Thursday, October 9, 2014

Old is Good pt. 3

In the mid-eighties, Charles Colson released (what I consider) the 2nd greatest Christian book ever written. Loving God was an effort to counter an increasingly secular culture and Colson’s own discovery of what it meant to follow the greatest commandment -- to love God with all of your heart, soul, and mind. The Seventies and Eighties had seen the rise of all things relating to “self” – including biofeedback, Yoga, creative consciousness, EST, and the broad spectrum of the New Age movement. Colson illustrated the cultural clash between finding one’s self and finding God with the following quotes:

“The most pleasurable journey you take is through yourself…the only sustaining love involvement is with yourself.”  Shirley MacLaine

“It is vain, O men, that you seek within yourselves the cure for your miseries. All your insight only leads you to the knowledge that it is not in yourselves that you will discover the true and the good.”  Blaise Pascal

Today, as Christianity is more and more marginalized in our culture, Colson’s study of what it means to be a true believer is more relevant than ever. He believes the key to loving God  is not getting more out of the Christian life – but rather, putting more into it. The book features a number of wonderful stories of people who decided to follow God with all of their heart, soul and mind – and the life-changing impact they had in the lives of others. One of these stories focused on a 91-year-old woman named Myrtie Howell who fulfilled the Great Commandment from a tiny room in a nursing home.

Myrtie Howell was born in 1890 into a hard life. At the age of ten, she went to work in a mill for ten cents a day. She was married at the age of 17 and had three children in quick succession. Her middle child died at the age of three. In fact, it was the death of many close relatives that tested her faith. “I felt like Job,” she said. “I just felt like Satan had a conversation with the Lord and if the Lord would just let him get that Myrtie – he’d make her give the Lord up. But it only made me lean more closer, more to Him.”

Finally, the death of her youngest son, the declining health of her oldest, and her move into what she describes as “an old folks home” left her spiritually depressed with little to live for. One desperate day she prayed, “Lord, what more can I do for you? If you’re ready for me, I’m ready to come. Take me.” She says the Lord spoke to her as clear as can be saying “WRITE TO PRISONERS”. That seemed like a tall order for someone with little formal education who knew nothing about prisons. But she wasn’t about to second guess God. She addressed an envelope to: Atlanta Penitentiary, Atlanta, Georgia which simply said:

Dear Inmate,

 I am a Grandmother who love and care for you who are in a place you had not plans to be. My love and sympathy goes out to you. I am willing to be a friend to you in correspondent. If you like to hear from me, write me. I will answer every letter you write.

A Christian Friend,
Grandmother Howell

Over the next few years Myrtie corresponded with as many as 40 prisoners at a time. Colson was so moved by her faith and commitment to Prison Ministry that he visited her in Columbus, Georgia near the end of her life. What he saw was gloomy surroundings in most of the facility, but joy and love in her simple apartment. He saw stacks of hundreds of letters from prisoners and read a few. One was signed “granddaughter Janice”:

Dear Grandmother,

I received your letter and it made me sad when you wrote that you may not be alive much longer…You’ve give me all the love and concern and care that I’ve missed for years and my whole outlook on life has changed. You’ve made me realize that life is worth living and that it’s not all bad. You claim it’s all God’s doing, but I think you deserve the credit. I didn’t think I was capable of feeling love for anyone again but I know I love you as my very own precious grandmother.

As he was leaving, Colson thanked her for her faithful ministry but she said, “Oh no, you’ve helped me. These last few years have been the most fulfilling of my whole life. I thank you – and most of all thank Jesus.”  Outside of her room, he again signs of despair, depression and emptiness. The blank stares he saw didn’t have the hope and joy of Myrtie Howell. The difference was that Myrtie recognized the purposelessness of life without God. She had given up her life to gain His life. She knew all about “Loving God.”

Friday, September 19, 2014

Old is Good (pt. 2)

There’s something about old people that reminds me of the fable “The Tortoise and the Hare.” I see the Hare as a symbol of today’s fast-paced “googley” culture versus the old-school Tortoise who plods along at a consistent, hard-working pace.  The Hare is racing through life clinging to his cell phone and taking cues from the celebrities of the day and the latest viral videos. He is planning to win the race because he’s bought into the dream of instant fame and the status of social media. He might even stop a few times along the way to upload a selfie. The Tortoise, on the other hand, is an older guy who wisely knows the importance of “slow and steady” and a job well done.

Meet Dr. Tom Amberry – the tortoise. Dr. Amberry had been a podiatrist until he retired in 1991. That’s when he started looking for a hobby to stay active and combat boredom.  A friend suggested he try free-throw shooting because he had played college basketball, and he might be good enough to compete in the free throw shooting event in an upcoming Senior Olympics. So Dr. Tom started going to the gym to practice hundreds of free throws each day. Soon, he felt good enough to enter the Senior Olympics and won that event.  But “good enough” wasn’t satisfying for Dr. Tom – he always strove to be the best he could be. In his quest to improve his skills, he studied videos and read books on basketball shooting and talked to coaches and basketball experts. What he discovered, was the importance of focus and concentration that could take him to a higher level than just consistent practice. Day after day, he honed his technique and worked to improve his consistency.

