Four Stories of Hope

The following essay is a speech I gave for the CentrePointe Counseling Annual Gala.  If you would rather watch an unproduced Facebook live video of the talk, click here

Introduction

Imagine you are on a train.

The train is going down a track.

Up ahead is a dark tunnel with no light at the end.

This is what life is like with no hope. You are trapped on a track that is leading to a pit and you have no idea how to escape.

I want us to start here because if we can remember a time of no hope, we will appreciate the beauty of hope more as we discuss it.

Hope and Baseball

I went to High School in New Orleans, Louisiana. At this time of year, we were in the middle of baseball season.
My team was terrible. Games were routinely called early because we’d fallen behind by more than 10 runs. This was especially embarrassing given that the rest of the sports teams at my school were world class teams that brought home championships and filled the school trophy cases with monuments to their success. I played right field and I pitched. I played right field because, while I worked really hard, I was slow. Right field was where I could do the least damage. I pitched because that’s what my dad had done and I wanted to be just like him.

I played right field and I pitched. I played right field because, while I worked really hard, I was slow. Right field was where I could do the least damage. I pitched because that’s what my dad had done and I wanted to be just like him.

My dad grew up in Texas and was a super star athlete in high school. I grew up listening to stories about how the Houston Astros had scouted him as a junior in high school and were talking about offering him a deal that would involve him skipping college altogether. Tragically, he tore his rotator cuff his senior year and his sports career ended. Before the injury, Dad was a pitcher. He had a killer fastball, a knuckle-curve, and pin-point accuracy.

So I practiced and practiced, but I never got that killer fastball and I had no control, which meant, I wasn’t put in the game until the team was behind by eight or nine runs.

I remember this one game specifically. We were playing our rivals, O’Perry Walker High School. They were really good, mostly because they had Shawn Swess. I’m sure I’ve exaggerated him as the years have piled up, but in my mind, Shawn was a monster athlete. Tall and strong with a cutting jaw and a five ‘o’clock shadow, he always hit, and never less than a double.

For the first four innings, I’d sat quietly in right-field while my team worked themselves into an eight-to-nothing hole. I knew, as I watched the Walker players round the bases, that my time to pitch was drawing near. And then, one out into the fifth inning, my coach walked out to the mound and waved me to come it.

It wasn’t until I started warming up that I noticed something about this game was different. There in the stands, sitting behind home plate, was my dad. He couldn’t usually make it to baseball games. Dad was an internationally renowned surgeon. He traveled to places like Amsterdam and Copenhagen to talk about surgical techniques he was developing. He spent several weeks a year in Africa, working to build a medical education system for the countries of Ghana and Nigeria. He got up every morning, went to work and saved lives. He was like a superhero – at least, that’s how I saw him. And, because baseball games usually took place on weekdays in the late afternoon, he couldn’t come – which, if I’d been honest with myself, suited me just fine. No one wants their hero to watch them lose.

But there he was, waving and smiling at me as I warmed up. I shyly waved back as I prayed, “God, I promise to never ask you for anything again if you will just help me not to screw this up.”

There was nothing I wanted more at that moment than to impress my dad and that is hope. We want one thing, but another thing is sure to happen, yet still we long for the other.

When you are on that train heading toward a tunnel, hope is looking to the left and seeing a different track that is heading through a meadow and wanting to be on that track. Hope is longing to see our lives change course.

After five or six throws to my catcher, I nodded to the umpire and he yelled, “Play ball.” I looked around the field. There were runners on second and third. One hit and the game would be over. I looked back to my dad and tried to force another smile.

But my smile died when I saw Shawn Swess up to bat. He was already three for three this game with two home runs. I remember that he rolled his neck and then pointed his bat at me as he took his place at the plate. A ball of fear filled my gut. How many pitches was my dad going to see me throw before Big Shawn rocked a home run? One? Maybe two.

I remember that he rolled his neck and then pointed his bat at me as he took his place at the plate. A ball of fear filled my gut. How many pitches was my dad going to see me throw before Big Shawn rocked a home run? One? Maybe two.

I looked my catcher in the eye and tried to focus. He gave me the finger for a fastball and I sighed. Standing sideways, I brought my feet together as I’d been taught. I checked the runner at third and then the runner at second.

Then, pushing off my back foot, I kicked out and put all the force I could muster behind the pitch.

Shawn hit the ball so hard, I never actually saw it land. The only reason the umpire was able to call it foul was because we saw the trees it broke outside the third base line as the ball left the ballpark.

Now if you’re a baseball fan, then you know that when a right-handed hitter like Shawn hits a ball foul down the third base line, it’s because that hitter was swinging too fast.

Too fast.

