Artificial reefs

“They don’t know that it isn’t real.” This was the reply from Rodrigo, the man who took our family snorkeling on his little boat, the ship’s name painted in blue letters on the side: Flaquita. I had asked him about the artificial reefs we’d seen on the ocean floor, dome-like concrete structures covered with round holes where the fish blissfully swam in and out of.

 

We had seen a few natural reefs down there, too, but these concrete versions were all over the place, and I was curious about them. I figured Rodrigo might be able to answer my questions. Short and round and wearing a tank top and shorts, he would slide off the boat and into the water gracefully in spite of those awkward flippers. Then he would dive down deep, his back nearly resting on the sandy ocean floor so that he could take pictures of us as we mostly hovered at the surface with our snorkel staying above the water, each breath coming out forcefully and noisily. Considering the amazing length he could hold his breath, I began to wonder if he was actually part fish.

 

At the end of our underwater adventure, the six of us sat across a makeshift table constructed from a foam boogie board and ate the ceviche prepared by Rodrigo’s friend, the man who drove the boat and therefore was just referred to as Capitán. We drank sugary Mexican sodas and used homemade tortilla chips to scoop up chunks of the tender pieces of Mahi-Mahi cured in lime juice and tossed with cucumbers, red onions, and tomatoes. As we ate, I asked Rodrigo about the artificial reefs. “Do the fish like them right away, do you think? Or do they see them as something that doesn’t belong down there?”

 

“They don’t know that it isn’t real,” he answered. Maybe he thought my question was silly. They’re only fish, after all. One fish identical to the next one, their only goal to survive another day and avoid being a tasty lunch. But we humans at least claim that we crave authenticity. We scorn the pretenders, expose the counterfeit, mock the phonies. I’d like to think that if I were one of those striped beauties swimming in the clear water, I’d see those artificial reefs and know they weren’t the real thing. I’d recognize that they were out of place and go looking for the natural ones not made from concrete. Oh, no. They wouldn’t fool me!

 

With all that’s troubling around us, I think we’re all looking for shelter from something trusted and real. Real relationships. Real information. Something and somebody we can count on and understand when the craziness swimming past us in a blur seems unrecognizable and often pretty scary. The sand is shifting beneath our feet, so we crave something sturdy, something real. At that moment, it’s time to be reminded of our Great God. There’s nothing artificial about Him. “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging….The Lord Almighty is with us.” (Psalm 46)

 

We are the champions

Last weekend, our youngest son’s soccer team played in a tournament in Gatlinburg. Back in August, when they first listed it among the other scheduled games, I thought, “Outdoor soccer in the Smokies in December?! Brrrrr!” But in true Tennessee fashion, it was weirdly warmish, with the main precipitation coming in the form of pea-soup thick fog on Sunday morning.

 

I’m an introvert by nature, preferring to avoid the spotlight in favor of watching others somewhere along the fringe. And whether you’re there for a sporting event or not, Gatlinburg is a prime people-watching location. Actually, it’s stimulus overload. But with all that we saw over the two days we were there (this includes the hordes of visitors traversing the main strip of shops and restaurants and a big black bear which wandered right up to the window of the cabin), it was the faces of the players and their parents which I was most interested in.

 

As I’ve been writing fiction for several years, I’ve become fascinated by learning what makes people tick and using this unscientific data to influence the arc of my storyline and the backstory of my characters. Anytime a person stands in front of you, presenting himself in some particular way, there are actually thousands of experiences at work in his words and actions and choices. The smile which doesn’t quite meet his eyes or that tiny twitch in the corner of his mouth or his fingers tap-tapping on his leg. People are just so complicated.

