Facing Obstacles with Optimism
"No great enterprise will ever begin if all obstacles must first be overcome," said Napoleon Hill. Charles Dickens gave similar advice in his book, David Copperfield: "Ride on! Rough-shod if need be, smooth-shod if that will do, but ride on! Ride on over all obstacles, and win the race!"
The Roeblings of New Jersey took that advice. They faced obstacles with optimism. John Roebling invented wire rope in 1841. This invention offered support for a dream Roebling had. He dreamed of building a huge suspension bridge over the East River. It would connect Manhattan Island to Brooklyn. Such a bridge would span 1,595 feet. It would have to withstand the strength of the winds and the pressure of the tides.
In 1869, authorities appointed John Roebling chief engineer of the longest bridge-building project in the world. Soon after the work started, a ferry boat hit the pilings on which Roebling stood. His foot was crushed. Medical doctors amputated his foot, but Roebling died of tetanus a short time after.
John Roebling had a son named Washington. Two years before the accident, he had gone to Europe to learn how to construct underwater foundations. These foundations were made by using caissons filled with compressed air.
Washington Roebling took over as chief engineer. He supervised the bridge building for the next several years. He spent long hours in the high pressure of the caissons. In the spring of 1872, he fell unconscious after twelve hours in a compressed air chamber. Washington Roebling's health was permanently damaged.
Never again could he come near the bridge site. He stayed at his home in Brooklyn. He watched the construction of the bridge with a telescope from his window. He could no longer talk because of the bends he suffered in the compressed air chamber.
He developed a code by which he could communicate. He would tap a single finger on the arm of his wife. In this way he told her what was to be done next. She instructed the engineers. For eleven years -- from 1872 to 1883 -- he supervised the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. He faced his obstacles with optimism.
The Grasshopper in the Marble
In the marble of a building in London, someone carved the shape of a grasshopper.
Years before, a woman walked a path in the woods in northern England. Under her tattered shawl, this mother carried a baby. She found a lonely spot just off the path and put the baby under a shrub. She thought that no one would find the abandoned baby there.
Later that day, a boy came along the path. Near the place where the baby was, this boy saw an unusually big grasshopper. He decided to capture it to use as a specimen for his biology collection. As he tried to catch the grasshopper, it jumped across the path. The boy chased it. He dropped to his knees and cupped his hands to capture it. Then he saw and heard the abandoned baby.
He took the baby home to his parents. They reared the child since no one claimed him. The baby grew up and became a youth with ambition and ability. He became a prosperous and well known banker in London. He was a man of faith who believed in the providence of God.
When he had a large exchange building erected for his business, he had the form of a grasshopper carved into the marble. The grasshopper in the marble was a reminder of how God had helped him.
Like that grasshopper, the centuries have carved the Sabbath day observance into our religious tradition. It has helped people for many generations. The word "Sabbath" itself means "rest." The Sabbath day is a chronological token of the need to rest and be refreshed. Setting aside one day in seven has helped people find themselves in the hectic activity of life. Will Rogers said, "I always get up early on Sundays to have a longer day to rest."
Whether you observe Saturday or Sunday as the "Sabbath," you are wise to keep God's "one in seven" principle. Take one day in seven to be good to yourself! Voltaire was right when he said: "If you want to kill Christianity, you must abolish Sunday."
Dealing with Dead-Ends
People call John Paul Jones the "Father of the American Navy." Born in Scotland, his name was John Paul. He captained a ship when he was twenty-two years old. Authorities charged him with murder when a sailor died after Paul had him flogged. Later they freed him.
He became captain of another ship in 1773. The crew of his ship mutinied and one of the crewmen was killed. People charged Paul with murder, so he fled to America. He added the name "Jones" to his name to hide his identity. He ran away and turned his dead-end into a new beginning.
On September 23, 1779, John Paul Jones was in a naval battle in the North Sea. Jones commanded the Bonhomme Richard (Poor Richard) against the British fighting vessel Serapis. The Bonhomme Richard was in a bad way. It looked like a dead-end for John Paul Jones. The British ship captain asked John Paul Jones to surrender. Jones replied, "I have not yet begun to fight."
Jones faced a dead-end, but he went on to capture the British ship. He turned a dead-end into a new beginning.
The dictionary defines a "dead-end" as a figurative expression meaning a situation which has no opportunity for progress, advancement or achievement. When Moses was born, he faced a dead-end. The king of Egypt had ordered the death of newborn boys. The ingenuity of Moses' sister turned that dead-end into a new beginning.
When Moses was forty years old, he murdered an Egyptian. Moses faced a dead-end, but he ran away (like John Paul Jones) and turned the dead-end into a new beginning.
Years later, Moses returned. He had a message for the king of Egypt. After many appeals to the king of Egypt, the king finally let the Hebrew slaves go. However, the king changed his mind and pursued the fleeing slaves. "They caught up with the Israelites, while they were camped at the Red Sea" (Exodus 14:9). In one of history's notable turning points, a dead-end became a new beginning as Israel's exodus opened a new chapter in world history.
