Looking Forward: Three Stories of Hope
by Eric Elder
You can listen to an extended version of today’s sermon by clicking the link below:
Looking Forward: Three Stories of Hope.
I’d like to talk to you this morning about hope–capital H-O-P-E–hope. I know you don’t want to hear about heartache today. We all have enough of that. You want to hear about hope, and I do too.
So I want to share three stories with you about how God has given me hope over the past year. I pray they give you hope, and then you can pass it on to others. The three stories I’d like to share with you have to do with a ring, an apple and 3 emails.
The first story is about a ring.
Several years ago my wife, Lana, lost her wedding ring one day. She had already been up and going for awhile before she realized that her ring was missing from her finger. She never went without it, so she was surprised and disturbed that it was missing.
So we started looking all over the house. We looked by the kitchen sink where she did the dishes. We looked in the bathroom where it might have come off. We looked everywhere we could, but we couldn’t find it all day.
By the end of the day, we were going back to bed and she thought to look under the bed. There was her ring on the floor. She said, “You know, I remember waking up this morning and hearing this ‘clink, clink, clink.’”
I said, “Well, that would have been good information to know as we were searching for your ring all day!”
She went on to say that at night, when she put her hand under her pillow, she would sometimes play with her ring, spinning it around and taking it on and off. The night before, she must have taken it off and fell asleep, and then it must have fallen to the ground in the morning when she got up.
So that became a little joke between us over the years. Whenever something would go missing, one of us would say, “Did you hear anything go ‘clink, clink, clink?’”
So a few months ago I was sitting with a couple at our dining room table. At one point in the conversation, I looked down at my hand and noticed my ring was missing. I’ve always worn my wedding ring, too, and even though Lana passed away about eight months before this, I still wore my ring every day. I couldn’t bring myself to take it off. Even though I knew there might come a day when I would take it off, I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to take it off. And honestly, I was dreading that day.
So when I noticed my ring was missing, I panicked. I thought, “Where’s my ring?” I felt naked and embarrassed in front of this couple, wondering if they noticed it, too. I wondered what they might think of me, if I had taken it off because I wanted to start dating again or something, which I definitely didn’t! All these thoughts started racing through my mind, all the time wondering, “Where could my ring be?”
Then I remembered something. Earlier in the year, I had decided to start losing some weight. I’m a stress eater, so when I get stressed, I eat. By January of this year I had gained more weight than I had ever gained in my life. I knew that I needed to stay healthy, for myself and for my kids, and I wanted to start losing weight again, but I just didn’t have the fortitude to do it at the time. As the year went on, however, I decided to do it, and began losing weight, week by week. The night before I met with this couple, I was laying in bed and noticed that my ring was loose and could come right off and back on again. So I laid there in bed, spinning it around and taking it off and on, and must have fallen asleep with it off.
As I was sat there at the dining table with this couple, I thought to myself, “You know, I do remember hearing this ‘clink, clink, clink’ when I woke up!”
After saying goodbye to my visitors, I went upstairs, looked under my bed, and there was my ring on the floor. I looked to heaven and said, “OK, Lana, now I get it. Now I can see how you could have overlooked hearing that ‘clink, clink, clink’ when you lost your ring years ago.” And so I had a little smile in that moment in my mind with Lana.
And although I was dreading the day when I would have to take off my ring, having that little smile with Lana made me think: “Well, today’s as good a day as any. At least I can look back on it with fondness and a smile, rather than with sadness. So I’ll try and just leave it off.” So I left it off. I still felt naked for the rest of the day, and even today when I look down and see that it’s missing, I feel like part of me’s missing, too. But at least I can look down and think about it with a smile now, and with thankfulness for the time that I did have with Lana.
I tell you that story to say that sometimes God gives us those little moments of grace. Moments that we may have been dreading in the future, but when they come, God gives us the grace to get through it, sometimes even with a little smile that says, “It’s going to be OK. I love you, and I’ll walk you through this, too.”
