Tag Archives: Optimism

The Improbable Actually Happens

[The Assyrians] shouted it with a loud voice in the language of Judah to the people of Jerusalem who were on the wall, to frighten and terrify them, in order that they might take the city.
2 Chronicles 32:18 (NRSVCE)

It’s such an improbable moment. Bottom of the ninth, two outs, bases loaded, and your team trailing by three runs. The grand slam to win the game. It actually happened on Sunday night when a Chicago Cub rookie named David Bote actually pulled off the improbable home run that every kid dreams about on the sandlot.

Sometimes the improbable happens. Jesus, who pulled off all sorts of improbable feats, reminded His followers that with God nothing is impossible, no matter how improbable.

Today’s chapter records one of the most improbable events in history. The Chronicler provides a condensed description of the events, which were more thoroughly told by the scribes who wrote the book of 2 Kings and by the prophet Isaiah.

The Assyrians of the ancient world were really bad dudes. They had taken warfare to a whole new level and made themselves fabulously powerful and wealthy by raiding, plundering, and decimating other nations. They were the first to use siege engines and had a corp of engineers who found all sorts of ingenious ways of breaching the walls of the cities they attacked.

The weapon the Assyrians used most effectively, however, was fear. They were heinously brutal in their treatment of conquered. They impaled people on spikes, skinned people alive, dismembered people, and burned others alive. The Assyrians discovered that the more brutal they were, the more fear they spread into the next cities on their campaign and the more fearful people were, the easier it was to defeat them.

In today’s chapter the Chronicler records another tactic the Assyrians used. They had a master manipulator who would stand outside the city walls and talk smack to the people inside in their own language, psychologically wearing them down with fear and intimidation. The Assyrian envoy loudly mocks King Hezekiah, mocks the Judeans, and mocks God.

Hezekiah stands firm. He reminds his people, “Be strong and of good courage. Do not be afraid or dismayed before the king of Assyria and all the horde that is with him; for there is one greater with us than with him. With him is an arm of flesh; but with us is the Lord our God, to help us and to fight our battles.”

The defeat of the Assyrians is an improbability bordering on impossibility. Jerusalem didn’t have the defenses to withstand a siege. The Assyrians were on a roll. They were better equipped, more experienced at war, and had everything in their favor. It’s the bottom of the ninth, two outs, and King Hezekiah is down to his last strike.

And then the improbable happened. The entire Assyrian army encamped around Jerusalem dies overnight. Historians to this day argue about what happened to the Assyrian army, but the improbable actually happened. Jerusalem was spared by the most improbable of events.

This morning I’m thinking about discouragement and fear. It’s so easy to get down and discouraged. I find myself bombarded in news media and social media with messages telling me to be afraid of everything. Everything is so bleak. There is so much to worry about. Things are so terrible, so awful,  and so hopeless. Ugh.

Today I’m encouraged by a grand slam and a historical event.

The improbable happens.

On a Brighter Note…

In the thirty-seventh year of the exile of Jehoiachin king of Judah, in the year Awel-Marduk became king of Babylon, on the twenty-fifth day of the twelfth month, he released Jehoiachin king of Judah and freed him from prison. He spoke kindly to him and gave him a seat of honor higher than those of the other kings who were with him in Babylon.
Jeremiah 52:31-32 (NIV)

Have you ever had one of those stretches of life’s journey in which seemingly everything that can go wrong does go wrong? Yeah, it’s been one of those.

I won’t bore you with all the details but the past two weeks have included a trip to the emergency room, stitches, illnesses, hospitalization of loved ones, multiple broken implements, breakdowns, and a cracked engine block. Ugh. Bob Dylan’s bluesy psalm Everything is Broken has been flitting through my head as I try to keep my bent towards pessimism in check:

Broken cutters broken saws
Broken buckles broken laws
Broken bodies broken bones
Broken voices on broken phones
Take a deep breath feel like you’re chokin’
Everything is broken

Anyone who has followed my posts for any length of time knows that I’m a baseball fan. And, every baseball fan knows that winning streaks and losing streaks are all part of “the long season.” When a team or player is in a funk, you’re waiting for that one clutch hit or amazing play that signals a turnaround. So it was last night that Wendy and I watched our beloved Cubs win on a two-outs-bottom-of-the-ninth walk-off grand slam by Jason Heyward.

