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February 2015

Summertime Sabbath Time

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Sabbath: a day of rest

On a recent trip to the mountains I woke early on a Sunday morning and immediately began to wonder: what should I be doing today?

Then I remembered another Sunday asking a writer friend if they were writing that day. The reply: “No, I’m doing Sabbath”!

Why didn’t I think of that? And why are preachers sometimes among the most notorious Sabbath-breakers, working Sundays and most every other day?

In a Jan Karon Mitford novel one preacher admits to another, “My sermons are about as nourishing as cardboard.” His friend asks, “Are you too exhausted to run, and too scared to rest?”

Too exhausted to run? Too scared to rest? Why is it, that when God rested on the seventh day to enjoyed, we often find it so hard simply to stop?

Is it the way we’re wired? My daughter says, “Dad’s not a workaholic. He’s a thinkaholic. His brain doesn’t turn off.”

The world of course doesn’t stop just for us. My wife’s father was a dairy farmer. His cows didn’t know it was Sunday and had to be milked. Our obstetrician son-in-law can tell you that babies wouldn’t wait to come until Monday so he could sleep in. I realize that some overburdened readers would give anything just to have a free day or even a few free hours.

But aren’t we also part of a culture of “more”? Businesses want more customers. Churches – whether mega- or mid- or mini- want more members. The Observer wants more readers. And with our 24/7 non-stop media we are always seduced into not missing a moment.

Of course God has made us as partners with him in building and developing his world. Ambition can be both holy and useful. And as long as there are starving children to feed, souls and bodies to be healed, families to care for, we can’t have overdo compassion.

But when does “more” ever turn into “enough”?

Are we “too scared to stop”, so defined by what we do, that we are afraid to stop and look inside and maybe find what? Nothing?

It would be good to heed Jesus’ story of the farmer who kept building bigger and bigger barns, hoping some time he’d have enough. And God commented, “You are foolish. This night your life will be required. Then who will get all these things you possess?” Or, we might add, that possess us?

Ten years ago I had both a heart attack and prostate cancer (and recovered fully from both). That summer I couldn’t travel much. I spent more time at home, reading, thinking, doing a painting of our back yard, enjoying time with Jeanie, often breathing the prayer, “Be still and know that I am God.”

At the end of that summer I think I knew myself, my wife, our home, and the Lord better.

Here’s a poignant lament from the Bible: “The summer is past and we are not saved.” But – half this summer is still remaining. We can fill it with more frantic activity, or stop – even for an hour or two if not a day – to pause, to breathe, to listen, to be.

On that recent Sunday when I woke early wondering what to do, we worshiped. I took a long drive through the hills with our dog, stopping often to take in the artistry of the mountains and skies. We strolled through a village craft show, stopping to chat with an artist also named Ford.

I remembered a young lawyer in Charlotte who came home late one day with a briefcase full of work to do, and sighed, “I can’t ever seem to catch up.” His five-year old daughter said, “Daddy, why don’t you join a slower group?”

I have decided, at least for this summer, to join a slower group.

To do Sabbath.

And, hopefully, to be more useful, not useless.

Want to join?

Leighton Ford

 

 

 

 

 

A Prayer Through the Day

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The final sentences of the 139th Psalm form a pattern of prayer throughout a day!

A morning prayer as I begin the day:
“Search me and know my heart”
is my heart centered right as I begin today?

A midday prayer, perhaps at noon:
“Test me and know my restless thoughts”
time to recognize thoughts that will not let go – to stop and be still!

An evening prayer as I look back on the day:
“See if there is any wicked (hurtful) way in me”
are there hurts I have caused, or received, which need forgiving and forgetting?

A bedtime prayer as I end the day:
“Lead me in the way everlasting”
the prayer of “compline” as the day is completed, and we rest in God’s hands.

Try this through today .. and other days!

Leighton

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Letting Wrangler Go

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This column is a kind of confessional. I confess that I am missing my doggie Wrangler, my Blue Heeler Australian Cattle Dog, very, very much. Could it be perhaps too much?

Wrangler and I were introduced at Animal Control nine years ago. From the moment our eyes met, we were bonded. I brought him home unannounced just after Christmas, You could call him a rescue dog, but truth is we rescued each other, him from his homelessness, me from my loneliness.

Over these nine years we did almost everything together. When I wrote he sat by my side, watching, waiting ready when I moved, his ears going up for a walk or a ride. He was fast running for the birds, always hungry, always loyal, always ready for a walk or a ride/ He made me laugh, running sideways with his legs bowed like a cowboy, chasing birds (and cars) like the herding dog he was, or making the leaves and pine needles fly with his paws after doing his thing, or doing his water dance in the hose – next to eating his favorite thing.

I call him my “spiritual director dog” because he taught me to pay attention, with an uncanny ability to fix an unwavering gaze at me, sitting or walking. My neighbor Todd remarked, “I never saw a dog so focused just on one person.” As he paid attention to me he taught me to keep my inner gaze on God, my heart alert to his signals.

On a night last December night those eyes betrayed him, We came home late from dinner, and as the garage door opened Wrangler trotted out from where he had been waiting, his eyes green in the headlights, perhaps confused by night blindness. I slowed down, let him walk to the side, then slowly moved forward until I heard a yelp, felt a slight bump.

“Oh, no,” I said to Jeanie, “I hope that wasn’t Wrangler.” I jumped out, found him caught under the front tire, pulled him loose. He struggled to stand, moved a few feet, lay down, dragging a hip. I ran inside to call an emergency vet hospital, threw on a jacket, ran out to take him.