 

At a big tournament like this one, you see what Jim McKay, the late ABC sports announcer, would call “…the thrill of victory…and the agony of defeat…the human drama of athletic competition…” The thing I realized about myself as I watched a nearby game conclude on an adjacent field to the one where my son was warming up with his team, was that I was actually more interested in the faces of the losing team than those of the winning team. The winners jumped and cheered and hugged each other as they celebrated a hard fought victory. Not much variation there. But the losers…that’s where you see the range and depth of emotions. Some boys dropped to the ground and pounded the dirt with their fists, some offered a hand to help those teammates up on their feet, some cried unrestrained tears, and some stood motionless in despair. Then there was one 11 or 12 year-old kid who approached a player from the opposing team to congratulate him. He extended his hand in a friendly handshake, then he went along and continued shaking the hands of the rest of the team. His teammates noticed and joined in. No doubt this is his coach’s customary instruction after a game, but he did it with maturity and grace.

 

It stinks to lose. Even someone like me who never played sports and usually shies away from competition can own up to the fact that it’s no fun being on the losing side. But when we teach our kids about integrity and good sportsmanship and perspective, and they can be consistently honorable in the face of winning and losing, they are true champions no matter the final score.

Line of dominoes

A few weeks ago, I heard an unmistakable chirping sound as I walked through the basement to the laundry room. We had recently changed the batteries in the various smoke alarms, but we had overlooked the carbon monoxide detector mounted high on the wall. As I climbed a chair to take it down, from my high vantagepoint I noticed that the thermostat situated just below and to the right of the carbon monoxide detector was blank. Nothing was on or running. The HVAC unit for the basement doesn’t see a lot of action since the cave-lake rooms down there mostly remain at a consistently pleasant temperature, so who knows how long it had been out. I called an air conditioning repairman, and he alerted me to the fact that the drain pan which the unit sits in was full of water, resulting in the unit cutting out. Otherwise, it was operating perfectly fine. He also showed me where a slow but steady drip was winding its way from somewhere upstairs, hopping from one wire or cable or pipe to another, then eventually landing in that drain pan. Later that evening, my husband and I took turns being the upstairs-listener or the downstairs-tapper (the basement person poking a broom handle on the spot where we thought the leak originated), until we located the leaky culprit—the water line to the refrigerator. Next to enter, a plumber who had to cut a bit of the drywall behind the refrigerator to get to the spot in need of repair. With his task accomplished, our last domino fell in this particular home repair saga.

 

The whole sequence of events—innocent chirping to blank screen to full drain pan to refrigerator leak—presented a few what-ifs. What if I were taller and didn’t require a chair to get the detector down, making me less likely to notice the thermostat? What if the drips hadn’t chosen that particular path (into the drain pan), but instead dripped behind a wall where it would go unseen, eventually causing real damage?

 

The experience was a reminder to me that things are happening behind the scenes everyday which I am absolutely oblivious to but still affected by. For instance, how many times have I been on my way out of the house and then I’m forced to run back inside for some forgotten item making me a fraction later, but also making me miss being involved in an accident? There’s just no way to know.

 

You can approach this reality two different ways: You can see life as a wild ride, unchecked and uncontrolled by anyone. Everything is just coincidence and good or bad luck. Or you can breathe a sigh of relief and know that my life and the lives of every single soul I encounter are tethered to a plan. There is Someone in control, and (Thank goodness!) it isn’t me. For many people, their favorite scripture is Romans 8:28, and for good reason. During those times when things seem to be spinning out of control, it’s encouraging to read: “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.”

A little help

As I was sitting on the sidelines of one of my sons’ soccer games recently, I heard a familiar question, “A little help?” It was part request, part heads-up. A ball had rolled from one of the nearby fields and was heading toward ours. The kicker wanted us to stop it from rolling onto the area where a game was being played, but also he wanted someone to toss it back to him.

 

A dad scooped up the ball and sent it back to the boy, and play continued on our field. Though the exchange was commonplace and unremarkable, I kept thinking about the phrase: a little help? It wasn’t formulated as an actual question, but it was a request for assistance.

