Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Absolute Starting Point

When we talk about this pioneer journey beyond what has become comfortable and familiar, we are ultimately talking about a journey of faith. But where do we place our faith as we leave what we can see to head toward the unseen future? There is only One strong enough to carry us through to the end. The absolute start of my journey began when I surrendered to Him.

I can't handle it myself. The moment of surrender came in January of my junior year of college. I was emotionally overwhelmed with a relationship situation. I kept telling myself and my friends that “I should be able to handle my own problems.” Yet, I felt unable to do just that. The old adage “God helps those who help themselves” would define my philosophy of life and God. I knew He was there, but didn’t feel like I should bother Him with my little problems.
One night I was walking back to the house where I rented a room. I was terrified by a thought that whizzed through my mind, “What would happen if I threw myself out in front of that car?” That made it absolutely clear to me that I was not handling my own problems well at all! As soon as I got back to my room I knelt by my bed and prayed, “God, I can’t handle it by myself anymore! I need your help!” The next day I made an appointment with a school counselor.

You usually can't see change while it’s happening. I think I saw the counselor twice. I talked a lot and don’t remember most of what I said, but the second time I saw him I remember telling him that I felt better able to handle all that was happening in my life. When he asked me why, I told him that my faith had really grown and I was aware that God was helping me.
My life was in the process of changing dramatically, but I didn't realize it at the time. Over a series of months, my relationship with God became the central point of my life. So much changed inside of me, but it wasn't until much later that I could point back to that prayer by my bed as the absolute starting point of the change.

I am responsible for how I respond to life. A few weeks after that walk across the street, the college choir I sang with took a trip and I experienced a major moment in that process of dramatic change.  I was sitting in the back of the bus crying about who-knows-what. As I cried I suddenly realized that I had been miserable for a long time and it had been my choice to be so. It was near Ash Wednesday and I decided that I was giving up being miserable for Lent.  I know it sounds silly, but I did it. I began to make response choices that kept me from being miserable. It became a habit that I don’t regret developing. There did come a point where I had to learn the balance between being honest about negative feelings and ignoring them, but the most important lesson was that my response is my choice.  

Dear friend, I challenge you to reach the absolute starting point and admit that you can’t handle life on your own. God is waiting to change your life in ways that you can’t imagine and won’t notice right away, but I can guarantee that you will never regret it. It’s your responsibility to respond. Are you up to the challenge?

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

First Lady of Influence

Every day on my way to work I pass a national historic site. How many people can say that?! The site is Valkill, the home of Eleanor Roosevelt. It was several years before I actually visited the site that I pass every day. A few years ago I visited with a particular thought in mind: What could I learn from Eleanor as a woman of worldwide and enduring influence? I had watched a few television biographies about her, but I wanted to see what I could learn by visiting her home. I came home with two items from the bookstore, a copy of “The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt” (Roosevelt 1992) and a magnet with a quote from the very quotable Eleanor. As I read through her book and as I have thought of her since there are a few things I have learned from “The First Lady of the World” a name created by officials at Rhode Island University (Means 1963).

Live the life you have.  Eleanor’s life was never what she would have chosen. She was unloved by her mother, orphaned by age 10, raised by relatives, married to a distant cousin whose mother dominated their lives, lost one of her six children in infancy, endured her husband’s infidelity and crippling illness (Ashby 1995). She began as a shy and insecure young woman, but, through the trials she faced, chose to overcome her fears and disappointment to live the life she had, for her own benefit and the benefit of all those she could influence. It’s my conclusion that Eleanor began to find herself when she lost her husband’s intimate affection.  They were married in 1905, but after she confronted her husband’s affair with his secretary in 1918 (Ashby 1995), the marriage changed. It was their choice to remain married in the legal sense, but they ceased to function as a normal married couple. Over time they developed a very effective and affectionate partnership, but it was after the loss of the marriage that Eleanor developed her interest and activities outside the home. She became the woman of influence that she was because of her trials, not in spite of them.

