July 19, 2020
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
The fourth in a series of four.
We’ve been celebrating the Fourth of July for a long time now. Kind of like we’re still having fireworks wake us up as we drift off to sleep. Some people don’t know when to stop, and you might say that of me.
I’ve called this sermon series “Four for the Fourth.” Let’s do a quick review of where we’ve been. We started with freedom. Then we looked at the importance of taking action and getting things done. Last week we saw how “We the People” – common, ordinary people like you and me – are the only royalty in this country. Each of us has the opportunity to show what we’ve got. And today we’re going to conclude by talking about optimism.
You might say this is a fine time to talk about optimism. And you could mean that in two ways. This is a fine time to talk about optimism! The year is barely half over and we’ve already had our president impeached, a deadly virus bring our whole world to a standstill, economic devastation, racial unrest, statues being torn down, police being defunded, a presidential campaign that is ugly and getting uglier, people who once were friends getting ugly with each other because they find themselves on opposite sides of our great national divide. A fine time to talk about optimism!
Or you could mean, this is a fine time to talk about optimism. Because with so much pessimism in the air, what better time could there be for us to talk about optimism. We need it now. When have we needed it more? And not just any optimism. Radical optimism.
I got that phrase from William Ralph Inge. He said, “No Christian can be a pessimist. For Christianity is a system of radical optimism.”
Today’s scripture is a scripture of radical optimism. “If God is for us, who can be against us?” If you truly believe that God is for you, how can you be a pessimist? If you truly believe that you are not just a conqueror but “more than [a] conqueror” and that “nothing in all creation can separate [you] from the love of God in Christ Jesus [your] Lord” – if you really believe that deep down in your heart, how is it possible not to be radically optimistic?
The early Christians were so optimistic; they didn’t care if they lived or died. Paul said, “For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). Either way he wins! Either way God wins! The early Christians were so confident that they were on the winning side that they gladly laid it all on the line.
And in a similar way, so did the early American patriots. We see pictures of the Declaration of Independence with all those signatures on the bottom. Only one is big enough to read. “John Hancock”. He wanted it big enough that the King of England could read it. But I’m sure the King of England had reading glasses and could read every name. They all were subject to the death penalty for this act of rebellion. Everyone who signed the Declaration of Independence was literally betting his life that we would win the war. And we were not winning when they signed and pledged “their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.”
One of you sent me this:
Have you ever wondered what happened to those men who signed the Declaration of Independence? Five were captured by the British as traitors and tortured before they died. Twelve had their homes ransacked and burned. Two lost their sons in the Revolutionary Army. Another had two sons captured. Nine of the 56 fought and died from wounds or the hardships of the Revolutionary War.
They didn’t have to sign it. They could have played it safe. They could have carefully weighed the odds of success and decided it wasn’t worth it. They could have been content to live out their lives as British subjects. But their radical optimism got in the way! Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence, also wrote this: “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.”
America at her best, has always been dreaming about the future rather than reminiscing about the past.
I’m going to mention two of our presidents who were noted for their radical optimism, one Republican and one Democrat. First, Ronald Reagan. He will always be remembered for the optimism he brought to our country at another point in our history when pessimism was the dominant mood.
He said, “I have always believed that this land was placed here between the two great oceans by some divine plan.” He took a verse from the Sermon on the Mount and referred to our country as “a shining city set on a hill” (Matthew 5:14). He insisted time and again that our best days are still ahead of us. The last time we heard from him, as he wrote a letter to the nation informing us that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, he said: “When the Lord calls me home, whenever that may be, I will leave with the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future.”
Many of us are old enough to remember the eternal optimism of Ronald Reagan. Not as many are old enough to remember the eternal optimism of Franklin Roosevelt. He was elected president in 1932. At that time, we had 25% unemployment. The stock market had lost 80% of its value. Farmers who could grow crops could seldom get enough from those crops to break even. And the Dust Bowl kept many farmers from growing any crops at all. So what was Franklin Roosevelt’s 1932 campaign song? “Happy Days are Here Again.” And once he was elected, what did he say in his first inaugural address? “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
You have to know something about Franklin Roosevelt to understand how he could bring such optimism to such dire circumstances. When he was 39 he contracted polio. He figured he could beat it. He couldn’t. He exercised fanatically. He tried to walk with leg braces. He finally had to accept that he was permanently paralyzed from the waist down. He wasn’t going to get any better. But he wasn’t going to let it keep him down. So when he stood up, with great effort, supported by those heavy leg braces, to give a nominating speech at the 1924 Democratic Convention, it gave the public a false impression. He was now the man who had beaten polio. And he did nothing to correct their mistaken impression. In 1932, this man who had “beaten polio” became the man who could get our country back on its feet.
Of course, it turned out that a crippled economy wasn’t our only problem. Or even the worst of our problems. Soon Japan and Germany threatened our very survival as a nation. And it was not at all obvious to a neutral observer early in the war that we could win. Yet in my unscientific poll, as I talk to people who lived through World War II, I have yet to find one who believed at the time that we wouldn’t win. A big part of the reason, I have to believe, is that we had a president who believed we couldn’t lose and that his optimism was contagious.