 

I suppose the phrase stuck with me because I’ve been pondering how much help I’ve needed help lately myself. I started using a hearing aid a few weeks ago to help with the hearing loss in my left ear. I had told myself for a while that I could live with the constant buzzing and the muffled sounds on that side of my head. I’d just work around it and pivot my good ear toward what I wanted to hear, I told myself. It was just an annoyance. Eventually, with the encouragement of my husband, I saw a few medical professionals and now I can hear pretty well again.

 

It’s funny how many of us refuse to ask for help. It’s silly, really. I’ve been blessed many times to be on the giving side of the arrangement, so I know there are plenty of people ready and willing to step in and help, so why am I so reluctant to be on the receiving end?

 

Maybe it’s because we’re taught to be independent D.I.Y.-ers who just need to figure it out. Maybe it’s a control thing, and we don’t want to give the task to someone who’s going to botch and blunder his way through it when we could get it done so much better. Or maybe we’re afraid of what others will think. “Will they say I’m a bad ____ (mom, wife, daughter, employee, neighbor, Christian, etc.)?”

 

There are plenty of excuses not to ask for help, but there’s also countless reasons why our reluctance is complete foolishness. That’s why we have to ask ourselves the tough questions: Are my claims of independence and high standards actually plain arrogance? Is my worrying over what others will think superficial and, let’s face it, such a waste of time? Am I harming the people I’m in charge of caring for when I don’t seek assistance for myself?

 

Another important question I’ve had to ask myself is this: Does my refusal to ask for help from the people in my life translate to how I petition my Heavenly Father through prayer? In other words, if I don’t use the help memuscle with the loving humans around me, can I be expected to use it with my loving God? In Timothy Keller’s book Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God, he says that “Prayer is both conversation and encounter with God. . . . We must know the awe of praising his glory, the intimacy of finding his grace, and the struggle of asking his help, all of which can lead us to know the spiritual reality of his presence.” I sure could use more of God’s presence, and prayer is the door to enter into it.

 

So, in case no one has told you this today, it’s okay to ask for help. Actually, it’s not just okay, it’s a holy command. We read over and over in Scripture, that we should cry out. And Isaiah 30 gives us an example of God’s willingness to help: “So the Lord must wait for you to come to him so he can show you his love and compassion. For the Lord is a faithful God. Blessed are those who wait for his help…He will be gracious if you ask for help. He will surely respond to the sound of your cries.” Take that first step to get the help you need.

Stockpiling God’s blessings

Our two sons are both on travel soccer teams. This means that they seem to be playing ball all the time. In the winter, we’ve watched them play in high school gymnasiums and indoor soccer facilities, but most of the action is outside. We’ve stood under umbrellas watching them play in the rain. We’ve stamped our feet to keep warm at spring tournaments where there was still snow on the ground. And there have been plenty of games where we have sat, sweaty and sunburnt, in the blazing heat. This was our experience the last weekend of August.

 

Last Saturday, our older son played in Murfreesboro on those beautiful new turf fields. As nice as they are, that hunter green rubber grass also seems to draw in the heat, creating an atmosphere similar to the surface of the sun. Now I’ve been watching him play soccer for more than a decade, so I was mostly prepared for the magnitude of the heat. I started the morning drinking from my water jug, hours before I ever sat in my camping chair in the noonday sun. I had chugged 32 ounces by 10:00 a.m. and brought along more to drink during the game. I knew from experience that once you begin sweating, it’s almost too late to start drinking water. You have to start before you even feel thirsty.

 

This idea of storing up what you need before you get to a moment of crisis isn’t particularly profound. You can see it exhibited in the grocery stores at the first sign of a snowflake. The bread aisles left bare, with only a few loaves of raisin bread remaining. But there’s more to stockpiling necessary goodness besides just water and other staples. We can also store up sweet memories and miraculously puzzling developments. The light of these reminiscences brightening future darkness.