Wrangler had crawled to the side of the road. Lay silent. Not breathing.

I bent over him, cradled his head. “My boy, my pal. I’m so sorry, I wouldn’t have hurt you for anything. Wrangler, my boy, my pal.”

Nine years ended in less than nine minutes.

And I am still grieving him. My dog of a lifetime.

In this column recently I wrote about Lent as a time of “letting go and reaching out.”

I confess I am having a very hard time letting Wrangler go. The dog of these years is both absent, in his physical presence, and very much with me. I see him everywhere. Find it almost impossible yet to walk the paths where we went together.

With time I know the pain will ease. There will be places where we will scatter his ashes, in our backyard, by the neighborhood creek, by the mountain lake in the mountains Yet I will miss him walking among periwinkles in the spring, dancing in the water in summertime, joining the prayer circle at retreats with young leaders in the fall. The year will go and healing will come.

Is this too much grief – for a dog? When thousands of children are dying in war, or famine?

My friend Jim, a counselor, suggests what I am missing is simply a friend. “He was always there, always available, always trusting, listening. I have known you as a leader who has always been ‘one up.’ I think you are just missing your friend.”

He is right. As an adopted and only child growing up (never having a dog); traveling in my ministry for years, away from my wife and family for weeks; losing a beloved son; taking on the loneliness of leadership, I have experienced what Dorothy Day called the “long loneliness.”

But haven’t we all? Whether in a crowd, or in solitude, when the frantic noise and busyness dies away, when our little pleasures no longer please, when those we love leave us, can’t we all hear that voice of a lonely heart?

And isn’t this what Lent is about? We follow a Lord who went through a forty-day battle with the devil alone in the desert; who prayed in the garden all night by with tears of blood and asked his disciples why they could not have stayed awake with him; who in his final moments cried out, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”

And yet by his very sharing of our human condition he reached out to us, taking into himself the loneliness of our suffering, sin, and separation, so that in turn he could offer his friendship and walk with us on our lonely roads.

So the question that faces me this Lent is two-fold: will I let go of my losses? Will I reach out to receive (and to share) what God is offering? How else can we turn our losses into new life?

Writing about loss John O’Donohue said, “It is such a waste to become absent from life.”

I begin to see how God has reached out to me in these days of Lent – through a child – my eight-year old granddaughter. We were sitting together on a Sunday afternoon. She sensed a sadness and asked if I was missing Wrangler. I could only nod. She came close, looked at me with solemn eyes, laid her hand on my face, and said, ”Gagi, Wrangler is waiting for you. He is watching over you. You will see him again. The Bible tells me that.”

I believe she is theologically correct. When God renewed his covenant with humankind after the great flood, he made it with all creatures, not just with humans. And in the new heavens and new earth to come all creatures will be present to praise him. (See Genesis xxx and Revelation xxx).

Meanwhile God reaches out to us through his human enovoys like my granddaughter. She was spiritually and emotionally wise and sensitive, an angel for my soul. She reached out to me … and helped me to reach out too.

And, oh, by the way, there is a new doggie at our house. His name is Buddy, and he was found wandering on the street not far from us. He has come to live with us now, a comfort dog. Do you think that Wrangler (or his Greater Master) might have something to do with this new arrival?

 

 

 

 

Hope-Holders

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The following essay was written especially for the Advent 2011 issue of Journal for Preachers which provides helpful articles to several thousand preachers periodically. Journal for Preachers is published by Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. Leighton Ford graduated from there in 1955, and also served as student body president.

He has returned to Columbia a number of times to teach, and lecture.

Notes and reflections on preaching hope in Advent

“Sometimes all you can do is hold hope for someone, until they can take it and hold it for themselves.” A young colleague made this remark as we spoke over lunch about hope.

The phrase struck home to me – “hope-holders” – isn’t that what followers of Christ are supposed to be?

I think of Peter’s admonition: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15).

I picture Paul, sailing to Rome when the ship is caught in a violent storm and near foundering. After every possible measure is taken, and the storm still rages, Luke records “all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned.” Then Paul stands up, and tells them not a life would be lost, for an angel had come telling him not to fear, that he would indeed live to stand before the emperor.

“So keep up your courage,” he says, “for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told. But we will have to run aground on some island” (Acts 27:20-26). Paul was no preacher of positive thinking, or a prosperity gospel. Danger and death would still come. But, with his trust in the word of God, he was a true hope-holder.

And what more could we hope to be as preachers of hope this Advent?

What have I learned about hope?

Across the decades of my life what have I learned about Advent and hope that could be fresh, substantial, hopeful?

Christmas I remember well. Customers crowded my parents’ jewelry store in Chatham, Ontario. But Advent did not make an impression on me at First Presbyterian Church. Our minister, Scott Fulton, was tall, genial, with a warm smile, but if he expounded Advent I do not recall. Our worship in the rather austere Scots Presbyterian style did not pay much attention to the liturgical year.

And hope? What if anything (beyond presents under the tree) did I hope for?

I hoped in those war years, that we would beat Hitler, although that war was a wide ocean away.

I hoped the Toronto Maple Leafs would win hockey’s Stanley Cup. And they did, fairly often.

I hoped my parents would stop fighting and arguing, at least over Christmas. They didn’t.

I hoped, when I led our fledgling Youth for Christ rallies, that most of the kids in my high school would come to Jesus. Some did. Most didn’t care.

