Sunday, November 22, 2009

Take good care of your memory while you have it

Memory is an amazing and mysterious gift. At age 77 my memory amazes me. Though I perceive that it is gradually failing, I still remember things that surprise me. But often the things I remember, like telephone numbers, are of little value.

Like most people there are times when my memory is suddenly out to lunch when I need it the most. In Wal-Mart I chance to meet an old friend. He warmly calls my name. I smile and chat as though I remember him well. I do remember him, but my memory will not cough up his name. Moments like that are dreadful and embarrassing. Three days later I will recall my old friend’s name.

Some of us senior citizens can recall vivid details of childhood experiences but cannot remember at noon what we ate for breakfast. This bothers us because we know that loss of short-term memory is one of the early signs of Alzheimer’s disease.

Memory seems to work better with negative experiences than with positive. Someone can remember for 50 years the circumstances of being hurt deeply by another person. Resentment or hatred can fuel the memory so that some hurts are etched forever in our minds.

Faith often plays a defining role in our memory. Through faith we may find the grace to let bitter memories go. When this happens hurtful memories are erased and a healthy attitude replaces the resentment that once dogged us. Abraham Lincoln was once reminded that a certain man, whom he had recommended for a government position, had been publicly critical of the president. Asked if he did not remember the man’s criticism, Lincoln replied, “No, I distinctly remember choosing to forget his remarks.”

Clearly some people have better memories than others. There is no obvious explanation why this is true. One principle of life that may explain it is the familiar adage, “Use it or lose it.” Evidently this is true of our memory. If we do not use it, we tend to lose it. So it seems wise to keep the brain in gear – by working crossword puzzles daily or memorizing Bible verses. Anything that is good exercise for the brain.

Caroline, my mother, had a remarkable memory. She could rattle off the birthdays of 75 or more family members – even the year of each person’s birth. My wife Dean can recall the color of a dress she wore when she was six. These days she constantly recalls wise sayings her mother taught her when she was growing up.

Since my sister Laurida died at age 56, some 15 years ago, I have recalled many experiences we shared growing up. Nobody ever laughed like my sister. She laughed all over, and whenever she laughed, she made the most of it. Sometimes when I hear a woman laughing as Laurida did, I am plugged into joy. I recall how much she enjoyed life, and how our family still enjoys remembering her special kind of laughter.

Laurida was a good cook, a devoted homemaker. One of her favorite things was to bake cinnamon rolls. They were out of this world. Everybody wanted a pan of Laurida’s rolls. Nobody could make them like she did. Once her reputation was made, she frequently surprised different family members by baking their own special batch of cinnamon rolls. None of her rolls ever made it to the second day.

When Laurida was dying with cancer, and she knew she did not have long to live, a wedding for one of her daughters was arranged – at the foot of her bed in her home. I don’t think I will ever forget that occasion. We all felt the wedding was performed on “holy ground.” It remains a sacred memory in my heart. Surely her daughter and her husband will never forget their special wedding even though it was not a “church wedding.”

One day an older couple walked into my study and asked, “Do you remember us?” I drew a blank. I knew I had never seen these two people before in my whole life. After enjoying my embarrassment for a few minutes, the man told me their names and said, “You married us 38 years ago.”

Now armed with their names, and the reminder that I had married them, I still could not remember what they looked like almost 40 years before. I took their word for it, and enjoyed a chat with them. Their names I did recall, but that was all.

Occasionally someone will walk up to me and say, “Do you remember me?” Half the time I cannot remember their name. But I have a standard reply to this question: “I could never forget a face like yours.” Usually that produces a laugh, which gives me a few minutes to work overtime trying to recall their name.

Frankly I refuse to be terribly embarrassed when someone challenges me to remember his or her name. I simply say, “No, I know I should remember your name, but I don’t. Please help me.” If someone is ticked off by my memory lapse, I am sorry, but I choose not to punish myself with another guilt trip. I have been on enough guilt trips.

We should all be wise to exercise our minds daily and maintain a positive attitude toward our own capacity to remember. Never say, “I have trouble remembering names.” Instead say, “Your name is important to me; tell me your name again so I can write it down. I want to remember it.”

One favor I must ask of the young. Be kind to us old codgers. If you hear one of us telling you a story we have already told you, just indulge us please. It is embarrassing to have someone say, “You must be getting old; you keep telling the same old stories.”

If it is a good story, be thankful for it. And remember, you may be old one day. Enjoy your memory while you can; it may not last all your life! @

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Many scenes on life's journey were the occasions of stirring moments

Memory affords me a long string of significant sights I have witnessed with my own eyes. So many I hardly know where to begin.

I first saw the snow-capped Alps from the window of an airliner. That was an incredible scene and it remains etched in my mind.

Our family visited the Grand Canyon when our boys were small. Like most people we could hardly believe the size and beauty of that place.

On a missions trip around the world, my wife and I stood before the Taj Mahal in India, so beautiful we wanted to gaze at it for more than a few minutes. We stood in the ruins of the Coliseum in Rome. We stood in the courtyard outside the Vatican, wondering why the Pope did not step out on the balcony to greet us.

We spent a week in Japan, another in Korea, and two nights in the intriguing city of Kathmandu, Nepal. The sight of “untouchable” children there and in India still troubles my soul. We saw the dead being loaded up on wagons on the streets of Calcutta and understood better why Mother Teresa devoted her life to helping the poor and the dying.

Greece came alive for us when we saw the ruins of the Parthenon on the Acropolis. The worldwide influence of Greek architecture is well known but we appreciated it more after visiting Athens and Corinth. There, of course, we kept wondering if we were walking where once the Apostle Paul had walked.

