness and a defilement of the whole people.

Even in the New Jerusalem, we see the expectation of purity and total allegiance to the One True God. Anything “unclean” will not be a part of the new creation.

Please take this as comfort and reassurance. The Lamb who is Temple and Priest and Sacrifice is making US new. You and I and all creation are being refined like gold and made fit for the Kingdom of God.

Ezra

Psalms 67

Psalm 69

Psalm 70

Mark 9-10

Revelation 21-22

Behold, I Am Making All Things New

Week 44: October 29 – November 4

The wonderful stories from Daniel this week. It’s a short book with numerous short stories from the time of Exile in Babylon.

Daniel also describes several visions he was given – visions of judgment and liberation. You will recognize the images as you continue reading through John’s Revelation.

Daniel

Psalms 57

Psalm 58

Psalm 60

Mark 7-8

Revelation 19-20

Living in The Story blog for Week 44

In the Lions’ Den

In the Lions’ Den

Have you ever been in a den of lions?

You are called in to your boss’s office and when you open the door, there is your department supervisor and the head of HR. It feels like you are walking in to a den of lions.

You are sitting at your dining room table with bills piled high. There’s another stack of letters too: the eviction notice, the termination date, the warning that they will soon take the car back. You’re surrounded with troubles that are tearing you apart.

You are at the bedside of your loved one. The door opens and here comes your doctor and the doctor who was called in to consult and the charge nurse and the chaplain. You know that life is about to close in on you.

You are in a church Board meeting and – out of the blue – people who love each other start clawing and tearing at each other. You can’t believe your ears. What could possibly be so important that Christian friends would devour each other? You wish an angel would show up and shut all their mouths.

Whatever lions’ dens have threatened you over the course of your life, whatever the various details, we all can say “amen” – been there, done that.

And I’m guessing most all of us would say, like Daniel: “God saved me.” Maybe not the way our storyteller describes; there may not have been angels – but somehow, in some mystery – we knew we were not alone. We had strength beyond our own strength, wisdom beyond our own wisdom, endurance that we never could have imagined. And we know – God was in it, walking with us: carrying us, leading us, nudging us, protecting us.

I love these Daniel stories.

The first six chapters are a collection of short stories from the Hebrew exile about Daniel and his good friends: Azariah, Mishael and Hananiah. Those of us who heard these stories growing up are used to calling Daniel’s friends by their Chaldean names: Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.

Do you remember the one about the fiery furnace? Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah are present at the dedication of a gigantic statue of King Nebuchadnezzar. When the drums roll and the flutes play, all the people are to bow down and worship the image. But – of course – good Hebrews that they are; Jews who have finally learned their lesson throughout this time of Exile and who have become thoroughly monotheistic – the three worshipers of the one true God will not bow down.

Nebuchadnezzar is furious. His face contorts with rage. His voice trembles and shouts and demands their allegiance. He spews and threatens and stokes the fires of the immense furnace.

I love their reply: “If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known that we will still not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue.”

Their conviction reminds us of Queen Esther: “Our God can deliver; but if not, all right then – if I perish, I perish.”

To defy a king was death. And so, sure enough, the three courageous men were bound and tossed into the fiery furnace. But when the king looked closer, a fourth man could be seen walking with them in the fire. “One like a Son of Man,” the storyteller marvels.

A den of lions.

A furnace of fire.

We don’t go through hard times because we haven’t been good enough. As often as not, our obedience to God’s way, our faithfulness to God’s values are the very things that place us in opposition to the values of the world. It is exactly because we try to do what is right that we often find ourselves embroiled in some controversy.

So be it.

Like Daniel, like Hananiah, Meshael and Azariah – we will not define ourselves according to what other people think is right. We will not let fear decide our path. Because – like Daniel and his friends – we know God walks with us.

Malala Yousafazai reminds me of these bold believers.