 

You have to wonder if Mary, Jesus’ mother, did just that as she held her newborn in her arms. She couldn’t have known the scope of Jesus’ ministry or the horrific death he would suffer, but the Book of Luke paints a beautiful picture of a mother treasuring the sweet moments in her heart.

 

Mary had given birth. Then a pack of shepherds came bursting inside the stable where Jesus was born. They must’ve blurted out crazy stories about an angelic choir announcing the Savior’s birth. They were joyfully spreading the news all over Bethlehem, and people were listening. Then, in one brief verse, we read that “Mary kept all these things to herself, holding them dear, deep within herself.” (The Message) She tucks away the image of the shepherds and the story that they told about the hillside concert, almost as if she knew she might need this precious memory for later. Perhaps she knew she’d need to take out the sweetness of that night and hold it, turning it over in her mind to escape a challenging time.

 

How are you preparing your heart for future difficulties? What’s the spiritual equivalent of building a Y2K shelter? Make a list of the good things God has done for you, counting your blessings and thanking the One who provided them. Commit Scriptures to memory, giving yourself an arsenal of God’s Word to have at the ready. Store up treasures, just like Mary. Ponder them and then share them with a thirsty world desperately in need of relief.

Greatest of All Time

Somewhere between 4th grade and 7th grade, it was a common pastime for girls in my school to rank their friends. “Tiffany is my first best friend. Holly is my second best friend. You are my third best friend.” Unless you were number one, it was demoralizing and humiliating, but you also knew your place in the pecking order was always tenuous. Any move by you or those in your circle could shift you up or down. You could get demoted by another girl extending an invitation to her birthday party at the skate center or a sleep-over at a house with an above-ground swimming pool or something as seemingly small as the gift of a Cindy Lauper cassette tape or a Duran Duran slap bracelet. (It was the 80’s, so these were a tween girl’s currency.)

 

As cut-throat and cruel as this may sound, it’s not a new idea. For all time, we humans have wanted to know where we fit as we’ve worried about the prominent placement of our seat at the table. Whether we like to admit it or not, we desire confirmation of our significance, and this often comes at the detriment of those around us.

 

Jesus’ twelve best friends were no different. As He was traveling around the area, preaching and healing, his disciples were arguing over which of them was the greatest. When we read Mark’s account of the story, Jesus asks them what they were quarrelling about (even though he knows the thoughts in their heads let alone the words they’re saying to each other as they walk down the road), but “they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.” They knew what they were talking about was childish, and they were embarrassed to tell Him.

 

Of course, Jesus used that moment to teach them (and through His Word, us) a valuable lesson. He told them, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” Then Jesus saw a little child standing nearby which he lifted in his arms and said, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”

 

You would think that the Disciples had been adequately upbraided by Jesus once he held an actual child to illustrate to them how they were acting like babies, but they didn’t fully absorb the lesson. Later, we see them reclining at the last supper they would eat with Jesus. He’s just dropped a bombshell, saying that one of them would betray him and His death was just around the corner, and they’re arguing about their status again.

 

Jesus shuts down the bickering by telling them that the order is different in His kingdom than in the kingdoms you find in the world. He tells them that it’s not about being the boss. Instead, it’s about being the servant.

 

I heard a preacher tell his congregation about an assignment for a discipleship course. He said that for a week, the person taking the course couldn’t brag about himself or defend himself when being criticized. He also couldn’t gossip or speak negatively about anyone else. He explained that the assignment was nearly impossible. He became aware of all the times he was concerned with his position, his seat at the table. He had to fight the urge to inflate his own ego or puncture the self-worth of others.

 

Jesus shows us that choosing to live the life of a servant isn’t an act of weakness, but one of extreme strength. To continually die to ourselves goes against the selfish nature we were born with and requires willpower and self-control. Most likely you won’t read words like humble or submissive or foot-washer in a political campaign ad or in the job description for a CEO or in a post-game interview with a professional athlete, but Jesus provides the best example of how to be the greatest.

