Friday, February 19, 2010

In Trouble

Been reading the New Testament book of I Peter lately…part of a sermon series Stan and I are working through here at The Gathering.  Great book, especially for those times when don’t seem to be going like you’d hoped.  The epistle is all about trouble, which is why it can make for good reading during a recession. 

A word about trouble:  there’s a big difference between having troubles and being in trouble.    Having troubles is pretty normal:  you get a bad grade in school, you come down with the flu, you get a flat tire driving home from work.  Most troubles, while annoying, can be fixed pretty easily.  You pull out your spare tire, figure out how the crazy jack works, and make the switch.  Before too long you’re on your way, remembering to wash your hands when you get to your destination.  

Most troubles aren’t really so hard to deal with.

But when you begin to get too many of those troubles it starts to affect your worldview.  You begin to get the sense that everything in your life is starting to fall apart.  You  suspect that even if you were to fix one or two of the problems in front of you there would be two or three other problems that would creep up on you from another side.   You find a sense of futility begins to hang over your efforts—even if you fixed one of your problems you’d still face so many others that it’d hardly make a difference. 
An eerie realization begins to well up inside you:  it’s not that you simply have troubles, you realize that you are now in trouble.   Your struggles have claimed your worldview. 

That’s when you start losing hope.  Hope is the force field that fends off a sense of futility.  When you lose hope, despair slowly seeps into your heart. 

Let’s face it;  many of us today are losing hope, no matter what our current President’s campaign slogan might have suggested. 

The economy is a big part of that, of course.  Not too long ago it seemed like everyone had a lot of money.  In my neighborhood everyone was spending re-fi money freely as our homes quickly doubled in value.  Anyone who wanted a job could find one.  Now today all that has changed, and doesn’t appear to be changing back any time soon.  But our troubles extend beyond the economy:  what are we going to do about health care?  About the incessant conflicts in the Middle East or in Africa?   And what good is it to avoid losing your home if you don’t really like the people you have to share it with?
Many of us know that sinking feeling that comes when you realize that you are in trouble and probably not likely to escape it in the near future.  Our hope shrivels under those conditions.

The epistle of I Peter was written to people who felt much like that.  The letter was probably written around the early 60’s A.D. by Peter, who probably wrote it from the city of Rome.  In any case, the letter was certainly written in the shadow of Rome, as the threat of Roman persecution looms over the epistle from the not-to-distant future.  The letter was written around the time of the Emperor Nero, under whose persecution Peter eventually lost his life. 

To put it simply:  if you were a Christ-follower in the time of Nero you were in trouble. 

As Christians today we face resistance.  Look at the nerve touched by the recent Tim Tebow Super Bowl ad where his mom simply acknowledged that she loves her son.   But that kind of resistance is really pretty minor in the broader scheme of things.

 First-century Christians faced a whole series of very real troubles.  Troubles from Rome, whose leaders figured that they were atheists, with the way they bristled against worshipping the emperor or his pantheon of gods in favor of this curious invisible non-god they claimed to follow.  From the Jews, who resented being grouped by the Romans in the same atheist group, and did what they could to purge their communities of these aberrant Christ-followers.  And often from their families, since in their day the head of a family determined the religious perspective for everyone.  For a person to begin following Christ in defiance of their family was often taken as a rejection of that family.  Family leaders were known to go to extreme measures to keep their pagan family members in the fold, and following Christ often meant losing one’s family. 

Peter was writing to people who not only had troubles, they were in trouble.   No matter where they turned there were forces arrayed that could destroy everything their lives had been based on.  You can easily become paranoid in a situation like that…except that in your case the threats you face are definitely real.   

So Peter opens his letter to these down-and-outs with a boisterous cheer for the “living hope” that they could share together.  (Look at I Peter 1:3-12 sometime).   Notice, though, that Peter is not even pretending that this hope will protect them from suffering.   No, he candidly acknowledges that suffering is coming their way.  Instead he points to something that transcends their suffering.  As big as their troubles might seem, Peter points them to something bigger.    A “living hope”, an un-depreciated “inheritance”, and the snug security that comes from being “shielded” by God’s power during turbulent times.  Peter then offers a very different perspective on their suffering:  instead of being a setback, he interprets suffering as a force that can “purify” the faith through which we ultimately connect to Christ and all these blessings. 

What Peter is doing is offering a contrasting worldview.  Here’s what a worldview is:  everyone has a center to their world, something around which everything else inevitably orbits.  In the first century it may have been Nero or the power of Rome or the all-star team of Greek and Roman gods that needed to be appeased.  Today our worldviews may be a little more difficult to identify, but we still always have something at the center.  It may be a conventional religion of some sort or it may be something less clearly defined.   It may be finances, or recreation or physical beauty or romance or maybe even the right to view oneself as “a pretty good person”.  In any case there is something at the center of each person’s world.  And in the face of insurmountable forces that could easily destroy every other form of security, Peter points his friends toward something unchanging.  He invites his friends to stomp down with abandon on a foundation that even Nero can’t shake.   He’s not trying to promise that painful things won’t happen; he’s helping them discover something that will still stand firm, even if those bad things might happen.  

So how do you tell what’s really at the center of your worldview?   Ask yourself this:  what would effectively end your life if you were to lose it?  Each of us undoubtedly has blessings in our lives about which we care passionately and for which we would grieve deeply were we to ever lose them.  But there is usually one set of blessings which would ultimately prove to be a deal-breaker for each person.  Deep in our hearts we know that if we were ever to lose our (family, middle-class-wealth, good looks, professional success, etc.) we just couldn’t go on.  Life would prove to be pointless if that central blessing were taken away.

What would that “deal-breaker” be for you?  Peter invites us to dare to imagine something big enough to tower over any other dream we might pursue or any other potential loss we might face.   He invites us to look to Christ and ask Him to fill us with the kind of living hope that comes only when you’re solidly based on something that even a recession can’t take away.

“Got hope?”

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