Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Epitaph For The Faithful: A Message of Encouragment for Christian Servants

"These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth." - Hebrews 11:3 (ESV)

Recently I was walking through the older section of a large cemetery indulging in one of my more peculiar hobbies: reading epitaphs.  Though it is admittedly somewhat macabre it is also an interesting insight into the way we have processed the matters of death and our reflections on life.  As I read some of the more traditional lines like "Gone But Not Forgotten," "Beloved Mother" and "Budded On Earth To Bloom In Heaven," I saw a brief message carved out in solid granite: 

"They Did What They Could"
My initial reaction was a bemused chuckle.  I was standing over the grave of a couple who had been married for over 50 years when they died.  The husband lived into his 70's and the wife survived him by a little less than a decade.  I am not sure of who they were in life, their profession or their accomplishments but the size and location of their monument bespoke at least a certain measure of successfulness.  Yet instead of the normal words of memorial and terms of endearment, the words that were chosen for them, or by them, in summary of their life were, "They Did What They Could."  As I continued to walk along,suddenly I noticed another tombstone that read "He Did What He Could."  A few steps later, in the same section of the cemetery, "She Did What She Could." 

Suddenly it dawned on me:  These people did what they could; not what they couldn't.  In life, they labored faithfully at whatever their hands found to do and, in the end, felt like they had done what they could.  There was a subtle yet sublime peace in those five words that had not occurred to me.  You can imagine the peace of being able to lay your head down on your deathbed with enough assurance to say, "I did what I could.  I didn't shirk from my duty.  I didn't make excuses.  I did what I could."  But to be able to do so also required the individual to be at peace with what he didn't do.  In other words, to be able to be at peace with the end of your labor one must also come to terms with the fact that there is only so much an individual can do in a lifetime.  Things happen.  Opportunities come and go.  Time and chance happen to all of us (see Ecclesiastes 9:11). 
You see, a lawyer cannot condemn himself for being unable to save the life of a dying man in need of a surgeon.  The lawyer's job it to litigate, not operate.  His lot in life is to perform in the courtroom, not the surgical theater.  His skill sets have been finely tuned for running his fingers across the complicated pages of law books, not through the intricacies of the human body.  Is it fair for the lawyer to be internally conflicted, discontent and dejected because he cannot do what he simply cannot do?  No!  Not in the least!  The surgeon cannot do what the lawyer can and, likewise, should feel no alarm at that fact.  Rather, each should work in that area where they are most adept and find their contentment in knowing that, in what they were called to do, they did what they could and did so with faithfulness and an unwavering sense of duty. 
Now, consider the Kingdom of God.  As we walk through Hebrews 11 we are strolling through the Hall of Fame of Faith.  There we read the names of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sara, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthae, David, Samuel and the prophets.  All of these were real men and women who are considered to be heroes of faith who held on to their confidence in God in spite of their own human frailties, failures and circumstances.  And while we recall their great deeds, it would do us good to put flesh and blood on them and remember that they were human beings; not divine creatures created in perfection and living out their lives without error nor did they all end their lives enshrined in marble on a majestic hillside with adoring masses singing their praises. 
"Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth." - Hebrews 11:36-38 (ESV)
Many of their sufferings were brought about just because life happens to everyone.  Other trials came upon them, like David and Samson, because of their sins and failures.  But, in the end, notice what the Holy Spirit has to say about them.  "...of whom the world was not worthy."  They were real people who lived real lives, suffered real problems and made real mistakes and, yet, because they held on to their faith and "did what they could," they are viewed in the sight of God as individuals who the world was not worthy to have living therein.  God never asked David to be an Abraham nor Moses a Jacob nor Gideon a Noah.  Rahab was never asked nor expected to be a Sara.  They were asked to do what they could and hold onto their faith in the sufficiency of God. 
The Pastor cannot condemn himself because he is not a Missionary Apostle.  An Evangelist cannot be angry with himself because he is not a Pastor.  The one who is called to be a help or an administrator (see 1 Corinthians 12:28) should not look to others with differing callings and condemn themselves for not being who or what those other individuals are.  We must all do what we can and, thereby, find a feeling of satisfaction knowing that God called us to do something, we did what He called us to do by the power He gave us to do it and, regardless of the end result, have an adequacy which can only come from the Almighty. 

