The River of Life

I was listening to Bedrich Smetana’s symphonic poem entitled Die Moldau about a river running from the mountaintop down through Prague and eventually to the sea. I have always been moved by the melodic beauty of the song but on that day I just sat and let the beauty of the music wash over me as I experienced the music of the river as metaphoric truth – the truth that our lives resemble a melody.

Listen as Smetana creates his story musically: the Moldau begins as two little springs in the mountain, bubbling and trickling, join together to create a living, moving, growing river. Soon the bubbling develops a voice – a beginning melody, not totally defined, that winds its way down the mountain. Every time the river goes by a city or village, the music and activities of the city hide the melody of the river; then as it gets beyond the activities, the bubble begins again and the melodic song returns. As the river continues on, the rocks in the river create an area of rapids and the melody’s place is taken over by tension and rolling timpani and clashing cymbals. Of course, it’s exciting, and has its own kind of beauty, but it’s not the melody. As the rapids dissipate, the rolling bubble is heard again and its melody erupts in a joyous song. Finally the river gets quieter and quieter, more and more at peace as it approaches the end of its journey – to meet and join with the sea. As the sea rolls in and the river rolls out they meet and the river is united with the whole body of water in a great and satisfying clash of cymbals.

That’s the way it is with life and with us. We, too, have a voice – a special melody that is our own. But sometimes a loved one, or a job, a crisis or a national calamity comes along and our voice gets hidden in the circumstance – and we’re left with just a nagging sense that something is missing. My mother expressed what was missing for her when she talked about remarrying after my father’s death. Her new husband asked her, “Why do you love me?” and she said, “Oh, that’s easy; because you listen to me.” It is such a deep need within us to be heard and yet sometimes the very voice with which we speak isn’t even our own voice – it is the voice of all the people and responsibilities and circumstances around us.

I read a book once entitled, “Do I Have to Give Up Me to be Loved by You?” It’s a book you don’t have to read – just spend a little time with the title and you’ll know that’s what happens to our melody as we wend our way along the river of life. We give away little bits and pieces of our song – one of life’s barters that takes a heavy toll on who we were created to be – in fact, for many of us, our song may be completely covered over. As Norman Cousins said, “The tragedy of life is not in the fact of death, but in what dies inside of us while we live.”

Another song flowed into my mind from the Gaither musical, Alleluia, A Praise Gathering. The musically accompanied narration depicts the life of Jesus and Christianity as a song – a melody – as the narrator tells us, “It was a … simple lovely song for every man.  Right from the first, some tried to ignore it.  They said, ‘There’s no song!  It simply doesn’t exist.’  Others just tried to change the tune.  They made laws to stop it.  Armies marched against it.   They killed some who sang the song.  They screamed at it in fury, they tried to drown it out.  Finally they nailed that song to a tree.  They said to themselves, ‘There . . . that should take care of that.’” Then a subtle ding, ding, ding, ding, ding grows audibly – the melody isn’t dead – they couldn’t kill the song – the Song Goes On!

There it is again – the truth of life as a melody and not just any melody – your melody. Everyone of us, at one time or another, like the river, has allowed activities or people around us to drown out our song – so much so that at times we may not even remember our own melody. In forgetting our melody, we may hear someone else’s song and think, ‘that’s a pretty song.” For example, I watched a 17-year baritone practicing a solo – the last note was just too low for him. He tried and tried and it just wasn’t there. Finally, he decided to have the choir director, a bass, sit on the front pew with a microphone and when David got to the very last note, George picked up the microphone and sang the low note. But that just won’t do – it has to be our song. I have my melody and you have yours. Make your own kind of music. As Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil said, “Even if nobody else sings along.”

In this river of life, your mission is to uncover your song (not discover it, because it’s been there all along) and once you uncover it, sing it for all you’re worth. When the river of life joins with the sea of eternity – the sea will not be complete without my melody or without yours.

New Year’s Resolve

In common usage today, the word resolution has more to do with compromise than with the backbone and spine required to make permanent change in our daily lives. We use it to say something like, “We’ve come to a resolution of our differences,” meaning we’ve each given away something of ourselves in order to agree.

