Hold On. Pray Expectantly! The acronym for hope is not new with me. I got it from a friend, a fellow pastor who was very supportive of my growth and leadership, and who has expressed appreciation to me over the years. I shared that message today with the people at St. John Lutheran Church where I serve as senior pastor. I hope it was helpful and edifying to them!

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Light peeks through the clouds over Houston | November 2018

Perhaps you agree with Red, the character from the film, Shawshank Redemption. He and Andy are talking one day about getting through the difficulties of prison life. And the conversation goes:

Andy: That there are places in the world that aren’t made out of stone. That there’s… there’s somethin’ inside that they can’t get to; that they can’t touch. It’s yours.

Red: What are you talkin’ about?

Andy: Hope.

Red: Hope? Let me tell you something, my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane. It’s got no use on the inside. You’d better get used to that idea.

If you’ve seen the movie or read the book you know that Red has a conversion of sorts by the end of the story and learns to hope.

There may be places in your heart where you keep the light of hope from shining. The stakes are too high. The danger of disappointment is too great. The fears of having your hopes crushed are too intimidating. You’ve given up hope.

If that’s so, perhaps this is a good time to consider a hope rekindling of sorts. Wipe away the grime of gloom and hopelessness that pervades your soul in that place and let hope shine in. For Red it was the hope of getting out of prison and finding some joy in life. For you it may be overcoming a bad habit, conquering an addiction, or winning a battle against disease. It may amount to opening your heart to the possibility that something could change…but you don’t know for sure that it will.

Christian hope, in the end, however, isn’t just a wishful thinking that something good may come to pass. Christian hope lays hold of Jesus word:

“In the world you will have trouble. But rejoice! I have overcome the world.” – John 16:33

Jesus’ victory is seen in his resurrection from the dead. It will be fully consummated when he returns to judge the living and the dead. It will be celebrated eternally by all those who look to him in faith, anticipating the eternal joy and relief that he will bring on that Great Last Day.

No matter the darkness of the circumstances you face, or the difficulties of this life, all will be redeemed. Every tear will be wiped away. Eternal joy and celebration awaits all who hope in Jesus and his redemption. I hope you find great comfort in that promise!

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. – 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 

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Pink Lily | St. Louis, MO | June 2017

The worst hour of my life was spent being the volunteer dad umpire for a Little League baseball game. I was completely out of my league in every possible way. I would lose track of the count. Thankfully there was an announcer in the booth above home plate who would announce the count to the crowd. I would never be sure about the balls and strikes. I was a terrible ump.

Then my own son came up to bat. He was just getting started in the game and would back out of the batter’s box at the slightest hint of an inside pitch. I finally had to call him out on strikes. He looked at me and said, “Oh dad.” I felt terrible. I was so relieved when the game was over and I could retreat to the car and take my family home!

A friend of mine was once a minor league umpire. He had the personality for it. Black and white. “If the player gets to the bag before the ball, he’s safe. If the ball gets to the baseman before the player, he’s out.” Simple. Straight-forward. I wish it was that easy for me. He didn’t really care what people thought of him. Safe or out. Simple. Clear. I wish I had had a little of his skill set and mental wiring during that Little League game.

My friend had a saying, however, that I found helpful, and with which I concur. Related to the thoughts of the verses above, he would say, “Eternity lasts a long long time.” Indeed it does. Longer than an insufferably-interminable Little League game? Yes. Longer than the years it’s been for many people to recover from Hurricane Harvey. Longer than the 30 Years War. Longer than the Dark Ages. Eternity lasts a long long time.

Whatever suffering we must endure, it’s not worth comparing to the glory that will be ours who trust in Jesus’ promises and are ushered into the realm of his eternal glory!

