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Make All Things New by James P. Janknegt
Note: This is the last in the lenten series on hope.

If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.
(1 Corinthians 15:19)

When Christ returned from the grave, his body had gone through a transformation. Paul tells us that what was "sown perishable, was raised imperishable", of a substance which made it compatible with a different world, the world to come. The hope of the resurrection is that this life is not the only life that there is. That another life, another reality exists beyond the threshold of death. And that one day it will burst through the barrier of death and be the only world we know, a new heaven and a new earth.
 
This belief in a future life, sometimes dismissingly referred to as “pie in the sky by and by” has often come under criticism by those who attack Christianity. It has been cited as a cause for a lack of concern with the world in which we live in now, a reason to ignore the environment, or the poor, or unjust laws, or the care of our bodies. But this critique is unfounded, as Christ's teachings lead us to be loving stewards of creation, involved in feeding and clothing the poor, committed to just societies and acknowledging our bodies as temples for the Holy Spirit.

A hope for a future world doesn’t negate our actions and  involvement in our present day to day life, an interest in civic duty, charitable giving, environmental responsibility or health care. Instead, it offers a reality check to the amount we are able to do. Despite the best efforts of a reformer, a Peace Corps volunteer, a social worker, at the end of the day there are failures for every success, tears for each burst of joy, regret for each celebration.

Like "all the king's soldiers and all the king's men" who look despairingly at Humpty Dumpty, shattered at the base of his wall, we can't put back together the pieces from the fall of mankind. And that is why Paul says, “if it is only for this life that we believe in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied.” For the Christian, this life, although extremely significant, awaits a future life, where God "shall wipe away all tears from our eyes and there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." (Revelation 21:4)

It is easy to put  a God of love and power on trial in this world. Like Julian of Norwich, we agonize over the existence of sin and the sufferings that come from evil all around us. We wonder how a universe which is full of pain and distress could come from a truly loving and omnipotent God. Couldn't there have been a better way? we ask. "Sin is necessary," God replies to Julian in The Revelation of Love. But "all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."

The truth that we celebrate on Easter Sunday is that there is something more, something beyond the grave, that will not only balance the scales, not only restore what has been broken, lost and defiled, but will result in our becoming even more whole than we thought possible. In her visions, Julian is shown that God is indeed loving and powerful, and that he is also holding onto a mystery, one in which all the wrongs of the world shall be put to right in a way that will satisfy all of our questions. We cannot and will not know how it will happen now, but God does not want us to be in distress. He wants us to rest in the hope that the ending is happier than we can imagine.

Our hope is not only for ourselves, for we are only one of the many on this planet, but for every person who has ever lived, for each child that has ever suffered, each wife that has ever been betrayed, each man that has ever been despised. We even hope for those who have been our enemies and caused indescribable harm. We hope that this mystery of God shall make possible what to us seems utterly impossible. That in the life to come the loving power of the resurrection will put make all things well.
 
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Woman with Crossed Arms by Picasso

this post is part of the Lenten series on hope

As we head toward Good Friday and the Easter weekend, I find myself thinking about those times when our hope fails. Certainly hope was in short commodity for those disciples who sat helpless and hopeless while they watched their beloved friend and teacher put to death.

Waiting outside in the courtyard for Jesus' trial to convene, Peter's confidence melts away. An inundation of fear courses through his body, causing him to deny that he even knew Jesus, his third response punctuated with a volley of curses to leave no doubt in the mind of the questioning servant girl. There might have been moments when a chance, meager though it was, was offered to the band of believers. Perhaps the disciples hear of the dream of Pilate's wife's, her impassioned plea to let this Jewish prisoner go. Could it be? No, Pilate refuses to let his wife tell him what to do. The sinking feeling returns. But what about the yearly release of a political prisoner? Maybe that is a way out? No. Pilate is releasing Barabbas. Nothing can be done now. Jesus' fate is sealed. 

