Hope for an untangled future

Per our usual tradition, my family put up our Christmas decorations the day after Thanksgiving. (By the way, this isn’t a discussion about when you should or should not decorate for Christmas. You do you, merry-makers! Deck your halls and trim your trees until you can festoon no more! And if that helps you beat the blahs of a pandemic holiday season, keep them up until August!) We dragged the boxes from the basement and began unloading their contents. Wreaths on the windows and doors. Tabletop decorations and a nativity set for the bookshelf.

 

We set up one (pre-lit) tree in the sunroom with colorful lights, kid-made ornaments, and a Santa tree skirt. I always ask our kids to hang the ornaments on this one. It’s fun to listen to them reminisce and laugh at the clay snowmen, pipe cleaner candy canes, and photos framed by popsicle sticks, dotted haphazardly with red and green pom-pom balls. And we always have to tell the story about the time when one of my daughters took a bite out of a dog bone ornament because she thought it was a Scooby snack cookie. (Either way…why? Rule Number 754 Of Things I Didn’t Think I’d Have To Say Aloud: Don’t eat, lick, or even nimble anything that is hanging on the Christmas tree.)

 

The other tree went up by the living room window. This one is artificial, too. (This also isn’t a discussion about live vs. artificial Christmas trees. Why is there so much to argue about when it comes to this stuff, anyway?!) We’ve had this tree for going on twenty years. It loses tons of (fake) needles each time we set it up, so it will eventually be bald. Until that happens, it falls to me to wrap the branches in white lights before the ornaments go on. This is not my favorite part of the process. It involves a lot of lights, standing on stools, going around in circles, and sweating.

 

As I was plugging in each strand of lights to check that they still work before putting them on the branches, I congratulated my January 2020 self for taking the time to wrap the lights around pieces of cardboard to keep them separated and organized. It would be oh-so easy to just dump the lights in a jumbled heap in the bin, pop the lid on top, and forget about it. But how I would regret it!

 

If you stop and think about it, there are plenty of things most of us are able to do because we’re infused with hopefulness. Unconsciously, we make assumptions about where we’ll be tomorrow and what we’ll be doing. When I wrapped all those lights around cardboard rectangles the day after New Year’s Day, I was saying, “I have a hope that I will need these when another Christmas season rolls around.”

 

During bleak times, remaining hopeful can sometimes feel foolish or naïve. Should we even make plans anymore? What’s the point when so much is uncertain? It reminds me of what James, Jesus’ brother, said when he scolds people for focusing too much on their own plots and proposals. “Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’  Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.  Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’” Good grief, James! This forces me to ask myself if I should even wrap those lights at all!

 

But then I search the Scripture for whispers of a living hope—hope for resurrection, hope for justice, hope that things will be made right. James goes on to say we shouldn’t boast about our own schemes, but spirit-filled hope is something we should shout about from the rooftops. Romans 5 gives us permission to boast, because we are bragging on a glorious and generous God who has given us a reason to be hopeful.

 

“And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance;  perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” Praise God for the hope He continually gives us. Whether it’s in the form of another day or a newborn baby, looking forward is an essential quality.

 

But focusing on the future doesn’t mean you don’t act in the present or even ignore the past. The miracle of hope is that it can involve all three. C.S. Lewis said, “Hope is one of the Theological virtues. This means that a continual looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some modern people think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do. It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.”

Trimming the edges

I’m not trying to brag, but I have a massive art collection. It’s true. All of them are one-of-a-kind originals. Sure, they were made in elementary art class by my four children, but I’m telling you…it’s a priceless collection.

 

I display this priceless art in our basement. There’s a wall of just fish and bird paintings. There are self-portraits and cityscapes and jungle animals and a variety of foods, including a slice of pizza. Lots of good stuff. Bright and colorful scenes which make me happy when I’m heading to the laundry room.

 

For more than a decade since I first had elementary-aged kids, I’ve bought very cheap frames for my collection. To keep the look cohesive (because, you know, I’m pretty fancy), I pop the glass out and spray paint all of the wooden frames the same dark red color. (If only da Vinci had thought of this, that Mona Lisa thing might’ve been more popular. It’s a shame, really.)

 

The artwork that comes home from school is rarely the same size as the standard frames I buy from Hobby Lobby. Their chalky tempera masterpieces are usually on these oversized sheets of stiff, white paper which are larger than the 11×14 frames I purchase. But, as a patron of the arts, I am not daunted in accomplishing my task. My solution is to lay the glass on the artwork and trace around the sides with a pencil. Then I trim the excess so that it will lay perfectly inside the frame.

 

At first, it seemed heartless to alter my sweet babies’ drawings, cutting off pieces of suns in the upper corner or blue waves at the bottom. But the paintings don’t suffer from the lack of these edges. The artists (my kids) were mostly focused on the center of the page—the big, fat pumpkin sitting in the sunny pumpkin patch or the sails on the sailboat which is tossing on choppy, blue waves. So taking out an inch here and there is no big deal.

 

There have been times when I’ve voluntarily taken on the task of trimming the edges of my activities, duties and even the concentration of my thoughts, but first I’ve had to determine what has priority. Some things fall right in the center, such as my kids and my husband, while others hover on the periphery. It can be difficult to determine which is which, especially if it feels like people are counting on me to follow through, and I worry I might disappoint them.

 

Throughout my adult years, I haven’t always been skilled in carrying out these croppings and cuttings, then we were handed a global pandemic, and tons of activities were trimmed away for us, whether we liked it or not. I hesitate to say that it has been good, because I know so many have experienced huge heartache in the last 8 or 9 months and I would never want to trivialize that very real sorrow, but I will say that in spite of the stress and uncertainty, last summer held countless blessings—simple and beautiful ones—for our family. It was the last months before our daughters left for college for the first time and I enjoyed how slow time felt.

 

Now that those initial changes have become routine, I have had to be more intentional as I try to regain that often illusive feeling of contentment. So I go to the Scriptures and read Philippians 4:8, “And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.” Here I’m given instructions how to trim the excess. It’s not easy to block out the noise and distraction, but in verse 9 we’re given the prize: “Then the God of peace will be with you.” God-given peace, the priceless treasure we all desire to collect.