Tag Archives: Pessimism

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.

 

Chill, and Follow

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”
John 14:1a (NRSV)

When I was a boy, my mom used to complain about my pessimism. I fretted and fussed on a regular basis. The glass was clearly half empty in my mind, and I was perpetually certain that life would soon suck the other half dry and leave me with nothing. I have distinct memories of sitting at our kitchen counter and getting a lecture from my mother about always being a pessimist (and not really knowing what a pessimist was).

Jesus said that there is “fruit” that becomes evident in the lives of those who follow Him. As I look back at my life journey to this point, one of the things that is evident to me is that my relationship with Jesus has taught this pessimist about living with faith.

Wendy will tell you that my pessimistic spirit has not completely left me, and there are still times that my heart slips back into my natural, glass half-empty fame of mind. However, what Jesus has taught me over the years is that there is a “letting” that occurs with a troubled heart. “Do not let your heart be troubled,” He said. I allow my heart to be troubled. I choose in to the anxiety. I give fear and anxiety permission to place shackles on my spirit.

The other choice Jesus gave His followers was to believe. “Don’t let your heart be troubled,” He said, “believe.” Believe that Jesus is working all things together, even my present circumstances, for the good. Believe that God will provide. Believe that there is purpose in my present pain that I cannot see in the moment. Believe that if I embrace the mystery of the moment I will someday look back and see with clarity what that purpose was. Believe that God is with me. Believe that God is for me. Believe that God will direct my steps. Believe that God’s grace is sufficient.

Today, I am reminded just how much I have come to trust God and how much of my daily life has become predicated on faith. It’s a bit wild, actually. Taylor likes to blog about writing letters to her younger self, and this morning I find myself thinking about writing a note to the pessimistic boy getting lectured by mother at the kitchen counter.

Listen to your mother, little man, and don’t let your heart be troubled. Choose to believe what Jesus tells you. You can trust Him. Chill, and follow.

Truth, Trumpets and Cracked Pots

So the three companies blew the trumpets and broke the jars, holding in their left hands the torches, and in their right hands the trumpets to blow; and they cried, “A sword for the Lord and for Gideon!” Every man stood in his place all around the camp, and all the men in camp ran; they cried out and fled.
Judges 7:20-21 (NRSV)

It’s amazing how our perceptions and perspectives affect us. God didn’t need 10,000 men to defeat the Midians. He needed 300 men with trumpets and jars to make the Midianites think there were 10,000 men. Once they were given to fear, they were easy to defeat.

The question I am asking myself this morning is this: How is the enemy trying to use this same tactic today against the people of God?

Wendy and I have begun to notice something each morning we sit down with the newspaper and every time we watch a news program on television. We hear the subtextual message “BE AFRAID! BE VERY, VERY AFRAID!” being trumpeted in the headlines and news stories until we feel surrounded by a giant unseen army in the cacophony of crack pot events and statistics misconstrued in the torchlight of political agendas. When headlines trumpet “God Isn’t Fixing This,” the spiritual assault has moved from subtle to frontal.

The resulting fear and anxiety gets absorbed by ourselves, our friends and loved ones. It seeps out on social media, in conversation, and in our behavior. We feel defeated, discouraged, pessimistic, fearful, defeated, and on the run. Which, I realized as I read the chapter this morning, is right where the enemy wants us. I perceive the prince of this world, who cannot make but only mar, using God’s playbook against us.

Today I am determined to find rest in knowing that “greater is He who is in me, than he who is in the world.” A spirit of timidity and fear does not come from God. That is a by-product of our enemy’s design preying on our own shame and doubt. God, however, provides power of which the enemy is ignorant, love that overcomes hatred, and self-discipline to perceive and believe Truth amidst the din.

 

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.