Hope? Now? In This?

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing through the experience of your faith that by the power of the Holy Spirit you will abound in hope(The New Testament)

Yesterday we lit the first Advent candle, traditionally labeled the candle of hope. Forty-eight hours earlier we watched in horror for five hours as a man hereFirst Advent Candle in our city indiscriminately fired his gun at law enforcement officers and civilians, leaving three dead and several wounded. Twenty four hours before the candle was lit two friends died: Kim, a woman on our local Cru staff who suffered less than a year from cancer and who just two days earlier celebrated the engagement of her daughter, and a man who lay nearly immobilized more than three years from a severe stroke. Stan accompanied us to Tanzania in 2002 and I will forever remember his uncontainable joy at the Sunday worship service as the music roared and people danced. Yesterday morning I watched another friend describe her pain as she observes this first Christmas without her precious daughter, and I read our daughter-in-law’s tribute to her sister who died last April.

Hope? Hope in the middle of black tragedy? As we watch the suffering of those we desperately love? Is hope just a foolish emotion of misguided Christians? Is the hope experienced by the families of Kim, Stan and the young police officer, by a grieving mother and weeping sister a mere panacea to avoid heart rending sorrow? Jesus, a man well acquainted with sorrow, wept at the grave of his dear friend and announced to the family that he himself embodied true and eternal life. Another first-century man who had frequently been at the point of death wrote to grieving friends that it was normal to grieve but not as those who have no hope.

For the one who loves and follows Jesus, hope is concrete evidence because it is grounded in God and what he says, and we know he cannot lie. A Christian’s hope is a confidence that something will come to pass because God has promised it will come to pass. When Jesus told the crucified criminal at his side “this day you will be with me in paradise,” against all human, fading hope, that word—that promise—would be fulfilled.

Our grieving—so intense and heartbreaking in the early days of loss—gradually ebbs into an ache as we increasingly hand over our sorrow to the only One who truly understands. Eventually we remember our loved ones, not as models of perfection, not as idols kept on a shelf, but as treasures God allowed us to love for a brief time. Now they live without pain, they dance with joy, they live in—they overflow with—abounding hope. That same hope, what one person defined as absolutely certain expectation, can be ours today as we gaze—even tearfully—at the candle.

Hope? Yes!                     Hope in this? Yes!                  Hope now? Yes!

The Way It Was??

Amid all the reporting of campus unrest, this quote caught my attention: “I just want it to be the way it was.” That’s what a white University of Missouri student said when interviewed after the turmoil on his campus. The way it was??? How far back would he like to go? To the recent past when black students (and some faculty) felt exhausted because of assumptions based on their skin color?   Or when threats to black students were posted anonymously on social media? Or how about when a leading presidential hopeful called the protestors’ demands crazy? Or when truck passengers hurled racial epithets at the black student government president? Maybe he would like to go back to the 1950s when members of my own family thought nothing of racist jokes and encouraged Mayor Orville Hubbard in his longstanding campaign to “Keep Dearborn Clean,” a widely understood veiled campaign to keep the city white?

From a November 11 New York Times article: At first, Briana Gray just chalked up the comments and questions from her new roommate at the University of Missouri to innocent ignorance: “How do you style your hair? What do you put in it?” But then her white roommate from rural Missouri started playing a rap song with a racial slur and singing the slur loudly, recalled Ms. Gray, a black senior from suburban Chicago. Another time, the roommate wondered whether black people had greasy skin because slaves were forced to sweat a lot. Then one day, Ms. Gray said, she found a picture tacked to her door of what appeared to be a black woman being lynched… her roommate said a friend had done it as a joke…

I do not condone rioting and lawlessness, and I am concerned that many students (and adults) want only their own brand of “free speech” as evidenced by this quote from Williams College president Adam Falk: I think that our students, probably more so than previous generations, come to college having been marinated in a media environment that does not foster productive conversations across disagreements. Perhaps it is time to reinstate compulsory (a fire-brand word, I know!) high school study of and participation in debate procedure, or—at the very least—analyzing the meaning of civil discourse. (Perhaps it wouldn’t be a bad idea to extend these opportunities to churches?)

I fear, however, that ignorance of what our black brothers and sisters feel and experience is a place where some white evangelical Christians don’t want to go. It makes us uncomfortable and perhaps even guilty. We assume stereotypes to be truth and don’t stop to examine our own complicity in the promotion of those stereotypes.

This past summer my heart was stirred and my mind challenged after hearing thinker, reconciler and truth-teller Dr. Christena Cleveland speak at the Cru15 (Campus Crusade for Christ) conference on her personal experiences and racial issues in general, and especially institutional racism. In one of Dr. Cleveland’s blogs she writes that for two year she was the only African-American faculty member at a Christian college, …the worst of my life… After oppressive interactions as the only woman and only person of color in committee meetings, I would grit my teeth, vowing to myself that I would never let them beat me, that I would never let them see how much they hurt me.

I don’t have answers. I don’t even know enough to ask the right questions. But of this I am sure: I don’t want to—and we dare not—go back to the way it was.

If. Then.

Cross:French FlagIf you ever walked New York streets shadowed by the Twin Towers…

If you ever stood on the west side of The Wall, gazing into the eyes of rifle-wielding East German soldiers…

If you ever gazed in wonder at Notre Dame or bought warm, crusty bread and tangy cheese from shops along French streets…

In grammar they’re called conditional sentences, if/then statements discussing things known (or supposed) and their consequences. And so when I awakened Saturday morning to scenes of flashing lights, screaming ambulances, fleeing, terrified people, white shrouded bodies, and a dazed woman being escorted to safety by a responder in his yellow striped jacket, then my mind rushed back to Notre Dame and warm bread and tangy cheese and I knew that all my memories of Paris had been forever changed.

