Thursday, February 28, 2019

Teachability: the Greatest Growth Ability

What do you think are the most important qualities for someone who desires to grow spiritually? We could list numerous possibilities. But from personal experience – in getting to know people who are living out their faith in incredible ways; striving to mentor and disciple other men, and seeking to grow in my own faith – I would rank teachability at or near the top.

Teachability isn't so much
about teaching as it is
about learning.
I’m not referring to the ability to teach, but rather the ability to be taught; willingness to learn from others. Because not everyone is teachable, and I must admit there have been times when I was among them. Often in the Scriptures we see the term “stiff-necked” to describe such people. 

For instance, in Exodus 34:9, Moses speaks to God about his frustration in leading a people determined to live contrary to what they had been instructed: "’Lord,’ he said, ‘if I have found favor in your eyes, then let the Lord go with us. Although this is a stiff-necked people, forgive our wickedness and our sin, and take us as your inheritance.’" Basically, Moses – whom God had appointed to lead the Israelites – is saying, “There’s no teaching these folks!”

King Solomon addressed this a number of times in the book of Proverbs, including willingness to accept correction as a sign of teachability. He admonished, “Do not rebuke a mocker or he will hate you; rebuke a wise man and he will love you” (Proverbs 9:8). Solomon also observed, “He who heeds discipline shows the way to life, but whoever ignores correction leads others astray” (Proverbs 10:17).

There are other important aspects to teachability beyond being willing to receive discipline and constructive criticism. One is determining to put to use what you’ve learned. The writer of Proverbs declared, "Whoever heeds life-giving correction will be at home among the wise" (Proverbs 15:31). Writing to his protégé, Timothy, the apostle Paul instructed, “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:9).

Being teachable means more than simple acquisition of information. Again writing to Timothy, Paul warned of what he termed “terrible times in the last days.” The apostle described people having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people…always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:5,7). Seems like this could apply today just as well as it did thousands of years ago. 

The teachable person is someone who doesn’t hoard what he or she has learned, but is eager to pass it along to others. Paul drew a verbal picture of multi-generational discipleship when he told Timothy, “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Timothy 2:2). The teachable person is one who in turn resolves to teach others – paying it forward.

And how do we succeed in cultivating a teachable spirit? An indispensable element, I’ve discovered, is an old-fashioned virtue called humility – being humble enough to recognize that we don’t know it all, that we can learn from others, and our lives and the lives of others can be enhanced by what we learn.

Another apostle, James, addressed this when he equated teachability with wisdom: “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom” (James 3:13).

What’s the moral of this “story”? First of all, we’re never too old to learn. You can teach “old dogs” new tricks, if they are willing to be taught. It can be humbling to have to admit we’ve been wrong about something, or didn’t know as much as we thought we did. But once we’ve learned something important, we also need to be willing to share it so others can benefit and hopefully, grow spiritually as well.

Monday, February 25, 2019

The Fickle Finger of the Unforgiving Past

“Your sins will find you out!” This ancient adage rings as true today as ever. Newspaper headlines and daily news broadcasts have affirmed this in recent days. Racist comments made decades ago; similarly insensitive costumes that were worn in years past; instances of sexual harassment and, worse yet, sexual assault. All have risen out of the ashes of personal history to haunt elected officials, candidates for public office, business executives, Hollywood celebrities, and even some religious leaders.

Misdeeds of the past have a disconcerting way of re-emerging to disrupt the dreams and ambitions of people seeking to gain positions of public trust.

This sobering warning actually originated with Moses, speaking to the Reubenites and Gadites, two of the tribes of Israel. They wanted to settle on one side of the Jordan River with their families and livestock while the rest of the Israelites prepared to cross the Jordan, where they intended to establish their new homes. According to the Old Testament, the soldiers of Reuben and Gad vowed to first join their fellow Israelites in taking the land God had promised to them, before returning to the other side of the river.

