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"Hopelessly Hopeful"

Presented on The Lutheran Hour on January 29, 2023
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2023 Lutheran Hour Ministries

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Text: Colossians 1:27

In North China, 1943, crammed behind an electric fence in a small prison camp with a thousand other inmates in barely sanitary living conditions, with never enough space to really stretch out, never enough food to ever really feel full, a 24-year-old philosophy teacher named Langdon Gilkey lost his faith in humanity. He lost faith in the ideal human community. He lost faith in the goodness of human nature. He lost faith in the moral potential of the human individual.

Langdon Gilkey was among the thousands of foreign nationals living in China when the Empire of Japan invaded the Chinese mainland in 1937, marking the start of World War II in Asia. In the early 1940s, as more nations joined Allied forces to fight against the access powers of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan, the Japanese military started rounding up these foreign nationals still living in occupied China. There were missionaries and teachers, doctors and nurses, business executives and barflies. Diverse classes of people normally separated in their various social strata all herded together into internment camps for the duration of the war.

Langdon Gilkey was housed in the Shantung Compound with 1,000 other people from 20 different nations. He kept a journal of his experience and later wrote a book about it titled Shantung Compound. This fascinating book about the mysterious nature of people under pressure opens with a quote that captures Langdon Gilkey's discovery in the internment camp. It says, "Even saintly folk will act like sinners unless they have their customary dinners." In other words, we aren't the good people we'd like to think we are or pretend to be. Our communities are much more fractured than we care to admit. Our best ideals are more self-serving than we realize. Our morality is mostly a mask for run-of-the-mill narcissism, all-too-human self-infatuation.

Now criticizing human nature is nothing new. From ancient times, philosophers, prophets, and ordinary folk have criticized and condemned the human race as hopeless. But strangely, there is something hopeful in all this hopeless criticism. We criticize others and we criticize ourselves because we all know that it should be different. Even among the most severe critics of humanity, almost no one gives up on the idea that humans are supposed to be better than that. That we ought to stop hurting each other and excluding each other and ridiculing each other. We all know that we should be better and if we didn't think that we should be better, then we wouldn't bother criticizing. We would just live and let live. But the fact is that we do criticize.

We won't give up on the hope that we should be better or at least some of us could be. We could be generous and selfless, a pleasure to be around. But we can't help but notice how other people miss the mark, and we also fall short of our own expectations. So we criticize because we know we should be better with or without our customary dinners. We are hopelessly hopeful people.

It sounds contradictory, doesn't it? That it has to be either one or the other. Either hopeless or hopeful, but not both. It is contradictory, at least on the surface, but I think we're stuck with it. We're stuck with it because if we deny either end of this paradox, we ignore something true about humanity.

For example, if you deny human hopefulness, you have to ignore human giftedness. If you're paying attention to other people, human giftedness is something that you can neither deny nor ignore. For example, in spite of all the harsh facts of prison camp life in the Shantung Compound, Langdon Gilkey could not stop being amazed at human giftedness.

In March of 1943, over 1,000 people from 20 different nationalities, males and females of all shapes and sizes, from every segment of society ranging in age from 6 months to 85 years were crammed into this compound, and within six months they rebuilt a functioning society from scratch. They organized themselves to stoke fires and cook soup and bake bread served in a crowded yet still ordered cafeteria. They appointed a housing committee to address grievances so that when the room that housed 13 men complained against the same size room that housed only 11, they had a way to diplomatically address the matter before it came to blows. They were even willing to find willing volunteers to wade into the wretched mess of overflowing public latrines.

It wasn't perfect, but this fragile community managed to hold them all together. No practical problem, however unwieldy or difficult proved too much for human ingenuity. All the technical creativity that resides in any human society became active, even in that prison camp. There is no denying human giftedness. They used their technical gifts to figure out a way to flush toilets without modern plumbing. They used their interpersonal gifts to strike compromises in touchy housing negotiations. They used their organizational gifts to master the task of baking 400 loaves of bread daily, turning out what the bakery staff proudly assumed to be the best bread in China. We cannot ignore the fact of human giftedness and therefore we cannot deny this tenacious human hopefulness.

