Spring 2021 Convocation Address: “With Radiant Hope”
There are any number of four-letter words that have no place in a minister’s vocabulary—or anyone else’s for that matter. Some words comprised of four letters, however, should punctuate and animate a Christ-follower’s speech. Words like “holy,” “love,” “life,” “gift,” “give,” “help,” and “hope.” One could add the names “Lord,” “Mark,” “John,” and “Paul” to this little list.
In any event, I would like to focus this morning’s convocation address on the little, yet life-giving, word “h-o-p-e.” We are never not in need of it, but at this particular moment in time, it seems that we need a heaping helping, if not a double portion, of hope.
Between a dangerous, deadly pandemic and an efficacious, widely-distributed and injected vaccine, we need hope. Between a storming of our nation’s capitol and an inauguration in our nation’s capital, we need hope. Between unacknowledged, unredressed racism and a robust denunciation of racial discrimination and a concomitant commitment to effect systemic change, we need hope. Between the already and the not yet, we need hope.
Beyond wishful thinking and declaring in the optative “would that it were,” from a biblical and theological angle of vision hope is “faith on tiptoes.” It is the forward thrust of trust. It is akin to Hebrews’ description of faith as “the confidence of things hoped for and the assurance of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Perhaps I am simply seeing that for which I am looking, but expressions of hope seem more and more common and the need for hope seems more and more pressing in these times that are trying our souls, not to mention our resolve.
Roughly one year ago now, Dr. Scott M. Gibson, the David E. Garland Professor of Preaching and Director of the Ph.D. in Preaching Program here at Truett Seminary, suggested to me that it would be both fitting and helpful to make more widely accessible the thirty-four year-end messages that the namesake of our school, George W. Truett, wrote to the people of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, TX from the years 1910-1944.
Way led to way, and last spring as COVID-19 began to rear its ugly head, I edited and annotated those Christmas and New Year’s messages for publication. Then, late last year, Baylor University Press published these letters under the title With Radiant Hope.
Although any number of themes recur in these yearly communications from Truett to the congregation, a leading theme, if not the leading theme, is that of hope. No less than forty-four times in thirty-four letters, Truett speaks of hope or the lack thereof. His holy hope, at times hoping against hope, is that both he and his would be marked and buoyed by a radiant, defiant, confident hope.
One written example of such a commitment must suffice. Some one hundred and eleven years ago, Truett penned these hope-filled words:
May every succeeding year and day come to you radiant with hope, bringing such experiences only as may be best for you. Whatever the experiences, may the unseen but Almighty Helper, the Master of life and light and love, direct you by His counsel and reinforce you for every duty, Himself ever journeying with you and speaking to you as a friend speaketh to a friend (Truett 2020: 4).
George W. Truett died in July of 1944. In December of that same year, according to a story frequently and famously told by Rabbi Hugo Gryn, Hugo and his father were in a German concentration camp, ironically and tragically named Lieberose (“life rose”). Having announced that it was the eve of Hanukah, Hugo’s father took a homemade clay bowl and lit a wick immersed in a melted ration of margarine.
Before his father could recite the blessing, Hugo looked at him and objected, “We need that food; we can’t afford to waste it on a candle.” In response, his father looked at him and then at the lamp. Looking back at Hugo, he said to him, “You and I have seen that it is possible to live up to three weeks without food. We once lived almost three days without water. But you can’t live at all without hope.”
Less than twenty years later, on August 28, 1963 to be precise, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would strategically and symbolically stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. to deliver his now iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. Among other things, Dr. King, whose birthday our nation celebrated yesterday, said this on that day:
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.
This morning we have heard from sacred Scripture a prophet, a psalmist, and an apostle calling and encouraging people “to hew out of [a] mountain of despair a stone of hope.” Additionally, in what many New Testament scholars, rightly to my mind, regard to be the Paul’s earliest extant letter, namely 1 Thessalonians, hope features.
In the opening lines of that letter, Paul thanks God for the Thessalonians’ “work of faith and labor of love and endurance of hope” (1:3). Then, having spoken of the Thessalonians as his hope at Christ’s parousia in 2:19, he admonishes his converts in 4:13 not to grieve regarding the death of loved ones as others do who have no hope. The common Greco-Roman reaction to death—“I was not, I was; I am not, I care not”—should not be their own.
Neither should they embrace the Roman imperial slogan “peace and security” (pax et securitas) that was current in their day—and is new less in ours, one might add, albeit in different guises and under different regimes. Rather, Paul calls them—and us—to put on “faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet” (5:8).
Even as Roman soldiers were to don a galea, Christ-followers are to dress themselves with the helmet of hope. Football and hockey players, baseball and softball batters, race car drivers and bicycle riders would not, or at least should not, consider participating in their respective sports without a helmet. Neither should believers attempt to live to Christian life without hope. It is as futile as it is fruitless.
