Thursday, December 21, 2017

Peace? Goodwill? We can always hope

The story goes that the man was walking down the street on Christmas Day, deep in his own world of hurt. His wife had died two years before; his son was critically wounded while fighting in a war that seemed might never end. And as he walked, he heard the church bells ringing and couldn’t help but feel despair and thought, “Christmas bells! Peace? Goodwill?”

He got home and wrote:

“I heard the bells on Christmas Day their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And thought how, as the day had come, the belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song of peace on earth, good-will to men …”

It’s easy, today, to wonder about the same things. Peace on earth? Goodwill toward men? With this country feeling as divided as it ever has, where even church members – Christians – argue over politics and policies and say things like, “As a Christian how can you vote for …” whomever, or whatever.

And the divide between church-goers and non-church goers seems even greater. Court case after court case is fought over the “intrusion” of faith-based ideas into the public sector, one side arguing that you can’t limit the practice of ones’ faith to the privacy of the home and church while the other side argues you can’t impose your religious “beliefs” (which are often mocked) onto your neighborhood and certainly not your neighbor.

The man walking down the street who wrote those words was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It was 1863, and this country was truly more divided than it ever had been. One entire section of the country had pulled away from the other, and in the new territories – out west, where new states were being formed – the battle raged over which side those new states might side with, which policies most of the people agreed with.

In the face of his personal – and national – tragedy, Longfellow wrote, "How inexpressibly sad are all holidays." A year after his wife’s death, he wrote, "I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace." Longfellow's journal entry for December 25th, 1862 reads: "'A merry Christmas' say the children, but that is no more for me."
And so Longfellow, in this poem, went on to write:

“Till, ringing, singing on its way, the world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

You can imagine the cold, cruel irony Longfellow must have found in those words. In fact, he doesn’t hide his feelings in the next verse, which goes:

“Then from each black, accursed mouth the cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound the carols drowned of peace on earth, good-will to men!
It was as if an earthquake rent the hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn the households born of peace on earth, good-will to men! ...”

Certainly, 2017 is not the most divided this country has ever been. In my own, increasingly extensive lifetime I can remember being a child coming of age in the 1960s, of seeing my own part of the country torn by arrests and beatings and fire hoses and police dogs, while in other parts of the country riots left stores and cars burned, people beaten by the very people who were their neighbors. On college campuses, students led protests and took over administration buildings to protest a government and a war, and on a college campus in Ohio the national guard fired shots into a protest, killing four students.

I have read of the serious division in this country in 1939-40, over involvement in European wars. And we know of the era of the 1920s-30s, Prohibition and the Great Depression. Maybe it’s the nature of a country as large as ours, and as diverse, to periodically be divided over deeply held beliefs.

Longfellow’s’ words continue:

“And in despair I bowed my head; "There is no peace on earth," I said;
"For hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Today might not be the most divided our nation has ever been, but history brings no comfort when you’re living through a time such as this, when even good deeds are questioned, when honest intent is doubted, when one group seems to honestly believe the other has become a threat and there is no common ground. There seems to be very little ‘‘social’’ about “social media,” just as there was very little “civil” in what is referred to as the “Civil War.” It’s so easy to criticize when you don’t have to face the person you are criticizing; so easy to infer evil motives when you don’t take the time to try to understand the person whose actions you are doubting; so easy to hate when you’re talking about people you never met, never had a conversation with; so easy to “know” the “truth” in an information stream unlike any in the history of the world where not only do we have access to more truth than ever before, but we’re also being lied to more than ever before. And all that access to more information than ever has simply made is easier to refuse to allow ourselves to be challenged in our assumptions.

Still, even in the midst of his despair – and in ours – Longfellow’s’ ending rings true. It has to be true. Life makes no sense unless it’s true.

He writes:

“Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: "God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail, with peace on earth, good-will to men."

I heard the words of another song-poem recently. I don’t know who wrote it or even who sang it, but these words – or something close to them – stuck with me: “The world is not falling apart. God’s plan is coming together.”

That’s my hope. And every year, through the ups and downs of life, Christmas reminds me of that truth that I hold to and in my life I have found to be self-evident.

And so, I wish you “Peace on Earth, good-will toward men.”

Merry Christmas. And a Happy New Year.

(For full disclosure, the idea of formatting my thoughts between verses of “Christmas Bells” is not original with me. Congressman Gary Palmer did this in a Christmas speech to a veterans’ organization. However, the commentary between stanzas is mine.

Friday, November 17, 2017

From democracy to oligarchy

I don't want to talk about Roy Moore, or Donald Trump, or Bernie Sanders, or Al Franken.

I want to offer up a possible reason as to why so many times when we go in to vote, we feel like we're having to make rationalizations, or deal in situational ethics, or choosing between the lesser of two evils, or telling ourselves we're not voting "for" someone as much as we're voting ''against" the other candidate.

I have written before about voting. I have written - tongue in cheek - about how I like it when people don't vote, because the fewer people that vote, the more they make my vote count.

And that's true, but I honestly I wish more people would vote.

Here in my home state of Alabama, we have gone through a series of special elections, of which we're not finished. We had a primary to choose Republican and Democratic candidates for Senate. Then we had a run-off to determine a Republican candidate. And soon - as you may have heard - some of us will go to the polls to make a final vote on who we want to represent us in the U.S. Senate.

