The crowd began the countdown: “Ten – Nine –Eight – Seven – Six –“ The color commentator screamed over the roar — “They’re gonna do it!” “Five – Four – Three –Two – One” – Al Michaels uttered the line of his journalistic life: “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” The clock struck zero, and the young American men’s hockey team spilled out onto the ice, having upset the heavily-favored Russians in their 1980 Olympic semifinal match. Two days later, that same team defeated Finland, winning the gold medal and catapulting their young coach Herb Brooks into the worldwide limelight. But as the US team climbed up on the podium to receive their gold medals, I suspect that the young coach’s thoughts strayed back twenty years, to one of the worst days of his life. He was the last player cut from the 1960 American men’s hockey team, the first American team to win a gold medal in Olympic hockey. That bitter disappointment of a dashed dream planted a seed in Herb Brooks, fueling a determined perseverance that resulted in the unimaginable blessing of the “Miracle on Ice.”
We think of the apostle Paul as a great success story. Few of Paul’s contemporaries would have regarded him as such, and Paul would himself have characterized his career as deeply disappointing. At the heart of his life was a dashed dream. When Christ accosted Paul on that road to Damascus, introducing him to the Good News that Jesus offered him, Paul would have been sure that his distinctive and memorable call would pave the way for him to become the instrument by which his fellow Jews would accept Christ’s redemptive work. Who better equipped to accomplish this daunting task than this pluperfect Pharisee of Pharisees? And even though God’s Spirit had summoned Paul to be the apostle to the Gentiles, the first place he went when he entered every new city was the local synagogue, where he sought to convince his fellow Jews to accept the Good News of Christ. He made very few converts, but instead aroused bitter, overwhelming opposition. Paul became so frustrated with his inability to communicate the Gospel effectively to his fellow Jews that he wrote later in Romans that he would wish himself damned if only his people who open their hearts en masse to accept Christ’s redemptive offer.
But out of that dashed dream came the blessing of a ministry that Paul really could not have imagined. He found an extraordinarily receptive hearing in the Gentile community, with whom he felt he had little in common. His ministry proved to be difficult, his progress was often painstakingly slow, but in time, his seed bore fruit. Out of the dashed dream of failing to convince his own people to accept Christ’s redemption, Paul brought forth the fruitful ministry of sharing God’s Good News with the pagans, the Gentiles who joined his movement in every city in which he ministered.
So, Paul could write: “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” Paul was not here offering us bumper-sticker pablum. He was offering us spiritual calculus. Every word he uttered was steeped in blood, sweat, and tears, formed in the crucible of a dashed dream. Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us – this was the testimony of a man who knew what it was like to be frustrated and to weather the pain of a dashed dream. Yet sometimes our dashed dreams become seeds that yield blessings beyond our imagining.
We focus so much upon this formula for spiritual progression, upon Paul’s amazing ultimate linkage of suffering with hope, that we sometimes fail to see two key words in his statement — “rejoice” and “know.”
When Paul says “rejoice in our suffering,” he is not talking about the ecstatic celebration that that Olympic team displayed as they received their gold medals. No, Paul speaks of a “rejoicing” of a more subtle kind. It is rejoicing amidst adversity that takes the form of recognizing that we are, in a strange sense, privileged to be tested. We are privileged to be tested, because we believe that our suffering will ultimately eventuate in a hope that does not disappoint us. Whatever adversity we may be enduring, it will ultimately serve as a catalyst for a meaningful, perhaps even glorious, future that we cannot see – but God can. Paul urges us to rejoice, to not be overcome by adversity but to rejoice. Why? Because we know. We know that through Jesus Christ we enjoy peace with God. Now the knowing that Paul refers to is not knowledge like the knowledge of the multiplication tables – 2 x 2 =4; 2 x 4 = 8; 2 x 5 = 10. No, Paul refers to a different kind of knowledge, a knowledge akin to what we ‘know’ when a friend promises, “I will be there for you.” Based on your experience of their friendship, you know what they say is true when they say, “I will be there for you.” Paul, amidst every imaginable adversity, has come to know God as “friend with friend.” So he knows in his heart that his divine Friend will lead him from suffering to endurance, and from endurance to character, and from character to hope, a hope that will not disappoint.
Abraham Lincoln, who lost so many elections, wrote to a friend after he lost yet another election, his bid for the U.S. Senate in 1855: “I regret my defeat moderately, but I am not nervous about it.” Here was a man whose resume’ featured far more failures than triumphs, but he wasn’t “nervous” about it because he felt that every failure and defeat in God’s providence had advanced him nearer to his goal. Five years after writing that letter, he was elected president of the United States in our country’s most perilous hour.
