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Posts Tagged ‘hope’

Great Joy

 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Romans 15:13

The theme for the third week of Advent is Joy. Happiness is often used synonymously with joy, but the two are significantly different. Happiness is a transitory state of mind, but joy is an underlying orientation to life. We can be happy one moment and sad the next, not unlike the ups and downs of an emotional roller-coaster. Joy, however, remains relatively constant regardless of the immediate circumstances. In Luke 2:10, the angel tells the shepherds, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people” (emphasis added). The angel’s message clearly refers to something greater than momentary happiness. The incarnation of God on earth as Jesus was and is intended to be a life-altering, joy-inspiring occurrence.

In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul writes that God fills us with joy and peace in believing (15:13). In other words, it is our belief – our lived faith that God is real and present in our lives – that leads to joy. Like a self-perpetuating cycle, faith makes hope possible, hope brings joy, joy renews our faith, and so on. Those who lack the optimistic hope that life is defined not by its challenges but by its blessings cannot live with joy. The pessimist only sees life as one set of catastrophes after another and lives in constant fear and dread of the next disaster. A joyful person knows that great blessing lies just beneath every difficulty and waits expectantly for it. The difference is subtle, but powerful. One scriptural reason for hope is found earlier in Romans (8:28) where Paul writes, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God…”  Nowhere in scripture are we promised an end to the troubles and heartaches of this life. Rather, we are assured that God will work through our suffering and transform it into something good. Those of us who have lived long enough and awake enough have seen this proven true repeatedly. Indeed, this is the good news of the Gospel.

One can be happy without joy for a time, but only a joyful orientation to life will bring lasting happiness. The first step is to develop our faith, and this is a personal choice. No one, including God, can force us to believe. Becoming faithful requires a willingness to trust that which we cannot see or prove exists. As we surrender into a stronger faith, we cannot help but become more hopeful about life and the future. Our faith teaches us there is nothing that can possibly happen to us that will happen beyond God’s ability to mold it into a blessing. Once we know that even death cannot separate us from love, our fears dissipate. As we worry less about the future, we become capable of experiencing joy in the present moment. This is the great joy spoken of by the angel to the shepherds. This great joy is not about some future reality in a faraway land we may see when we die, nor is it about some obscure event that happened two thousand years ago. This great joy is here, it is now, and it is available to everyone. We must position ourselves to receive it, however.

So, when I wish you a joyful Christmas season, I am not hoping you will receive lots of nice presents (not that there is anything wrong with that). My wish for you is for a life transformed by the birth of the Christ child within you. That is the path to a true and sustained joy; and from that great joy, all good things will flow!

 

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Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 26: Hope Springs Eternal

 Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. 1 Peter 3:15b-16a

Hope is much different from wishful thinking. Hope is grounded in knowledge and experience, not uninformed optimism. At Christmas we may wish for a new video gaming system, nice jewelry, or a family board game, but we hope for love in our families, rebirth in ourselves, and peace on earth. There is an essential difference between hope and a wish. Most of what we wish for is temporal, where our hopes look to the long-term.

The leaders we most willingly choose to follow are full of hope. No one is inspired by a pessimist – entertained, maybe, but not inspired. Most pessimists prefer to be called realists, meaning their view of life is based on what they consider reality. Unfortunately for themselves and others, their view of reality tends to be a small, fatalistic one. Pessimists and realists believe that for every good thing that happens to us, something bad must occur in order to balance things out. When life is good we need to be cautious because there will be hell to pay later. Theirs is a philosophy of limitation, not a recognition of the abundance from which we were created.

Certainly, we need to be aware that with life comes death, with joy comes sorrow, and with light comes dark. They are parts of the same reality. It is not that we must pay for our joy with sorrow, but in order to fully experience joy we must also embrace the sorrow that is sometimes a part of it. It is when we refuse to fully experience life that it hurts, that it leaves us sad, or that we feel we cannot go on. Joy does not bring sorrow any more than day brings night. They are manifestations of the same reality. They go together. One cannot exist without the other, so trying to separate them or experience one without the other is impossible. Hope does not tell us to be wary of life because death always follows. Hope assures us that with life comes death and both are good when experienced to the fullest.

Looking to the future with a confident hope frees us to live fully in the present. We know the future will bring its blessings, challenges, and solutions, so we need not allow tomorrow’s possible calamities or yesterday’s injustices to prevent us from fully experiencing today. From God’s perspective, the future is now, and it is good. Because we exist in time and space, we co-create the details and experience them as they unfold.

When the day comes that our physical body gives out, we hope for a new life that retains everything good from our days on earth and places it in a new life beyond. For those who know the Gospel, this is not wishful thinking; rather, it is the hope that is in us, rooted in our knowledge of and experience with God. Like a spring continually fed by an unseen source of pure water, life springs eternal; and life is good. That is the source of our hope.

There is always reason for hope, because hope springs eternal. How did I miss that?

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How Did I Miss That?

