The most life-impacting event in my life was captured on a three by three piece of glossy photo paper, probably taken with a box-shaped Kodak camera in early October of 1951. It was the kind of camera that you held at your waist and looked down into a square glass lens on the top of the camera in order to position the subject. These were not the cameras for the near-sighted.
I don’t know, and have never asked, but the photographer that day was probably my father. In the picture are two people, my mother and me. We are in the midst of rocks and sand on the shore of Lake Brownwood, near the geographical center of Texas, in Brown County. I have been told that it was a quick family get away on a Sunday afternoon. My father was a new student at Howard Payne College in Brownwood, Texas.
He had recently moved his young family to this small college town in order to pursue his education and follow his call to be a pastor. They enjoyed the fall afternoon, away from the pace of school papers and providing for a family, which consisted of my father and mother, my older sister Linda, and me.
The photograph shows me as a one-year old, sitting in the edge of the water, wearing nothing. My mother is perched on a large rock in the shallow water, close enough to be able to reach out and grab me if necessary. She was wearing a dress and certainly not planning to splash and play in the water. It seems that I was the only one to get wet that day. For some reason, Linda chose to occupy herself on the shore.
At that moment, something happened to me that effected every moment of my life, from then until the present time. It came on me gradually. In fact, as our family drove away from the lake and returned home, no one suspected that anything of consequence had occurred. However, every breath I take and every movement I make is a reminder of that Sunday afternoon in Brownwood Lake.
An infinitesimal polio virus, living in the lake water, oozed its way into my young body and began to spread. Within a few days, I was sick with what everyone suspected was the flu. However, when it did not clear up in a few days, further tests and examinations were performed that showed that I had become a polio victim, one of nearly 60,000 in the United States that year.
I have been told that the next few months were spent crossing the state of Texas in a determined quest to find the best treatment they could afford. The first stop was Fort Worth, the city where I currently live. We also spent some time at Warm Springs, a hospital established for polio patients near Gonzales, Texas.
Obviously, as a one-year-old, I remember nothing about the experience. It is fascinating how times have changed in the way we expect parents to relate to children. My mother, who has always been a journalist of her personal thoughts and feelings, wrote about how she could only see me once a week. On Sunday afternoons the family would make the trip to the hospital to visit. I cannot comprehend a parent today accepting such restrictions. There is no way I would allow them to sequester my son for a week, yet it was common practice in the 1950’s.
I do not know enough of the details concerning my struggle with the disease in order to describe it for you. Up until a few years ago when I finally read a book describing the impact of the disease, I knew very little about polio. I do know that it destroys nerve cells that prevent muscles from being exercised until they finally atrophy. The result is not as much paralysis as it is weakness. As a baby I had very little strength in my limbs. The strength slowly returned to the point where I could use them effectively. In my teens and early 20’s I probably had close to 20 percent of the use of my arms and legs. Not much, but certainly much more than the nothing I had originally.
I did not do any significant walking until I was eleven years-old. I was good at crawling, I was carried a lot, and when I was old enough for first grade, I received my first wheelchair. I am not sure, but it was probably provided by the March of Dimes, an organization that helped parents of crippled children. I know they helped my family on several occasions.
Apparently I did not have serious concerns about my mobility because I remember being unwillingly to give walking much of an effort. About once a week, my mother would make me put on leg braces, grab a set of crutches, and walk across the living room. I do not remember it being especially painful or difficult, I was simply not interested. These attempts to encourage me to walk often ended up with heated disagreement. If I would have put as much effort into walking as I did in not walking, I probably would have taken to it much sooner.
My mother deserves all the credit for me ever being able to walk. She was instructed by hospital staff about the importance of messaging my legs every day. My mother is one of those people who keep the earth on its axis, intent on keeping the rules and doing what they are told is right. I am not that type of person. Dutifully, every morning before she helped me get dressed, she manipulated and stretched my legs and feet, often a painful as well as unpleasant experience for me. In spite of the fact that I fought her every morning, she never missed a day. If not for her persistence, I am confident that I would have never been able to use my legs for any purpose.
I am sure there were many times during my childhood when it would have been easy for my parents to give up and just accept what little I had. However, neither of them ever settled for less than the best and they would not allow me to take the easy road. Doing the right and best thing was always their choice, even when it was the hardest thing.