Malala was 11 years old when the Taliban in her Pakistani hometown began to threaten the girls who dared to go to school. Misreading their own Scriptures and misunderstanding their own religion, the Taliban fanatics insisted girls should stay in their place and work in the home; they believed a formal education was unnecessary – even dangerous for their society.

Malala disagreed and began to say so publicly. “Why should I wait for someone else to speak up for me?” she asked. “I need to stand up for myself.” She did; and speaking up made her into a target. She had thought about this possibility of attack; threats and warnings were everywhere. She imagined herself facing a terrorist, wondering what she would do. “Maybe I’d take off my shoes and hit him. But then I’d think – if I did that, there would be no difference between me and the terrorist.” So she had a plan. She would say to her attacker: “Listen to me. What you are doing is wrong. Every girl ought to be able to go to school. OK, now shoot me.”

In 2012, Malala was 15 when the Taliban invaded her school bus and shot her in the face. Malala survived and fought her way back to her bold outspoken life.

On her 16th birthday, Malala Yousafzai addressed the United Nations General Assembly. In 2103, she was nominated for the  Nobel Peace Prize. This year, she began her studies at Harvard.

Like Daniel, like Hananiah, Meshael and Azariah – she would not define herself according to what other people think is right.

She would not let fear decide her path.

In the Gospel of Mark, there is this little gem of a story about Jesus returning to his hometown. Jesus addresses the synagogue and begins to teach. But instead of a sweet homecoming, it turned into a den of lions; a fiery furnace.

As soon as Jesus started speaking, the little congregation took offense. “Who is this guy?! Mary’s uppity little boy, acting like he’s someone; talking like he’s better than us. And this guy is just a local construction worker; he ought to know his place.”

Why does Mark’s Jesus always seem to cause such a stir? What was the message Jesus brought and taught that caused such a backlash?

It was the word of the kingdom.

It was the good news that God’s kingdom is come near. It was the clash of kingdoms that sparked such resistance.

Like Daniel, like Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, Esther and even Malala – Jesus’ power comes from a much different source than the kings and tyrants of this age.

Jesus was empowered by bold self-giving and audacious self-sacrifice.

Such mysterious power can be quite intimidating to some people. God’s power to save and heal and reconcile – not conquer and control. The power of love was the message Jesus preached.

But Jesus did more than to proclaim the message. Jesus did more than commit himself to the message. Jesus the Christ IS the message, the good news that the one true God is king and sovereign and lord of all creation.

Mark’s Jesus stands in that mysterious place as Son of God and Son of man. He is the one sent from God; the one in whom God is acting; the one by whom God is defeating every principality and power and empire and kingdom; the one through whom God is establishing the kingdom not made with human hands.

In the kingdom of heaven’s upside-down right-side-up reality, those who lose their lives, find them. Those who die to self find themselves. Strength is found in weakness. Wisdom comes through foolishness.

Jesus the Christ IS the good news that God is with the vulnerable, the rejected, the oppressed and the crucified.

When Jesus entered into his own fiery ordeal, he was able to say with complete confidence: “My God can save. But if I perish, I perish.”

When Jesus was placed in his own pit of death and the stone rolled over the opening and all hope was gone, death became life and hope was born for all of us.

 

 

Daniel icon by Betsy Porter

Week 43: October 22 – October 28

This week’s Living in The Story reading attempts the entire work of the prophet Ezekiel. This is ambitious but quite do-able. Challenge yourself to spread out your reading over the week and stick to it. Reading all of Ezekiel in short order gives us the ability to see connections we may miss when we read it piecemeal.

Remember Ezekiel wrote for Israel during the time of Exile. Here we see both visions of hope and visions of judgment.

As you read this week, consider how the tradition of Scripture often records God’s people calling for judgment and justice.  The current chapters of Revelation picture “bowls of wrath” being poured out upon the earth. The images are violent but the prophetic understanding of John is that the judgment of the Creator will allow creation to implode upon itself under the weight of its accumulated evil.