Overwhelmed with emotion, sleep deprived and weary, the men and women who had followed Jesus had little to cling onto as they watched him stumble toward Golgotha. Depleted, they stood stunned and grieving at the cross; later, gathering for moral support, they cowered behind closed doors. Perhaps their state of mind was best expressed by Cleopas, one of the men the risen Lord appeared to on the way to Emmaus, when he asked, "Are you the only one in Jerusalem who hasn't heard the news? Jesus, a prophet mighty in deed and word before all the people was sentenced to death and crucified. But we were hoping he would be the one to redeem Israel." (Luke 24:21)

When hope fails, then what?

There are times when, like those early disciples, people move beyond hope. There are times when one cannot even muster up faith - in God, in the goodness of humanity, in their ability to cope, in any possible future good. I don't know that I've ever been in that place myself, but I know it exists. And I'm not sure  what one can do for themselves when that's their experience. Maybe all one can do is wait in the darkness.

But I'm hopeful for those who are going through periods of hopelessness. When one doesn't the ability to find hope, when there is no energy to exercise faith, all is not lost. It's then that Paul's words from I Corinthians 13 speak into the darkness. "Three things  will last forever--faith, hope, and love--and the greatest of these is love." God wants us to know that when we can't, He still can. His love will always flow. And this love doesn't depend on us. God's love is the organizing and sustaining force behind our world. It continues whether we believe in it or not; it does not fluctuate when our ability to hope sputters and dies.

When hope falters, we are still held. When our faith fails, God's does not. No matter what, love remains.

            _            _            _            _            _            _            _            _            _

After the Last Tear Falls by Andrew Peterson from his album Love and Thunder
 
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"Where is Truth and Justice?" an arpillera from the Cachando Chile website.


This post is part of the Lenten series on hope.

"What is in your hand?" God wants to know from Moses. "How much oil do you have?" the prophet Elisha asks the widow. "How many loaves and fishes are here?" Jesus queries his disciples. In each of these cases, the answer isn't impressive. A staff. A small jar. Two loaves and five fishes. Yet with each of these simple items, God is able to work. The rod becomes a serpent, brings forth water from a rock, splits open the Red Sea. The small flask fills container after container, until the multitude of borrowed jars from neighbors is capped off, enough liquid gold to bankroll a hungry family for years to come. And the little boy's loaves and fishes? Blessed and broken, they are somehow mysteriously transformed into enough lunch for 5,000 men, not to mention women and children.

It is easy to be daunted when it seems we have limited resources with which to engage our world. What hope do we have, we may wonder, of taking care of ourselves, or of making a difference with only this? 

In 1998 our family moved to Chile for a year. As months passed, I became acquainted with the recent history of our new home. On September 11, 1973, a military coup had abruptly ended the presidency of  Salvador Allende and placed Augusto Pinochet in power.  Almost immediately, martial law was declared and dissenters were rounded up. Chileans called those arrested the desaparecidos (those who had disappeared), as in many cases they were never heard from again. Pinochet was moving out of power while we were in Chile, and the country was much calmer -had even seen remarkable economic growth - but even after 25 years, the aftershocks of the beginning of this regime were still evident in the psyche of the culture at large.
 
Although I had learned about the desaparecidos during that time, it wasn't until recently that I heard about the arpillera movement, which grew out of this period of political upheaval. With the incarceration and execution of thousands of husbands and fathers, many wives and children were left with no means to provide for themselves. And so, the Catholic church formed the Vicaria de la Solidaridad, an organization charged with caring for those who were in desperate circumstances.

During some of the workshops offered by the Vicaria, women began to come together, not only to learn new skills, but also to grieve and offer support. Some of these women began to embroider arpilleras  to sell as a means of providing for their families. These wall hangings, made from embroidery thread, scraps of material and burlap, had traditionally pictured scenes from the countryside. As time went by, however, the subject matter of these arpilleras became more and more political. Although the creators of these tapestries were anonymous, the stories depicted were of real events; the seamstresses kept the injustice of the regime alive, refusing to forget the desaparacidos, continuing to seek justice for the missing men. Here's a quote from Cachando Chile, a website with reflections on Chilean Culture.