On the other hand, even though it sounds contradictory, we also cannot deny human hopelessness. Because if we deny human hopelessness, we ignore human need. What happens when we ignore human need? Well, we act as though the human being were independent, self-sufficient, the center of the universe. When we ignore our need, we make ourselves out to be God. Each person becomes the center of his or her own universe, with everything and everyone else revolving around his or her own interests. This is what makes us all so hopeless. It's hopeless first, because it's a no-win situation. When we're all playing God, we're competing to be the center of the universe, with me trying to make you revolve around me and you trying to make me revolve around you, forgetting that we were both made to revolve around Someone greater than both of us. It is a no-win situation.

Second, it's hopeless because it's self-defeating. I can't be the center of the universe, and neither can you because you are not self-sufficient; I'm not all powerful. Everything I have is a gift. Everything you have is a gift—unearned, undeserved, free gift, but we act otherwise, especially under pressure.

In the Shantung Compound, as the war went on, pressure increased as food rations decreased. Now it was reasonable to accept that there would be less food. You can't expect to win a war and at the same time be well fed by the enemy. Such logic, however, doesn't soothe an empty stomach—and even we saintly folk will act like sinners if we do not get our customary dinners. After months of going hungry, suddenly a delivery arrived from the American Red Cross. White boxes, parcels filled with rare wartime delicacies, powdered milk, tins of butter and Spam, chocolate and sugar, cheese and coffee, dried fruit and jam. A single box could stave off hunger pains for four months before running out. The whole camp was ecstatic with joy over the anticipated distribution of these parcels. There turned out to be over 1,500 white boxes. Enough for every person in the camp to get at least one.

But then someone raised an objection. "But these are from the American Red Cross, aren't they? They're for the Americans." Now, there were only 200 Americans in the camp. The rest were from other Allied nations. And if the boxes were only for the Americans, that meant that each American would receive at least seven boxes apiece. After some calculating American did the math and saw those foreigners prowling around their prized parcels, the Yankee voice hollered, "That's American stuff, and you lousy spongers aren't going to get a bit of it!"

Thankfully, someone suggested a plan that seemed fair enough. All the non-American inmates would get one parcel, but since it was the American Red Cross, every American would get one and one-half parcels. The next morning, however, the Japanese camp commandant posted a notice. It read, "Due to protests from the American community, the parcels will not be distributed today as announced." See, an inner ring of Americans—fearing that they might get shorted—had appealed to the commandant. They argued that these boxes were American property and they belonged to the Americans. Every American was entitled to their seven boxes. The commandant said he would bring the decision to his boss in Tokyo.

As the camp waited for an answer the hostility, jealousy, and self-righteous indignation of 1,500 hungry humans boiled over, and young Langdon Gilkey, once an optimistic believer in the goodness of humanity, came face to face with unmasked human hopelessness.

A week later, the order came from the commander in Tokyo. Each internee, regardless of nationality, would get one parcel, and the leftovers previously assigned to the Americans are to be sent to other camps. The enemy commander's order turned out to be a gift that they hadn't asked for and saved the camp from tearing itself to pieces.

Another unexpected gift turned up buried under the pile of parcels. There were 200 pairs of boots, a gift from the South African Red Cross. But there were only two South Africans in the camp. So the two of them got together and posted their own notice. It read, "Due to the precedent that has been set, the South African community is laying claim to all 200 pairs of boots donated by their Red Cross. We shall wear each pair of boots for three days to signal our right to what is our own property and then shall be glad to lend some out when not in use to any non-South Africans who request our generous help."

