…HOPE DOES NOT DISAPPOINT…ROMANS 5:5a
I was reflecting recently about the power of hope. One of the biggest enemies we face daily in West Hill is the atmosphere of hopelessness and despair. G. K. Chesterton wrote, “Hope is the power of being cheerful in circumstances we know to be desperate.” We know we are in the midst of a desperate situation here in West Hill; however, we continue to work very hard, enduring trials, troubles, and tribulations, because we carry the hope of transformation in our hearts. I believe that this is a gift from God, not anything that we can boast about. We remain cheerful, even in the midst of trouble, because we can see our young people rising up out of the bondage of poverty and despair, our middle-agers prospering and living fulfilled lives, and our elders living their later years in peace, comfort, and safety. This is our great hope! Many times when we are faced with the daunting obstacles that we encounter on a daily basis, we tend to lose hope and give up. I am encouraged, however, when I reflect upon history and see example after example of how a small group of committed people rose up and did extraordinary things which changed the course of history. They were little, insignificant people changing their world because they held onto a belief in something good that was far greater than themselves. I would like to share with you just one example:
In 1860, this country went to war over issues of slavery and states rights. It was brother against brother in a conflict that threatened to tear this nation asunder. It was the bloodiest conflict in our history with over 900,000 casualties, about 3% of the population at that time. The question was whether this nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal could withstand this conflict and remain one nation. You see, if this nation were divided, it is doubtful that it would have had the strength to withstand and defeat that great evil which was to arise over Europe less than 80 years later. I am sure even the most prophetic seers of that time could not imagine a future with a divided America. I am sure that the men who participated in that dire conflict had very little insight into how historic and important their actions were. To them it must have seemed just a progression of suffering. Fatigue, pain, and discouragement must have felt like the daily lot for many of these men. I wonder how many in the midst of their suffering were able to see the “bigger picture” and see themselves as history-makers and history-changers. How many were just hanging on, hoping to make it through alive, and like many people today, were just surviving and not really living? How many were tossed about by the vagaries of circumstances and hardships, more the victims than the victors?
The critical battle of the Civil War was to be fought in a small, relatively insignificant farming town in Southern Pennsylvania. It was to be fought by mostly insignificant people, in an insignificant place, with the history of this nation at stake. The brilliant General Robert E. Lee, never having known defeat, was leading the army of Northern Virginia. The Union Army of the Potomac, not only recently at Fredericksburg but often defeated, was demoralized due to these defeats and ineffectual, constantly changing, leadership.
Lee’s plan was to defeat the beleaguered Union forces in Pennsylvania, turn right, and capture Washington, and the country as we knew it would have ceased to exist. The two combatants collided at Gettysburg July 1-3, 1863. The first day of the battle went badly for the Union forces, but they managed to re-gather their lines south of the town of Gettysburg at a place known as Cemetery Ridge. This set the stage for the historic events on the second, or critical, day of the Battle of Gettysburg. On that second fateful day, it was noted that the hill called “Little Round Top” which was on the very left of the Union lines and commanded the high ground over the whole of the Union defenses, by some incredible oversight, was left undefended. Colonel Strong Vincent, realizing that this placed the whole army at extreme risk, commanded Col. J. Lawrence Chamberlain and the 20th Maine to climb Little Round Top and “hold the ground at all hazards.” They arrived on the summit of Little Round Top just 10 minutes prior to the enemy’s attack, and Chamberlain’s regiment, along with the 16th Michigan and 44th New York, dug in on Little Round Top.
Wave after wave of enemy attacks came against these brave and gallant men that fateful afternoon. These same men who had been previously defeated and had suffered great discouragement, stood and fought valiantly. Half of Chamberlain’s troops consisted of deserters who were given a second chance to fight and defend their honor. Many of his men were wounded, and many had already died. They did not realize the historic significance of what they were doing that hot July day. They only knew the pain, the fatigue, the discouragement, and the bravery of their leaders. The men of the 20th Maine looked up upon Col. Chamberlain standing in the middle of his troops, seemingly indomitable, through the smoke and the hail of many volleys. “Stand firm, steady.” Chamberlain strengthened his troops, as if by force of will, he could steel his men against the furious onslaught.
As the battle for Little Round Top raged, the Union generals back at headquarters began to realize how critical this small mound of rocks had become. They hurriedly dispatched couriers to bring back reports to see if this little rocky hill could be held. If not, they must withdraw in complete retreat. The fate of a nation hung in the balance. Time after time, the generals asked the scouts to go see, “How goes it on Little Round Top?” Every time, there came back the same report, “Chamberlain is holding!” The cheer, “Chamberlain is holding,” began to ring out through the whole Union line. At first greeted with tacit skepticism, report after report began to infuse these men with a tonic little before tasted, the hope of victory. Men who were exhausted received new energy, men who had quit picked up their muskets, wounded men forgot their pain and got back into the fight, fearful men became courageous, and slowly, almost imperceptibly, the tide of the battle began to turn.
During the last respite between waves of enemy attacks, Chamberlain’s officers gathered around him. “Colonel, many men are down to their last bullet, some are completely out of ammunition, and we can’t withstand another wave of attack. Should we surrender?” Chamberlain, stopping just for a second, replied, “Fix bayonets and prepare to attack.” With that, he led a sweeping attack down Little Round Top defeating an enemy with far superior numbers, saving the day, and ultimately the Battle of Gettysburg.
A few weary, desperate men, whose leaders refused to quit despite great loss to themselves, had started a tidal wave of hope which ultimately flooded and preserved a nation. You may be thinking now, “Why is he sharing this particular story with us?” If you haven’t quite figured it out yet, I believe we all have our individual Little Round Tops. Maybe these tests of character, fortitude, courage, and self-sacrifice are counting for more in history than we can ever imagine. Someday it will seem your enemies will have you outnumbered, and you will be down to your last bullet. On West Hill, we have been there many times already, and I am certain we will be there many times again. At these times, temptation comes. Although veiled differently, it almost always comes down to the same thing: “Just quit. Give up. No one cares anyway! Are we really making any difference? Does anyone care?” The temptation comes when you are hurting, tired, wounded, and just seem to be holding on by your last thread. The deceiver whispers in your ear, “Just give up.” When you are in that place, and everyone destined for greatness always stands in that place, I want you to think about a short, chubby, jolly guy in West Hill, Albany, NY. He never had much and most thought he would never amount to anything. He was not handsome, or rich, and was not nobly-born. He almost flunked out of eleventh grade in high school. But, one day he decided that he was not going to surrender his old neighborhood to the enemy, no matter what the cost! He was going to stand and fight, down to his last bullet and beyond.
He decided to fight, not for himself, but so someone can hear the story. So that some weary, discouraged soul on the verge of capitulation, who is standing in a place of great trial, can hear a positive report: “Dr. Bob is holding! Dr. Bob is holding on West Hill. He is down to his last bullet, but he is holding. He is not giving up. He will never give up.” And when this weary soul hears this report, hope will begin to flood back into his innermost being. He will endure in the place of trial and overcome into the place of greatness, and history will be changed.
History is hanging in the balance, and that is why this report must go out. The message of hope must be known to those who make history, and hope does not disappoint.