Cultivating Our Own Little Garden?

Michael Metzger

Jim Collins says companies make five “leaps” in going from good to great. The third one reminds us of Easter. It also reminds us of a challenge that many of us face.

In Good to Great (2001), Jim Collins lists five “leaps” great companies make. The third is an ability “to confront the brutal reality of your present situation and not lose hope.” Collins got this from Admiral James Stockdale who survived eight years as a POW in Vietnam. How did he make it? Stockdale said he confronted the brutal reality of his present situation and did not lose hope “in the end of the story.”

The end of the story is key. Some POWs imagined it as home by Christmas. Christmas came and went. Then Easter. But Easter came and went. Then Thanksgiving. Then Christmas again. Stockdale called these POWS optimists. They imagined their story ending in ways that never happened. “They died of a broken heart.”

Voltaire was an optimist. He spent his early life following Philosophical Optimism, Leibniz’s idea that everything will work out for the best in this life. Leibniz was trying to reconcile two things: the existence of a good God and evil. He concluded that God created a world with minimum evil. “This world is the best of all possible worlds.” Leibniz called it optimism.

Voltaire found it to be unlivable. He was an Enlightenment man. He wanted to change the world. Voltaire sought to do this by railing against the authority of church and state. That landed him twice in prison. He was also exiled to England. In the end, Voltaire couldn’t see how everything worked out for the best. So he wrote a scathing satire on optimism, “Candide.” His solution was retiring with friends to the warm shores of an inland sea. Voltaire decided the secret of life is “to cultivate one’s garden.”

That was a dig at God. We’re created to cultivate the entire earth (Gen.2:15). We’re to strive to make the entire world—not just our little world—a better place. Voltaire didn’t have a living hope. A living hope never dies, even if your dreams die. Or you die.

German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer recognized this. In 1939, as times grew increasingly turbulent in Germany, Bonhoeffer accepted a teaching position at Union Seminary in New York. But he soon realized that was a mistake. He returned to Germany to help the Jews flee Nazi persecution.

In 1941, Bonhoeffer returned to New York City for a speaking engagement. He was appalled by American optimism. Few cared about the war in Europe or the Jews. Christians were cultivating their own little gardens. In his diary, Bonhoeffer wrote, “Wise people condemn optimism.”

Returning to Germany, Bonhoeffer joined a plot to overthrow Hitler. It failed. He was sent to Flossenbürg concentration camp. On April 7, 1945, he celebrated Easter, reading from scripture about being “born anew to a living hope.” A living hope doesn’t assume everything will work out for the best in this life. It will work out in the next life, “in the end of the story” as Stockdale put it. On April 8, Bonhoeffer was arraigned, convicted, and condemned to death. The following morning, he was hung to death.

The camp was liberated four days later.

After Jesus hung and died on a cross, many of his disciples decided to retire to familiar work, fishing (Jn.21). Things hadn’t worked out as they hoped. Were they optimists?

I don’t know. I do know I can be an optimist. Life often turns out different than we imagine. Disappointment can result, an indicator of optimism, imagining how things will work out in this life. Some things do. Others don’t. When they don’t and we feel disappointment, we don’t have a living hope, for “hope does not disappoint” (Rom.5:5).

This is easy to write from the comfort of my home. For millions around the world, this Easter will be closer to what Bonhoeffer experienced. For starters, about 1.3 million Iraqi Christians have fled Iraq since 2003. Their communities have been destroyed. Only 200,000 Iraqi Christians remain in Iraq, living under the threat of Islamist extermination.

Then we have perhaps the deadliest cyclone to ever hit Africa. Then we have the border crisis occurring right here in this country. And are we aware that around 60 percent of the US population lives paycheck to paycheck? The list is long.

Easter reminds us that we’re supposed to have a living hope. That keeps us alive to the world’s problems and not settling for simply cultivating our own little garden. Examples abound. Love146 seeks the abolition of child trafficking. Clapham is helping a local leader, Vanessa Bright, develop a plan to end prisoner recidivism. Or check out Encore. “Second acts for the greater good.” At Clapham House, we’ve launched Affordable Annapolis 2030, a plan to end systemic poverty in this city by 2030.

Will any of these initiatives succeed? Don’t know. I do know we’re striving to be embodiments of a living hope, one that doesn’t settle for cultivating our own little gardens.


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  1. Thx Mike for this timely piece as we enter Holy Week. Its so tempting to settle “for our own little garden”. With eyes and hearts on our living hope, we are fueled for atttempting to tackle the challenges in our cities and world…

  2. Is it either/or? Or can it be both? When Israel was exiled to Babylon they were not in the better future for which they longed, but they were charged to work toward peace where they were.

    Why not, when we can, do both at the same time. Plant flowers and trees, keep the roads clean of litter, make our homes sanctuaries, our families a model of community, etc. If we do this, we reflect God’s beauty and provide a tangible foretaste of his ultimate intention while at the same time we join the tough and challenging work of ultimate reconciliation and restoration of all things.

  3. Mike,

    Thank you for this excellent piece, helping us to better understand hope and your good work at Clapham in tending to the world’s garden- In Christ we are a people of hope, thanks for your encouragement!


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