Hope Comes Last? Or First?

Hope Comes Last? Or First?

I was scheduled on the preaching roster at my Episcopal congregation for the Third Sunday of Lent this year, and it so happened that turned out to be the last Sunday we will meet for many weeks. Based on the Lectionary text of Romans 5:1-11, here’s what I said.


I have always had trouble with something Paul says in today’s passage. It’s never made a lot of sense to me.

He writes to the Romans: “…we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

That just seems completely backwards from how I’ve seen suffering work. The endurance through suffering? The character? Those rarely come before the hope. From what I’ve seen and experienced, suffering without hope often produces despair rather than endurance.

I’m really not sure how the endurance and character even happen at all in the face of suffering if hope doesn’t come first.

But as I’ve wrestled with this passage, I’m wondering if maybe Paul and I are both right. Maybe hope comes both first and last, at least for those of us who are followers of Jesus.

Earlier in the passage, Paul writes: “since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.”

“This grace in which we stand.” For Paul, here, suffering doesn’t come into a vacuum. We are already standing firm in the grace we’ve received through Christ, then suffering comes and produces endurance, and character, and, finally, hope.

“This grace in which we stand” speaks to us of confidence and trust.

The writer Brennan Manning has said in his book Ruthless Trust that trust is the wedding of faith and hope. “Faith arises from a personal experience of Jesus as Lord,” he writes. “Hope is reliance on the promise of Jesus, accompanied by the expectation of fulfillment. Trust is the winsome wedding of faith and hope.”

That is the hope I believe must come first if suffering is to lead us anywhere other than delusion or fear or despair – “Reliance on the promise of Jesus” – on the grace he has given us access to – “accompanied by the expectation of fulfillment” – that we will share with him in the glory of God. It’s the hope that teaches us trust which comes first. When we trust, we have faith in someone whose love and goodness we have experienced, and we have an expectation – we hope – that love and goodness is taking us somewhere good, even when the journey is difficult.

It’s been quite a week for all of us. As we sat together last Sunday, I don’t think a single one of us had any thought that we were just days away from a pandemic and the need to cancel services and gatherings for the time being. And over this past week, it’s been overwhelming to hear stories from China and Italy, to hear doctors and epidemiologists warm us of how things could go if we are not serious about taking precautions, to have schools closed, events and church services canceled, to see grocery store shelves empty and rush hour traffic all but disappear.

Many people are frightened. Some are panicking, and some are denying there’s anything to be all that concerned about.

I know I’m worried about my folks – my step-father is in his mid-80s and has a genetic lung condition that makes ordinary colds dangerous, much less something like this coronavirus. I’m also struggling with anxiety about my own job security in an uncertain economy. I’m sure each of us has our own worries and concerns for our families and neighbors and ourselves.

Some people are suffering with a scary illness, and some of us are suffering from fear of that illness and its potential impact on our lives.

I learned a long time ago that fear doesn’t have to be rational to be real, and it can be hard if not impossible to reason away. I’ve struggled with anxiety most of my life, and I’ve learned that if I can manage to take a few deep breaths – literally – and keep going through the anxiety, that I learn I was stronger than I thought and the next time the anxiety comes, it’s a little easier to believe there’s something on the other side.

And that’s what has helped me understand what Paul may be getting at. If our trust is in Jesus and the God he reveals to us, when suffering comes, we can take a few deep breaths of that grace in which we stand, and move forward with endurance through difficult times. When we do that, we exercise the muscles of character and our hope is deepened and expanded to ever greater trust in the love of God. That allows us to reach out to others and share out of the hope we’ve both been blessed with through grace and worked to build through endurance.

So as we continue to walk the journey of this particular Lent, with all it’s unique challenges and trials, let us remind each other and ourselves that…

…we have hope that God is doing god things in and through us

…we can trust the Lord we have experienced as loving and good

…we can stand with confidence in God’s grace

…by that grace, we can endure the hardships and suffering we encounter

…we can grow through that endurance and our character will be strengthened

…our hope can grow greater because we see all God is doing in us.

And all of that happens both in our personal life with God and in our life together. May we continue to remind ourselves and each other of where our hope comes from in the days and weeks ahead.

Amen.

We Belong.

We Belong.

There’s a song we sing at one of the churches I’m a part of — the one that meets in a bar every Sunday evening to tell true stories that change lives. It’s unintentionally become something of a theme song for us. It closes out our our Easter service (party) every year, and it’s become an Advent/Christmas standard for us, as well.

I’m sure you’ve heard it, though probably not at church.