That means that when we feel bad, and we can’t shake the feeling of gloom, doom, and foreboding, we can see the hand of God preparing an eternal weight of glory for us. We can anticipate a long long time of favor and blessing, celebration and joy. We can keep the faith and strengthen our hearts against the hardships we are facing. We can thank God for this promise and look with anticipation for the Day of redemption and the culmination of all of God’s promises.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. – Hebrews 11:1

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Purple Flower | Colorado | June 2008

When I was in college I took some philosophy classes. Mostly I did it because I thought it would be an easy “A.” It was. I also became somewhat intrigued with Søren Kierkegaard. I tried to read Fear and Trembling, but I did not make my way through the whole thing. Here, however, is a quote from that book:

There lived a man who, when a child, had heard the beautiful Bible story of how God tempted Abraham and how he stood the test, how he maintained his faith and, against his expectations, received his son back again. As this man grew older he read this same story with ever greater admiration; for now life had separated what had been united in the reverent simplicity of the child. And the older he grew, the more frequently his thoughts reverted to that story. His enthusiasm waxed stronger and stronger, and yet the story grew less and less clear to him. Finally he forgot everything else in thinking about it, and his soul contained but one wish, which was, to behold Abraham: and but one longing, which was, to have been witness to that event. His desire was, not to see the beautiful lands of the Orient, and not the splendor of the Promised Land, and not the reverent couple whose old age the Lord had blessed with children, and not the venerable figure of the aged patriarch, and not the god-given vigorous youth of Isaac—it would have been the same to him if the event had come to pass on some barren heath. But his wish was, to have been with Abraham on the three days’ journey, when he rode with sorrow before him and with Isaac at his side. His wish was, to have been present at the moment when Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw Mount Moriah afar off; to have been present at the moment when he left his asses behind and wended his way up to the mountain alone with Isaac. For the mind of this man was busy, not with the delicate conceits of the imagination, but rather with his shuddering thought. Søren Kierkegaard – On Encountering Faith. Fear and Trembling

In this case faith was being played on in obedience to God. Faith lifts our eyes above the earthly fray to the arc of God’s kingdom chronology. It makes possible great sacrifices, and heroic acts of obedience.

Too often we imagine faith to be only a comforting crutch against the weight of our earthly burdens. We lean on God’s promises for perspective in the face of suffering. We look beyond the pains and troubles of life toward the promised eternal weight of glory which God has prepared for us. We lay hold of God’s promises to hear our prayers and bring us good things – if we but believe.

There is nothing wrong with these thoughts and goals as far as they go. But there is far more for us to embrace. Consider once again Jesus’ response to John’s imprisonment. He is able to see God’s greater play by faith. He knows what really is. God’s rule and reign is at hand. God is at work. The battle is upon the world. Jesus will take on Satan and he will win. The price he will pay is beyond comprehension. But Jesus will triumph over Satan by his perfect faith on the cross.

It is precisely when the challenges, difficulties, troubles, and trials come that the reality of Jesus’ rule and reign are most precious. It is then that we must look in faith to the things not seen. We embrace the assurance of things hoped for. We rise above the tumult and catch the vision of the glory yet to be revealed.

If we go one step further in faith we discover that God’s redemptive work lies at hand. This is the manifestation of the rule and reign of God. When we engage in acts of compassion, mercy, grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation, we are manifesting the rule and reign of Jesus; all the more so when there has been injustice, unkindness, offense, or sin toward us.

So often suffering of that sort makes us wonder where God is. How can he let these things happen? I am a follower of Jesus. I’m doing the right things. I’m the innocent one here. I’m being treated unfairly. And on it goes.

If during these times, however, we look for God’s rule and reign we will bring grace and truth to those situations. We will forgive. We will make peace. We will have mercy even on those who persecute us.

This is no small thing. It is more difficult than anything we might even imagine. I’m not sure I have it in me. But this is Jesus’ call. Follow him. Take up your cross. Deny yourself. This is Jesus’ example. It is also Jesus’ redemptive work fully accomplished. He, after all, is our righteousness.

When the time came, on that hill outside of Jerusalem – smaller and less pretentious than Mount Moriah where Isaac was nearly sacrificed – God did not withhold his own Son from us. The knife was not held back. There was no ram in the bush. It was no mere test. It was the act of a merciful God to redeem the world.

