Excuse or Gift?

I have a friend who says he is going to change his telephone voice message greeting. He wants to say, “Thank you for calling. I’ve been making some changes in my life. Please leave a message. If I don’t call you back soon, you’re one of the changes.”

I don’t know if he ever got around to it. But I do know that making personal changes is often what life is all about. We’d better learn how to welcome change if we want to live fully.

Do you remember this story? Two men came from similar backgrounds. They both grew up in “dysfunctional” homes. An alcohol-addicted parent raised them both. They both endured numerous hardships as a result of the many problems brought about by their unstable home lives.

As adults, however, their lives looked quite different. One of the men couldn’t seem to keep a job for long. He was frequently let go for alcohol-related problems. He was married for a while, but his wife could not live with him any longer and eventually left. He felt hopeless and believed himself to be a failure.

A reporter interviewed him as part of an article she was writing on the effects of alcoholism in the home. She asked him, “To what do you attribute your present circumstances?”

“Given my background,” he replied, “what do you expect?”

The other man held a steady job. He enjoyed a stable marriage and home life. He was involved in his children’s lives. Overall, he felt productive and useful.

“To what do you attribute your present circumstances?” the reporter asked him, referring to his obvious success.

“Given my background,” he replied, “what do you expect?”

Naturally, our past will shape our present. Our backgrounds are crucial in determining the kinds of decisions we will make as adults.

But in this case, both men were shaped in different ways by their past. One slipped into those old, familiar patterns and recreated them as an adult. The other was determined never to repeat what he had experienced as a child. The first man felt helpless to change. The other used his background as motivation to make needed changes.

It’s true that we are products of our past. We are shaped by our parents, by our backgrounds and by pivotal people in our lives. We are products of our past. But we CAN make changes.

Like someone said:

“You may not go back and make a brand new start, my friend –

But you can start right now to make a brand new end.”

Psychologists now tell us that our difficult backgrounds can actually make us more resilient. Hardships can make us strong and give us needed motivation to be different in the future. A difficult background can actually be no less than a marvelous gift.

It comes down to one question: do I use the hard times in my past as an excuse or as a gift?

And so, we pray: Father, Most of us are thankful for the life we were given – how we were raised and the character of those who raised us. Many things go into the mix of influences that help to shape our worldview and mindset. We can look at our life now and make excuses or see it as a gift. However we see it, help us to start a brand new end. Amen.

Grace and Peace

A Little More Hope

Thomas Watson, former CEO and chairman of IBM, was famous for putting the word “THINK” on prominent walls of every IBM building. The tradition has carried on into modern times. Not long ago in a restroom at IBM’s Watson Center, a supervisor placed a “THINK” sign directly above the sink.

The next day, when he entered the restroom, he glanced at the sign.  Just below it and immediately above the soap dispenser, someone had carefully lettered another sign that which read: “THOAP!”

How often do you laugh at work? Actually, humor can make a serious difference. In the workplace, at home, in all areas of life – looking for a reason to laugh is necessary. A sense of humor helps us to get through the dull times, cope with the difficult times, enjoy the good times and manage the scary times.

Case in point: six-year-old Hannah. Hannah encountered one of the most frightening times of her life when she discovered she had cancer. Six years old and she might not live. And if she were to give life a shot, Hannah would have to endure painful, almost endless medical treatments. At one point she lost all her hair due to chemicals pumped into her tiny body. On days when she felt strong enough to get out, she often covered her head.

One day while shopping with her mother, Hannah donned a ball cap with a fake ponytail sewn into the back. Unless one looked closely, she looked as if she had a full head of hair. Before long Hannah noticed a small boy staring at her as if he were trying to figure out what was slightly off about the girl. She tried to ignore him, but he followed her around the store. Finally, she ripped off her cap revealing her shiny, hairless head. In a stern voice she warned, “This is what happens when you don’t eat your vegetables!”

I don’t know what became of the boy, but I suspect he is now a committed vegetarian. As for Hannah, her sense of humor helped get her through one of life’s scariest times.

Like entertainer Bob Hope once said, “I’ve seen what a good laugh can do. It can transform tears into hope.” And sometimes, a little more hope is all we need.

And so, we pray: Father, many times life gives us circumstances which brings tears to our eyes. Sometimes those tears help to clear our vision where we can see your hand reach out to us. Through your Spirit, give us a little more hope… turn our tears into laugher. Amen.

