Friday, September 30, 2011

What? Me, Wait? Why?

If there is a trait that typifies most Americans, it’s that we hate to wait – for anything.

We hate waiting in line for our first cup of coffee of the day. Fast food’s too slow. Waiting in line at the bank or grocery store aggravates us. If drivers ahead of us hesitate more than two seconds when the light turns green, we honk our horns to wake them up. We even hate waiting for the microwave’s beep that announces our frozen meal is ready.

Our nation’s culture has a “Can-Do” spirit, with emphasis on Do. We want to move on, get things done. We don’t want to have to wait. Where’s the fun in that?

Even as children we quickly learn an aversion for waiting. Babies want their bottles “right now!” Youngsters demand immediate gratification for whatever they’re desiring at the moment. And as days until Christmas start clicking away, anxiety about Santa and what will be under the tree intensifies by the moment.

But there are benefits to waiting: You can’t plant a garden and expect ripe fruit the very next day. The finest wines aren’t produced overnight; they often age for years. A caterpillar transforming into a butterfly must wait until the right moment to leave the cocoon. Having to await the arrival of a long-absent loved one makes their appearance even sweeter.

Another kind of development also requires waiting: Spiritual growth. Repeatedly in the Scriptures, followers of Jesus are advised to wait. One of my favorite chapters in the entire Bible – Psalm 37 – three times instructs us to wait:    
      - Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him” (Psalm 37:7).
     -  “…those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land” (Psalm 37:9).
     - “Wait for the Lord and keep his way…” (Psalm 37:34).

Psalm 46:10 uses a different word, but the same meaning: “Be still, and know that I am God.”

Another passage encourages those wrestling with physical difficulties or facing circumstances that threaten to overwhelm them: “…they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40:31).

Why is waiting so important? Parents and grandparents know even if they want to respond to their children or grandkids immediately, sometimes they can’t because things aren’t ready yet – whether it’s freshly baked cookies, a costume they’re sewing, or a much-anticipated trip.

Sometimes God seeks to teach us patience, a virtue increasingly rare in this 21st century world. “I want what I want – and I want it now!” is an affront to the loving God who gives us far more than we deserve.

And waiting reminds us of our limitations – and of how much we need God. When we easily resolve problems on our own, we might say we trust the Lord, but we’re relying on ourselves. But when difficulties persist no matter how we try to overcome them, God will demonstrate for us what only He can do. In the process, our faith and trust soar.

So whether anxiously waiting to find a new job; agonizing about what the medical report will say about a worrisome illness; awaiting the proverbial “check in the mail,” or fretting because you haven’t heard back from a loved one, remember:

Why wait? Because it’s good for you. Good things DO come to those who wait!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

On the Move With Susan G. Komen

Members of our family had the privilege of joining more than 9,000 men, women and young people in last weekend’s Susan G. Komen “Race for the Cure” in Chattanooga to fight breast cancer. We did so celebrating the fact my wife, Sally, was among the more than 100 survivors in attendance.

It was heartening to see these courageous women (and a few men) gathered together, adorned in bright pink t-shirts and pink ribbons symbolizing the cause. Special pink beads represented years of survivorship, and it was fun seeing some women with upwards of 20 strands hanging around their necks.

Events like this serve multiple purposes: There’s the fund-raising aspect, raising many thousands of dollars for breast cancer research. There is also the gratification of being involved in a cause bigger than oneself. As it says in Ecclesiastes 4:12, “a cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” In other words, there is great strength in numbers.

A third benefit is the encouragement those dealing with such adversity receive in meeting others that have confronted – and conquered – the disease. In 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 we are reminded of “…the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.” This is one reason I continue to volunteer at a local hospital, visiting patients who – as I did about five years ago – have just undergone open-heart surgery.

And yet another benefit is gaining the sense that whatever challenge we are facing, we’re not in it alone. That there are others willing to come alongside to offer support, words of hope, and their prayers. This is a responsibility all of us that follow Jesus share: “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).

Life is so much richer when we realize we’re not here just for ourselves, but also for others. It is in the giving that we receive the most.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Stories Our Hands Could Tell

A meditation I read recently about hands got me thinking: Our hands are so much a part of who we are, what we do. What stories they could tell about us.

An expert observer could instantly surmise important facts about someone simply by looking at their hands: Rough, weathered hands of a farmer or lifetime outdoor laborer. Calloused fingertips of an accomplished guitarist or violinist. The soft, well-manicured, painted-nail hands of a woman of means that hasn’t needed to spend much time doing strenuous housework. Delicate, nurturing hands of a practiced gardener.

