Friday, August 29, 2014

The Hope Factor

Do you ever wonder if hope is overrated?  If it is only a psychological, coping mechanism with no substantive purpose?  That it is merely conceptual and not applicable?  That if it is real, you have never experienced it.  You are not alone if you resonate with these questions.  We live in a world where hope is becoming an endangered species.

I don't consider myself to be an expert on hope.  Like many of you, I struggle regularly with the gap that often exists between that which we long for and that which is.  I am not exempt or immune from the gap and certainly not in denial of its existence.  But even on my worst days, I can't get away entirely from the notion of hope.  It's like a lingering aroma that won't leave. It's present even if I've become conditioned not to notice it.  It quietly remains in my life even if I've pushed it to the farthest corner of my heart.

I refer to this as the hope factor.  Hope has a tenacious quality that allows it to survive and thrive in any circumstance.  Just when we think we have rid ourselves from it once and for all, we feel its faint pulse still pumping in our hearts.  The indestructible nature of hope makes it a formidable friend and foe.  In other words, hope is with us whether we want it to be or not.  It is comforting and annoying at the same time because we have a love-hate relationship with hope.  We can't imagine life without it, but hope can, at times, highlight what we don't have more than what we have.

So what do we do?  Embrace complete hopelessness?  That's depressing.  Embrace a disingenuous attitude of positive thinking?  That's fake.  Neither of these extremes are the answer because both place all the emphasis on us rather than God.  And therein lies the problem.  We try to originate and retain hope with human strength. Or we allow difficult circumstances to breed intense pessimism in us. But the hope factor, in it's purest form, can only be known in God's presence.  There is an inextricable link between God and hope.  Where God is, there is hope.  Where hope is, there is God. Where there is no God, there is no hope.

My atheistic friends will ardently disagree with me on this and might even be offended.  But it won't be the first time we agree to disagree.  That is the spirit and protocol of the public square. Nonetheless, my eyes are fixed on the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.  Not because He makes life necessarily easier - or gives me special treatment - or makes me without flaws (far from that!). But because He gives us full access to His presence in which we find hope, peace, love, and every form of goodness.  His presence is the key.  The Psalmist says it better than I in the 139th chapter:  If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.  If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. 

Hope resides in us when we reside in Him.  God's strength, not ours, brings it about and keeps it around.  It stays attached to us and begins to rub off on others as well. Hope is an incredible gift God gives us.  Don't exchange it for an imitation or lesser gift.  If you have already done that, exchange it back.  God is very flexible on returns.  He is the hope factor.

Ex nihilo,

R.J. Rhoden           

Saturday, August 23, 2014

3 Thoughts About Doors

And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. - Colossians 4:3

1.  God is able to open doors for us in any situation.

The courage in this scripture verse is not so much the content as it is the circumstance under which it was written.  We expect the great Apostle, Paul, to be focused on proclaiming the mystery of Christ. But to remain steadfast in that desire while in prison is to take courage to a whole new level.

I often hear people say that their proclamation of faith will begin when better times arrive - once they get past their current situation.  But the current situation becomes replaced with another - and another - and so on.  If we cannot believe God for open doors in our present circumstance than we will not in the future.  Our spiritual practices and patterns tend to move along with us.

Having an orientation towards open doors is a matter of the heart not circumstance. It flows from a God-centered perspective that beats consistently within us.  It is often counter intuitive to human desire but never misleading.  I wonder if Paul was tempted to write instead, "And pray for me, that God might get me out of here so I can be free."  While there would have been nothing wrong with that prayer, it might have misled Paul to a path of self-pity.  But, instead, by praying for open doors, Paul chooses the higher way of God's plan over his comfort.

2.  Better that God open the door than us kick it in!

Do you know any spiritual "door kickers?"  They tend to be loud and obnoxious, thinking that it's somehow good to pound and kick a door open even if God has closed it.  They harmfully assume it's noble and justified to force their beliefs on others despite a lack of interest or receptivity.  Abrasive, non-sensitive proclamations of faith are in direct conflict with Paul's instruction here.  Implied within his prayer for open doors is the realization that not all doors are open.  And that we would do well to trust God to open certain doors, responding readily to those opportunities.  Kicking a door open that God has currently shut is like telling God that He is wrong, and we know best.

