© Joe Randeen - Used with permission

Face the New Year with Hope

For Christians who follow the church year, New Years Eve occurs in Christmastide, the part of the church year pointing to the Epiphany of Jesus. This is not to belittle New Years Eve. Glittering lights, balloons, plastic horns, streamers, fireworks and the hope represented by the popping of Champaign are good things. The reflection that happens on New Years Eve often leads to thankfulness for the goodness of God over the past year. Bright sparks and celebratory music tell the truth—there is hope in the coming of a new year.

But how does one live into this hope when the signs around us may be anything but sparkling with optimistic expectation? Romans 15:13 points us to a few realities for finding and hanging on to hope:

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

“The God of hope” means that God is hope in his very being. He contains it and liberally supplies hope to his people, filling them to overflowing with joy and peace as we recognize and grasp onto God’s hope. This is big: it means you don’t have to “work hope up” when you are feeling hopeless about something. You just have to ask. But to ask, you have to “trust in him”. You have to place your confidence in him that you are not somehow singled out among the masses to live in hopelessness.

Hope is the fuel for life. We cannot live without it. Paul is not just spouting words. He thinks he is saying something important. He is.

This News Years Eve, before you head out to your party or get-together of what ever kind, or even if you are staying home to watch the East Coast version of New Year’s Rockin’ Eve you so can go to bed early, take a few moments to place the hope-challenged parts of your life before God. With conviction ask him to give you some hope, even just a bit, so that you can get up on the first of January with some joy and peace through which you can face to the New Year.

– Todd Hunter

An Advent Story

When I was in 4th Grade, my Sunday school teacher said, “If you pray, then God will answer your prayers.” And so, that week, I prayed. I prayed every day that the very next Sunday, my Grandpa would come to church.

My family had attended that church for years, since the time when the neighborhood pastor came knocking at my Grandma’s front door, and she thought to herself that it might just be a good idea to send her girls to Sunday School. Church policy didn’t allow parents to drop their kids off and pick them up later, so my grandma stayed. Forty years later she still calls that church her home.

But my Grandpa – he wasn’t about to step foot in any church. He was a gruff and stubborn kind of guy. But if my teacher was right, then when I prayed, God would answer, and I would sit next to him in church on Sunday.

Sunday came, and as I walked through the doors I remember eagerly looking around to see if he was there. He wasn’t – yet. I sat down. The service began. And eagerly I waited. I turned around to sneak peaks at the back doors once, twice, three times… and when the sermon started I finally resigned myself to this truth: my Grandpa wasn’t coming. I had prayed, but God hadn’t answered.

My Grandma, however, didn’t give up her praying. While she didn’t talk about it much with us, it became clear to me that she talked with God all the time – and saw reason to hope. When my Grandpa made a new friend who just “happened” to be a Christian; when his brother Bill occasionally talked about Jesus; even that time when the Jeopardy! category was “Old Testament Stories” and we grandkids knew all the answers – these things gave her hope as she waited, watched in expectant longing, and prayed for my grandpa’s salvation.

This story of waiting, praying, hoping, longing is an Advent story. My 4th grade self didn’t have the capacity or understanding to wait on God in longing and expectation. My grandma, however, did. Eugene Peterson writes that God trains us in this kind of waiting, longing, watching, and praying because this is what enlarges our capacity to trust. “We are enlarged in the waiting” he writes, “We, of course, don’t see what is enlarging us. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy” (Romans 8:22, The Message).

My grandma’s heart was enlarged in the waiting. For over 30 years she longed, prayed, waited… and just before he died, when his brother Bill came to visit him in the hospital, my Grandpa accepted Jesus. He never made it through the doors of my church, but the Lord welcomed him home anyway.

In Advent we practice waiting. In the waiting we groan over the sufferings of this present world, and we long for complete healing and restoration for ourselves and our loved ones (Romans 8:18-24). And alongside the waiting and the longing, we engage in expectant celebration. Jesus was born. Salvation is here. As we wait for Jesus to come again, we are “enlarged in the waiting”, growing in our capacity for greater trust as we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus. Come.”

