Sunday, December 04, 2005

Sarah Jessica Parker

I recently attended a seminar on the doctrine of hope led by Sarah Jessica Parker. Seriously. She's wiser than we thought. well, technically it was a commercial for some children's hospital. Same thing, sort of.

Here's SJP's theology of hope: you hope the most when your condition is the most dire. She was speaking of children with cancer.

Do you hope? Of course you do. We all do. But in what? Remember what Peter once said about hope? That we should always be prepared to give an answer to all those people who ask us about our hope? (1 pet 3.15) Ever hear a preacher really condemn all those in his congregation who have never had someone ask them about their hope? Usually goes something like, "If you've never given anyone a reason, it's likely because no one is asking you! And there is a reason for that!" The last bit is usually delivered with teeth clenched and brow furrowed.

How do we learn to hope? Seriously. No flippant "faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see" will suffice here. Hope is easier grasped when one is desperately flailing about, frantic for a solution. Hope is much less a concern when everyone is well, all my needs are taken care of, and it seems God likes me today.

Hope is tricky for the modern Christian. It is supposed to be one of the bedrocks of our faith, and i fear that for many of us (translate me) if it were suddenly destroyed it might take weeks to notice its absence. How do we learn to hope beyond anything else in something that we cannot fathom. I sometimes feel it is like condemning a 3-year-old for not looking past Christmas and to the merits of owning his own business. He may be able to concieve of adulthood as a time of a later bedtime and all the ice cream he could ever want, but a 3 year old cannot truly place his hope something that he has no frame of reference for.

How do we hope in what we do not know? Which brings us back to Christianity 101--faith in the unseen God. Then again, this is the exact nature of hope, for who hopes in what is already seen? Expecting anything else would be like expecting my orange to taste like peanut butter.

Where does this leave us? Hope is hard. Hope does not come by accident. Hope does not come to those who do not recognize the peril of their situation (thank you SJP). I guess we figure out the rest as we go.

oh, one more thing: hope does not disapoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

The Introduction

They stood for hours on hours in virtually the same spot as he had left them. He'd given it to them with a smile. Even now they stared at the priceless treasure, scarcely able to believe they truly owned it. Some kept blinking, but not the lightning-quick, nervous-tick blink. Long, hard blinks, with eyes clenched shut before slowly opening. And even as the light shone back into their pupils they still fought against the image it brought. It was just too fantastic, too marvelous....far to ridiculous a gift! "I want you to have this," was almost all that he'd said. That, and a word of caution against ever losing it. He'd even refused all their attempts to pay for it--as if they could have. And, as he was leaving, "Keep it near you at all times."
And so they did. They kept it on display in the center of their town, in plain sight for residents and visitors alike. In fact, one never arrived in that town without being brusquely whisked over to see their treasure. "Look!" It's proud owners would exclaim, standing back in joy as each newcomer felt their heart skip a beat at its beauty.
As the years passed it was decided that their treasure was too important to be left in a glass box. It was taken out, carefully, slowly, even tenderly. Passed around from house to house, hand to hand, even heart to heart. It was a treasure cherished by all, kept by all, adored by all. And all the while, the stories of the largess of their amazing benefactor grew.
The children grew up. The old men died, and the women mourned them. Then they died, and their children after them. Generation after generation was born, grew old, and died. And each generation basked in its luster, just as their fathers had before them.
Even more time passed. And as it did, something strange began to happen. As it was passed from hand to hand and home to home it began to shine a little less and its brilliance began to diminish. It was a gradual process, slow enough that no one but the old timers could tell as they looked at it. Not that this was due to negligence--they still cared for it as if their very lives depended on it. But time, and especially use, began to dull its edges, began to fray its ends, and began to wear it down.
Until one day a new generation grew to despise it. What had been revered by all their ancestors now appeared cheap and useless. They still passed it around, but more out of tradition than awe. Where it used to be displayed on the mantle it now served as a doorstop. Some even cursed their parents, and especially the man who had brought it, "Who could ever use such a useless piece of junk!"
And then he returned. As soon as his presence became known a mob formed around him. He calmly stood at the center of town; at a place where, untold centuries before, a small crowd stood gawking speechlessly at it. But no longer. Everyone now clamored for an explanation, some even called for his arrest. He simply smiled, and asked that they bring it out. This took some time; no one quite knew where it was. As he finally received it back everyone looked expectantly at him, poised to savor the embarrassed look he would no doubt feel at his worthless imposition. But instead, his eyes watered and he held it tight to his chest. "It's just as i left it," those who were near him could hear him murmer.