After being persuaded the Reubenites and Gadites were sincere, not seeking to escape their obligations, Moses warned, "But if you fail to do this, you will be sinning against the LORD; and you may be sure that your sin will find you out” (Numbers 32:23).

Thinking about this, I’m reminded we can’t undo the past, no matter how much we’d like to do so. Not one of us would want our lifetime collection of warts, flaws and poor choices openly displayed for public review. Poor or unwise judgment and behavior in the past are like getting tattoos. They seemed like a good idea at the time, but in retrospect we can’t help but wonder, “What was I thinking?”

King Solomon wisely observed, “There is not a righteous man on earth, who does right and never sins” (Ecclesiastes 7:20). The apostle Paul, once notorious as a zealous enemy of Christians, piggybacked on Solomon’s declaration, then elaborated when he wrote, “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless, there is no one who does good, not even one” (Romans 3:10-12).

After Paul continued his harsh appraisal of the natural state of humankind, he finally asserted, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). If we as imperfect, fallible people find ourselves shocked, even incensed by others’ words and deeds, imagine how our holy, all-righteous God must feel – not only about theirs, but also ours?

This is why Jesus Christ admonished against our fondness for judging and assessing others. However, it wasn’t simply to condemn those who come across as judgmental and “holier than thou.” He said, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Matthew 7:1-2).

Sometimes when I watch or listen to the 24/7 media ranting relentlessly about someone’s failures, I wonder how many of those same commentators, if we peered into their personal lives – and histories – would be found guilty of the same or similar misdeeds, or perhaps worse?

As Paul wrote elsewhere in his letter to the church in Rome, “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things” (Romans 2:1). He remembered well, even citing some of his own past sins. Are we as willing to openly acknowledge our own?

Writing to another group of believers in the Greek city of Corinth, the apostle also warned, “Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall,” also recognizing, “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man…” (1 Corinthians 10:12-13). To put this into today’s vernacular, when we point fingers at someone else’s wrongdoing, the remaining fingers are pointing back at ourselves.

Thankfully, the God who revealed Himself in the Bible is far more forgiving than the court of public opinion – and the ever-accusing media. Despite being perfect and holy, He offers forgiveness, cleansing and a literal new start through Jesus. “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).

Referring to His impending death on the cross while serving the Passover meal to His followers, Jesus explained, This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28).

So while past sins could possibly be brought to the public consciousness, especially if we’re in the public eye (not a good place to be these days, it seems), once we’ve confessed them and received forgiveness from God, He’ll never revisit them again. “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12). And that’s why it’s called, Good News!

Thursday, February 21, 2019

A Consistent Key to Success

We see it every day: People with less innate ability and talent who excel, attaining higher levels of success than more talented individuals surrounding them. We can observe this on playing fields and in sports arenas, the workplace, the entertainment stage, schools and hospitals, and just about everywhere else. What makes the difference?

We could cite many factors: Hard work, determination, perseverance, the old-fashioned “want to.” Or as my friend, Gary Highfield, puts it – “have to.” But there’s one factor we often overlook, one recently displayed on one of sports’ greatest stages: Consistency.

In the Super Dud (I mean, Bowl) a few weeks ago, again won by the New England Patriots, those of us who watched the game saw consistency personified. Disclaimer: I am NOT a Patriots fan, so I’m not writing to crow as a delighted fan. I’ve never met Bill Belichick or Tom Brady, and have no desire to do so. But we have to admit, they’ve achieved unprecedented success in professional football. And I believe consistency has been one of their primary assets.

How else does one team reach the NFL’s premiere contest nine times over the past 18 years, winning six Super Bowl titles? Along the way the Patriots have posted 18 consecutive winning seasons, won 10 straight divisional titles and reached their conference championship game eight straight years. During that span they’ve reached the post-season playoffs 16 times. That in itself is consistency.

The stoic Belichick, usually displaying about as much personality as an old sponge, annually assembles teams with less celebrated talent than his rivals, yet manages to get the most out of his coaches and players. Usually enough to beat the opposing team. All he does is get them to use their strengths with uncommon consistency.

