Choosing One’s Attitude – Finding Meaning

Dr. Victor Frankel an Austrian psychiatrist, wrote of being confined to a Concentration Camp in his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning.” Frankel could have given in to despair. Daily there were people who died of illnesses, malnutrition or were brutally killed. Yet, Frankel, not only lived, but survived to tell the story of his survival. He said of that experience, “Suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.”

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During his imprisonment, he was startled by the realization that prisoners who were physically strong when they arrived, were often the first to die. Others who appeared frail, survived. The difference he observed was in their attitudes. In his book Frankel writes, “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the ones who walked through the huts comforting others . . . giving away their last piece of bread. They . . . offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from us but one thing: the last of the human freedoms . . . to choose one’s own attitude in any given set of circumstances. . . . to choose one’s own way.”

No one walks through this world unscathed. Each of us will inevitably face hardship, loss, illness or some form of injustice. We are confronted with choices at those moments. Will we wallow in self pity? Will we make life difficult for family, friends and the stray person who stumbles in our path? Will we make sure that everyone knows about our pain? Will we isolate ourselves and turn away from people who care? Or will we look, not at our losses, but at what we have left? The choice to stop wallowing in our pain is the beginning step of healing. Frankel’s heroes were people who used their lives bringing hope and comfort to others.

The apostle Paul was a survivor. Writing out of his many hardships he says, “We have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” II Corinthians 4:7-9

This is the gift of overcoming that God gives to each of us. Out of that power of God living in him, Paul developed a resilience to face the hurts and struggles he had to face. Paul had come to know one who would give him the strength to endure, wherever he found himself, whatever his circumstances. This is the same Lord who comes to us and who offers us a source of power and strength to endure. The power, that comes from God, is a power that allows us to face life’s anguish and confusion.

Too often, we think that we are alone. To think this way is to be wrong. God is always here, waiting for us to open our hearts to the gifts of compassion, mercy and kindness. God is wanting to be with us and to get us through whatever difficulties, crisis, or heartache we face. But we have to ask and we have to open our hearts to let God in. God, who loves you, yearns for you to do just that.

On the Path to Easter

As Jesus travels through Holy Week, he is surrounded by a sea of human need. He sees heartache and sorrow, the mingled tears of humanity. He confronts evil, challenges systems, restores hope. Compassionate eyes search for those he can bring hope to. He offers the wisdom of one who knows these are to be the words his followers will remember.

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The path to Easter is a mixture of celebration and pain. Good Friday inevitably stands in the path to Easter. Jesus weeps over Jerusalem. A crowd will shout its praises on Palm Sunday. The greedy and powerful are confounded when they and their trade are cast out of God’s sacred space. Healing occurs and some are blessed with restored health. One we love is betrayed by a close and trusted friend. Ugliness, the ugliness of a crowd that lets itself be swayed away from truth and into violence takes over. And the heart cries, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

Whenever fear, death and darkness appear to win the day, we stand by Good Friday’s cross, asking the questions of faith. We do not have answers for most of our Good Friday questions. What we do have is One who walks with us through the Good Friday’s of life… One who stands with us when we encounter its pain and harshness… One who embraces us in the darkness of our personal Good Friday.

Easter stands forever as a reminder that God has the final word. Death is not more powerful than life. Easter comes with its joyful message! Its certain response to Good Friday’s heartache. “He Is Risen!”

Waymarks on the Journey

In the summer 1987 my family took off from our home in Minnesota on a long awaited trip to Yellowstone National Park. The park is primarily located in Wyoming, and partially in Montana and Idaho. This unique national treasure sits on top of a volcanic system. All of which has made it the place to go if you want to see eruptions of lava, geysers and sulfuric springs. I had always wanted to visit the park. The intrigue of “Old Faithful” known for its regular display of water intrigued me. We would visit other sites along the way.

I suppose it would have been better if I had, had a better car. At the time money was scarce. We borrowed a tent from a friend and rented a camper trailer. Then we set out with one adult, and five children ages ten to seventeen. My almost 19 year old son had just joined the Navy and would miss the trip. Meanwhile, we would be meeting my oldest son at Yellowstone. I had an old, yellow station wagon with fake wood trim which had seen better days before I ever acquired it. The shock absorbers had worn out to the extent that at night there was a noticeable upward swing to the headlights. This made for a bit of an impediment with hundreds of miles of night driving ahead.