Romans 8:18-24

– Lisa Igram

The Fish Wars

I know it is tough to be a Christian today. These days, in polite society, one gets the impression that no decent person with even a shred of intelligence could believe the non-scientific, backward, even hateful things that Christians purportedly believe.

Game over? Are Christians just waiting for the clock to run out, wondering if, like youth sports, there is a mercy rule in religion? I see many Christians, in a hurry to get to their cars and leave, hustling out of the stadium of religion, heads hanging in grief, guilt or shame.

I get it. I understand both sides. People genuinely misunderstand Jesus. They think they have heard the Gospel. They say they know Christians. But they reject both the caricature of Jesus they have heard and the un-Christian Christians they have met. Christians feel judged too—rightfully protesting: “We don’t hate gay people! We are not all in bed with politicians! We don’t think that everyone who disagrees with our denomination is going to hell!”

This is all real. But the instinct to fight back in a kind of PR war will not work. Remember The Fish Wars—the Truth fish eating the Darwin fish? That went well…for sellers of trinkets. But I’d bet my last dollar that millions of pieces of plastic of the back of cars did not change many minds. No one ever converted to Christ because they lost a bumper sticker war.

But, standing tall in the middle of human history, behind all the ups and downs of two thousand years cultural religious tension is the person of Jesus Christ. He is the most amazing being to ever walk, talk or do deeds of love, power and justice. He can handle some bad PR.

Jesus stands through his moments on the cross. At the cross Jesus stepped upon the stage of world history, where he has remained up to the present. As he said at a crucial turning point in his career (John 12): I, when I am lifted up from the earth [in crucifixion], will draw all people to myself. We need to see clearly the profound wisdom of his chosen path toward his goal.

Jesus very purposively rejected opportunities to be a political or military leader or a king. With his incredible power and attractiveness, had he wished to do so, there were many ways he could have avoided the cross. But, as he clearly told his followers at the time (John 10): I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.

In his death on the cross Jesus revealed both the depth of human sin and brutality and the unlimited reach of God’s love and power. Jesus lifted up on the cross is the turning point in history that consistently makes itself seen and felt in every generation—even generations in which church, Christians and religion are not popular. How? Two things:

First, as Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, we preach Christ crucified…the power of God and the wisdom of God. And second, we live as if we believe this wisdom is true. We don’t, in frustration, merely point to doctrine. Rather, being partakers of the life of the risen Christ, we announce, embody and demonstrate a cross and resurrection-enabled life. We do so not just for our own piety, but also for the sake of others, that others would experience our followership of Jesus as for their good.

– Todd Hunter

Jesus and the Mundane Life

So, let’s be honest. No matter how idyllic the sequestered life of retreat might seem as a context for relationship with Jesus, it is a far cry from the insanity of real life. Am I right? In real life, the alarm goes off at 6 am (if you’re lucky enough to sleep in) and barely controlled chaos ensues for the next 14-16 hrs. Chores have to be done. Children need to be chauffeured. Parents have to get to work. Errands need to be run. I’m sure you can fill in whatever the unique contours of your own life are, but you get my point: mundane, everyday kind of life sort of takes up a lot of time.

If you’re anything like me, sometimes this reality can be a bit frustrating. You want to know Jesus deeper each day, but some days you can’t stop long enough to know even yourself. Forget about remembering to tether your finite, little life to the infinite, divine life – you can’t even remember where you put your darn keys!

Well, I’d like to suggest to you an extremely simple but provocative alternative. What if Jesus wanted to be present to you in the midst of your crazy schedule? What if the mayhem that is your life could actually be the context for his life-giving presence? What if we could learn to open ourselves to his presence while we’re running the kids to their sports programs or while we’re doing our grocery shopping? What if we practiced remembering his presence? How could that change your life? How could that reshape your vision of the “Christian life”?

Along these lines, if you’re up for it, I would encourage you to try the ancient practice of breath prayer. This spiritual discipline literally requires you just to breath. With each breath you take you say a simple, silent prayer such as, “Jesus, here I am.” This practice opens you to the presence of Jesus and can transform your mundane, everyday living into meaningful experiences with your Savior.

Grace and Peace,

Dave Strobolakos