These arpilleras began to tell a story, to leave a history, a testimony in cloth, of what the women were experiencing. It was an emotional release, and for many it was a way of expressing what they could not bring their voices to say.

As they pieced their stories together—often working late at night and by candle light so they wouldn’t be caught and charged with subversive activities—something amazing happened. The Vicaría began to sell them to foreigners who smuggled them out of the country, and these patchwork messages began to travel the world, telling the stories of people whose words could not be spoken or written. As these women perfected their craft, their needles and thread, scraps of cloth and bits of yarn became powerful language-independent tools with which to tell their tales.

I find myself inspired as I read this story. Who could imagine that thread and burlap could make a difference, that something as ordinary as sewing could have an impact? Perhaps those days of God using small things isn't over. And I begin to hope that what I have in my hand may be enough. Perhaps it may even be part of changing my world.
 
During Lent, I've been using the Wednesday posts to reflect on hope. When I came across this poem by Rilke. I was struck by the strong message of hope I found within its lines. There is work for us to do - no doubt about that; the very act of reconciling the pieces of our life that don't match, that don't make sense, is difficult. But there is a reward that comes from graciously owning our past - the good, the bad, the perplexing. By refusing to see ourselves as victims, we turn the tables and become hosts. Rather than throwing a pity party, we anticipate a celebration with a gentle yet empowering guest. This partner in our loneliness, mysteriously responding to our monologues, has the ability to change us. And as we yield to this love we are stretched, infused, transformed until it is no longer clear who is being held and who is doing the holding - so interwoven we cannot tell where this mystical dance begins and where it ends.


She Who Reconciles

She who reconciles the ill-matched threads
of her life, and weaves them gratefully
into a single cloth --
it's she who drives the loudmouths from the hall
and clears it for a different celebration
where the one guest is you.
In the softness of evening
it's you she receives.
You are the partner of her loneliness,
the unspeaking center of her monologues.
With each disclosure you encompass more
and she stretches beyond what limits her,
to hold you.


~
Rainer Maria Rilke ~

Addendum: I was reminded, after I wrote this post, of a verse from the book of Revelation. In the first part of this vision, Jesus  instructs the apostle John to write letters to seven of the churches scattered throughout modern day Turkey. He concludes one of these letters by saying:
 
"Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me."
 
This is the fourth in a Lenten series on Hope.

The apostle Paul is sitting in a prison, penning a letter to his friends in Philippi. Life is uncertain, his future hopeless; death is imminent, only the date is unsure. How do you nurture hope when there is no hope for change? The trajectory of life, perhaps due to chronic pain or a terminal disease, offers no promise of relief.

Last week's post on hope brought into focus hope's relationship to the past. But what if there is no relationship between hope and your future? While Christians can move the marker of hope into the world that's coming, our certain future hope, is there a way that hope can still relate to our present?

Paul gives us an answer from his jail. 

"For I fully expect and hope that I will never be ashamed, but that I will continue to be bold for Christ, as I have been in the past. And I trust that my life will bring honor to Christ, whether I live or die."

Saturday evening we attended a benefit concert for a friend of our daughter's who is struggling with leukemia. The evening's outpouring of love and music was to encourage and honor a person whose gentle, humble character along with his amazing proficiency as an accompanist has touched many in our community. At the end of the concert, he took the podium to thank his wife and those who had come to honor him. He closed by saying, "All that I have ever done, I have done to bring glory to God." Then taking a seat at the piano, he played a heartfelt rendition of "To God Be the Glory."

When we feel as if it takes all of our energy just to perform the simple tasks of life, it is hard to hope that our lives might bring God glory, As our ability to "do" diminishes, life seems to close in upon us. Paul's hope is that he will continue to put his trust in God's grace to fill his life. "When I am weak, He is strong," he will say earlier in his life. (2 Cor 12:10).

Life with God is life in God. As we lessen, God's presence has more room to fill the space that constitutes our soul. Fear of diminishment may tempt us to close ourselves off from help, especially that which God is yearning to pour into us. But faith that we are connected with God, no matter what, keeps our souls open for loving strength to enter.

