Monday, August 29, 2011

'If You Can’t Say Something Good . . .'

When I was a boy, my friends and I were encouraged to speak about others with kindness and consideration. When we didn’t, we were disciplined. “If you can’t say something good about somebody, don’t say anything at all” was an oft-heard adage. Such sensibilities, however, have been cast aside by our society.

Hurricane Irene barreled through the East Coast and Northeastern United States over the weekend. Although the impact of the storm was extensive and some lives were lost, it was less severe than originally predicted. Since I have family members in New Jersey, that’s good news to me. But apparently not for everyone.

Rather than expressing gratitude for major disaster being averted, some people are complaining. The storm was “overhyped,” many grumble, and they question decisions by government officials to order the evacuation of vulnerable areas as the storm approached.

Of course, if the storm had proved as devastating as originally projected, and if officials had chosen not to direct residents to leave in a timely manner, those same critical individuals would still be griping, except for different reasons.

I understand the media being upset. They were poised to cover an Armageddon-quality hurricane. I’ll never forget working on a daily newspaper in suburban Philadelphia where I heard the term, “good fire,” for the first time. The editor meant because of the magnitude of the industrial inferno, newsstand sales would spike as readers rushed to digest the gory details.

Because TV news is all about viewers and ratings, network and cable executives were salivating for an extreme event – although they would never admit it.

But for average citizens, why complain instead of counting their blessings?

I suppose they never read the admonition of Ecclesiastes 10:12-14 – “Words from a wise man’s mouth are gracious, but a fool is consumed by his own lips. At the beginning his words are folly; at the end they are wicked madness – and the fool multiplies words.”

Thursday, August 25, 2011

No One Can Make It Alone

You’ve probably heard the story about the turtle atop the fence post. It’s simple: He didn’t make it there alone.

That illustration underscores an everyday truism – to succeed in whatever you’re trying to achieve, you can’t make it alone. Our country was built on the shoulders of people that exhibited rugged individualism, along with the so-called “can-do spirit.” But even the most accomplished needed help.

Steven Jobs has announced he’s stepping down as CEO of Apple, Inc., due to declining health. Under Jobs’ leadership Apple became one of the world’s most powerful corporations. But he didn’t do it all by himself, and Apple’s likely to continue its successful course because of the contributions of many talented people.

Our lives are living proof that you can’t make it alone. Inspired and encouraged by teachers and college professors, I decided to turn my favorite hobby – writing – into a career. And what small success I’ve had as a journalist over the past four decades is due in part to people that hired me, bosses who mentored me, and others who assisted me in various ways.

I couldn’t begin to list all the people who have participated in my spiritual journey, teaching me in the good times and offering comfort and support during the tough times.

The idea of not being able to make it alone saturates the Scriptures. One of my favorite passages, Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, declares, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work. If one falls down, his friend can help him up…. Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.”

Jesus, being the Son of God, certainly didn’t need help to accomplish His mission. Yet He surrounded Himself with eager, often faltering followers. When His time on earth ended, He entrusted the mission to them.

Because we need one another’s support, I’ve diligently invested in other men through mentoring over the years. The regular interchange experienced in a mentoring relationship is unparalleled. It’s mutually beneficial; you never know what you’ll learn from week to week, but you always learn something.

Proverbs 27:17 states, “As iron sharpens iron, one man sharpens another.” Through the years, God has used dozens of men to sharpen me; hopefully I’ve done the same for others.

At a time when the turbulent stock market puts any financial investment at risk, coming alongside another person wrestling with life’s complex issues is one investment that offers guaranteed dividends. We can’t do it alone, but what a privilege to contribute to someone else’s success!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Curious Conundrum of Words

Recently I noticed the mall bookstore had a sign that read, “Giant Book Sale.” “I wondered what that meant. Were they having a special sale on books about giants? Were they offering a special on oversized books? Or were they just having a really big, super-stupendous sale?

Funny thing about words, especially in the English language: They can mean so many things. And create a lot of confusion in the process.

Take “cool,” for example. If I go outside in the morning and say, “It’s really cool” (which hasn’t happened much lately), I’m referring to the temperature. If I meet someone and conclude, “He’s really cool,” I probably mean he’s very interesting. But if I walk in the door and notice my wife is unusually quiet and think, “she’s really cool,” I’m suspecting she’s upset about something. If I’m “cool” to an idea, it means I’m not very enthused about it.

