Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Thin Line Between Victory and Loss

I had never heard of Lolo Jones before the final of the women's 100m hurdles in Beijing. The short bio-feature that highlighted her accomplishments in track and life and recounted the amazing real life hurdles she had negotiated to make it to the Beijing Olympics was stirring and her performance up to the final made her imminent victory a foregone conclusion. When the starting gun sounded, it was evident that Lolo's reputation was well-founded. She blazed through the hurdles with lighting speed, well ahead of the entire field and all was on course for a gold medal performance and the adoration, fame and perks that are part and parcel to such an attainment when the unthinkable happened. Two hurdles away from "eternal" Olympic Glory, Lolo hit a hurdle! She didn't just clip it, she hit it with enough force to break her stride, her rhythm and her hopes of obtaining any medal at all, let alone the gold. Showing courage befitting a champion, Lolo granted an interview after the race, handling the loss with dignity and class. The pain, nevertheless, was plain for all to see and even more evident when, after the interview, she went to herself and could be seen weeping bitter tears.

Illustrious WWII General George Patton had a strong opinion about losing and those who lost. He believed that any endeavor worth pursuing was worth winning and said that he personally, "wouldn't give a hoot...for a man who lost and laughed." I understand the general's disdain for losing and laughing. Sometimes in our pursuit of good sportsmanship, we are inclined to act as if losing in the fierce pursuit of a victory is something that should be smiled about and shrugged off in a gesture to "put on a happy face" and to "grin and bear it" in our humiliation or disappointment. I am a stickler for good sportsmanship in athletic contests and in life and I certainly admire the brave faces and congratulatory graces shown by those who lose in the pursuit of excellence. Nevertheless, I empathize with the tears of someone who has given their all to a quest that in the end, in spite of intense preparation and realistic expectation, falls short.

How can an athlete who has in all probability spent the majority of their adolescent and adult life pursuing a fete that will likely define them and set up a future of amazing opportunity laugh when that pursuit falls flat and they are left with nothing but an obliterated dream and might have beens? To quote Jesse Owens, it means having one's "entire existence justified in just 10 seconds!" Losing is serious business, especially when one expects to win. When the loss is a surprise, introspection is always a part of the process. Invariably, the unexpected loser will ask,"Why did I lose?" "How could this happen?" and "What now?" The answers are usually complex - a convergence of the improbable, the unfortunate, or the unbelievable that result in a "perfect storm" of dream destruction that send one's expectations "to the bottom" with no hope of restoration.

Perspective is also part of the process. Sometimes, the pain of loss is all on the loser and cannot be shared or understood by others. One competitor is just happy to get to the Olympics and takes pride in the fact that only a literal handful of humans can move faster, soar higher, or be stronger than they, while another is disappointed that their victories were merely silver or bronze and not gold. Consider this. Would Michael Phelps have been a "loser" if he had "only" won say, 7Golds at Beijing and "simply" tied Mark Spitz's 1972 Olympic record? It would have amounted to more cumulative golds than anyone in the history of the games, but many would have seen such an effort as a "failure" (Remember, Phelps "only" won six golds in Athens and "merely" qualified for the 2000 Barcelona Olympics - at the age of 15)! Nevertheless, when the bar is set high - so high that even one's failure outshines the "successes" of others - it is still viewed as a failure - one from which many never emotionally recover.

Most people eventually have to deal with personal setbacks which can eclipse even the greatest accomplishments and victories. For Lolo Jones, getting to the Olympics doesn't seem like enough. The Gold was lost and the memory of Beijing will possibly forver be a disappointment. "Real life" is even less forgiving. "Lucky" Charles Lindbergh became a legend and captured the world's imagination with his first solo flight across the Atlantic, but had to endure the agony of having his son kidnapped and never seeing him returned. How did he view his "luck" in light of his devastating loss, created by the very success that made him a household name? The trials of real life that visit everyone from the high and mighty to the weak and lowly and can distort the meaning of success and failure, winning and losing.