Grace and Peace

Hold On A Little Longer

Did you ever have a day like this? A man, cleaning one of those big cement trucks, got caught in the mixer. He climbed into the back of the truck with a hose to flush out remaining cement when his hose caught on a lever and pulled it to the “on” position. Suddenly, he found himself going round and round in the mixer with no way to escape. Slipping, sliding and banging around inside, all he could do was shout for help.

Fortunately, another worker came over and shut it off. In moments a bruised man, covered with wet concrete, emerged from the mixer. It reminds me of some days I’ve had. You know what I mean.

If you ever feel as if you are being knocked about by life, think about the amazing bird called the Water Ouzel. I can’t imagine this water bird knows what it is to have a bad day. The little creature is often found living next to violent waterfalls and fast-rushing rivers. And however threatening the weather, however cold the water, in snow and rain and even blazing summer sun, the tough and cheerful Water Ouzel can be heard chirping and singing. What’s more, while the voices of most songbirds, however melodious in warm weather, fall silent over long winter months, the hearty Water Ouzel sings on through all seasons and every kind of storm. I have to wonder: does this little creature know something we don’t?

It’s as if the bird knows that every violent storm will eventually give way to sunshine; every dark night will finally fade into dawn. And isn’t it true? Even our bleakest and stormiest times do not last forever. Like the poor man buffeted about in the cement mixer, there is almost always an end to the turmoil.

As the incredible humanitarian novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe said, “When you get in a tight place and everything goes against you, until it seems as if you could not hold on a minute longer, never give up then, for that is just the place and time when the tide will turn.” I have had that experience more times than I can remember.

Maybe this is one of those days you feel as if you are in the cement mixer. If so, do you need to hold on a little longer?

And so, we pray: Father, I have never actually been in that mixer, but sometimes it seems like life is spinning us around and beating us up. We’ve all been in those mixer moments when we are just about ready to throw in the towel. When that time comes, give us the courage and grace to hold on a little longer. Amen.

Grace and Peace

Staying Alive

When I was in cardiac rehab each day while we exercised, they would play over the stereo the song “Staying Alive.” It was a reminder that this exercise was helping us do just that.

“You’re having problems? No problem.” That’s what I try to tell myself when I begin to feel overwhelmed. And then I remind myself that the only people I am aware of who don’t have troubles are gathered in peaceful, little neighborhoods. There is never a care, never a moment of stress and never an obstacle to ruin a day. All is calm. All is serene. Most towns have at least one such worry-free zone. We call them cemeteries.

But if you’re still breathing, you have difficulties. It’s the way of life. And believe it or not, most of your problems may actually be better for you than you think. Let me explain.

Maybe you have seen the Great Barrier Reef, stretching some 1,800 miles from New Guinea to Australia. Tour guides regularly take visitors to view the reef. On one tour, the guide was asked an interesting question. “I notice that the lagoon side of the reef looks pale and lifeless, while the ocean side is vibrant and colorful,” a traveler observed. “Why is this?”

The guide gave an interesting answer: “The coral around the lagoon side is in still water, with no challenge for its survival. It dies early. The coral on the ocean side is constantly being tested by wind, waves, storms – surges of power. It has to fight for survival every day of its life. As it is challenged and tested it changes and adapts. It grows healthy. It grows strong. And it reproduces.” Then he added this telling note: “That’s the way it is with every living organism.”

That’s how it is with people. Challenged and tested, we come alive. Like coral pounded by the sea, we grow. Physical demands can cause us to grow stronger. Mental and emotional stress can produce tough-mindedness and resiliency. Spiritual testing can produce strength of character and faithfulness.

So, you have problems – no problem. Just tell yourself, “There I grow again!”

And so, we pray: Father, many times it is hard to realize that fight for everyday survival helps us to grow strong and stay or come alive. Help me that I could reach deep within to truthfully say when challenges come, “I I grow again.” Amen.

Grace and Peace

Look for the Gift

Writer Richard Bach says, “Every problem has a gift for you in its hands.” I don’t always see that gift, I admit. But I remember reading about Glenn Cunningham when I was a child. His life bore the truth of it…every problem indeed has a gift for you. The trick is learning to find it.

In 1916 young Glenn and his brother Floyd were involved in a tragic accident.  Their school’s pot-bellied stove exploded when the boys struck a match to light it. Somebody had mistakenly filled the can with gasoline instead of kerosene. Both boys were severely burned and had to be dragged from the schoolhouse. Floyd died of his injuries and doctors predicted that Glenn would be permanently crippled. Flesh and muscles were seared from both of Glenn’s legs. His toes were burned off his left foot and the foot’s transverse arch was destroyed. Their local doctor recommended amputation of both legs and predicted that Glenn would never walk again. He told the boy’s mother that it may have been better had he died. 