Here is the cry for justice from this week’s Psalmist:

Our enemies say, “Come, let us wipe them out as a nation;
    let the name of Israel be remembered no more.”

O my God, make them like whirling dust,
    like chaff before the wind.
Pursue them with your tempest
    and terrify them with your hurricane.
Let them be put to shame and dismayed forever;
    let them perish in disgrace. (from Psalm 83)

Ezekiel 1-21

Ezekiel 22-39

Ezekiel 40-48

Psalms 80

Psalm 82

Psalm 83

Mark 6

Revelation 16-18

 

Parables and Poetry: Ezekiel and Mark

 

Week 42: October 15 – October 21

We complete our reading of Jeremiah this week. Notice the woes the prophet pronounces upon the nations. As he offers a word of hope and restoration for Israel, he warns of devastations coming to the nations that have preyed upon God’s people.

The Psalms celebrate God’s faithfulness and continue to paint the big picture of the promises of the covenant.

Stay with your reading in Revelation. It’s an important book and there are several blogs here in Living in The Story that can help you make sense.

Jeremiah 40-52

Psalms 124

Psalm 125

Psalm 127

Mark 4-5

Revelation 12-15

Living in The Story blog for Week 42

Holding on to Hope

Holding on to Hope

A friend of mine posted pictures of his visit to Auschwitz. The scenes are chilling, gut wrenching. There are so many powerful, profound stories of Holocaust survivors that still cause my heart to sink.

How did they hold on to hope in such a time?

The Christians of Asia to whom John wrote his of revelation lived in constant fear within the Roman Empire. Confessing Jesus Christ instead of the emperor as Lord labeled them as traitors and subversives. We’ve all heard of the atrocities of Nero, the economic persecutions and even martyrdom of many who would not deny their faith.

How did they hold on to hope in such a time?

The Jews of the Exile for whom Isaiah and Jeremiah wrote lived far from their homes as captives of Babylon. Their Temple was destroyed, their holy city lay in ruins. Every family had lost someone in the war and the memories of destruction and defeat continued to break their hearts.

How did they hold on to hope in such a time?

Sometimes I feel so discouraged and powerless and yes – nearly hope-less.

I can hardly bear to listen to the news of horrible stories from the war zones of Syria or Somalia. The mind boggling stories from the disaster areas of Houston or Puerto Rico. The outrageous stories about the antics of our president and United States Congress. The heart breaking stories about gun violence, police violence, domestic violence. The discouraging stories about too many of my friends right here in my own community who – every single day of their life – walk a tightrope between security and disaster.

How do any of us hold on to hope when everything around us seems completely hopeless?

A few years ago, one of my pastoral counseling professors, Dr. Andy Lester, wrote a ground-breaking book about hope. I pull it off my bookshelf and re-read it periodically so that I can find my center again. Dr. Lester teaches that lived hope is grounded in reality, is oriented toward possibility and is made possible within community.

Hope is deeply connected to Reality. Possibility. Community.

When hope is grounded in reality that means we have our eyes wide open. We name our situation honestly and we recognize the challenges clearly. Hope doesn’t see the world through rose-colored-glasses. It is not wishful thinking. It knows how hard this is.

But hope does also see a larger reality, a bigger picture than that which is obvious and visible to our human eyes. Hope counts on this other invisible reality that exists because of God’s existence. A reality that has come into existence through the work of God in the life and work of Jesus Christ.

This is real to the people of Christ – as real as it gets. Even when our visible reality appears to be hopeless, hope taps into the other reality of God’s presence in the world: God’s movement in our lives.

We can look at the facts of our situation and say: “yes – but.” We can look at all the evidence and say: “nevertheless” – something else is true besides just our circumstances. Something else is real besides the obvious. We can see the bigger picture of what God has done and what God is doing.

Christian hope is grounded in the reality of the present and is oriented to the possibilities of the future.