How can we cope when we lose something so precious that everything else in our life seems to be defined by it? The Bible offers encouragement and hope for even the deepest losses. The Scriptures warn against placing our intrinsic value in things that are unpredictable, uncertain and transient. This would include titles, wealth, accomplishments and the glory of fame. Jesus said,
Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

When we pursue the truly precious treasure of the Kingdom of God and the riches that come from that pursuit - riches of character, peace of mind, inner strength and deep and abiding faith - Jesus promises that we will not be disappointed. The great news is, though we are told to run this race to win, our winning is based not on the performance of others, or even our perfection but rather our winning is based on our faithfulness to the "course" upon which we have been placed. The book of Hebrews puts it like this,
let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

I hope that Lolo Jones has this hope and that she will view her heartbreaking loss in light of an epic race of much more importance than the amazing glory of an Olympic Race - the race of life where the course has lanes we all must negotiate, complete with obstacles, traps and challenges. God promises help even during the most difficult parts of the race. The prophet Isaiah has powerful encouragement for us, even when we hit the hurdles of our course.
Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary they will walk and not be faint.

This a race that we can definitely win if we focus on Jesus. It is also a race for which we will be rewarded - not with the perishing beauty of a gold medal performance that may not even be remembered after a generation or two, but with truly eternal significance that blesses others and earns the highest prize of recognition - The "Well Done" of our Heavenly Father! This is a race worth running, and a race that we can truly not afford to lose. Don't give up, keep your eyes on the prize! Until next time...


Monday, August 11, 2008

Fortunate Son

I am sure that some of you 60's music buffs recognize the title of this posting as the title of a rocking Credence Clearwater Revival Tune that laments the societal perks often afforded those born into privileged situations. All too frequently, these privileges are not accompanied by an appropriate sense of responsibility. The Biblical expectation of such privilege is clear - "To whom much is given, much is required."

The Mayor of Detroit's seemingly never-ending spectacle of misbehavior bring the Biblical admonition and the convicting message of the Credence Song to mind in an especially relevant way. It is relevant for me, because I feel as if I and many of those with whom I was raised are fortunate sons as well. This recognition causes me not to spend so much time looking at the mayor, though his misdeeds and the city's resultant suffering merit the most intense scrutiny and whatever consequences, moral and legal, are applicable, but it rather causes me to reflect on how my generation and I have used our gifts. Furthermore, it causes me to ponder how our action or inaction affects those a wee bit younger, such as the Mayor and those quickly ascending the ranks of responsibility and leadership for the years ahead. I don not have the luxury to view the Mayor's issues in isolation as if they said nothing about me.

Like the Mayor, I am African American. Unlike the Mayor, I am not a native Detroiter. I was born during the dying days of the segregated south to a career Army Paratrooper father and a devoted educator mother. I was fortunate to have my mother's heavy duty personal investments of time and effort in my education process, teaching me to read and write well before my preschool age and exposing me to the foundational message of the Scriptures at a time when such teaching was beginning to be viewed as "unsophisticated" or "old-fashioned." I was an only child. This designation is usually seen as a license of sorts, giving the child in question unlimited freedom to be self-centered, spoiled, and oblivious to the needs of others. My parents would have none of that! Among the nuggets of wisdom my mother passed on, and she was a virtual reservoir of wisdom, was this little axiom that she repeated as a determined mantra and drilled into reality in my brain for life: "You may be the only child, but that doesn't doom you to be only a fool!" I won't go into detail regarding how my parents guided me away form folly, but I will sum it up by saying I didn't get everything I wanted and they often told me "No".

As Americans, we haven't been told "No" often enough. Our lives of luxury and convenience have increased our feelings of entitlement and privilege. Many of our failings as a society are the result selfish pleasure seeking in the face of urgent community responsibilities. We are too eager for the ease which our standard of living affords us and not eager enough to exemplify the work and ethics that made that standard available to us in the first place. Those of us who are leaders are especially culpable. We are often too absorbed with the perks of power rather than focused on the opportunities that positions of leadership afford. We are too eager to "make our mark" for our fame's sake, rather than making a difference with hard work and less credit. Detroit's current Mayor is merely a reflection of societal trends on the whole. Too many of us look forward to a perpetual party and an early retirement, while not enough of us are anxious for dedication to a meaningful cause and a lifetime of work on the behalf of something greater than ourselves even at the possible cost of personal obscurity. Great people and great societies can only be produced by people who are committed to lifting up others, even at the cost of their own enjoyment or opportunity for self-promotion. Martin Luther King's ascent to the pinnacle of the Civil Rights Movement would have never happened had it not been for the consortium of Elder Statesmen Pastors in his city who were not looking for a platform to lift themselves up to greatness, but who were selflessly committed to laying the foundation for a true transforming movement in the fog of anonymity.