Like the recipients of Ephesians, there was a time when we, too, were “separate[d] from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus [we] who were once far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (2:12-13).
Even as hope allows us to anticipate what will be, that which “no eye has seen…or ear has heard…or human heart has comprehended—the things God has prepared for the ones who are loving him” (1 Corinthians 2:9), hope allows us to celebrate that which God has already done. Suffering notwithstanding, hope, which “springs eternal in the human heart,’ “does not put us to shame, for the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5).
If hope abides in the here and the hereafter, how can hope be realized and actualized in our lives and ministries, in the nitty gritty reality of another COVID-19 semester where academic assignments pile up and where various and sundry familial, professional, and financial pressures stack up? Returning to 1 Thessalonians, we do well to listen to these Pauline admonitions: “Always rejoice, without ceasing pray, in all things give thanks.” Why, we might ask? “For this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus,” Paul contends (5:16-17).
Joy and hope are either side of the same coin. In Romans 12:12, Paul calls the Roman house churches to whom he is writing to “rejoice in hope.” A.W. Tozer, a Christian and Missionary Alliance Pastor of the past century, maintained, “The Christian owes it to the world to be supernatural joyful.” I wonder if the same might not be said regarding hope. I also wonder if we might ponder whether or not we are paying the debt we owe to others.
If our lives are to be animated by joy, they are to be undergirded by ongoing prayer. We do well, like Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, a lay brother who lived in a Carmelite monastery in Paris during the 1600s, in seeking to practice the presence of God. Would that we, like Moses of old, were able to speak with God as with a friend (Exodus 33:11). Even as Jesus now calls us friends (so John 15:15), we can further cultivate that friendship and fellowship through persistent prayer.
If hope is activated in our lives through joy and cultivated in our lives through prayer, it can be demonstrated in our lives through thanksgiving. Gratitude frees us from the prison of complaint and from the shackles of entitlement. It liberates us to give thanks to God with our lips and our lives.
Some two weeks ago, I led a Bible study on Matthew 2:1-12 for the Lead Team of the Texas Baptist Student Ministry. During a Q&A time that followed the teaching, I was asked by a student what my favorite Bible verse was. After having responded with “good question” and with any number of additional caveats, 1 Corinthians 4:7 sprang to mind. So, I shared it: “For who makes you different than anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” Even as St. Augustine demonstrably valued this verse, it was Thomas Erskine who said, “In the New Testament, religion is grace, and ethics is gratitude.” And so it is.
In 1 Thessalonians, the Pauline pillars of faith, love, and hope appear in that order. Arguably, Paul discerned that the Thessalonians stood in need of hewing out of a mountain of despair, brought on perhaps by external opposition for their faith and the recent loss of loved ones in the faith, a rock of hope. Such hope, Paul suggests, is spawned and sustained by “rejoicing always, praying without ceasing, and in everything giving thanks.” This, Paul propounds is nothing less than the very will of God for our lives in Jesus Christ our Lord.
At times it can be difficult to keep hope alive. Perhaps this is such time for you and those you love. Although I am a rather “blue sky,” “glass half full” kind of guy, I simultaneously recognize that a positive attitude should not be confused or conflated with the blessed hope that is ours in Christ.
In addition to Holy Scripture, I am greatly nurtured and nourished by Christian hymnody and poetry. It occurs to me that any number of the themes upon which I have been touching in this address, not least hope, are taken up in a hymn that I cherish written by George Matheson, “O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go.”
Regarding this hymn, Matheson, a Scottish minister who lived from 1842-1906 and who became totally blind at the age of 20, writes: “I am quite sure that the whole work was completed in five minutes, and equally sure that it never received at my hands any retouching or correction. I have no natural gift of rhythm. All the other verses I have ever written are manufactured articles; this came like a dayspring from on high.”
Please allow me to conclude this morning by sharing this song’s lyrics:
Oh love that will not let me go
I rest my weary soul in thee
I give thee back the life I owe
That in thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be
Oh light that followest all my way
I yield my flickering torch to thee
My heart restores its borrowed ray
That in thy sunshine’s blaze its day
May brighter, fairer be
Oh joy that seekest me through pain
I cannot close my heart to thee
I trace the rainbow through the rain
And feel the promise is not vain
That morn shall tearless be
Oh cross that liftest up my head
I dare not ask to fly from thee
I lay in dust’s life’s glory dead
And from the ground there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be
As I take my seat so that we might reflect upon what the LORD might be saying to us individually and collectively, please suffer me one other four-letter word that should be woven into our theological and liturgical vocabularies—“Amen.”