In one of the books I read on grief, called “Decembered Grief” by Harold Ivan Smith, I read a quote that has helped me through this new season of my life. The quote is from an unidentified woman and says:
“It has taken me many months to get to the point where I can say, ‘All right, the future is not going to be what you thought it was. It’s gone, and you’re not going to have it. You just will not have it. Your future went with him. Now you’ve got to build a new one.’”
I didn’t like reading those words at first, but over time I knew they were true for me, too. I’ve come to realize that the future is not going to be what I thought it would be, either. It’s gone, and I’m not going to have it. I just will not have it. Now I’ve got to build a new one.
Many of you know what this is like in your own life. You’ve reached those points in your life where you’ve had to say, “This isn’t the direction I thought my life was going to take.” And at some point you’ve had to let it go and say, “It’s not going to happen; they’re not coming back,” just as I’ve had to say, “OK, she’s not coming back.”
And she’s not. As much as I hate to say that, I know that God still has a future for me. It reminds me that I just need to keep “fixing my eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of my faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross…” (see Hebrews 12:2).
As much as I wish I had my old life back, I know the best thing I can do now is to keep moving forward–to keep saying, “God, I’m going to fix my eyes on You. I’m going to trust You, no matter what, because I know You’ll work it all out somehow for good in the end.” And I know He will.
The second story I want to tell you today has to do with an apple.
There’s a quote I read years ago that I thought was profound and beautiful. It said:
“The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time to plant a tree is today.”
I thought of that quote this spring as I looked at two pine trees in our yard, one of which I planted this past Christmas in honor of Lana, and the other which Lana and I planted 19 Christmases ago, almost 20 years now. The tree I recently planted is only about a foot tall, but the older tree is one of the largest in our yard. We had bought the tree from a nursery that winter and had brought it into our house for a few days at Christmas to decorate it and put presents underneath it. Then, after Christmas, we took it out to my dad’s farm and planted it, not knowing that one day we would eventually be living there ourselves. Over the years that tree has grown and grown, and now it’s one of the tallest that we have.
So over the years, I’ve taken this quote to heart about planting trees, and every year we plant a few more, and a few more, and few more trees. We don’t have a forest by any means, but we do have more trees than we would have had otherwise, had I not stopped from time to time and just said, “OK, I’m going to stop at Big R and pick up a tree and we’ll put it in the ground.”
For some reason, this has been an amazing year for fruit trees, and for all the trees that Lana and I planted with the kids over the years, this is the first time any of them has produced an significant amount of fruit. And not just one tree, but nearly all of them have started bearing fruit, even those we planted just a year or two ago, when normally they should take five or six or seven years before they produce any fruit. So this year we had apples from four different trees, cherries, peaches, and even two little plums on a new plum tree! All these trees started bearing fruit–just this year.
When I saw all these trees bearing fruit, part of me was tempted to be really sad and wonder, “How could Lana have missed all that fruit?” But the other part of me said, “Lana would be thrilled to know that all her hard work has paid off and is now bearing fruit–fruit that will last.” And that made me so glad that we just kept planting and planting and planting, because the Bible says:
“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9).
Even though Lana is gone this year and can’t enjoy it herself, we’re all enjoying the fruit of all that she’s done.
And picking up an apple tree from Big R is hardly a big deal, but Lana’s investment in my life, and our six kids’ lives, and your lives and many other people’s lives, whether it was at home or in her writings or recordings or any of the number of things she invested in, those things are bearing fruit now in so many wonderful ways.
I was preaching at a church last week and took an apple with me from one of the trees that Lana and I had planted. And because it was a smaller congregation of friends that we knew and loved, my kids and I baked some pies for them from the apples off the tree, so they could enjoy some of the fruit from Lana’s life as well.
I told them what I’m telling you today: just keep planting. Not all the trees we planted took root. Some of them have died–in fact, several have. But not everything we do in life takes root, either. Jesus spoke very clearly about this when He told the parable of the seeds. He said:
“A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up. Some fell on rock, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown” (Luke 8:5-8a).
So not everything we plant will bear fruit. But I want to encourage you to keep planting and planting and planting because at the proper time you will reap a harvest, too, if you do not give up.