I say "final,'' although it may not really be final. If Roy Moore wins, there is all kinds of talk about the Senate not seating him (which I don't believe, Constitutionally, they can do; go back and look at the Court ruling when the House tried to not seat Adam Clayton Powell in 1967), or once he's in office begin an immediate process of possibly expelling him (which will take a two-thirds vote, and it is one of those things where everyone in the Senate better take a long, hard look at themselves before they go down the road of expelling someone for what they may or may not have done 30-40 years ago).

Even if Doug Jones, the Democratic candidate, wins, this seat will be up for election again in 2020, because this vote is just to finish former Sen. Jeff Sessions' term which was set to expire in 2020. And regardless of who wins, I'll be shocked if there are not a whole bunch of people lined up to run for this office in 2020, and even more shocked if whoever is the incumbent holds on to the seat.

Let me also say, as someone who has made Alabama my home, this election is not a referendum on Donald Trump or anything else of national mood. This has become simply a race where people in Alabama, one of the most red of red states, feel they have had outside influences trying to determine the outcome of this election from the state. To show the state of the Democratic party in this state, if you add up all the votes cast in the Democratic primary, they still wouldn't have beaten the top vote-getter in the Republican primary, Roy Moore. And my guess is that many people who voted for Roy Moore - although he does have a considerable base - did so in the run-off because they didn't like the Washington DC-based campaign that was run on behalf of Luther Strange, who was appointed by former Gov. Robert Bentley to fill Sessions' term before Bentley was forced to resign ... well, it gets complicated.

Needless to say, we've had a rather bizarre run of political intrigue here in Alabama over the last two years, with the Speaker of the House resigning after being indicted, the Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court (Moore) being basically forced out of office (suspended, actually, but in reality forced out), the Governor appointing the then- Attorney General to the Senate in a move that many people feel was a quid-pro-quo in an attempt to end the investigation into the Governors' behavior, only to have the Governor forced to resign anyway and the new Governor ordering a special election to fill the Senate seat, which brings us to where we are now.

That was a very short, very edited version of politics in the great state of Alabama over the last few years.

Which brings me to my point:

In the 2017 primary featuring both parties, only 18 percent of eligible voters turned out to vote. In the Republican run-off, only 14 percent of eligible voters showed up to participate in the most basic and most important part of our system of government.

Which means, at least in the Republican run-off, about 8 percent of the voting population decided that Roy Moore would be the candidate representing the Republican party.

That, to me, is an oligarchy.

Not the traditional oligarchy where a small group of military leaders, or business people, or party elites run things.

But the first definition of "oligarchy" that popped up on my google search reads: "a small group of people having control of a country, organization, or institution."

I'd say 8 percent of the voting population deciding who the candidates are is an oligarchy.

When you don't participate in the process, you get what others decide they want for you.

When only 8 percent of the population makes that decision - or even just 14 percent, or 18 percent - what you get are the truly hardcore and committed who may not reflect the belief and values of the great "silent" majority - determining who our leaders are.

Which is why the tragedy of a democracy, even a democratic republic like we have, is that it usually ends by suicide. People quit participating, and the process dies or becomes a, well, an oligarchy.

I have heard it argued that we really don't want the 'great unwashed' voting, the people who don't follow the intricacies of politics and policy and the repercussions of actions beyond the initial, most immediate result.

(By that, I mean as simple as while you may not have liked Donald Trump as a person, you knew that whoever won the last presidential election was going to nominate at least one Supreme Court justice, but maybe didn't realize there were also roughly 125 Federal judgeships to be appointed. That is a massive influence over the way the judicial branch will operate over the next decade or more. And that is just one example of most of us not being aware of the ripple effect of politics, how there are very few decisions made in a vacuum that don't have repercussions that could be more dramatic than even the initial decision).

Yes, the great masses get fooled by 'fake news.' The core of the whole "Russian influence" issue is that people allowed themselves to believe "news" posts (and social media posts) that reinforced their own biases and fears. Hey, that's what advertising and bumper stickers and tweets and campaign slogans are all about; what we're really saying is, we don't want our voters fooled by the fake news of other countries, only our own.

But I'd still rather be ruled by the many than by the few.

The more people who participate, the better off we'll ultimately be. You know what? I don't care if you actively participate in one party or another. I'd prefer you did, but more than that, I just wish people would vote. I have found it's amazing to get that ballot, look at all the names on the list of people who may decide my future and the future of my children, and realize I wish I had done a little more research into each of them than I did.

Then I vote anyway. But every time, I have come away determined to do it better next time.

And that's all we can ask.

Maybe it won't improve the quality of candidates we seem to be faced with in every election; maybe it will even get worse.

But at least it will more of us making that decision, and not just the 8 percent.

If you don't vote, my vote counts for more. And I don't really want to be in the oligarchy of American government.

We do have the power to change things - through voting. All of our opinions matter. But if you don't vote, then it may not be long before our individual opinions no longer matter.

And if that happens, we all lose.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Thoughts and prayers

The whole concept of prayer, for me, is a tough one to figure out.