This daily strength, no matter what our circumstances or physical state, is what we can hope for. Not our ability to handle life, as much as our belief that our lives are knit together with God's. That no matter our situation, comfort, courage, and grace will flow as we stay open. This can be our hope, and acting on this hope, our lives bring glory to the one whose joy is to meet our every need.
 
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Home sweet home by Sarah Sullivan

Hope is often perceived as a word of the future (in fact, last week's post took up that theme). But I wonder what it looks like when we view our past with hope? There are things that we’ve done which have caused true harm, and that we regret deeply. I heard once that people don’t remember much about their middle school years precisely because it is so painful. We want to forget the stupid choices we made back then, because we don’t dare hope that what we did can be reconciled with who we are now.

In Christianity there is a strong emphasis on forgiveness. That is to say, that what we have done in the past will not be held against us. We will be released from the guilt, if not always the consequences, of our action. But sometimes forgiveness falls short. And here again, Christianity offers an answer – grace-filled redemption, the belief that good will come from our mistakes.

I remember several months ago I was writing down my top values. One of them was “grace for learning.” In my failures, of which there are bound to be many, I hope that grace will be offered. If I am trying the best that I can, I hope that my mistakes will be taken up and formed into something beautiful.

There is a strand of Christianity that sees sin as inevitable, but also as a means of putting God’s grace on display. Julian of Norwich, in her Divine Revelation, says that God “considers sin to be the sorrow and suffering of those who love him and out of love he does not blame them... And so shame will be turned into glory and greater joy; for our generous Lord does not want his servants to despair because they fall into sin often or grievously; our falling does not prevent him from loving us.”

These words echo those of Paul, who in writing to the Romans says, "And I know, that in all things, God works for the good of those who love him." (Rom 8:28) They remind us that nothing is outside of the purview and power of God to be transformed. As Joseph says to his brothers, who sold him into Egpyt, "You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good." (Genesis 50:20)

Recently I came upon this poem by Spanish poet Antonio Machado. The dream is an “error” only because it is not literally true, but the grace it shows is marvelous indeed. How it nurtures my soul to hope that those golden bees are nothing less than the loving Spirit of a loving God, adamant in making good out of my life’s mistakes. 
 
Last Night as I was Sleeping
Antonio Machado

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt - marvelous error! -
that I had a beehive here
inside my heart.

And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.
 
This is the second in a Lenten series on hope. 

Why pay attention to hope? I've been wondering this for several months, ever since I had an invitation to speak at a Christmas event on the topic of hope and anticipation. Hope really hadn't been on my radar, so to speak, for a long time. Perhaps it was because I had been working very hard during the past several years on being present. As a Myers-Briggs ENTP, I'm easily captivated by possibilities - naturally drawn to hope. But this future-bent way of looking at things kept me from ever enjoying the today that was yesterday's tomorrow. And so began a long season of letting the future fade and training my focus on the here and now.

Hope is different from its cousin, faith. The writer of Hebrews says that "faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see." (9:1) Faith turns something that is not seen into bedrock reality. It grounds us. As a Christian, I have faith in a God of love. This loving God, who exists as strongly in my mind as the chair I'm sitting on, is also, by faith, a God of infinite power and wisdom. By faith, I believe that this God is constantly providing everything that I will need to live a life that is good and meaningful, full of joy and connection through the Spirit of love.

Faith is a given. I can take it to the bank. But hope is a future word. Hope brings me into the area of things which are not yet, things which are good, but are still to be decided. Hope involves me as well as God. Despair, or the absence of hope, drains me of energy. It chills my soul, and paralyzes my ability to imagine anything good might happen. It leads to death. Hope, on the other hand, opens me up to possibilities. If I believe that God is truly good and that boundless power is linked to that goodness, then I am energized to move forward, emboldened to grasp onto life.