Resolve is not a word most of us use often, probably because we have become accustomed to choosing words that allow us an out. To avoid stepping on others’ opinions, we’ve been told to use phrases like “I feel ,” because people can’t disagree with what we’re feeling, though they could disagree with our opinions. That is probably effective when what is meant is something like “I feel hurt when you…” What has happened in our language is that the phrase “I feel” is often not  connected to an emotion but has become more frequently connected to a thought or a belief in order to hopefully stop people from disagreeing with us over those thoughts and beliefs. You can know you have moved away from the true language of feeling when you have to say “I feel that…;” that phrase with the added word ‘that’ will always lead not to a feeling/emotion but to a thought or belief.

That language has so permeated our speech patterns that no one seems willing any longer to take responsibility for his or her thoughts by stating, “I think,” “I believe, or “I know.” I believe it is that unwillingness to take responsibility for our actions, thoughts and beliefs that causes us to make resolutions (hear and feel ‘compromises’) rather than actually resolving (hear choices, backbone and will) to take the necessary steps to accomplish change.

Because of the difference in those words, I don’t make New Year’s Resolutions. I know those will be forgotten and set aside within a few days of the new year. If something is truly important enough to make me deeply desire change, I must resolve to implement the changes that will be necessary.

This morning I was reading yesterday’s “My Utmost for His Highest” and the opening scripture and Chambers’ comments read like a New Year’s resolve: “My eager desire and hope being that I may never feel ashamed, but that now as ever I may do honour to Christ in my own person by fearless courage.” Philippians 1:20 (MOFFATT)

Chambers quotes Paul, “My determination is to be my utmost for His Highest” [emphasis mine]. He goes on to say, “To get there is a question of will, not of debate nor of reasoning, but a surrender of will, an absolute and irrevocable surrender on that point.”

If I am going to “be my utmost for His Highest,” I need to be aiming with resolve and determination toward all those ideals most of us merely apply the label “New Year’s Resolutions” to. I know resolutions will not be implemented and will be lost to my mind after a few days not to be recalled until I reflect on how I did in 2009. But my daily resolve and determination can guide me to “be my utmost for His Highest.”

Reflections on the 2008 Election

The days following the 2008 election have been interesting. Although I knew the black community was pleased and excited that a black man had finally been nominated to run for President and that the polls were strongly in favor of his election, I was unprepared for the emotional response that was so visible on the streets, particularly in Washington, D.C. and Chicago. The sight of Jesse Jackson and others with tears streaming down their faces; in this instance, Oprah doesn’t count – those who have watched her through the years know she does what she refers to as “the ugly cry” over very small touching things. To the black community, this was no small victory; it was huge.

In these days they have recounted their long journey, from the Emancipation Proclamation signed by Abraham Lincoln, through Martin Luther King’s strong leadership with sit-ins and marches and enduring brutality, beatings and bombings, being denied education in our finer educational institutions to finally having a black man be judged, as Martin Luther King hoped, by the content of his character rather than by the color of his skin, and elected to serve as our President for the next four years. We have obviously come a long way – for the black man. But what about the white and black women? We had Hillary Clinton running for President – meaning, to some extent, we’ve come a long way there as well. But really, how far is that?

When facing the choice between voting for a senior citizen, a woman or a black man, the majority of our people chose a black man. Though I know our voting decisions are never black and white – no pun intended – this result makes me wonder what this election really says about us.

In assessing John McCain, his superior experience in leadership was never questioned. What did seem to be questioned was if he had, perhaps, passed his prime. I heard news commentators say things such as, “McCain kept repeating himself as though he had forgotten he’d already said that.” There is no doubt that if, and when, Clinton and Obama repeated themselves, it was either for emphasis or because the same response was, once again, pertinent to the question for them.

I heard commentators saying that John Kerry had been successful with the youth vote by 7% while Obama managed to bring in a 32% higher amount of the youth vote than McCain. The commentators’ suggestion was purely that our young people were drawn to Obama’s platform and message, but I would suggest that a far stronger factor was this country’s obsession with youth. AARP, in their magazine, has to go to an effort to point out and review any movies that show our aging population in any positive light. It is clear from viewing ads in any magazine, except AARP, that the focus of advertising dollars is on young people.

