My Dad was a salesman, a good one; and, on days when he was to pitch a big sale, he’d get up early, polish his shoes to a spit-shine, and review the proposal he’d soon make. As he left the house, he’d sing at the top of his lungs these familiar words from Oklahoma, “Oh, what a beautiful morning, Oh what a beautiful day. I’ve got a beautiful feeling, everything’s going my way.” Knowledgeable, confident, sporting glossy shoes, with a spring in his step, and a bright smile on his face, he’d go to make his pitch. More often than not, he’d make the sale, too.
My father was an optimist who believed in the powers of a sunny disposition, a “can-do” attitude, and positive thinking.
I didn’t pick-up my dad’s optimism, and it’s my loss. I’m more likely to see problems than possibilities—difficulties more than solutions. I expect “no” to be the answer, rather than “yes.” To gloss on the clichés: my glass is half-empty; I see the cloud in every silver lining, and when life gives me lemons, I tend to let them go bad before I do anything at all with them.
My dad’s optimism was better than my pessimism, but hope is best of all. Optimism and pessimism are human qualities; they are the result of what we think, feel, do and fail to do. Hope is the divine promise of a future wholeness and joyfulness which transforms the present. It’s a gift of God which we receive and with which we cooperate, but we can’t—and don’t have to—generate it.
Most years, as the First Sunday of Advent—the Sunday of Hope—nears, I glance again at Jurgen Moltmann’s Theology of Hope, in which there is this bold claim: “The believer is not set at the high noon of life, but at the dawn of a new day, at the point where night and day, things passing and things to come, grapple with each other” [New York: Harper and Row, 1967, p. 31].
We don’t live in the optimist’s unclouded midday sun, nor do we live in the pessimist’s murky midnight. We live on the cusp of dawn, where light and dark, beginnings and endings, life and death wrestle with each other.
The Christian story is about contested and difficult hope. It’s the announcement that the Messiah is coming, followed by the long Advent wait for the Messiah’s appearance. It’s also the declaration that the Messiah has come, followed by the difficult questions about why, if that is true, there remain so much injustice, pain, and despair.
Christian hope is the good news that the tomb is a womb—that there is birth after death. Just as there would be no celebration of Christmas if there were no Easter, Christian hope depends on the resurrection, and there is no resurrection apart from the cross. Authentic hope is always paradoxical: embodied by the risen, but eternally-scarred, Jesus.
During the Advent season, we renew our trust in the audacious promise which is at the heart of all hope, the promise the angel made to young Mary, stunned by the announcement that she was to be the mother of God’s child: “Nothing will be impossible with God.”
When violence and oppression seem to rule the day, God is, in fact, doing the unexpected–giving us Jesus–with the unnoticed, like Mary. Freedom is being born and reconciliation is coming to life.
God does what we cannot do. When today is barren and tomorrow is bleak, God draws near with surprising grace to bring new life and fresh beauty. God fills the eerie silence of hopelessness with the music of angels, and tells the terrified that there is no reason for fear.
It’s ironic and good that I’m reflecting on hope just now. After an almost two-year respite, cancer has made a resurgence in body. Thanksgiving week, I spent two days at an infusion center, receiving chemotherapy. I’ll be there every week through Advent and beyond.
As I rolled-up my shirtsleeve for the nurse to insert the I.V. needle in my arm, I leaned into the promise of hope expressed in the words Juliana of Norwich heard Jesus say to her in an experience of severe illness: “I may make all things well, and I can make all things well, and I shall make all things well, and I will make all things well; and you will see yourself that every kind of thing will be well.”
The chemo might not work, and I may not be cured; but God is at work, and I will be healed. Living or dying, all shall be well, because nothing is impossible with God.
I wrote this post for EthicsDaily, where it ran on November 27, 2018
Hey Guy…just got caught up on your posts. One on risk really resonated as for five years I headed Risk Management for AT&T. One on sales also captured my attention. After I left AT&T, I began a career as a CLU with selling life insurance, so I am sometimes attuned to sales.
Today is special. Daddy died on 12/1/1984 and I am sorry he did not get to know you. But, fortunately, you know a little about him.
Finally, hope to see you soon. Elaine will choose churches tomorrow, and I hope she chooses Calvary.
Guy, I have learned that pessimism is sometimes confused with realism. For 40 years, I worked in a profession which focused for the most part on people problems. Like your calling, when my phone rang or people came to see me there was typically anxiety. Rarely, did someone come to me expressing how great things are. Often times, there would not be a winning solution but the development of a game plan regarding the best way to endure the situation. I recall asking a very positive person how he remained so positive when he was confronted with difficult decisions that ultimately would result in an adverse impact on people and his response was that he avoided those incidents at all costs. You and others have served admirably in a noble “calling” that most people avoid. We are grateful for those like you who are truly the “optimists.”
Praying for Frank’s defeat and your continued positive influence.
Mitch, thank you for this thoughtful and supportive comment. Learning to trust that hope is “realistic” is an ongoing challenge for me, but I’m grateful to have the chance to learn. Grateful for your prayers. Best, Guy
Thank you for this post, Guy—well, for all of them actually. You have a true gift for expressing in creative, insightful ways what many of us think, see, feel, and offering us the “Eureka” moment of reading your words and saying in our hearts, “Yes, that’s what I would have said if I could.” Your gift for finding the analogies, similes, and metaphors that arise out of our common experience and using those to illuminate your commentary on the broad range of issues that touch us all is a gift to us all. Your willingness to open yourself—your doubts, your struggles, what you perceive as your shortcomings, your “face-off with Frank”—is virtually unparalleled and encourages us to look inward as well. And you do it all in a narrative so beautifully written that it approaches the poetic. Thank you, again, for this gift that keeps on giving!
Thank you, Earl, for your gracious affirmation of my writing. Your encouragement means a great deal to me. All the best to you and Cathy as Christmas nears.
I so relate to your ways of approaching the world, and am so inspired by your willingness to embrace hope rather than fear. You are, and always will be, a gift to me. My prayers are with you and Cathy as you walk this next stage of the journey.