If we can catch but a glimpse of that by faith in the midst of trials we will discover a new and sweeter fellowship with Christ. And the things hoped for, and the things not yet seen will be ours forever.

Jesus the Example

What would you do if your best friend, cousin, and advance team captain was taken prisoner. You know it’s unfair. You know he’ll never get a fair trial. The political powers have conspired with the church and justice officials. There is nothing about this situation that is just. Nothing hopeful is on the horizon. What would you do?

“At the Ready” | Guatemala | September 2018

What if you have more power and authority than any other human being? You can change water into wine. You can raise the dead. You can cast out demons. You can calm a storm with a word. Now, what do you do?

I might try to be stealthy, calling in a few favors. A word here. A suggestion there. A promise offered. A nod given. Sneaky. No need to make a scene. Just get him freed.

If that fails, I might try a power play. Brute force. Showdown. Let’s see who’s really in control here. Not Jesus. His approach is entirely different. 

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand;repent and believe in the gospel.”

Mark 1:14-15

Jesus is an example not because he has all power, authority, and moral superiority, but because he has all these things, but does not take advantage of any of them in the face of this distressful situation. We might think that Jesus has an unfair advantage over us mortals. He has all power, authority, perfect alignment with God, but does not take advantage of these in the face of this difficulty. Instead he provides an example for dealing with the vortex of anxiety and worry.

Recognize the arc of the Kingdom’s  chronology. We overestimate what we can do in the short term while underestimate what God can do in the long term. We measure our days in hours and minutes. God measures his kingdom in eras, and millenia. Jesus not only realized this, but actually announced it. His response to John’s imprisonment was to announce that “the time” was at hand. 

The word for time that Jesus uses here is kairos. This distinctive kingdom language. This is not a tick on the clock. This is not a daily to-do list item. Something big is happening here. John’s arrest is the signal that a move of God is underway. This is a momentous moment. 

That requires faith. And we will take that up tomorrow.

A friend of mine is an airplane pilot. He is also very knowledgeable, and loves to tell stories. On one occasion we were talking about the process of escaping from a graveyard spiral. In aviation, a graveyard spiral is a dangerous spiral dive entered into accidentally by a pilot who is not trained or not proficient in instrument flight when flying in bad weather conditions. The plane begins to circle and descend, and if I’m recalling it correctly, the only way out is to initiate a maneuver that goes against all common sense. It’s as though you must accept the fact that the plane is steeply diving and address the tightly banked turn FIRST, but in so doing the steep dive will be reversed and normal control response is returned. Strangely, this is the only recovery method that will prevent a disaster.

The Golden Gate Bridge Shrouded in Fog | July 2018

Perhaps you’ve experienced a different kind of vortex. In the dark hours of the night you wake up with a nagging and incessant sense of anxiety. You try to talk yourself out of it. You pray. You cajole yourself. You try to sleep. All to no avail. With Jesus as our teacher and example we can learn to escape the vortex. 

Jesus the Teacher

“Do not worry…”

[Jesus says,] “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

34 “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

Matthew 6:25-34

Imagine a friend comes to you with a deep concern for his health. He’s received a notice from his doctor that he is to make an appointment to discuss some recent test results. “I don’t know what to do about this,” he confides. “There’s a history of heart trouble in my family, and I’m just not feeling right.” 

I hope you would never say, “Well, why don’t you just worry!” That would not be good advice. Jesus counsels just the opposite: Do not worry. Jesus’ instruction is important to us in that he tells us that worry will do us no good. Most of us know this. We fight against worry because we know it does us no good. It causes stomach ulcers. It deprives us of sleep. It distracts our thoughts from the work at hand. It paralyzes us in the face of decision-making deadlines. Worry is not our friend.

We know this, but exiting the worry vortex is a great challenge. How do you not worry? 

“Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.”

Fyodor DostoevskyWinter Notes on Summer Impressions, 1863

Thankfully, however, Jesus does not leave us with the dangers of worry and an admonition not to engage in this self-defeating activity. He provides an alternate activity. Seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness. We’re not left to our own devices and mind games in avoidance of worry. We’re to seek God’s kingdom first. He promises to take care of the rest. 