But appearances alone don’t tell all of the story. Hands can caress, comfort, and console. They can coddle a helpless infant, providing a sense of security so vital for its first days outside the womb. Hands can scribble notes to inspire or encourage. They can offer strength and support, provide direction, issue warnings. They can direct an orchestra or a choir, change a tire, knit a beautiful scarf, repair a torn garment. They can communicate affection. Or offer silent praise.

Unlike my grandfather, father and favorite uncle, my hands have never excelled in using tools like hammers, screwdrivers and wrenches. Mine have functioned better at a keyboard – my tool of trade – composing words, assembling sentences and paragraphs to convey ideas.

Hands, unfortunately, can also be destructive. They can slap, bruise, squeeze, push, pound, poke and punch. A kindly looking face can belie an abusive personality that reveals itself with angry hands only behind closed doors. Even without contact, hands can point threateningly, or punctuate harsh, demeaning words.

I had a friend, a law enforcement officer in Jamaica, whose hands were severed by a machete-wielding criminal he had been pursuing. But even Ivan’s artificial hands spoke volumes about his life.

As we might expect, the Bible says a lot about hands. My concordance lists more than four full pages of passages containing “hand.” Ecclesiastes 9:10 instructs, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might….” Half-hearted is the equivalent of “half-handed.”

Biblical patriarchs such as Abraham, Noah, Joseph, Moses, Samson, Elijah, Nehemiah and others all used their hands in unique ways in serving God. Jesus literally changed lives with the touch of a hand. His hands, nailed to a cross, extended forgiveness to broken humanity.

We’ve all seen reproductions of Michelangelo’s iconic painting, displayed on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, of the hand of God extending to give life to Adam.

Believers are exhorted to, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time” (1 Peter 5:6). And colonial pastor Jonathan Edwards in 1741 spoke his classic sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

Hands – exquisite stories captured in fingers and palms.

What, if it were possible, would your hands say about you? 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Charleston: Conquering Challenges

Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge of Charleston's Cooper River,
a recent addition to Charleston's scenic vista.

Last week my wife and I spent several days in historic Charleston, S.C. It was our second trip there, and we agreed that if we were to live in another Southern city, Charleston probably would be it.

Rightfully proud of its rich heritage, Charleston is a classic example of a determined community confronting challenges and prevailing against them.

Mansions along the Battery.
During its early years, Charleston was a popular target for marauding pirates. In April 1861, the bombardment and surrender of Fort Sumter, located in Charleston Harbor, ignited the Civil War. The earthquake of 1886 devastated the city, taking dozens of lives and causing widespread destruction. And Hurricane Hugo in 1989, a category 4 storm, dealt the city another major blow.

Despite these and other calamities, the people of Charleston repeatedly pulled together to repair, rebuild and restart. Today the city and its surrounding islands remain a focal point of Southern tradition and culture. The area boasts excellent educational institutions, like The Citadel and the College of Charleston, along with some of the finest seafood you can eat anywhere.

Statue in garden maze
at Magnolia Plantation.
Visitors strolling the city’s streets and alleys find it one continuous “Kodak Moment,” featuring the stately mansions of the Battery, the renowned Rainbow Row houses, ornately and uniquely designed churches, and picturesque plantations.

One attraction gripped us in particular – the Boone Hall plantation on Sullivan’s Island in nearby Mount Pleasant. Known for its visual grandeur, it serves as a memorial to Southern aristocracy.

At the same time, just a short walk from the hall, “Slave Street” permanently reminds visiting guests of slavery and the hardships endured by African-American men, women and children. The 360-square-foot brick houses, standing in a row like tiny barracks, each accommodated several families.

Tiny houses line "Slave Street" at Boone Hall Plantation.
Today visitors can enter those former residences, catch a glimpse of what life must have been like to be a slave, and appreciate a different kind of pride and perseverance – that of a strong-willed people that overcame obstacles many of us can never fully comprehend.

We live in a “quick fix,” minimize-the-pain world, but in reality, as they say, “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Charleston and its diverse citizenry are living proof of that.

Although it seems paradoxical, Romans 5:3-4 instructs us to “…rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”

The apostle James agrees when he writes, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4).

Thursday, September 8, 2011

‘Where Were You . . . ?’

