For some time I’ve been reading the book of Hebrews – this past week, I focused just on chapter 11. Seeing the nature of the faith of the OT saints, and what they actually went through as they stood firm in faith, has been breathtaking. They witness (12:1) to lifelong faith in the promises of God – faith in promises only faintly realized but fully believed. The more I pictured the saints of old “standing in faith on yet-to-be realized promises,” the more I kept seeing a different life of hope than most of us have in mind.
As a diocese, we placard the word hope in our very name. We are, by God’s grace, a hope-filled movement within the Kingdom. But why? What exactly are we hoping for?
Truth be told, much of our hopefulness is not centered in promises but centered in results. That’s not surprising: God has blessed us with gifted and talented leaders, delightful and fascinating churches, and exciting places to serve. We help each other learn to engage people (and culture) with the Gospel in substantial ways. The Lord has mercifully protected us from major spiritual crises and conflicts. Most of our churches are comparatively successful and growing. Many of our leaders are sought after as consultants, speakers, and coaches for the best practices of orthodox, mission-driven Anglicanism. We get to plant new churches. We are blessed in terms of the measurables that count in our corner of the Kingdom. I guarantee you, I don’t want to be with any other tribe! It is God’s mercy – and I thank him – that I get to live shoulder to shoulder with the likes of you.
But are these heady factors the only true measure of success? Can we fall into a presumption that “if we do it right, we will succeed visibly?” Is there another way to understand a life of hope that runs deeper than visible success, that stands even when we see no evidence of God’s blessing in our ministries? What about the questions we all face: our own private unyielding struggles with pride, fear, doubt, or lust? Kids that dwell in the land of unbelief? Physical pain or chronic illness that drags our souls down? What is hope in the darkness?
This past Wednesday, I ran across the following excerpt from Henri Nouwen’s book, The Wounded Healer. I offer it as an alternative “life of hope” even when “success” cannot be seen or measured. If you don’t need this now, file it away: you will need it sometime in the course of your life and ministry.
While personal concern [for others] is sustained by a continuously growing faith in the value and meaning of life, the deepest motivation for leading our fellow man to the future is hope. For hope makes it possible to look beyond the fulfillment of urgent wishes and pressing desires and offers a vision beyond human suffering and even death. A Christian leader is a man of hope whose strength in the final analysis is based neither on self-confidence derived from his personality, nor on specific expectations for the future, but on a promise given to him.
This promise not only made Abraham travel to unknown territory; it not only inspired Moses to lead his people out of slavery; it is also the guiding motive for any Christian who keeps pointing to new life even in the face of corruption and death.
Without this hope, we will never be able to see value and meaning in the encounter with a decaying human being and become personally concerned. This hope stretches far beyond the limits of one’s own psychological strength, for it is anchored not just in the soul of an individual but in God’s self-disclosure in history. Leadership therefore is not called Christian because it is permeated with optimism against all the odds of life, but because it is grounded in the historic Christ-event which is understood as a definitive breach in the deterministic chain of human trial and error, and as a dramatic affirmation that there is light on the other side of darkness.
Every attempt to attach this hope to visible symptoms in our surroundings becomes a temptation when it prevents us from the realization that promises, not concrete successes, are the basic of Christian leadership. Many ministers, priests, and Christian laymen have become disillusioned, bitter, and even hostile when years of hard work bear no fruit, when little change is accomplished. Building a vocation on the expectation of concrete results, however conceived, is life building a house on sand instead of solid rock, and even takes away the ability to accept successes as free gifts.
Hope prevents us from clinging to what we have and frees us to move away from the safe place and enter unknown and fearful territory. This might sound romantic, but when a man enters with his fellow man into his fear of death and is able to wait for him right there, “leaving the safe place” might turn out to be a very difficult act of leadership. It is an act of discipleship in which we follow the hard road of Christ, who entered death with nothing but bare hope.
I said earlier, “most of our churches are comparatively successful.” But not all. I said, “many of our leaders are sought after,” but not all. This past week I talked with one pastor whose church hasn’t grown since he arrived years ago. Another brother with a very dynamic public ministry wept over a child who denies the faith. I talked and prayed with more than one brother about stern challenges from leaders in the churches they serve. Another about his deep concern for a gifted young man whom he has discipled, but who stands at a crossroads of accepting his brokenness or turning cynical. I prayed with a sister whose daughter’s world is being dismantled by injustice. Many of us are facing forms of death.
I say this to all of us: “We have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing glory may be of God, not of ourselves.” I say this: “It is required of stewards that they be found faithful (not successful).” I remind all of us: “Look to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of God.” And this: “Let us with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
Believe it. Cling to the only hope that can never be taken away, the promises of God. “The Lord . . . keeps faith forever.” (Psalm 146:6)
Written by The Rt. Rev. Steven Breedlove. Bishop Breedlove serves as bishop for the Diocese of Christ our Hope (ACNA).