There is such a thing in psychology as the self-fulfilling prophecy. If you think gloomy, negative thoughts, those very thoughts help create the conditions that will make it more likely that you will have a gloomy, negative outcome. And if you think positive, hopeful thoughts, those very thoughts help create the conditions that will make it more likely that you will have a positive, hopeful outcome. Our thoughts hold great power. Jesus said, “As you believe, so it shall be done for you” (Matthew 8:13).
I heard Dave Ramsey the other day talking about the process he uses in bringing new people onto his team. He said he’s always looking for an assumption of abundance as opposed to an assumption of scarcity. Then he explained what he meant.
A person with an assumption of abundance assumes that when things aren’t looking very good, the resources needed to solve the problem and turn things around are there. A person with an assumption of scarcity faces the same situation and figures it’s useless, there’s no hope, so I’d may as well give up.
It’s just a fancy way of saying that people tend to have either a positive or a negative outlook on things. One person says this is terrible and it’s only going to get worse. Another person says this is challenging. This calls for my very best. But there’s got to be some hidden opportunity in this that I am sure to find if I just don’t quit too soon.
I’m guessing you’ve heard this story. But I’m guessing you won’t mind hearing it again. There were two boys. One was an optimist. The other was a pessimist. On Christmas morning, the pessimist got all these wonderful presents. He tore them open in seconds and said, “These aren’t any good. I knew I wouldn’t get what I wanted.” The second boy was given a huge pile of horse manure. But he was so excited! He was digging into the pile with both hands, a huge smile on his face. When he was asked what in the world he was doing, he said, “With all this manure, there has to be a pony in here somewhere!”
This country never would have happened without radical optimism. This country never could have survived all these years without radical optimism. And to those who say our best days are behind us, I would say that might very well be another one of those self-fulfilling prophecies. If we’re going to be pessimistic and believe that, that could be the truth. But if we continue in the American tradition of radical optimism, the truth will be the opposite.
There’s a saying I’m getting tired of hearing. “It is what it is.” It’s actually #1 on a website called “overused phrases dumb people use.” If you use that phrase, no offense. But it seems to me that that’s just about the ultimate expression of pessimism. “It is what it is.” So nothing can be done about it. Don’t even try. It’s no use. Surrender now, Dorothy.
Duane Anders is tired of that phrase, too. He’s the pastor of that little cathedral church in downtown Boise. He said he’s figured that people who say “it is what it is” don’t realize they haven’t finished their sentence. They’ve left out the most important part. Because the full sentence is this: “It is what it is, but it will become what you make it.”
The important question is not, “What is your present reality?” The important question is, “What are you going to make of your present reality?” Are you going to feel sorry for yourself in the present and find your only consolation by reminiscing about the past? Or are you going to dream about the future? Are you going to see what others cannot see? And then are you going to go to work, with God as your helper, to make your dream come true?
There were two men who shared the same hospital room. One of them had a bed by the window. The other one had a bed by the wall. No view at all. Every day the man with the bed by the window would describe in vivid detail what was going on in the outside world. The man with no view appreciated this. He could close his eyes and see what was being described. It was almost as if he was seeing it himself.
The man by the window would say, “What an incredible sunrise!” He’d say, “I see children out there playing.” He’d say, “The trees are in full bloom now.” Every day it was some new observation on the world outside their room. And every day the man who had no view would look forward to his roommate’s report. It was the highlight of his day.
One day the man by the window got really excited. He said, “There’s a parade! Oh, I wish you could see it! A marching band! Clowns! Floats! Children running out to pick up candy!”
Then one day the man by the window died. His roommate asked if he could be moved so his bed could now be by the window. So he could see all the wonderful things his friend had described for him. His bed was moved and he looked out the window and all he could see was a brick wall. It was another wing of the hospital. It was just a few feet away. There was no view at all.
He called for his nurse. He said, “Hey, wait a minute! What’s going on here? My friend who passed away described all these beautiful scenes that he saw through this window, but I can’t see anything but a wall!”
The nurse said, “Didn’t you know that your friend was blind? The beauty he saw was the beauty he chose to see in his mind.”
It is a beautiful world. It is a wonderful life. This is a great country. Will you be one who can see it and, having seen it, help to make it so?
Or as that bishop, Woodie White said in his benediction:
May the Lord give you courage and strength and compassion to make ours a better world, [to make your country a better country], to make your community a better community, to make your church a better church. May you do your best to make it so; and after you have done your best, may the Lord give you peace.
We pray, dear God, for an attitude adjustment. For even the optimists among us can become radical optimists. And even the most hardened of pessimists can be softened and move in the direction of optimism. You are for us, never against us. Your love is always there. Nothing can change that. So help us to believe that, to live that, and because of that may the power of our self-fulfilling prophecies make this world a better place. In Jesus’ name, Amen.