Seeing all this, 24-year-old Langdon Gilkey lost his faith in humanity, but not his appreciation for our sense of humor. If we still hope for humanity, but we can't hope in humanity, in whom can we hope? I started seriously asking this question when I was 20 years old. I was just a bit younger than Langdon when my faith in myself fell apart, when I saw the ugly parcel-hoarding truth about myself. I'm not the person I want to be or pretend to be. I'm bound up in my own self-interest. Who will save me? Who will set me free?

Someone pointed me to Jesus of Nazareth, to His story in the Bible. From the Bible, I learned that God created us because He wanted to share His gifts. No one made Him do it. No one asked for it. There was no higher commander to force God's hand. God simply gave. God shared because that's what God does. That's God's nature. Jesus revealed the nature of God. He said that He is the eternal Son of God, that He's always existed with God His Father and the Holy Spirit, and that the three of them are One. They share everything: always have, always will.

Then God created. God created us to be generous like Him, but something went wrong. A voice told us that if we shared we'd get shorted. It whispered to us each separately that we ought to be the center of the universe, and we believed it. And so began our hopeless captivity. But God kept giving His gifts. He gave a promise to Abraham. He promised even to give Himself to be the Gift for His people, for all people, the Gift who never runs out. Then one day God really did it. He gave Himself. He gave His Son, born among the daughters and sons of Abraham, to people like us. People who were not as good as they wanted to be or pretended to be.

Jesus grew up among them. He shared God's gifts with them, but His sharing got out of hand, from their perspective anyway. Jesus shared with spongers, with people who didn't deserve God's generosity. That old, greedy voice whispered again: "If He goes on like this, you'll get shorted." So they put a stop to it. They had Jesus killed, crucified on a cross. But even there, God kept giving. Turns out not even death can stop God's generosity. Jesus became the Gift who never runs out, the Gift we didn't ask for, the one we needed. Jesus is alive, risen from the dead, and He wants to share His life with you. He wants to give Himself to you. "Trust Me," He says. "Be baptized into My people," He promises, and you'll never be shorted.

The Bible says in Colossians 1:27 that Jesus in you, Jesus in me, Christ in us is our hope. Jesus is the hope, the hope of glory, of abundance and generosity. The Good News of Jesus Christ is not just that He will set us free, not just that He will end this hopeless prison camp life, not just that He will one day return and restore all God's good gifts to us. That is the Good News. But there is more. The good news for all who trust in Him is that Jesus is the Gift already in us. He is alive in us. And so we are called Christians, people with Christ in us. Because of Christ in us, we cannot deny human giftedness and we cannot deny human need. We are hopelessly hopeful in Christ. Decentered out of our own hopeless situation, recentered on Him. That means we lose ourselves. We die to ourselves. We become less so that Christ can become more. This may be the last and greatest test for the Christian. That old voice comes back again: "If you lose yourself, what will you have left?" It is a terrifying question. People wiser than me tell me that by losing myself for Jesus, I'll find my true self in Jesus. I know that's the right answer, but that hasn't stopped me from struggling with it for about 30 years. And some of you have been struggling with it longer than that.

The best encouragement that I've found is knowing that I'm not at this alone. God multiplies His gifts in the people around me. In the frail and fractured Christian people who are my church, even in the frail and fractured community that is my family and school and workplace and neighborhood. Some days I can't see Christ in me. I can only see my old parcel-hoarding self. But other people tell me that they can see what I can't. They can see Christ in me, and I can see Christ in them and for them.

That's how it worked for Langdon Gilkey. His book about Shantung Compound wasn't merely an account of a World War II internment camp. It was a personal account of struggling with losing faith in himself. As he shares his story, he does much philosophizing and invokes a lot of abstract language about God. But at the end of it, Langdon, like the rest of us, is struggling with losing himself to Jesus. We can't always see Jesus in ourselves or in our ideas about God. Maybe that's because Jesus wants us to see Him working in and with and through the gifts of others—through the wise justice of an enemy commander, through a well-timed sense of humor, in a gift we didn't ask for, and a frail and fractured community that somehow manages to hold us all together. In the Name of Jesus. Amen.

