Last week I got a call to tell me that Brian, a leader among our friends at Church of the Servant King, had dropped dead of a heart attack after coming in from a run. I’ve known Brian for about twenty years and he was a bit younger than I am. He leaves behind his wife and two teenage children.
Then this week the evangelical world received the news that Dallas Willard lost his battle to cancer at age 77. Willard was a professional philosopher who turned his intellect toward writing about very practical matters of Christian discipleship and life. Willard’s writing about character and discipleship are part of the influence on me which is producing this series of sermons on the seven central Christian virtues.
So I feel very much in need of and prepared for thinking this week about the virtue of hope. And today, Thursday May 9 is Ascension Day, which our church will observe this coming Sunday. This is a holy day completely centered around hope. Acts 1:1-11 gives the first disciples, together with you and me, the promise that Jesus will return. Jesus’ departure into heaven is not the end of the story, but the beginning of a season of hope for His return.
As I contemplate the passing of Brian and of Dallas Willard I know that they will be mourned and missed. Brian’s memorial service will be here in our sanctuary on Saturday and everyone expects the place to be packed to capacity as we remember this good man. I imagine something on an even larger scale will happen in regard to Willard.
There will be tears and sorrow at those gatherings, but I am also very confident that a large portion of the preaching will be devoted to the hope we have which reaches beyond death. The virtue of Christian hope is a way of life which reaches beyond what ordinarily passes for hope in our lives. Our hopes for marriage, success, good health, grandchildren, and so on, all have termination points, ultimately in our own deaths. Yet the Christian hope is one that looks beyond those end points to an eternal future in God’s kingdom. Death gives way to resurrection, just as it did for Jesus. Parting gives way to return.
Dallas Willard constantly emphasized that Christian virtues like hope have a very practical outcome in daily life. If we really do hope in God through Christ, it will show up in the way we live. As the angels told the disciples, hope is not standing around waiting to see what happens next, it’s actively living in new ways because of our confidence in the outcome, the return of Christ and the completion of God’s kingdom.
Writing in 2006, Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. reviewed Willard’s work saying:
He is a brilliant, modest, immensely experienced Christian older brother, calling to us from the Resurrection side of things. His books all call out, in one way or another: Come on over. It’s going to be okay to die first. You have to do it, and you can do it. Not even Jesus got a resurrection without a death, and he’ll be at your side when you surrender your old life. Trust me on this. If you die with Jesus Christ, God will walk you out of your tomb into a life of incomparable joy and purpose inside his boundless and competent love.
Our friend Brian also lived a life of hope which showed up in the way he treated those around him. Street people, people with handicaps, all received tangible, visible love from Brian that showed his hope for them which went beyond their limitations or situations.
Whatever your situation or sorrow this week, I pray that God will renew and strengthen your hope. It may even be through occasions of sorrow like our community’s loss of Brian and evangelicalism’s loss of Dallas Willard. Our Lord is teaching us not to focus on the departures, but to go out and live hopeful lives confident in His return and the restoration of all things.