Joy … in spite of the pain

I can still feel it with every recollection. Joy. Pure … unbridled … joy. Oh sure, I was definitely in pain. But I had scored a goal! It was my first ever, and so joy overcame that pain.

I had played soccer since I was six and even though I was now twelve, I hadn’t yet scored a goal. Most of those years I had played two seasons a year; meaning that I had probably played about ten seasons, or 80-100 matches, or perhaps 150 to 200 shots at goal, and never scored a goal. When you consider that at least a couple of those seasons had been of the “bunchball” variety (a huge pack of kids following the ball around in a tight knot) and several of the others were of the free-position variety (you might play “defense” in one quarter and “forward” in the next), you gotta wonder how at least one of my shots didn’t somehow trickle in. Even if I was a pretty bad player (something which I wouldn’t argue against), why had at least one of my shots not deflected off of one of my inept opponents and found the back of the net in that time? Come to think of it, it’s almost more likely that I WOULD HAVE scored at least once before my twelfth birthday. And yet … it hadn’t happened.

So when it finally did, I remember it vividly. Most of the time I played as a defender with the “Bombers,” so I was ecstatic when my coach threw me up front to play striker. Sure, he waited until after we had bullied a 10-0 lead late in the game, but I didn’t care. I was now playing closer to the goal of a team that obviously had trouble keeping the ball out of the net and I had a chance.

Time was winding down and my anxiety was already up when I saw that the ball had found its way to Tyler, the one kid on the team with a left foot, and he was doing what he always did: dribbling past defenders up the left wing. As soon as the pass went to him I knew what he would do with it and I had already begun my run into the box. Ty had a habit of lofting the ball to the same area at the back post. He must have made over 100 crosses into the box that season and I knew that I needed to be there. Sure, 25% of his 100 crosses had gone out of bounds and 25% of the time he scored a goal himself, the ball neatly dropping over the outstretched hand of the goalkeeper and nestling in the side netting. But it was the other 50% of the crosses for which I was hoping: they tended to land in one small 10 foot by 10 foot space in front of the goal, closer to the far post than the near.

Sure enough the cross came in. It was a little shorter than I expected and so I had to slightly redirect my run. The goalkeeper came out, a defender tracked my run and all three of us were on a collision course with the neatly-crossed pass.

“That is my ball … MY ball … MY BALL!” My goal-starved mind repeated the words as I charged it down. My heart thumped hard in my chest and time seemed to slow down as I realized that I had a chance to get there. Step after step thudded into the frozen Dakota prairie mud. 15 yards to go and I can see the eyes of the goalkeeper watching the flight of the ball. 10 yards and the ball’s flight was dipping – it’ll skip off the frost before the goalkeeper or I get to it. 5 yards and I know this is going to be a big collision – still I don’t slow down, I simply MUST get to the ball! And then the ball is there, time speeds up, I slide for the ball and feel the diving goalkeeper’s punch land on my leg. The defender who tracked me slams into me from behind and carries both me and the goalkeeper forward and into the goal. Dust, mud and gray frost kicks into the air and I look through it at the roof of the net. I feel pain in my right leg … it’s twisted behind me, with the defender on top of it. I feel pain in my left leg … it’s stretched straight out with the goalkeeper on top of it. I’m leaning back with the muscles of my spine a mass of knots from the collision and I feel like I hurt all over. But then … out of the corner of my eye I see the ball just spinning to a stop ACROSS THE GOAL LINE! The pain stops and the euphoria starts.

I SCORED! I SCORED A GOAL!