I pondered this as the umpire threw me a new ball to use. Not wanting to make eye contact, but unable to stop myself, I looked up at me dad in the stands. Far from the disappointment I expected, he was smiling and making a downward motion with his right hand. I knew exactly what he meant. He wanted me to throw the knuckle-curve he’d taught me.

I sighed and resumed my stance. I locked eyes with my catcher, and he gave me the sign for the fastball. Resigned to my fate, I checked third, I checked the runner at second, and then I pushed off and threw the ball with all my might.

Again, the ball shot from Shawn’s bat like a rocket. Again, no one saw it land. Again, we knew it was foul because of the tree branches it broke as it flew out of sight.

Again, I sighed.

Shawn began pounding the plate with his bat and digging his cleats into the dirt.

The umpire threw me a new ball. I caught it and looked at my shoes.

Then I heard my dad’s voice. There he was, smiling, and giving me the same knuckle-curve motion. Typically, at this point in the game, I would throw a third fastball and we would all go home, but my dad was in the stands, and he was smiling, and he believed in me. I think it was the combination of these things that birthed a seed of hope in my chest.

I could feel the determination flow through me, strengthening my resolve.

I took my spot on the mound and looked at my catcher. He gave me the sign for a fastball, but I shook my head, “no.”

He gave it to me again, and again I told him no. He then sighed, rolled his eyes at me, and gave me the sign for a curveball. Filled with hope that this time the outcome would be different, I smiled. I didn’t bother checking third or second. Instead, I closed my eyes, breathed the hope in, looked at my catcher’s mitt, and threw the best knuckle-curve I could manage.

Shawn swung so hard he spun and stumbled. I think the umpire was even surprised when he yelled, “Strike Three! You’re out!”

My hands shot in the air and I screamed in victory like I’d just won the World Series. Everyone in the stadium thought I was insane – except my dad. He was yelling and clapping. And then, he gave me this big thumbs up.
I walked the next batter, and then the guy after him got a hit and drove in the winning run, but I didn’t care. In the parking lot, I hugged my dad. All the way home we talked about the knuckle-curve and how it had sent the great Shawn Swess spinning on his heels. Hope is wanting to see our lives change course, and when that course change comes, it feels incredible.

Hope is wanting to see our train change tracks. And when it does, when we avoid the dark tunnel and find ourselves in a new place, it feels incredible. 

Hope and My Dad

My father died a few years later. I was home for the summer from college. He was fifty years old, and his death was completely unexpected. One minute he was watching TV with my mom and the next the paramedics were wheeling him out of our house on a gurney. They put him in the ambulance and pulled slowly out of our apartment complex. When they didn’t turn on the lights and race away, I knew he was already gone.

We went to the hospital. I don’t remember how we got there and I don’t remember the doctor speaking to us. What I remember is sitting in a room alone with him. His body was cold and still. I remember crying, and holding his hand, and begging God to raise him from the dead. I begged and begged, but nothing happened.

I took a semester off to be with my family, and then, in the spring, I returned to school. After being at school for a few weeks, this strange thing started happening. I would be walking to class with my backpack over my shoulder, thinking about chemistry or calculus, and then, out of the corner of my eye, I’d think I’d seen him. My heart would race and I would spin around. But he was never there. Sometimes there would be a professor walking in the distance who was roughly the same height and build as my dad. Sometimes I would catch a glimpse of someone turning a corner. A few times, I would walk quickly after them, trying to catch them, hoping that maybe, just maybe it was him.

There was nothing I wanted more that semester than for my dad to be alive, and I felt like every time I turned on the TV, that story was being told. You though that character died in that car crash in episode four, but SURPRISE, in episode six you learn that he’s still alive. Hope whispered in my ear, if it happened on TV, then just maybe? So night after night I went to bed and prayed for things to be different. In my head, I knew my dad was dead, but in my heart, I hoped I was wrong.

These nights were filled with tears and embarrassment. I lived in an apartment with three other guys and I didn’t want to see me crying. So I started taking long walks alone. I walked all over campus, crying, praying, hoping that I would turn around and see my dad.

Here is a secret about hope.

Hope hurts. When we can’t change tracks, when hope fails, it is painful.

While we wait for the object of our desire to be fulfilled, there is a stabbing pain in our gut that refuses to let us accept the world as it is. Hope won’t let us give up, no matter how painful it is to continue, to long for something that will never happen.

It’s been nineteen years since my dad died. I’d like to say I’ve gotten over seeing him out of the corner of my eye, that I have finally accepted the truth that he is gone. But there are times when I’m walking alone that I think I see him. It’s not as often anymore, but every time it happens, all that pain returns.