Many times I tried to tell you
Many times I cried alone
Always I’m surprised how well you cut my feelings to the bone
Don’t want to leave you really
I’ve invested too much time to give you up that easy
To the doubts that complicate your mind

The first time we sang it, it felt personal. The most significant relationship of the last decade for me has been complicated to say the least, and this song captures so much of how that’s felt. Of course, that’s what love songs are meant to do. But this isn’t your typical love song. It’s more ambivalent than that, at least at first. Then there’s that chorus…

We belong to the light, we belong to the thunder
We belong to the sound of the words we’ve both fallen under
Whatever we deny or embrace for worse or for better
We belong, we belong, we belong together

That chorus, the bedrock of the song, it’s defiant. Insistent. Conflict is still there — light and thunder are very different things with very different impacts, both life-giving and destructive. Those “words we’ve both fallen under”? They aren’t necessarily the same words for each of us. And we certainly aren’t always denying and embracing the same things — “for worse or for better.”

All of the best things about the relationship — the things that have lit me up and dared me to grow into myself — they can also be some of the hardest things.

Maybe it’s a sign of weakness when I don’t know what to say
Maybe I just wouldn’t know what to do with my strength anyway
Have we become a habit? Do we distort the facts?
Now there’s no looking forward
Now there’s no turning back
When you say…

The more I’ve sung the song with this particular quirky group of people who call ourselves a church, the more I’ve also started hearing my own relationship with the Church in it. I mean, anyone who knows me knows there’s rarely a time when I don’t know what to say! But actually, there is.

Both in an intense personal relationship and in a relationship with the Church that has been intensely personal, there are times I truly don’t know what to say. Times when there’s nothing to say that hasn’t already been said. Times when I’m at a loss. Times when I know whatever I say will be heard with ears already bent on hearing what they’ve already decided to hear.

Church has been maybe the most persistent habit of my life — one I’ve stepped away from in different times and in different ways to try to re-find meaning in it. And those times have helped show me how much we do distort the facts — sometimes knowingly and intentionally, but mostly because of what life has taught us we need to do and believe to survive, to be okay. So much gets warped, and yet…

We belong to the light, we belong to the thunder
We belong to the sound of the words we’ve both fallen under
Whatever we deny or embrace for worse or for better
We belong, we belong, we belong together

We belong. It defies reason and emotion and denial and sometimes what feels like our best interests, but still, we belong. Together. 

Close your eyes and try to sleep now
Close your eyes and try to dream
Clear your mind and do your best to try and wash the palette clean
We can’t begin to know it, how much we really care
I hear your voice inside me, I see your face everywhere
Still you say…

The deepest expression the song has come to have for me is as a conversation (diatribe?) with God or the Universe or whatever you or I currently call that something-that-is-bigger-than-me.

The deeper my relationship with God has gone, the more complicated and ambivalent and sometimes overwhelming and sometimes distant and always more real it has gotten. 

The circles I used to do church and life in like to roll their eyes at the “Jesus is my boyfriend” songs, and while their critiques aren’t always wrong, I think they also miss something. No, relating to God isn’t always like relating to a romantic partner, but sometimes — often, even — it’s more like that than anything else. It’s also like relating to a parent, and to a friend. Unless relating to God is going to remain (or go) to the level of an abstract fantasy, the closest we come to words about it are those real, most intimate relationships we know.

And somehow, I can hear Jacob singing “We belong…” defiantly on the banks of the Jabbok River a lot more easily than most any “praise and worship” song I know.

We belong to the light, we belong to the thunder
We belong to the sound of the words we’ve both fallen under
Whatever we deny or embrace for worse or for better
We belong, we belong, we belong together

And I think I still believe it. After everything. In a relationship that’s been blown up and remade multiple times; with the church in all sorts of complicated ways; with a particular group of people who’ve both given me hope and deeply disappointed me; and somehow, after everything, even with God. I still believe it.

We belong. Together.

Getting Advent Wrong

Getting Advent Wrong

When I was growing up Baptist in the south, we never celebrated Advent. I’m not even sure I heard about it at all until high school or college! But every year, the Friday after Thanksgiving, we pulled out all the Christmas albums, stacked as many on the turntable as it would hold, and spent the day singing along and decorating the Christmas tree.

After we assembled the tree (always artificial), we untangled all the lights and wrapped every single branch – that alone took half the day. Then each ornament was carefully placed, making sure no two that were alike hung too close together. The most special ornaments always went on first, to be sure they’d have the best spots to show themselves off. And the sentimental ornaments, the ones that were too special not to keep, but too raggedy or plain to show off? They were carefully placed towards the back of the tree so that no side would go empty. Every ornament – whether in the front or around back – each one had a story, and every year those stories were told again, those memories reawakened. Those ornaments were reminders of who we were as a family and what was important to us.