Suddenly a match like so many others before it becomes indelibly engraved in my brain. A game which seemed as insignificant as any other suddenly is infinitely important and every element of the experience will be remembered. Because it was a watershed event for me, and is now carved into my mind, I know that it was early December. I know that the smell of pine wafted up from the one or two trees that clung to life on the prairie behind the goal on which I scored. I know that mud clung to my cleats and hung in thick stains on the sweatpants I wore under my shorts to keep warm in the 30 degree weather. I know that I had tears come almost immediately because of the joy I had at scoring. To give you an idea of just how vivid the memory is … even to this day, try this on for size: every other time I have accomplished something I had worked hard for a long time to accomplish, the mixed feeling of relief and bliss has only been compared to that strange, silly, painful and euphoric moment as a twelve year old lying mashed in a South Dakota soccer goal.

More on this memory from my life in a little while, but I want to change tacks for a moment.

A while back I wrote a post called The Touch of A Master in which I couldn’t help but marvel at the beauty and intricacy of the details which God, as Creator and Artist, has placed around us. There are small things of undreamt splendor nearly hidden amongst the gray crags of what we would term “desolation” or “emptiness” or simply “dirt.” And I stand by what I wrote in that post about looking for it and marveling at it.

Not long after I wrote that post, some wonderful friends of mine mentioned a continuing theme about which I always seem to talk in our Bible studies; and it’s also something which I’ve referenced many times on this website: the depravity of our physical and moral condition. This depravity is easy to see in the ways we mess up our world. God gives us mothers, fathers, spouses and children and we break those relationships in dishonesty, divorce and back-biting. God gives us church families and we gossip and slander each other. God gives us time and we take excessive entertainment and treat it as a sacrament. So, yeah, I stand by that assessment of our depravity too; and not only the assessment of it but also the realization of how deep and disgusting it truly is.

The challenge always seems to come in rectifying those two things: the beauty of what is around us and the disgusting depravity of our condition. Or, maybe not rectifying so much – as they’re obviously not mutually exclusive – but instead finding a way to live with both truths. After all, an argument that states “God is the source of all good and beautiful things and we, as humans, just mess it up” isn’t at all difficult to grasp. It just can get remarkably pessimistic and even sour since we always want to ask the question, “How can a good God allow such horrible stuff to go on?”

However, we’re not called to be either pessimistic or sour, are we? Paul says that even though we only know a part of what is real and true about life, there are still “these three [things that] remain: faith, hope and love” (1 Cor 13:13). In other words, the little that we know for sure in this life is not meant to bring a cynical and bitter outlook; it’s meant to bring faith, hope and love – all three of which are beautiful on their own.

So how do we rise to this challenge? Or how do we admit our own continual perversions and pollutions of God’s grandeur while still cultivating faith, hope and love? Shouldn’t this admission actually just bring frustration and self-disgust?

To answer these questions my notion is neither novel, nor incredibly brilliant. In fact, my idea is so simple it might be scoffed at and you might think me kind of stupid for even putting it forward. But I’m okay with that because I think that it’s one of those things which seem so elementary it’s never talked about. Because it’s never talked about, it’s never fully acknowledged. And because it’s never fully acknowledged, it’s never fully thought through. That’s how it’s been for me, at least. I’m well into my mid-thirties now and I’ve never expended many brain cells thinking about it. Probably because, if it HAS been talked about in my presence I’ve allowed it in one ear and out the other because of a bad definition of the operative word.

Here it is: optimism changes the world. No, I’m not talking about some irresponsible, meaningless, platitudinous, surface-level, Pollyanna-ish, “I-think-the-world-is-wonderful” piece of philosophical tripe … I’m talking about an optimism that is realistic … I’m talking about an optimism which is commanded by God.

Now, nowhere in scripture are we told to look at the effects of sin and be happy about it. Quite the contrary in fact; we’re shown over and over again that God looks with wrath upon those who sow injustice and we’re to be sad when we see the suffering of people in pain and we’re to do our best to care for them (c.f. Prov 22:8; Is 61; Jer 22:13; Hab 2:12; Rom 12:15). But also, nowhere in scripture are we told to walk around with our heads bowed expecting to be struck by lightning in every rain shower, or that we will inhale a parasite with every smell of a flower, or that we will catch a cold in the first gentle and gloriously cool breeze of autumn.