The refrain of the Credence song mentioned at the onset has this refrain:
It ain't me,
it ain't me.
I ain't no senator's son.
It ain't me,
it ain't me.
I ain't no fortunate one.

I may not be a senator's son, but I am undeniably a fortunate one! No doubt more than a few of you have been fortunate too! The present mayoral crisis in Detroit and other signs of deficient leadership across the nation provide us with a crucial imperative for reflection and adjustment - in ourselves and in the ones to whom we will hand the batons of leadership. In Psalm 139, King David ends his beautiful tribute to God's Omniscience with a blistering critique of those who are hostile to the ways of God. Just as David reaches the apex of his observations, his focus takes a dramatic turn. He ends his thoughts with an humble appeal to the Lord to see if there are any defective ways in his own life! We would do well to emulate King David's self-inspection.

The warning bells are sounding even now as each new scandal is discovered. What do these sorry tales of failure in personal integrity and societal values say to us and the way you and I live our lives? If you are a favored and fortunate one, as I am, are you part of a possible solution or part of a growing problem that seems almost unsolvable? As the long departed writer John Donne's meditation demands, "Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee..." Let's hope our diversions, entertainment and misguided priorities aren't drowning out the sound. Until next time.


Monday, August 4, 2008

Faith In The God of All Comfort

The past few days have been an intense barrage of emotions and ministry. In a seven day period I've been a part of the funeral proceedings for 3 families. The causes of death were varied, and one was especially unexpected. In the midst of these times of deep sorrow, I have been encouraged by the strong displays of faith on the part of the families involved. They have been able to utilize amazing reserves of strength all because of their understanding of the comfort available to them through faith in Jesus Christ.

The Bible contains many accounts of people in times of deep distress and makes a point to declare God's compassion and care for those who suffer. A verse that has always encouraged me during times of grief is found in 2 Corinthians chapter 1 and says this:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.

This week I saw this verse in action before my very eyes. I have had a few times of sorrow in my own life and I know others who were present at the funerals have had their own seasons of pain as well - some of which I had witnessed personally. It was a reassuring and powerful sight to see first-hand how people were able to appropriate the comfort of the Lord they had experienced in their own lives in reaching out to steady others who were in the midst of a great loss. I know that for me, the losses and pain I have experienced have made me more compassionate and better able to understand some of the struggles and losses of others. I certainly looked back to my seasons of difficulty and God's provision of His love and comfort during those times in my life to reach out to my friends this week in their hurts.

Perhaps the most uplifting example I saw of God's provision of mutual comfort among His people happened as I visited a friend I have mentioned in Previous blog entries. My friend Nelda, who is in the midst of an intense battle with diabetes and other health issues, had to have all of the toes of her left foot removed. This is an especially hard thing in that her right leg has already been amputated up to the knee! What has consistently amazed me about Nelda is her ability to immediately acquire God's comfort for herself AND to pass it on to others. When I entered Nelda's hospital room, there was no trace of self-pity sorrow or depression. On the other hand, her expression of her trust and faith in the Lord was matter-of-fact. Their wasn't a trace of false sanctimony or pretentiousness about her as she shared her trust in Jesus in her situation. I couldn't help but smile as she said,
I got up this morning as was just so happy with how the Lord has been with me. I didn't realize I had an audience, so my spectator asked, 'Why are you raisin' your arms like that and waving them around?' I told 'em, 'I'm just praising the Lord and asking Him what He wants me to do today!'

Her husband Dave, a wonderful person full of good humor and inner strength as well, joined us as Nelda continued sharing about her experiences, describing the amputation - amazingly done with local anesthesia - with grit, humor and a consistent emphasis of her trust in the Lord every step of the way! When I left the hospital, I felt as if I had gotten at least as much encouragement as I had given myself and thought back to 2 Corinthians 1 - God comforts us in our trouble so that "we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God."

Reciprocal blessings dispensed by a loving God Who has provided us with all that we need, even in our most troubled times. As you go about your way this week, and you find yourself facing someone who needs an uplift, call on the God of all comfort who promises to provide enough comfort for you and the person you are helping as well as many more you will meet in the days,months and years ahead. Until next time...