Part 7: Resurrection is a Reoccurring Reality

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. John 12:24

I do not know how I missed it, but resurrection is all around us, all of the time. To be sure, it is called by different names – the changing seasons, graduations, marriages, childbirth, death, sunrise, sunset – but the changing from one stage of life to another is constant. The cycle of birth, growth, death, and rebirth is forever present in us physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

As a Christian, I associate resurrection with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. What I missed, however, was that the same pattern is repeated in all of life as a natural, ongoing process, albeit not always in as dramatic a fashion. The resurrection of Jesus is the core belief of Christianity, and the resurrection – having its central figure return to life from death – is the distinguishing feature separating it from other enduring religions.

Among Christians, we debate about how much of the biblical record we believe literally, but we tend to overlook how much of the lives recorded therein serve as a metaphor for our lives and the life around us. Science confirms that rebirth is an ongoing process. Every cell in our bodies is replaced at least every 7 years, so we are entirely remade many times over the course of our lives. Jesus talks about wheat in the passage from John 12. He says unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and “dies,” it will forever remain only a single grain of wheat. Once the seed dies, however, it grows into a plant that forms a seed head with hundreds of grains of wheat. When those grains fall to the earth and die, thousands of grains of wheat result. Knowing that, did the initial grain of wheat die, or did it transform its existence? Clearly, it was transformed, and so are we whenever a part of us dies. When Jesus rose from the dead, he was not the same person in the same body. He was transformed. Even his own disciples did not recognize him until he spoke.

The moral of resurrection is that change is good and necessary. New life cannot begin until an old life passes away. This is rebirth, and death is its prerequisite. It is what provides second chances and new starts. Much as we may feel safe and secure in our current life, nothing remains the same for long. We are designed for change, and we are led into numerous transformations over the course of a lifetime. We can change willingly, or we can go kicking and screaming. Either way, we will die to our old self and be reborn to a new one.

Resurrection is a reoccurring reality. How did I miss that?

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Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 1: Faith Heals

Then suddenly a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak., for she said to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well.” Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And instantly the woman was made well. Matthew 9:20-22

The relationship between healing and faith is difficult to understand, impossible to predict, and a connection Jesus mentions many times throughout his ministry. He often healed someone, only to give credit to that person’s faith. I used to believe Jesus was being modest. After all, he was a humble man. He credits faith with healing so many times, however, that I find myself rethinking his modesty. Dare we believe that faith truly does heal?

I have tried to apply faith with instances of serious illness in people I know, but with ambiguous results. I remember praying hard for my mother’s recovery from a stroke. She had been a healthy, determined woman, and I could easily visualize her fighting her way back to health. But she never did. Rather, she slipped into a steady decline and passed away 10 weeks later. The times when an unlikely healing has occurred, and there have been a few, I find myself wondering if it was a God-healing or a talented physician. Clearly, God works through the hands and hearts of God’s people. If I were keeping score, however, of the number of times I believe my faith brought the outcome I prayed for, faith would be losing by a landslide. Is this due to my weak faith, or my lack of understanding about healing?

Not all healings are equal, nor all they all physical. When we pray for healing, we are generally praying for restoration to a prior state of being. We pray for what we, in our limited understanding, believe to be the best outcome. Do we possess the perspective to know what is best in any situation? There are numerous examples of physical healings in the Bible, but we can assume all those people died of something, eventually. There are also instances where God does not heal the physical ailment of a faithful person – Paul comes to mind. Paul used his infirmity as a reminder of his total reliance on grace. Even Jesus, the night before his crucifixion, prays for God to “take this cup from me.” Ultimately, he yields by saying, “Not my will, but yours be done.” I have often wondered why God did not rescue Jesus from the cross. But wait – Jesus was rescued, just not in the way we humans would have requested.

If faith truly does heal, there is a lot of pressure on us to be well. Wellness comes under our control, instead of our being victimized by illnesses we can do nothing about. Faith is our connection to God – it is the thread by which the human meets the divine. Faith assures us there is more to life than what we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell – there is more beyond our human knowledge and efforts. Would God grant us a desire contrary to our ultimate good? There were many times, as a parent that I refused to grant a desire of my children, knowing they were better off without having their wish granted.

What is out there, and how and when it may or may not bless us remains a mystery. Dare we believe that faith heals? Dare we believe it does not?

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Life Notes

The Greatest is Love

And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three, and the greatest of these is love. 1 Corinthians 13:13

To abide means to continue, to remain, to stay. It elicits images of stability and permanence. Therefore, when Paul says “faith, hope, and love abide,” he separates these qualities apart as uniquely enduring. While we know that much of what we work for on earth – homes, cars, clothing, food – will not endure, these are the priorities that consume many of our waking hours. We seldom lay awake at night worrying about a lack of faith, hope, or love. Instead, we worry about a lack of money, or a meeting with an unpleasant co-worker, or an appointment with the doctor about an abnormal test result. Faith, hope, and love are not commodities we can purchase, steal, or trade, but they are characteristics we can develop. Some come more naturally to certain people than others, but all of us are capable of cultivating a more-than-sufficient degree of all three.