<Watch the Grand Slam!>

I thought to myself, “Maybe this is a sign that this funk we’ve been in is over.” Hey, cut me a break. Baseball fans are superstitious. Rally caps work! (Sometimes.)

Today’s chapter is the last chapter in a long journey through the anthology of the ancient prophet Jeremiah’s messages. The unknown editor who put the anthology together concludes the book with a historical epilogue. Interesting enough, it’s almost a verbatim copy of a section from 2 Kings 24-25. It gives a Cliff Notes summary of the Babylonian exile and ends with a bright spot: King Nebuchadnezzar’s successor releases Judah’s King Jehoiachin from prison, raises him to a place of honor, and he remains there for the rest of his life.

In other words, a book full of pessimistic, apocalyptic doom and gloom ends with a base hit in the bottom of the ninth. “This game’s not over, folks,” the editor is telling us. Put on your rally caps!

This morning I’m mulling over life’s ups-and-downs. We all have them. They come and they go. Some weeks it feels like everything is flowing and you’re on a roll. Some weeks, well, everything breaks. C’est la vie. It is what it is. The further I get in my journey the more wisdom I have to know the winning streaks will eventually end, as will the losing streaks.

I just have to keep looking for that bright spot, that base knock, that reminds me this game’s not over.

Featured photo courtesy of the_matt via Flickr

How Little I Can Possibly Fathom

They have built the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as offerings to Baal….”
Jeremiah 19:5 (NIV)

Let’s be real. There’s a smorgasbord of negativity out there. Media and a 24/7/365 news cycle continually bombards us with sensational cries of things for us to fear or be anxious about. The right cries for us to fear the left. The left cries for us to fear the right. Beyond politics there is a steady stream of anxiety stirring doom we’re told to perpetually fear from nuclear war, global warming, gun violence, terror attacks, product safety, GMOs, cancer, Zika virus, flu, vaccinations, poverty, earthquakes, floods, oil spills, pollution, asteroid hits, and etc, and etc, and etc.

A month or two ago Wendy and I read a fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal by a Harvard professor. He attempted to provide some much needed perspective on our current life and times.

A few excerpts:

Globally, the 30-year scorecard also favors the present. In 1988, 23 wars raged, killing people at a rate of 3.4 per 100,000; today it’s 12 wars killing 1.2 per 100,000. The number of nuclear weapons has fallen from 60,780 to 10,325. In 1988, the world had just 45 democracies, embracing two billion people; today it has 103, embracing 4.1 billion. That year saw 46 oil spills; 2016, just five. And 37% of the population lived in extreme poverty, barely able to feed themselves, compared with 9.6% today. True, 2016 was a bad year for terrorism in Western Europe, with 238 deaths. But 1988 was even worse, with 440.

The world is about a hundred times wealthier today than it was two centuries ago, and the prosperity is becoming more evenly distributed across countries and people. Within the lifetimes of most readers, the rate of extreme poverty could approach zero. Catastrophic famine, never far away in the past, has vanished from all but the most remote and war-ravaged regions, and undernourishment is in steady decline.
A century ago, the richest countries devoted 1% of their wealth to children, the poor, the sick and the aged; today they spend almost a quarter of it. Most of their poor today are fed, clothed and sheltered and have luxuries like smartphones and air conditioning that used to be unavailable to anyone, rich or poor. Poverty among racial minorities has fallen, and poverty among the elderly has plunged.
During most of the history of nations and empires, war was the natural state of affairs, and peace a mere interlude between wars. Today war between countries is obsolescent, and war within countries is absent from five-sixths of the world. The proportion of people killed annually in wars is about a quarter of what it was in the mid-1980s, a sixth of what it was in the early 1970s, and a 16th of what it was in the early 1950s.