What happened to those hopes? Hitler died, but there’s hardly been a year since without war some place. The Maple Leafs have been pretty much a lost hope for the past forty years. My parents separated when I went off to college. And, although I later preached evangelistically across my native land, fewer Canadians go to church now than then. My birth city, Toronto the Good (and the gray), is now one of the most secular cities in the world.

Two Advents and a Year of Loss

Ironically, the two most recent Advent seasons sandwiched a year of loss for me.

Advent always comes at a bittersweet time for Jeanie and me, as we remember our twenty-one year old son Sandy who died thirty years agp during heart surgery the day after Thanksgiving .

For some reason, in November of 2009, that dark abyss seemed to crack open, as if a world were crumbling under me again.

The sense of loss soon had other faces. Over the next year three men very close to me died with cancer – a long-time colleague, and my spiritual director, and one of the first young leaders I mentored. Our doctor son-in-law had a serious accident. A case of shingles occurred. I had to forego attending a major world conference I had looked forward to. A younger family member was struggling with depression and addiction. All that happened from Advent of one year through the next.

Those losses seem to have been foreshadowed when I got lost hiking in the North Carolina mountains in the summer of 2009. I had missed a sign for a fork in the road, had no map, darkness was closing in, and no one knew where I was. I wondered if I would be spending the night in the company of bears! Just before my cell phone powered down I managed to call the manager of a local lodge who told me I was headed 180 degrees in the wrong direction.

“Start walking the other way,” he said. “It’s a long walk, but I’ll send someone to get you.”

An hour later I heard a welcome shout from a security guy in his pickup. A voice had come with promise and a new direction.

Early and late, I have been learning that hope and loss, tragically, are bound together, that like Abraham I am always “hoping against hope,” and that, for hoping, I need a voice beyond my own.

The Character of Hope

“What can I hope for?” The philosopher Immanuel Kant posed that as one of the three main questions we humans must ask.

The answer to Kant’s question seems as slippery, as elusive as Emily Dickinson’s depiction of hope as a “thing with feathers that perches in the soul.” So I turn to theologians and writers who have tried to describe hope.

Hope as Wishful Thinking?

In Frederick Buechner’s book of theological ABCs, I find this:

HOPE (See WISHFUL THINKING).

Turning to WISHFUL THINKING I am startled to read that “Christianity is mainly wishful thinking.” Does Buechner really think that hope is the fanciful belief that somewhere, somehow – “over the rainbow” – our dreams will all come true? But with a typical wry play on words Buechner continues,

Dreams are wishful thinking. Children playing at being grown-ups is wishful thinking. Interplanetary thinking is wishful thinking. Sometimes wishing is the wings the truth comes on. Sometimes the truth is what sets us wishing for it. (1)

Perhaps this is more than clever. Perhaps it is profoundly wise. From where does hope arise if not from the deepest wishes and longings of our lives?

But then Henri Nouwen, reflecting on “waiting” in Luke’s advent account, observes that Zechariah, Elizabeth and Mary were filled not with wishes but with hope. Hope, he says, is open-ended, fulfilled according to the promises and not just according to our wishes.

I have found it very important in my own life to let go of my wishes and start hoping. It is only when I was willing to let go of wishes that something really new, something beyond my own expectations, could happen to me. (2)

Hope may connect with our deepest wishes, but must it not connect with something more?

Hope as Human Resilience?

This year we have witnessed some heart-warming examples of human resilience amid great loss. One thinks of the citizens of Joplin and Tuscaloosa rebuilding after the tornadoes, or of Lou Zamperini, whose story is told in the best-selling Unbroken. Zamperini survived forty-seven days on a raft after his B-24 crashed in the Pacific during World War II, followed by years in brutal Japanese POW camps. He had no strong faith until much later (after hearing Billy Graham preach), but something inside kept him enduring the unimaginable.

Is hope then a characteristic that humans have? A “hope” gene, perhaps, stronger in some than others?

On NPR’s Speaking of Faith British physicist/ theologian John Polkinghorne expressed his conviction that there is a “very deep human intuition of hope, the strangeness and bitterness of the world notwithstanding.” Asked if his conviction of a destiny beyond death was not an article of faith, he replied that it was, but one guaranteed in history by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Perhaps this “deep intuition of hope” provides an entrée for our preaching of Advent hope. The resilience we see in Joplin, Tuscaloosa, or Lou Zamperini, the “hopes” that keep us going, may not fully express biblical hope, but do point to the God of hope.

A Theology of Hope and Promise

For a long time Kant’s third question – what may I hope for? – was largely absent from philosophical and theological agendas. Then it surfaced after the crucible of World War II. A philosophy of hope was espoused by an eighty-one year old East German Jewish-Marxist atheist – Ernst Bloch. German theologians Moltmann and Pannenberg championed a “theology of hope.”

In 1968 The Christian Century carried a series on this “theology of hope.” One contributor, the Anabaptist scholar Vern Eller, was deeply concerned about the direction he saw this heading. “Stop the train!” he wrote, fearing theology could be switched “to a dead-end siding.”

It was not the theology of hope as such that Eller was challenging . He simply thought it was the wrong name. It should he said be called the “theology of promise.” He was concerned lest the “hope” line take us to a dead-end with theology as an analysis of human capability, instead of God’s faithfulness.

It is because God has promised … that man has even the possibility of hoping. It is the case that promise creates hope, not that man’s need for hope creates the idea of a promising God. (4)

Strong and salutary words. They make me pause, and think about what I have already written.