And Brady? He should have his photo in the dictionary alongside the word, “consistency.” Other quarterbacks in the NFL have more raw talent. They might throw the ball harder and farther than he can. Some accumulate better statistics. What they don’t do, however, is execute with Brady’s high level of day-to-day, game-to-game consistency.

Regardless of the field of endeavor, anyone can look like a top performer for a few moments, a day, a week or a month. But to excel over a long span of time – years, or even a lifetime – requires, among other things, great consistency.

It’s not so different in the spiritual life. The true test of one’s walk with God isn’t how we look on Sunday, or even over a brief “season” of life when we’re full of inspiration and motivation. It’s all about being faithful, consistent over the long haul during tough times and good times alike.

The Living Bible expressed this reality in a wonderfully simple way: “Steady plodding brings prosperity; hasty speculation brings poverty” (Proverbs 21:5). This principle applies to financial success, but it holds true for other areas of life as well. As author Eugene Peterson termed it, the Christian life and our calling as disciples of Christ amount to “a long obedience in the same direction.”

Whenever I’ve grown weary or discouraged, when I’ve wondered if God has been using me at all to make a difference in the world – at least my sphere of influence – two passages have brought encouragement: 

“Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).

“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Galatians 6:9-10).

Both speak to the importance of perseverance and consistency in our daily walk with the Lord. We are to persist in the work to which He has called us, doing it with consistency, day by day, even hour by hour. 

Prior to the Super Bowl, I read about Tom Brady’s year-round training regimen, his daily workout routine and well-defined diet, not only on game day but also throughout the year. These have been beneficial for being able to compete successfully with foes who are much younger – even by a decade or two.

As followers of Jesus, our daily “workout” should reflect the same kind of consistency – time in the Scriptures and prayer; association with fellow believers for mutual support and encouragement; and an unwavering devotion to the Lord and His mission. Thousands of years ago, King David wrote, “O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Psalm 63:1). Do we share this passion?

Monday, February 18, 2019

How’s Your ‘Bucket List’ Coming Along?

One of my favorite films, especially having reached “senior years,” is “The Bucket List,” about two aging men (Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman) with one thing in common. They’re both coping with terminal cancer. After striking up an unlikely friendship, they develop a mutual “bucket list” – things to accomplish before they “kick the bucket.” The film watches them check items off the list.

What's in your 'bucket'?
I’ve never compiled an actual bucket list, but have had the pleasure of accomplishing lots of things I would have put on it, had I bothered to compile one. There are the obvious choices, like finding a loving wife, along having great kids and grandkids; a rewarding career that I have considered successful; and finding meaning and purpose in life, which have largely come through my faith. 

Then there are more discretionary items I have  checked off my imaginary bucket list, like seeing the Grand Canyon (twice); visiting Disney World (multiple times); traveling outside the USA (again, a number of times); meeting some famous people (including Archie Griffin, Woody Hayes, Jack Nicklaus, Jesse Owens – are you seeing a Scarlet and Gray trend here?); and helping people along their spiritual journey.

But two things I’ve never wanted to include on a bucket list are running in a marathon and competing in a triathlon, basically a marathon plus water and a bicycle. I’m more anchor than swimmer, so triathlons were scratched off the list before they could be added. And frankly, I’d never be willing to commit to the time and effort required to do either. 

You don’t just bounce out of bed one morning and declare, “I’m running a marathon (or doing a triathlon) today!” They take months of preparation, mentally as well as physically. It takes incredible determination and discipline, training whether you feel like it or not, being willing to forgo eating the wrong foods, and maintaining a mindset that you’re willing to do whatever it takes.

Then again, from a spiritual perspective my life for the past 40-plus years has amounted to a real-life, every day marathon. It’s been said so often it’s become a cliché, but it’s true: The Christian life is a marathon, not a sprint. At times you might find yourself going a bit faster and the course seems smooth; at other times the path gets extremely rough and you’re coming almost to a halt, maybe even taking steps backward. But with God’s strength and relying on His grace, you keep moving.

