Things Can Get Better
            Not long ago, I was cleaning out the back of a vehicle–and I found a walking cane. Lots of memories flooded back from several winters ago, when my knee basically stopped functioning. Like the time I went to the Metropolitan Opera and ate at an astronomically-priced Lincoln Center restaurant, because I couldn’t walk two blocks to a cheap Chinese place. With some therapy and some weight loss, the knee came back. Finding the cane that once was my companion, now untouched for years, was a reminder: Things sometimes get better.
             The current issue of Time features a story about optimism and the brain. Its basic message is: Even though life is horrible, our brains trick us into being optimistic, or else we’d be constantly depressed (basically a neurologist’s version of the old saying: If you’re not panicking, it’s because you don’t really understand the situation). But for the Christian, optimism isn’t based upon brain function–it’s based upon knowing that things are under the control of a good and loving God. It’s based upon the classic verse, “All things work together for good to those who love the Lord, who are called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:28). As believers in original sin, we know that the world is often a broken place where, in Yeats’ words, “things fall apart”. But that doesn’t make us pessimists, because we embrace God’s promise: “I have plans for you, plans to give you good things and not calamity, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29: ). Things don’t always fall apart–sometimes they improve.
             And it occurred to me that it might be helpful and illuminating to think of some ways in which things have gotten better in our world in my lifetime.
             The Soviet Union is gone. My childhood was spent under the cloud of nuclear war. The unexpected collapse of our nation’s great adversary ensured that my son would not grow up with the same kind of fear.
             The crime rate has gone down. There was actually a fair amount of gang violence over this past weekend, but overall the crime rate has dropped significantly in the past few years. Recently-released statistics show that even the current recession has not driven it back up.
             Bin Laden’s dead. This man tormented our nation for almost twenty years–with his involvement in the first World Trade Center bombing, the “Black Hawk Down” battle in Somalia, the attack on the USS Cole, the bombing of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and, supremely, the destruction of the Twin Towers. He eluded the efforts of three presidential administrations to neutralize him. And now–he’s gone! Interestingly, I’ve noticed that many clergy are trying to make Americans feel bad about feeling good about Usama’s death. For instance, a close friend of mine posted on his Facebook page the words of Jesus: “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44 ). And certainly those words shape our attitudes and actions as private individuals. However, human governments are established by God “to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (I Peter 2:14)–so I think we can be happy that our government accepted and effectively carried out its God-given responsibility. Certainly God takes “no pleasure in the death of the wicked” (Ezekiel 33:11 ).However, the response of Moses’ sister Miriam to the destruction of Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea is worth noting: “Miriam took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women went out after her with tambourines and dancing.” (Exodus 15:20). Such celebration is a natural human reaction. (There also seems to be a bit of relish in the way the Book of Acts graphically describes the deaths of Judas and of Herod– Acts 1:18, Acts 12:23). For the record, my initial response to Usama’s death was “Yeeeeee-haaaahhhhh!”, followed by a late-night visit to the Amityville 9/11 memorial for some quiet prayer and reflection. I think most people would agree with the President: the world is a better place without Usama bin Laden. Sometimes things do get better.
              There has been a remarkable improvement in neighborhoods in New York City. A few years ago, I took some items we had gathered to a food pantry in Brooklyn. I was amazed to find that this once-tough neighborhood was now filled with upscale women walking little dogs. Just a few weeks ago, my GPS took me the long way home through Brooklyn, and I passed the Bushwick neighborhood where St. Mark’s Lutheran Church is located. Twenty years ago the area looked like a war-zone–now it’s quite attractive.
             Medical care has drastically improved. My father died in 1963 from surgery for an ulcer. But in twenty-eight years of ministry, I don’t recall anyone having a similar surgery–today ulcers are almost always taken care of by medication. When I began my ministry, a broken hip almost always meant the end of someone’s mobility–now people recover remarkably. I can think of so many people I have known who have come back from huge physical problems–through a combination of God’s mercy and improved medicine.
We often learn new things. I ‘ve been shaving for forty years–using up and down vertical strokes. But a few weeks ago, a young man taught me a better way to shave–combining the vertical strokes with horizontal strokes. (I should have known–so many good things are shaped like the Cross!) My face is a lot smoother. To me that’s a great example of how our lives can improve when we are open to learning new things!
I’m sure I could think of many other improvements, large and small–such as peace in Northern Ireland, or the return of professional baseball to Washington, D. C....or even the recent opening of Denny’s, Sonic and Red Robin on Long Island! But the fact is, things do get better. That’s an important thing to remember whenever we feel discouraged or pessimistic. And let’s remember the most important improvement of all–the forgiveness of our sins in Jesus Christ. “God called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. Once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (I Peter 2:9,10). “You are no longer strangers and aliens, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19) If our relationship with God can get better, then anything can improve!
God loves you and so do I!

Vol. 82 - No. 6
JUNE 2011