Where Is Hope

For me, a benefit of believing in Jesus Christ is that I have hope. Hope is truly an interesting word. Much like the word love, hope has such a varied number of meanings depending on the context in which it is used. I can hope that the Hawkeyes will win their football game. Right now, rain is something I hope for in the area in which I live. I have hope that I will stay healthy and active for many years into the future. I am confident in the hope of Jesus’ promises. Each example is a different understanding of hope since the focus of that hope changes.

Having hope does not mean there are not times of discouragement, disappointment, and a level of despair. A person who has hope does not experience any fewer hardships in life than one who lacks hope. The difference is that a person who leans upon hope responds to the hardships much differently.

I recall a situation during my ministry when I was called to the emergency room of a hospital. A person in the community had been found hanging by a belt in his garage. Upon arriving at a local hospital, the medical staff attempted to revive the man but were not successful and pronounced him dead. The partner refused to leave the body so the staff requested I talk with him and convince him to leave in order for them to finish preparing the body to be transported. After much conversation, I was able to get the partner to leave the room. In talking with him and the family of the victim, I quickly realized that the issue which was causing problems was they lacked hope. This became clear again after the funeral service which they asked me to officiate. They would not leave the room where we had the service because they were convinced that this would be the last time any of them would ever see the dead man again. They had no hope in Jesus Christ, no hope in the resurrection, and no hope in life beyond death.

Hope is not always an easy thing to maintain. There are times in which I need others to remind me of the reason to hope. I need to hear words of reassurance. I need prompted by the Spirit to read passages of Scripture which speaks of the hope found in Jesus Christ. Rereading the promises which Jesus, the prophets, and the apostles set before us is a great way for me to replenish hope in my life.

Faith and hope are strongly linked. Being able to hope in the promises of God requires having faith in God. A person must believe that what we read in Scripture regarding the love and the sustaining presence of the Lord is true. This requires us to have faith in not a physical reality but in a spiritual truth. This faith is the source of our hope.

Looking around the events in our world today, or even specific times in our own lives, it can become easy to lose touch with hope. Life can have some very depressing realities. Difficulties can mount and appear insurmountable. Messages which we often hear can lead a person to despair, grief, and a sense of abandonment. For some, this all piles upon each other to lead the individual in believing that there is no hope. Yet, let me declare to you that there is always hope. This hope is not sustainable in trusting of any human or human institution. This unfailing hope can only be found in Jesus, the Christ.

Hope in the Lord. It has never failed me yet.

Bumper Sticker Christians

When I was growing up, my dad always refused to let us put bumper stickers on the car. His reason for this was that they are difficult to get off and always leave a mark. He said that when he was ready to sell the car he did not want to get less for it because of the bumper stickers. I am really not sure why he used that as his reasoning since I never recall dad selling any of our cars. He always seemed to drive them until they would not run anymore. Whatever his true reason may have been, the truth is that I was never allowed to put any type of bumper sticker on the car.

As I became an adult, I also followed dad’s rule with most of the vehicles which I owned. My reason for not putting a bumper sticker on the car was much different from my dad’s. I did not want bumper stickers on my car because then I felt everyone would know something about me and that I would have to be representative of whatever the bumper sticker was about. If I placed a bumper sticker for a political candidate on my car, I thought my actions while driving would then represent that candidate. This was a pressure I did not want to place on myself since sometimes my driving habits are not always the best.

I have been observing a lot of vehicles with bumper stickers which have faith statements or the name of a church or a reference to God upon them. Seeing the various bumper stickers, or more accurately today there are as many window decals as bumper stickers, has caused me to ponder two questions. The first is, why have they chosen to attach that to their vehicle? The second is, do their actions stand as a fair representation of what is on their sticker or decal?

Why the first question is important to me is because the motivation behind placing a sticker or decal on the vehicle may say a lot about the type of person who attached it might be. What I mean by this statement is that if the motivation was to encourage others to investigate the thought, church, or God statement, then it serves a purpose of invitation. However, if the motivation is linked to a desire to let the world know what a good Christian the person is, then there is a major issue.

A passage from Scripture addresses this when Jesus is teaching about giving to the needy and prayer:

Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

Matthew 6:1-6

Here Jesus clearly states what type of attitude is expected of his followers. We are not to seek reward for our actions which we do in faith. We are to do whatever we do as a response to our faith. If placing a sticker or decal on a vehicle is intended to get people to think better of us, then it definitely goes counter to what Jesus says above.

The other concern which I have is that some drivers which have faith stickers or decals attached to their vehicles are not always demonstrating the teachings of the Lord. Through gestures, driving behaviors, and other actions, they choose to not represent a loving attitude. I know that I am sometimes guilty of these things, so I do not place faith stickers and decals on my car. I am afraid that I will misrepresent God through my actions and will be unable to seek forgiveness from those whom I might offend.