The apostle Paul liked metaphors of athletic sacrifice and the long-distance run. Writing to believers in the church at the Greek city of Philippi, he said, “…I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me…. But 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 3:12-14).

Just as marathon runners midway through a race don’t dwell on what they were doing at the three-mile mark, in our spiritual lives we also must be willing to forget our failings, the “woulda’s, coulda’s and shoulda’s” of our lives, and concentrate on where we are presently in our walk with the Lord and where we believe He wants us to go.

Among the most heartening scenes during any marathon or triathlon is the crowd lined up throughout the route, some folks cheering on friends and family members, others providing refreshment as competitors continue along the way. It must be tremendously encouraging for runners to know they’re not alone. 

The Bible says the same about our spiritual journey: “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” (Hebrews 12:1).

I’m not certain exactly who this “cloud of witnesses” consists of, whether it means fellow believers we encounter from day to day or perhaps, those who have already gone passed from this life. In any event, isn’t it great to know we have “cheerleaders” exhorting us? “Keep it up!” “Don’t give up!” “You can do this!” “The Lord is with you!”

One day each of us will reach the end of our personal marathon. In a final letter to Timothy, his young protégé, Paul also wrote, “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and he time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:6-7). The apostle, nearing the end of his earthly life and ministry, felt confident of finishing well. Having endured great opposition, adversity and near-death experiences, he could at last see the race’s end.

How did Paul succeed in doing this? I think we find the answer in another book; we don’t know its author for sure, but it must have reflected his motivation: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith…. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Hebrews 12:2-3).

Finishing well in your marathon of faith: Is that on your bucket list? Are your eyes fixed on Jesus?

Thursday, February 14, 2019

What’s Love Got to Do With It?

Do you know what today is? If you have a spouse or “significant other,” you’re in trouble if you don’t. Because it’s Valentine’s Day, the day appropriated by retailers to help fill the gap until Easter (which some people treat like a springtime Christmas, without a tree), Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and then the six-month buildup to the next Christmas.

But let’s consider Valentine’s Day for what it’s supposed to be, at least in theory. It’s when we pause for special consideration to the one we love, whether it involves flowers and candy, cards, jewelry, a special dinner, or whatever works best for demonstrating our affection and admiration.

My wife and me in Capri,
Italy last year.
The symbol for the day, of course, is the heart. And we generally agree it’s a celebration of something called “love.” The question is, what exactly is…love? We hear that love is something folks fall into – and out of – even married people. Sounds kind of like emotional gravity: “I’ve fallen into love…oops, something’s tipped, so I’ve fallen out of love. Sorry ‘bout that.”

There’s love according to “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette,” only skin-deep, but that’s supposed to be okay. As long as the hormones continue racing, and you don’t have enough time or opportunity to genuinely get to know one another, love can survive.

Then we have the Hallmark Channel view of love: Boy bumps into girl (Hollywood’s “meet cute”); boy dislikes girl and/or vice versa; boy and girl start to build a bit of chemistry, despite obvious differences; they sense a strong attraction, almost to the point of kissing; conflict arises, nearly ending the potential romance; and then, at long last, boy and girl realize they’ve meant for each other, seal it with a kiss, and (presumably) proceed to live happily ever after. All within the span of about a week. (Obviously, I’ve seen enough Hallmark movies to know the script outline!)

But is that what love really is? Just physical attraction and raw emotions – which can alter dramatically over time?

I believe there’s no greater authority to consult about love, even romantic love, than the Scriptures. Especially the passage often used during wedding ceremonies that hardly anyone really listens to; it sounds nice, it’s found in the Bible, so let’s include it. I’m talking about 1 Corinthians 13:4-13, what some have termed “the love chapter.” We could all use a refresher, so here it is:

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails…. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

I’ve read this passage many times, in different translations, and not once has it mentioned things we typically associate with love – warm and fuzzy feelings, getting all giddy and giggly, not being able to stop thinking about how the other person makes us feel. It does, however, emphasize things like patience, kindness, humility, selflessness, forgiveness, goodness, protection, contentment, being slow to anger, truthfulness, trust, and perseverance.