Whenever there is a tragedy, like the recent mass shooting in the church in Texas, we see immediate responses from people who want to express their concern and use the phrase "thoughts and prayers." And the last few times events like this has happened, the response from a large section of the country has been to make fun of or belittle the concept of "thoughts and prayers." As one national Democrat said, "Prayers are for pastors and priests; we need action!" And even some in the faith community like to throw out that prayer is not enough, using the verse in James that says, "Faith without action is worthless" (my translation; the most common translation is "so faith without works is dead also," from James 2:26). They say "Prayer alone isn't doing enough."

I admit the phrase "thoughts and prayers" is a bit of a cliché. It's what you say when you don't know what else to say, like saying "I'm sorry for your loss" at a funeral. You want to say something to express your sympathy and emotional distress over what has happened, while at the same time showing some measure of compassion for the survivors. So we've reduced it to the phrase "thoughts and prayers" (I think the "thoughts" part is simply added in so as not to offend those who might not believe in "prayers.")

Yet what else can most of us do in the face of horror, tragedy, and pure evil?

If you believe there is a God, and you believe that God is in control, then you pray.

If you don't believe in God, then you rely on your own strength, or the collective strength and ideas of those around you, to try to figure out what can be done to stop (or at least reduce the chance) this from happening again.

Those people might even say, "Yes, pray!" but that along with prayers we need more and tougher laws - as if laws ever really stopped evil. Heck, even those of us who believe in God recognize that despite the fact that Moses received the Ten Commandments straight from God, and a whole book of laws was written with some pretty horrible punishments for those who violated those laws, those laws were probably being broken before the next morning's camp fires were put out to start the days' march.

So what do we do in the face of such evil?

Those of us who believe, turn to God.

Those who don't believe point to horrible evil like the shooting in a church in Texas and say, "See? Prayer doesn't work. There is no God to protect the innocent."

But those people don't understand how prayer works. Heck, I'm a Christian who has read the Bible and attempted to follow the teachings of God my whole life, and I can't say I fully understand how prayer works. I mean, if God is unchangeable, how can prayer change things? Yet we're commanded to pray, and told to ask for things that defy the logic of whatever situation we're concerned about. We're told that somehow, someway, our actions and our faith here on earth affect things in Heaven. Even Jesus, at one point, said he was limited in his earthly ministry by a lack of faith (Mark 6:5 - "because of their unbelief, he couldn't do any miracles among them except to place his hands on a few sick people and heal them...")

Prayer is not a magic phrase that gives us what we desire and protects us from all harm. I can pray for things that are, ultimately, bad for me or my community and God in His wisdom won't grant my request. I can pray for things that are outside the will of God and God is under no obligation to even consider my prayer, as heartfelt as it might be. I can pray for what seems perfectly right and reasonable for my own situation, but I don't have knowledge of the bigger picture (think of the first chapter of the story of Job).

My prayer is to be aligned with God's will. Can I change God's will? There is certainly evidence in the Bible that suggest when people pray, God can decide to not do something He was thinking of doing, or put off doing something to give the people time to repent and get it right.

At the very least, my faith commands that I pick up my figurative cross and keep moving forward, and prayer is a way to both focus on God in the midst of everything that happens and, yes, to ask for supernatural courage and strength and wisdom to do the right thing when it seems impossible.

And the crazy thing is, sometimes we see the impossible accomplished, we see logic defied.

Other times the outcome doesn't change to reflect the way we wanted it to be, but we come to accept it because we do believe in a sovereign God who has the whole world in His hands, whose Will will be accomplished, and we believe that His Will is perfect, beyond our understanding. We've seen over and over that horror quite often gives way to salvation, that suffering has led to improving the lives of thousands, if not millions. As the Bible says in Genesis 50:20, "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives."

The simple truth is that neither those of us who pray and those of us who demand more laws really have a human answer for stopping evil. It has existed since just after the world began. For all of our knowledge and advancements and enlightenment, we still haven't figured out how to stop famous actors from sexually assaulting young men, or teachers from taking advantage of students, or angry people from killing those who make them angry, or dictators from eliminating millions who oppose them, or people engaging in activities associated with expressions of love that result in disease and death, or someone from simply walking into a Dollar General and taking something without paying for just to see if they can, or ... you can fill in the seemingly endless blanks of evil actions, big and small, that we witness every day.

More and more, I realize that while not everyone believes in God, if we lived the way we're told to live in the Bible - care for one another, encourage the timid and weak, be careful how we eat, work, have sex with only one person for your entire life, care for the environment, don't tell lies, don't build monuments to people or things that are man-made, be content - we could eliminate almost all the problems and many of the diseases that have the potential to make our lives so tragic. It really does sound like the way man was meant to live.

Of course, we don't do those things because we want what we want and believe its "not fair" that I should deny myself those things I desire.

Teaching people "right" and "wrong" and writing laws to prohibit behavior we find unacceptable, while at the same time encouraging people to "be who you are" and "do what you want" and to not let society define you, is a contradiction. It just doesn't work. How can society tell you to "be who you are" and then turn around and condemn you and demand you change because it now deems your behavior to be offensive? I'm not saying we shouldn't teach and talk and write laws and hold people to standards, but its clear that those actions are basically bandaids on a bigger problem.

Then you get into prayer. God changes lives by changing hearts. I've seen it. I've witnessed it. I've experienced it. And you can explain it however you want, but those explanations are usually after the fact. To the person who has been changed, they know - they know - something miraculous took place, something unexplainable, something beyond the norm.