Please don’t read what I’m not writing. There is still no lack of very real and hard work to be done to make this world a better, more peaceful, and just place. What I increasingly have come to understand, however, is that it has become harder and harder for a person like me, living in the first-world of the 21st century, to understand how absolutely brutal life was in the days of the ancient prophets like Jeremiah. Reading through the writing of the ancient prophets can feel like a long slog. It’s whole lot of doom and gloom from a time and place that is very, very different than my reality.

I struggle with the harsh images and the violence in Jeremiah’s messages. But I also have to remember that I have no clue how harsh and violent daily life was in the middle east in 500 B.C.

Amidst today’s chapter, Jeremiah hints at what was happening, even within the walls of Solomon’s Temple, in his day. The God of Abraham, Moses, and David had been almost completely forgotten. Solomon’s Temple had become an open, free-market for the worship of local gods. In the case of Baal, people would sacrifice their own children and burn them alive as a form of worship. Just let the image of that sink in for a moment.

There’s a reason that God was angry. He commanded his people to love their children, to raise them up well. God commanded his people to teach their children and grandchildren His word, and to teach them to keep His commands about being honest, pure, just, content, and faithful. Now God’s people are worshiping local fertility gods with religious prostitution and drunken sex orgies. They are burning their own children alive as a sacrifice to Baal. And, when God raises up a prophet like Jeremiah to speak out against what is happening they tell him to shut-up and threaten to kill him.

This morning in the quiet I’m mulling these things over in my head. I’m not foolish enough to believe that things are perfect in this day and age, but I also don’t want to be equally foolish by denying the fact that I live in a world that is far better off than when my parents and grandparents were my age. I live in a world in which daily life is infinitely better off than it was for humans who lived centuries and millennia before. I can’t really imagine a day in the life of Jeremiah.

These thoughts lead me to look at Jeremiah’s writing differently. Rather than trying to layer Jeremiah’s poetic prophecies with my 21st century first-world understanding I want to let go of my preconceived notions. I want to cut Jeremiah some slack and try to see his world from his perspective. As a parent I addressed my daughters differently when they were five than I do when they are twenty-five, so it seems reasonable for me to conclude that God addressed humanity differently in the days of the Jeremiah than He does today.

I feel myself increasingly led to embrace the reality of just how little I can possibly fathom. Yet that doesn’t absolve me from responsibility. My job on this spiritual journey is to keep asking, seeking, and knocking on the door of understanding what God has been saying to humanity throughout the Great Story.  Perhaps that sounds hard to do given how different my life is compared to Jeremiah, but I also happen to live in a time and place where I have almost all of the research and resources in the entire world literally at my fingertips.

And that’s a daily reality I daresay Jeremiah couldn’t possibly fathom.

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Pesky Pessimism & Rose Tinted Ray-Bans

Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not the result of my work in the Lord? Even though I may not be an apostle to others, surely I am to you! For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.

This is my defense to those who sit in judgment on me.
1 Corinthians 9:1-3 (NIV)

Wendy and I read a fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal this weekend. The premise of the article was that while it’s very popular to moan, groan and wax pessimistic about humanity’s rapid descent towards doomsday (a glance at your Facebook feed or a 24 hour news channel should prove this point), a look at actual data shows that life for human beings around the globe are better than they’ve ever been.

I have confessed in previous posts to having a pesky, pessimistic spirit. Ask Wendy and she can give you plenty of examples. It’s very easy for me to slip into doomsday mode with little justification for doing so. I have lived much of my spiritual journey in a form of holy pessimism. I don’t think I’m alone in this.