Because Paul says the greatest of these is love, I think it is fair to assume that faith and hope are components of love. If we are to love others in the ways described in 1 Corinthians 13, we must have faith in the innate goodness of others, or their worthiness of our attention. Such goodness is not always obvious, but when we recognize that everyone is a child of God, we accept that everyone is loved and valued by God. We connect in love with their image-of-God essence, attempting to look beyond their all-to-human exterior. A loving relationship also inspires hope. There is an optimism in loving relationships that springs from the knowledge that all things are possible and, in the end, all things work together for good. We always hope for the best for those we love.

As we look in-depth at 1 Corinthians 13, we begin to picture the expansive and inclusive nature of love. It permeates every created thing and connects us all. Love is the thread of our interdependence, connecting us together as one – whether or not we ever recognize or affirm our unity. Love expresses intensely in committed relationships, but goes well beyond romance. Love is the essence from which we spring and the destination to which we journey. Love is God, and God is love. Without love we cannot recognize God’s presence in our lives, nor can we love ourselves or others as we should. We feel separate and out-of-step with life’s rhythms. Ultimately, the most pervasive sin of our time is that of separation – failure to recognize our unity with God and others. Separation, like all sin, is its own punishment. It makes us miserable, it makes us feel unworthy, and it makes us feel alone. Love is the antidote to sin and separation. Where faith and hope abide, love grows – and so will we!

Let us make 2016 the year of love, as love was meant to be.

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Life Notes

Love Hopes All Things

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things… 1 Corinthians 13:4-7c

Just as love is other-focused, so hope is future-focused. True hope, however, is not wishful thinking or daydreaming. Hope looks forward with a knowledge and optimism rooted in actual experience – projecting the future from the past. When we make time to reflect on our experiences, when we look back over our lives, we recognize recurring patterns. Every time a situation looks dire, eventually, something (often unforeseen) happens to help the situation work out – not always in the way we wish, but always in a way that helps us grow. When we recognize this pattern of grace, we begin to develop – uneasily at times – a nebulous sense of hope. This hope is not rooted in a future vision we can specifically see or know, but in a faith that no matter what life brings, we will be loved and cared for, and we will come through the other side stronger and wiser. It is often easier for those of us in the second half of our lives to experience this hope simply because we have more years to learn from.

In Romans 8:24-25, Paul writes, “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” If I hope to experience a beautiful sunrise today after the sun has risen, that is not hope because it already happened. I can hope, however, to see another beautiful sunrise in the future because I know from experience there will be more sunrises that are beautiful. I do not know the specific days or the frequency with which those will occur, but I have confidence they will happen. I wait expectantly for them, even though I do not know when they will manifest.

My grandma Hildenbrand saw a version of me she knew I could become, rather than the person I saw as myself. She looked beyond my flawed exterior, saw and acknowledged a capacity that seldom matched the reality. Sometimes, I felt guilty and unworthy because I was not as good as she gave me credit for being – or was I? Perhaps it was my vision that was flawed. This is the amazing impact of hope on the object of our love – that we see beyond our petty failings to the image of God from which we were created. Someone who believes in us, who hopes for the best for us, who sees the heart God created and animated within us – these are the people who inspire us to greatness. These are the people who know the power of hope, and these are the people whose unfailing and unconditional love inspires us to love others with a similar hope for all things.

Let us make 2016 the year of love, as love was meant to be.

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Life Notes

An Allegorical Christmas, Part 2

 What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

John 1:3b-5

First, I must confess an error in last week’s Life Note. I referred to the Immaculate Conception as the conception of Jesus, when in fact the term refers to the conception of Mary. I apologize for my all-too-Protestant perpetuation of the fallacy.

With that said, the point remains that the Christmas story can be understood either as a historical, factual narrative or as an allegorical teaching about our personal, spiritual journey. Taken only in the former manner, the impact of the telling is lost on people who do not accept the biblical record as an actual event. This week I consider the Christmas Star, which is recorded in Matthew 2:2: “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising…”

From this passage, we assume the “star” must have been very bright and noticeably different from the other heavenly bodies. Modern day astronomers have looked for evidence of a convergence of planets, a comet that streaked across the sky, or perhaps a supernova around the time of Jesus’ birth. There is no astrological evidence, looking back 2000 years, of such an event, however. If we assume, as many do, that these “wise men” were astrologers – people who carefully studied the movements and interactions of the stars and planets – the occurrence now called the Christmas Star may have only been noticeable and unique to one trained in such matters. The rest of us may not have noticed anything different.

Regardless, the question posed by this Life Note is whether the Christmas Star has meaning for those who choose not to believe it was a real star. Allegorically speaking, the answer is “Yes, of course it does!” Stars bring light to an otherwise dark sky – light in the darkness. A light in the darkness has been the story of God’s impact on our lives since the dawn of creation. In Genesis, God’s first spoken act of creation is “Let there be light.” And there was light where there had been only darkness. When there is light in front of us, we find hope. We have reason to believe our times of darkness will end. Creating hope only requires a little light – a candle in a dark room, or a star resting over a humble stable. In difficult times, we need light, and we need hope. And hope is what the Christmas Star provides, both historically and allegorically.

Was there a Christmas star 2000 years ago? Of course there was! Maybe it was not a star as we portray it today, but it was a light for our darkness, and hope for our despair.

Come home to church this Sunday. Allegorical Christmas blessings!

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