So in the face of evil like we're witnessing every day - we pray. We pray for forgiveness, for humility, for love, and for change; real change that must start with me, but powered by God's grace and mercy and power and love because, quite frankly, it's hard for me to change. Sometimes it's hard for me to fully understand why I even need to change.

So we pray for wisdom, and guidance, and courage.

How else can we know what action we are called to take?

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Little things might keep you from a big fail

There is an old saying that has been attributed to any number of coaches and athletes, and quite frankly I'm not sure who said it first.

It goes, "Practice doesn't make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect."

The internet credits former NFL coach Vince Lombardi with that statement, which could be correct. Because what good is practice if you aren't practicing the right things? What good is learning to defend an option team if the team you're facing is a four wide-receiver, empty backfield passing team? What good is it to practice to beat a zone defense if all you're going to face is man-to-man?

What good is it to practice the piano if you're getting ready to be tested on car repair? Or to become perfect at changing light bulbs when its' the toilet that needs fixing?

In other words, Practice makes perfect - but what you practice needs to be perfect as well, because we're very good at practicing things that ultimately don't matter, since practicing the things that make us better is usually more difficult.

Then there is the rejoinder that goes, "Practice makes perfect. Nobody is perfect. So why practice?" I'm not sure who said that, but it could have been the legendary NBA star Allen Iverson, in an epic rant that went like this:

"Now I know that I'm supposed to lead by example and all that but I'm not shoving that aside like it don't mean anything. I know it's important, I honestly do but we're talking about practice. We're talking about practice man. We're talking about practice. We're talking about practice. We're not talking about the game. We're talking about practice. When you come to the arena, and you see me play - you've seen me play right, you've seen me give everything I've got? - but we're talking about practice right now. ... Hey I hear you, it's funny to me too, hey it's strange to me too but we're talking about practice man, we're not even talking about the game, when it actually matters, we're talking about practice ... How the hell can I make my teammates better by practicing?"

Iverson has nothing to do with the topic I want to address. But sometimes I get caught up in stream of consciousness.

The point is, you've heard all those phrases: practice makes perfect. It's the little things that matter most. It's what you do when no one is looking that defines who you really are.

Sure, it's what I like to refer to as "wall poster philosophy,'' but that doesn't mean it isn't true.

As a kid, I had one of those old "Bible Story Books,'' that I used to read religiously ("religiously" - get it?). There were several stories that I loved more than the others: Samson, David, Solomon, and the one about Elijah backing down the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel.

And if you were looking for a sports blog, I'm going to disappoint you.

The part about Solomon I was fascinated by was when God offered Solomon anything in the world, and Solomon asked for wisdom. That really stuck with me over the years, and I have regularly prayed for wisdom - for me, for my wife, for my children. I'm not saying I'm particularly wise, but I hate to think how much more stupid I might be if I hadn't prayed for wisdom all those years.

But there are two aspects of the stories of both Solomon and Samson that apply to the "practice makes perfect" or "it's the little things that matter most" quotes.

Both were given three very specific guidelines to follow, in return for which God promised favor.

Both violated all three, at different times, and found their lives taking a very disappointing turn.

For Solomon, it was what I call "big picture" stuff. He was told, quite simply, that as king he "must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the LORD has told you, "You are not to go back that way again." He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold.(Dueteronomy 17:16,17). You've probably heard sermons on this, how horses, wives, and wealth equate to the three "P's": power, pleasure, and possessions.

And we know what Solomon, credited with being the wisest man who ever lived, did.

He collected horses: "Solomon accumulated chariots and horses; he had fourteen hundred chariots and twelve thousand horses, which he kept in the chariot cities and also with him in Jerusalem." 2 Chronicles 1:14 - and other references).

He collected wives: "And he (Solomon) had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines: and his wives turned away his heart." 1 Kings 11:3

He collected possessions: "Each year Solomon received about 25 tons of gold." 2 Chronicles 9:13.

And the end result, as it says in I Kings, "his wives turned away his heart." I don't blame it all on his wives; his power and possessions had something to do with Solomon ending his life sounding bitter and disappointed.

"Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity." Ecclesiastes 1:2 ... "Therefore I hated life; because the work that is wrought under the sun is grievous unto me: for all is vanity and vexation of spirit." Ecclesiastes 2:17

Samson's life is far simpler. He was, after all, more muscle than brain. He wasn't a leader, he was a fighter. He was apparently the only child of doting parents who were older and saw Samson as an answer to prayer; Judges 13 says a messenger from God visited Samson's parents and said, "You will become pregnant and have a son whose head is never to be touched by a razor because the boy is to be a Nazirite, dedicated to God from the womb. He will take the lead in delivering Israel from the hands of the Philistines.”

What did it mean to be a Nazirite? According to Numbers 6: "They must abstain from wine and other fermented drink and must not drink vinegar made from wine or other fermented drink. They must not drink grape juice or eat grapes or raisins. 4 As long as they remain under their Nazirite vow, they must not eat anything that comes from the grapevine, not even the seeds or skins. During the entire period of their Nazirite vow, no razor may be used on their head. They must be holy until the period of their dedication to the Lord is over; they must let their hair grow long. Throughout the period of their dedication to the Lord, the Nazirite must not go near a dead body. ..."

