Monday, February 27, 2012

Strong Statement for Silence

Did you notice at last night’s Academy Awards, the silent film “The Artist” collected five Oscars, including best picture, best actor, best director, musical score and costume design?

What’s up with that? Didn’t silent films go out with Charlie Chaplin, dirigibles and Prohibition?

Yes, “The Artist” has music and subtitles so the audience knows what characters in the film are thinking and saying, just like the silent films of old. But the point is, the actors are in fact…silent!

Don't look now - actors like
Charlie Chaplin might
be making a comeback.
There seems something symbolic, even subliminal, about a silent film reaping top achievement awards in an age when our world is anything but silent.

As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, every day we’re bombarded by auditory overload, a cacophony of voices and messages clamoring for our limited attention spans. And the discourse is decreasingly cordial and civil. “Whoever shouts loudest and longest wins!”

So there’s wonderful irony in the fact that in today’s world, afflicted with ever-heightened decibel levels, a silent film should receive the motion picture industry’s highest honors.

Years ago, Dionne Warwick and others sang the popular Burt Bacharach tune, “What the World Needs Now Is Love, Sweet Love.” Today, what it also needs more of is quiet, sweet quiet. Who knows – this might be the perfect time for Simon and Garfunkel to reprise their classic tune, “The Sounds of Silence.”

As the Bible affirms, “Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue” (Proverbs 17:28). A little silence never hurt anybody.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Perplexities of Perseverance

When did we decide to give up on perseverance?

Throughout U.S. history, a common thread of perseverance has been sewn into our nation’s fabric. Think of colonists bravely weathering months on the seas, then confronting nature’s worst to build homes and raise families in the New World. Pioneers traversing wilderness territories to explore the Western expanse. Scientists searching relentlessly for cures to horrific diseases.

Consider industrialists and inventors laboring long hours and risking everything they had in pursuit of dreams and innovation. A nation united in sacrifice to ensure the war effort’s success. Families scraping for years to amass enough money for the down payment on a house.

None of this was easy, but perseverance – bulldoggish determination that refused to accept failure as a final answer – carried Americans through, individually and collectively.

Today, we’ve devolved into a no-waiting, quick fix, microwave society. “I want it, and I want it now!” has become our mantra. We bow at the altar of instant gratification. We fume while standing to place fast-food orders; grumble in checkout lines; grit our teeth at red lights. And lose interest and give up when anything requires too much time or energy.

Mountain climbing requires
Recently my old “friend,” Oswald Chambers, made an important distinction. In his classic devotional book, My Utmost for His Highest,” Chambers observed, “Perseverance is more than endurance. It is endurance combined with absolute assurance and certainty that what we are looking for is going to happen. Perseverance means more than just hanging on, which may be only exposing our fear of letting go and falling.”

This evoked images of mountain climbing. I thought first of a climber that has slipped and clings desperately to a rock or tree branch, fearful of harm to life and limb. This illustrates endurance, trying to survive. The other climber encounters obstacles, but with skill and determination overcomes them and advances slowly toward the summit. This demonstrates perseverance.

Perhaps marching toward post-modernity, our hell-bent insistence on evicting God from public consciousness, has precipitated the death of perseverance. Because what Chambers called “absolute assurance and certainty that what we are looking for is going to happen” lies at the heart of biblical faith. As followers of Christ, because we embrace hope and not “hope so,” we persevere.  

James 1:2-4 declares, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

If that’s true, refusal to persevere in the face of adversity leaves us immature and incomplete, lacking what we need – as individuals and as a nation – to live this life as intended.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Staring at Carpet in the Art Gallery

"All the world's a stage," Shakespeare wrote. It's an art gallery, too.

Imagine being invited to have dinner at one of the world’s foremost restaurants and ordering…a hotdog and plain potato chips. Or visiting the famed Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., and spending the entire time reading a Looney Tunes comic book.

This morning I read an insightful observation by author Max Lucado, about our proclivity for not appreciating the wonders of God’s handiwork: “We live in an art gallery of divine creativity and yet are content to only gaze at the carpet.”

