If 2021 Is Just as Tough, What Will Keep You Going?

What if 2021 is no better than 2020? What then?

The experience of American prisoners of war says: even if 2021 is no better, we can still be okay. But we will only be okay is if we don’t expect our circumstances to be okay.

That sounds odd, doesn’t it. Surely people need to expect good things. Surely we need to believe in a better time ahead. Surely people need hope.

And we do need hope. The challenge is that while people need hope, we don’t need false hope.

False hope works like the real thing at first. It focuses us on a goal, and motivates our action. It steels our resolve in the face of difficulties.

Without Hope, We Die

Without hope, people die. Scripture tells us “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Pr. 29:18, KJV). The experience of US POWs during the Vietnam conflict starkly demonstrates both that truth and the devastating impact of false hope based on unrealistic vision.

Several thousand US servicemen were taken prisoner during that conflict. Only 591 returned home, after having endured many years of torture, starvation and solitary confinement. James Stockdale, a US Navy Vice Admiral who held as a POW for nearly 8 years, says it was the optimists who died.

He told author Jim Collins: “they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

False Hope is a Killer

“There was a lot of damage done by optimists,” Stockdale told a graduating class at West Point. “Problem is, some people believe what professional optimists are passing out and come unglued when their predictions don’t work out.”

The optimists in the camps lived on false hope that they would be liberated within a specific time frame. As their false hope was repeatedly dashed, they found themselves on an emotional roller coaster of desires and wishful thinking that, in Stockdale’s opinion, eventually caused them to lose their ability to hope and their reason to live.

Stockdale saw in his comrades who survived the same hope that they would eventually be freed. But the survivors grounded their hope in a realistic understanding of the brutal setting they would have to survive. As he told Collins: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

COVID Has Wrecked Many Hopes

COVID has become a crucible for the quality of our own hopes. Career advancement, Pinterest-perfect homes, honor roll students … these hoped-for and worked-for goals have been snatched from our reach. Hopes that seemed entirely reasonable before the virus reached the US have become, during the pandemic, impossible expectations. “I hope to see my out-of-state friend over the holidays.” “I hope to succeed in my new career.” “I hope to be by my mother’s side when she dies.”

Many of the objects of our hopes have been snatched beyond our reach at this time. And some of us are all too aware that the opportunity missed today can become the fork that changes the path of a life. It becomes difficult to hope when we can’t see a reliable future.

The Bible describes a reliable future, but it is not always as clearly visible as we might prefer. God says that God knows God’s own plans for us: “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jer. 29:11 NIV).  We hear those words and imagine our own vision of prosperity – something we saw on a screen or heard from a platform – and then rush at the vision we have created, trusting it as our hope and future. When the vision is snatched away, so, too, is our hope.

How Do You Advance When Hope Isn’t In View?

That’s what happened in 2020. Just about every vision we had imagined was snatched from us. And we forgot how to walk in a dark and foggy night.

God warns us that the path is not clear and our vision fogged. We see imperfectly and only in part, “through a glass, darkly,” in the old King James language (1 Cor 13:12). So God recommends a strategy for moving forward in uncertainty: watching where the light of the Word shines a safe footing for the next step through the darkness, and only advancing as far as that light illuminates (Ps. 119:105).

Of course, it’s not easy to take life that slowly in the 21st century West. We have become so used to big stories of big achievements that it is easy for us to despise the day of small things (Zech. 4:10).

Small Steps Toward an Unseen Goal

In these times with their many restrictions, we still have many seemingly small opportunities to share kindness, peace, love with those around us whose hope is waning. In these times when there seem to be no large opportunities, God has given us the opportunity to “do small things with great love” (in the words of Mother Teresa). And as we do so, this time of small beginnings might build us together with many others who do not yet hope in Christ into a home where God’s spirit might dwell (Eph. 2:22).

We can accept the many difficulties COVID has presented and may continue to present, because we know that “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Rom 5: 3-4).

Whether 2021 brings a happy new year or new challenges, it brings us reason for real hope.

Hopeful new year, everyone.

More reading

Here are a couple essays I found interesting while writing this post:

An essay in the Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge blog discusses how the POW experience of true and false hope bears on business leadership during COVID.