Are you letting your trials and disappointments prevent you from moving forward? They will shape you no matter how you choose to face them. Allow them to propel you forward toward fulfilling your potential instead of holding you back. Disappointments and loss are not a reason to curl up and die. They are an invitation to envision life in a new way.

Take advantage of every opportunity. Eleanor Roosevelt worked within her husband’s places of influence to develop her own. She became her own public person both because of and separate from her husband’s place of influence. (Harness 2003) Eleanor had been developing her own involvement and her own public forum for years through political participation in women’s causes and social issues. She was concerned that becoming First Lady might end pursuit of her own political interests since at the time the role of First Lady was primarily that of Hostess-In-Chief. Instead, she forever altered our understanding of the First Lady’s role. Through her daily newspaper column, “My Day”, which she continued by typewriter and telephone from wherever she was in the world (Roosevelt 1992) she reached ordinary people with her thoughts and ideas.  Through radio broadcasts, global travel and speeches she championed social causes and called for societal reform. Throughout all of this she also represented her husband and influenced his decisions. One biographical article even called her “…a full partner in the task of the presidency, deeply involved in politics, in the operation of government agencies and in the conduct of public affairs.” (Means 1963)

The Eleanor quote on the magnet I bought at the Valkill gift shop says, “Do one thing every day that scares you.” I chose it because at the time I was becoming aware that fear was something that had put a limit on my ability to fulfill my God-given potential. I had already determined that I didn't want fear to be the reason that I didn't do something. Eleanor’s quote is a constant reminder to continue to look beyond the comfortable and be who I was created to be, to take advantage of the opportunities around me.

There are opportunities waiting for you to engage. Despite the idiom, opportunity will not knock on your door. Opportunities wait to be explored and discovered. They are all around you. What opportunities exist for you in the sphere where you are already living? Open your eyes. Pray. Look around. Find the place where you can begin to be a person of influence and get involved.

It’s not over till it’s over. It has been said that Eleanor Roosevelt is “the only First Lady who increased her own prestige and her efforts on behalf of mankind after her husband’s death.” (Means 1963)  She served as a delegate to the United Nations, appointed by her husband’s Vice President and successor President Harry Truman, and as chairman of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. (Means 1963)Through the adoption of Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1949 (Ashby 1995) she influenced the entire world. She continued to be active and involved globally. Her last official position came just a year before her death when she served in 1961 as chair of President Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women. (Ashby 1995) Since Eleanor Roosevelt’s death at the age of 78 in 1962 (the year I was born), we have had one First Lady become Secretary of State, yet none of her successors  has come close to the sweeping and lasting influence of Eleanor Roosevelt.

There were quite a few times in her life when Eleanor could have called it quits. She could have decided that she had done enough, or been hurt enough by life, and just retired to her little cottage called Valkill in Hyde Park, NY. But she never stopped, even as she neared 80 years old.  She spent her life for the benefit of others and used her influence to do as much good as she could.

You and I may not agree with Eleanor on everything that she fought for or stood for, but we can never fault her for letting disappointment or fear or age hold her back. She fully committed herself to live the life she had, taking advantage of every opportunity until the very end of life. Every one of us can do that! Go for it, my friend!

Works Cited

Ashby, Ruth. "Eleanor Roosevelt." In Herstory: Women Who Changed the World, by Ruth Ashby and Deborah Gore, 199-201. New York: Viking, 1995.
"Eleanor Roosevelt." In Rabble Rousers: 20 Women Who Made a Difference, by Cheryl Harness, 46-47. New York: Dutton Children's, 2003.
"Anna Eleanor Rooselvelt." In The Woman in the White House; the Lives, times and Influence of Twelve Notable First Ladies, by Marianne Means, 189-214. New York: Random House, 1963.
Roosevelt, Eleanor. "The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt." New York: DeCapo Press, 1992.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Public People, Private Pain