We are who we are because of the decisions of others, primarily God. Being born to middle class parents in America will make you a different person than being born in Pakistani poverty. Appearance, athletic prowess, gender, family background, and thousands of other factors all conspire together to make us who we are. We can take very little credit for most of our lives. I cannot imagine having a better set of circumstances to help me deal with the effects that polio let loose on my life.
Both my mother and father grew up near a small community west of Amarillo, in the Texas panhandle. It was appropriately named “Bushland,” probably because that is about the most noticeable feature of the landscape, a few bushes dotting the barren farmland. Before they could marry, World War II broke out and Daddy found himself as a United States Marine, headed toward the Pacific front. He was one of many Marines who landed on the small island of Iwo Jima, arriving in a boat and departing in a hospital plane.
He had a serious injury from shrapnel that eventually forced the amputation of his right leg. The whole process took a long time, and Daddy spent thirty-nine months in the hospital, primarily trying to save his leg from the infection that ultimately made the amputation necessary. I have spent significant time in a hospital, but it is hard to comprehend thirty-nine months, more than three years. Apparently, if they would have better understood the benefits of penicillin, they might have given him enough to eradicate the infection. The doctors hesitated because they were concerned about overdosing.
Daddy and I were both ahead of our time. If he had been wounded five years later, his leg would have been saved. If I had been born just a few years later, I would have been vaccinated against the polio virus. Timing is critical!
As a one-year-old child, a huge obstacle was placed in my life. It was an obstacle that would require diligence and patience to overcome, things I needed to learn.
Ants have always been a fascination to me. As I child I would watch in wonder as they diligently went about their work, refusing to be distracted. That fascination continues as an adult, in spite of the fact that my most recent encounters with ants have not been pleasant. Fire ants in the yard leave a painful sting and Pharaoh ants in the kitchen are a nuisance.
The most interesting feature about ants is their refusal to allow obstacles to keep them from the task. As kids, we would find a long line of ants going in and out of their mound with groceries for the entire colony. We would work hard to distract and detour the ants - but nothing was successful.
If you scatter the insects, they simply find their way back. If you place an object in their path, they go around or over the barrier. They are much more committed to the postman's creed than any mailman. For an ant, there is no such thing as an obstacle.
At the age of one, with the onset of polio and its lasting effects, it was like someone constructed a ten-foot tall brick wall in my path. From that moment in October of 1951 until now, every day has been a challenge to overcome obstacles.
Every time our family moved or I graduated to a new school, there were the conversations with school officials about my ability to get around their campus in a wheelchair. I could not join the Cub Scouts because my lack of mobility was too much of a problem. I can even remember signing up for the school band in sixth grade and several of the students questioned my ability to hold and play a trumpet.
After loading all my possessions in my car and driving nearly eight hours to begin college classes, I arrived on campus only to discover there was not a dormitory that was accessible. Almost every building on campus had stairs at the entrance.
The same was true when my wife and I traveled to Louisville, Kentucky, to begin seminary studies. We had not visited the campus but we had spoken to school officials who were aware of my condition. Upon seeing the campus for the first time, my wife commented, "Everything is old!" It was the oldest Southern Baptist seminary in more ways than one.
There was not one building on campus that was accessible, including our apartment building. For nearly three years I could not go to a single location without assistance. By the time I finished the requirements for a degree, nothing had changed. It was not any easier to maneuver around campus than it was the day I arrived.
Nearly a decade after seminary graduation, the alumni paper carried a series of articles on structural changes at the campus that made it more accessible to handicapped students. I read with interest about ramps and elevators. Success stories of students with disabilities were encouraging.
Finally, I turned to the editorial and was surprised to read this observation: "Within a short time it will be possible for a student in a wheelchair to earn a degree from the seminary." Unable to contain myself, I quickly wrote a note to the editor and claimed that it was possible for a wheelchair student to earn a degree from that institution ten years earlier.
A few days after mailing the letter, I received a telephone call from the editor. He was amazed by my story and wondered how it was possible to overcome all of the obstacles posed by the archaic architecture.
