The danger of hope

Hope can be a river. It can also be a dam.
I think of these things as I wait for tonight’s game at Wrigley Field in Chicago, home of the famously hapless Chicago Cubs. Unlike a lot of my fellow Cardinals fans, I take no particular pleasure in their perpetual dysfunction. But there’s no denying that the Cubs have been, as one wry fan recently said to me, rebuilding for the future since 1906.
This recognition of inevitable failure makes me respect Cubs fans all the more. Deprived of actual World Series titles these 100-plus years, they have learned to live on nothing but hope.
But when is enough enough?
When it comes to baseball, the answer is probably never. And why should fans give up? Our hearts may be with our teams, but in the big scheme of things we don’t have that much to gain or lose by their performance.
Not so in other areas of life. This morning my wife told me about a documentary on the Dust Bowl she’s been watching. She talked about the danger if hope for those farmers, the need to overcome hope that the High Plains would ever get enough rain to be truly fertile for farming. The only sensible thing for those early farmers to do was to leave. But hope told them–lied to them–that next year would be the year, that the rains were coming and all would be well. The results if hope were countless deaths and bankruptcies, not to mention one of history’s greatest ecological disasters.
Lately I’ve found myself asking questions about hope, when its appropriate and when it’s misplaced. I often ask if the hope I have both in my own local ministry and in the larger United Methodist Church is based on devotion or delusion. I can’t say that I have yet found a clear answer.
It seems to me that two virtues are at war here. On one hand, the stubborn resolve to never give up hope keeps us going through the toughest of times. But on the other hand, wisdom and trust tell us that death–even of something we love–is not the end of hope. It is rather a redirection of our larger hopes.
So what should I do in the face of such uncertainty? Give up on Wesley foundation or the UMC? Bury my fears and put on a happy face? Again the answer isn’t clear. The course I’ve chosen for now is inspired by Cubs fans.
You don’t just give up on your team, they remind me. You love them when they are unlovable, and you keep trusting that next year is the year.
So I’m clinging stubbornly to hope right now. It’s the water that keeps me from withering. Perhaps it’s also the dam that holds back greater blessing. My vision doesn’t extend that far. All I can do is what I think is right based on the information I have. That will just have to be good enough for God until he decides to reveal more.

One from the Good Guys

I think of the New York Yankees the same way I think of the IRS. They are an unavoidable and perhaps even necessary evil. They are the flagship franchise of my favorite sport, not to mention glamorous and wealthy and recognizable across the globe. The only reasons I can think of for not liking the Yankees boil down to simple jealousy. But that doesn’t stop me from thinking of them as evil, and from rooting against them at every opportunity.

So you can imagine how conflicted I am to find myself rooting for one of the all-time great Yankees last week at the All-Star game. This year’s mid-summer classic turned into a love-fest for closer Mariano Rivera, the undisputed greatest relief pitcher of all time. Everywhere he went during the festivities, other players flocked around the aging superstar, now in his final season. No player since Cal Ripken, Jr., has left the game so revered.

With Rivera, however, the respect afforded him goes well beyond baseball prowess. He has a reputation as a man of genuine faith, generous and humble even when the cameras are off. As he’s made his farewell tour this season, he’s made a point at each ballpark to thank those who work there, from clubhouse guys to security guards to grounds crews. He has sought out those whose names never appear in the paper, much less on a line-up card, but who nonetheless keep baseball running. Rivera does more than nod toward the little guys for his awards and accolades. He really seems to recognize the essential part they play in creating this beautiful game.

I thought of this last week when I participated in the ministrymatters.com podcast on evangelism. One of the topics we brushed across was the decline in influence of superstar preachers and evangelists. In the church world that is emerging, individual Christians are the primary vehicles through which the good news of God’s love is carried. It’s more than just lip service about the sacred worth of every person. The church-world milieu that we live in demands that each individual Christian recognize and embody their role as Jesus’ representative.

I’ve believed this is true for all my life. I’ve tried to live into it for almost as long, with occasional success.

Don’t get me wrong. I would still love to be recognized for the work I do. I imagine winning awards for the books I have yet to publish, or speaking at conferences to packed houses that hang on my every word. These are mostly enjoyable daydreams, but there is something sinister in them.  They rely on mass response to what I do, which often has very little to do with the quality of my efforts. Dreams of recognition are inevitably ego-driven, and ego-gratification is always short-lived.

But what would I give to hear Jesus pull me aside and say “Well done”? Indeed, that always seems to be the question.

The crowning moment of the 2013 All-Star game came in the eighth inning, when Rivera took the field. As he ran in from the bullpen, the other American League players stopped each other from running out to take their places. By letting him take the mound alone, they gave the crowd a chance to stand and cheer for Rivera. None of it was scripted, which made the ovation all the more moving.

I wonder what all those nameless stadium workers must have thought when they saw the cheers. I wonder how many of them would have traded places with Rivera—to be cheered by thousands in the stadium and millions watching on television. And I wonder how many would not have traded, knowing that a sincere thank-you from a quality person like Rivera may well be the more meaningful sentiment.