Glenn overheard the remark and decided that day that he WAS going to walk, no matter what. But he couldn’t climb from a wheelchair for two years. Then one day he grasped the white wooden pickets of the fence surrounding his home and pulled himself up to his feet. Painfully he stepped, hanging onto the fence. He made his way along the fence, back and forth. He did this the next day and next – every day for weeks. He wore a path along the fence shuffling sideways. But muscles began to knit and grow in his scarred legs and feet.

When Glenn could finally walk, he decided he would do something else nobody ever expected him to do again – he would learn to run. “It hurt like thunder to walk,” Glenn later said, “but it didn’t hurt at all when I ran. So, for five or six years, about all I did was run.” At first it looked more like hopping than running. But Glenn ran everywhere he could. He ran around the home. He ran as he did his chores. He ran to and from school (about two miles each way). He never walked when he could run. And after his legs strengthened, he continued to run, not because he had to, but now because he wanted to.

If there was a gift in the tragic accident, it was that if forced Glenn to run. And run he did. He competed as a runner in high school and college. Then Glenn went on to compete in the 1932 and 1936 Olympics. He set world records for the mile run in 1934 and 1938. By the time he retired from competition, Glenn amassed a mountain of records and awards.

“Every problem has a gift for you in its hands.” And if not every problem, then just about everyone. Even spectacular sunsets are not possible without cloudy skies. Troubles bring a gift for those who choose to look. And since I can’t avoid my problems, why waste them? I should look for the gift. My life will be far, far richer for finding it.

And so, we pray: Father, I am not wanting problems in order to find the gift inside them. What I do need is your Spirit to guide me in such a way that when problems come I may be able to look passed the problems to see the gift inside them. And when I see the gift, help me to have the courage to reach out and seize the gift. Amen.

Grace and Peace

Nothing Personal

A humorous story tells about a speeding motorist who was caught by radar from a police helicopter. An officer pulled him over and began to issue a traffic ticket. “How did you know I was speeding?” the frustrated driver asked.

The police officer pointed somberly toward the sky. “You mean,” asked the motorist, “that even He is against me?”

It’s like the man who said, “It feels like the whole world is against me…but I know that’s not true. Some of the smaller countries are neutral.”

When we have a problem, it can often feel as if everything in our life is going wrong. We may tend to think that everybody is upset, that nobody cares or that everything is falling apart.

I like what psychiatrist Theodore Rubin says: “The problem is not that there are problems. The problem is expecting otherwise and thinking that having problems is a problem.” 

If having problems feels like a problem to you, it may not be the problems themselves, but the way you think about them that is the problem. Specifically, you may have destructive beliefs about problems, difficulties and hardships. To think more clearly and to get through tough times more effectively, try letting go of these destructive beliefs:

1. Let go of the idea that your problem is PERMANENT. Few troubles last forever. And those few that cannot be solved can usually be managed. Remain hopeful that you will find a way to solve or manage the situation and “all will be well.”

2. Let go of the idea that your problem is PERVASIVE. Don’t make your problem bigger than it is. Few problems affect every area of your life. When something is going wrong, it does not mean that everything is going wrong. There is still very much that is good and working well in your life and you don’t want to lose focus of that fact.

3. Finally, let go of the idea that your problem is PERSONAL. There is nothing wrong with you because you have a problem. All capable and successful people have plenty of troubles. They have learned to make friends with problems, for difficulties are a normal part of life. If you have problems, it only means one thing: you’re still living. And that can be pretty great in itself.

Remember, your problem is not permanent, it is not pervasive and it does not personally diminish who you are. Let go of these three destructive beliefs and you may be amazed at how much better you feel already. In fact, you are on your way to becoming an expert at handling problems.

And so, we pray: Father, so many times we do think that our problems are personal… that somebody (maybe everybody) is out to get us… even you. Help us through all these problems knowing that you are walking with us through every valley. Amen.

Grace and Peace

Got Humor

I once read a story, purported to be true, of a motorist who was caught in an automated speed trap. His speed was measured by a radar machine and his car was automatically photographed. In a few days he received a ticket for $40 in the mail along with a picture of his automobile. As payment, he sent the police department a snapshot of $40. Several days later, he received a letter from the police. It contained another picture — of handcuffs. He promptly paid the fine.