The physical obstacles have not been the most difficult barriers in my life. The unseen walls of prejudice and misunderstanding are far more imposing. The head of the Religion Department of my college told me it would probably be impossible for me to have the opportunity to pastor a church. The seminary substituted an elective for the basic preaching class because they never thought I would preach a sermon.
In spite of my desire to pastor a local church, well-meaning people have attempted to steer me toward classroom teaching, counseling, or some other position that seemed more suitable to my physical limitations.
I had always believed that if given a chance to prove myself in the pastorate, churches would accept me on the basis of my ability. However, that was not the case. After successfully serving a local church for many years and proving my abilities as a pastor and preacher, I could not even get an interview with a pastor search committee. In spite of recommendations from very influential people, churches would not even call to discuss the possibility.
The world is becoming friendlier to people with physical disabilities. Almost every building is accessible and reserved parking spaces certainly make life easier. It is even true that attitudes are changing and opportunities are increasing every day.
However, when I speak of obstacles it is not just a reference to a flight of stairs or a long walking distance. Every person has obstacles to overcome. In many ways I have been fortunate. My obstacles are easy to identify. It is quite common for children to point them out (i.e. "How do you get in the bathtub?").
Even people who are physically fit must learn to overcome obstacles. The obstacle may not be a physical barrier but it is just as real and potentially dangerous. An obstacle can be mental, racial, or emotional. It might be an attitude, a difficult relationship, or a problem situation. No person is free of obstacles.
The key to success in life is to learn how to turn obstacles into opportunities. We will never arrive at a place in life where there are no barriers. Those who have been successful are the ones who are able to make something positive out of an obstacle. In fact, it is one of the most effective ways of bringing glory to God.
The following principles for transforming obstacles into opportunities have been learned over more than five decades of personal experience. There is a much younger man who discovered these same truths. He can help us if we will follow his example. From all appearances it does not look as though this young man had any obstacles in his life. The reason we do not readily see the obstacles is because he knew how to turn them into opportunities.
The young man was David, introduced to us on the pages of the Old Testament. His encounter with Goliath can teach us some very important practical lessons. The giant Philistine was an enormous obstacle for a young shepherd. However, David did not see an obstacle; instead, he saw an opportunity.
In contemporary society, being the youngest child often carries great privileges. Many children in this family position are treated with extra kindness and favor. They have the advantage of older brothers and sisters who lead the way. In David's time, being the youngest child was not a blessing.
As the youngest son, David was required to stay home and tend to the sheep while his older brothers went off to fight for the honor of the nation. There were no medals to be earned while grazing livestock in the pasture. All the family privileges were the destiny of his oldest brother. David's future was not bright, with little hope of being more than a shepherd outside of Bethlehem.
While his brothers were doing battle with the Philistines, David's father became anxious for word from the front lines. Like any father, he needed to know that his sons were safe. David was summoned from the pasture, loaded with supplies, and sent to the battlefield.
The young shepherd was excited about the possibility of seeing real combat. He had heard the stories of the fierce Philistine soldiers. He was also confident in the Israelite army so he anticipated a great battle. As David climbed the hillside next to the battlefield, he was unprepared for the scene. Standing alone in the valley between the two opposing armies was a lone Philistine soldier. He was waving his arms and shouting taunts at the Israelite soldiers. Most stunning was the sight of Jewish soldiers, cowering in fear, seeking shelter behind trees and rocks. Only one man, although he was a very imposing figure, was intimidating an entire army. David's reaction to this embarrassing situation provides an important principle for turning an obstacle into an opportunity. The first step in dealing with an obstacle is to recognize the possibility of success. In other words, we must believe that obstacles can become opportunities. The young shepherd quickly sought permission to see King Saul. He knew the solution to the problem of Goliath. David was escorted into the King's tent and got right to the point when he spoke. Then David said to Saul, "Let no man's heart fail on account of him (Goliath); your servant will go and fight with this Philistine" (I Samuel 17:32).
David knew that this obstacle could be overcome! Rather than seeing an impossible problem, David recognized a great possibility.
The goal of the obstacle is to get us to quit, to throw up our arms in despair. In order to be successful we must have confidence that success is within our grasp. The Apostle Paul had also learned this truth.
I can do all things through Him who strengthens me (Philippians 4:13).
Obstacles do not discourage successful people. They understand that an imposing barrier is really a challenge.