Should I take back what I recounted about my own teen-age hopes? Or my year of loss? The resilience humans show? I think not. Those are attention-getters that God may use. But they do make a red warning light go off. I can speak too glibly about hope, or tell stories to imply that God is our Leading Optimist.

Eller makes me reckon again with Paul’s description of what it means to be strangers to the covenant, “having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12) – grim words, yet in the context of God’s abounding riches and eternal purpose in Christ.

This biblical hope does not promise easy answers to hard questions. As the light of the risen Christ blinded Paul on the road to Damascus, the daybreak of hope is also a light which for a while blinds us. We still wonder, hurt, grieve, but not as those who have no hope. We still trust the God of promises who leads us on to the future. Thus faith is the “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 1:1)

Where then is the voice I need to hear? The promise I need to trust?

The Character Of Hope – In Person

It surprised me to learn that the word we translate “hope” (elpis) seldom appears in the gospels – the noun not at all, and the verb only five times, with one significant use in the past tense: “we had hoped.” (Luke 24:21) (5

Many of the Psalms overflow with “hope”, and so do some of the prophets. The epistles seem to be crammed with “hope.” Why so rare in the gospels?

That seemed strange until I realized: of course! Why would the writers need the word for “hope”? Hope was present – in person. They had seen hope – walking, talking, eating, speaking, healing among them. “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.” (Luke 7:22)

God was keeping his promise of a coming kingdom – in person!

Of all the gospels, Luke may offer the text of choice for Advent preaching on hope. And that not only because of his traditional Nativity account, but because of his focus on a waiting people, waiting with a sense of promise, and surprised by the hope that comes to them.

“Nobody has to teach the theology of hope to Luke,” writes Vern Eller. “He was preaching it long before our modern theologians got around to inventing it.” (6)

Luke begins his “orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us” (note that word “fulfilled”) with the narrative of three annunciations (to Zechariah the priest, Mary the mother of Jesus, and the shepherds), two conceptions and two births (John and Jesus), three hymns (Mary’s song, and Zechariah’s, and Simeon’s), a revelation (to the aged Simeon) , and a witness (by Anna the prophet) about the child “to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” (Luke 2:38)

His first three chapters are packed with themes we could lift up as a series in our Advent preaching on hope.

The Angels of Advent. Hope comes as a word from God through angels to Zechariah, Mary, and the shepherds. We might say they were the first “evangelists” – ev-angel-ists! These stories are “thick with angels” (Eller) and if we are preaching on them we better have our “angelology” straight. It might even be wise to ask some Majority World believers to tutor our rational Western minds. They seem to know more about angels than we do.

The Emotions of Advent. Hope comes so surprisingly that it creates strong emotions, fear, terror in fact, and perplexity (1:12, 1:29,30, 1:65, 2:9), but emotions quickly transformed into joy (1:14, 1:46, 2:10), and peace (1:79, 2:14, 2:29). Imagine how tangled confusion and hope must have been for Mary and Joseph over the nine months of her pregnancy.

The Spirit of Advent. Hope announced by angels is also the gift of the Holy Spirit. John will be filled with the Spirit before his birth (1:15). The Spirit who hovered over the waters at creation overshadows Mary as the new creation begins with her child the holy Son of God (1:35). Elizabeth, filled with the Spirit, cries out with joy as the baby leaps in her womb (1:41-2). Simeon is guided by the Spirit to see the Lord’s Messiah before he died (2:26-7). Why not freshly acquaint our hearers with the “Spirit of hope” during Advent?

The Hope of Advent. Jesus Saves! So said the angels. Saving hope comes in stages. It comes personally to Zechariah in the birth of John, to Mary in her son Jesus, to the shepherds in the baby in the manger. But hope also comes for all creation – the promise of the Kingdom of God. John the Baptist will be a forerunner of Jesus and of the rule of God (1:17). Mary’s child will reign over a kingdom with no end (1:33). The good news to the shepherds is for all, with peace among those God favors (2:10, 14). How wide and deep is the hope of salvation. Not only is it hope for our heavenly destiny. My own personal experience of salvation is a promissory note, a foretaste of God’s promise to make all things new.

The Comings of Advent. Jesus was hope present in person. He is also our hope in his coming again. “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again,” we say in our liturgy. Do Presbyterians believe this: that Jesus is coming again? Why leave his second coming to the crazies or the date-setters? As N. T. Wright puts it, “People who believe that Jesus is already Lord and that he will appear again as judge of the world are called and equipped (to put it mildly) to think and act quite differently in the world from those who don’t.” (7)

Whatever text we may choose (or that chooses us), we desire Advent to become more than a solemn season before Christmas, but indeed the theme of our lives. In Eller’s words, “the world has not seen the last of Jesus Christ … the proper stance toward Christmas is not to look back toward Bethlehem, but (to) look through the stable into the Kingdom of God.” (op cit.)

We are still, and always, a waiting people, who confess

Christ has come.
Christ is coming.
Christ will come again!

The Character Hope Produces

Luke begins his gospel with a waiting people. He ends with a disappointed people – two disciples on the way to Emmaus who tell the stranger who questions them, “we had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel.” (Luke 24:21)

But they had hope wrong. They thought when Messiah came God would raise up a remnant force to defeat their pagan foes. But the stranger opens the Scriptures and shows them how the Messiah had “first to suffer, then enter his glory.” The thread of God’s saving purposes ran though the suffering and vindication of his people – and finally his Servant-Son. Jesus’ death was not the end. Death did not destroy his messianic mission. It confirmed it. This is how the exile was to end, and the kingdom to come – hope leading through suffering, into glory.

