Thursday, January 18, 2018

Finding Real Hope in a ‘Hope-So’ World

I’ve always enjoyed music, although I only sing so-low (that people can’t hear me), and the only instruments I’ve ever played were the drums, in high school and college. (I still play the steering wheel if  something with a good beat comes on while I’m driving, but Idon’t think that counts.)

Anyway, words of familiar songs often come to mind, even simple ones that carry a good message. One that’s been running through my mind of late is “High Hopes,” a tune from the 1959 film, “A Hole in the Head,” that starred Frank Sinatra. It tells about a “little old ant” trying to move a rubber tree plant and a “silly old ram” trying to punch a hole in a dam. Despite daunting tasks, the song says, they had “high hopes.”

Some people suggest another song, “What the World Needs Now is Love,” the tune by Hal David and Burt Bacharach, but given the chaotic, confused times in which we live, I wonder if what we need even more is “High Hopes.”

A couple of weeks into the new year, we’re still covered with the barrage of negativity. If not for bad news, it seems, there’d be no news at all. I hear dozens of folks in a New England town have already collapsed into a heap of hopeless despair. Things are so bad, in the next rendition of Disney’s “Snow White,” the seven dwarfs will probably sing, “I hope, I hope….”

Unfortunately, high hopes don’t usually supply real reasons for being hopeful. Hope in this life is as reliable as tomorrow’s weather report. The best it can provide is “hope-so”: “Will the United States ever truly be ‘united’ again? Hope so.” “Can life become less stressful? Hope so.” “Are there any real prospects for peace in this world? Hope so.” “Can anyone actually find true love on ‘The Bachelor’? Hope so.”

This desire for hope is often more pragmatic than philosophical. Imagine living in poverty, whether in the inner city or a place like Appalachia, with no prospects of change. How about feeling trapped in a loveless marriage, convinced the old spark will never rekindle. Or lying in a bed, ravaged by a terminal disease, anticipating a future that might not extend beyond tomorrow morning. In such circumstances, even a tiny ray of hope could provide palpable reason to persevere.

But where can we find hope? They don’t stock it on department store shelves or at mall kiosks. Amazon sells lots of things, but not hope. History’s demonstrated we can’t find lasting hope in politics, regardless of our ideology. Science helps us understand “what” and “how,” but has little to say about “why.” Materialism’s many promises tend to be short-lived and empty. Entertainment distracts us momentarily, but can’t release us from uncomfortable realities. Even religion, with its rites, rules and rituals, too often leaves us feeling perplexed and uninspired.

Does this mean there’s no hope for finding real hope?

There is one source, and it’s been available for thousands of years, although many people have chosen to ignore it. To paraphrase yet another song of days gone by, they’re looking for hope in all the wrong places.

Whenever I feel deficient in hope, I turn to the Bible. It shows God fully understands the human need for hope. Proverbs 13:12 observes, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” Feelings of hopelessness can debilitate us physically, emotionally and spiritually, but hopes fulfilled reinvigorate. Proverbs 13:19 notes, “A longing fulfilled is sweet to the soul….”

To satisfy our yearning for hope, the Scriptures point us to a daily, growing relationship with God. The Old Testament’s book of Lamentations assures, "The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord" (Lamentations 3:25). This isn’t “hope-so”; it’s unwavering certainty.

Another meaningful verse was penned by the apostle Paul, addressing followers of Jesus Christ in Rome: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13). Drawing from his own experience, he told the growing throng of believers in that sprawling city that true hope anchors in everyday faith in the Lord.

Faith – and hope – must be tried and proven. When we place our trust in something, even Jesus, time and perspective reveal whether we were banking on “hope so,” or genuine hope we can cling to with confident assurance.

The ultimate test is the day when life inevitably draws to a close and we must confront the reality of what comes next. Paul referred to this when he wrote to believers in the church of ancient Philippi, “according to my earnest expectation and hope that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death” (Philippians 1:20).

I “hope” that as we continue our march into this new year, you won’t be settling for hope-so when you can experience the “blessed hope” (Titus 2:13) of Jesus Christ alone.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Two Are Usually Better Than One

There’s a story, apparently true, about two men who escaped from a Siberian prison camp. As you probably know, it gets very cold there and outdoor travel isn’t a heartwarming experience. Not knowing their actual names, let’s call them Boris and Nikolai.

Boris was stronger than Nikolai, and eventually the weaker one started lagging behind. Rather than abandon his companion, Boris resolved to do everything he could to assist Nikolai as they continued toward hopeful freedom.

