It's Advent, my favorite season of the church year. This year it is also my first Advent & Christmas without being a parish priest. I'm finding it more difficult than I imagined. I thought I was doing well in this new mode of existence (albeit a mode of transition...to what?) but Advent has stirred up grief in my loss. Of course, grief is not a bad thing, but it must be lived through.
It has gotten me thinking a lot about the church. So this Advent I want to share some reflections (call them "thoughts in process") about the church, asking the question, "What if...?"
My question today is "What if the church were known not so much for what it believes as for what it hopes?"
This is the Advent challenge to the church. Advent does time backwards from how we are used to thinking. Advent is, of course, the time of preparation for the celebration of Christmas, Jesus birth as both Son of Man and Son of God, "Emmanuel," "God with us, God for us." But to begin our preparation we start with our vision of the future.
That vision is in many ways not optimistic. True hope, however, has never depended on optimism, in fact the two do not have much to do with one another. Optimism is caused by a projection of positive past and present experience into the immediate future. If you are "walking through the valley of death," optimism is difficult, if not impossible, at least without engaging in fantasy.
Hope works entirely differently. It is true that past experience can help us look in the right direction to find hope, but hope is always a promise, in this life an always unrealized promise, that is often held despite all past and present signs to the contrary.
I think one of the best descriptions of this hope is found in the Letter to the Hebrews. In chapter 11 the writer talks about "faith," but he or she is not talking about faith as belief or certainty, but faith as hope.
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (11:1)
The writer goes on to speak of this faith/hope throughout biblical history, during which she introduces the word "promise." In the middle of this review he says
All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw them and greeted them.
We learn to hope when we learn to see glimpses of the promise fulfilled, and we can do this whether the present times are good or not so good.
And that, I think, is what the church is really for, training us to see the glimpses and acting as much as possible as if the promise were already fulfilled.
The church's business is not certainty. The church's business is hope.
Now I suspect many active church participants will respond to this by saying, "Of course." Or perhaps they will wish to say, "It's both." At any rate, they see hope as a fundamental part of the church's life.
I do not think, however, that most folk out in the world who have chosen not to be active in the church know this to be true. They believe, in fact, that the church's business is certainty, and that even when the church is talking about the future when it speaks of heaven, it is not a hopeful conversation because we are obsessed with deciding on God's behalf ahead of time who will get in and who will get left out.
It seems to me that "evangelism" is not witnessing to the world what you believe (i.e., are certain about), but what you hope for. What glimpses of the promise have you seen, and how do those glimpses affect the way you try to live?
More on this later...