On Being Unexceptional

I’ve always had a competitive spirit within me. Although I’ve managed to relegate it to a slightly muted stage by this point in my life, it is still there; lurking somewhere close in the shadows and waiting to pounce when I least expect it. It whispers in my ear, prodding me to be the best I can be and reminding me that I must subdue the opposition whether real or merely perceived. Drive and determination are considered by the world to be qualities in which we should aspire, while those misguided individuals who settle for second best should be summarily dismissed. By any unit of measure, being unexceptional is viewed by those ‘in the know’ as a character flaw.

That’s sad. But its sadness makes it no less true.

In my heart of hearts, I’ve accepted my lot in life. It is too late in the game to realistically aspire to one day taking up residence in the Oval Office. To change careers and go into teaching, which I probably should have done from the start, is no longer a viable option. But you still can, people do this all the time! No. Not me. Financially, emotionally, and mentally I have become as one with Popeye the Sailor: I yam what I yam. And I’m pretty comfortable with it, except when that voice I mentioned earlier whispers to me, seducing me with visions of things that could (or should) be.

Am I depressed this morning? Is that what I am saying? No. Not by any means. In fact, my life has been a life full of blessings realized and hopes and dreams achieved, and I cannot deny it by any stretch of my very active imagination. I see those blessings in the faces of my children. I’m reminded of them by the many smiles my wife and I share together. I can hear it in the laughter of my grand-daughter. Life has been very, very good to me.

How can you measure success? What standards do we follow and who wrote them? Are we considered successful by the size of the house in which we live or the model of vehicle we drive? Is it in the available balance shown on our checking account statement? Can it be found in our position at work or our stature in the community? Maybe in the praise of those that know us or the plaudits of those who don’t, we can find some measurable semblance of where we stand in the annals of history. We all want to count, to matter, to mean something, and to leave behind a legacy so we will not be forgotten once our time here is up.

Success is a game, and it is a dangerous one at best. To become ensconced in the lure of fame and fortune can have an adverse effect on your life and the meaning of it. Left to its own devices, a drive for success can cause a person to forget who they are and become someone else altogether. This has been a hard lesson for me to learn in my life, but by George, I think I finally get it. When I get to Heaven and stand before the Father, He is not going to ask me why I wasn’t more like Billy Graham; He will want to know why I wasn’t more like me. That is a sobering thought.

Jesus has His own method of measuring our success, and He spoke of it in Mark 8: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?”

There is nothing wrong with a determination and drive for finding success. We are to work hard and do our best, and to always be the best that we can be. But all of our efforts should be tempered by placing eternal goals above the earthly ones we pursue. The things we do here on earth, the purchases we make and the goals we achieve are fleeting and ephemeral at best. Though they may be great and make us happy today, usually by tomorrow we'll find ourselves working hard toward something else.

It is much too easy for me to lose sight of who I am and where I’m going if I concentrate only on the here and now. I’ll take unexceptional here on earth any day if it means a greater reward will be waiting for me in eternity.

Unsustainable Debt

The stock markets in the U.S. and other countries have been taking a beating in the last two weeks, and it seems to have been caused (this time) by problems emanating out of Europe. Greece is heavily in debt; a debt that appears to be unsustainable. How bad is it? The Greek government has declared that they have no problem with the idea of issuing a statement of national bankruptcy, which means that any country holding one of their bonds or any other form of their debt in good faith will be ‘up the creek without a paddle.’ Meanwhile Portugal and Spain are making the same noises in regard to their own unsustainable debt. And we think our own country is in a mess?

We are and it is.

The Federal Reserve has stated that by the year 2020, a scant ten years from now (and boy will those years fly by) we as a country will have achieved unsustainable debt levels. Our ‘money going out’ will exceed ‘our money coming in’, to put it in McNeill-speak. Why will we reach that point? Entitlement programs in ten years will reach 80% of our gross domestic product, or GDP. Our GDP is the amount of money we take in through taxes, tariffs, and selling our own treasury bonds. Couple this fact with our ever burgeoning national debt, and you have a recipe for a catastrophic economic disaster.