A few weeks ago I posted a blog entitled “Dollar Store Mentor” in which I shared how I had found a book in a dollar store by Kay Warren, wife of Pastor Rick Warren, and how she had become a mentor to me through that book. Since finding her book I have listened to messages by Kay and have recently been listening to the audiobook in Kay’s own voice of her most recent release “Choose Joy: Because Happiness Is Not Enough”. The news this weekend of the death of the Warren’s son by an apparent suicide becomes more personal to me because of my recent following of Kay. I have prayed for her, aware that everything she talks about in “Choose Joy” is now being put to the test through her personal tragedy. As I’ve thought about her, I have thought about how difficult it must be to go through such a personally devastating time knowing that their private pain is a news item.

As any of us step out of our comfort zones into new places of leadership, more of our private life becomes public. A school principal or teacher, a pastor or church leader, a performer or public official all live some measure of their life in the public eye. My husband has worked in radio or television for most of our married life and has also briefly served as a church pastor. We have been in leadership positions in churches we have attended. We know what it is like to live “in the fishbowl” on a local and regional level. Through Tom’s media positions we have sometimes had the opportunity to meet and get to know people who are well-known, both nationally and regionally, in secular as well as Christian spheres. There are some things I have learned about life in the public eye and people who live life in the public eye.

People are people. In our celebrity-driven culture, famous people are viewed as somehow special, as if they are not normal people. Occasionally, when someone meets my husband or one of his radio associates for the first time they take a step back and their jaw drops as if they are surprised that there isn’t some kind of aura emanating from this person. We have met people whose names you would know if I mentioned them and I can tell you, they are just like you. They have tension in their marriages, struggle to be good parents, occasionally make bad financial decisions and sometimes blow it big time. They get sick, tired, hungry and grouchy and they get their feelings hurt. If they happen to be Christians I can tell you they do not have a direct pipeline to God that enables them to live life on a higher spiritual plane than you do. Just because you have seen them on TV, heard them on the radio, or read a book that they have written does not mean that they have super powers. An American Idol is a human being. People are people. When you hear about a famous person going through a difficult time, imagine how you would feel if you were in their place. They are most likely feeling exactly the same way you would and need your compassion.

People are watching. Truth: We all live life in the public eye to some extent. Years ago my husband spent a year as an associate pastor on staff at a church. He was over the children’s ministry and we worked together with a team of people, training them to teach parts of the lesson during a children’s church presentation and giving them opportunities to grow as leaders and as people. Through a bout with depression, Tom ended up losing his position at the church. When we first faced the reality that Tom might lose his position we thought that we would have to leave the church, to stay would just be too painful. When the loss actually happened, we felt that leaving was not an option, so we stayed. It was an excruciatingly painful time for us. It was especially difficult at first, as the depression had not lifted and we were merely surviving from day to day. As time went on, the depression was healed and our life began to return to a measure of normalcy.

About a year later we were in a small group Bible study along with a couple who had been members of our Kids Church team. They were still working with the ministry. In a conversation at one of the meetings the wife told me about how the loss of Tom and me as leaders had created a painful time for them and other members of our team. They had continued with difficulty. She told me that if we had left the church, they would have left as well. We were so busy just trying to survive that we didn’t realize our response to the trial was having that kind of impact. Our decision to just keep on going helped them to keep on as well.

I am aware as I pray for Kay Warren that I am watching her, hoping that she will be able to live out all that she has professed, understanding just how difficult that will be. In your sphere of influence, people are watching you in the same way, and as you move beyond your comfortable borders your sphere of influence will widen. More people will be watching you. How will you handle it?

People need support, not criticism. In contrast to those who elevate a “famous” person are those who seem to forget that they are real people rather than nondescript entities. As they talk about the public person, they drop any attempts at respect and openly criticize decisions and actions in a way they would never talk about a fellow human, as if the public person gave up their right to be treated as a human when they stepped into a position of notice. It’s very easy to become an “armchair quarterback” or “armchair pastor” or “armchair president” or whatever, and declare your opinion about what a public person should be doing or should have done without feeling the responsibility of the position. No one knows what it’s like to be that person, to be in their position facing their decisions, except that person. You and I don’t have a right to speak disrespectfully about a leader, or a celebrity, just because their life is public. Let me just say that this kind of criticism has touched our family personally and I’ll leave it there.

