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 ache.

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

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

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. Some days I feel almost completely hope-less; I can hardly bear to hear the daily news:

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Psalm 3

O Lord, how many are my foes!

Many are rising against me; many are saying to me: “There is no help for you in God.”

Psalm 3 offers a powerful demonstration of faith functioning without sight.

We know (in theory) that faith never comes with clear vision or guarantees. Even so, how often do we want reassurance of favorable outcomes before we allow ourselves to trust?

It is oh so easy to let our feelings of despair and hopelessness overwhelm our intellect instead of finding the tricky balance between our head and our gut.

Emotions are an important part of our humanity … but …

Emotions serve as a valuable gauge about what is going on within us. Our feelings serve as signals, alerts that something very real is rocking or roiling deep inside us.

But our mind, our thinking, our cognitive abilities must oftentimes provide an important counterweight to our feelings.

Whole humans seek to keep head and heart in good balance. This is what we see in our psalmist: he counters his feelings of despair with his affirmations of faith.

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Righteous Anger

Biblical descriptions about God’s anger abound throughout Scripture. As a matter of fact, the entirety of the prophetic works reflect Israel’s understanding of the wrath and judgment of the Holy One.

Sometimes we moderns hear the phrase “wrath of God” and assume that wrath is directed toward us personally.

  • We make a mistake and we think God must be angry at us.
  • We do something stupid and we feel God must hate us.
  • We might actually imagine God as something like a cop lurking at a divine speed trap: out to get us.

We get this tendency honestly, I think. Our Western ways of thinking are highly individualistic and traditional Western theology sets us up for these kinds of guilt ridden responses.

When I was in seminary, I wrote papers on Martin Luther and John Calvin, both famous and influential theologians from the 1500’s. They both were really big on emphasizing God’s wrath, God’s anger because of human sinfulness.

“God loved us even as God hated us…,” one of them said.

“No description can deal adequately with the gravity of God’s vengeance against the wicked…” another insisted.

The Reformers thought this way not to foster a sense of hopelessness within us. But yes, they did want us to feel guilty.

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Reflections on the Psalms

The Lord sits enthroned upon the praises of his people.

Isn’t that a lovely thought ?!

It comes from Psalm 22.

But interestingly, Psalm 22 is actually a powerful lament … one we associate with Jesus’ passion.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Why are you so far from helping me….?

Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.

In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.

So this raises an important question:

How can we praise when we are in the midst of pain and trouble?

The Psalms teach us how.

In the Psalms, we can learn how to pray, how to express our thanksgiving and how to ask for what we need. Here we also learn how to name our doubts and anger; to give language to our disappointment and grief.

And here – in the Psalms – we grow to understand how praise is absolutely crucial to the life of faith.

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Psalm 110 (another look)

Psalm 110 sings confidence: Israel’s God upholds Israel’s king.

This royal psalm celebrates the king as the one anointed to rule and empowered to vanquish all of Israel’s enemies.

This famous psalm also seeds the tradition that understands God’s anointed one to be “prophet, priest and king.”

Living in The Story takes a second look at this important psalm and how it nurtures Christianity’s prophetic imagination.


The LORD says to my lord: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.”

Much of our Bible assumes a violent culture in the ancient world of its origins. Armies and battles, victories and defeats, walled cities and calls to arms defined daily life for many of these nations and their inhabitants.

For Israel, Yahweh God became the quintessential warrior god.

From the Lord’s overwhelming defeat of the army of Egypt to the conquering of the Promised Land to the the establishing of David’s monarchy, God was seen as One who went before them in battle to save and secure Israel.

The LORD sends out from Zion your mighty scepter: Rule in the midst of your foes…

From the womb of the morning, like dew, your youth will come to you.

In the imagination of Israel, Zion was God the King’s ultimate dwelling place: the holy throne situated in the highest heavenlies.

Thus everything built in the Temple signified and symbolized these invisible heavenly realities.

Even though Israel often used the words “Zion” and “Jerusalem” interchangeably, the city and the Temple were always and only physical metaphors that pointed to the spiritual unseen-ness of God’s presence in Zion.

Psalm 110 sees Yahweh the King as the Source of an eternal divine authority that establishes Israel’s kings with a consequent divine authority.

(Jump to the New Testament and recall that Luke also used Psalm 110 as a basis for his Christology of kingship. In Acts 2, Peter’s Pentecost sermon sees the Risen Christ as heir to David’s throne: The LORD says to my lord: “Sit at my right handuntil I make your enemies your footstool.”)