The only solution is for our country to make more money, you know, raise taxes to increase the national income. Charge everyone an extra ten per cent and all will be good, right? But that is where everything begins to get into the gray areas. By the latest government estimates, over forty per cent of the population, whether working or not, do not pay any taxes at all. Actually it is closer to fifty per cent and that number is rising each year. So instead we will have to double those taxes on the people that do pay them. How much longer will this special class, the group of workers that pay all of the taxes in the first place, accept this situation and go along with it?

Stop, you say. How can almost half of our population not pay any taxes? We all have income taxes and sales taxes and we all pay them, huh? Yes. But at lower income levels they get their money back when they file each year, and a lot of people are now getting back more tax money than they actually paid via a special entitlement called EIC. But don’t take my word for it, visit the government web sites and use Google searches to look this up for yourself. While you are there, look at crime statistics… wait a minute, I am digressing here.

A lot of folks out there will want to lay this square at the feet of our current President and Congress, but there is plenty of blame to go around. This problem did not simply occur overnight, yesterday, or even within the last year. This has been going on for longer than I can remember and I’ll be fifty years of age in a few years. It all started back when Keynesian economics crawled to the forefront and was accepted by those in charge of the herd back in the late 1940s and early 1950s. John Maynard Keyes was an economist that was considered brilliant and ahead of his time. He taught a theory that advocated government intervention, or demand-side management of the economy, to achieve full employment and stable prices. And we bought into it hook, line, and sinker as a country and as a society in general. We have supplemented his theory and added steroids to it during the past five years. As a result we now find ourselves on the precipice of the abyss at this point in the history of our nation and apparently the world’s economic history as a whole.

Stimulus packages? Let’s pass another one! Do tell.

There’s more here than meets the eye, of course. We started our descent into the world of Keynesian philosophy around the same time that we began removing God from anything of importance in our society. We became enlightened in our own minds, with government as the all-powerful, all-seeing provider for our every need. Government could be counted on to watch over us, feed us, and even raise our children for us. It takes a village. Now that we see our bleak future seemingly laid out before us by that very same government’s own statistical evidence, we need to recall the words of the Psalmist in chapter 9: “The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God.”

Unless we make a one-hundred-and-eighty-degree ‘about face’ as a nation, and remember in our hearts the God who once made us great, we had better hang on tight. It’s going to be a bumpy ride. Our current debt to God is already unsustainable.

Packing The Parachute

Back during the 1960’s, U.S. Navy pilot Charles Plumb was shot down over North Vietnam. He ejected from his plane, parachuted into enemy hands, and then spent the following six years as a prisoner of war. At the conclusion of the conflict, Plumb returned home and began a speaking tour across the country, describing the lessons he had learned during that rough period in his life. One night in a restaurant following one of his speeches, a man came up to him and called him by name. He said that he had known Plumb during their days together aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Kitty Hawk. Though Plumb had no recollection of him, it turns out that this stranger had been the person in charge of packing the parachutes for the various pilots aboard the ship.

I cannot verify the validity of this story, but it strikes me as odd that a man Plumb could not recollect and did not remember turned out to be the one person responsible for saving his life back on the day he was shot down over enemy territory. You could say the parachute-packer was ‘just doing his job’ and you would be correct. But I wonder how many times simply doing our jobs or doing what is right may end up affecting someone else’s life?

We should always be on the lookout for the people in our lives that that could very well be packing our own parachutes. They become easy to notice if you take the time to look for them. I can obviously start with my wife – she has the thankless task of putting up with me every day and she has been much better to me than I have deserved over the years we have been together. (I can guarantee you this as being the gospel-truth!) I am thankful for my parents and what they have done for me throughout my life. I did not comprehend this until I had children of my own, but those times when I thought they were being over bearing and too strict? They only wanted the best for me and it turns out they were always right in every circumstance.

There are many others, of course. From the supervisor who works for me in my department that makes my job performance sparkle through his own knowledge and skill, to the pianist and organist at our church that cover my musical mistakes during each worship service. My only hope is that somewhere along the line I will be able to pack a few parachutes for others to utilize within their own lives.