The “Golden Rule” is a good guide. “Treat others as you would like to be treated”, even if they are a “famous” person. If you wouldn’t want someone to be talking that way about you, then you shouldn’t be talking that way about any other human being regardless of their position.

After a few days of silence the Warrens have begun posting to social media again. One of Kay’s most recent Twitter posts: “We are devastated but not destroyed. God is our refuge and our strength, an ever-present help in time of trouble. Psalm 46:1.”

Can you tell the “real deal” from a distance? I think so. When people view my life from a distance I want them to see the “real deal”.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Warning! Change Is Hazardous To Your Comfort!

So, we've been talking and thinking about what it takes to make changes and move outside our comfort zone, our box. We've learned from pioneers and we've been inspired by courageous change. With those thoughts fresh in your mind maybe now you are ready. Maybe you've decided that it is time for you to take a step beyond the perimeter and begin to explore some unfamiliar territory. Before you do, you should be prepared for a few things.

You are going to be excited…and scared. Once you have decided to begin moving in an unfamiliar direction you are going to be excited about the prospect of a new aspect of your life. As you begin to ponder your new venture and imagine yourself actually doing it, you are going to be thrilled by the vision. However, at the same time you are going to have a LOT of questions. “What if I fall flat on my face?” “Can I really do this?” “What will those important to me think about it?” “Is this really going to be worth the sacrifice?”

I want to encourage you not to ignore the questions, but don’t be overwhelmed by them either.  Face the reality that there will be moments of failure as you make this journey outside the box. It is inevitable. But be sure to look at your failures as steps to learn on that will bring you closer to your goal. The most important thing is to keep moving toward fulfilling your God-given purpose.  Every step, even every failure, is part of the journey. Just keep stepping!

You are going to feel uncomfortable. None of us remember taking our first steps. Our brains just can’t hold on to a monumental moment that occurred when we were so small. However, all of us have seen a baby learning to walk. At first, she may be tentative about walking on her own and reach constantly for the hand of an adult. After a while, she lets go of the steadying hand, but stays nearby a comforting leg or a piece of furniture. It seems to me that toddlers pretty much skip actually walking once they get comfortable. After they've gained confidence, they don’t go anywhere without running!

Learn from the babies! You are going to feel unsteady as you take your first steps. It’s normal. It’s okay to lean on someone who has traveled the road you are just beginning. It’s wise, in fact. You are going to fall down. Get back up! I have never seen a baby fall down and decide that they are going to give up walking for good. They may crawl again for a bit. They may need a little comforting, but usually they are back on their feet lickety-split and running toward the next interesting thing their eye catches. When you stumble, evaluate where you went wrong, determine what you need to learn, get some comfort if necessary and GET BACK UP! And just for the record: Been there. Done that. I survived and so can you.

You are going to realize just how much you need to learn. Every failure is a learning opportunity. You can’t learn to swim unless you are actually in the water. It looks different once you jump in, but you learn pretty quickly how to keep afloat. Then you can develop some technique.

 In swimming, and so many other areas of life, you can only learn so much from watching someone else do it. You can learn some things, but once you have actually tried what you have only watched, you begin to watch differently. You begin to see what works and what doesn't  Not only that you begin to imagine yourself trying the things that work. Then next time you get an opportunity you will have more skills in your arsenal. The important thing is to remember that you will never arrive. You will always be learning. Once you accept that the journey takes on the continual joy of learning something new with every step.

Dear friend, you are going to find so much joy in your journey. Learning something new is exhilarating, once you get past feeling scared and insecure.  It’s the journey that is the important part. Success can be measured in actually taking the first step, not in how effective that first step turns out to be. There will be others, right? What are you waiting for? Step outside!