I’ve seen people with a heart for God grow despondent and deathly due to their sliding to the extremes in these ways. No doubt you have seen them too: an 80 year-old woman with nary a wrinkle on her face – not due to miraculous skin care, but due to an unsmiling spirit so intent was she on a mournful outlook regarding the sinfulness around her all her years. Or maybe you’ve seen the forever-smug young man who looks with contempt upon the simple folk who are content to teach Sunday School and take care of their neighbor’s lawn but who can’t see the intense life-or-death struggle of the young person’s latest pet project against social injustice? Or maybe you’ve seen the miserly old man who decided that only “worthy” charities and cases deserved his attention, with the level of “worthiness” continually rising over the decades until his grace gives way to distrust and his hospitality is replaced by resistance? Or maybe you’ve seen the young girl so intent to “not judge” she can’t see the pain of the victims of the murderers, rapists, drug dealers and thieves whom she continually defends and for whom she extends excuses which they themselves have never even contemplated? Or maybe you’ve seen the middle-aged man or woman who simply doesn’t care – everything in life is monotonous and uninteresting to them, with each day bleeding inexorably away (“Until retirement, at least,” they say in justification)?

Sadly, we can all fit into a “type” like these; if not one which I mentioned, one of a hundred others which fit the bill for an unfulfilled and broken life. And the reason why we all fit into a “type” is that we all seem predisposed to wallow in some sort of pessimism about something. We latch onto a truth and then pervert it with our pessimism; the mournful woman just taking the beatitude beyond its healthy application, the smug young man seeing every inequality of result as evidence for injustice, the miserly man seeing a huckster in the face of every needy child, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

And even if we don’t project the pessimism into the actions and intentions of others, we at the very least entrench a woeful attitude regarding our own situations. We may ask ourselves something like, “I work at least as hard as THAT guy! How does he afford a $500,000 house and a new BMW, while I’m living in a doublewide and driving the same used car I scraped cash together to buy ten years ago?” Or, “Why am I dealing with so many more health issues than her? I can’t afford the doctors, much less the time off of work, like she can!” So we get lost too in the pessimism of truths amidst the unfairness and inequity of circumstance.

Before this post rambles out of control down some box canyon of specific unfairness, we have to note that in all of the examples I have brought up there is, as I said, truth there. We’ve all been burned by life’s unfairness! Or, we’ve at least seen unfairness strike those whom we know and love. So why wouldn’t pessimism take over? And how could I possibly say that optimism changes the world? Optimism does absolutely nothing to change inequity. It does nothing to heal the poor children dying from leukemia at St. Jude’s. It does nothing to provide homes and families to the poor children growing up in orphanages around the world. It does nothing to provide freedom to the poor people enslaved by sex traffickers or tyrannical governments.

As a matter of fact, with those thoughts in mind shouldn’t we all be pretty outraged and sickened by someone sporting a bumper sticker that says something like, “Keep calm and be optimistic” or “In the middle of every difficulty lies an opportunity,” or “Just when the caterpillar thought its world was ending, it became a butterfly.” To be honest, yes, I do get pretty sickened by that kind of rubbish … just like I get nauseated by those silly “Coexist” or “Diversity” bumper stickers where the letters are a mangled set of symbols for a bunch of ideas with which the humanist who put the sticker on his car would never “coexist” without trying to shut up by shouting down. It’s all a bunch of nonsense to the realist who sees what life is really like. The optimist can only stay that way by refusing to see what surrounds him/her, just like the humanist can only stay that way by refusing to see what happens when people actually believe what they believe instead of spouting post-modern gibberish that addresses nothing beyond the physical.

So, how is my “optimism changes the world” statement worth anything? How is it even worth your time and my time? And, for Pete’s sake, how does it “change the world?!”

