Monday, June 26, 2006

Life 101: Chutes and Ladders

Remember the slide at your school playground or park? Remember how carefully you’d climb the ladder because it was so high? It never failed that the kid behind you would nudge or push you to move a little faster. At the top, you could see the whole playground; you were on top the world, and it was invigorating! Inevitably, the impatient kid would badger you to move on so that he could have your spot. If the goading failed, he’d give you a good shove to keep the line moving. Down you went, landing with a jolt on your bottom in the dirt at the foot of the slide.

Life is pretty much chutes and ladders. Mostly we’re moving along, getting our work done, raising our kids, serving at church, enjoying the view, feeling in control, and then suddenly, some circumstance “shoves” us down the chute. Sometimes we land face-first, teeth and eyes full of dust.

“How did that happen? How did I get here?” we ask despondently. We read self-help books, talk to friends, over eat, under eat, talk to counselors, pray more, read the Bible more, and still God doesn’t seem moved to provide answers. The bruise on the backside sets in, and despairing of ever being at the top again, we’re convinced we’ll be stuck in the dust forever.

Despair, or hopelessness, is the enemy of life. No matter what calamities sucker punch us, if we possess even a little bit of hope, we can survive. Hope works for us like a bigger, stronger kid who takes us by the hand, helps us up from the dust, and takes us to the teacher. Hope is the precursor to faith, and the Bible tells us that just a little faith on our part gets God’s attention in a big way. To get to the Teacher, we’ve got to work through some humbling moments. The first is admitting that we lost control. No one likes to feel out of control, but it’s even worse to have to confess that weakness to someone.

I used to deny that I'm prone to motion sickness because it seemed like such a wimpy weakness. In the past, I've told myself and friends that I can handle the theme park rollercoaster, knowing full well that's just not true. I may not like to admit it, but when I get sick, there's no hiding that weakness. It’s sort of written all over me!

Secondly, we have to reach up for hope and faith from the bottom-most position. We are laid low. The only productive way to go is up, but being all banged-up, we need a big hand to help set us back on our feet. The problem is, asking for help is not easy for adults. We like to believe we’ve got life by the tail and that we create our own destinies. Americans are especially proud of self-reliance.

I’ve been thinking of the lyrics to a couple of Sinatra songs which exalt the opposite of humility. “My Way,” a virtual hymn unto one's self, boasts, “For what is a man, what has he got?/If not himself, then he has naught/To say the things he truly feels/And not the words of one who kneels . . . ."

Or what about the plucky ballad, “That’s Life?” which brags about rolling with the punches, until you get to the lines: “But if there's nothing shakin' come this here July/I'm gonna roll myself up in a big ball and die.” Hopelessness curls us into fetal balls of despair.

When I get bumped and bruised now, I remind myself that life is cyclical, which implies there will be relief and joy again. Thank God for Psalm 30:5, “. . . weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.” On days when I bottom-out at the park and I have trouble praying or reading my Bible, I remember the simple assertion: “This too, shall pass.” My hope then reaches up to join hands with faith. Faith takes me straight to God, who wipes my tears, cleanses my wounds and whispers kind words in my ear. Before I know it, His hands are on my shoulders, turning me around and sending me back to the playground, where I feel His watchful eye on me, even as I step on the first rung of the next ladder in my life.

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