Soldiers with This Trait are Survivors details the patterns of thinking and perception that allow for sustained hope based in reality.

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If One More Married Person Tells Me ‘God is Your Husband’ …

Am I the only one who didn’t get a box of chocolates from God this Valentines Day?

Joyce is the divorced mom of a disabled child. To call her home run-down would be generous. Joyce’s summer project involved shoring up and replacing the rotting sills – not doorsills, but the huge timber support sills that run along the top of the foundation. She and her adult daughter speak proudly about the home repair skills they’re learning (because they can’t afford a contractor) and how well known they are at the local lumber yard. How many women have jacked a foundation without male assistance? The yard is still full of the now snow-covered flotsam and jetsam from that project.

If God is her husband, then he would seem to be the kind of shiftless, no-account fella that the guys at church need to take in hand.

Grace installed a bathroom in her home just five years ago. Until then, she’d used a backyard outhouse. Grace doesn’t live in Appalachia: she lives in a community that many imagine to be a wealthy, exclusive seaside enclave. She’s grateful to live rent-free in a family member’s cottage. She weatherized the property, from insulation to window replacement, to make it a suitable year-round abode.

If God is her husband, he doesn’t appear to care much about the conditions his wife lives in. The guys at church need to call him to account.

As we head into Valentine’s Day, married women are again encouraging us singletons to remember that “God is your husband!” (Isa. 54:5). Apparently, this is supposed to help us feel even more special than the couples the holiday celebrates.

Am I the only one that God hasn’t sent a box of chocolates to this year?

God sent this year’s Valentines chocolates by means of my own debit card at the supermarket.

Don’t get me wrong: I know that I’m one of the more fortunate unmarried women. I live a few miles from a very handy brother, his very capable grandsons, and a strong and willing nephew. Another brother drives an hour to my home when a large project requires still more skilled hands. I’m planted in a neighborhood where I can count on pet care when I travel and attentive eyes to warn of any irregularities. (“Hey Carlene,” my next-door neighbor texted one day. “The hatch on your car has been open for a while. Are you OK?”)

Meanwhile, some of the Christian women who seek to encourage us singles label themselves on social media as not just women who enjoy the companionship and help of marriage, but as women who enjoy married sex. “Wife to the hottest man in the world” is what one gal’s identifier indicated.

Am I the only one who’s not looking with lust upon God-my-husband this year?

I’m so tired of hearing this promise about my husband God from married friends.What I hear is: “Sure, I have all these things in the flesh, but you have them in the spirit … isn’t that just as good? Maybe even better! You just need to value what God has given you.”

Of course we all need to value what God has given. And God does promise that what we singles have received is better. God as our husband (in Isa. 54) urges us to enlarge our homes and hearts, because our children will outnumber the children of you who have earthly spouses. In that big and generous Holy Spirit, I’ve just finished packing up couple boxes of home-baked linzer cookies that I’ll deliver tomorrow to single friends. I’m getting ready to bake for the cash shower this week that will assist a single friend whose kitchen recently burned.

I plan to deliver homemade linzer cookies to a dozen single friends on Valentines Day.

But I don’t believe for an instant that my husband-God intends me and my single friends to do all the caregiving of one another. No matter how Dorcas-inclined (Acts 9) some of us may be.

God describes how the unmarried are to be cared for within the Body of Christ. “God sets the solitary in families” (Psalm 68:6) is what God says. The marriage some enjoy is not just for their own good and that of their descendants. It’s designed as a place that will provide companionship and comfort for those of us who live in isolation.

God says “two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor” (Ecclesiastes 4:9). Those who enjoy that good return: think about Joyce and Grace. When you tell a struggling single sister to rely on her husband-God without offering the support of her husband-God’s Body on earth, you’re offering considerably less than living faith. You’re taking the part of those James chided:

“If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2: 16-17).

Valentine’s Day is just one day among 365 each year when Bible-believing married friends dismiss the challenges that singles experience and ignore the part they could play in strengthening feeble unmarried knees.

Enjoy your happy couples day tomorrow. And consider loving a singleton on one of the days after.

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Mom had a dream, too: her kids would walk to the local school

On MLK Day, I’m re-running this post, originally written in response to a request from the late civil rights leader and Durham, NC City Councilor Howard Clement.