The same applies to “hot.” It also can relate to the weather outside, as well as a pot on the stove; but “hot” can also mean something that’s very popular at the moment. “Hot” can be used to describe someone’s physical appearance, but saying someone’s “hot” might also mean the person’s extremely upset.

I suppose that’s one reason I’m not an advocate of the term “Christian.” In original translations of the Bible, the word is used only three times, twice by nonbelievers trying to label “Christ fanatics.” The sole time a follower of Jesus uses the term is when the apostle Peter writes, “if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name” (1 Peter 4:16).

Not that I’m ashamed of the term. If someone asks me, “Are you a Christian?” I’ll confirm that I am. But I don’t go around announcing I’m a Christian because – like giant, cool and hot – the word has come to have many, often conflicting meanings.

In our society, “Christian” can mean someone that’s not a Jew, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist. I’ve heard people described as “a good Christian man,” meaning the person displays good morals – or at least hasn’t been caught in grievous wrongdoing. Once I asked a “Christian bookstore” what it believed, but it never gave me an answer. I doubt it was a real Christian.

That’s one of the problems with referring to the United States as “a Christian nation.” When we get to heaven, we won’t see the U.S.A. miraculously transported there.

So instead of using the ambiguous term “Christian,” I prefer referencing myself as “a Jesus follower” or “follower of Christ.” Some people might not like those terms either, but at least they’re more specific and less easily confused.

Monday, August 15, 2011

What’s in Your ‘Dash’?

Have you ever scanned tombstones and grave markers at a cemetery? You probably noticed each had a year or date of birth, along with (in most cases) a year or date of death. The years and dates differed, but they all had one thing in common: the dash in between.

If you research someone’s biography, you will either find dates of birth and death also separated by a dash, or if the person is still living, one date with a dash followed by a blank space. For the deceased, that simple dash represents the span of their lives. For the living, the blank next to the dash means their dash remains “incomplete.”

The dash on a tombstone
can tell the story of a lifetime.
My friend Dick speaks about “living in the dash.” And I’ve recently learned about a book written by Linda Ellis called Live Your Dash, expanding on her 1996 poem. I’ve read the poem, not the book, but for Dick and Ms. Ellis, the concept is the same: Our lives consist of the sum total of moments between birth and death; the impact of our lives is determined by how we use those moments.

Isn’t it humbling to realize that for many of us, all the watching world will ever see of our lives is that tiny dash?

Rather than becoming disheartened, we can look at that reality another way. A single drop of water viewed through a microscope can contain an incredible array of tiny items – cells, germs, a whole world of life hidden to the naked eye.

Inside that little graveyard dash, our lives can be much the same. It can represent many lives we have touched, acts of kindness, words of encouragement, ripples of laughter, tears of sorrow, times of happiness and joy, unseen deeds that changed someone’s life for the better.

That little dash, seemingly inconsequential, can represent a life well-spent – or squandered. Depending on whether we choose to invest it or waste it.

Ecclesiastes 3:2 says there is “a time to be born and a time to die.” The question is we will do with the time in between.

You're still defining your dash, as am I. When the time comes, what will yours have to say?

Thursday, August 11, 2011

A Non-Techie’s Praises of Technology

Can you believe where technology has taken us in just the past few decades?

When our family arrived in Chattanooga, Tenn. in 1981, USA Today was still a figment of the Gannett Corporation’s imagination. A computer might fit on your lap – if you were a blue whale. E-mail was a letter sent to racecar driver Dale Earnhardt. Being an editor for magazines and newsletters, when I took photographs people would ask, “Did you get any good pictures?” I’d reply that I’d know when the film was developed.

Virtually no one had yet heard of the Internet. GPS comprised the initials of Chattanooga’s private girls’ school. Some people speculated phones would one day become standard equipment in cars, like air conditioning and radios.

Today, online media are making traditional newspapers obsolete. My iPad, smaller than a legal pad, is more powerful than room-sized computers of years past. I regularly communicate with friends in other countries via email, and my digital camera not only immediately displays images I’ve just captured, but also moves seamlessly from still photos to video.

On a recent trip to Charlotte, N.C., we used my daughter’s SUV (back in 1981, minivans were “in”) to take our grandson back to the motel for naptime, and the GPS (I called it “Gertrude the Personal Spotter”) provided directions. When I misunderstood an instruction and missed a turn, “Gertie” immediately redirected us without so much as a frustrated sigh or angry tone. I’m writing this blog and posting it with little more than the blink of an eye.