From the beginning of the trip we were plagued with car and trailer problems. The rented trailer hitch would regularly fall off the station wagon. As a family, we rapidly learned how to reattach the hitch. We had gone a couple of hundred miles when the station wagon stalled along highway 90 in South Dakota. Eventually, the highway patrol stopped and checked on me. I told them about my AAA travel coverage and they told me that there was no AAA travel coverage in that area of South Dakota. They also taught me a new term: “vapor lock.” I learned it was not uncommon and if I tried to start my station wagon, it just might start. We made it to our destination that night in fits and starts, resting the engine till it would work again. Near Wall Drug in South Dakota, I found a person who could help with the car. I felt better looking at the letters posted on their wall from people around the country and some overseas, who had stopped at their repair shop and gotten help. We were blessed with some honest people, who quickly took care of the problem at a minimal cost.

Our first big item on our trip was to go up Mount Rushmore to see the famous heads of presidents’ George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln carved into the mountain stone. The journey up did not go at all as planned. We had to stop and let the car cool down several time when it overheated. After getting to the top, my sons aged 17, 13, 11 and my daughters ages 15 and 10 headed toward the monuments, while I turned toward the cool of the visitor center. I was trying to figure out if we could continue the trip, if we ought to continue it or if we could even get down off of Mt Rushmore. I was feeling alone, frustrated, worried, and wondering why on earth I had ever set out on that trip. Standing in line at the concession stand, hundreds of miles from home, I was feeling isolated and lost. Then I heard someone call my name. Behind me was a friend from seminary. I was worried about a car, but what I really needed at that moment was a friend. I thought I needed help, but what I needed was someone to listen.

God often operates that way in our lives. We venture out on faith. Answers don’t come the way we expect. When there is trouble, we’d like to see steps far down the road. We want assurance we will get to our destination and home safe again. God offers us a listening ear instead. When we travel in faith, we discover waymarks on our journey, places and signs of God’s presence – a certainty of God’s blessing. We face larger challenges than we signed up for, then discover God’s grace is more abundant than we thought.

Oh, we did get down off Mt Rushmore without the car falling apart. There was an hour stop to let the brakes cool down. Yes there were more problems. A blown tire here and there. We regularly stopped to get the trailer hitch back in place. As we traveled around the winding roads of Yellowstone at night, with lights pointed to the sky instead of the road, my then 13 year old kept asking, “Mom, if we fall into a hot spring, will the ice cubes melt before we hit the bottom?” The car made it and we made it. This troubled vacation with all of its problems and trials is a special blessing to us today. We remember it, not for the sights we saw at Yellowstone, but what it taught us about each other. I think that was part of what God had in mind when we set off on the journey.

It Really Does Take a Village

It was the custom in one of the churches I served for the parents of a child who was graduating from high school to make a few comments at a baccalaureate breakfast. I recall one parent who started by saying: “I once went to a church school teacher training event where the comment was made, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ and I said to myself…that’s not true. I’m the one who does the laundry, cooks the meals, cleans up after the messes, disciplines and corrects. I’m the one who chases around to lessons and school activities.”

But then she went on to say how her mind had changed over the years. She mentioned her son’s involvement in the church and the way the church had supported his fledgling efforts with a violin until he had become an accomplished violinist. She talked about the encouragement he received in the church fellowship that had impacted his life. As she thanked the people gathered that morning, she continued by saying, “Now I know, it really does take a village to raise a child.”

Most parents I meet are deeply concerned with their children. Today’s parents want to raise their children with a healthy sense of self-esteem, and the inner strength to resist negative behavior. A few years ago, the Search Institute began to ask a new question. In a time when everyone was wondering what families were doing wrong, the Search Institute asked,”What are families doing right?” and “What gives our children the resiliency to resist destructive outside pressures or to bounce back when they make a mistake?” Their discoveries included a list of Forty assets, which consistently were part of the life of a healthy child.

Among the assets named was regular involvement in a church or synagogue. The size of the church didn’t seem to matter. What mattered was the fact of a child’s regular involvement in it. I suspect that the impact of a church on a child’s life spills over into some of the other assets which were named. Children involved in churches are often involved in music ministries of the church. Youth groups provide structure, while religious classes reinforce values that are important for families. Those values are also included as assets, such as: “helping people,” a “concern about world hunger,” “caring about people’s feelings,” “valuing sexual restraint.” Both youth groups and religious classes provide other caring adults whom a child is able to relate to in a positive way. Even the smallest of churches offer many of those assets in one way or another.

One of the easiest, and the best things that you can do for your children, is to take your children to church with you. This is part of God’s plan for healthy families. You may be surprised. You may even find the experience meaningful and significant for yourself.