Greatness of character and maturity of faith come through our ability to not be nervous about the adversity and uncertainty that we must weather. To be in the presence of a great surgeon, or a great attorney, or a great administrator, or a great coach or athlete is to be in the presence of someone who has developed the ability not to be overly nervous, regardless of the situation. That does not mean that they have not made plenty of mistakes. But they have learned from their errors, and over time they have come to know that God has equipped them with the spiritual equanimity to know that whatever their challenge might be, they will summon the ability to meet it. Part of our maturing in character comes from our developing a calm based on our trust in God, whom we know as friend with friend. Part of maturing in character comes from developing a calm that knows our God will deliver us from whatever adversity we face, even when we cannot see our way forward.
I think of two men, role models in their own way for me, who demonstrate two profound spiritual points. I think of a man generally regarded as among the greatest of America’s preachers, Phillips Brooks. Yet Phillips Brooks grew up wanting to be a teacher. He saw himself as equipped to be a great educator, and such was his dream. The only problem was, after training to be a teacher and distinguishing himself as a scholar, upon teaching his first class he found to his amazement and chagrin that he was a terrible instructor. His students couldn’t relate to his lectures; he couldn’t relate to them. He was fired from his first job. His dream of being a teacher was a dream that had to be dashed. But that dashed dream proved to be a blessing from which emerged the career of one of America’s foremost preachers, considered to this day, the “Prince of Preachers.”
Some of our dreams are not God’s dreams. Phillips Brooks’ dream was to be a great teacher, and he tried to force that dream upon himself and upon God, but he finally acknowledged that his dream was wrong for him. His dream was not God’s dream. He realized that if he really believed in God’s providence for him, he had to give up his own dream and embrace the dream of God.
I think of another young man, very gifted, who was raised by his parents to be the best and brightest in his community, the most gifted child of the area, who distinguished himself in his collegiate career, and came to consider himself head and shoulders above his contemporaries. Then he attended seminary. There he found teachers whose intellect far surpassed his; there he found colleagues and peers whose minds were superior to his own. For the first time in his life he realized that his self-image of himself as the best and brightest was erroneous. This young man couldn’t handle the dashing of his dream. He fell into deep depression and considered taking his own life. He suffered a nervous breakdown. Finally, he felt the urge of God calling him to engage in prayer, prayer not as an intellectual concept, but prayer as an act of communion with the divine. He came to know God, not as an intellectual subject to be debated, but as the Friend with the power to draw him out of darkness. This young man, named Harry Emerson Fosdick, became one of the most influential preachers of the twentieth century. He had a self-image of himself as the best and the brightest, but life obliterated that self-image and revealed it to be false. He had to allow God to shape him ultimately in a different direction, one of God’s calling and not his own.
Our Lord said to us plainly, “Unless a seed fall into the ground and die, it cannot bring forth fruit.” What extraordinary confidence in God one must have in order to utter such words! How much faith was required of our Lord to make this observation! Unless a seed fall into the ground and die, it cannot bear fruit. Our Lord came to the world on a mission of love and mercy and redemption. Yet in return he experienced rejection and revilement, ended up crucified on a cross, his body sealed in a tomb. In the eyes of the world this Jesus of Nazareth was an abject failure, leader of an insignificant movement in an obscure corner, a short, sad story that ended in a gruesome, public execution. Yet, when his battered and bleeding body was placed in the tomb, that action was the planting of a seed of a dashed dream that burst forth in the fruit of a cosmic blessing of redemption for all humanity, a task accomplished by our Lord’s utter self-giving. Unless a seed fall into the ground and die, it cannot bring forth fruit. That sentiment expresses the Son’s absolute trust in his Father’s ability to raise him up in resurrection power and inaugurate the installation of a new kingdom.
Do we live with that kind of confidence in our God as Friend? In our tumultuous age, when we face economic upheaval, employment uncertainty, the usurping of all normal patterns of behavior, grappling with a disease for which we presently have no cure, all of us searching for the right way to cope with an avalanche of stressful and strange circumstances – how can we thrive? We can only thrive if we act on the knowledge that our God sustains us as friend with friend. We can only move forward confidently if we know in the depths of our soul that our God can be trusted, and that our suffering and the suffering of our community can be transformed into a power of endurance that leads to unquenchable hope. Unquenchable hope!
Paul adds one more phrase in his spiritual calculus that we often overlook. Yes, suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, but part of our hope is the hope of “sharing the glory of God.” When you and I think of glorifying God, we think of glorifying God through our victories, when we have aced the test, or won the promotion, or earned some high commendation, or basked in the approval of the crowd. But sometimes we can share in the glory of God more through our defeats than through our victories, more through how we handle our failures than how we celebrate our successes, more through how we endure amidst adversity, than how we cruise through easy times. Spiritual calculus maintains that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, hope that our knowledge of God as our Friend will deliver us to a future that we cannot imagine, but a future that God can truly envision. So, we trust that God will not let our zest for life be quenched by the reality of dashed dreams. For those dreams just might, under the leadership of God’s Spirit, become the seeds for meaningful fruit.