When a People who have the greatest reason for hope, become the people of despair, something is wrong.
Rev. Jonathan David Faulkner
I wrote a few weeks ago that many in our congregations, and most people in our world are living in a negative feedback loop. One fueled by negative news, constant blame shifting which comes from the Media and Political Leaders from both the left and the right. There appears to be, secularly, only one thing on the menu and that one thing is fear leading to despair. Much of this is driven by loneliness and anxiety about the future. I saw some of this when I shared what seems like a daunting statistic from Forbes and BARNA that 1-5 Churches have closed since the Pandemic and many pastors are planning to step down and away from Ministry germanely once this is over. But I did not leave those I was talking with in fear and despair, that would not be shepherding God’s people well, just the opposite. Because while despair is a reasonable feeling, Jesus feels it, we should always, also, remind people of the outcome. Even Jesus, in his despair in the garden, prayed a prayer of despair knowing the outcome, salvation for all mankind through the risen Christ.
I had been spending a lot of time in the Psalms of Ascent this week as I prepare to preach on Psalm 131 on September 20th and my daily psalm praying has come to them. The late Eugene Peterson wrote an entire book on these Psalms entitled: A Long Obedience in the Same Direction which may be the best non-commentary work on them one can read. I love the way Peterson translates this psalm (131) in The Message Translation, and it appears in the book in this manner as well:
“GOD, I’m not trying to rule the roost,
I don’t want to be king of the mountain.
I haven’t meddled where I have no business or fantasized grandiose plans.
I’ve kept my feet on the ground,
I’ve cultivated a quiet heart.
Like a baby content in its mother’s arms, my soul is a baby content.
Wait, Israel, for GOD. Wait with hope. Hope now; hope always!”
Not only does Peterson’s translation, or paraphrase, capture best the Psalmists humility as they approach God, but it gives us a modern context for walking with God through things like a Pandemic.
One of the reasons I have heard for all the despair, and this is particularly true in places like Iowa where we have received almost no direction from state government, is that one does not know who to believe. Everyone has an angle; everyone says something different than someone else. In some ways, this is what one should expect in a society where truth is considered to be completely and totally “Relative.” This is, unfortunately the result of a society that tells one to “live their truth.” If my truth is that this thing is a “Hoax” (it is not) then why should I believe the one whose truth tells me to take it seriously. It also does not help that this is a kind of “lowest common denominator” truth and reduces and dehumanizes a person to their viewpoint or perspective which is generally only able to be articulated in the negative. “I am this, not this.” Truth in relationship to what you are not, is only a partial truth. There are times when this is okay, there are relatives in this world, but when everything is relative, and everyone operates on either a half-truth or flat out lie, both of which operate in the negative, then we have the mess before us today.
We take the opposite position of the Psalmist, instead of the humble posture presented in Psalm 131, we absolutely want to “rule the roost” and be “king of the mountain” and some even make a living of “meddling” with what they have no business meddling in and making Grandiose Plans. This can be the summation of our modern political discourse, everyone is attempting to do all of this, and as usual, what is done out of human pride, is leading to death and a deepening depression and anger. Yoda’s words in “Attack of the Clones” seems prescient: “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to the dark side.” It is not biblical, but the proverb is playing out before our eyes because we are all afraid that all that we have built with our own two hands is going to come crashing down around, which in turn is speeding up the pace by which it crashes down.
This is another reason I have told my congregation to turn off the 24/7 News Cycle and open their bibles and further, spend more and more time in prayer. Because the Christian does not draw their hope from anything within this world, nor are to place our ultimate hope in anything in this world. Politicians let us down, pastors too, news media stokes our fears and bad actors mislead and misdirect us from all sides. Christians cannot even put an inferior hope in anything in our world now because it is delivering the opposite message Christianity should proclaim. The reason Jesus came was not primarily to pronounce judgment on humanity, though he did pronounce judgment in cases where his primary message was rejected. His primary message was the message of the Prophet Isaiah which Jesus tells us he fulfills in Luke 4:18: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor, He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to set the oppressed free.” Jesus was, Luke tells us, reading the Isaiah Scroll, what in our modern bibles would be 61:1. Jesus did not come to primarily proclaim doom and gloom, but hope. Then He left His church here and commanded us to do all that He had commanded us, which included what He had said above. The message of Jesus is one that we should carry forth, a message supported by the way in which we imitate the way He lived. If you read the Gospels (particularly Luke 10-11) you will notice too that when the Disciples want to call down fire on two village’s, Jesus rebukes them and then He is the one who pronounces woe, not the Disciples. He does, of course, tell them to shake the dust off of a town that rejects Him and His message, but notice that woe has already been declared for rejecting them, it is not the Disciples declaring the woe. Pronouncing Judgment seems to be the responsibility of Jesus alone. We are to proclaim a message of hope and hen that message is rejected, we are to remember that judgment has already been proclaimed.
Unlike so many things in this world, this cannot be a “Passing hope” as in: “I hope the Packers win the Superbowl this year.” This is not a trivial message of trivial hope. This is a certain message of ultimate hope, hope with expectation, the kind we talk about at Advent, as if the hope that is certain at Advent is to be with us throughout the year. Not abandoned once we get to Lent or forgotten after Epiphany. This kind of Hope is a contented hope, it acknowledges how desperate things are at the present moment, but like the child who no longer pines for their mothers milk, but instead is contented in their mothers arms, knowing they will receive the tender love and care from their parent no matter the situation. Not an infantile crying, but childlike hope and faith that receives answers to questions and concerns from God the Father. This hope is what helps us “keep our feet on the ground” and “Cultivate(d) a quiet heart” before God, Rather than wondering about the things which are not ours to know, or demanding our own way, we can keep that quiet, confident hope.