But before you know it, young Samson gets smitten by a woman who is not of his faith and insists his parents arrange his marriage. On his way to see her, Samson takes a shortcut through a vineyard (which is where wine and vinegar comes from; some traditions say a Nazirite was not to even touch grapes or raisins). He is attacked by a lion, which he kills, and on his return trip through the same vineyard he goes to mess with the dead body of the lion, reaches inside to get some honey and eats - apparently taking very lightly the command not to go near a dead body and certainly eats something that would be considered unclean. So is it any wonder that, eventually, he gives up the secret of his hair and allows Delilah to cut it all off, completing his disregard for his vows?

Little things. A short cut through a vineyard; eating honey that happens to be caught in the carcass of a dead animal; revealing the secret of his strength to a woman who has already tried to trap him before. A king who accumulates horses, possibly even horses that were gifts; a king who accumulates wives, possibly even when those wives were just about political alliances and a way to show respect for his peers; a king who accumulates wealth, even when he may not have asked for that wealth but it was offered as tribute, recognition for his great wisdom and power.

I can make excuses for all of both Samson and Solomon's errors in judgment.

But how much better would it have been for both men if, when faced with their biggest challenges, they'd laid the foundation of practicing the little things all along? Would it have been that much further for Samson to go around the vineyard (and avoid the attack by the lion)? For Solomon to say, "Thank you for your offer of a horse, woman, or gold, but I have all I need?"

I can look at my own life and see all kinds of compromises I have made, excuses for actions that I knew weren't exactly right, but not really wrong. And yet because I was willing to compromise in the so-called little things, it made it that much easier for the compromises to get bigger and bigger as time - and life - went on.

Of course, the world would have us believe it's no big deal. The world would have us believe sometimes its OK to lie - until, as a recent scandal proved, a whole bunch of men get exposed for joining a website that suggested it was OK to have an affair.

Isaiah 30 says, "this is a rebel generation, a people who lie, a people unwilling to listen to anything God tells them. They tell their spiritual leaders, “Don’t bother us with irrelevancies.” They tell their preachers, “Don’t waste our time on impracticalities. Tell us what makes us feel better. Don’t bore us with obsolete religion. That stuff means nothing to us ..." (from The Message).

The end of Romans 1 warns, "Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them. (italics added by me).

Too many people don't want to hear the truth. Many of them not only don't want to hear the truth, they want to celebrate and approve those who tell the best lies, who live without an restraint.

But I think most of us, deep down, know there is truth, and that continually seeking out our own pleasure leads to an inability to find happiness, because it takes more and more to achieve that increasingly fleeting sense of satisfaction.

It's almost a cliche, but so many people end up like Solomon, who at the end of his life wrote, "Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep His commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil." Ecclesiastes 12:13-14

So let's try to "keep a firm grip on the promises that keep us going. He always keeps His word. Let’s see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping out, not avoiding worshiping together as some do but spurring each other on, especially as we see the big Day approaching." (Hebrews 10:24-25).

It may seem like a little thing, in the big scheme of life.

But sometimes the little things are the hardest to do consistently, because its so easy to start taking them for granted. "Of course I won't do that,'' we say. "I've got that one; I'm going to go work on the big things."

Oswald Chambers said, "An unguarded strength is a double weakness."

Never take a strength for granted. Never fail to work on the little things.

It just might keep you from a big fail.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Happy Halloween? Not yet ... but soon

The United States will be celebrating its second biggest holiday - after Christmas - tomorrow: Halloween.

By 'second biggest,' I mean as far as retailers and money spent. There will be parties, costumes, candy, more candy. Some start celebrating well before the actual Oct. 31 date. In my office building, at least one office allowed its employees to dress up last Friday, and I know there were parties all weekend, where people dressed up in costume and celebrated being something other than themselves.

As a kid, I loved Halloween because of the candy, and the chance to go out with friends, door-to-door, up and down streets and into neighborhoods where I rarely normally travelled. We used to map out exactly which neighborhoods and streets we wanted to "hit,'' seeing how we could work our way back-and-forth down one long street, cut through some woods into another neighborhood to hit that those houses, then cut back through a couple of back-yards to get back to the street leading us back to our own houses. We worked out the advance like Eisenhower planning the D-Day invasion of Europe.

We didn't spend a lot of time on costumes, maybe because usually either our parents made our costumes or we put something together ourselves, using stuff we found around the house. It used to be a cliché of putting white sheet over your head and cutting out eye-holes, but that wasn't a cliché in our neighborhood. Once I decided to go as a "thug," (which would be very non-politically correct these days, I guess). To my chagrin none of our neighbors got my costume; they thought I was just dressed normally.

Costumes have gotten more elaborate, both for kids and adults. For kids, you almost have to go buy a pre-packaged costume, and I admit they are cute. The real phenomenon, to me, is the growth in adult costumes. I guess my generation really never did grow up, and we set the tone for the next generations of people who love to dress up in any number of creative, original, outrageous, or sometimes obscene outfits.

As a Christian, I have struggled with Halloween. Is it a pagan holiday, and are we "celebrating" the powers of darkness by dressing up as ghosts, witches, devils, and all sorts of evil beings?