That’s not to discount the impact of stylish, colorful carpet on a room’s d├ęcor. But if you went to a prestigious art gallery, you’d admire the work of Renoir, Monet, Picasso, Remington, even Grandma Moses – not the polyester pile underfoot.

Similarly, walking out our front door we are surrounded by myriad wonders the Lord has created, but too often our response is a disinterested shrug.

A full moon spotted in the morning hours.
Consider the majesty of the Grand Canyon; grandeur of Pike’s Peak, and the “kissing camels” in Colorado Springs’ Garden of the Gods; sparkling waters of the Caribbean; thunderous Niagara Falls; a star-filled, cloudless sky; Tennessee’s picturesque Smoky Mountains; a full moon at an early morning hour; spectacular sunrises and sunsets.

Then there are manmade marvels for which God provided the imagination and innovation to build: Monuments and museums in our nation’s capital; the magnificent skylines of New York City and Chicago; the centuries-old castles and cathedrals of Europe; the stately pyramids of Egypt, Mexico and South America; bridges proudly spanning our great rivers.

Accosted daily by such splendor, beauty and endless variety, I can’t comprehend complacency toward God and His creation. The Bible says, The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world” (Psalm 19:4).

What more evidence do we need?

Sadly, instead of acknowledging and adoring the God who made all of this possible in this “art gallery” we call earth and the universe, we’re examining tiny tufts in the carpet.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Vice Presidents – and Other Government Waste

Lately I’ve been wondering: What’s the purpose for the Vice President of the United States? I’m not asking from a partisan perspective, because it seems Democrat or Republican, the history of the Vice Presidency has been a glaring example of Federal government waste.

I know Vice Presidents stand first in line of succession if a President dies in office or becomes incapacitated. Sadly, at times that succession plan has been implemented. But shouldn’t the Vice President be more than a “spare tire” in the White House?

Spare tire seems a good comparison. Think about it – each of our cars has a spare tire, but we hope it’s never needed. Because that means something’s happened to a tire on the car. Can you remember the last time you looked at your car’s spare tire? Ever? Do you even know if it’s a full-sized tire, or just an emergency “donut”? We only know it’s there – just in case.

As suspense builds concerning who will oppose President Barack Obama in November, little is said about who will run for Vice President on the Republican ticket. As the office is currently designed, it doesn’t matter.

In the business world, vice presidents have clearly defined functions and job descriptions. For instance, I’m VP of communications for Leaders Legacy, Inc. As such I provide expertise on all communications, especially anything written. Similarly, vice presidents in virtually any other business or organization all have specific responsibilities to perform.

But in the executive branch of the U.S. government, the Vice President attends meetings, makes appearances at various events, and sometimes makes dumb statements in public (as Joe Biden and others have been known to do). But essentially, our Vice Presidents wait around in the unlikely event the Chief Executive can no longer fulfill his duties.

With all the President has on his plate, it would make sense to delegate significant duties to the VP. That would lighten the President’s load, and the VP would have something worthwhile to do, other than sitting behind the President as he gives the State of the Union address to Congress.

The Bible says, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work” (Ecclesiastes 4:9). Why not apply that principle to the Executive Office?

Monday, February 13, 2012

Time Continues Marching On

Bryce and Maclane are becoming good buddies.

A year ago we were adjusting to the happy addition of two infants to our family. This week both little guys will have turned one year old; already they’ve come a long way from those tiny blankets that swaddled them on the way home from the hospital. Time still flies – or marches on – whichever verb you prefer.

Maclane, who marked his first birthday about two weeks ago, is toddling around everywhere, and has already proved to be very vocal. His favorite words right now seem to be “momma” and “uh, oh!” – mixed with gibberish only he can comprehend. He seems to have concluded the world is one big toy box.

Later this week Bryce also turns one. Having been born about six weeks premature, he has some catching up to do with his older cousin. But he’s getting that crawling thing figured out, has started building his own vocabulary, and when he’s in the mood, will even wave bye-bye.