People of faith have always been pointed toward the future. “Faith” means moving toward something we cannot see; stepping out on a path when we don’t know where it will lead; heading in a direction that may be completely irrational and unreasonable. People of faith live with this kind of confidence because people of faith are deeply and irrevocably people of hope.

And where does this hope come from?

Dr. Lester says: “The foundation of hope in the Judeo-Christian tradition is rooted in the character of God, the Creator and Redeemer of the universe.

“What is the character of God? We believe that the God who creates and sustains is primarily characterized by love: agape. The creation and the incarnation reveal the nature of this self-giving love. Jesus Christ is the visible expression of God’s faithfulness to our relationship and gives us reason to hope for the “not-yet-ness” of our future.

“Our hope is in our relationship with this trustworthy God whose character is marked by a faithful, steadfast love for us. As the Lord told Jeremiah: “Surely I know the plans I have for you…plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).

When we look toward our future, when our future stories are shaped and fashioned with faith and hope and love, then – no matter what comes our way – we can live our lives with a deep, unshakable peace. We can see the movement of God in our lives and in the world and we can confidently stand on the promises of a future with hope.

Lived hope is grounded in reality, is oriented toward possibility and is made possible within community.

As a matter of fact, Dr. Lester says hope really cannot be lived in isolation; it is community that creates and nurtures faith.

I heard the touching testimony of Jean Estes some time ago. Jean talked about how deeply she had pulled into herself after the death of her grandson; her grief was huge. And yet she was surrounded by a faith community that “held her hope for her” in those days when she could not hold on to hope by herself.

That’s a powerful image, isn’t it? Holding on to hope for one another. Dr. Lester calls it “contagious hope.” The spark of hope that can generate a kind of spontaneous combustion of hope within an entire community

But – there is a flip side.

There is also an “infectious hopelessness” that can take hold within a community.

Sometimes a people will despair over their current circumstances, cannot imagine an alternative, become so fixated by their past that they become closed off to the future.

One good antidote for that kind of gloom is for even a few faithful people to keep themselves grounded in the reality of God’s past and present work of faithfulness and to keep themselves oriented to God’s future with hope. Just a few faithful people living with hope can spark a contagious hope and a joyful generosity within an entire community.

I wonder – who among us is holding hope for us in our current community of faith? Is it you?

The prophetic word of Jeremiah promised the new covenant – God’s way written not on tablets of stone but written on the human heart. God’s promise to forgive sin; God’s promise to restore shalom; God’s promise to be known – truly known, intimately known. This hope for the new covenant is the foundation for Christian faith. Christians see the life, and death and resurrected-eternal life of Jesus the Christ as God’s embodied promise; Christ IS the new covenant in this our new future with hope.

And the Revelation of John pictures the final culmination of the covenant promises of God. John pictures the day when all creation will be restored to wholeness and goodness. The day when our hope will become our final reality.

There is much to be discouraged about in our world. If – as Andy Lester says – we begin by naming our reality then we have to admit things are pretty depressing right now. I don’t know what will come out of our current situation. Sometimes I do feel pretty hopeless and powerless. Sometimes the anger wells up. Sometimes the tears flow. Sometimes I don’t want to get out of bed in the mornings. That’s my reality. Maybe some of you know what I’m talking about.

But Dr. Lester encourages us to not stay there, but rather move on to imagine the possibilities. And when we are grounded in faith, when we can see God’s bigger picture, when we are living in God’s story – we can begin to imagine impossible possibilities.

Because impossible possibilities is the theme of God’s story over and over and over again.

We imagine those bold and hopeful possibilities together, because we are a people who hold on to each other no matter what. A people who hold onto hope for each other through thick and thin.

And we remind each other to hold on to the One who holds on to us.

Why are you cast down, O my soul,

and why are you disquieted within me?

Hope in God, my soul;

God is my help; the Lord is my God.

Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing,   “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”

And all God’s people say: Amen

 

Andrew D. Lester, Hope in Pastoral Care and Counseling (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995).