Earlier in Hebrews, the writer encourages his readers to not be discouraged in their efforts to follow God. Instead, he urges them to think of hope as an "anchor for their soul." My husband, Dan, has often illustrated this verse by an experience that he had while living in the Bahamas. While out on ocean one day, the motor on their boat stopped, causing initial alarm. But he remembered a strategy that he'd heard about, and began casting his anchor in the direction where he wanted to head, and then winching the boat over to the anchor. Then he'd toss again. It took a long time and plenty of muscle power, but in the end, he realized his hope of making it to shore.

We are currently in a situation that requires hope. There is a temptation to give in to fear, which can lead to flailing about or a sense of impending doom. But we don't have to give in to temptation. Now is the time for both faith and hope. Faith grounds us by assuring us that God is loving and powerful, that the future is secure. Hope grabs onto that faith and energizes us to throw out the anchor toward what is yet to come.  

Photo credit: Leo Reynolds on Flickr
 
Two years ago I felt like my life was a long season of Lent, trudging through desert wastelands, hoping for some relief along the way. As Ash Wednesday approached, it occurred to me that giving up something for Lent was exactly the wrong idea. Rather than moving myself more towards a fast, I needed to add something nourishing. The something I added was the commitment to take more initiative where I could. Using the phrase, "Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem" from Luke 9 as my mantra, I decided to exercise the free will I had to make a decision every day. I was worn out, but the choice to choose kept me from plunging into depression.

It's easy, I think, to view Christianity as a set of negations. When I was growing up as a teenager, it seemed as if people were eager to tell you you couldn't do something, but rarely offered a healthy or life-giving alternative. If instead of worrying about getting rid of things, we consider what we would like to add - not so much "not being" as "becoming" -things might be a bit easier. Adding in the good makes less room for the not-so-good, while focusing on the best will make it even possible to drop what is good.

During this Lenten season, I'm choosing to add more hope to my life. "Love hopes all things," says Paul in his famous chapter on love sent to the Corinthian church. If I am intent on following the path of Jesus towards love, then being filled with hope will only help in my journey. As a way of keeping me on track, I'll be taking the Wednesday posts until Easter to blog about hope.

Maybe the language of acquisition rather than deprivation will put a different spin on your Lenten observance this year. Giving up chocolate as a means of adding self-control might still be the right idea, but only if you desire self-control as a means of loving yourself and others more or better. It might be more helpful to seek to be more generous; while looking for extra money to do so, the morning Starbucks latte might seem a good place to start. 

How do you want to become more like Christ, more full of his love? Let that be the guiding question as you ponder how best to enter into Lent. The Spirit of Christ will show you and then give you what you need to follow her lead.
 
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Gamelatron: Pendopo at the End of the Universe, photo credit: Aaron Taylor Kuffner

Last week I came across three inspiring stories. Each engendered a sense of wonder and possibility. They also reminded me that imagination, although imperative, is not enough. Resources and community provide the wings that allow imagination to get off the ground.

The first was the story of Amy Purdy, who tragically lost her legs due to complications following a bout of Bacterial Meningitis. Amy went on to not only recover, but become a championship snowboarder, motivational speaker and advocate for other atheletes with adaptive needs. Her indomitable spirit allowed her to see her challenges as opportunities for creativity.

Patrick Henry Hughes was born blind and with a medical condition that keeps his limbs from straightening out. He was also born with an amazing recall for and love of music that his parents recognized at an early age. With his parents' supposrt, Patrick leaned into his music, and when he headed to college, was given an opportunity to participate in the marching band - his father powering his wheelchair, keeping him "in step" while Hughes' trumpet sounds clearly.

And over at NPR, there was a feature on The Music Box, a ramshackle group of structures, that whimsically and innovatively play music, all built from the remains of a house decimated by the aftermath of Katrina. There's Heartbeat House, a Singing Wall, and a Water Organ, to name a few. One of the artists explains what drives the project. "I would hate to see these old, beautiful properties bulldozed and thrown away, and these new developments put in," Martin says. "That's not our neighborhood anymore if we do that. So [The Music Box] was our answer to it ... [it] was important to us to create out of this blight ... a sense of wonder and possibility."