What you are doing for God is important IF you are doing what God has asked of you to do.  If God called you to be a witness, do not desire to be a Pastor.  If God has called you to be a Pastor, do not desire to be an Evangelist.  If God has called you to sing, do not desire to preach.  Rather, desire to be used of God as He would use you.  When you can find contentment allowing your life to rest in the hands of Jesus Christ you will find Him carrying you into a life of peace and spiritual contentment.  Purpose in your heart to listen to the voice of God calling you into a field of His service and to do that which He asks of you wholeheartedly and then you will find rest in your labors.   
2 Corinthians 3:5 says, "Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God" (NASB).  Within ourselves we will always feel the pressure to perform and the byproduct of the stress involved often manifests as spiritual depression and discontent.  Certainly we should strive to do all that we can for the Kingdom of God, but the most important thing is to find out what God wants us to do with our lives and to do what we can with what He has given us. 
I have felt like a failure more times than I care to recall.  I have established and I have had to close the doors.  I have led souls to Christ and I have been unable to deter others from walking away from Him.  But I have spent my life trying to listen for that small voice from behind me telling me, "This is the way!  Walk in it!"  (see Isaiah 30:21).  What I have struggled to remember is that I am a servant - nothing more.  I have been called to serve.  Christ is my Commander and I am His soldier.  If He deploys me overseas then I must go there.  When the Commander calls me back to a battlefield on the home front then I must go there.  Should the Commander put me behind a desk at a Fort or Command Center then I must go there.  But, in all of it, I cannot become disappointed with myself because the call to serve requires something less "glorious" of me than of someone else.  As a Christian Servant I resign myself to the fact that God creates vessels for His purposes (see Romans 9:20-21).  What is more, I must learn to take advantage of the fact that, in the sight of God, doing what I can and holding the faith makes me to join hands in the long line of that great cloud of witnesses beginning in Hebrews 11. 
My fellow Christian Servant - do not feel discouraged.  Pastor, it may be that your church has 10 members while another has 1000.  But if you are doing all God has called you to do, please do not despise yourself for being faithful to the labor the Lord has trusted you with.  Evangelist, it may be that 5 people come to salvation in your meetings while 50 do so in the meetings of others.  But if you are doing all God has called you to do, please do not despise yourself for being faithful to the labor the Lord has trusted you with.  Witness, it may be that you testify of your Saviour to 100 people and none of them come to Christ while another may see near 100% success.  But if you are doing all God has called you to do, please do not despise yourself for being faithful to the labor the Lord has trusted you with.  The key to it all is this:  DO ALL YOU CAN DO.  God doesn't expect you to do any more than that.  And if you are doing all you can do then there is a glorious epitaph that others may not understand but you can find contentment in: 
"They Did What They Could" 


Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Thank You, Mrs. Stanley

The image above contains the text of a popular revision of a poem written by "Bessie" Anderson Stanley in 1904 and often incorrectly attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Mrs. Stanley won $250 for answering the question, "What is success?" in 100 words or less with this submission to Brown Book Magazine.  The original text of her work is somewhat different but resonates with the same sentiments:  

He has achieved success who has lived well, 
Laughed often, and loved much;
Who has enjoyed the trust of pure women, 
The respect of intelligent men and the love of little children;
Who has filled his niche and accomplished his task;
Who has never lacked appreciation of Earth's beauty or failed to express it;
Who has left the world better than he found it,
Whether an improved poppy, a perfect poem, or a rescued soul;
Who has always looked for the best in others and given them the best he had;
Whose life was an inspiration;
Whose memory a benediction.

Success, for Mrs Stanley, was not in the ability to accumulate wealth, fame or renown.  For this unassuming woman born in Jasper County, Iowa and penning these words of success while living in Lincoln County, Kansas, success may well have been defined in the events of that year.  August 1904 brought about the birth of her fourth child, Lynnette, after the disappointing death of her infant son, Warren, soon after his birth the year before.  In all, Mrs. Stanley would give birth to five children who would survive into adulthood.  Lynnette would live to the goodly age of 101, passing away in April 2006.

Born in 1879, Mrs. Stanley, born Caroline Elizabeth Anderson, had grown up in a family with five siblings.  Her father, William Robinson Anderson, would be swept away by the allure of the California gold rush in his teenage years after been left motherless and, apparently, fatherless from a young age.  When her father died in 1890, the obituary in the Lincoln County Beacon ended with these words which ring clearly of the sentiments contained in Mrs. Stanley's later "Success" work:

He left as many admiring friends as any man 
with the same number of acquaintances, 
and his departure is a real loss to the community 
where he lived and an irreparable on to his family. 

In short, it could be said that Mrs. Stanley was a person who was well acquainted with a life of success though not that which most people seek after.  She, as an 11 year old girl with five older siblings who just lost their father, heard all the stories from the townspeople of her father's character and fidelity and rehearsed them in her heart on the lonely nights when the silence of the darkness was broken only by the intermittent weeping of a grieving widow mingled with her own simple tears.  In her own adult life, she was familiar with the pain of losing one child and successfully raising five more while being loyal to her husband, Arthur Jehu Stanley, who survived her in death.  

Mrs. Stanley's children would grow to accomplish varied things.  Her son, Arthur, would go on to be a Fireman 1st Class in the U.S. Navy and a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army serving in both World Wars 1 and 2 before passing away in 2001 at the age of 99.  Her daughter, Juanita, was an educator an a nurse in life.  In short, her children followed the example of success as outlined by their mother who, apparently, had inherited her philosophy from her father.  

And while Mrs. Stanley, who passed away in 1952, is mostly forgotten today because of her work being erroneously attributed to another author, her memory may well rejoice in knowing that, by her own definition, Mrs. Stanley was a success.  "Who has left the world better than he found it, Whether an improved poppy, a perfect poem, or a rescued soul" is to have succeeded, she would say.  Well, Mrs. Stanley, at least one life has breathed easier because you lived and were inspired to pen those few words in definition of the ever too allusive "success."  That one life is me.  

Thank you, Mrs. Stanley. You have succeeded.

Dedicated to the memory of

Born 1879
Newton, Jasper County, Iowa
Died 1952
Kansas City, Wyandotte County, Kansas

and to all those like her who live and have lived a life of 
unsung success in the eyes of those whose judgment, 
in the grand scheme of life, mattered the most.