3.  Neglected open doors are as wrong as kicked in doors.

It is clear that Paul does not want us staring motionlessly at open doors because there are God-intended purposes in them. Namely, that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ. Some of us would never be guilty of kicking in a door.  But doing nothing when a door is wide open in front of us might come easily.  Before we use all our energy ridiculing obnoxious Christians, let's look in the mirror and address lackluster efforts. After all, God despises the lukewarm (Revelation 3:16).

Neglected open doors are as wrong as kicked in doors because both lack trust in God. The latter does so by attempting to mandate the timing of God.  The former does so by sitting idly as the timing of God passes by.  Either case causes us to be misaligned with God's purposes.

Which one of the three applies to you?

Ex nihilo,

RJ Rhoden


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Trending In My Soul: Cities of Refuge or Refuse?

The UN's refugee agency (UNHCR) recently reported that there are now 45 million people worldwide in situations of displacement - the highest figure in 14 years.  Prior to a recent trip to the country of Turkey, these kind of statistics were like white noise, background information in a world I didn't see, feel, know or understand.  But all that changed, coming to an abrupt halt, when the stats suddenly became faces in front of me in Ankara.

The faces belong to a beautiful Kurdish family that escaped the destruction of their village in Northern Iraq by the Islamic State.  Right now they are being fed, housed, and helped temporarily in Ankara by the good people at Filipus, an outstanding non-profit organization that were also hosting us. Their older brother is already in the U.S. and is hoping to one day experience a safe and joyful reunion with his family.  Here are the trending thoughts in my soul as I ponder what I saw last week.

1.  Refuge or Refuse
    In the 35th chapter of Numbers, God commanded Moses to grant towns to the Levites.  In all, they were to receive 48 towns with 6 of them being designated as cities of refuge.  Verse 15 says, "These six towns will be a place of refuge for Israelites, aliens and any other people living among them..."  One of  the functions of the Levitical priests was to advocate and care for the displaced - a function that, regrettably, has been rarely operational in my life.  It is in God's nature to grant refuge not refusal to those whom, for whatever reason, have been forced away from their homes.  The question I am asking myself right now is profound and overdue:  "How might I do my part in cultivating refuge for displaced people for the glory of God?"

2.  One is Better than None
    I cannot help 45 million people but I can help one family now and then another and another and another.  Our lives are to be responsible, thoughtful, and intentional with that which God places in front of us.  Let's not allow the magnitude of the problem to rob us of the opportunity to help just one. Because when we do, it is never only one that is the benefactor of said help. Our acts of kindness set into motion responses and benefits in others that go far beyond our perceptions.  In fact, we probably never actually see the ultimate fruit of goodness.

3.  Political Implications
    I have no background or training in the complexities that swirl around and thru the refugee problem in the world.  My suspicion is that the volume of people right now that are in desperate need of immediate help is overloading the  system.  And it is simply not capable of responding in a timely, effective way.  We need to pray for those whom hold offices that make decisions regarding this global problem. Let's pray for wisdom, unusual unity, fresh ideas, and an overall attitude of compassion to govern their meetings and deliberations.  May a legal and efficient process emerge for migration and reestablishment that is owned by all of us.  And may God's people be visible at that table of decision-making advocating for refuge not refuse.

4.   The Friendly Side of Digital Technology
      Digital technology is often fodder for debates regarding its benefits and/or detriments.  We get upset when we see young people unable to look up from their smart devices - as we should.  But we also see the incredible connectivity that has emerged as a result of the digital revolution.  The process we have entered to help this Kurdish family has been greatly assisted by FB, Twitter, Google, email, mobile phones, and the world wide web in general.  Digital technology is becoming a kind of global language that, if used correctly, is a unifying benefit not a detriment.  These important tools can and should be maximized by us.  Scripture shapes and informs our theology; digital technology gives us a way to connect and communicate.  And in that order, we discover the friendly side of the e-world in which we live.

This blog is only one, small expression of my new desire to join others who seek to support refuge not refuse for those searching for a new home.  If you have any desire to help us with this Kurdish family, please contact me @rjrhoden or or share this blog.  I am hopeful to hug their necks one day on U.S. soil, introducing them to our community, our people, and our version of a city of refuge that originates and flows from the heart of God.

Ex nihilo,