I’ve typically found that my fellow believers eagerly buy-in to the notion that things were spiritually so much better for the apostles and Jesus’ followers in the first century. They saw the resurrected Jesus with their own eyes. They had all these miracles happening everyday. They were living in the socialistic bliss of their local Acts 2:42 commune. In contrast, things seem spiritually worse today than ever. We’re accustomed to hearing this regularly from the pulpit and the media, and it’s a popular mindset. We’re going to hell in a hand basket. So my preacher and the news stations tell me so.

What’s fascinating is that the further I get in my spiritual journey and the more I study God’s Message the more contrarian I find myself becoming in these matters. I think I’ve spent most of my journey looking at the past, even the Bible, with rose-tinted Ray-Bans.

In today’s chapter Paul hints at a conflict that’s been simmering in the leadership ranks of the early church. The term “apostle” was not a title given lightly to the early believers. It generally referred to “the twelve” whom Jesus had chosen, trained and commissioned. There appears to have been some criteria for claiming the title (i.e. having seen the risen Jesus, having been sent by Jesus, performing signs and wonders, and etc.). Paul claimed to be an “apostle” in all of his letters. He begins today’s section of the letter basically citing his resume for being an “apostle” after admitting that some claim that he’s not. In his second letter to the Corinthians Paul somewhat sarcastically refers to the other apostles as “super apostles.” He gives a similar sarcastic tone to the term “esteemed apostles” in his letter to the Galatians (before calling Peter out and saying that Peter “stands condemned” for his hypocritical actions).

Something smells rotten in the early church” Shakespeare might have written. I think I gloss over how hard things were for the early believers, how much conflict and strife there was, and how miraculous it is that this fledgling movement even survived.

This morning I’m simply mulling over my own natural pessimism. This past weekend I’ve been thinking long and hard about my penchant for buying into “the past was better, the present is certainly worse and getting worser” line of thinking. I’m not sure the evidence supports that notion. In fact, I’m pretty sure there’s a glass that’s half-full with my name on it within easy reach.

Trust me. You won’t like it,” my pessimistic spirit whispers to me.

Arrrrrghhh. Happy Monday every one.

 

“Harsh Realities”

“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
Matthew 10:34

Follow me for any length of time and you’ll discover that I enjoy the game of baseball. One of the many reasons I enjoy baseball is the way the game metaphorically reflects life in so many ways.

In the narration of his great documentary about the game, Ken Burns speaks about the game beginning each season with the hope of spring, and ending each year with the “harsh realities of autumn.” How often life is like that. The optimistic young soldier ships out with his head filled of dreams of glory and returns with his spirit tempered by the realities of battle. A couple begins their marriage in the fog of romance, but soon find themselves living day-by-day facing the sacrificial requirements of love. Just months ago we celebrated Jesus’ birth with greeting cards chalk full of words about hope for humanity, joy to the world, and peace on earth. In a few weeks we will remember Jesus’ kangaroo court trial, torture, and gruesome execution. Death must come before resurrection can even be a possibility. That’s a harsh reality.

In today’s chapter, Jesus is preparing his followers for what life is going to be like on their mission of taking His message to the world. It’s not a pep talk. It’s a sobering reality check. Jesus didn’t fill His messengers with visions of fame, fortune, and prosperity. He called them to austerity, humility, and sincerity. He did not send them out with hopeful promises that the Message they would carry would create inspirational social movements of unity, peace and brotherhood. He told them to be wary and shrewd, expecting opposition, persecution, and conflict. The sweet manger baby we all celebrated as the “Prince of Peace” has grown to deliver a more difficult message: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

Along my journey I’ve come to accept that we as humans like to dwell on the things that are easy, optimistic, inspirational, and accessible. There’s nothing wrong with looking at the glass half-full and being grateful for it. We need hope and optimism to carry us in dark times. Nevertheless, I’ve learned that there is wisdom in being sober minded. We are quick to remember Jesus feeding a hungry crowd of people by miraculously multiplying a few loaves and fish. Few of us recall that just a day later Jesus drove that very crowd away when He asked them to “eat my flesh, and drink my blood.” The crowds wanted the former without the latter. We still do.

