During the past couple of weeks, in the midst of the conversation surrounding Rob Bell’s book and the dismissal of Chad Holtz from his position in North Carolina, I have found myself engaged in some though on hope. Some of this is due to teaching a class on N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope, in which is argues that Christians today don’t think about hope much today, that they don’t truly understand hope (especially in terms of our future hope), and that this lack of hope undermines the mission of the church.
And then, earlier in the week, Dan Dick asked the question of the United Methodist tribe that we belong to, “What’s Wrong With Us?” In this article Dan proposes that the answer to that question is that we are fixated on the question itself rather than having our eyes fixed on the things of God and letting the Holy Spirit work her stuff.
Which again brings us – that is, those of us who call ourselves United Methodist – back to the question of hope. Are we indeed people who absolutely hold on to a hope for renewal, a hope for transformation, a hope for resurrection, or are we rather a people simply trying to survive, a people trying to hold on for dear life with little vision that Christ has indeed triumphed over sin and death? Do we, in our fear about dying as a denomination, give death too much power over us, rather than holding on to the hope that God has great things in store for us, both in this life and in the life to come?
I ask these questions because I too sometimes find myself wallowing in the mire of what has been rather than keeping my vision focused on what is to come. Certainly, we have to be rooted in the here and now, and Jesus told us that our prayer is for God’s kingdom to be made real here and now “on earth as it is in heaven.” And yet as I set in an underutilized building constructed for what was and not well suited for what is, I too find myself clawing the walls to help our congregation avoid death rather than embrace the hope of resurrection and life that Christ offers. I can easily search for programmatic solutions, the life-support mechanisms of a congregation, rather than putting my trust in the one who is making all things new, the one who promises a new heaven and a new earth. In the desire to be honest about where we are (trying to help move folks out of a past that will not return) I can easily fall into using the language of death rather than offering the hope of resurrection. And, as I talk with my colleagues throughout the connection, I know that I am not the only one who lets the fear of institutional death push hope out of the way.
Which brings me back to the original question. Do we as United Methodist maintain a deep and abiding sense of hope for our church – the hope that God will use us in mighty ways, the hope that our ways of approaching the divine will lead people to God, the hope that leads us to be truly who we are rather than trying to put on something that we are not? Do we believe in the power of Christ to bring forth resurrection, or do we, drawing on popular definitions of success, idolize those programs that promise to stave off death for a few more years; those prophets who come forward with roadmaps to the fountain of youth? Are we going to focus on that which is dying rather than proclaiming hope in something better, something brighter, the new heaven and new earth where God walks again in our midst, and wipes away our tears, turning mourning to dancing?
Can we as United Methodists truly embrace hope as our paradigm for ministry? Can we truly be a people of hope?