I don’t ever want to walk New York streets without at least some memory of the lives lost, the bravery displayed, the hearts broken. When I look at my chunk of the Berlin Wall hammered out the summer of 1989, I don’t want to forget the two young men in our Bonn living room relating their escape under barbed wire fences and through muddy fields. When I eat warm bread and tangy cheese, I want to remember that this world is not safe, that I will never understand such tragedy, that I’ve been commanded to love my enemies, that God is still on the throne and he has entrusted peacemaking to me. To us.

“Nous sommes tous français.”
(Today, we are all French.)

Thanks, Mr. K

Apple TYWithin the past few days, I received news of an upcoming high school reunion and in a meeting to honor educators, I listened to three high school students praise teachers who had made a difference in their lives. These two circumstances nudged my brain to travel back in time to Mr. Carl Kranish, my high school speech teacher and his influence on my life, totally unrecognized at the time.

I had attended a semi-rural elementary school, so entering a high school in town was a huge challenge. Many—perhaps most?—students came from families where higher education was the norm, their social standing far above that of my own family and friends, and their economic status mountains higher than my own. In addition to the normal paralyzing fears of a ninth grader (What if I forget my locker combination? Where in the world is Room 422b? How will I get from the gym to English on the third floor in five minutes?—we had no pre-first-day orientation in those long ago and far away days), I was somehow placed in a speech class open only to juniors and seniors. Handsome Ty was the adored football quarterback. Sue had saddle shoes without a trace of scuff. Barbara had pleated skirts and sweater sets to die for. (I told you this was a long time ago.)

None of these differences made an impact on Mr. Kranish. He expected every student in this equal opportunity class to learn how to speak extemporaneously on any assigned topic, debate intelligently both sides of any subject and never, ever say ‘jist’ for ‘just’ or ‘git’ for ‘get’! Never resorting to shame or demeaning rebuke, but never lowering his standards for this knee-quaking freshman, he prodded me to use speech subjects beyond my own interests and frequently chose me to represent our school in multi-school forensics events. These experiences helped me grow into someone increasingly comfortable in front of groups.

A note about “forensics”: before it was made popular by television’s CSI, meaning the application of scientific knowledge in crime investigation, forensics competitions in those days were organized to train students in the skills of public speaking and “the use of reasoned discourse in public life.” Traveling to other venues for such events placed me in a world I had never known, never even dreamed about.

It was only one class in the four years of my high school experience, often overshadowed by brain draining Latin and baffling geometry. I remember little from those classes: I use no geometry (that I’m aware of) and Latin is useful primarily in crossword puzzles and deciphering word meanings without a dictionary. But sixty years after sitting with Ty, Sue, Barbara and others, I—without conscious effort—continue to use the principles learned in that egalitarian, challenging, skill-stretching classroom with Mr. K.

Thanks, Mr. Kranish.

God’s Mysterious Planning


The gruesome headline blared its news, disrupting our Sunday morning quiet before we left our homes for church. Twenty-four hours earlier a young man killed three people, then while escaping and aiming at police officers, he too was killed. All this within three blocks of the place where we would gather for fellowship, instruction and worship. As we drove to church yesterday, a few people still gathered at the site where blood had flowed. One media source had its cameras ready for yet more interviews.

What do ministry leaders say to a church gathering with heavy hearts? A family of God  fully committed to being a light in our city, a church that just a few weeks earlier had fanned out throughout this very area to rake leaves, paint walls, encourage children–as servants to the city? Those involved in preparing for yesterday’s worship had the “program” in place. Long before Sunday morning services our staff seeks guidance from the Holy Spirit so that all elements of each worship time are centered around the scripture theme. Whether it be music from the choir during the traditional services or from the band during contemporary worship, all is chosen to call us in one direction toward God. Yesterday children’s choirs would be participating, adding their own ingredient of praise.

We attend the contemporary service and the first song had these words: Jesus, in Your Name we pray, Come and fill our hearts today. Lord, give us strength to live for You and glorify Your Name. In departure from how the service regularly begins, one of our pastors asked us to bow first in silent prayer, then in corporate prayer for our city, our police officers, the friends and family of those killed. Then, as planned (weeks before), the children’s choir began singing, It Is Well. Hm-m-m…

The morning’s sermon title was “Setting Things Right” with scripture references from Isaiah 42 and Matthew 12:

Here is my Servant whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations.

With a holy sense of God’s presence and leading, our preacher, who had prepared this sermon (weeks before) challenged us—“broken people living in a broken world”—to be participators in God’s acts of justice in our community and world. Because the word justice comes from the Hebrew root “to set things right,” it’s as if God were saying, “I’m setting the world right. Join me.”

After this sacrament of the Word, the family of God was invited to the communion table to remember the price paid by Jesus to procure justice that will only fully come when He returns.

It was a solemn morning and throughout the time spent together with my brothers and sisters of this grieving city, I kept thinking, “How did they (church leaders) know that this theme, this music, this scripture, this prayer would be especially suited to this morning?” Yesterday afternoon as I contemplated this question among others, I was reminded of these words:

All this also comes from the Lord Almighty,
whose plan is wonderful, whose wisdom is magnificent (Isaiah 28:29).

As I plan my day, my week, even the next few years, I can’t know what headline news will break in, but I can be sure—and I can confidently rest in—the One whose plan is wonderful, whose wisdom is magnificent.