If that’s how it is for a senior citizen candidate, how have and do women fare? At the present time, there are apparently 16 women in the Senate, and 79 in the House. There are currently eight women governors. Historically, there have been 218 women in the United States House of Representatives, 36 of whom were elected as widows to complete their deceased husband’s term. There have been 35 women in the United States Senate since the establishment of that body in 1789, meaning that out of the 1,897 Americans who have served in the United States Senate since that time, 1.85% have been female. Interestingly, the first woman Senator was 87 years old and was appointed when they wanted someone who would NOT be a contender for the general election to complete an unexpired term. Because the Senate was not in session, no one believed she would have any opportunity to actually vote on anything. She served one day between her swearing in and the swearing in of the newly-elected male Senator.

Observing the nation’s responses to both Hillary and Sarah Palin was also interesting. Hillary is an exceedingly strong, even aggressive, woman. Here’s a quote about Hillary from an article for the Washington Monthly by Carl Cannon: “You know the rap: She’s too liberal, too polarizing, a feminist too threatening to male voters. Too much baggage. Too… Clinton. She can’t be elected in a general election; men aren’t willing to vote for a woman like Hillary; women don’t think much of her marriage–or her, for staying in it.”

It is not my intention at this time to discuss Sarah Palin’s true strengths and weaknesses as a candidate, but I would like to address some of the areas pertinent to her being a WOMAN candidate. Where people referred to Hillary as a “ball buster,” Sarah Palin seemed to be viewed as too attractive to be taken seriously. One man I heard say she clearly wasn’t experienced enough to be elected, although he got turned on watching her. And I heard women suggest she should not have even considered running for Vice President since she had five children, one of whom was handicapped. It was quite clear to them she should be a stay-at-home mom with all that on her plate. Let me say, it would never have occurred to anyone to suggest that Joe Biden should have been a stay-at-home Dad following the death of his wife and daughter when his sons clearly needed a hefty dose of ‘mothering’ as they struggled for life and health as well as emotional stability in the aftermath of that tragedy.

Additionally, in an interview on a Baptist university campus, both male and female students were asked what they thought of Sarah Palin as a Vice Presidential candidate. They were effusive in their warm response to her; it was clear her principles on abortion and marriage were in line with their own views. But then they were asked, “You would be fine if she ended up being President of our country?” They indicated their agreement with that possibility due to her conservative views. Then the interviewer asked, “Could she be a pastor of your church?” The answer was an absolute, “No way. That would be against the clear teaching of the Bible.”

As a young woman, I felt a strong call of God on my life, but at that time there WAS NO PLACE for a woman to serve (and in the conservative church that is still the case). Women could be wives and mothers and, if they HAD to work, they could work in retail or be a nurse, teacher or secretary, though, of course, their wages would be small because, “the company just can’t afford to take the wage from a MAN responsible for the upkeep of his family.”

I learned as an educated musician that I could be used to lead rehearsals and conduct the choir in the absence of the minister of music, but I could not sit on the platform and I was not permitted to lead the congregational singing. They chose a 17-year-old boy to do that – because, of course, he had the necessary genitalia.

Today, although as Hillary said, she put 18,000,000 cracks in the glass ceiling, that ceiling is still there. A preponderance of both men and women seem unwilling to see and live according to the biblical principle found in Galatians 3:28 that, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

So in these first days following the election as we watch the black community wiping away their tears of joy that Martin Luther King’s words regarding his dream have been fulfilled, women are still waiting for the fulfillment of Susan B. Anthony’s words when she said, “The day will come when men will recognize woman as his peer, not only at the fireside, but in councils of the nation.”

I can only add with a sad hopefulness, “that day will come … that day will come.”

Whatever You Do, Inspire Me!

A year or so ago, I watched an old 1940s war movie called “Journey for Margaret.” A young pregnant woman was wounded during an air raid and during an operation lost both the child and the ability to conceive further children. As a result, she began to cope with life with a lot of fake good cheer and alcoholic bolstering. I began to reflect on how any of us maintain our inspiration and motivation to continue in the face of frustration and loss.