But it occurs to me that the holiday teaches us a few important lessons about the human condition.

One, many of us want to be something other than what we are. Oh, we may not really be unhappy in who we are, but isn't it fun to dress up like a superhero and, at least for one night, go out in disguise to do things that we might never do otherwise? We all have that nature within us, that we keep under control because we know it's not the right way to act; but every now and then its fun to let the "stranger" (to refer to an old Billy Joel song) come out, to give in to our other self, remove - although hopefully not completely - some of the restraints that keep our society safe and secure. It's kind of a reminder that we know we're not who we're meant to be, and we hope for that day when we find our purpose, our meaning, our true happiness. (However, it won't be the personas that too many take on for Halloween!)

Two, we recognize there is evil. Maybe we don't come right out and say it, but in all of our "dress up" as evil creatures, we're acknowledging that there is a dark side to our world, the possibility of a realm that "civilized" people say they don't believe in and certainly don't discuss in regular conversation. As a child, my family often hosted missionaries from around the world. I remember very specifically a missionary from Japan from back in the 1960s who talked about feeling the presence of demons and evil spirits. I have shared my own experience with participating in an exorcism (that wasn't really an exorcism but rather a guy suffering from delirium tremens). What that experience taught me was that somewhere, down deep, I do fear that spirits and demons are real, and I don't think I'm alone. We often hear of people talk about "powers of darkness" or being "consumed by evil." There is an entire industry of movies based on "horror" films about what happens in abandoned houses, empty cemeteries, lonely old hotels, and on dark and stormy nights. We can tell ourselves that we're too smart, too "enlightened" to believe in such stuff, but down deep, I think we all know that evil is real.

Three, evil is real, but Good overcomes Evil; love wins. We see it over and over throughout history. Oct. 30 is the anniversary of the last time the late Dr. Martin Luther King was arrested (it happened to be in Birmingham, Al., where I live), and for all of his flaws Dr. King demonstrated that peacefulness and kindness can indeed overcome hate and violence. You hear people say, "How can there be a God when there is so much evil in the world?" I say that evil merely proves that God exists, because evil is the perversion of good, which means good had to come first. All of our experiences with evil are nothing more than the perversion - the altering or spoiling - of something good. The world, I believe, was created without sin, which means without pain and deceit and betrayal. However, once evil entered the world (through disobedience and deceit and betrayal, leading to pain), rebellion against good came with it. And as much as we try to be "good,'' we have a hard time defining what "good" even means; of determining what "good" means in light of our own wants and desires; of controlling our own impulse for what makes me feel good even if it hurts you. We've lost sight of what "good" really is, which - I believe - is a proper understanding of God and who God is and what God wants for all of mankind.

Four, we don't understand hell. Ask someone "who rules in hell?" Chances are, you'll be told "Satan." I used to ask two questions when I taught kids' Bible classes. The first: Who rules in heaven? And they would kind of say, "God?" with a real questioning tone as if it was a trick question. Then I'd ask, "Who rules in hell?" And it was amazing- they'd almost shout out, "Satan!" or "The Devil!", confident in their answer. But of course, they were wrong. God rules in heaven, but God also rules in Hell. In fact, God created Hell as a place where Satan and his followers will be sent for eternal punishment. It's not some equal but opposite side of Heaven. John Milton, in Paradise Lost, wrote the line, "Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven," and I've heard that quoted many times by many different people over the years. The problem is, you won't reign in hell. You can't reign in hell. Hell is a place of isolation and eternal torment, the ultimate punishment for the evil of rejecting God. However, the very fact that so many people believe the cartoons and movies and books that suggest Satan is sitting on a throne in hell, sending out demons and devils to do his bidding, only tell us how completely we've lost the truth of what hell really is. But Paul writes in Colossians that God "has delivered us from the domain of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of His Son." (1:13) 1 John 3:8 says, "The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil's work."

All of this is why Halloween All Hallows Eve ("Halloween") is followed by All Hallows Day (or "All Saints Day.").

Ironically, Oct 31, 1517, on the day before "All Saints Day,'' the 33-year-old Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. It's the date we credit with the start of the Reformation (although, to be truthful, the reformation of the Church was already going on in many places around Europe; it's just that Luther's resulted in the trial and conflict with the Roman Catholic Church, getting all the headlines).

In fact, the other name for Oct. 31 is "Reformation Day." Unfortunately, it hasn't caught on with retailers and partiers around the world.

Here is why I don't have a problem with Halloween, however. One of the slogans of the Protestant Reformation was Post tenebras lux: "After darkness, light."

Remember that in the morning after Halloween. The Gospel assures us that darkness has been defeated, that the "light of the world" has defeated darkness, and we're just waiting on that day when evil will, once and for all, be defeated.

Happy Halloween?

Not yet.

But soon.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Ode to obscurity

Growing up, I wanted to be somebody.

As the joke goes, maybe I should have been a little more specific.

But you know what I mean; I wanted to do something important, be somebody important, be significant in a way that people would remember me for generations (if not longer).

Part of it was, sure, I wanted to be famous. I wanted people I didn't know to know who I am. I wanted people I didn't know to talk about me the way I talked about people that I knew were famous. I wanted to walk into a place have people whisper to each other, "Do you know who that is?" while I was too cool to notice, trying to act like a "regular guy" even while the maître d fawned over me, the waiters and waitresses made sure I had everything I wanted, the chef came out to offer me his not-listed-on-the-menu-but-he'd-make-if-for-me special.