As the scriptures are opened so are their eyes. Recognizing Jesus, sharing in his breaking of the bread, they hurry back to tell the others. All are “surprised by hope” as Jesus appears once more, tells them to wait until he sends “what the Father has promised” – power from on high. (Luke 24:36f)

When the Holy Spirit comes they become a transformed and hope-filled people, a missionary people, living, telling resurrection hope until he would appear again.

Luke passes his chronicle of hope on to the apostles and disciples, and especially to Paul the apostle of hope – in his testimony before King Agrippa, arguing that he stands trial “on account of my hope in the promises of God made to our ancestors” (Acts 26:6); in his words of hope on that storm-lashed ship; in his writings, and especially in his letter to the Romans. (Paul uses “hope” more than any other New Testament writer, 17 times in Romans alone.)

We miss the point of Romans unless we read it as a great missionary manifesto. Paul writes that we receive grace “to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name” (Romans 1:4-5). Paul’s theology is missiology – a call to God’s people to live, suffer, and proclaim the risen Jesus as Lord to the nations. Hope is about much more than my personal wishes; it is about belonging to a community of hope-holders.

“Character produces hope” (Romans 5:4). In Romans also we find plenty of material for Advent preaching. All the themes from Luke (except angels) appear again – waiting, expectation, promise, suffering, joy, salvation, the Spirit of hope.

Here we see the character of faith – Abraham “hoping against hope”, convinced that God was able to do what he promised (Romans 5:18, 21), knowing that we will be saved by Christ’s death and his life. (Romans 5:10)

Here we see character shaped by suffering – which produces endurance, and character, and hope – all from God’s love poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. (Romans 5:3-5)

Here we see the character of waiting expectantly, all creation, groaning now, but “saved in hope” knowing that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:18-25, 38-39)

And here we see the character of a missionary people, encouraged in hope by the Scriptures, the promises, the power of the Holy Spirit, praising the Lord among the nations so they too shall hope . (Romans 15:4-13)

So we take on the character of the angels –evangelists, hope-holders to the world!

What then is hope? And what difference does hope make in how we live?

    • Hope is a strong and confident trust, given by the Holy Spirit and nurtured in life experience, that God, who has promised good to us and all creation, makes good on his promises through Jesus’ coming and coming again.
    • Hope deepens our longings – turning our wishes into a desire for what is truly good, beautiful, and eternal.
    • Hope trusts our longings into God’s merciful hands, knowing that he is wiser than we, and able to do above what we can ask or even think.
    • Hope expands our horizons setting our desires into a wider and longer picture. Like stone masons fitting stones for a cathedral, we see only the small section assigned to us, yet know ours is part of a great purpose.
    • Hope reframes our losses. “Reframe,” a psychological term, describes the power of hope to give a new perspective, and open new possibilities. As we “hold hope” for others we pray they may also be given grace to see how God can bring gain out of terrible loss.
    • Hope binds our own future to that of Jesus Christ. Whatever storms come we can know with comforting certainty “that I, body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but long belong unto my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ.” (Heidelberg Catechism)

An Advent Wish

Eric Mataxas, in his biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, relates the memories of Ruth-Alice Wedemeyer, who as a teen-ager was caught up by his preaching.

“When he was preaching you saw a young man entirely in God’s grasp” she recalls. “Those were difficult days for the young generations. The Nazis were always marching and saying, ‘The future belongs to us! We are the future.’ And we young ones who were against Hitler and the Nazis would hear this and we wondered, ‘Where is our future?’ But when I heard this man preaching, who had been captured by God, I thought, ‘Here. Here is our future.’” (8)

I do not have a long wish list for this Advent Season. I hope it may not be as traumatic as some past ones. But I do have this Advent wish: to be so grasped by the promises of God, that my preaching, by the power of the Holy Spirit, will lead those who hear to say: “There is our future. Christ is our future. He is our hope.”   

HOPE HOLDER SIDEPIECES

A Piece of the Berlin Wall

A 17-year old North Korean woman who spoke at the CapeTown 2010 congress on world evangelization told how her father has been missing four years, presumably imprisoned for his faith. Her one ambition: some day to speak for Christ in her country. A Salvation Army officer present from the old East Germany met her with a gift, explaining, “I brought with me a piece of the Berlin Wall, and I want to give it to her as a sign of what God can do in seemingly impossible places.”

Lazarus in Haiti

On a visit to Haiti Rich Stearns, president of World Vision, visited a crude church made of UN tarps and scrap lumber. There he saw Demosi, a mother who lost two limbs in the earthquake, leading the choir, standing on her prosthesis and lifting her one hand high in praise. Rich asked what he could tell people back home. “Tell them you have seen Lazarus and she is back from the dead.” Demosi believes she was saved to raise her girls and serve God a few more years. “God has given me a second chance.”

The Surfer Who Reframed Her Loss

The hit movie Soul Surfer is the story of Bethany Hamilton, a teen-age surfing champion who lost an arm in a shark attack in Hawaii. “What do I do now?” she plaintively asks her father, who tells her, “Wait. Listen. Follow your instinct.” On a mission to tsunami victims to Thailand she finds children withdrawn and terrorized by the ocean. But she finds, by letting them watch her surf with her one arm, she can bring new hope to them.