In our politically correct world, we no longer use the term "handicapped." Instead, the preferred descriptor is "physically challenged." For some people it is an accurate description. Successful people see a physical disability as a physical challenge and they rise up to meet the task. Others, those who seldom achieve success, are truly handicapped.
All of us are challenged at times. Success happens when we see the challenge like David saw the Philistine giant. It can be conquered. The first step is to recognize the possibility.
The second principle is a reminder that we must not focus on the obstacle. Instead of wasting time examining the obstacle, we should focus our attention on a greater objective. This truth is illustrated in the words of David as he spoke to Goliath.
"This day the Lord will deliver you up into my hands, and I will strike you down and remove your head from you. And I will give the dead bodies of the army of the Philistines this day to the birds of the sky and the wild beasts of the earth, that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord does not deliver by sword or by spear, for the battle is the Lord's and He will give you into our hands" (I Samuel 17:46-47).
David spoke these words while standing in the shadow of a nine-foot tall opponent.
David's objective is expressed in his challenge to Goliath. His goal is "that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel . . ..” He is not focused on the obstacle but on God. David knows that this battle is not dependent upon his own skill as a fighter because "the battle is the Lord's."
The principle is that we must not become distracted by an obstacle and lose our objective in life. David's desire was to bring honor to God and no Philistine was going to keep that from happening. If our objective is to bring honor and glory to God then no obstacle is large enough to thwart our plans.
At the age of seventeen I received a Learner's Permit and began the process of learning to drive a car. I am sure some of those first excursions were frightening experiences for my parents. One of the most difficult things for me was learning how to look in the mirrors without swerving off the road. Whenever I glanced at the side mirrors, the car would always steer in the direction I was looking.
The same is true of most of our lives. We tend to go in the direction of our focus. If our attention is focused upon God then we will go in directions that bring Him glory. If all we can see is the obstacle, we will not go anywhere.
David was successful because he did not really see Goliath. Even though he was standing in the dark shadow of an enormous obstacle, his focus was upon God. He was like an athlete striving for the finish line, oblivious to others in the race.
It is sad that we must learn this third principle but it is important to our success. Whenever we strive for success, there will be opposition. Obstacles that stand in the path of success will always be present.
The courageous young shepherd asked for permission to speak to King Saul. He wanted to volunteer to stand against the giant. The battle had to be fought and it was obvious that no one else was willing to take a stand. Therefore, it was up to him to fight for the honor of his nation.
For some reason, the King's aides allowed David into Saul's tent. Perhaps they thought he would be good for a few laughs. David submitted himself before his monarch and offered to defeat the giant Philistine. Such a courageous offer should have gained a respectful response. He must have anticipated that Saul would gladly accept his offer.
However, instead of immediate acceptance, listen to the words of the king.
“Then Saul said to David, 'You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are but a youth while he has been a warrior from his youth'" (I Samuel 17:33).
This is not exactly what David needed to hear. If he had any doubts about his ability, these words from the king would provide reinforcement.
Whenever we strive to accomplish something significant there will always be people who stand on the sidelines to discourage us. David's discouragement came from a most unlikely source - a king who was in desperate need of help. It is a reminder that discouragement can often come from those who care a great deal about our success.
We can face the obstacle of a well-meaning parent who is afraid to see us fail. It might be a teacher who is not confident of our ability. It can be a friend who does not want us to experience change or growth. The obstacle might be an employer who does not recognize our capability or an institution that is not convinced of our determination.
The one thing that is certain is that there will always be obstacles standing between success and us. With the discouraging words of King Saul, David could very easily have picked up his things and started the journey home. He had tried but they would not give him an opportunity. He would have failed but it would not have been his fault.
The reason we know the story of David is because he did not listen to the words of the King. It did not matter that he was "but a youth" and his opponent was the most feared warrior in the world. He had plans for success.
There is a fine line that separates confidence and cockiness. Athletes often cross that line during sporting events. It is referred to as “trash talking” and it has been become an art form for some competitors. Perhaps some would say that David was the first “trash talker” as we read his statement prior to battling Goliath.
“The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, He will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine” (1 Samuel 17:37).
However, the words of David are not an expression or arrogance - they are a statement of confidence.
