Take a Licking and Keep on Ticking: Thoughts on optimism in troubled times.

Take a Licking and Keep on Ticking

One of my favorite pastimes is playing tennis.

While I was away last week, I played every day.

Tennis is one of those sports that requires hand/eye coordination, flexibility, speed and endurance.

I have a bit of each of those.

Just enough to make it fun.

It also requires resilience.

Resilience is the ability to persevere when things are not going your way until they start going your way.

This is what resilience looks like on the tennis court.

During this year’s women’s US Open Championship, Serena Williams, perhaps the greatest woman tennis player of all time, played Victoria Azarenka, a woman who has had struggles on and off the court for several years.

Williams was seeking to tie the record for the number of major tournaments ever won by a woman.

Winning this year’s US Open would do it.

Williams won the first set 6-1.

Not a good sign for Azarenka.

But Azarenka did not quit.

She continued to play.

Azarenka continued to “construct” her points.

She stuck to her game.

She was patient.

She was resilient.

And won the second set 6-3.

But Williams upped her game for the third set.

She pounded her serves and groundstrokes.

And Azarenka responded.

She upper her game, too.

On the cross over breaks, Azarenka closed her eyes and seemed to be imagining the next game, the next point, the next shot.

And Azarenka won.

6-3 in the third set to win the match.

That’s resilience.

Remaining calm in the onslaught of adversity.

Now it does not always work out the way you want it to.

Naomi Osaka did the same thing to Azarenka in the finals when she lost the first set 6-1 and then came back to will the next two, 6-3; 6-3.

Resilience.

That is what we need these days, right?

We need to stick to our values.

Construct our lives.

Imagine better times.

It will not always go the way we want, but we can manage the disappointments until things go our way.

Look at what we are getting pummeled with these days.

Pandemic.

Politics.

Protests.

And all the sub parts that come with them.

Seems like the perfect trifecta of trouble.

How can we be resilient in these troubled times?

That’s what I am going to be talking about for the next three weeks.

The first way is to take a lesson from someone who knows.

The Prophet Jeremiah.

Jeremiah 30: 18-22

18 Thus says the Lord:
I am going to restore the fortunes of the tents of Jacob,
   and have compassion on his dwellings;
the city shall be rebuilt upon its mound,
   and the citadel set on its rightful site.
19 Out of them shall come thanksgiving,
   and the sound of merrymakers.
I will make them many, and they shall not be few;
   I will make them honored, and they shall not be disdained.
20 Their children shall be as of old,
   their congregation shall be established before me;
   and I will punish all who oppress them.
21 Their prince shall be one of their own,
   their ruler shall come from their midst;
I will bring him near, and he shall approach me,
   for who would otherwise dare to approach me? says the Lord.
22 And you shall be my people,
   and I will be your God.

I read a book called a while back called “Learned Optimism” By Dr. Martin Seligman.

Seligman is the scientific guru on how optimism can change your life for the better.

But he starts out his book describing a phenomenon he discovered he calls “learned helplessness”.

“Learned helplessness” results when we are faced with what we believe are inescapable negative events.

We have no hope.

We resign ourselves to our plight.

We have accepted that we are helpless.

And we stop trying to escape.

Seligman discovered something about learned helplessness.

It can be prevented and even un-learned.

How?

By changing the way we look at our circumstances.

Those who are most likely to learn helplessness have a pessimistic world view.

They believed their unwanted circumstances are permanent (“it will never change”), personal (“it’s somehow our fault”), and pervasive (“it underlies everything in our lives”).

Seligman would tell them to change that outlook.

Be optimistic.

Our circumstances are not permanent.

Times and circumstances change.

Our circumstances are not personal.

We can’t control when bad things happen, so when they do, it’s not our fault.

Our circumstances are not pervasive.

There are other parts of our lives that are good and joyful.

When we look at the world this way, Seligman says we should not feel helpless.

We can take a licking and keep on ticking!

We can play out the match point by point.

We become resilient.

The Jews Jeremiah preached to needed some resilience.

Times were bad.

Here is some history.

The height of Israel’s power and prestige in the world occurred during Solomon’s reign.

At Solomon’s death, internal disputes and questions of succession led the kingdom to split.

The northern part of the kingdom became Israel.

The southern part of the kingdom became Judah.

Jerusalem was in Judah.

The holy city where the temple was located.

Assyria conquered Israel, the Northern Kingdom, and assimilated it.

When the Babylonians replaced the Assyrians as the world power, Judah became a Babylonian vassal state.

After a brief rebellion by the Judeans, the Babylonians leveled Jerusalem, including Solomon’s Temple, and deported all the children, women and educated men to Babylon.

Judah was a wasteland.

David’s kingdom was no more.

Jeremiah was called preach to these people in exile.