In each of these stories, imagination played a part in instilling hope and a way forward even in the midst of tragedy. But what also caught me was that imagination cannot get off the ground without support. Amy needed not only parents, but innovative partners to help her develop the right sort of prosthesis to take up snowboarding again.  And the money to rehabilitate. Hughes depends on his father to wheel him through the routines of the marching band, as well as the makers of his wheelchair, and the willingness of the band directors to imagine how they could include Patrick. Finally, there are the patrons who fund imaginative projects like The Music Box, who see the value in creativity fueling hope, not just the resale value of a piece of property that could be bulldozed to the ground.

We may not all have imagination, but we can be part of the team where imagination flourishes. Hope requires more than creativity to take flight, each of us must offer what we have. Only then will dreams soar.

-----

Amy Purdy's story can be found on TED here.
Click here for the youtube about Patrick Henry Hughes.
The article about The Music Box is here at npr.org.
 

The Old Testament Scripture yesterday morning came from Isaiah 40. This beautiful psalm, which you can read here, has long been one of my favorites. Handel was so struck with the following verses that he chose them for the opening recitative and aria of his famous oratorio, the Messiah.

Comfort, comfort my people,
   says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
   and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
   that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.

The Israelites are in exile, far from home, living out the consequence of ignoring the ways of God. This exile is never meant to be a permanent condition; it is rather a holy "time-out" of sorts, offering a restart for a nation that has gone astray. Now that time is coming to an end and God is letting the exiles know a change is coming. Finally, there is good news, an announcement that is mean to bring comfort to the hearers.

Which of us doesn't find ourselves from time to time in need of comfort? We feel burdened, depressed, weary or overwhelmed. Perhaps it is a result of our own foolishness, or poor choices, but perhaps it is not our "fault," simply a result of being human, part and parcel with the brokenness we share with our fellow-travelers. When we're in need of comfort, the last thing we want is someone to poke a finger, to attach blame, to sneer and say "I told you so." What we need is compassion and help.

Each Sunday, the Anglican liturgy begins with this prayer:

Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy Name; through Christ our Lord.
Amen.

To have our hearts laid bare can be a very scary thing - all our desires known, all our secrets out in the open. Unless the one who is doing the looking is full of compassion. Isaiah tells us a few chapters later that when the Messiah arrives, he will come  gently, "not snuffing out a smoldering wick, nor breaking a bruised reed." (Isaiah 42) And so it is with Jesus. He does not come to condemn, he tells his disciples. Mankind is already suffering the consequences of brokenness. One Sabbath morning, given the platform in a local synagogue, He offers these verses from Isaish 61 to describe his calling: 

The Spirit of the  Sovereign Lord is upon me,
   for the Lord has anointed me
   to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to comfort the brokenhearted
   and to proclaim that captives will be released
   and prisoners will be freed.

The Advent of Jesus is characterized by compassion. But Jesus doesn't only bring comfort, he also learns what it means to need comfort. By taking on flesh, Jesus embraces the suffering of humanity. He can empathize with us now, because He became one of us then. God no longer offers compassion only from a parental viewpoint, but also as one who has lived in the trenches, experienced the hurt, betrayal, disappointment and grief that are part of the human condition. The comforter is able to comfort from within the system, which means that we can trust in an even deeper way the God to whom we come.

The healing and rest, the restoration that God envisions, continues with the advent of Spirit. And so the prayer above includes the phrase: "Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, so that we may perfectly love thee and worthily magnify thy name." As we wait for the Spirit to work in our lives, opening ourselves in vulnerability to the gentle touch of infinite love, we know we will receive new breath, new life. We hope and anticipate being made whole, having our worth restored so that we may live out our vocations to the glory of God.
 
Mankind healed and empowered to live fully in love is the eternal hope and inifinite desire of God. It was this incomprehensible yearning that set the Advent of the Christ into motion. "For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven" we affirm as we recite the Nicene creed. And so this advent season we wait, with God, for God to get what God wants: ourselves, healed, filled, complete, seen to be of inestimable worth. And we join in hope as we sing with the angels, "Glory to God in the highest."