Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Simple Big Questions

I was reading from Hebrews 6 today. The author gives this advice: "So let us stop going over the basic teachings about Christ again and again. Let us go on instead and become mature in our understanding. Surely we don't need to start again with the fundamental importance of repenting from evil deeds and placing our faith in God (Heb 6:1)."

I know where the author is coming from. Can't we stop talking over and over about the basics? Do we need to say "Jesus loves you" again and again? Do we have to stick to the mantra of believing in Jesus... repenting your sins... living your faith... week after week, month after month? Can't we just do it without the reminders? Can't we just love our neighbor without thinking about it, just as we blink without thinking about it?

Hmmmmm... We are all sinners, though. Every day we face an inner conflict between what God is calling us to do through the Spirit and what our human nature is calling us to do. Paul describes that reality so well in Romans 7. Daily we need to repent of our sin and receive the free gift of forgiveness given to us in baptism. Yeah this is basic stuff, but even the most mature Christian must face these questions and issues all the time.

Faithful people never get beyond the basics. They struggle with them every day. Oh sure, our faith does mature. Prayer is a good example of that. A five-year-old is taught to fold his hands and say "Now I lay me..." This is a perfectly good way to pray. But a Christian who's faith has matured understands that prayer can be done in silence, in crowds, with hands in the air, or hands by your side. A mature Christian knows that in its essence prayer is understanding that you are in communication with God always. That's what Paul means by saying "pray without ceasing" in 1 Thessalonians.

A five-year-old might not understand such "mature" concepts so prays the same prayers at the same times. Why? Because Mommy said so! Unfortunately too many Christians never grow up in their understanding of faith. I am convinced that millions of Christian men do not pray regularly because they think they have to pray like they did when they were five. And quite honestly a grown man should not have to pray "Now I lay me..." A Christian who's faith has matured understands that spirituality is far more powerful and amazing than the Romper Room pictures we may have been taught as a kindergartner.

So yes we need to grow up. Yes it is a blessing when our faith matures. But will we ever be able to skip the basics? Not until Christ writes his Word in our hearts completely and reveals to us all the mysteries of God.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

The Bright Light of Hope

2008 has begun just about the same way that 2007 ended for me, with my eyes fixed on the difficult stories coming out in the news. Bad news is nothing new, but this past week there have been two stories that have hit close to home. First, there was the story of an apartment fire a week ago that killed three people and displaced dozens more. As the smoke cleared this past week the motives behind the fire became more grizzly. Now an angry grandfather stands accused of purposely starting the fire in order to kill his daughter, son-in-law, and grandson. The second story to come out this week involved another fire at a laundromat on Thursday that killed two people. It turned out one of those who died was a man who was often helped out at a local homeless shelter. Good friends of mine knew this man well and are deeply hurt by this tragedy. It is hard to find hope in the news stories that began this year.

Also in the news this week was the Iowa Caucuses. Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee were the winners in the first contest of the 2008 presidential race. I don't bring this up to talk politics, but instead I want to bring up their interesting connection to the word "hope." Huckabee is the former governor of Arkansas who wants to become president. Sound familiar? But that's not all that's familiar about him. His hometown is a placed called Hope, Arkansas. Sounds even more familiar. You must be kidding, you ask? I'm not kidding. Look it up. Illinois Senator Barack Obama is also looking to become president. Obama is connected to the word "hope" through his book titled The Audacity of Hope in which he lays out his vision for putting the government back on track: a hopeless task in the eyes of most.

Obama pulled the title for his book from a sermon series his pastor had given years ago. They must have been some good sermons because the title reflects the reality that the world, like politics, seems to be in a hopeless situation. But of course nothing is ever hopeless in Jesus Christ. Faithful people can audaciously hold on to hope even in the face of so much bad news. We find such hope in the lives of people who press ahead even as they are struck time and time again by the pain of sin and death. God gives us such audacious hope through Jesus Christ.

Now the world approaches January 6 and the festival called the Epiphany of Our Lord. We remember the star that stopped above Bethlehem and the wise men who thought it wise to leave their homes and make the journey to pay homage to Jesus. He is Messiah and as such he is born to bring hope to a world that usually only sees hopelessness. When King Herod heard about this so called Messiah "he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him (Matthew 2:3)." Might it be that Herod's power, and the power of others in Jerusalem, was the cause of some of this hopelessness? You bet they were afraid.

Herod is not the sole source of human suffering, however. For as long as there have been humans there have been humans who have fallen into the traps of sin and have felt the sting of mortality. The cold hand of this reality has led too many good people into the pit of despair, convinced there is no hope left in the world. There are those who would say that there is no hope for the world in light all the horrible news of 2008. But let me tell you... There is hope!

The light of Christ's love has stopped over our world and illumines our cold, dark reality with hope. I have seen it so clearly this week. Every family that was displaced by Saturday's fire was placed in at least a temporary home by Monday. The community collected enough clothing by midweek to help the dozens who lost their homes four times over. And our local homeless shelters continue to operate because of the generosity of many, the leadership of staff and countless volunteers doing God's work now, in this place. Yes, there is hope!

But hope only begins with the amazing response of our brothers and sisters. Hope comes fully to light through Jesus Christ. Jesus' hope is audacious hope for the men and women who's lives ended far to early through these tragedies. In Romans Paul recognizes that sin continues and people still fall victim to senseless tragedy. Its not too hard to recognize that. But upon that reality the bright light of hope shines. Paul says in Romans 5:20-21 "But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord."

No sin, no power, no tragedy can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. The innocent victims of darkness are promised God's love and the comfort of his embrace. Nothing can extinguish the light of hope that shines on this world. This is good news for 2008. In Christ there is always hope. No wonder the wise men traveled so far to pay homage to Jesus. Wise men and women continue to pay him homage by living their faith every day. In Christ the light of hope shines upon us.