Baseball season starts in a week and a half. Right now fans like Wendy and me are experiencing the annual feelings of giddy excitement. Come the evening of April 2nd it will be hot dogs and cold beer at the Vander Well Pub. Every team’s record starts at 0-0, and everyone is hopeful. This year Wendy and I even get to feel the joy of our team starting the season as World Series Champions, and that’s a lot of fun. It does not wipe away, however, the knowledge that we’ve never felt it before.

Harsh realities of autumn 108. World Series Champions 1.

Play ball!

Chapter-a-Day Hosea 11

For someday the people will follow me.
    I, the Lord, will roar like a lion.
And when I roar,
    my people will return trembling from the west.
Hosea 11:10 (NLT)

When reading through the writings of the ancient prophets like Hosea, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with the repetitive doom and gloom. It’s important to realize that the prophetic texts were not typically written to be one cohesive book. Books like Hosea’s were a collection of their messages, and every preacher gets a little repetitive over time.

True prophets are critics by their very nature. They point out wrong actions and remind people of the eventual consequences of those actions. Because people are generally hard headed and we like to excuse our moral failings the prophets continue to hammer their message over and over and over.

Along the way, I’ve come to notice that the crux of the prophet’s message is not in the heavy forecast of immediate gloom, but in the ray of sunshine that eventually always appears in the extended outlook. I couldn’t help but think of the Prodigal’s father as I read the above verse in today’s chapter. After the long suffering of watching the Prodigal rebel, runaway, and foolishly squander the family fortune the father eventually sees his broken and repentant son return.

Today, I’m thinking about God’s own long suffering with me. I am grateful that the story is not about the immediate gloom, but in the extended outlook for son-shine.

Chapter-a-Day Psalm 27

The Dark Knight Rises
The Dark Knight Rises (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yet I am confident I will see the Lord’s goodness
    while I am here in the land of the living.
 Wait patiently for the Lord.
    Be brave and courageous.
    Yes, wait patiently for the Lord.
Psalm 27:13-14 (NLT)

Wendy and I went on a date to see The Dark Night Rises last night. With the tragedy in Aurora, Colorado, the movie seems to have created more extreme feelings than would otherwise have been the case. We’ve heard that it has been used as an example, from at least one pulpit, of our culture’s descent into hopelessness and despair. I hate it when preachers jump on evangelical bandwagons without much thought or conversation.

To be sure, I observe that our culture is increasingly pessimistic. In my lifetime we’ve gone from America being “a thousand points of light” to apologetically “leading from behind.” We’ve gone from a hopeful, visionary “rugged individualism” to a diminishing, defeatist “you didn’t build that.” When each day there are countless people doing countless random acts of self-sacrifice, kindness, love and compassion – our ever growing stream of instantaneous news media satiates itself on all that’s wrong with the world.

Which brings me to The Dark Knight Rises. Like all great stories, like the Great Story itself, there was an evil villain doing what evil does which is to tear down the good and destroy life. You can fixate on how dark the evil was in the film the same way you can choose to fixate on how terrible the news is each day – but that’s not the whole story. There were also strong, good individuals in Commissioner Gordon and Officer Blake who stood up for good no matter the cost. Then there is the central figure of Bruce Wayne whose story arc moves him from self-centered isolation and despair to Christ figure who sacrifices himself for the many, defeats the darkness, and is resurrected in the end.

Shame on me if I watch the film and choose to fixate on the darkness, hopelessness, and evil that is represented. If I do that, then evil wins no matter what the outcome of the movie. I defiantly refuse to do so. As for me, I am confident I will see the Lord’s goodness in the land of the living. I’ll patiently, courageously wait for the end of the movie when death gives way to victory, hope is resurrected, and good wins.