Let me throw some caution out to those who might be what I am terming, bumper sticker Christians. Be aware that by placing that sticker or decal on your vehicle, you are representing your faith and your God in a very public way. Know your motivation behind doing so. Make sure your actions truly are representative of a loving God who offers forgiveness to all people.

Describe the Devil

Recently I was watching the movie, “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” which is one of my favorite movies. During one scene in the movie, Ulysses Everett McGill, who is played by George Clooney, gives a description of the devil. Ulysses responds to a question by Pete, played by John Turturro:

Well, there are all manner of lesser imps and demons, Pete, but the great Satan hisself is red and scaly with a bifurcated tail, and he carries a hay fork.

Ulysses Evertt McGill

Clooney’s character gives a description that is part of folklore and often presented in art. The problem is that nowhere in the Bible does such a description exists. The only comparable passage where the image could have been generated from is found in Revelation 12.

Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads.

Revelation 12:3

Caution must be used here since we know that the book of Revelation is attributed to a man whose name is listed as John and at the start of the book it indicates that this is a vision. This would mean that a lot of imagery is used in this portion of Scripture so a literal interpretation is very unwise.

Another perception of the devil is that it is a fallen angel. This concept can be attributed first to the Book of Enoch which presents the idea there are fallen angels. While the Book of Enoch was rejected by both Judaism and Christianity in the early centuries, the idea that fallen angels exist did not go away. Add to this two passages from the Gospels, first Luke 10:18 where Jesus is speaking and says, “He replied ‘I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.'” Along with Matthew 25:41 which is part of Jesus explaining the separation of sheep and goats on judgment day, “Then he will say to those on his left, Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”. All these combine to create a description of the devil as a fallen angel and the leader of the other fallen angels.

The imagery and perceptions from this imagery has led to a lot of confusion concerning the devil. Confusion with a limit of certainty. Much like the difficulty of describing God, creating a description of the devil, Satan, Lucifer, or any other name assigned is fraught with difficulty. There are only fragments of insight contained in Scripture. Yet I am willing to provide a little speculation here.

The image which is the strongest for me is that of a tempter. We find this presented in the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John. In the Gospel accounts of Jesus being tempted by Satan, we see that a figure comes to Jesus and attempts to take him off his planned ministry course by the trappings of success as described by humans. Three different attempts are recorded, and Jesus successfully avoids the temptations of humanity’s definition of success. The image of the tempter also occurs at the start of the Bible in Genesis 3. Although this account does not state it is Satan tempting Eve but instead says it is a serpent which has come to be thought of as Satan.

I would argue that this “tempter” is not really a being at all. Instead, I believe that the temptation to get off course is from within our very selves. This is the aspect of our humanness which we allow to lead us to make unhealthy decisions. Decisions which have a negative impact on our lives and the lives of all around us. It is the part of us which feels that our ways are better than the ones God presents before us. This is the aspect of our free will which creates negative instead of positive.

This leads me to state that I believe a description of the devil is only obtainable in imagery. This imagery is our attempt to describe the aspect of our thoughts which led us to be tempted to act irresponsibly or in a manner counter to God’s nature.  

A New Era

A reality which is not easy for most churches to accept is that we now live in a time referred to as post-Christendom. What this means is that the elevated status which the Christian church experienced previously is no longer true today. Anyone who is actively involved in a church realizes that there are fewer people who attend worship services, even fewer people who attend activities sponsored by the church, and extremely fewer people who participate in any form of Christian education classes than in the 1950s in the United States. There are many factors which has led to the movement past Christendom but this is a reality which needs to be accepted.

If this is the reality which we now face in the Western Christian church, what are we to do about it? My first response is to realize that well planned programming and an outstanding marketing campaign are no longer the answers. The general approach of the church when it was on top of the societal spectrum was all we have to do is get them in the door then we will be able to add them as members. This could not be any farther from the truth these days. I have watched churches (and attempted myself) to provide the best programming options for people. I have seen very hard work put into getting the name of a church before as many people as possible. Yet, over and over this produced limited, if any, measurable results.

What the church needs to realize is that the priority of getting people in the pews is a futile goal. Instead, the church needs to move out of the building and to the locations where the people are located. This will require the church to operate in a completely different manner than the way we have conducted ourselves in the past. The training that our church leaders have received, and in many cases still are receiving, will provide limited assistance as we move into this new era. There remains value in our church leaders learning the academic information so they can assist people when they are searching for their own answers. However, there now needs to be a component regarding how to seek out people where they live, work, and play. Training must be done to teach our leaders ways to minister outside the building and to lead other members of the fellowship to do the same.

My perception is that we are being required to the model of ministry which was common during Jesus’ time and a model which the church has adopted at various times throughout history. Jesus clearly went where the people were to minister to them and to share the message from God. He would be found in pastures, on hillsides, along lakes, in market places, and in the temples and synagogues. He would spend his time taking care of the physical and spiritual needs of the people. Then he would share the message of God using images which the people in the particular location understood. There was not a specific location which was set aside for worship, practical ministry, or education. A specific day or time was not set up for any of this to take place.