In August 2007, I attended the Willow Creek Leadership Summit held annually at Crossings Church. In Bill Hybels’ last presentation he addressed this same subject as it relates to leaders – how do leaders stay inspired and motivated to continue leading and how do they inspire and motivate the members of their team or organization?

It’s a pertinent question; in different research studies someplace between 40% and 87% of employees leave their job as a response to frustration or lack of inspiration or motivation. Those of us who have been divorced can attest that people also leave marriages and families during those same times of lack of inspiration or motivation. It’s pretty clear that a discouraged leader, employee or family member doesn’t have a lot to draw on to hold the team, organization or family together.

The first question Hybels asked was, “Whose job is it to keep me, as a leader, motivated?” As a Christian leader, he looked to the Bible to find his answer. In I Samuel 30:6, scripture tells us that Samuel “encouraged himself in God.” Hybel’s conclusion – it’s truly up to the individual to keep up with his or her own call to leadership. Some of his suggestions for how to do that are:

  1. Stay clear about why you are doing what you’re doing
  2. Be sure you are maximizing your God-given gifts and talents – Focus on your strengths – Marcus Buckingham in First Break All the Rules, Now, Discover Your Strengths and in the most recent Go, Put Your Strengths to Work teaches how we are depleted from working in areas of our weaknesses and we are strengthened and excited when we are working in the areas of our strengths.
  3. Make sure the people you surround yourself with are inspired and inspiring – pay close attention to people who are de-motivators to you (even if one of them is you). We can take in so much daily garbage that we can demotivate our own self.
  4. Read great books (although there isn’t anything wrong with reading fiction; Hybels is talking about reading biographies and books on leadership that help you grow in the direction of your dreams)
  5. Rub shoulders with EIPs (exceptionally inspiring people) – take the time to seek them out
  6. Participate in inspiring events. That likely means you’ll need to spend some time thinking about what really does inspire you. That’s why I attend the Leadership Summit as well as the Maximum Impact seminars each year.
  7. Pay attention to your physical condition and to the disciplines that keep you fit, like exercise, proper nutrition, water and rest.
  8. Pay attention to your work environment – decorate it, clean it, organize it.
  9. Have inspiring recreation outside your work time that recreates you.
  10. This is one that generally gets neglected in the corporate world, but it is Hybels’ suggestion and mine – Practice daily spiritual disciplines. Sensing the voice of God speaking to your spirit can inspire you for days, months or even years.

Once we’ve dealt with our own inspiration and motivation, what’s the best way to motivate those around us? Collin Powell earlier in the day had said “Optimism is a force multiplier.” Optimism enhances everything that has to get done in a military or governmental setting. Hybels said number one on the list of how to motivate those around us is to Live a motivated life around them! Avoid negativity. Positivity is also a force multiplier. In addition to your own motivated life,

  1. Connect everyone you lead to a compelling cause
  2. Learn the inspiration language of each individual person on your team and speak it to them.
  3. Identify and reduce every de-motivating thing
  4. Celebrate every sign of progress

Finally, Hybels asked the question, “What would a church look like if everyone were inspired? We could ask here, “What would your business look like if you were all inspired?” Hybels once again went to scripture for his answer and found it in the second chapter of Acts. I won’t quote it in its entirety, but I will list some of the verb phrases:

They were all devoted to

everyone was filled with a sense of awe

the people gave to the poor at unprecedented levels

radical acceptance of one another

the community noticed and wanted to join them.

We all have dreams, goals, places where we serve and lead and we all get tired and frustrated when the results we hope for are delayed. It’s up to each one of us to discover and practice what motivates us so we can live a motivated life around the people we come in contact with – in our businesses, in our churches, in our communities, and in our families.

When the day is dark and dreary
And we know not where to go;
Don’t let your heart go weary,
Just keep this thought in mind…

It is better to light just one little candle
Than to stumble in the dark.
Better far that you light just one little candle,
All you need is a tiny spark.
If we’d all say a prayer that the world would be free,
A wonderful dawn of a new day we’d see…
And if everyone lit just one little candle,
What a bright world this would be.

Go Light your World!