Hold my ladder

As a homeowner, there are plenty of jobs most of us just don’t enjoy doing: weed-eating, grout-cleaning, baseboard-dusting, etc. Generally, these are tasks which run on a never-ending loop: We clean. We pause briefly to bask in the triumph of our accomplishment. Then, before we know it, it’s time to do it again.

 

Cleaning out the gutters is an accurate example of this “life of a homeowner” principle, (along with possibly being on the list of the punishments God gave Adam in the Garden of Eden which are now meted out upon us, his miserable descendants).

 

When we get a heavy rain, it becomes obvious that the gutters are clogged. Water is pouring down in sheets at the corners of the roof, instead of coming down the drainpipes like it’s supposed to. Once the rain stops, my husband Brent goes out to the shed to get the ladder. He carries it over to the house and leans it against the wall. But before he climbs to the top, he does what smart people do: he asks for someone to hold his ladder.

 

I am usually the one at the bottom of the ladder, legs planted firmly in the ground using all my might to hold the metal frame which the love of my life is precariously perched at the top of. Even though I run the risk of getting splatted by the gross sludge coming down in handfuls from the clogged gutter, I preferred to be the one holding the ladder, because I don’t trust the kids to do the job. In a way, it’s an honor to be asked to do something so important for my most favorite person, or at least that’s what I tell myself as I comb rotted vegetation from my hair.

 

Now that I think of it, climbing should never be a solitary journey. In the same way that they encourage people to use the buddy system on a mountain climb, we should all be scaling the heights together.

 

Over 100 years ago, a group of women gathered together to form an organization that would do just that. It was called the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), and their mantra was “Lifting as We Climb.” The women who started the organization, including the heroic Harriet Tubman, were dedicated to improving the lives of people of color, not just for themselves, but to lift up their communities for generational impact.

 

The NACW was born in a time when people of color, and especially African-American women, were demonized and considered less than human. When a British suffragette asked a Missouri newspaperman to encourage American journalists to speak out against lynching, he wrote back to her in no uncertain terms what he thought about the people of color in America. But his words of hate and prejudice only solidified their mission. The women proved their humanity in the best sense of the word by working together to better the lives of their sisters.

 

Anyone with an ounce of ambition (or who’s ever played Chutes and Ladders) knows it’s better to go up the ladder. We want better—better for ourselves, better for our kids, better at work, better at home. The question we should ask ourselves is this: Are we willing to hold the ladder for others as they scale to higher heights? Are we lifting as we climb?

Would You Rather?

Our youngest son was recently interested in the game “Would You Rather?” In it, a person asks another person questions like: “Would you rather have one thumbnail pulled off or all your eyelashes plucked out?” It’s meant to be a difficult task, choosing between two mostly equal options. But when Ezra posed the questions, he didn’t always grasp the required balance necessary to make the game fun. For instance, a few months ago, he went running down the driveway, shouting to a friend who was driving away to roll down his window. Then he asked, “Hey, Tyler! Would you rather fight a dog or eat a hot dog?” To most anyone, the answer was obvious.

 

If only all our choices in life were as easy as eating a hot dog instead of participating in a dog fight. Unfortunately, many of the selections we face are more like the actual “Would You Rather?” game. In the real world, there are nuances to consider and unknown variables and long-term consequences. Further investigations may be needed with possible pros vs. cons lists. “Would You Rather?” turns into What If I Don’t?and What Will It Cost? and Are There Better Choices?

 

I’m no expert on this and I’m sure to forget this plan way more than I will remember it, but I am going to try to use three key verses when I’m making a decision, big or small. (Note: I recently heard someone say that he even prays before he chooses which restaurant he should go to for lunch just in case God has a plan for him to go to a particular place. No choice is too small!)