But I didn't entirely want to be famous just for the sake of being famous (like a teenager I saw on an episode of Dr. Phil who said her goal was to "be famous,'' but when asked how she had no idea - she just wanted to be famous). I actually wanted to do something to deserve being famous. Even when I was going through my dreams of being an NFL quarterback or an NBA power forward or a major league baseball relief pitcher, at the end of that I still wanted to be a writer who would write books that would be in libraries and become required reading for future generations.

I was always enamored with the written word. I remember when my brother, David, taught me how to write my name, I held that piece of paper dearly, believing that - like Steve Martin's character in "The Jerk" when the phone books came out - once your name was in print, who knows who might see it and what opportunities might come your way?

To be honest, I have experienced a rather curious form of underserved fame. I apparently look like some vague actor, and it really gives people fits. Particularly, in seems, black people or college kids who like certain syfy or horror films. I can't tell you how many people who come up to me and say, "I know who you are!" They can't think of who they think I am but are convinced I'm an actor. I had a college student valet at a hotel in Greenville, S.C., who was so excited to park my car because he "loves my movies." (Although, in retrospect, maybe he does that all the time, hoping to get a bigger tip).

We were at a Sheila E concert (which means mostly old people who remember the 1980s-90s) recently in Birmingham and a guy walked by me and said, "I know who you are. I'm a movie buff, I've seen all your films." I tried to tell him he was mistaken, but he refused to believe me. During the intermission, he came over to shake my hand and ask if he could have his picture made with me.

Recently, the Trophy Wife and I were vacationing in Antigua (we splurged to celebrate her five-year survival mark), and this guy comes up to me as we're walking to dinner one night, "I know who you are. I won't say anything, because I know you're trying to not be noticed. But I love your work." And, again, even as I try to tell him he's wrong, he refused to believe it. He kept saying he would respect my privacy but wanted me to know that he knew.

A woman at the drive-thru window at my local McDonalds wouldn't give me my debit card back until I told her who I was. I told her I wasn't who she thought I was, that she could look at the name on my card and see, but she refused to believe me.

As I said, this goes on all the time. A security guy working a jewelry store in the Grand Caymans was so certain, but just couldn't think of my name, I finally - as we were walking out - leaned close to him and whispered, "Go home and look at the Bruce Willis movie, "The Fifth Element." He got so excited, saying, "I knew it! I knew it!" (There is a character in that movie that I admit I do look like; I've even used a still shot as my picture on my facebook page). I didn't say I was in the movie, I just told him to go watch it. Whatever conclusion he may draw is his own fault.

Now, the funny part is that people can't think of the name of the actor that they think I look like. The nice lady in the deli at the local grocery store went through the whole thing with me, and I said, "I know. I look like Brad Pitt." She, of course, said, "No, not Brad Pitt .." to which I always act hurt and say, "Just once, can't someone say I look like Brad Pitt?" To this day, when I go in, she'll see me and call me "Mr. Pitt." My youngest son went in with me, and she said, "Look - it's Brad Pitt junior!"

Being mistaken for someone famous - while fun - is not the same as actually being somebody famous.

However, the older I get, the more I realize in today's celebrity-driven culture where everyone, as Andy Warhol once said "will be world-famous for 15 minutes", it takes courage to be willing to be obscure and ordinary.

That sounds funny, of course. No one says to their kid, "You can grow up to be ordinary!" And I'm not saying we should strive to be ordinary. But I do think it's too easy to feel I am worthless because I'm not exceptional - and of course, by definition, everyone can't be exceptional. As a friend of mine likes to say, "50 percent of everyone you meet is below average." (I was afraid to ask him if he thought that included me.)

I have come to realize that an awful lot of really important work, work that matters and has a lasting impact, is done in obscurity. Paul said as much in when he told his young protégé, Timothy, "If anyone teaches otherwise and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, they are conceited and understand nothing. They have an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction between people of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain.

"But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs...."

I'm sure even as Timothy heard that, he may have thought, "Sure, but you're Paul! I want to be like you!" - not realizing, perhaps, that being "like Paul" might mean suffering ship wrecks, beatings, jailing, and all sorts of assaults that no one in their right mind would ask for.

While even the Bible has these stories of these great men of faith, there are all kinds of people who are just mentioned, briefly, almost in passing. I think of Joshua's partner, Caleb. Or the relatively unknown Barnabas of the New Testament that, while we've created a whole idea of who he was and what we think we did, we don't really know for sure. Remember that (for a time) famous book about the "Prayer of Jabez?" What do we know about Jabez, other than those few words? What is there to know about Jabez other than these 50 or so words that appear in the midst of 1 Chronicles. Timothy, Titus, Luke, Silas, Tychicus, John Mark – they are names in the New Testament that carried a lot of weight with Paul, but to most of us they are just "the other guys," guys not named Paul or John or Peter.

There are people all around us who are "in the trenches,'' so to speak, the ones who follow the well-known, the leaders, and faithfully do the work.

I know it is human nature to rebel against obscurity. We have that innate desire to be known.