It was our ritual for beginning the season and getting ready for Christmas. And when I began to practice Advent, it didn’t feel all that different. The Advent wreath with its candles, the special colors we use, the songs and scripture readings and stories we come back to year after year to remind us of who we are and what is important to us, to begin the season and get ourselves ready for Christmas.

But this year, as I’ve thought about the lectionary readings for the first Sunday of Advent, and the Gospel reading from Matthew in particular, I can’t get away from the feeling that we’re getting Advent wrong, or at least missing something important in it.

Advent is the time in the liturgical calendar when we anticipate the miracle of God becoming a man, when Jesus came as a tiny crying baby in a stable in Bethlehem, and changed everything. But Advent is also the time in the liturgical calendar when we anticipate Jesus’ second coming, the day when he will come again to earth to complete his mission, when he will set everything right and the world will finally be all it was meant to be. It will change everything!

That’s the way I’ve come to think of it, at least. But when I was growing up, I was taught the second coming would be the End of the World. And while I believe the way that was taught to me was misguided and even harmful, Jesus’ words to his disciples in the day’s Gospel reading tell me there’s something more to that than I’ve wanted to see.

36 “But nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the heavenly angels and not the Son. Only the Father knows. 37 As it was in the time of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Human One.[a] 38 In those days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark. 39 They didn’t know what was happening until the flood came and swept them all away. The coming of the Human One[b] will be like that. 40 At that time there will be two men in the field. One will be taken and the other left. 41 Two women will be grinding at the mill. One will be taken and the other left. 42 Therefore, stay alert! You don’t know what day the Lord is coming. 43 But you understand that if the head of the house knew at what time the thief would come, he would keep alert and wouldn’t allow the thief to break into his house. 44 Therefore, you also should be prepared, because the Human One[c] will come at a time you don’t know.

Matthew 24:36-44

Jesus has been telling his disciples about the end of the world – the end of their world.  Things will get bad, and then they’ll just keep getting worse. Jerusalem and the Temple, the center of their world, the things that tell them who they are and what matters to them – they are going to be completely destroyed, and the people who manage to survive will have to flee for their lives. And after all that suffering and destruction, “the Son of Man,” Jesus says, will return and gather up his people. It’s all going to be very surprising, and Jesus is warning his followers not to be surprised.

The whole chapter can be confusing, and Christians have been arguing about what it all means for hundreds of years. Did what Jesus describes happen just a few decades later, when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman Empire in 70 CE? It did. Could what he describes happen again at some unknown time in the future? Many Christians believe it must, since the second coming didn’t happen back then.

Honestly? I don’t know what I think this passage is telling us about what will or won’t happen to Jerusalem in the future, but I do think Jesus is talking about something that I’ve been missing in Advent.

Jesus obviously isn’t telling us to take four weeks to prepare for the day we’ve chosen to celebrate his birth, his first coming. Christmas Day is nothing if not predictable – it comes around on the same day every year. But the end of the world? The end of the world comes for somebody somewhere every single day of the year.

It will be like the time before the flood, Jesus explains: “they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage” right up until the end. “Then two will be in the field;” Jesus says, “one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.”

Somebody’s eating dinner and the phone call comes with news that shatters their world. We go to work, fall in love, prepare for the future, and suddenly, out of nowhere, our world ends and nothing will ever be the same.

The bishop who confirmed me was named John Rucyahana. He was the bishop of Rwanda at the time. John had escaped the genocide because his family went to Uganda as refugees when he was in his teens. When he returned to Rwanda as a grown man in the days following the genocide, it was only to learn that many members of his Tutsi family had been taken, while he was left. In only one hundred days, out of the eight million people in Rwanda, one million people had been hunted and murdered by their fellow Rwandans. The world had ended for them in ways we can barely begin to imagine.

And John was left. John and the other Tutsi who had survived, and the Hutu friends and neighbors who had slaughtered them. They were left, in the rubble of their lives and country. There was nothing left to do but build a new world, and that’s when, as I see it, Jesus showed up. He showed up in John and many others. John dedicated himself to his country and became one of the architects of a nationwide movement of accountability, justice, reconciliation, and mercy the likes of which the world has never seen.

I remember Bishop Rucyahana telling us that if the churches of Rwanda had truly been confirming Christians instead of merely going through the motions of a formality, the genocide would never have happened and one million slaughtered Tutsi would still be alive.

To him, confirmation was a matter of life and death. To him, our confirmation meant that, while others had been taken, we were left to build a new world – the kingdom of God Jesus proclaimed, or perhaps better understood for the world we live in today, the KIN-DOM of God, where there is no “us” and “them,” where no human being can be considered less human or less deserving of life and every good thing than we are.