Less than two years later, he would set a record that boggles the mind. I played some basketball in high school and used to be pretty competent on the court. But I always felt good if I could make 8 out of 10 free throws.  Ten in a row was nearly impossible. On November 15, 1993 Dr. Tom strode into a gym and put the basketball world to shame. The Guinness Book of World Records confirmed his feat of 2,750 consecutive free throws!* And he did this at age 72!* But it gets better. Dr. Tom didn’t miss his 2,751st free throw!* Another event was using the gym so he had to stop at that point – a point that was more that 700 better than the previous record!* Dr. Tom was an 80 percent free throw shooter in college – but he had refined his skills to where he was a consistent 98 percent shooter. He thought NBA and college players just didn’t have the discipline to achieve that kind of performance. “They’ll miss their first free throw, then decide it’s time to focus and concentrate to make the second,” he said. “They are more concerned with three-point shots and dunks than anything else.”

Dr. Tom has the philosophy that the free throw is a gift and that you should take advantage of that gift. And, it went along with his other philosophy that if you are going to do something, make sure you do it to the best of your ability. Like the Tortoise in the fable – little by little, day after day, putting in the effort to hone his skills he was able to create a record that is astonishing even to NBA basketball players and collectors of amazing facts. This goes against today’s media-driven culture. People today should take notes from Dr. Tom. Find your passion, do it well, and be consistent at it. The payoff is much more wise, satisfying and long lasting. And, oh yes, old is good.

(Note to my Journalism professor) -- * I believe I can take the liberty of exclamation marks when I am describing the most amazing fact ever 

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Old is Good!

 “So I saw that there was nothing better for people than to be happy in their work. That is why we are here! No one will bring us back from death to enjoy life after we die.” Ecclesiastes 3:22

I’ve made a lot of choices in my life but none better than when I asked my wife Deon to marry me. When I met her she was beautiful, confident woman with an unusual name and an unusual philosophy that “old is good”. I thought she liked old people because that was her specialty as she completed her medical studies at the University of Chicago. Turns out it’s a lot deeper than that. In fact, the reason she became a geriatrician is a story that would please Solomon. You always hear people talk about finding your passion in your life’s work – and that’s exactly what she did on a late night on a deserted Missouri road.

That road was the path between a summer job and her parents home during her sophomore year at college. Up until that night, Deon was a French Major who hadn't quite figured out what to do with her studies -- until she took this job at a nursing home. It was the toughest job she ever had --physically, emotionally and spiritually. She describes herself as a young “na├»ve” girl and not really prepared for everything she encountered. One night stands out in particular. She was taking care of a woman who was near death and without any family or friends for support. Late into the night, she died. That intimate encounter was a shock to a 19-year-old and the first time she was face to face with the emotional questions about life and death. Then, as she drove home on a dark, foggy road in the country – she felt God speak to her and tell her this is what you are supposed to be doing. You need to take care of the elderly and minister to people who don’t have anyone to speak for them.

Back at school, Deon changed her major to Biology and from then on, she still was not exactly sure of her path of study – but she knew it was going to involve taking care of the elderly. Eventually, she did attend Medical  School and now works as geriatrician at the University of Kansas Hospitals. To this day, she feels like medicine is not her true calling but rather her real joy comes from the relationships she has with her patients. “I just love the people I take care of,” she says. “I feel God is the reason I l love my work. It’s not like I wanted to go into medicine or wanted to be a biology major – those were just steps along the way to fulfill what he’s called me to do.”

Over the years, Deon has built a specialty in end-of-life care and she traces it back to that quiet moment she had talking to God. She feels very comfortable talking with patients and family members about the realities of death. And, much of her time now is devoted to teaching medical students how to deal with end-of-life issues. But, for her, caring for her patients is the reason she’s happy in her work. “Every day I pray, and I’m trying to do what God sets before me,” she says. “When people are old and frail and particularly at the end-of-life, it’s just natural to talk about your faith. That’s made it easier, and given me opportunities to pray and talk about God. When people have anxieties, I can talk to them and explain about the peace that passes all understanding.”

Deon sees old people a lot differently than most people. At various times a year, she sees a more general  group of patients in the hospital. That’s when she sees lots of younger people who have abused their bodies with drugs and alcohol and who are wasting away the gift of life through bad choices. Old people, on the other hand, are old because they’ve taken care of themselves and, in general, have more wisdom and respect for life. That’s why “old is good”, and the older the better. One way our world is upside down these days because we have lost our respect for the aged. We listen to the wisdom of celebrities but neglect the truly wise among us – people who have lived through all the ups and downs of life and see its true meaning.