People whose homeland had ceased to exist.

While Jeremiah was called to tell these people many things, in my view, his most important message was hope.

Hope that God would restore Judah and return the people to their homeland.

With that hope, the Jewish exiles could be resilient.

And they needed that.

The exiles lived under constant threat of cultural destruction and extinction.

There was nothing for them to go back to.

Their country, their city, their Temple was gone.

The Jews in Babylonian exile had certainly learned helplessness.

The Babylonians made sure of that.

That they need a little therapy!

And so, here comes Jeremiah the therapist, who gives the Jews in exile a bit of optimism.

God will restore …

God will have compassion …

God will rebuild …

There shall be thanksgiving …

And the sound of merrymaking …

God will make them many…

God will make them honored…

Their children shall learn the old ways …

Their congregation shall be established before God …

Their prince shall be one of their own …

God will bring him near, and he shall approach God …

And then Jeremiah tells them God’s promise.

“And they shall be my people, and I will be their God!”

These are words of hope.

This exile is not permanent.

It is not your fault.

You can still be Jews – the people of God – even in exile.

The Judeans grabbed these words, held on to them and survived.

They learned to control what they could control and wait for things to change.

Even if they couldn’t understand how or when.

Even if it was not to be in their lifetime.

Jeremiah gave them resilience.

He told them God was with them.

Over the next 550 years, they continued to worship the God of their ancestors and carry on the rituals, traditions and requirements of their faith.

Ultimately, they were allowed to return to Jerusalem and the land of Judah.

But they still waited for the prince from their own people who would go before God on their behalf.

Then a young Jewish woman was approached by a messenger from God and asked to bear a king from and for the people of Judah.

One who could approach God.

One who would restore, rebuild, multiply and have compassion.

One who would reconcile the people with their God.

The one who would bring the Kingdom of God.

And while that happened, we often feel like we are living in exile from God’s kingdom.

We look at the world around us and see precious little that allows optimism.

Life can be hard.

Catastrophes happen.

There always seem to be barbarians at the gate.

Pandemic.

Politics.

Protests.

The current sources of our communal heart burn.

And we struggle.

We think it will be permanent.

We think it is somehow our fault.

We think it is all consuming.

But if we think that way we are learning helplessness.

It is then that we need to remember Jeremiah and Jesus.

God still says:

I am going to restore …

I am going to have compassion …

There shall be thanksgiving …

And the sound of merrymakers …

I will make you many…

I will make you honored…

Your children shall grow of old …

Your congregation shall be established before me …

Your prince is one of your own …

I brought him near, and he is with me …

And you shall be my people, and I will be your God!

You will be with me in my Kingdom.

Your troubles are not permanent.

They are not your fault.

There is more to life than this adversity.

Act like it!

Live like it.

You are not helpless.

These are words of hope.

Words of optimism.

Words of resilience.

For the world.

For the church.

For us.

We must do what the exiles did.

We must be resilient.

We must live in our faith, continue the rituals and traditions and lessons that define who we are.

We must live the Jesus way, in a world that doesn’t.

And if we do, we can be resilient.

Even though our lives are not always quite what we anticipated.

Not what we had hoped for.

Bad things have occurred to us or our families.

We worry for our kids.

We worry for our kids’ kids.

We live with anxiety and fear of the future.

Pandemic.

Politics.

Protest.

We believe it will never end.

That it is somehow our fault.

And it consumes our lives.

We learn helplessness.

We resign to it.

We want to take our racket and walk off the court.

But then we remember Jeremiah.

We remember Jesus.

We remember the promises.

Restoration.

Compassion.

Reconstruction.

Thanksgiving.

Merrymaking.

Regeneration.

Redemption.

The presence of God.

Life in God’s kingdom.

This pandemic will end.

The election will be over in a few weeks.

There are other things in life that can give us joy and pleasure.

We can look to the future with the hope that comes from following Jesus.

I just picked up a book called “Beautiful and Terrible Things; A Christian Struggle with Suffering, Grief, and Hope”, by Christian Brady.

The book was written as a lament for the death of his young son.

He says this:

[W]e must remember the past and hope for the future even as we walk in the confidence of the love of God. It is never an easy journey, and it requires honesty. We must look truthfully at our lives and the world we live in. … [Hope] provides us with the resilience and strength needed to be honest about life. When we hope, we can address wickedness and hurt in the confidence that God will ultimately bring justice and peace to all creation. Through hope, we can come through joblessness and broken relationships and walk forward with purpose and meaning.

Let me rephrase that:

Hope provides us with the resilience and strength needed to be honest about life.

Through hope, we can come through pandemics, politics and protest and walk forward with purpose and meaning living as disciples of Jesus.

And we will be God’s people and God will be our God.

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