I had a friend who seemed to turn everything he touched into gold. He was a great businessman and a great supporter of missions. When people would say to him that everything he touched seemed to turn to gold, his response was, “No, but I do touch a lot of things. And when those things that do bear fruit come to fruition, they bear a lot of fruit.” Sometimes in order to bear a lot of fruit, we just need to plant a lot of seed. So I want to encourage you to keep planting. Keep watering. Don’t give up. One day, you will reap a harvest, if you do not give up.
The third story I want to tell you today is based on three emails I received recently.
If you’ve been reading along with me through this series, you’ll remember my story of a Jewish woman who emailed me three years ago after “accidentally” receiving one of our daily emails when a co-worker sent it to her by mistake instead of another co-worker. She started reading the stories about Jesus on our website, and began wondering if He really was the Messiah they’ve been waiting for for so long. She eventually put her faith in Christ and wrote to me back in May to tell me about her new-found faith (click here to read her story).
Well, was I ever surprised when we hosted our “Night of Worship at The Ranch” a few weeks ago here in Illinois when she came up and introduced herself to me as we were gathering to get some food before the time of worship! Here she was, someone in “real life” who had been touched by something we posted on our website many years earlier, and which she had just discovered three years ago. As a result, she had a complete change of heart and complete change of life as well. I shouldn’t be surprised, because we hear regularly from people who say how important our messages are to them, but there’s something about meeting people in person who have been touched by what we’ve done that gives us an even greater glimpse of what God can do through our lives when we’re willing to live them for Him.
I tell you that again to say: keep investing in people’s lives. Don’t give up. Don’t become weary in doing good. At the proper time you will reap a harvest, too, if you don’t give up.
In that same message (Reaping a Harvest), I also mentioned that some of the music that we’ve put on our website has begun to pay dividends in a big way, with a surprise royalty check that came a few weeks ago from Pandora. And the check came at a time when things were becoming tighter and tighter for us financially, as I haven’t been able to write or do the fundraising that I normally would have done in the time since Lana’s passing. And it came the same week I had finally finished putting all of our books and music on The Ranch website for free, so people could listen day or night without charge, from anywhere in the world.
I was concerned I was shooting myself in the foot by not pursuing a publishing or record label for these books and music, but I just kept hearing Jesus’ words in my head, saying:
“So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:31-33).
Well, to follow this up, I received another email from Pandora 10 days ago saying that they had accepted my most recent piano CD, “Soothe My Soul,” to play on their Internet radio stations! This was a huge breakthrough for us, as they’re actually only playing a dozen songs that we’ve produced over the years, which they accepted early on when they were just a small company. But in the years since, we’ve produced a dozen CD’s, and have submitted each one, but they’ve declined each one, saying they simply receive more music submissions than they can include in their catalog. But each year, we keep submitting our latest recordings, and each year, we keep getting rejected. But after 10 years of rejections, last week they accepted our most recent submission and will begin playing it online within the next few weeks!
In case, I haven’t mentioned it enough today, let me say it again: keep planting!
And I’d like to mention one final email today–this one came just before I stood up to preach last Sunday at a local church. It came from a grade school friend of mine who is now a missionary in another country. She had reposted a link to a sermon I preached and shared online with you a few weeks ago called “Building A Safety Net.” Her note to her Facebook friends read:
“I am begging you….PLEASE take a short time out of your day to listen to this message from my dear friend Eric Elder. It will touch your heart and give you the tools we all need in life!”
She had written me earlier to say how much she enjoyed the message, and now she was passing it along to others. But I have to tell you, the day I stood up to preach that message was one of the hardest days I had to walk through yet. It had been about 10 months since Lana died, and the first time I stood up to preach at a Sunday morning service since I preached at her funeral 10 months earlier. I had only had four hours of sleep at best, and it was 6 in the morning and I was getting my 3 kids ready to go and drive 45 minutes to preach 3 services in a row… and I still wasn’t sure what I was going to say. As I was getting everyone ready, I said to myself, “I am never going to say ‘yes’ to preaching again. This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done, to say ‘yes’ to preaching again. There’s no way I can do it.”