Hoping for Hope in Japan

Michael, youthful president of a seminary, says young Japanese “hope for hope, not only from the disasters, but so many are victims of the sex trade.” And how is hope held for them? “In our city, at the Heart and Soul Café we offer a safe place, coffee and tea, music, counseling and tutoring, and hope in Christ.”

Not Rude to the Holy Spirit

Hester is an 87-year old widow and retired missionary in England. “Hope,” she says, “is very practical for me. I am alone so much of the time. I wish I could actually see Jesus, have him sit with me. Then I remember that he said if he did not go the Holy Spirit, the Counselor, would not come. So I do not want to be rude to the Holy Spirit!”

Kingdom hope among students in Nigeria

Femi, a leader in ministry to university to students says, “What our country is most hoping for is leadership with new direction, and new integrity. I see hope in young Christians, with a passion for Jesus, and an irrepressible desire to witness for him, with kingdom values that can transform our country.”

NOTES

  1. Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking. A Theological ABC. (New York.,NY: Harper and Row,1973).
  2. Henri Nouwen, “A Spirituality of Waiting.” (Weavings (January/February 1987).
  3. See Lutheran theologian Carl Braaten’s Toward a Theology of Hope. Theology Today. 1967. 24:208. His evaluation of theology of hope and its implications is still relevant and well worth reading. Braaten saw this “new” theological vision as filling a vacuum, taking up the question of “what it means for man to hope at all, whether to be human is to have hope.” The biblical message is like a powerful electrical generator needing a place to “plug in” with modern people, and that plug in is the longing for hope. Without the eschatology of the Bible, “there is nothing that remains that deserves to be called the biblical message.” Hope is born from contradiction; the resurrection contradicts the cross. Hope contradicts our present experience. The mission of hope is to face the contradictions of our world – between righteousness and sin, joy and suffering, peace and war – while looking to what we may expect “if the God of hope is faithful to his promises.”
  4. For Vern Eller’s article go to the website www.hccentral.com. The Vernard Eller Collection. He includes a football analogy: every call a good quarterback makes is eschatological, made with an eye to the final score. Yet the quarterback remembers each previous play, is planning the next play, and can somehow do all this as tacklers go for him! By Advent football is in full swing – so this may offer a helpful analogy..
  5. For an excellent short summary of “hope” in the Old and New Testaments see Hope in Colin Brown ed, The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology. Volume 2. (Grand Rapids, Mi: Zondervan: 1976).
  6. Vern Eller. “Christmas and Luke’s Theology of Hope,” in The Christian Century December 18, 1968. Eller’s exposition from Luke’s early chapters provides excellent material for preaching. To access go to www.hccentral.com . House Church Central. The Vernard Eller Collection.
  7. N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope. (New York, NY: HarperCollins , 2008, 144). If I were preaching an Advent message on the “second coming” I would delve into Wright’s discussion of eschatology. He takes on both the secular humanist apostles of progress, and the extreme preachers of doom. A video series with Wright available from Zondervan could be helpful for an Advent study group.
  8. Eric Mataxas. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2010. 277)

The Time Traveler’s Wife

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This movie, so beautifully adapted from the book, left me lacking words to describe its effect, and a question to ponder: aren’t we all time travelers?

At first it was like a intellectual jigsaw puzzle, trying to figure which piece and character belonged where and when. But then I found myself being drawn as if by an emotional magnet into the deepest places of the heart. There was no way to hide my feelings in the anonymity of a dark theater.

Its stunning transitions – with the gains and losses that time brings – create both romance and tragedy, a romance in the sudden and unexpected appearings of Henry, and a tragedy in the sense (and suspense) of never knowing when he will disappear, and the haunting question: when will he, will he, ever reappear?

Both the romantic and tragic aspects of life are present, the belief that at the next corner or around the next bend in the mountain road, we will suddenly come upon the discovery that will change us forever, yet with the undertone (conveyed by the haunting repetition of Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming) the awareness that no experience in time, no matter how long or short, will last long enough to fulfill our deepest dreams.

I found myself in tears many times in this lovingly executed film, especially as Henry appeared to the little girls, Claire and Alba, at different times in their lives, knowing that their dreams would not last, dreams of a lover or father who would stay with them always.

Then I thought of C. S. Lewis’ aphorism:

If nothing in this world wholly satisfies, it must be we are made for another world.

And I thought also of Jesus’ description of the “eternal life” – “the life of the aeons” – which he would give to all those the Father had put in his charge:

And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent (John 17:3).

Here is life in all its fullness, measured not as duration, but as relation, not in length of time, but in its depth.

So perhaps we need movies like The Time Traveler’s Wife as intimations of immortality, reminding us to receive these momentary viewings as precious gifts, gifts to be received with joy, held hopefully as signals of another world, and shared with one another as tastes of a kingdom yet to come.

Leighton Ford
August 2009

T. S. Eliot at Bojangles

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Why I was zany enough to try to barter a poem for a chicken biscuit* escapes me at this moment. It seemed like a good idea at the time, perhaps because I was tired and out of sorts.

I had left home very early in the morning for a one-day trip to Milwaukee, and my flight didn’t get back until after dinner. It didn’t help when the scanner at the airport parking couldn’t scan my ticket and I had to pay extra. I was also hungry. The small bag of pretzels that passes for dinner on USAIR these days hadn’t eased my pangs. So on the way home I decided to stop at Bojangle’s for a bite.