It is worth noting that David’s confidence was not in his own abilities and skills as a soldier. His confidence was in God. It was God who defeated the lion and bear so David knew that it was the Lord who would provide the victory. The key to his confidence as that he had seen God at work.
Sometimes the greatest boost to our confidence in the Lord is to remember what God has done in the past. Discouragement comes when we forget the faithfulness of God in providing deliverance. David was confident that God would give the victory because he remembered how God had defeated the lion and the bear.
They were truly unforgettable moments. Imagine a young boy, tending his father’s flock of sheep and being startled by a roaring lion or a growling bear. The first thought would be fear and the second thought, almost simultaneously, would be to run. Somehow, David stood his ground, refused to sacrifice the sheep for his own safety, and observed the miraculous power of God.
With this rich history of God’s deliverance in mind, David confidently declared, “The Lord will deliver me from this Philistine!” As frightening as he might be, Goliath was not any scarier than a ferocious lion or a hungry bear. He knew this oversized Philistine would not be a problem for God.
There have been many experiences in my life when God has provided deliverance. One of the most memorable ones occurred when I was a very young man. Approaching the age of twenty, my career goal was to become a radio/television announcer. It seemed like a reasonable objective. The famous Walter Cronkite was nearing retirement and someone had to take his place. Why not me?
I managed to schedule an interview with a television station in downtown Denver that was searching for a studio announcer. After parking the car I walked to the entrance to the station, only to be confronted with three or four stairs. Because of my physical condition, stairs have always been one of those insurmountable obstacles for me. Undaunted, I walked to the side of the building to locate a more accessible entrance. This was long before the days of handicap parking and wheelchair ramps so it was not surprising that there was no better entrance into the building.
Somewhat discouraged I walked back to the front of the building and stood at the foot of the steps. A man, dressed in a business suit and walking at a very rapid pace, came down the street. He saw my predicament and stopped to offer his assistance. I showed him how he could help me up the stairs and he graciously lifted me up to the front door.
As I started to thank him for his help, he asked how long I would be in the building. I explained that I had a job interview that would probably take at least an hour. In spite of my protests, he said that he would wait and took a seat in the lobby of the television station. When I returned to the lobby approximately one hour later, he was patiently waiting to help me back down the stairs.
This man’s identity remains a mystery to me. If you were to suggest that he was an angel sent from heaven, I would not dispute your opinion. The one thing I know for sure is that he was used by God to meet a need in my life. There have been numerous experiences in my life where God has delivered.
These experiences are not unique to me. They happen to every Christian. They are important because they serve as faith-builders. When we remember these experiences then it gives us faith to trust God once again. As he responded to Saul’s objection, David remembered two such experiences in his own life that gave him every reason to anticipate success.
As you stand in the shadow of an obstacle in your life, the key to success is confidence that God can give you the victory. David was not surprised when the mammoth fell at his feet. He anticipated success. The prophet Jeremiah expressed this same truth when he declared, Ah Lord GOD! Behold, You have made the heavens and the earth by Your great power and by Your outstretched arm! Nothing is too difficult for You (Jeremiah 32:17).
he final truth that I have learned about overcoming obstacles is perhaps the most difficult to practice. We must learn to quit making excuses for our lack of effort.
Then a champion came out from the armies of the Philistines named Goliath, from Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. He had a bronze helmet on his head, and he was clothed with scale-armor which weighed five thousand shekels of bronze. He also had bronze greaves on his legs and a bronze javelin slung between his shoulders. The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and the head of his spear weighed six hundred shekels of iron . . . (1 Samuel 17:4-7).
Put yourself in David’s position as got a closer look at the giant Goliath. He was more than nine feet tall (six cubits and a span). His armor weighed one hundred and twenty-five pounds (five thousand shekels). The head of his spear weighted 15 pounds (six hundred shekels). As he got close enough to the taunting enemy and to see his size and strength accurately, it must have been a frightening sight. Suddenly that lion and bear did not seem so imposing.
At that moment, David could have walked away and no one would have said a word. There would be no shame or embarrassment in turning your back on such a significant obstacle. In fact, he could easily have offered any number of excuses. Certainly he needed to get home and tend to his father’s sheep. He was the only son left at home and his father was advancing in years. Someone else would have to fight the giant because he had more important responsibilities.