Whether the people and places that make up our world are taken by violence, or disease, or poverty, or natural disaster, or immigration policy, or a legal system that’s anything but just, or divorce, or misunderstanding, or simply someone else’s choices; it’s no easy thing to be the one who is left. Confusion, fear, guilt, regret, anger, grief, survival – there’s no end to the things those who are left may have to deal with.

It may be us or someone else, but the end of the world comes for somebody somewhere every single day.

And in the middle of the grief and everything that goes with it, there’s always a new world to be built. That’s when Jesus will show up in and through us to build his Kin-dom, if we will let him.

Whatever else the end of the world and the second coming of Christ may mean, it means at least that – here, now, today.

And the thing I think we miss in Advent is that Advent is not really about Advent, or even Christmas. It’s a reminder to us to practice. To practice being ready for the things we don’t know are coming. To practice for all the things we know will come but not when or how. To practice for the end of the world and being left. To practice building a new world in the rubble, a world that looks like the Kin-dom of God.

Let’s try not to get it wrong.

Love Really is Love is Love

Love Really is Love is Love

A few weeks ago I stood under a tree at a church cookout and listened for more than an hour as a young, black pastor poured out his reasons against fully accepting and affirming the LGBTQ community. No one else was in ear shot. He wasn’t trying to argue with me – he knows where I stand. And so I did not try to answer his reasons even when he wound down and asked if I wanted to respond. He was pouring out the commitments and convictions of his heart, his concerns and the conclusions they brought him to. I told him I wanted to sit with what he’d said and reflect on it. I wanted him to know I was working to hear him and not just react.

I don’t know if that was the best response or not; I do know it felt appropriate to the moment and the relationship and the context. I can be all too good at the ready argument and answer. He and his context deserve more consideration (something I hope I am growing in recognizing).

One thing he said is something I can easily imagine myself saying not so many years ago. I’d be surprised if I didn’t say something very like it at some point.

“Stop saying this is about love. It’s about sex, and they aren’t the same thing.”

He’s not entirely wrong – sex and love are not the same thing. But he’s not right either. It is very much about love.

I spent most of my life believing that sexual orientation was just about sex. That’s easy for someone whose attractions fit the traditional man-woman scripts to believe. We’ve never had to ask questions about our orientation and its impact on our whole lives. It’s not so hard for us to make a “straightforward” distinction between sex and love.

But that doesn’t mean we understand ourselves or the relationship between our sexual orientation and how we love.

Getting to know LGBTQ folks was an incredible gift to me (one I didn’t even know to look for) in part because they have had to ask those questions, and their answers made me look at myself and my own life and sexuality in new ways.

Sexual orientation impacts our whole selves and how we engage everyone in our lives. It’s part of how we relate to ourselves as well as to God, whether we recognize it or not. Sexual orientation shades how we interact with everyone — not just potential sexual partners, but our parents, siblings, and children, as well as coworkers, friends, and aquaintances.

That can make straight people uncomfortable, like we are sexualizing relationships where sex doesn’t (or shouldn’t) come in the picture. And so we can miss the ways our sexuality shapes our lives and relationships when having sex isn’t part of those lives and relationships.

I relate to men and women differently. I always have. As an infant in church, the story goes, I was uninterested in all the women trying to make me smile, but would perk up as soon as a man walked up. I was a daddy’s girl and my favorite family members were boys and men, not because I wanted to be like them, but because I liked and was drawn to them.

It wasn’t about sex, but it is intertwined with my own sexual orientation as a straight woman.

That doesn’t mean that my experiences will be just like those of other straight women. We are all different – gay, straight, bi, and all the ranges in between. We experience ourselves, each other, and the world differently.

But our world has been set up to assume certain norms about sexuality, and those norms are ones that fit a particular range of straight people. If our attractions fit those norms, a lot may remain invisible to us. We don’t even notice. We feel like that’s just the way things are, and even that it’s good that way.

And when those norms are challenged by someone who doesn’t fit them, it can be confusing and even scary for us. We often try to understand others based on how we ourselves function in the world, and we can miss so much.

Sexual orientation isn’t just about the way we have sex and who we have it with. It’s very much about how we love. It’s about how we love romantic partners, yes, but it’s also about how we love everyone else – and maybe most importantly, how we love ourselves.

Love is messy and sprawls across every part of our lives. It confuses clear cut rules and remakes the order we thought was unshakable. Because love is always bigger than principle.

Love always looks at the particular. Love always allows for nuance and incompleteness. Love looks for what is good, and celebrates and builds on that.

It’s a much harder path. It’s so much easier when we can just apply the principle, the rule that tells us how things are supposed to be, what is best and safest for us. But love calls for greater discernment, for deeper listening to the other and even ourselves. Love is open to something different, a new and better way.

Love really is stronger than death.

Love really is love is love.