Who hasn’t received a traffic violation? There are many ways to respond to those inevitable irritations of life, and one of the best is to find some humor. (Though he’s probably fortunate the police had a sense of humor, too.)

One comedian used this as strategies for successful living. This comedian has known hard times, yet he once summarized his attitude this way: “You can turn painful situations around through laughter. If you can find humor in anything… you can survive it.”  Like aging. He says that all things shift when we age. Even the mind. It slips from the head to the behind. There’s proof of this, he tells us. When you walk into a room to get something or to do something, you forget what you went after. You see, your mind has left. “But then you sit down and – bingo! – you remember what it was you wanted. Therefore, your mind must have slipped down to your behind.”

Growing older is a wonderful thing, especially if you’re young. But what if most of your years are behind you? There are some things, like growing older, that can’t be changed. And one of the best ways to respond to things that can’t be changed is to find some humor.

My wife and I don’t hear as well as we use to, but this we find humorous. We watch a commercial and we look at each other saying: “They didn’t say that did they?” We turn on the closed caption so we can understand what they are saying in our favorite shows. We have started watching a new show called The Andy Griffith Show. We laugh at and with each other more than we ever have.

Then there’s Katie. Katie was a young woman with a great, big problem. She was a teenager dying of leukemia. Katie’s mother told how her daughter approached her disease. She told about a time, shortly after a bone marrow transplant, when Katie’s head was “slickly bald,” as she put it. One day Katie heard the doctor coming on rounds and ducked into the bathroom. Her mother heard her giggling and asked, “Katie, what is so funny?” 

She put her finger to her lips, pulled a Nike ski cap onto her head and crawled into bed. 

When the doctor came in, she said, “Well, Miss Katie! How are you feeling today?” 

Katie frowned and said, “I am OK, I guess… but I just have this splitting headache.” She pulled off her ski cap and there on her bald head was a huge red crack, which she had drawn with a marker. As the doctor recovered from her initial shock, the room exploded in laughter. 

Katie did not survive the cancer, but she conquered depression and despair and found an authentic way to live as fully as possible her last months of life. 

There are many ways to respond when life takes a serious turn, but even then, perhaps especially then, one of the best is to find some humor. “It DOES help!” 

Mark Twain says that the human race “has unquestionably one really effective weapon – laughter.” Laughing at the twists and turns of life may not be your first response, but it can be one of the best. 

And so, we pray: Father, help us to find humor wherever and whenever we can. Help us to us it as a way to cope with all the problems we may be facing. One of the things I was taught early in life was not to take myself to seriously. I have used humor all my life – in everyday life, even in the sermons I preached each Sunday. Thank you, O Lord, for giving me the gift of humor. It truly is a gift. Amen.

Grace and Peace

Suffering Changes Us

We are changed, sometimes in unexpected ways, by the problems of life.

One of Canada’s most famous physicians was Dr. William Osler. Many stories are told of this beloved doctor, but one of the most revealing comes from World War I.

Friends recalled the day when Osler was working in one of Britain’s military hospitals during the war. He was called out of the wards during his daily rounds to be given an important message; his own son had been killed on the fields of France.

Stunned by the news, he still came back to pick up his rounds. For a long period afterward, he was noticeably different. And those who knew him best said that he changed as a physician that day. The cheerful note was gone from his voice and never again did friends hear the tune which he so often whistled as he went from ward to ward.

Though these things never returned, something eventually came to take their place. Everyone noticed a new compassion in his care of the soldiers who each day streamed in from the battlefield. Before, he had the professional concern of the physician, so important to the practice of medicine; now there was an added discernible note of a personal compassion, like that of a father for his son….

Like most people who have experienced such losses, Osler must have spent considerable time in grief. But as he healed and integrated the loss into his life, it left him a different person. 

Pain will do that. It changes us, often in unexpected ways. It can leave us angry and broken, or, as in the case of Osler, it can bring forth qualities such as compassion or tenderness. It is as if the physician channeled his pain into energy and love for others, caring for them as he would care for his own child.

Helen Keller, who found a way to thrive though she went through life both sightless and deaf, knew plenty about suffering. She wisely said, “The struggle of life is one of our greatest blessings. It makes us patient, sensitive, and Godlike. It teaches us that although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.”

Yes, the world is full of suffering. We can’t avoid it no matter how hard we try. But it is also full of examples of people, like you and me, getting through it. Those who overcome great challenges will be changed, and often in unexpected ways. For our struggles enter our lives as unwelcome guests, but they bring valuable gifts. And once the pain subsides, the gifts remain. 