If David had excused himself that afternoon in the valley of Elah we would have never even heard his name. History would be recorded but there would be no mention of the shepherd boy who became a great king. A simple excuse, even one that everyone would consider legitimate, would destine David to a lifetime in the pastures, tending his father’s sheep.
Little League baseball has been a major part of my life. With two brothers much younger than me and three sons, I have attended thousands of games and spent countless hours watching bad baseball. Baseball is such a great game that there is never a shortage of new experiences.
One of those memorable experiences occurred when Matthew, my son, was playing on a team of twelve-year-olds. Matthew was by far the best player on the team, as any sensible parent would say about their son. Another of the good players was the boy who played catcher. He was bigger and stronger than the other boys and a great asset. It is probably not a great overstatement to say that he was one of the finest little league catchers in Fort Worth.
The game transpired late on a Saturday afternoon. It was an exciting game with the outcome in question until the final out. In the late innings, the opposing team had a runner on second and a good hitter at the plate. The kid hit the ball hard to right field.
Right field is where most teams try to hide the player who should be doing science experiments rather than playing baseball. Our team was no exception so we all watched with apprehension as the ball traveled toward the outfield. The ball landed on the grass but the kid made a very good play.
He caught the ball on one bounce and quickly threw it toward home plate. The throw was on line, the catcher was in position, and the runner was running as fast as possible. Everything was set up for a close play at the plate. We were confident because we knew the skill of our catcher.
The ball arrived just before the runner. The catcher reached out and tagged the runner before he slid across the plate. A cloud of dust enshrouded the whole event but there was no mistaking the cry of the umpire --- “Safe!”
A groan was heard from our side but it was quickly swallowed by the excited cheers from the opposite bench. Our catcher had applied the tag in time but he had failed to catch the ball. It was lying motionless next to the backstop.
Immediately realizing his mistake, the catcher turned to the bench, looked at the coach with a pleading expression, and said, “The sun was in my eyes!”
He was right. It was late afternoon and the sun was low in the right field horizon. He obviously lost the ball in the sun. My vast experience in watching baseball told me that such a condition did not matter. The runner was safe and we would not be allowed to execute the play again.
The mind does wondrous things at times. As soon as I heard this young baseball player say, “The sun was in my eyes,” I was transported back to my high school days.
The band at Mapleton High School was one of the best in the state of Colorado. My contribution was with a trumpet. I would like to believe that my trumpet playing made us such a good band but that was far from the truth. The reason for our outstanding play was our bandleader, Mr. Priezner.
As with all good music teachers, Mr. Priezner was very demanding. He challenged us to be the very best and he would not settle for anything that was less than our best. Practices were grueling and performances and concerts demanded perfection.
Mr. Priezner had a large banner hanging behind him as he led rehearsals in the band room. It was his motto and it quickly became ingrained within each of us in the band. During rehearsal, if someone missed a note or hit a clunker, Mr. Priezner would wave the entire group to a sudden stop. Often, he would walk over to the guilty party and ask for an explanation of the mistake.
At first we would use the normal excuses --- “I didn’t have time to practice last night,” or “I forgot to take my horn home,” or a myriad of other excuses. In response, Mr. Priezner would slowly turn toward the front of the room and point his baton toward the banner. It read, “Results Not Excuses.”
We soon learned that excuses were not allowed. We were all forced to take responsibility for our action or inaction. The only thing that really mattered was the result.
Mr. Priezner’s quest for perfection and his unwillingness to allow us to make excuses transformed a small group of inexperienced musicians into a leading band in the entire state.
I was a much better trumpet player because of my few years with Mr. Priezner. I was also a much better person. His motto has carried me far beyond the classroom. There have been many times when I have been tempted to take the easy road because a good excuse was readily available. However, Mr. Priezner’s menacing stare and powerful motto have motivated me to give it my best shot.
Excuses are always available. However, those who overcome obstacles are the ones who refuse to take the easy way out. Some of my best friends have learned if they want me to do something, simply tell me that I can’t. My stubbornness refuses to accept those two words. In fact, I can remember as a very young child, we were not allowed to say, “I can’t.” There is no obstacle that is too large or too imposing – even a nine-foot giant with a fifteen-pound spear.