I admired the Tower of London and wished I could have stayed a week to learn more at Westminster Chapel. Visiting the places where John Wesley once preached stirred my soul.

History never meant more than when we visited ancient Bethlehem or walked amid the ruins of the synagogues where Jesus once worshiped near the Sea of Galilee.

My friend Al Krinke took me for a midnight ride on a dogsled in Alaska when I visited him in Nome. A friend took me up in small plane to fly over a nearby mountain range and see the frightened Caribou running for safety. I think Al called those the Saw-Toothed Mountains.

Having traveled in every state in the union, including Hawaii, I have seen so many unforgettable places that are important in the history of America. My mind is filled with memories of times spent gazing at sights that millions have seen only in pictures or history books.

Along the journey I have met few of the world’s dignitaries. No president ever invited us to tea in the White House. No governor ever called on me to come pray for him.

Yet on many occasions I have had a personal audience with the most important person in the universe. I met him in a holy place called the sanctuary of that sacred building called a church.

I met him there when my sins overwhelmed me and drove me to my knees. There he gave me the precious gift of forgiveness and boosted my hope for the future.

I met him there when I began to question the purpose of my life, and I felt him call me to preach. I met him there when I pledged my life to my sweetheart Dean in holy matrimony.

I met him there when our first child died. There I found comfort and healing for my sorrow. I met him there when in brokenness, I confessed my need for the Holy Spirit to take over my life, and he graciously filled me with the presence of his Spirit.

I met him there when my children, and grandchildren, were baptized and consecrated to him. I met him there when my sister Laurida died, and when my father and mother slipped away from us. Every time he touched me and met my need, despite my unworthiness.

I have met him there hundreds of times when praying for persons who were weary of emptiness and ready for God to cleanse and change their hearts.

All of this to say, of all the places I have seen, none has meant more to me than the sanctuary where I met the Master, and where I continue to go to find the peace that he alone offers thirsty souls. @

Monday, November 2, 2009

Do your best not to give up until you cross the finish line

One of the greatest privileges of a pastor is to encourage people not to give up. Pastors do their best work not by chastising people for their sins but by inspiring them to overcome their failures.
When ministry is based on encouragement, rather than judgment, there is always plenty to do. All around us are people who are struggling with defeat. A business or a marriage has failed. Debts seem insurmountable. Alcohol and drug use is out of control. Dreams have been shattered. The ox is in the ditch and there seems no way to get him out.
When the bottom falls out people do not need a lecture; they need compassion. Not pity. Compassion is that rare gift that inspires people to believe in themselves because someone else believes in them. Compassion is staying with someone that everyone else has given up on. Compassion is snatching a friend from the jaws of despair and convincing him that he has what it takes to get out of the mess he has made.
A man praised his pastor for helping him recover from alcoholism. He said, “My drinking had put me in a deep hole. Nobody wanted anything to do with me. But my preacher got down in that hole with me and helped me to crawl out. His love helped me believe in the love of God.”
Compassionate caring can help people set goals for themselves and refuse to quit until they succeed. Such caring can call forth in others the willingness to persevere. Few human qualities are more important than perseverance. That is why most of our heroes are people who refused to allow adversity to deter them from their goals.
Winston Churchill, for example, is one of the great heroes of the 20th Century. He will always be remembered for his tenacious spirit, and that which he inspired in the people of England during World War II. When it appeared that Hitler was about to bring England to its knees, Prime Minister Churchill kept hope alive with his defiant words, "We will be victorious!"
Churchill traveled all over England motivating the people. He inspired workers in the factories and on the farms to work tirelessly for their country. He visited the troops and instilled in them the conviction that England would prevail.
Few stories are more captivating than that of Churchill's visit with the coal miners. Hearing that the miners were discouraged about their contribution to the war effort, Sir Winston surprised them by showing up in the dangerous underground tunnels where they worked.
They were astonished that Churchill would risk coming into the mines and stared in trembling disbelief as his words rang in their ears:
"We will be victorious! We will preserve our freedom. And years from now when our freedom is secure and peace reigns, your children and your children's children will come and they will say to you, 'What did you do to win our freedom in that great war?' And one will say, 'I marched with the Eighth Army!' Someone else will proudly say, 'I manned a submarine.' And another will say, 'I guided the ships that moved the troops and the supplies.' And still another will say, 'I doctored the wounds!'" Then, with persuasive power Churchill shouted, "They will come to you, and you will say with equal right and equal pride, 'I cut the coal! I cut the coal that fueled the ships that moved the supplies! That's what I did. I cut the coal!"
From that hour no coal miners ever worked with greater courage than the men who heard Churchill that day. They refused to quit. They endured, and helped England preserve its precious freedom. Though the German bombs continued to fall upon English cities, the coal miners were never discouraged again.
Many admire Churchill for his wit. And he desires our admiration. On one occasion Lady Astor said to Winston, “If I were married to you, I would put poison in your tea.” He replied, “If I were married to you, I’d drink it.” When someone criticized him for ending a sentence with a preposition, he responded, “This is the kind of tedious nonsense up with which I will not put.”
Though Churchill’s gifts and achievements are extraordinary, I am thankful most of all for his personal example of perseverance. Voted out of office he refused to quit and was later re-elected Prime Minister. He earned the right to encourage others never to give up.
One of his most memorable speeches is a brief one given to the boys at old Harrow School, which he had attended as a boy. Imagine how these words must have inspired the young lads at the school:
"This is the lesson: never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy."
So if today you find yourself struggling to carry on, allow me to encourage you to get up out of the ashes of your hardship and stay the course. Stay with it. Tie a knot in the end of your rope and hold on. Refuse to quit. Never give up. The finish line may be just ahead. Do the best you can until you cross it. @