These gifts are life’s true treasures, bought at great price, but cannot be acquired in any other way.

And so, we pray: Father, I am sure there is not one person who want to suffer… none of us invites it into our lives in order that we may be blessed with spiritual gifts. We wonder why we can’t have these gifts without the price of suffering being paid. If sickness comes into our lives, help us to use it as a gift of the spiritual. Amen.

Grace and Peace

Lucky or Prepared

A little boy wanted a taste of molasses from the large barrel by the door of an old-fashioned country store. He slid a box beside the barrel, stepped up on it and leaned over the rim as far as possible, stretching out his finger toward the sweet goo below. He stretched and strained and toppled headfirst into the barrel.

Dripping with molasses, he stood up, lifted his eyes heavenward and was heard to utter, “Lord, help me to make the most of this fantastic opportunity!”

Most of us will never fall into a barrel of opportunity. We won’t be awarded a great sum of money, we won’t be offered a “dream job,” we won’t have all of our needs suddenly provided for. We can spend years waiting for opportunity to knock only to find that we wasted precious time wishing for something to happen that never was to be.

Yet some people seem to luck into these things, don’t they? It’s as if they were in the right place at the right time and they just fell into it.

But that is not the way it happens. Those people who seize opportunities others seem to miss, find them for one specific reason: they have trained themselves. People who seem more fortunate than the rest of us are those who have taught themselves to look for possibilities in every circumstance and every obstacle.

I think David Boren, president of the University of Oklahoma, is such a man. Years ago, Boren learned from professional pollsters that he would most likely lose his state gubernatorial race and lose it big. The professional polling agency he hired reported his strength to be only about two percent of the population.

Many people would quit the moment they receive such news. And in truth, that was his first reaction. Could anything good come out of such a bleak situation? But he had trained himself to look for opportunities, even when confronting great obstacles. He stayed in the race and approached his campaign in a different way. He told his listeners, “I had a professional poll taken and it shows I’ve got great potential for increasing my support!”

That may sound a good deal better than it is. But he didn’t give up and people began to listen to what he had to say. Boren eventually won the election and served as governor of the US state of Oklahoma.

People who spot opportunities may simply be people who have trained themselves to look for the best possible outcome in every situation and act on it. It takes a different way of thinking.

My son has just been promoted to be the manager over all IT in his company. Over two-hundred people applied, but they knew him, his work ethic, his dedication to his work, his integrity in all he said and did. He is a truth teller, even when many see it a different way… and I believe his superiors appreciated his truthfulness. He is not a brown-noser by any stretch. His is not lucky… he was prepared for the promotion and his company realized it.

To everyone else it may just look like you’re lucky. But you will know better.

And so, we pray: Father, we have been taught all our lives to be prepared for opportunities that come our way by doing the little things well today… being the person of integrity, even when no one is looking. Amen.

Grace and Peace

The Boots

I relate well to the comment made by speaker Barbara Johnson: “Patience is the ability to idle your motor when you feel like stripping your gears.” I know that if I can keep the motor idling, it will be ready to go when I need it.

For all who are teachers or training to become a teacher, this story is for you. A kindergarten teacher practiced keeping her motor idling. A story has it that she was helping one of her students put his snow boots on. He asked for help and she could see why. With her pulling and him pushing, they finally succeeded, and she had by now worked up a sweat. She almost whimpered when the little boy said, “They’re on the wrong feet.”

She looked and, sure enough, they were. It wasn’t any easier pulling the boots off, and then she had to wrestle the stubborn boots on again.

Just as she finished lacing them, he announced, “These aren’t my boots.” She bit her tongue to keep from screaming, “Why didn’t you say so?”

Once again, she struggled to pull off the ill-fitting boots. He then calmly added, “They’re my brother’s boots. My mom made me wear them.” She began to realize how close she was to stripping her gears as she struggled with the boots yet again.

When they were finally laced, she said, “Now, where are your mittens?”

“I stuffed them in the toes of my boots,” he said.

She may have been the same teacher who once commented about a particularly difficult child in her class, “Not only is he my worst behaved child this year, but he also has a perfect attendance record.

A Dutch proverb observes, “A handful of patience is worth more than a bushel of brains.” I may never have to worry about having a bushel of brains, but I can sometimes muster a handful of patience. And that should be enough.

And so, we pray: Father, I think I have run into that little boy with the boots – matter of fact, I think I most likely have been that little boy. Help all of us to have patience, especially those teachers and those seeking to become teachers… there will always be that little boy. Give us a handful of patience. Amen.

Grace and Peace

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