But here is a twist: along with kingship, the psalmist of 110 claims Israel’s kingly leader also is a priest.

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The Prophetic Imagination

This phrase “prophetic imagination” is from Walter Brueggemann, one of my favorite Old Testament scholars.

Brueggemann’s academic writings come across as poetic and passionate. His deep insights of ancient texts inform current understandings of our own world, and thus Brueggmann has become one of our modern day prophets.

Unpacking the prophetic imagination is especially helpful as our Living in The Story readings lead us through the works of the Hebrew prophets as well as the bold, prophetic vision of The Revelation of John in our New Testament.

Prophets counter conventional wisdom and status quo.

Sometimes even within ancient Israel, the sacred traditions of Torah became dry bones, needing fresh breath and new life.

Torah needs the Prophets.

Prophets see from a heavenly perspective; they name both the human brokenness and the divine remedies. “Speaking truth to power” is the vocation of the prophet.

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Psalm 73

Psalm 73 reads like a commentary on today’s world.

In the United States, we are seeing the demise of the middle class and a significant rise in poverty. We are watching the rich get immensely richer while the poor get significantly poorer.

Across the globe, across the ages this has been a terrible truth for most of the people on the planet.

The problem is not simply that some people are rich and others are poor.

The problem is the arrogance, self-righteousness and indifference prosperity often creates within the wealthy. The problem is the deep inequities that diminish and devalue the poor, people who are made in God’s own image and likeness.

Our psalmist saw this first hand.

I was envious of the arrogant; I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

For they have no pain; their bodies are sound and sleek. They are not in trouble as others are; they are not plagued like other people.

Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them like a garment. Their eyes swell out with fatness; their hearts overflow with follies.

They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression. They set their mouths against heaven, and their tongues range over the earth.

The oppression of the rich over the poor is as old as humankind itself.
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As You Read The Revelation of John

“Bizarre” is a pretty good word to describe the book of Revelation.

In this vision, we see images of four horsemen of the apocalypse, seven bowls of wrath, tormented sinners crying out from the lake of fire, the satan bound for a thousand years and then the final battle of Armageddon.

“Bizarre” is also a good word to describe many of the interpretations of the book of Revelation that have been offered over the years. There is some deeply flawed theology out there – I’m sure you’ve noticed.

For one entire semester in seminary, I dug into the Revelation with my favorite professor, Dr. Gene Boring. His commentary is one of the gems of recent scholarship and he is well known for his wise, thoughtful approach to this odd but important last book of the Bible.

Ask good questions

Always, whenever we study the Bible, we must be asking two fundamental questions: “What DID it mean?” and “What DOES it mean?”

What did this pastoral letter mean to the seven churches of Asia who first received it at the end of the first century? And what can it mean for us now in the twenty-first century? Finding that bridge of appropriate interpretation across time and culture is no simple task.

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Living in Apocalypse

The Story of the human race has cycled through numerous apocalyptic ages throughout our history.

And when we are there, it feels like the end of the world.

Our current Living in The Story leads us readers into Exile with Israel. Their world has ended in many ways and things will never be the same.

At the same time, as Living in The Story readers, we encounter the experience of the first century Christians. With the destruction of the Second Temple during the Great Jewish Revolt and the great defeat of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., their world also had come to an end.

During both these epochal ages, Judaism and Christianity evolved into something completely different. Something old died and something brand new emerged.

A new creation was birthed into the world.

This image of birthing is helpful as we consider how to respond to these apocalyptic times. When everything we know, everything we are is in transition, it can feel as if the the whole earth is in labor.

As I write this in the fall of 2019, our world is in tumult.

  • Climate crises.
  • Constant war.
  • Rising violence.
  • Ethnic conflicts.
  • Class divides.
  • Waves of authoritarianism in the U.S. and around the world.

I keep reminding myself this is not the worst things have ever been. But things are pretty bad.

Are we also in labor?

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Psalm 137

By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.

Psalm 137 breaks our hearts. It also is one of the only laments that breaks the pattern: the pain is so deep that it never finds its way back to praise.

In Psalm 137, there is no “nevertheless.”
On the willows we hung our harps …

… for our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?

Jerusalem’s destruction is complete. The walls are toppled, the Temple is razed, the last of David’s kingly descendants are executed and God’s people are marched across the Fertile Crescent to Exile in Babylon.

All they have now are their memories.

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!

Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you; if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.

Some of the memories picture the shining Temple on the hill of Zion, sparkling in the light of the morning sun.

More recent memories see blood running in the streets.

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