Having two infants around reminds us of how wondrous even the smallest things can be – a flower, a tiny bit of fruit, a hole in a sock, even a tuft of carpet that has worked loose and lies alone on the floor. Babies notice such things. And as grandparents, we realize how easy it is to lose an appreciation for life’s simpler things.

Years ago I first heard someone comment, “If I had known grandkids were so great, I would have had them first!” At the time we didn’t yet have grandchildren. But now, with five grandkids living nearby, along with five others in Ohio, we “get it.” Proverbs 17:6 states, “Children’s children are a crown to the aged, and parents are the pride of their children.”

They are fun to have around, watching them grow, learn and display their unique personalities and interests. I hardly regard myself or my wife as “aged,” but as we spend time with our “young ’uns,” the passage seems right. They truly are a “crown.”

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Paralyzing Power of ‘What If . . . ?’

Two common mental exercises are colossal wastes of energy – worrying and “what if….?” The futility of worry might be a topic for later discussion, but this week I’ve been reminded how pervasive – and pernicious – that phrase “What if…?” can be.

Sunday’s Super Bowl, won by the New York Giants over the New England Patriots, 21-17, had barely ended before experts and armchair authorities began playing the “What if…?” game. “What if Welker had caught that ball?” “What if the Giants scored too soon, letting the Patriots score the winning touchdown in the last second?”

Silly, but that’s how the discussion went. Rather than reviewing how the game unfolded, commentators and fans debated whether Bradshaw should have stopped short of the end zone so New York could kick a last-second field goal to win, denying New England another chance at the ball. Instead than talking about what is, people preferred to discuss what if?

Of course, we do that a lot of everyday life, too. “What if I had grown up in another part of the country?” “What if I had gone to a different college?” “What if I had married someone else?” "What if I had chosen a different career?" “What if I had zigged, instead of zagged?”

Such thinking is at best counter-productive. At worst it can be paralyzing, prohibiting us from moving forward with our lives in a healthy way. The past is cast in concrete, unchangeable, yet we insist of gazing backward, longingly and wishfully.

Do you know what happens if a farmer keeps looking back while he’s plowing? He cuts crooked furrows. And if we spend all our time looking back while driving, look out!

The Bible’s first book gives us a vivid example of the consequences of “what if…?” Lot and his family were instructed to flee the wicked city of Sodom – and not look back. However, his wife, perhaps desiring one last glimpse of her home, wondered, “What if we had stayed there?” The result: “Lot’s wife looked back, and she became a pillar of salt” (Genesis 19:26). Soon after that, doctors started advising patients, “Too much salt is bad for you!”

The apostle Paul, regretted many things he did before encountering Jesus Christ. But he understood “what if…” could not change anything. He wrote, “…one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14).

If we were given a do-over, a “mulligan” as they call it in golf, most of us would change things in our past. But that’s not an option. For one thing, time machines haven’t been invented yet. Besides, at least in my case, life has turned out far better than I could have hoped. Different than expected, but definitely better. So no “what if’s” for me!

Monday, February 6, 2012

Happy Birthday, ‘Chuck’ Dickens!

Feb. 7 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of celebrated British author Charles Dickens. If he’d still been alive today, well…he’d really be old!

Charles, or “Chuck” as he might be called by Peppermint Patty (who also uses that nickname for Charlie Brown), is known for literary classics like A Tale of Two Cities, which takes places before and during the French Revolution; Oliver Twist, the basis for the hit musical, “Oliver”; Great Expectations; and A Christmas Carol, which gave us the unforgettable line, “Bah! Humbug!” and from which many holiday films through the years have been based.

Being a writer that happened to grow up in a housing subdivision where the streets were named after legendary authors – (John Greenleaf) Whittier, (James Fenimore) Cooper and (Edgar Allan) Poe avenues, and (Nathaniel) Hawthorne Drive – I’ve embraced the rich heritage passed down from authors like Dickens.

Charles Dickens, 1812-1870
His opening lines to A Tale of Two Cities are among literature’s greatest: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way….”

