Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.”
That was the exact wording of the sign that hung on the wall of my ninth-grade algebra teacher’s room. Its truth left such a deep impression on my mind, I still remember it more than half a century later. One of the experiences I sincerely try to share with young ministers just starting out is that opportunities will inevitably occur, but one’s recognition and preparation for their event is optional and dependent upon themselves.
Some opportunity to improve one’s lot in life will present itself when least expected, even in the life of who has been the victim of cruel fate and is inured with the presumption that life will only slam its doors to his greatest efforts to “pull himself up by his own bootstraps.” Such was the experience of one William Ashley Sunday.
When only 4 months of age, he lost his father during the American Civil War. His mother remarried, but it was only a short time before the alcoholic stepfather deserted the family. At the age of 10, he was left in an orphanage and never saw his mother again. By his 14th year, he was on his own, working any job to get by and trained for nothing in particular.
Billy was rather gifted in athletic abilities and decided that a professional baseball career was for him. Actually, he was not that good. On this day, May 22, in 1883, he took his first at-bat as a “proball” player and simply struck out, as he did the next 13 times at the plate. After eight seasons, he managed a mere .248 batting average and mediocre fielding ability. But the crowds loved him for his gymnastic dives for fly balls and acrobatics in catching them.
At some indefinite point in life, he decided on making a career as an administrator at the YMCA, and that was when opportunity found him instead of visa versa, and he eventually became the world’s most recognized Christian evangelist, Billy Sunday. As such he never lost his sympathy for the poor, attempted bridging the racial divide of our culture during the height of the Jim Crow era, recognized Catholics as Christians and favored Western European immigration during a time when those political sympathies were most unfavorable.
In some less-than-obvious-ways he was prepared for this opportunity. From his humble, even impoverished background, he knew never to back away from hard work. In the beginning, he would set up his own revival tents. He also utilized his few spare moments to study, and he was wise enough to use the knowledge he did possess.
On one hand, he recognized his unusual abilities in fielding fly balls and applied them to delivering sermons, ripping his jacket off in the middle of a delivery or sliding into the pulpit as if diving for a difficult catch. On the other hand, he was smart enough to know his lack of gifts such as scheduling, making arrangements and financial management. For these he turned to his wife who proved to be quite adept.
One is reminded of Moses, who, when the Lord called him to deliver the children of Israel out of Egyptian slavery, complained of inadequacy. Author Robert T. Bennett once wrote these important words: “Your hardest times often lead to the greatest moments of your life. Tough situations build strong people in the end.”
And all of us can take to heart the advice of Booker T. Washington: “Success is to be measured not so much by the position one has reached in life as by the obstacles he has overcome.”
When life has thrown us a challenging curveball, and it will to each and all, it is easy to recall the saying, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” but I prefer the anonymous writer’s proposal, “The difference between a stumbling block and a steppingstone is how you use them.”