He would rigorously rub the other’s extremities to stave off frostbite. When the two stopped to rest, they huddled together to share bodily warmth. The one benefit of the severe cold was that prison officers soon gave up pursuit of the escapees. Progress was slow, and at times the two were tempted to give up, but they persevered. Days later they crossed a border to safety.

It helps to be accompanied by someone else
in facing life's waves,storms - and its joys.
Only later did Boris realize how his kindness toward the weaker friend had saved his own life as well. Working to keep Nikolai warm stimulated his own metabolism, enabling Boris to maintain a sufficient temperature so he, too, could survive.  

One doesn’t need to become a fugitive in Siberia, however, to recognize the truth that two usually are superior to one. King Solomon made that assertion when he wrote, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work. If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up! Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm, but how can one keep warm along? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves…” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12).

Solomon didn’t know Boris and Nikolai, but they certainly fit the description. We find this in many other endeavors. It’s a fact two can lift, or pull, more in tandem than they could independently. A gifted violinist may perform her part well, but surrounded by other talented musicians, the music will be much more impressive.

We see the “two is better than one” principle in most sports, whether it’s football, baseball, hockey, basketball, NASCAR or soccer. Even in golf or tennis, with individuals competing alone, we see the benefits of the player having been taught or coached by another person.

For years, I have invested hours nearly every week in mentoring and discipling other men. In our book, The Heart of Mentoring, my friend, the late David Stoddard, and I described mentoring as “a mutually beneficial relationship” in which both mentor and mentoring partner grow and learn from one another. In fact, The Heart of Mentoring would not have come about if Dave and I had not been working together with shared ideas and mission.

Through these mentoring relationships, repeatedly I’ve seen the truth of Proverbs 27:17 manifested: “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” I hope I’ve helped others to grow personally and spiritually, but I know I’ve grown during the process.

These days, our society seems so intent on exalting “self” and “me.” But there’s much to be said for remembering that if it weren’t for others, I couldn’t possibly become me – at least not the “me” that I have the potential for becoming.

I think that’s one reason God ordained marriage, stating “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him” (Genesis 2:18). In a similar way, although I have great respect for single parents, just as it takes two people to make a baby, it’s best for two to be involved in the demanding, never-ending challenge of parenting. “Many hands make light work,” the adage says.

Whether teaching a class, formulating a business proposal, managing finances, raising kids, or trying to grow spiritually, there’s usually strength in numbers. As the old song reminds us, “One is the loneliest number.”

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Let’s Not Forget ‘This Day’

There's nothing like a beautiful sunrise to announce another day's arrival.
Many of us are forward thinkers. We’re planning our next vacation, deciding how to remodel the house, anticipating the next pay raise or promotion, evaluating the next big purchase, or simply looking forward to the weekend. Our minds are inclined to drift toward the future. But there’s a danger in being so concerned about “then” that we forget to enjoy “now.”

If there’s a benefit to having had major surgery, or recovering from being chronically ill, it’s that it helps us have greater appreciation for the moment we’re in. Each day’s a gift for every one of us – we’re not guaranteed tomorrow – but when one’s life has hung in the balance, it becomes easier to enjoy the beauty of the present.

The Bible speaks much about the future, especially the life that will follow this one, but it says a lot about today as well. The phrase, “this day,” appears several times to underscore our need to focus as much on the “now and now” as we do the “sweet by and by.” For instance, Jesus told His followers to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). He didn’t suggest dwelling on what we might need next week, or two months from now.

Later in the same passage He spoke about the pointlessness of fretting over the future, giving His hearers assurance that God would not fail to provide for them. Then Jesus added, “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:34).

The psalmist wrote about the importance of embracing the present, stating, “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24). I try to remember that admonition every morning upon awakening, being thankful for another day of life and whatever opportunities God will send. There’s nothing wrong with gazing toward the horizon from time to time, but too much of that may cause us to miss out on what’s right in front of us.

I have several friends battling serious illnesses. For them, each day is truly a gift, a blessing. They don’t know how many more days they have left. Then there are those whose days have ended. My younger sister passed away just over a year ago, and I recently had a cousin not much older than me who also bid farewell to this life. Poignant reminders that each day, indeed, is precious.

But there’s one more element important for fully appreciating “this day.” As we’re living it out, we should consider who we’re living it for. Because that makes a world of difference in what we do, how we do it, and why.

It was Joshua, after leading the impulsive Israelites into the Promised Land, who issued them an immediate challenge. After recounting all God had done for the people of Israel, he told them to, “…choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve…. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15).

While rejoicing in knowing this is the day the Lord has made, it’s always a good idea to reaffirm whom we will choose to serve during it. Then we can do it again tomorrow – after it has morphed into “this day.”