Monday, February 23, 2009

holding on to hope

Hope can sometimes be difficult to find these days. As my life becomes further and further entwined with the broken lives of my clients, I realize the courage involved in this thing called hoping. Hope takes courage because it is risky; it involves putting ourselves out there, wearing our hearts on our sleeves with the full knowledge that things may not turn out as we’d wanted them to.

This has been especially apparent around Feed My Sheep these days. Two of the clients who had been winning their battle with alcoholism have relapsed entirely. We hear tales of them passed out in their own messes, or bruised after a return to those who abuse them. Three other clients finally hit bottom and asked for help—we sent two off to rehab and one back to be with supportive family. This is cause for rejoicing, and we hope for them. Yet we also feel the pull toward guarding ourselves from the possibility of their failure, from the prospect of a day when they, too, will return to the bottle and reacquaint themselves with a life of self-destruction. Others simply suffer, and we wonder how to speak hope to them. One man just found out that his daughter is in a coma, unlikely to recover. His other two children are already dead. As he stumbles into the shelter and cries out to me in his drunkenness that a man should not outlive his children, I feel at a loss for words.

The battle for hope does not end with work. In my personal life, I find myself facing long struggles that seem never-ending. At times the weight of longing for freedom and healing seems too much. When eloquence is rendered futile by the unutterable things of the heart, I return often to Luther’s prayer: “I am yours; Save me” Teach me to hope, I ask the One whom Paul calls “the God of hope.” Teach me to hope.

A rereading of Hebrews 11:1 recently underscored for me the importance of this risky thing called hope: “But faith is the substance/realization of what we hope for; it is the proof/inner-conviction of things not seen” (translation mine). A look back at Hebrews 6 recalls the centrality of faith to being a true Christ-follower: “Without faith, it is impossible to please God…” Yet a closer look at verse 11:1 reveals that the definition of faith comes with an assumption: it assumes we are hoping for something. To surrender hope renders faith null and void: The verse would basically read, “But faith is the realization of…nothing.” We can’t lay aside hope, saying “I’ll believe it when I see it,” and pass it off as part of surviving the job. It is simply impossible to give up hope and still claim to be a people of faith.

I long for our ministry to be founded on deep and abiding faith. I hunger for my own life to be a life marked by confident trust. And so I must take the risk: I must never give up hope, no matter how painful and vulnerable it can be. I must never shut down the places of my heart that long for things I can’t yet see. Faith is the realization of hope that my clients can overcome, that broken hearts can find restoration, that long battles can be won. And hope is the daring choice to allow God the chance to prove that the promise is true.

Friday, February 06, 2009

finding God in Creation (no wilderness required)

Living in Colorado, and especially among the population of Christ-followers here, one hears a common statement: “I experience God most in his creation.” What they mean, of course, is that stepping away into the magnificent landscape that surrounds us allows for an encounter with the divine which is difficult to find in the midst of everyday life—in the midst of traffic and conversations with the boss. Of course, there is much truth to the sentiment. Just yesterday, as I descended from the summit of a nearby mountain, making my way through snow and Aspens under a blue sky, something in my soul was stilled; I felt as if God would have an easier time getting my attention in that quiet wilderness than he would during a day full of running errands.

Indeed, anyone who knows me well knows that I am addicted to the mountains. I can breathe out there. I can climb up to a higher view and look down at a world that is not as big and scary as perhaps I might have imagined. Yet something recently struck me as I thought through that statement again, that assertion that it is easiest to find God in “creation”. I was sitting in a worship setting, singing about how “the earth is filled with his glory,” and I became aware that I picture the same sort of wilderness setting every time I sing such songs about an earth that reveals God’s greatness. I picture the glory of God as displayed in “creation”. The thing that struck me (and the reason that creation is in quotation marks) is that the high point of creation—the only part said to be shaped in the image of the Creator himself—is humankind. It’s people like the ones you pass in traffic and the one who runs your office. Why, then, does my idea of encountering God in creation generally involve getting away from people, save for maybe a few that I really like? And what am I missing out on because of that narrow definition?

In the week or so since I began to ponder those questions, I have often found myself looking intently at others, especially at my clients at the homeless ministry, wondering what it means to experience God in the part of creation that is people. In some ways, it has simply shown me how much I need to allow my eyesight to be adjusted by the Creator, since I know that he is especially present in encounters with the poor. On the other hand, it has affirmed what has already been a big part of my focus lately: the importance of the Body of Christ really, truly living life together as a body. Here’s why:

I imagine that one of the reasons we find it so easy to encounter God in places like the Colorado Wilderness is that there we find a part of creation that seems at rest. It is an area that seems untainted, and gives us the sense that it might actually be close to how God intended it to be in the first place. No matter how much one might love a place like New York, it definitely doesn’t afford the feeling that the plot of land known as Manhattan in any way resembles the landscape in its purest form. We’ve made a bit of a mess out of many such places.

Likewise, humanity has become a polluted and chaotic form of what once reflected in the image of God himself. It is sometimes difficult to glance the divine within the face of an utterly broken life (though we need to look intently for God there, too, so that we can embrace all as his created ones). Here, then, is the importance of the Body of Christ. We are not the pristine mountains of humankind, but as Christ-followers, we have chosen to begin a journey toward being restored to the image of God. We have chosen to be a vessel for the display of his Spirit and likeness, no matter how imperfectly we fulfill that role at times. To seek to know God in his creation, then, means for the Body of Christ to look for him in each other. To truly do this means sharing life on an intimate and vulnerable level, offering one another access into the places of our lives where God’s great strength and redemption are being revealed in our weakness and trials. It means proclaiming his creativity by actively expressing the ways he’s gifted us, and doing so in community with others. It means helping one another to grow in the kind of compassion that will better allow us to see God in even the most broken parts of creation.

Knowing God in community with people is much messier than finding him in the woods and canyons. It’s more complicated and unpredictable, to be sure. But if we believe that God is revealed through his creation, then he is there in the midst of human ties, waiting to make himself known intimately through those “who have set their hearts on pilgrimage.” May we know him in the mountain peaks and crystal streams, yes. But may we also allow him to teach us even more what it means to know him through the part of creation which he shaped in his very image.