The only better opening I can think of is, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). Those 10 words hold volumes of meaning. But the introductory words of Dickens’ Tale also capture the essence of a wondrous, horrific time with relatively few words.

Today much of writing is reduced to the substance of cotton candy, good to the initial taste but not much to savor after a few moments. Who has time to read, right? But authors like Dickens transport us to times when words were treasured, when they were implemented as tools for transforming society.

One phrase Dickens did not create is, “What the dickens?” That comes from William Shakespeare’s “Merry Wives of Windsor” (Act III, Scene II), in which character Mrs. Page states, "I cannot tell what the dickens his name is…." In this instance, the term “dickens” is euphemism for “devil.” Those words were uttered more than 200 years before Dickens’s birth to John and Elizabeth Dickens in Landport, England.

The late Paul Harvey used to tell a story called “The Man and the Birds,” about a man who had an amazing spiritual awakening simply by observing the plight of a flock of birds desperately trying to find shelter from the cold. Some have said Charles Dickens’ own spiritual journey served as inspiration for this tale. In telling it, Harvey even uses the name “Scrooge.” (In case you’re interested, here’s a link to that story:

Regardless, Dickens’s writings typically did convey a compassion, a rare sensitivity for “the least of these” that might have reflectee his personal convictions. I’d like to think his writings were undergirded not just by good intentions or warm sentiment, but a sincere desire to mirror through narrative the heartbeat of the Creator.

Perhaps his motives echoed the words I’ve adopted as my “career verse”: “My heart is overflowing with a good theme; I recite my composition concerning the king; my tongue is the pen of a ready writer” (Psalm 45:1).

Friday, February 3, 2012

Considering ‘Reliable Sources’

Often we hear the news media citing “reliable sources” with inside information regarding anything from a celebrity’s addictions, to political strategy shifts and “secret” government maneuverings, to behind-the-scenes dealings in the sports world. The term seems like a contradiction in terms.

If the source is truly “reliable,” then why is he or she divulging privileged knowledge about the individual or organization? If anything, the “friend” or employee doesn’t seem very reliable for the people and entities involved.

Being a journalist, I understand sometimes key information is “leaked” when it’s premature to disclose it through official channels. But often connections on the “inside” are more than willing to communicate confidential information as long as they remain anonymous.

Call the sources “believable” or “credible”; just forget about the “reliable” label. If I were an employer, I’d want to know that in-house information would stay in-house.

Years ago, while reporting sports for Ohio State’s student newspaper, I made what some would consider my first misstep as a journalist: I was interviewing the Buckeyes’ defensive coordinator, Lou McCullough, who’d agreed for me to talk with him only because I kept pestering him for a story. He taught me a helpful motto that day: persistence neutralizes resistance.

Toward the end of the interview, McCullough confided he was about to become athletic director at Iowa State University. It would have been my first “scoop” as a reporter, beating even the daily newspapers in Columbus. But then he said the information was “off the record” and asked me to keep it confidential. He’d let me know in a couple of days when I could run the story.

I did as requested, not even telling my sports editor. One day later, the story about McCullough’s departure appeared in the sports section of one of the daily newspapers. I, the “scooper,” had become "scoopee."

Looking back, I could have written the article citing a “reliable source”; McCullough certainly was that. But instead, electing to keep my promise, I held off on the story and ended up reporting on news that had already been broken.

But if I had a “do-over,” I don’t think I’d have done differently. There have been times when for whatever reason I’ve compromised my integrity, but since becoming a follower of Jesus I’ve believed being a person of your word should not be determined by situational ethics. Just as you can’t be “a little bit pregnant,” you’re either a person of integrity or you’re not.

The Old Testament book of Proverbs says much about this: “The integrity of the upright guides them, but the unfaithful are destroyed by their duplicity” (Proverbs 11:3). “Truthful lips endure forever, but a lying tongue lasts only for a moment” (Proverbs 12:19). “A wicked messenger falls into trouble, but a trustworthy envoy brings healing”  (Proverbs 13:17).

If our world placed higher value on honesty and integrity, we'd be much better off today – in every respect.