Where were you when the horrifying events of Sept. 11, 2001 unfolded? This question ranks in importance along with similar questions of another generation:
·       Where were you when President Kennedy was shot?
·       Where were you when you heard that Elvis had died?
·       Where were you when the space shuttle Challenger exploded?

Each of those tragedies has helped to define and shape us as a society, in one respect rocking the foundations of our seemingly placid existence, in another forcing us to re-examine our core convictions, values and beliefs.

When the incredible scenes of 9-11 took place, I was at work, sitting at my desktop computer. I don’t recall what it was I was writing. Within the context of the day’s, whatever it was – no matter how vital – seemed inconsequential.

Who can ever forget the images of the North Tower, officially known as One World Trade Center, smoke billowing out, and then minutes later seeing the second jet slam into the South Tower, casting aside any speculation that the first was just a horrendous accident?

A friend of mine, Jerry, worked on Wall Street and would have been in the North Tower that morning except for oversleeping after staying up late to watch his favorite team play on “Monday Night Football.” It had been his custom to get off the subway, take an elevator to visit friends on the 79th floor where he used to have an office, then leave for his business that had moved down the street.

Ironically, another tragedy probably spared Jerry’s life on 9-11. His wife, Camy, had died a couple of months earlier of an abdominal aortic aneurysm. Only weeks before she had presented Jerry with the high-tech clock radio he failed to set properly to awaken him that fateful September morning. So when the jets slammed into the towers, Jerry was at home in Bayonne, New Jersey, drinking a cup of coffee and reading the morning newspaper before heading to work a little late.

Needless to say, he didn’t go to work that day.

Mountains of words have been written about 9-11, its aftermath, the war on terror that has been waged ever since, and the impact still reverberating for individuals and families directly and indirectly affected. Just as occurred following the assassinations of JFK, Martin Luther King, Jr., Bobby Kennedy and other heinous events, 9-11 stripped away another layer of our society’s collective “innocence” (and perhaps, ignorance), along with any semblance of a Pollyanna spirit and trust in human purity we ever had.

But if there is a positive to be found, anything beneficial, it’s the necessary reminder that one day we all will die. It might not be in calamity that generates headlines and news reports around the world. But our time here on earth, one way or another, is limited. So we should cherish every moment.

As Ephesians 5:16 tells us, “make the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.” The moments of our lives appear and flee just as quickly, never to be enjoyed again.

Amid the sadness of 9-11, let’s rejoice in today. We won’t see it again. “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24).

Friday, September 2, 2011

Taking Advantage of Adversity

Years ago I had the privilege of interviewing a remarkable woman, Joni Eareckson Tada, for a magazine article. I’ll never forget one particular statement she made.

As a teenager, Joni dove headfirst from a dock into a lake, not realizing how shallow it was. She struck her head and broke her neck, leaving her a quadriplegic. As you might expect, her next weeks and months were extremely difficult, adjusting to the reality of no longer having the use of her limbs. But with determination – and faith – she overcame that adversity to become an accomplished author, artist and singer.

Her statement to me was: “I tremble to think what my life would have been if I had not broken my neck.”

Joni explained that although she believed in God, she had begun drifting from her faith. In fact, just weeks before she had prayed, “Lord, I want to be closer to You.” In retrospect, she quipped, “Maybe I should have been more specific.”

Those of us who are able-bodied cannot imagine what it must be like living with that disability, but Joni stared adversity in the eyes – and adversity blinked. Paralyzed, she perhaps has achieved far more than she would have otherwise.

I also recall interviewing Dr. Gerald Durley, an engaging, charismatic African-American business leader who suffered firsthand the pain of racial prejudice. And yet, years later, he repeatedly said, “Thank you for adversity.” Gerry knew the hardships he endured had strengthened and shaped him for the life of service God had planned for him.

The Bible tells us that adversity – struggles we encounter during our journey through life – is one of God’s primary teaching tools for His children. For instance, in Romans 5:3-4, the apostle Paul observes: “…we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”

Despite our “can-do, pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps” society, adversity reveals our limitations. It also forces us to recognize our desperate need for God, His strength, wisdom and grace.

Are you facing a major, even overwhelming, challenge today? If you aren’t, you will – that’s just the way life is. The question is, when adversity appears, how will you respond?

Will you shake your fist at God in anger – or will you trust Him to walk with you, even carry you if necessary, through the challenges so that you too can say, “Thank you for adversity”?