God gave birth to the New Creation and inaugurated the fulfillment of all things in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Since the first days of the church, Christians allowing this living hope to shape their perspectives, priorities and practices have realized renewed vision and vitality in their life together, even in the most trying of circumstances. As a result, they have experienced personal transformation, and exercised a compelling and influential presence in the world around them.
I believe it is critical for us to recover, to cultivate this robust sense of hope in our part of the church today. Its absence undermines our vitality and growth and faithfulness as congregations.
It doesn’t help that we easily buy into such anemic understandings of what hope really is. Too often we equate hope with wishful thinking; we fancy hope as nothing more than an existential crossing of our fingers. Or sometimes we speak of hope in terms of human progress, of counting on human ingenuity to usher in a brighter tomorrow. These may be fine sentiments, I suppose, as far as they go. But they are a far cry from any biblical notion of hope. And when we lose the biblical notion of hope, our congregations have a hard time seeing past their immediate circumstances. As a result, we start making decisions and taking actions out of little more than fear for our own survival. Either that or we operate primarily out of the question of what might make us more attractive to potential religious consumers.
That’s why I’m convinced it’s imperative – it’s of life and death importance – that today’s congregations recover a vital and robust posture of hope. Such a posture, I’m convinced, is essential to the health of the church and, more importantly, to the wellbeing of the world we’re commissioned to serve. When congregations act with confidence that God’s promises for tomorrow are certain and sure, they find great meaning and courage in their efforts today. In short, Christians thrive when allowing the way they live today to be shaped by God’s promised tomorrow.
I read a piece in a newsmagazine some years back that forever changed the way I understood this. As a result, I suppose I have made the report my signature story.
A group of sixty-one youngsters were about to graduate from an elementary school in a part of a U.S. city riddled with poverty and an array of social problems. If these kids followed in the footsteps of the school’s previous alumni, only about six or seven of them would graduate from high school and it would be remarkable if any went on to university. These kids had little reason to hope, and thus even less reason to try to beat the hefty odds stacked against them.
A successful area businessman – a “self-made millionaire” type – was invited to give the commencement address to these kids, and he accepted. Thinking about the assignment before him, however, the man knew something radically different was called for than the customary commencement address: “Work hard, keep your nose clean and your shoulder to the wheel, and you might make it just as I did.”
So in place of a typical kind of speech, he made a surprising announcement that graduation day. To each and every one of the sixty-one students, he made a promise: “Your university education is paid for – completely.”
He had established a fund that would provide enough money to cover the undergraduate education of all sixty-one of those kids.
Well let me tell you what happened: all sixty-one of them graduated from high school! Something like fifty-six of them went on to university. Some of them did so well, in fact, that they received scholarships as well.
Do you see what happened in the lives of these young people? Because the shape of their future was changed, so also was the shape their present. In place of a conditional future based upon a prescription, now there was an unconditional promise based upon a person. Their efforts in the present had meaning and purpose, and therefore could bear fruit.
Now, if one man’s promise to a group of kids can have such an effect, how much more the promises of our God!
Hope is not crossing our fingers and naïvely trying to be positive. Hope is acting now in the confidence that God’s promises can be trusted, allowing our lives to be patterned in consonance with the Reign that is coming and already at hand.
The church will be well served if we use this forum to address key considerations for fostering missional, disciple-forming communities of faith. So I want to stimulate a lot of imaginative sharing on this page. I would like to provide and invite a lot of “practical” help here as well. But in all of that, my aspiration is for our dialogue to prompt the redirection of our gaze in such a way that God’s presence and purposes, promises and activity become central to the conversation, goal-setting, decision-making, and actions of a growing number of congregations across this country.
I am persuaded that our congregations have good cause to adopt a posture of hope because we have already glimpsed the future God has promised. We saw it on Easter morning. In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has promised well for us and for the world. So let’s allow our lives today to be shaped by God’s promised tomorrow…