 

  1. Listen carefully! Isaiah 30:21 tells us, “Your own ears will hear him. Right behind you a voice will say, ‘This is the way you should go, whether to the right or to the left.’” This listening may require a long, sometimes uncomfortable pause. As a people-pleaser, I’m working on listening better for God’s discretion to tell me when to say yes and when to say no.
  2. Look different! Romans 12:2 says, “Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.” I’m going to give myself permission to look different than the world, removing that ridiculous and unattainable burden of worldly achievement and flawlessness which can weigh me down.
  3. Live faithfully! In Joshua 24:15, we read some of General Joshua’s final words to the Israelite people. “But if you refuse to serve the Lord, then choose today whom you will serve. Would you prefer the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates? Or will it be the gods of the Amorites in whose land you now live? But as for me and my family, we will serve the Lord.” Joshua was taking the Israelites to an existential crossroads. He reminded them of all that the Lord had done for them, then he told them to make a choice to be faithful to the True God.

 

We will not always be given the greatest choices, forcing us to use phrases like “lesser evil,” “best of a bad bunch,” and “least bad option.” But, although we don’t live in a perfect world, we can serve a Perfect Lord.

What’s real?

As we watched a complicated battle scene in the new Mulan movie a few nights ago, my youngest son said, “It would be hard to be an actor.”

 

Assuming he was referring to the acrobatics required to do things like flip around on the back of horses while shooting arrows at a pursuing enemy, I replied, “It would. They must’ve practiced this scene a bunch of times.”

 

He paused a minute then said, “Yeah…and also why would you sign up for a movie if you’re just going to get killed?”

 

“Who got killed?” I asked.

 

“Well, that guy and that guy.” He pointed at the screen. “And that guy with the arrow in his chest. They’re all dead now. I wouldn’t want to be an actor.”

 

“They aren’t really dead!” I told him. “They’re just pretending.”

 

“Are you sure? They look dead.”

 

“I’m absolutely sure. No one was killed making this movie.” I thought for a minute, then added, “And it’s the same in other movies, too. They are always just pretending to die, and then they put fake blood on them.”

 

“Ohhhh…” At least outwardly satisfied by my answer, he finished watching the movie, hopefully with a new perspective about the craft of moviemaking and the exciting career of stunt professionals.

 

Reflecting on his film-related epiphany, I wondered if he’d been thinking this all along, that actors in the movies had been actually dying, like the man in the Darth Vader mask had really perished in Luke Skywalker’s arms. I also understood why he chafed at my frequent comments about how he should be an actor because he’s so funny and expressive and, let’s face it, very dramatic. While I thought I was paying him a compliment, he may have assumed I wanted him to kick the bucket on the silver screen.

 

Perspective is such an essential tool in understanding the motivations of another human being. The well-known phrase goes something like this, “To understand another person, you must walk a mile in his shoes.” I like Atticus Finch’s counsel to his daughter Scout even better in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. “If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

 

Atticus’ advice is more of a submission to empathy than just tying on a pair of shoes and going for a walk. It’s a desire to absorb every nuance of their viewpoint and outlook. How do they see the world and how does the world see them? But it’s possible to take this to the next step. Because even after trying our best to be empathetic, we may have to admit that the other person’s opinion just doesn’t make sense, and then what? Just agree to disagree? I’m sometimes challenged to figure out how to live on the same planet with some people so ideologically different than me, let alone the same country or even the same street. The only way to move forward is with a heaping helping of grace. In spite of how I feel about them and what evidence I have about the truth, that undeserved and magical gift is as much for me as it is for them.

 

I’m glad my son and I had our conversation about movies, because it gave me just one more glimpse into the mind of one of my favorite people. It’s a bit disconcerting to realize that he has been thinking that all of these actors have been dying voluntarily, and, even worse, that we’re all okay with it. But now that it’s out there, I can put it right. We can discuss it and the truth is revealed.  Then I can show him what’s real.

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.”