Another reality of the post-Christendom society in which we live is that what people are seeking in their faith journeys is different today than in the era before. While there is still a place for ritual and learning, people today want to focus on practically applying their faith to life. There exists a strong desire to make an impact on the world in a positive manner. Instead of an inward focus, there is an outward focus. The church has an awesome opportunity here and can emerge as a great leader in this area. First, we demonstrate it by leaving the walls of a building and immersing ourselves where people are gathering. Second, we share our love in words and actions which allows us to point to God, the source and very nature of love. Third, we make ourselves available for people to ask questions. Fourth, we show people how to apply the love of God in their daily lives and as a body of individuals who go into the world instead of a building.

The church is no longer on top. We can choose to sit in our buildings, spend hours trying to figure out how to get others to come sit in our buildings, and bemoan the fact that our buildings become emptier every year, or…. We can re-imagine how we can be the church outside of the walls. We can learn to worship, teach, care for, and fellowship with people in a variety of settings. We can learn from the model of Jesus and the itinerant leaders of our past. We can continue to be the church with a new list of priorities.

Not Here, Well Maybe

The church is filled with perfect people.

Some churches are full of sin but not mine.

At my church we make sure that we protect against those type of people.

Our pastor is an example of a very righteous person.

We are a group of people who have done away with our sinful behaviors and follow the Lord.

Everybody is friendly in my church, takes care of one another and accepts everyone.

Which of these statements do you believe? Amazingly, these are actual statements which I have heard people make regarding their congregation. Add to these statements the perceptions that some people have from the outside. An observer would come to the conclusion that the church is a place where sin does not exist. This conclusion could not be any farther from the truth. The church is as full of sin as any other group in the world.

Since the church consists of humans, the church is going to have sin. We are reminded in the letter to the Romans, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Romans 3:23, NIV). When a person becomes a member of a congregation, either formally or informally, this reality stated in Scripture does not change. This being the case, there is going to be sin in the church. In fact, one of the many sins is lying about this truth.

Honestly, I do not think that anyone truly believes that the church is without sin. Yet a lot of people in congregations everywhere want to downplay or deny this truth in an attempt to present a better image to those outside the walls. I am not sure if they feel that this will cause others to desire to join the congregation or if it is a case of them wanting to show they are better than what is in the world. Either way, this image of a sin-free church does more damage for the ministries of the Lord than it could ever benefit.

Instead of trying to state that the church is a place where sin does not exist, we should actually be sharing a more important message. The message of the church should be that it is a place where forgiveness is given unconditionally. After all, this is the message that Jesus Christ gave over and over again in his actions and teachings. This is the message which the apostle Paul declared as he and others fulfilled Christ’s commandment to go into the world.

Within the church there are lies, hatred, bigotry, hypocrisy, theft, divisions, sexual misconduct, and all other sinful behaviors witnessed in everyday life in a multitude of places. Sinners exist within the church. More importantly though, within the church there is forgiveness, love, grace, restoration, healing, support, encouragement and acceptance. These are the traits which the church should show as it strives to demonstrate to the world an alternative to sin.

Sin exists in the church at the same level it does anywhere else but here it is always forgiven and reconciliation is possible.

Making Plans

Personally, I am a planner. I have calendars and to-do lists. Daily routines are important in my life. I feel more secure when I have a plan and then a backup plan to handle situations if my first plan gets disrupted. There have been many conversations between God and myself about plans. I often request that God helps me to follow through on my plans. The man who I married is also a planner who used to plan activities out months in advance and in great detail. Planning is a key part of my life.

I had a close friend who used to remind people that they can go ahead and put together a timeline but not to be surprised if God decides to chuckle and rearrange those plans. He was specifically talking about a process which was used to find a new pastor for a congregation. However, I think his words of wisdom apply to much more than that specific life event.

Over the years I have been placed in positions where planning was important but more important was being able to adapt at a moments notice. Having spent time working with youth required me to plan but know that at any time the Holy Spirit (or sometimes human intervention) could show up and quickly alter the plans. I have learned that making room for the Holy Spirit is more important than having a well-thought-out plan and sticking to it no more what.

God has told us in the words of Jeremiah:

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord

Jeremiah 29:11-14a

An important observation to make here is that the plans are not spelled out or in detail. We are just given the assurance that God has a plan which will benefit us in the most important ways.

I strongly believe that God desires us to plan. We are reminded of the importance of planning and being prepared in the story which Jesus told of the ten virgins:

“At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.

“At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’

“Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’

“‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’

“But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.

“Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’

“But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’

“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.”

Matthew 25:1-13

For me, the key regarding planning is to realize that while planning is important and must be done, the Holy Spirit may lead us in a much different direction. Every time that I have allowed my plans to be altered by the guidance of the Spirit, I have discovered that the end result is much better than anything I could have imagined in my planning.

Go ahead and plan. Then listen for God’s chuckle and the feel of the Spirit showing you a change or a whole new plan.