Hope is wanting to see things change course.

And when they do, it is wonderful.

But while we wait or when they don’t, hope hurts.

Hope in England

A few years after that, I met another group of people who were made delusional by hope, stuck believing the impossible was possible.

I was in England, in a small town outside of London whose name I don’t remember. I was in charge of eight other college students. We were on a mission trip with the church I worked for. During the day, we taught religion classes at the local elementary school. In the evenings, we put on events for the church that was hosting us.

While the work was going well, my team had been frustrating and I was angry. One night specifically comes to mind. After a long day, I’d blown up at my team, yelling at them about how their attitudes were ruining the trip.

It was at that moment that the old pastor we were serving put his arm around me and said, “Come with me. I’m going to show you something cool.”

We walked through the village and he listened to me complain.

One of the boys on the trip kept disappearing to “go explore.” We were in the middle of putting on a party for the church youth when I noticed that he’d vanished. He returned three hours later claiming he’d been walking the streets getting to know the town. The next day we were having lunch at the elementary school with some of the teachers when I noticed he wasn’t with us. He returned after lunch with a giant container of fish and chips he purchased at a convince store down the road.

One of the girls on the trip had decided that she had found her soulmate. He was tall and thin and spoke with a British accent. She was in love.  He was also thirty-five, homeless, recovering from heroin addiction, and sleeping in the basement of the church we were working at. When I wasn’t searching for the vanishing boy, I was interrupting intimate moments between the two of them.

And when I wasn’t breaking up the young love, I was being pestered by another one of the girls who kept insisting that “we’ve got that in Texas too. Our hosts took us to get fish-n-chips and she said, “We fry fish in Texas too.” On an off evening, we drove to a Cadbury factory to see them make the chocolate eggs and she said, “We make Bluebell ice cream in Texas and it’s better than chocolate eggs.” We slept in the basement of a house that had been built in the early 1700s and she said, “We’ve got buildings this old in Texas too.” We had a picnic in this beautiful meadow surrounded by a knee-high stone wall we were told was the remnant of an ancient castle and she proudly announced, “If this were Texas, there’d be bluebonnets here.” She was driving me crazy.

The old pastor never spoke. He just nodded and walked while I ranted. When we arrived at the old stone church, he took me up to the balcony of the sanctuary and told me to sit quietly and watch.

I sat in silence for twenty minutes, grumbling to myself about how hard everything was. And then, a tall, thin man who looked to be in his mid-thirties came to into the sanctuary. Silently, he knelt at the altar and prayed. A few minutes later, a woman joined him, and then another, and another, until finally there were ten people kneeling and praying quietly at the altar. I leaned on the rail of the balcony, watching with intense curiosity.

After a while, one of the women began to sing. The melody was simple. The words were in a language I didn’t recognize. Her voice was soft and filled with longing. As she reached what I assumed was the chorus, the other nine joined her song. Their voices filled the room, making it feel warm and vibrant. When the first song came to an end, one of the men started a second. It was slower and sadder. Several of them cried as they sang. A third song was started and then a fourth, and a fifth. I watched them sing together for hours. With each song, they found joy, until finally, they weren’t just singing, they were clapping and dancing, and laughing together. There were no instruments. There wasn’t any power point or hymnals. They sang songs they knew by heart, songs defined them.

When the final song was sung, the ten members came together, held hands, and prayed. After they had left, the old pastor made his way up to the balcony.

“Who were they?” I asked.

He took a seat next to me and said, “They’re exiles from West Africa. They were all on staff at a church together until the government decided they had too much influence. So they pack them up, put them on a plane, and told them never to come back.”

“Wow,” I said.

“They come here every Thursday night to pray and sing. They’ve been doing it for years.”

“What are they praying for?” I asked.

“They want to go home. They’re asking God to let them go home.”

It was at that moment I realized why my team wasn’t connecting, we weren’t hoping for the same things. I had one girl hoping to find love, a boy hoping for an adventure, and another girl just hoping to go home soon.

Hope builds community.

When we share the same hope, an unshakable bond is built between us that gives us life. This bond is so power that, even though the course of our life hasn’t changed yet, we catch glimpses from one another and taste the joy we will feel when it does.

Hope in Karate

There’s one more thing I know about hope. I have five children and they are each very different.

It’s my fourth child who most recently taught me about hope. Jude is seven and as the fourth child, he’s struggling to find his place. We signed him up to play soccer last fall, and he had a great time until he tried to play with his older siblings. He couldn’t help but be discouraged that they were bigger and faster and better at handling the ball. We’d try to encourage him, but all he would say was, “I’m horrible at soccer.”