Here it is: we have a bad definition of the word “optimism.” We think that an optimist is someone who views the proverbial glass as “half-full” even when confronted with proof that the glass is nearly empty. We think of the optimist as someone who only sees the good in situations that are objectively bad. But what optimism really means is, “hopefulness and confidence about the future or the successful outcome of something” (no, really … that’s the Webster’s definition).

Now, I admit it: I’ve painted with a pretty broad brush in this post. There might be a few people out there who have an “Optimism can take you anywhere” bumper sticker on their car who might realize the true definition of the word. But the glass-half-full-glass-half-empty idea of optimism versus pessimism has muddled our thinking to the extent that we don’t think of the actual definition. And if “hopefulness and confidence about the future” is that definition of optimism, then we’re failing as Christians if we aren’t optimists … and that’s according to Paul’s three remaining things: faith, hope and love. Obviously, hope is right there in the definition of optimism, faith is being confident of what we hope for (Heb 11:1), and love itself is the substance which God Himself defines (the same God in whom we place our hope and faith; 1 Jn 4:16)!

Optimism isn’t about some unrealistic look at the sin with which man has perverted God’s creation, it’s about the hope and confidence that God is working despite it. In fact, that Paul guy who wrote about those three remaining things is a pretty good example of how to apply a biblical optimism. He spent years unjustly in prison, was flogged, stoned and beaten multiple times, shipwrecked, was bitten by a poisonous snake, was constantly in danger and exposed to death. Yet he’s the same guy who also wrote, “I can do all this through Him who gives me strength” (Php 4:13).

Incidentally, that verse is one of the most misquoted verses in scripture, and it mostly comes from those who also misunderstand optimism. How many times have you heard an athlete use it to justify why he thinks he can win his competition? How many times have you heard a speaker try to cajole her audience into action by using those words as a crop to smack against the audience members’ collective backside? And yet, in the context of the rest of Philippians 4 – and of Paul’s whole life, for that matter – it is a statement of faith, hope and love from a man who was nearing the end of his life while under Roman house arrest. It’s a statement more about the endurance of God’s love than the endurance of a dying man. It’s a statement about how Paul saw his circumstance through the lens of his ‘hopefulness and confidence about the future.’ There was realism in the subtext. He wasn’t denying his dying body; nor was he denying his lack of freedom. He wasn’t denying the physical needs that he had – in fact, he was thanking the Philippians for giving him the things he needed. But he wasn’t dwelling on his circumstances either. He wasn’t decrying the injustice of his situation and he wasn’t denouncing the rampant sin in the world which had conspired to bring him to that situation. It simply was what it was and he looked beyond it with hope and confidence to the promises of God.

So … back to my first goal. I lay in a pain which I didn’t feel through my exhilaration as the three of us disentangled ourselves from each other and when I was finally free I jumped up and yelled, “YES!” in triumph. But the defender also jumped up and quickly kicked the ball out of the goal. The referee hadn’t blown his whistle. Since the ball hadn’t “bulged the ol’ onion bag” he didn’t see that it had crossed the line and he therefore hadn’t counted the goal! I protested and I sprinted out to try to get “my” ball back and stuff it in the back of the net, but I couldn’t do it. Seconds later the referee blew his whistle to end the opposition’s misery and to start mine. I collapsed in frustration. It would take me another two and a half years before I would score a goal that counted.

