I think I was just 15 years old when I overheard the weary conversation. Five years earlier, my dad and mom had established a Christian school in the prairies of Iowa-which even then was not exactly a booming center of population. Now, one of the dispirited faculty members was seeking a word of encouragement. "Max," I heard him ask my dad, "is it uphill all the way?"
"Yes, Ted," I remember Dad's terse reply. "All the way. All the way to the top of the hill."
I recounted that brief exchange a few days ago for a good friend who had told me how discouraged he was as well. He smiled wanly and wondered whether my remark had been meant to be comforting.
"Well, yes," I said. If you know in advance that the whole course of the marathon is uphill, it's a lot less discouraging when you round the next curve and find right there in front of you-another hill! What really saps you is to hope for a gentle downhill grade and then to discover the opposite.
Christians are people who know that by definition it's uphill all the way. If God grants a respite now and then, that's a bonus. But it isn't what we should expect. "In the world you will have tribulation," Jesus taught His disciples. Jesus Himself never had it any better. He never had guaranteed seasons of relaxation where things tended to go His way. Why should we?
That's why the Monday morning headlines, even though they naturally distress us, should hardly surprise us:
- Earthquake toll tops 20,000
- Mudslides in Guatemala kill 1,300
- Katrina evacuees worry about benefits
- Bird flu threat grows, prof says
- NYC subway still on alert
- Conservatives squabble over Miers
- Boat's pilot admits it was overloaded
- Six more marines killed in Iraq
- $3.00 gas to be around for awhile
- After pension fund debacle, still more questions
And yes, I know this one doesn't at all belong in the same category (especially if you live in Houston), but it hardly lifted my Monday morning mindset:
- Braves lose to Astros in 18 innings
So when will things turn around? Well, almost certainly, they won't. The heartache might well get sharper, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to might be multiplied by 10,000. It's exactly what we should expect. The road up the hill may not only keep going up; the grade could well get steeper.
For example, even the good news so often has its ugly side. Right in the middle of all those downbeat stories came this unexpectedly happy tidbit-minimized by National Public Radio, but slipped in nonetheless by host Steve Inskeep: "To Iraq now, where every public opinion poll shows a large majority of Iraqis saying they have hope for the future. They say they have hope despite the suicide bombers, the erratic electricity, and the dangers of daily life." And then Mr. Inskeep all but mocked his minimal report when he explained how the Iraqis were demonstrating "this seemingly unshakable hope" by going out and getting various kinds of cosmetic surgery.
On the one hand, even good news couldn't be seen as good by a skeptical newscaster, who seemed obliged both to bury and to trivialize the item. On the other hand, we can all identify with his skepticism enough to worry a bit on our own: What if the cynical experts are surprised and genuine freedom comes to the Iraqis-only to see that freedom used in the same foolish and wanton ways so many of the rest of us have done? And why does governmental corruption so typically infect so many fledgling states so soon after they first gain their freedom? For fallen humans, even much that is good must be added to the uphill climb.
But no one should equate this outlook with mere pessimism, or just posturing yourself to expect the worst. It isn't even something so meager as realism. This is, to the contrary, genuine optimism. Rooted in the confidence of knowing the terrain is a worldview altogether ready for the grueling grade. It remembers a whole string of promises as it sizes up the steep mountain road. "I will never leave you nor forsake you." "You shall walk and not be weary; you shall run and not be faint." "In the world you will have tribulation, but I have overcome the world." And then it renews the uphill assault.