Reflections for January 29, 2023

Title: Hopelessly Hopeful

Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour. For FREE online resources, archived audio, our mobile app, and more, go to Once again, here's Dr. Michael Zeigler.

Mike Zeigler: I'm visiting with Don Everts. Don is the author of the book, Discover Your Gifts. Welcome back to the program, Don.

Don Everts: Hi, Mike! Great to be back with you.

Mike Zeigler: Today, we're concluding a sermon series interacting with some of the themes of Don's most recent book, and we've been blessed already to hear some of his insights in the last weeks. And today we wanted to talk about growing in our gifts. Don, in your book, you used this phrase, "developmental posture." What does that mean? Why is it important?

Don Everts: Yeah. A developmental posture is like you have this lens on yourself and on other people that we are all growing. We are all being developed over time by God, by other people, by experiences. I should be mindful and thoughtful about how to get more experience using those gifts, how to get better at using those gifts. And where I have more experience with them, I can look to help other people develop their gifts as well.

Mike Zeigler: The book Don is talking about is drawn from biblical insights, biblical assertions, but also research. We interviewed lots and lots and lots of people. So Don, what was a research insight that was interesting or exciting to you in this area in growing in our gifts?

Don Everts: Yeah. So one really encouraging thing was how interested people in younger generations are in discovering their gifts and having their gifts developed. When we chart across generations, one of the things that really popped was that young people are interested in this. They want help discovering their gifts. They want help developing their gifts. And even we did research among Christians and among non-Christians, Christians and non-Christians—and I was surprised by this, but it's very encouraging—are open to discovering and developing their gifts in the context of a church. I find that to be really, really encouraging.

Mike Zeigler: That is. So often you hear people talk about, in the church, what can we do to get more young people?

Don Everts: Exactly.

Mike Zeigler: And it usually conversations revolve around—

Don Everts: That's right.

Mike Zeigler: —changing the music or changing the vibe or whatever. But you're saying just mentoring young people and care for them and invest in them, that could be really a strong pull.

Don Everts: That's right. There are some discouraging things in the stats, too, which we could take as opportunities, that there are people, women on average report having their gifts developed by others less than men. People who are lower socioeconomic situations report having less help developing their gifts. People who have less education report the same. So it's not only that churches should be interested in helping people develop gifts because it'll attract young people, though I think that is a real opportunity. There's also a way that we can step in to be lifting up people that maybe aren't being lifted up or developed as much as everyone else.

Mike Zeigler: How could a church be a place that's devoted to developing gifts in people who are coming into the doors?

Don Everts: There are all sorts of leadership roles, organizational roles, financial roles that we can be coaching and helping people take on rather than the people on staff at the church are the ones who lead or do everything.

The other place is to just offer community-wide training on discovering gifts. So I've known of churches that have taken our EveryGift Inventory™ and some of just the research around common gifts and had held community events. Come discover something about your gifts. People are interested in that.

Mike Zeigler: So it's not just people coming into the doors but people that Christians rub shoulders with out in the community seeking common good. That's also a place, or maybe the primary place, where gifts are developed.

Don Everts: That's right, and helping people embrace apprenticeship again. I want to help you. I think you have teaching gifts and I want to help you develop those gifts more. And I'm going to coach you. I'm going to have you watch me. I'm going to have you teach. I'm going to give you places to do that, and then I'm going to evaluate and push you. Church isn't a place for them to just come consume and be entertained, but they're seeing it like, "This is a place where I can be developed and use my gifts."

Mike Zeigler: Thank you so much for being with us, Don, and for the work that you've done with Lutheran Hour Ministries and for the church and for the world.

Don Everts: Well, you're very welcome. It's great to partner with you, Mike.

Music Selections for this program:

"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.

"My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less" arr. Henry Gerike. Used by permission.

"Son of God, Eternal Savior" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House) Used by permission.

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