It is this hope that the Psalmist exhorts us to, “wait for the Lord Israel, wait with Hope, hope now, hope always.” The ESV renders this as: “Oh Israel, Hope in the Lord, both now and forevermore.” The exhortation to “hope always” seems to have been lost somewhere in the annals of recent Church History. If we are not to place our hope, even trivial hope, in the people and systems of this world, then we are to place all our hope in our ultimate hope, that is, Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior and we are to: “Hope now, Hope always.” There is no time when it is appropriate for the Christian to stop hoping and give themselves totally to despair, yet so many in the Church in the United States today have been doing just that, and have been for more than two centuries. One can go back to the Whig Theology of the 19th century, to the Fundamentalist, Modernist controversy of the early 20th, to all the debates and hope placed in politics and political actors who, instead of exhorting the people to Hope in God and wait with hope, have exhorted the people to fear this or that person/ideology of thing and so we, a people of hope, have allowed ourselves to become a people of fear and despair.
In allowing our hope to be stripped from us we have abandoned the very thing Jesus unleashed us to do. Because we ourselves are captives to fear and despair, we cannot set others free from their own fear and despair. We are like Peter in so many ways, holding our eyes on Jesus until the wind and the rain catch our attention until we drown. Then Jesus reaches out a hand and it seems that instead of taking it, many are refusing it as if it is not really there, preferring instead people and institutions whose ability to save us from a storm is little better than a flimsy piece of drift wood floating by just out of reach. Here is the kicker though, we think we are still in the boat, a cognitive dissonance which I am unable to explain at this present moment.
Things like the Ethnic Reconciliation many in the Church are calling for will help us do exactly what Jesus came here to do and sent us out to do. The benefits are enormous for everyone involved, I know because I have had a taste of it, a small glimpse into what it can look like and lament because it seems like a lot of that work is being undone. But whenever you bring up the topic with some Christians it is dismissed not as the Gospel issue which it is, but our culture has made it, like everything else, a political one. We need a desperate reminder that life is not a political issue, we may get one and it will likely be in a rathe unfortunate way. The pundits, who are responsible for much of the polarization, have drilled down on this issue and many others to tell us to be afraid, many of those pundits come not from the secular world, but from the pews of the churches and from the ivory towers of her institutions. Christianity has been taken over the doomsayers, at least in the public square, to the point that Christian who is not attacking their opponent with fire and brimstone is considered an oddity or accused of “playing both sides.”
But we are the people of hope, and it is about time we began to live like it. This was, of course, the very reason Christianity spread with such rapidity in the first four centuries. From Perpetua ad Felicitous to Polycarp and so on, the hope of the Christians and their refusal to give up both the reason for their hope (Jesus Christ) and their message of Hope in the face of the cruelest of torchers preserved for us by Eusebius of Caesarea in his Church History was the catalyst for the explosion of the Gospel. This hope prompted the Christians to respond to the wild beasts with the same quiet, child like peace that the psalms in 131 talks about. We are no where near that kind of persecution today, and we are failing the light persecution test in an increasingly Post-Christian, and even in some places, pre-Christian America.
I saw a “Radio Free Babylon: Coffee with Jesus” cartoon this morning. In it, Lisa, one of the regular characters, was asking Jesus for some hope during the Pandemic. Jesus reminded her of her elderly neighbors down the road and she immediately started thinking of ways she could help them in their struggle against isolation and loneliness. While I think this is a slight oversimplification, the point stands, nonetheless. We go to Jesus for some hope because we can trust Him, and He gives us that Hope and encourages us to share that hope with the person down the street. Hope is not merely for the individual, but for the corporate, we all share in this hope and we share this hope with one another. If we abandon this hope we may as well abandon the moniker of Christian altogether, because we are not, in choosing despair over hope, living as Christ. Again, there is nothing wrong with feeling despair as long as despair drives us to the ultimate hope, if that despair becomes our mode of operation then it becomes sinful because we are denying Christ and His Person and Work, of the three things that remain: “Faith, hope and Love” we are in danger of abandoning all three in favor of the world’s three remaining: “doubt, despair and hatred” and of this, we should repent. The way forward for the church in the pandemic and following is not more negativity, but true and genuine hope that is rooted and grounded in the person and work of Jesus Christ and which does the things which Christ set us free to do. Oh, and let God pronounce the judgment while you pronounce the hope forevermore.
“God, help us put away the fearmongers, to silence the voices of hatred and doom and gloom, for the sake of your son, lead us to your Holy Throne as your children and may we live as a people of Ultimate Hope for the sake of our neighbors.” -Amen
[i] Peterson, Eugene H.. A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (p. 141). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.
Rev. Jonathan David Faulkner is a Graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary holding Masters in Divinity and Church History, a Pastor, Musician and Writer. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Christian Education & Administration with a concentration in Urban Ministry. He lives with his wife and daughter in Northern Iowa and seeks to be a part of the project of reconciliation in the local and international church. He is currently serving as the Pastor of First Congregational Church of Buffalo Center