He gets discouraged by his school work too. He gets frustrated that he can’t do the same math as Jackson or read like Julianna. About once a week he will get excited about something he has learned and, wanting to prove himself, will try to teach it to his siblings, but without fail, they’ve already learned it and know more about it than he does.

Even the stubborn two-year-old gives him problems. Jude will try to direct Riggs like his older siblings direct him, but Riggs won’t have it. Being stubborn and a roughian and two, Riggs will yell and shove and say “no” and reject any and all instruction Jude is trying to give.

Jude’s feeling of being lost pains my heart. I’ve found myself waking up the middle of the night longing to pray for him. When he comes hope from school, I desperately want him to tell me he’s had a good day. And I long for him to find something, anything that is his, that will separate him from his siblings and give him his own identity.

A few months ago, I took my kids to see my sister Ginny get her brown belt in karate. Ginny is thirty-eight, overweight, and has Down syndrome. She’s in a small class of other mentally challenged adults. Watching her do karate is fun because she doesn’t take it too seriously and her instructors love and understand her.

That night we cheered as she sparred with the instructor, practiced her kicks and punches, kind of did the routine she’d been practicing, and then, at the end, broke a board.

When the lesson was over, Jude took off like a shot. A few seconds later, he returned, guiding Ginny’s instructor by the hand. Looking up at me, he said, “Daddy, ask him when I can take lessons and how much they cost so I can do karate.” The instructor and I chatted and laughed at my son’s straightforwardness, and then I went home, not thinking anything of it.

Kids ask for things all the time. Usually, the requests are impetuous and quickly forgotten. That’s how I thought Jude’s request would be, but I was wrong. For months, Jude continued to ask, “When do I get to do karate? When are you going to sign me up for karate? When do my lessons start?”

Finally, realizing this wasn’t just a passing thing, Wendy and I found a dojo near our house and signed him up.

And hope began to build in my heart for Jude. I could see a different course for him. I could see him doing something that was all his.

The nights before his first lesson, I tried to encourage him. I told him about the dojo and the conversations I’d had with the sensei. I told him I thought he was going to love it.

Jude was nervous. He kept saying, “This is the first time I’ve been the only new kid.” His fear broke my heart, but Wendy and I pushed forward, trying to share our hope with him.

Jude’s first lesson with a one-on-one session with his new sensei. After welcoming us, the sensei gave Jude a gee, or goatee as Jude called it. Jude rushed to the back to put it on. When he emerged from the dressing room, he was beaming. The sensei then gave him a tour of the dojo. Jude asked questions about every weapon hanging on the wall, he punched and kicked every pad and punching bag, and he hung on every word the sensei said, the entire time smiling wider than I’d ever seen him smile.

After the tour, the sensei brought him to the center of the mat and started teaching him some moves and Japanese words his students use. I could tell Jude was nervous. His smile disappeared. His brow knit. He tried to do everything just as the sensei had done it. He pronounced each word carefully, making sure he got it exactly right.

After a few basic moves, the sensei turned to grab a pad for Jude to punch. In that brief moment, Jude turned and looked at me. I knew the expression on his face well. It was the same one I’d worn that hot spring day on the baseball mound in New Orleans when I saw my dad in the stands. It was a face full of fear and worry – afraid he was going to fail, worried I’d be disappointed.

Taking a playbook from my dad, I shot Jude the biggest smile I could and gave him two giant thumbs up. And right then, Jude’s smile returned. He’s had several weeks of lessons now. He leaves excited and returns elated. I don’t know how long it will last, but right now, it’s amazing.

And here is the thing Jude has taught me – Hope should be shared. We can’t muster is on our own. We need others to come alongside us and say, “Yes! I see it too! You can do it!”

Conclusion

Tonight we are celebrating an amazing organization. CentrePointe is a ministry of hope.

Think back again to the beginning of our conversation – when I asked you to remember a place of no hope. That’s where the ministry of CentrePointe begins. They start by coming alongside a person with no hope.

And just like Wendy and I did with Jude, they lock arms with that person and help hope begin to take life.

Bonds start to form between them – life-giving bonds of shared hope that are the foundation for true community.

And at times this hope is hard and painful. It hurts to feel trapped over here when you can see a different life over there.

But just like my dad did for me in the stands, the people at CentrePointe continue to encourage and counsel until that day when hope is fulfilled.

And that is a beautiful day.

And you are part of that amazing day. By being here, you have helped fund their work.

Without you, the counselors at CentrePointe can’t go about the business of bringing hope.

Now we are going to hear from a client, a man who understands that power of the hope CentrePointe can bring first hand. Please, listen to his story, and as you do, consider what an honor it is to participate in the amazing, life-giving mission of this organization.

 

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