In a completely different town, in a completely different world, a man woke up to the smell of fresh coffee. He showered, ate a quick breakfast, read his Bible, and was out the door. He savored the words he'd just read as he navigated through the morning traffic. "God is love." The words warmed his heart, left him feeling safe and secure. He smiled as he strolled into his office, voicing a quick prayer of thanks for the beautiful day.
Late that afternoon, under a brilliant blue sky and with a cool breeze at their backs, two police officers found the body of his 11-year-old daughter. It was half naked, mangled, and lying under some leaves. She had been kidnapped, raped, tortured, and then forced to gaze into the eyes of a monster as he slowly strangled her to death.
The man who woke up to the love of God lay in bed that night unable to sleep. Unable to think, unable to cry, unable to pray. Only able to hurt, to feel a pain far deeper than emotion. Later, as his faculties returned, the God of love apparently did not.

Another girl grew up in a Christian home. Her life followed the same course as many, and in due time she had married, born children, and taken them to soccer games. She truly loved God, loved spending time in his word, loved volunteering for her church, loved teaching her children about him. Which also why she was so confused that he did not appear to love her. She'd read that he was the God of all comfort. While she didn't have the courage to doubt what she'd been taught, she could not argue with anguish that tore at her sole. Anguish born from lonely nights, silent dinners, and cold, emotionless embraces. Not that her husband was having an affair...he just didn't care to consider her a friend. And yet, what could she complain about? Her pastor spoke in church of counseling wives whose husbands beat them, cheated on them, or left them for a younger, prettier version. Her husband would never do any of those things...but nor would he simply speak to her. And so she continued on, afraid to cry, too devastated not to mourn. She lived a silent life of agony, plastering on her smile whenever she ventured out, while every passing day another part of her soul died wthin her.

Lastly, an old couple returned on morning from an early morning walk. As they paused on the landing outside their apartment the wife commented on their downstairs neighbor. Once again, his office light was still on, likely the evidence of another long night spent laboring over a paper. "He's in seminary, you know," she said with a contented smile. Inside the young man glanced at his watch, sat back, and slowly, despondently, uttered a cuss word. 6 am, and he hadn 't finished his paper. Actually, hadn't even started it. His intentions had been so pure when he first sat down eight hours prior. But instead of typing his paper on the sovereignty of God he directed his internet to various porn sites. And thus the night had slipped away, with only the mounting number of sites visited to pass the time. At one point, even in the midst of his masturbation, he angrily remembered God's promise that we can do all things through his strenght. Or about the faith that can move mountains.
As the sun rose, he too rose dejectedly from his seat, his muscles aching from sitting for so long in the same position. Once again, he had fought his battle with everything that was in him, even praying outloud, asking for that strength from God. If you could have just seen his face you would have known who won.
Slowly, he shaved and showered, preparing himself, as actually we all do, for his ascent back up the ivory tower.

There are those who speak of two kinds of theology, one reserved in an ivory tower by the scholars, and the one the rest of us live by. Almost as if God condescended to reveal himself to a few, and then gave everyone else a cheat sheet. And so each of us spends our days scaling the walls of the tower to marvel at the treasure within. Much to our shock, we are always given a piece to take home with us, always with a smile and the admonition, "Don't loose it, keep it close by." And so we do. But even as we cradle it in our arms we soil it with our touch. And we believe it to be useless, and we cry out in rage at our benefactor.

Until he comes, takes the broken treasure from our arms, and exclaims "Ahh...just as i left it!" can this be? How can the truths heralded from pulpits remain the same once the church has emptied its occupants into the street. How can the truth that God is love bring comfort to the grieving father, the non-widow who silently mourns her loss? How can his promise of strength and endurance withstand the onslought of insatiable cravings? Too many of us have felt our hearts screaming out at God, throwing his gift, his treasure, his theology back in his face; it didn't save us, it didnt' work for us.

God, I pray you would show us how the knowledge of you works every bit as well in the grimy mud as it does in the pristine tower.

And so we begin...