The nice lady at the counter looked as weary as I felt, so perhaps I thought a little off-beat break in the routine might cheer both of us up.

“A chicken biscuit,” I said, “Cajun style.”

She rang up my order and said, “Two fifty-nine.”

It was then that something in me snapped and I said, with as straight a face as I could muster,

“I’m not sure I have that much on me. Would you accept a poem instead of cash?”

“No,” she shook her head, looking at me suspiciously. She had probably been panhandled too often and didn’t think I looked like a homeless person.

“It’s a good poem” I said hopefully.

Her expression didn’t change. But I could detect a slight hint of curiosity.

“Wouldn’t you like to hear it?”

“Well, what is it?” she said.

Now I was on the spot. I hadn’t really intended to recite a poem but she was calling my bluff. And since there were no other customers in line I couldn’t very well suggest she was probably too busy to listen.

Frantically I flipped through my mental files and dismissed some snippets of verse or poetry I knew by heart. What could possibly fit a fast-food line?

Then: inspiration! The closing lines of Eliot’s Four Quartets would certainly be appropriate for a tired, hungry traveler wanting only to get home. So I cleared my voice, stood straight, and intoned:

“We shall not cease from exploration,
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

Her expression was still doubtful, but at least she was listening. So I continued, with the bits about the unknown gate, and the hidden waterfall, and the children in the apple tree who were not heard because not looked for.

I glanced over at the assistant standing next to her. She certainly hadn’t looked for this performance! Her face registered total unbelief. But since I was this far into it I decided to soldier (or poet) on.

“Quick now, here, now always – “

I saw my serving lady trying to hold back a smile. I went on.

“A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)”

There! That should do it! How could she miss the simple honesty of this wayfaring stranger who had undoubtedly given away all he had and deserved her pity.

How I finished the final lines I don’t know. By this time she was cracking up and so was I! Somehow I stumbled through, quoting those memorable words of Julian of Norwich with which Eliot brought his masterpiece to an end.

“And all shall be well
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.”

All would be well! Surely the sound of those words if not the tongue of flame would impress her as closing time drew near.

I finished, and waited hopefully.

“Well, what do you think?”

There wasn’t even a second pause.

“Two fifty-nine” she said.

“But you do have a very nice voice.”

* Note: for those of you who are pure English speakers, a “chicken biscuit” is not a chicken on a cookie! The biscuit is a Southern US concoction, more like a scone than a cookie. And the chicken is fried, not baked or boiled. The whole thing is big enough to take two hands and an extra-large sized mouth to eat!

 

 

 

 

Wendell Berry, Wrangler, and I

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About the time Wrangler the Blue Heeler found me I was also given a book of poems by Wendell Berry, his “timbered choir” poems of trees among which he took Sunday walks on his Kentucky farm.

I had known a bit of Berry before, but these Sabbath poems – written across many years -captivated me, and became part of my own weekly prayer walks.

On a Sunday morning, book in my hand, Wrangler and I would walk through a neighbor’s yard, open a gate, and pass down a driveway into a woodsy community park bisected by a small creek.

Midway through these woods three small bridges criss-cross the water, back and forth.

I would sit on one of the bridges, and while Wrangler sniffed around some fascinating scent of what had been there, I would sit quietly, looking up at the tall trees, which on Wendell Berry’s farm became his “timbered choir.”

Wrangler would soon come and lie down beside me, especially if there was a sunny spot on a cool morning, and turn over to have his tummy rubbed.

I would open and select one of Berry’s poems as a kind of devotional for the day, or the week to come. It was uncanny how often one would speak directly to my condition, and when I read it out loud it I was sure Wrangler got it too.

I might sometimes quote Berry’s much-loved description of how when wakened at night by despair for the world, he would go into the woods to rest in the “the peace of wild things”, creatures who did not overtax themselves with worries about the future.

Often I would mark a line or two, and then lift a prayer for my friends around the world. My copy is dog-eared and dated from those Sunday walks, so when I thumb through it now it is a kind of testament of those years.

Lately Wrangler and I did not go as often to the woods on Sunday mornings. A neighbor dog had attacked and wounded him last year, and I was cautious about taking him where he might be hurt again. I wish now I had been more determined about keeping up those walks.

The last photos of the two of us show us walking in those woods, gazing up at each other, then at the sky. It is a visual memory of a devoted companion, who will not again walk those woods, sniff those smells, or lie peacefully on the bridges.

Sometime soon, some winter Sunday, I will walk alone to that place. I will remember my pal with thanks and with tears.

And I may well read this from Berry’s Sabbath poems.

         1998

            I

 Whatever happens,
those who have learned
to love one another
have made their way
into the lasting world
and will not leave,
whatever happens.

I can imagine Wendell B giving a nod .. and the echo of an affirming bark from some place not too far away   and a sigh of the breeze through the timbered choir adding an Amen.

Leighton Ford
January 2014

 

 

 

 

Oh, to be nine again

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We were in the mountains for a few days, and I picked up granddaughter Leighton (just turned nine) to spend the morning with us.

I asked if she wanted to bring a book to read.

“No,” she said, “I will just bring my butterfly and that will be entertainment enough.”

She showed me this this beautiful black creature she found with a broken wing on the croquet court the day before.

“I took him to our condo,” she said, “and kept him overnight in my ‘fairy garden’.”

She showed me her tiny garden made out of two rocks and a piece of wood with a coffee tin where she kept her butterfly.

“Why do you like him?”