Who knows what technology will bring us in the future? Just this week USA Today ran an article stating it might not be long before we’re regularly using smartphones at checkout lines instead of wallets. Travel, communications, commerce and every other aspect of life will continue to revel in the relentless advance of technology.

Certainly there’s been a downside to technology as well, but that’s the way we humans are. Given something good, or even neutral, we’ll try to expose its negative side. But my greatest concern is embracing technology too ardently.

Years ago I attended a liturgical church where we sang the “Doxology”: “Praise God from whom all blessings flow….” I think we should have hearty appreciation for technology, but praise should go to God alone.
After all, He’s given us the creative spark to discover and implement new things. He’s granted us the reasoning capacity to think problems through to their solution. He’s provided the raw material for manufacturing the wonderful tools we use today.

In 2 Peter 1:3 we’re told, “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.” As we benefit from countless technological advancements, it might be wise never to forget the ultimate Source of those discoveries.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Faith of a Child

At a small group meeting, the leader read an intriguing quote by Francois Fenelon, a French theologian, poet and writer of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. In his book, Let Go, Fenelon observes: “Faith seeks God alone.”

As the discussion continued, I pondered that statement. I’ve read many definitions of faith, but Fenelon’s seemed particularly accurate.

With two infant grandsons in our family, I’ve watched them exhibit a definitive kind of faith. Their faith, however, is centered on parents, particularly their moms who are their primary caregivers.

In Matthew 18:3, Jesus stated, “…unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” At first glance that declaration doesn’t seem particularly “sophisticated,” that is unless you’ve watch babies and little kids for a while. Then it makes sense.

These little boys, Maclane and Bryce, have simple faith. They don’t spend time trying to figure out whether mom and dad have enough money to buy their formula, diapers and seasonal clothing. They don’t worry about whether they will respond to their cries for help – which happens a lot! They simply trust, looking to their parents for love and care, knowing they will do whatever is necessary, whenever it’s necessary.

As we “mature” we make things more complicated. If there is a God, we reason, how can we be certain He’ll come through when needed? How can He possibly resolve a problem as complex as the one we’re facing? With all that’s going on around the world, how can God even keep track of what’s happening in my life? And without clear answers, we sometimes look elsewhere.

Our questions are endless. But that’s probably why Jesus was so emphatic about having the faith of a child. Hebrews 11:1 says, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” For the little fellows in our family, their faith and trust in mom and dad have substance; even though they don’t know what their parents will do, they feel the "evidence" that they’ll be fed and cleaned up, put to bed and picked up and hugged when they need it. They’re not troubled by doubt. They don't seek alternatives.

Wouldn’t it be great to have a spiritual faith like that?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Being Saved By the ‘N’ Word?

Last week a newspaper article (yes, I still read newspapers) stated men's health is being enhanced by the use of the “N” word.

Not that “N” word! The one the story referred to is: Nagging. It seems when wives are diligent in scheduling physicians’ appointments for their husbands, then reminding – even nagging – them to go, men often avoid catastrophic heart attacks.

A study showed, “among heart attack victims, married men arrive at the hospital soonest…half an hour sooner than those who were not married.” Even without heart attack symptoms, research found, “it is not uncommon for a wife to begin pushing her husband to visit the doctor long before a man thinks he needs to go.”

Nagging wives typically don’t rank atop the popularity ladder. We see parodies in the comic strips: Blondie trying to motivate sleep-prone Dagwood Bumstead; Hagar the Horrible being harangued by Helga; lazy Earl being exhorted by Opal in “Pickles”; Hi being chided by Lois.

But apparently having a nagging wife could be just what the doctor ordered for many men.

It comes down to the motive behind the nagging. If it’s to belittle and demean, it becomes destructive; disheartening at best. In Proverbs 27:15-16, King Solomon (who, having had 1,000 wives and concubines, should know!) wrote, “A quarrelsome wife is like a constant dripping on a rainy day; restraining her is like restraining the wind or grasping oil in the hand.”

However, the Bible also says there’s great value in well-intended rebuke or correction: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24).

Most men don’t need to be nagged to watch football games featuring their favorite team, or to play golf or go fishing, if they enjoy that. But when it comes to household chores or family matters, sometimes loving wives need to apply the “spurs,” much like cowboys do with their horses. The intention is not to harm, but get them moving in the right direction.

If, as Ephesians 4:15 suggests, we go about “speaking the truth in love,” a little nagging won’t hurt. According to research, it might actually help!