A local African-American politician – the kind of long-tenured official who was sitting on the reviewing stand when Martin Luther King Jr. gave the “I Have a Dream” speech – put me on the spot one day. He knew about my politics. What about the rest of my family?

He’s old enough that he laughed when I said that my mother is glad my father had become too deaf to hear the nice things she said about President Obama. Then I told him this story about my mother, and he said it needed to be shared. So I’m sharing it.

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Mary, Martha, and My Holiday Kitchen

That Mary and Martha story can be SO frustrating. Martha is busy in the kitchen. Mary is hanging out with Jesus. Martha wants her sister’s help. And Jesus says no. According to Jesus, Mary’s got it right.

Since I just finished baking 50 dozen holiday cookies (35 dozen for a charity fundraiser), I’m feeling a little irritable on Martha’s behalf.

I like to bake. Sometimes I say — only half joking — “I bake, therefore I am.”

I bake therefore I am

If I find myself with half a Saturday free, I’m likely to fill the house with the yeast and molasses scent of fresh-baked oatmeal bread. This year, I finally learned to make wonderful shortbread (thanks Ronda Swaney for the recipe!). I used to make wedding cakes as my wedding gift to couples I knew. Since I don’t have grandkids to spoil, I made Easter cupcakes for my brother’s grands one year.

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Advent: A Long Journey Toward a Surprising Light

My father’s childhood train trip from California’s wartime blackout to the brilliant lights of Las Vegas provides a different metaphor for our Advent quest.

We call wartime “dark days” and in the 21st century we tend to focus on the emotional and spiritual darkness of a war.

But for my father, just 12 years old in February 1942, World War II’s darkness was literal. Southern California, as a potential coastal target for the Japanese, lived under a nighttime blackout starting almost immediately after Pearl Harbor. The fear and caution intensified in February after a Japanese submarine fired on an oil refinery near Santa Barbara.

Then an unidentified object was sighted hovering over Los Angeles. The photo shows searchlights converging on the mysterious object, which was never identified. (Image: unretouched Los Angeles Times photo, retrieved from the LA Times online archives).

At Home: Bomb Fears and Blackout

Hundreds of military shells bombarded the floating device. And every home not yet blacked out swathed its windows in thick curtains to prevent any evening illumination from escaping to provide a target for alien weapons. Automobiles – which were considerably fewer than today – moved cautiously if they moved at all, without streetlamps or headlights to guide them. During those literally “dark days,” no outdoor lighting of any kind was allowed.

Dad’s family was divided at the time. Dad and his younger brother, Jim, were living with grandparents on a two-acre Southern California “farmette” while their Mom, Dad, and toddler brother, Jeff, got settled into brand-new “company” housing near the brand-new company town of Henderson, Nevada. Henderson was where a magnesium mine and refinery was located, producing a “miracle metal” essential to bomb casings and aircraft parts as part of the US war effort. Grampa had taken a job there and Grammie carried her littlest to Nevada with her while she set up housekeeping.

Between: A Seemingly Endless Journey

But eventually the moment came for Dad and Jim to join the rest of the family. Their grandparents put them on a train for what was expected to be an 8-hour ride to the station in Las Vegas.

The eastward journey toward home and family stalled repeatedly as the train pulled onto sidings to allow westbound troop transports the right of way. Dad, just 12 years old, minded Jim – then 8 – through all of what turned into a 15-hour trip.

Arrived: A Blaze of Lights

What Dad remembered as the train neared Las Vegas was seeing the light – first the distant glow of a city, then the lights that surrounded the train and blazed along the city’s streets. The Strip in 1942 didn’t look much like what we know as Las Vegas today. But unlike California, it had lights at night.


From California blackout to Las Vegas light! This view was taken from near the train depot where Dad and his little brother arrived in Las Vegas in 1942. (Postcard image appears on the website classiclasvegas.com)

Fremont Street in Las Vegas isn’t exactly my vision of God’s light that awaits me. But like Dad and Uncle Jim on that extended rail trip east, we live as children caring for children on a long wartime journey that is often side-tracked. At the end is a place we will call home, heralded by an unfamiliar light and entered by way of a loving Parent’s warm embrace.

Advent lasts a lifetime. Ride expectantly.

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