If I hadn’t already said ‘yes,’ and the services were to begin in just a few hours, I would have cancelled if I could have. I truly didn’t know yet what I was going to say, and I truly wondered why I was doing it at all… and I had already accepted several other preaching engagements for the following weeks at other churches as well. I thought I was ready when I said ‘yes,’ but now I wondered how I could ever do it again.
But I did. And God helped me through it. And even more amazing, He spoke to people and touched their hearts through what I had to say. So much so, in fact, that people like this friend in another country was pleading with her friends online to listen to the recording as it had so touched her. It reminded me of a passage from 2 Corinthians, chapter 4, about how God can shine through the broken places in our lives in ways that people see His glory, even though we ourselves are nothing more than cracked clay pots. Here’s what Paul says to the Corinthians, in the Message translation of the Bible:
“Remember, our Message is not about ourselves; we’re proclaiming Jesus Christ, the Master. All we are is messengers, errand runners from Jesus for you. It started when God said, “Light up the darkness!” and our lives filled up with light as we saw and understood God in the face of Christ, all bright and beautiful.
“If you only look at us, you might well miss the brightness. We carry this precious Message around in the unadorned clay pots of our ordinary lives. That’s to prevent anyone from confusing God’s incomparable power with us. As it is, there’s not much chance of that. You know for yourselves that we’re not much to look at. We’ve been surrounded and battered by troubles, but we’re not demoralized; we’re not sure what to do, but we know that God knows what to do; we’ve been spiritually terrorized, but God hasn’t left our side; we’ve been thrown down, but we haven’t broken. What they did to Jesus, they do to us – trial and torture, mockery and murder; what Jesus did among them, He does in us – He lives! Our lives are at constant risk for Jesus’ sake, which makes Jesus’ life all the more evident in us. While we’re going through the worst, you’re getting in on the best!
“We’re not keeping this quiet, not on your life. Just like the psalmist who wrote, ‘I believed it, so I said it,’ we say what we believe. And what we believe is that the One who raised up the Master Jesus will just as certainly raise us up with you, alive. Every detail works to your advantage and to God’s glory: more and more grace, more and more people, more and more praise!
“So we’re not giving up. How could we! Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace. These hard times are small potatoes compared to the coming good times, the lavish celebration prepared for us. There’s far more here than meets the eye. The things we see now are here today, gone tomorrow. But the things we can’t see now will last forever” (2 Corinthians 4:5-18, MSG).
I just want to encourage you, God is glorified through what you do, too. Maybe there are days when you don’t feel like getting up, you don’t feel like going to work, you don’t feel like going to a Bible study, you don’t feel like leading a small group, you don’t feel like preaching, you don’t feel like teaching, you don’t feel like whatever it is that you have to do.
Can I just encourage you not to give up. Keep planting. Keep reaching out. If you need time out, take time out, but then get back up and go at it again. With God there’s always hope. He’s given it to me this year, and I hope I’ve given a little bit to you.
“Father, thank You that You can use our weak clay pots of lives and our brokenness, Lord, to let streams of Your light shine through it. I praise You God that somehow You give us the strength to keep going. I thank You Lord for the people who have prayed for us and kept us going, and held our arms up when we couldn’t do it ourselves. Lord, I pray for each person reading this today, that You would give them hope for a very specific situation in their lives, that thing that they’re facing that they struggle to find hope for, I pray You would give them hope, kindle a new flame in them, encourage them to keep going on, keep pressing through, and keep planting seeds, for at the proper time I know that they will reap a harvest, and generations down the road, even when we’re gone, will reap a harvest from what they plant now. We pray this all in Jesus’ name, Amen.”
As a thank-you for your donation of any size to our ministry, we’d be glad to send you our DVD, “To Lana, With Love,” featuring the Celebration of the Life of Lana Elder, who passed away on November 15th, 2012. Lana was the wife of Eric Elder and co-founder of The Ranch. “To Lana, With Love” also includes the short inspirational video, “Eric’s Hope,” to give hope and encouragement to others facing loss.
Click here to learn more or to make a donation.