“He listens to me,” she explained. “When I said stay still, and I went off to do something he was in the same place.”

“Does he have a name?”

“Nectarain. Because he likes to drink nectar. And the little spots on his wing look like rain drops.”

And she showed me how she put a flower where he could drink with his “sippy thing”, and explained to me all she had observed about caterpillars and butterflies, and how their tiny eyes looked like chocolate drops.

On the way to our place he went under the seat, but she found him, and spent the next hour with her fascinating new friend.

In the afternoon Nectarain had a painless end, and she buried him right by the swinging bridge at the top of Grandfather Mountain.

I don’t know how much time I will spend with a butterfly rather than a book.

But I would like very much to have nine-year old eyes again.

Leighton Ford
August 2014

 

 

Bonhoeffer on the Bible

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One of the best books I have read recently is Eric Metaxas’ biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. While Bonhoeffer’s opposition to Hitler is well known I had not realized fully how deep was his commitment to orthodox theology, and to the Bible.

In 1936, Bonhoeffer wrote his brother-in-law Rudiger Schleicher, who was as liberal theologically as Bonhoeffer was conservative. It says much about their relationship that he could write such things:

First of all I will confess quite simply – I believe that the Bible alone is the answer
to all our questions, and that we need only to ask repeatedly and a little humbly, in
order to receive the answer. One cannot simply read the Bible, like other books.
One must be prepared really to enquire of it. Only thus will it reveal itself. Only
if we expect from it the ultimate answer, shall we receive it. That is because in the
Bible God speaks to us. And one cannot simply think about God in one’s own strength,
one has to inquire of him. Only if we seek him, will he answer us. Of course it is also
possible to read the Bible like any other book, that is to say from the point of view
of textual criticism, etc., there is nothing to be said against that. Only that that is not
the method which will reveal to us the heart of the Bible, but only the surface, just as
we do not grasp the words of someone we love by taking them to bits, but by simply
receiving them, so that for days they go on lingering in our minds, simply because they
are the words of a person we love, and just as these words reveal more and more of the
person who said them as we go on, like Mary, “pondering them in our heart,” so it will
be with the words of the Bible. Only if we will venture to enter into the words of the Bible,
as though in them this God were speaking to us who loves us and does not will to
leave us alone with our questions, only so shall we learn to rejoice in the Bible.

(From Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy)

 

 

What is Jesus Doing Now?

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I was on the way from church Easter morning when someone called from a passing car, “He is risen!” I looked up to see the smiling face of a neighbor.

“Who?” I responded.

“Jesus!” she shot back.

“When?” I asked.

“Every day!” she answered.

That got me to musing: if Jesus is alive, what is he doing today?

A young friend went to be pastor of a dying church in Vancouver, Canada. Attendance was dropping. The congregation was ageing. Twenty pastors had come and gone in twenty years. It was not a promising place to start his ministry. But he had vision and faith for the future, and made some innovations including a praise band.

After hearing the band an irate woman stomped up and said, “If Jesus heard those drums he’d turn over in his grave”! In her conscious mind the resurrection was ancient history, not current events.

So if Jesus is as alive as the first disciples reported, where is he now and what is he doing?

I know a brilliant Indian businessman whose small son was healed from a life-threatening illness after Christians prayed for him. Atul was skeptical, until one night he woke and realized Jesus was actually present in the room and speaking to him. He went to his knees, praying, “My Lord and my God”, and his life course completely changed.

Unlike Atul I cannot claim to have seen or heard Jesus in the flesh. I am more like the two disheartened disciples after his execution, who thought Jesus was a stranger when he came up to them as they walked on a country road. Only when he pointed them to prophecies about a suffering Messiah, and broke bread with them in a meal, were their hearts and eyes opened to recognize: he was alive! Then he was gone. They ran to tell the others, “Our hearts were burning within us as he talked with us.”

The rest of the story is that what Jesus began to do and teach he continued to do, through his disciples, through the Holy Spirit he sent to be his continuing presence in the world.

That’s what makes my heart burn – to sense Jesus’ presence with the company of others, as we read the gospel story, break the bread of our lives together, and share the good news.

At family lunch at Easter I asked each one: where have you sensed Jesus this year? A granddaughter said, “In Israel, at Gethsemane, with my dad.” Our son spoke of the beauty of the mountains. Our daughter spoke of her son’s life spared in a terrible motorcycle accident and of those who helped him.

My wife Jeanie said, “God’s presence for me is a relationship. Like marriage. I don’t always think of Leighton. But I always know I love him. And I know he’s there.”

Where is Jesus? Sometimes it’s in the special epiphanies. More often it’s in the ordinary events of life even when I may not recognize it at the time – until I recollect that he is always at work, everywhere.

And that church in Vancouver? It has grown tremendously. Four thousand came to worship over Easter weekend. They have received the Governor General’s award for service to their community. And, not long ago, a prostitute in Stanley Park told her pimp that she was desperate, did not know where to turn.

“Go to Tenth Avenue Church,” he said, “They can help you.”

That’s current events, not ancient history. It doesn’t take drums to let us know Jesus is not back in his grave.

Leighton Ford

April 2014

 

A prayer (borrowed from Lloyd Ogilvie) that Christ will live and love through me.

“Lord, be in my mind, think your thoughts in me, be my wisdom, knowledge, insight. Be in my voice, free me to speak with silence of words, whatever is needed. Be in my face, my eyes, my touch, my embrace. I plan to live this day in the reality of you in me. Thank you for making it so.”