A friend of mine told about a trek through the Canadian wilderness. She and her husband were on a long hike and she spotted a beautiful flower along the way. The only problem was that it was off the path, and would require some serious photographic acrobatics, some trust-holds by her husband, and an over-extended arm to get the image of the flower. The only way she was able to take the photo was to hold her husband’s hand, lean out over a treacherous cliff and take the photo. She was going out of her way to seek this photo. And she got the shot!

God’s kingdom – his rule and reign – is something for which we are to seek in an active and deliberate manner. It’s not mere happenstance. It’s not a matter of serendipitous discovery. It is a matter of intentional effort on our part. Sometimes that means looking behind the curtain of everyday life, and beyond the immediate and obvious events we face – especially in times of stress and trouble. 

And that’s what we’ll consider tomorrow…

Jesus the Example

When John was arrested…

I was blessed with an amazingly gracious and kind mother-in-law. Looking back on some of the experiences I subjected her to, I can only imagine how she must have suffered in silence. I was never disrespectful or unkind. But I was, perhaps a bit thoughtless toward her. 

She was a fan of modern-day conveniences. She was a very good cook, but everything was pretty much out of the box. In fact as Diane and I worked on Thanksgiving dinner we talked about that very fact. Betty Crocker and Duncan Hines got her business, but not ours. She would often say, “The good old days weren’t all that good.” For her, they were just old. She was not enamoured of nostalgic memories.

Time has a way of smoothing off some of the rough edges of life. The harsh realities of yesterday can easily be overshadowed by the more pressing challenges of today. That happened to the Israelites when they were wandering in the wilderness. They wanted to go back to Egypt – the very place of torment and extreme suffering. All they could remember were the leeks! 

That’s so often the case with people who have overcome life’s great challenges. Recovering alcoholics too easily fall off the wagon, remembering only the buzz and seeking relief from the pain. Dieters experience much the same thing. Lord, teach us to remember the distress and pain of our wayward ways.

Fear of sin’s consequences is considered a secondary motivation for obeying God’s commands. But it is a motivation, and anytime we are able to resist temptation it is a good thing. For not only are the good old days not all that good. The temptation of sin offers a sweet promise. But the center of its fruit is filled with bitter poison. 

If we fail to remember the past we will be doomed to repeat it. If we fail to remember the pain of past waywardness, we will stray too easily from God’s ways and experience a greater sadness.

The Gospel writers record that Jesus gave thanks five times. I thought this might be instructive for us – expanding our horizons of things for which we might wish to give thanks to God.

Before the miraculous feedings of great multitudes – Thanking God for the provision he has afforded

John 6:1-14

After this Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias. And a large crowd was following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick. Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples. Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand. Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip,  “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do. Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread would not be enough for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?” 10 Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, about five thousand in number.11 Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated. So also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12 And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples, “Gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing may be lost.” 13 So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves left by those who had eaten. 14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!”

When Lazarus is raised from the dead – For hearing our prayers

John 11:38-44

Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” 44 The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

For hiding kingdom matters from the wise and prudent and revealing them to babes (recorded two times). –

Matthew 11:25-30

At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. 28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Luke 10:21

The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” 18 And he said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. 19 Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. 20 Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

21 In that same hour he rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 22 All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”

23 Then turning to the disciples he said privately, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! 24 For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did no thear it.”

At the Lord’s Supper – Knowingall things are in the Father’s hands – even as he was facing his betrayal, arrest, suffering, and death.

Matthew 26:26-29

Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” 27 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, 28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29 I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”

  • All four accounts of Jesus’ institution of the Lord’s Supper include the fact that Jesus “gave thanks.”
  • Consider the context! His next stop would be the Garden of Gethsemane where he would pray that the cup of God’s wrath would be taken from him. 
  • He did that because he was so committed to redeeming a lost and condemned world. He did that because he loved you and me.

Thanks be to God!

Cross in the Wall | Camp Cho Yeh | October 2018