Now there are several things to take away from this story (some of which are even relevant to my point – *wink*). First, the goal was scored regardless of whether it counted or not. Second, the pain that I had to go through to score that goal via collision was immediately forgotten amidst the joy of seeing the ball past the line. Third, years later I only know that I was in pain from the collision, like I know that there was a piney smell and some mud-stained sweatpants stuck to my shivering legs and the ground was frozen under my running feet. I know it because it was a part of the frame for the story of my first goal. The other things are the backdrop of the real story and only relevant now because they frame the goal. However, I can still feel the excitement of the goal itself. Fourth, when the goal was not counted, I was broken and I had a hard time accepting the fact that I actually HAD scored. It would be years before I looked back with the perspective to say, “The goal was scored regardless of whether it counted or not.” Fifth, my goal didn’t come in the way that I had dreamed. No, if that had been the case it would’ve been me stealing the ball from the opposition somewhere around midfield and then launching a bullet shot into the top corner. Instead I bundled the ball across the goal line in a scramble with two other bodies. Sixth, and finally, I believed deep down in my heart (really REALLY deep down by the time it actually happened) that a goal would come. As the whistle blew, beginning each subsequent match from the age of six to twelve, it felt to me like it just might be the one where I scored and my hope never wavered as dozens of games passed without it coming.

Now I’m sure that you can see where I’m going with this, but it has to be said regardless (maybe just for me to realize it myself). Optimism is simply hopeful expectation of a good thing to come. In my youthful exuberance, I somehow knew that one day I’d score a goal. Of course, the circumstances weren’t what I expected, and it even lost some of its glory due to the mistake of the referee (or was it mercy from him for the other team as he didn’t want the score to swell even larger?), but in the end the goal did come. My hope and faith was rewarded and I still feel the delight today. More than that, I don’t remember the pain; neither the pain of going so many games without a goal, nor the pain of the collision that finally brought the goal I craved. There aren’t – as far as I can tell – any lasting effects of those pains (mentally or physically). I just remember and can feel the joy of it finally happening.

I have a feeling that our life on earth is like that too. What I mean is that the pain of the moment should be overcome by the joy of an eternity already gained. We don’t deny that the pain is there. We don’t deny that it hurts to trudge through years and years of sin-soaked strife to gain the prize we’ve been promised. We don’t even deny that sometimes the interim prizes of life aren’t exactly what we envisioned. Those things are what they are: bad, ugly, frustrating, and even disgusting. To deny them is also to deny that sin has infiltrated God’s creation. But for those of us who have Christ, those bad things are not the end and they will one day be swallowed up in the victory we receive.

Paul talks about death being “swallowed up in victory” in 1 Cor 15. He quotes Hosea and taunts death by saying, “’Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’” and then goes on to say, “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (vv. 55-58).

Now think about those words in the context from earlier in the chapter where Paul says, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (v. 26). If death is the final enemy and all of the sting of it has been removed by the victory of Jesus Christ on the cross, then why do we either fear or become despondent by the pain we experience temporarily here on earth? Why do we focus on the pain and death and injustice and sorrow when even their very source has been destroyed and it’s only a matter time before even death itself is destroyed. The sting is GONE. Pain is temporary. Death is only the precursor to permanent resurrection!

So the simple, elementary point – one rarely acknowledged, rarely talked about, or rarely thought through – is that optimism changes the world. Not in the way that philosophers or motivational speakers want you to believe. It’s not some drivel about how, if you only thought positively, you could singlehandedly rein in injustice and break the rods of the evil enslavers of mankind. Instead, when we look through the lenses of faith, hope and love with the eyes of one who is expectant of a successful and glorious outcome, it changes the way we see the world. We no longer only see the sin and pain and destruction wrought by man’s depravity, we begin to see how here and there, almost hidden and certainly glossed over in our hubris, is script from the hand of God Almighty. He’s still at work in the debris of human existence, still making flowers bloom amidst the cold granite of desolation, and always … ALWAYS … working to bring about the goal for which we strive.

If I could go back to twelve year old Doug right before that match and speak to him for a moment to tell him that the goal was about to come. I wonder what response I’d get. He might shrug it off as idle talk. Or he might say, “That’s cool,” while thinking “Yeah, right.” Or maybe, just maybe, he’d walk onto the pitch that day with confidence and expectation. I’d like to believe the last option. And I’d also like to believe that I can take my own advice in this column today, stepping onto my daily soccer pitch with confident expectancy born of faith, hope and love. I know that that kind of optimism would change the world for me.

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