Words Can Bless or Burn
There is a country church of a small village in Croatia. One day near the beginning of the twentieth century an altar boy named Josip Broz served the priest at Sunday Mass. The boy accidentally dropped the glass cruet of wine. It smashed to pieces. The village priest struck the altar boy sharply on the cheek and in a gruff voice shouted: "Leave the altar and don't come back."
He never did come back to the Church. That boy became Tito, the Communist leader of Yugoslavia after World War II.
About the same time an altar boy named Peter John served at Mass in St. Mary's Cathedral, Peoria, Illinois. This altar boy, too, dropped the wine cruet. In later life, that boy wrote: "There is no atomic explosion that can equal in intensity of decibels the noise and explosive force of a wine cruet falling on the marble floor of a cathedral in the presence of a bishop. I was frightened to death" (Treasure In Clay, pp. 10-12).
The celebrant at Mass that morning was Bishop John Spalding. With a warm twinkle in his eye, the bishop gently whispered: "Someday you will be just what I am."
That boy grew up to become Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, one of the Church's most eloquent spokesmen for Christ. He wrote more than fifty books. During the 1950's, he became widely known as a television personality. He spoke on Tuesday evenings in a series of programs called "Life Is Worth Living." As a boy, he dropped his first name "Peter" and used, instead, his mother's maiden name, "Fulton."
What a difference the words of those two celebrants at Mass made in the lives of those boys! As Sigmund Freud said: "Words call forth emotions and are universally the means by which we influence our fellow creatures. By words one of us can give another the greatest happiness or bring about utter despair."
Nearly three thousand years before Freud, the book of Proverbs in the Bible stated: "Thoughtless words can wound as deeply as any sword, but wisely spoken words can heal" (Proverbs 12:18).
Arthur Lenehan, in the booklet, Soundings, told a story about a type of jellyfish whose home is the Bay of Naples, Italy. The jellyfish is called medusa. In the Bay, too, are snails of the nudibranch variety. When these snails are little, a jellyfish may swallow one of them. The jellyfish draws the snail into its digestive tract.
However, the snail is protected by its shell. The jellyfish can't digest it. The snail fastens itself to the inside of the jellyfish and slowly begins to eat it. When the snail grows to maturity, it has consumed the entire jellyfish.
Often, the "snails" we swallow consume us! Alcoholism can be a snail. The Chinese say, "First, the man takes a drink. Then, the drink takes a drink. Then, the drink takes a man." The desire for a drink can get a hold on us. It begins to grow and gnaw at us. After a while, we are consumed by the need for a drink.
Hate can be a snail. Someone attacks a person or a possession we love. Maybe, the attack is against us. We resent what the other person did. We nurse the resentment. We grow to hate. The hatred gets a hold on us. After a while, we are consumed by the hatred.
Aimlessness can be a snail. Peter, the Apostle of Christ, spoke to the crowd in Jersualem nearly two months after Christ's death and reappearance. In part, Peter said to them: "Save yourselves from this untoward generation" (Acts 1:40). The word untoward is a perfect translation of the Greek word "skolios." It means crooked -- that is, not pointing toward anything but meandering in all directions. An "untoward generation" is a generation which has no high aims. It has no overriding sense of high purpose.
In Old English, the word "toward" is a complimentary adjective. It described someone who was obviously going somewhere. People strive to find meaning in life. It is one of the primary moving forces in human beings. Beware of the snail of aimlessness!
Blue Dot in the Ocean of Space
On February 13, 1990, the Voyager 1 spacecraft took a portrait of our Sun and its family. Voyager took sixty different pictures and astronomers used these pictures to create a mosaic of the solar system.
Carl Sagan, the astronomer at Cornell University, said, "This is where we live -- on a blue dot." Sagan noted that people have acted out the human drama on that one, blue speck. "That's where everybody lived. It's a very small stage on the great cosmic arena."
What are the difficulties these pictures from Voyager 1 raise for religion? One difficulty for religion is the size of the universe. The vastness of the physical universe seems to dwarf man into insignificance. Modern telescopes reveal to us hundreds of millions of stars. What, indeed, is man that God should be mindful of him?
As I thought about this, I realized I could balance the "terror" of the telescope by the marvels of the microscope. The microscope shows us something about the Power which made the stars. This Power is equally careful about tiny things.
Size doesn't determine value for us. Small as they are, babies and diamonds are precious to us. Why shouldn't God be as discerning as we are?
The second difficulty Voyager raises for religion is the matter of numbers. Countless stars fill space. Their number makes it hard for us to believe that God cares for us as individuals.
On the human level, doesn't greater knowledge go hand in hand with caring for the parts that make up the whole? The books on many shelves don't overwhelm a good librarian. She knows and cares about each of them. Is God less knowledgeable about His creatures than we are?
The third difficulty the space picture raises for religion is the question of purpose. The Power created interstellar space, galaxies, suns, and the planets in their courses. Why can't this Power have a purpose that includes the inhabitants of this "blue dot"? The photographs from Voyager seem to say, "Astronomically speaking, man is insignificant." Faith answers, "Astronomically speaking, man is the astronomer!"