One of the most persistent problems I face, as both a Christian thinker and leader, is to confuse my plans with God’s plans. I seek God, I pray, and I read widely and study a great deal. I often see a clear way forward, at least sometimes. I sometimes feel quite sure I know what God wants. But my plans are not God’s plans. I have learned this again and again over nearly seven decades of life. But I still fall into the trap even as I watch others do the same in large numbers.
The hope of humanity is Jesus Christ. This hope is clearly being challenged today. It is challenged by politicians. It is challenged by social engineers. It is challenged by entrepreneurs. And it is challenged by ministers as well. Dr. Ralphael Gamaliel Warnock, pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta since 2005, rightly says, “It takes a tough mind and a tender heart to hold on to hope.” It sure does.
I have found holding on to hope very difficult over the last twelve months. I personally came through a quintuple heart bypass operation on February 11, 2016. I am physically fine. In fact, the two months following surgery I was better than I had been (inwardly and spiritually) in decades. But since then the reality of what is happening in the church and our nation has brought waves of distress across the bow of my ship.
This week I was in Atlanta, preaching for the Prayer for Christian Unity service held in Cannon Chapel at Emory University on Tuesday, January 24. I was filled with hope in ways that I am still sorting out today. The crowd on was not large. The service was definitely not highly emotional. The participants were varied and interesting. We were Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Baptist, non-denominatonal and Catholic. (Catholic Archbishop Wilton Gregory shared in the service.) I felt the gentle wind of God as I preached but I felt as if the sermon was for me more than for anyone else. I sensed that my hope was slipping. (I will try to put my sermon on our various platforms soon.)
Hope has been widely written about in recent years but it is rarely understood. Theologian Jürgen Moltman writes: “It is not for nothing that at the entrance to Dante’s hell there stand the word ‘Abandon hope, all who enter here.’” Yes, abandon hope and do not hold on to faith. All of us need hope. But we all face times when our hope wavers. Yet with hope we can face the future powerfully. I would not argue that non-Christians cannot have hope at all. I would argue that Jesus alone can carry our hope on to future grace, or to a lasting hope that transcends this life. Christian hope abolishes all our false hopes and leads to a radical openness in its application. Our country needs hope more than ever. We are deeply divided. Many of us feel profound darkness has descended upon us as “we the people.” But we must be careful here. Dr. Warnock is right: “It takes a tough mind and a tender heart to hold on to hope.” Dare we seek this kind of hope?
Hope is our God-given tether to reality. It is our true bulwark against despair, even the kind of despair I have felt in recent months. God-given hope is both with and beyond history. I must remember once again that my plans are not God’s plans. I must confess God as Trinity and live hope.