Those parachute-packers are important people, and we should never neglect to remember them, thank them, and above all avoid looking over them. Is there a Biblical principle to be found in these thoughts? I think so. Check out the way Paul closes his letters in the New Testament, specifically at the end of the first letter to the Corinthians:

“I am glad of the coming of Stephanas and Fortunatus and Achaicus: for that which was lacking on your part they have supplied. For they have refreshed my spirit and yours: therefore acknowledge ye them that are such.” Not much is known of these three men, other than the mention Paul makes of them here. But one thing is certain, they helped Paul and as a result their names have been handed down through the ages to us, emblazoned within the pages of God’s own Word.

Paul recognized the importance of a good parachute-packer, and he encouraged the church at Corinth to acknowledge them along with others who were aiding in the spread of the Gospel behind the scenes. Remember the parachute-packers in your own life. Because no matter how high-flying or wing-walking you might think you are - we could all use a well-packed parachute from time to time.

Can't Happen To Me

When I first heard the story of Union Major-General John Sedgwick, I had to research it further as it sounded too much like an exaggeration and possibly a legend at best. In my research I have verified the truth to the story as it was originally told to me. Sedgwick was very successful in the Civil War, rising from the rank of Colonel to his final rank as a Major General in only three short years. He served in the Army of the Potomac, thus finding himself commanding a division and later a corps during many serious battles against the Confederate army commanded by General Robert E. Lee.

He was wounded on several occasions, some of his wounds were severe, and that could very well be the root cause to the ironic manner in which he died. I’ve heard it said that if you are bitten by a snake often enough, you will eventually gain an immunity or tolerance to the snake’s venom. In other words, you become impervious to the effects of the poison due to your body’s ability to stop its caustic effect upon your nervous system. (Note: I have not verified this on my own and will take their word for it!)

On May 9th, 1864, Sedgwick met his fate during the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. (Yes, I spelled that right!) His army corps was probing the left flank of the Confederate defenses and he was directing the artillery emplacements along his line. As he made his dispositions for his guns, Confederate sharp-shooters began firing at both he and his staff as they rode along the front. He noticed that most of his staff and the artillerymen were 'dropping for cover' as the bullets sang through the trees and dense underbrush. Maybe because of the many times he had been wounded in the past and his becoming accustomed to it, he was overheard to say: “What? Men dodging this way for single bullets? What will you do when they open fire along the whole line? I am ashamed of you. They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance." As the men continued to cower, he was heard to repeat the phrase a second time. Seconds later he fell from his horse, a stray bullet had found its mark just below his left eye, killing him instantly.

We all have a little bit of the General in us, it seems. Bad things can only happen to other people, and to think of ourselves as merely mortal or slightly less in most of life’s situations is hard for us to fathom. I’ve seen people do crazy things, and I have performed many stupid feats myself that were preceded by the phrase, “Hey ya’ll, watch this!” Thankfully, these actions become less the norm as we get older and wiser. No one in my small town would make it past the age of 60 if it were not so.

I’ve thought of this application in my Christian life as well. Many times the temptations I believed I was most immune to, the ones that surely could not affect me, were the very ones that caused a rough patch in my spiritual walk with Him. And the sad thing is that I know I am not alone in discovering this mystery in the life of a Christian. One look in the wrong direction, a turn toward things that are not to be, or words that should never be uttered from my mouth can cause a slip or an outright failure on my part. One minute I find myself on a spiritual plain where life is bliss and blessings seem unlimited; a second later I’ve descended into the depths of a dark valley that is rife with depression and misery. And strangely enough when I look back, that descent originated out of a process that was of my own making. I took that step, I said those things – it was all me.

Paul writes in I Corinthians 10:12: “Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.” Sometimes I need to remember who I am and by Who’s grace I am to live my life. Me by myself? I’m nothing special. You could say I’m apt to fall or misplace my Christian walk at the drop of a hat. It is only through His will and His power that I can stand as a Christian and weather the storms the evil one can and will send my way. At all times, I need to trust in His strength and learn to depend less on my own. Especially if I am to stay on that straight and narrow path I’ve been destined by faith to travel.

After all, Satan is gunning for me and he is noted for being able to hit an elephant at this distance.