In today's world, I think it takes courage to be willing to be over-looked, to work in obscurity, to find satisfaction in knowing you're doing your best (or at least trying to), and knowing that you are performing not for the recognition of those around you but for that audience of One.

"If I could,'' author Emily Bronte once said, "I would always work in silence and obscurity, and let my efforts be known by their results."

The point is that while we may think we toil in obscurity, we don't. God knows us. I know this from the end of Hebrews 11, that famous chapter referred to as the "Hall of Faith." After a list of well-known names and stories, it says, "Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated — of whom the world was not worthy." (Hebrews 11:35–38)

We are all well-known in heaven. Let us live with both the knowledge and responsibility of that fact.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Lamentations and Irritations

Maybe this happens to you.

I'm driving. I do a lot of driving. The car in front of me is slow, as if unsure of where it is going, but the road is such that I can't get around it. I get irritated.

I'm reading. I do a lot of reading. My phone rings and it breaks my concentration. I get irritated.

I'm trying to get somewhere. I do that a lot, too. But the person or people I'm going with are not ready to go because they are talking or checking something or just being slow. I get irritated.

I don't feel well. Fortunately, that doesn't happen very often. But when it does, and I can't find any relief ... I get irritated.

Now, I don't think I get irritated a lot. But I do get irritated.

The comedian Whoopi Goldberg once said, "I don't have pet peeves. I have whole kennels of irritation."

I can blame a lot of things for my irritation: that goofball driver who doesn't know where they are going; that person who calls me for some inane reason when I'm enjoying a good book; those people who are lollygagging when they should be ready to go; getting sick through no fault of my own.

But at the end of the day, being irritated is my problem.

Or maybe, it's my sin.

It comes out of my own selfishness. I'm not irritated for any noble reason, for lack of justice or righteousness or mercy being displayed to someone who needs it; I'm irritated because I'm not getting what I want, when my desires are being denied, delayed, or disrupted.

What I want to do may not be a bad thing. Certainly there is nothing wrong with travel, or reading, or being on time for an appointment, or being sick.

But, like most sin, it's not the thing that is bad, but my action (or reaction) to get what that thing is.

It's putting my own wants, desires, self - first.

Hebrews 12:1 says, "Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us ..." We're being watched by those witnesses who exists across that great gulf between this world and the spiritual world, those folks who now have a true understanding of time and what matters. Since we're living our lives before those witnesses, we should not get hindered and entangled in things that don't really matter, and run the race that is before us not with great speed but with patience and endurance, since we don't know where the finish line is anyway or how soon we may reach it.

Proverbs 15:1 says "A gentle word turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger." I wonder how many people I provoke in a given day by my irritability. I'm very aware that how I act affects other people. If I'm harsh with people in my office, they can become harsh in how they deal with the people we're here to help. If I'm rude to the person in the drive-thru window, they may take it out on the next person in line. If, while driving, I get right up on the bumper of the person who doesn't seem to know where they are going or just isn't comfortable driving fast, I may cause them anxiety then fear then anger over feeling pushed or intimidated. I know if I come home in the evening and yell my family, they learn to mimic my behavior - maybe not right then, but they will at some point down the road because I am their example.

"Love," writes the Apostle Paul in I Corinthians 13, is not "rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful." In other words, we're not to live with a short fuse, demanding to be treated "fairly" (by my standards of "fair," of course). I heard someone once say, "Don't live by the Golden Rule - 'Treat others as you want to be treated.' No, live by the Platinum Rule - 'Treat others the way they deserve and want to be treated.'

I don't know about the 'Platinum Rule,' but I think there is something to what he was saying.

God gets angry. But I don't think He gets irritated.

Why do I think that? Because it seems that when God gets angry, He takes a long time to get there (Exodus 34:6 says God is slow to anger). Throughout the Old Testament, the children of Israel seem to be crying out for God to act on their behalf, but God seems to be taking his own sweet time. See, God only gets angry when it's time to get angry, when it is the last resort and his Righteousness and Justice have been ignored and even despised.

And then, when God does get angry, it's always with just the right measure. Oh, it may be devastating, but it makes His point and is rarely forgotten.

I need to be more like that. I need to summon my anger judiciously, and only when absolutely necessary and only for the absolutely right reasons. James 1:19 says we are to be "slow to anger." Ephesians 4:26 says there are times when we should be angry, but not to let that anger cause us to sin.

I read an article from a pastor named Jon Bloom who wrote, "Jesus didn’t die for our punctuality, earthly reputation, convenience, or our leisure. But he did die for souls. It is likely that the worth of the soul(s) we’re irritable with is infinitely more precious to God than the thing we desire. We must not dishonor God, whose image that person bears, by being irritable with them. There are necessary times for considered, thoughtful, measured, righteous, loving anger at priceless but sinful souls. But there is never a right time for irritability."

"Never a right time for irritability."

Clearly, this guy has never driven in my lane, or read the book I'm reading, or tried to go someplace with the people I am supposed to go places with, or ...

No. He probably has. My guess is, we all have.

I don't like to think of my irritability as sin. I like to think of it as more of an inconvenience, something that can be justified and excused because of the actions of things beyond my control.

My control.

But guess what? Most of life is beyond my control. And until I recognize whose control my life is under, I'm going to be irritated.