This isn’t to say that emotions, or physical and sexual attraction, aren’t or shouldn’t be part of the love equation. Certainly they should. God inspired an entire book of the Old Testament, The Song of Solomon, about that. But our contemporary notion of love moves too quickly to outward appearances and feelings. We would be wise to first consider “Do I like this person?” before asking, “Do I love this person?” Because as Proverbs 31:30 observes, “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting, but a woman [or man] who fears the Lord is to be praised.”

Have you noticed in many wedding ceremonies, traditional vows are replaced by the couple’s unique sentiments toward each other? There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s their wedding, after all. But the words, “for better or for worse, in sickness or in health, for richer or for poorer,” serve as an instant reality check. Because the “happily ever after” of fairy tales and Hallmark movies doesn’t translate to real life. 

Successful marriages have lots of good times – as my wife and I can attest after more than four decades. But hard times are also a necessary part of the package, and the sooner we accept that – even as a couple pledges themselves to each other – the better.

Perhaps the most profound Scriptural admonition concerning love is found in Ephesians 5:25, which instructs, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” How did Jesus love the Church – His believers and followers? He died for us, sacrificed everything for our benefit – atoning for our sins to provide redemption and reconciliation with God. 

Being a husband myself, that’s a constant and sobering reminder of how totally I should give myself to my wife. I don’t always succeed – too often I fail. But that’s the goal, the calling the Lord has given to me and to all husbands, one we can only achieve through Him. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Monday, February 11, 2019

You Are What You Decide

Have you ever heard the saying, “You are what you eat”? With obesity now at what some experts term epidemic proportions, we see many walking, talking examples of that. What about, “You are what you read”? What we choose to put into our minds, as with what we put into our bodies, can make a huge difference in how we view the world around us. I’d suggest another one: “You are what you decide.”

There are many aspects of this. I recall as a young adult how excited I was to receive my first credit card. I could buy whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted it! Sadly, I failed to consider the downsides of my spending decisions – high interest rates and growing balances each month that I couldn’t pay off. As a consequence, I joined the hordes of people encumbered with credit card debt. 

I didn’t realize it at the time, but deciding to acquire things I wanted but really couldn’t afford fit me for the biblical warning, “The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender” (Proverbs 22:7). Thankfully, years later I learned what the Bible teaches about money management. I and my wife (who inherited my debt when we married) received financial counseling based on those principles. We decided to begin the process of slowly getting rid of that debt, and over the years have saved thousands of dollars in interest that would have accrued.

Other decisions over the course of my life also have made an incredible difference in who I am today. I started college in Houston, Texas, where my English instructor encouraged me in the direction of professional writing. Following up on that, I transferred to (the) Ohio State University, where I majored in journalism. Upon graduation, my career in writing and editing was launched at a small newspaper in central Ohio. It wasn’t my dream job, but it turned out to be a critical career decision.

Looking at my vocational path after that, I’m not certain it was guided so much by my own decisions as it was decisions God made for me. As the passage I later adopted as my life verse instructs, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him – and He will direct your paths” (Proverbs 3:5-6). That has certainly proved true for me.

While at that first newspaper, I met a young woman with two children and we started dating. Within a year we decided to marry. Although we’ve endured our share of bumps along the way, we’ve enjoyed more than 44 years of marriage. She’s been every bit the “completer” or “helpmate” that God promised when He said in Genesis 2:18, “It is not good for man to be alone.”

Without a doubt, the greatest, most profound decision I have ever made – or will make – in my life has been to receive Jesus Christ into my life as Savior and Lord. As it says in John 1:12, “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” After many years of passive, intellectual belief, making a decision based on faith to follow Jesus has changed my life in ways I could never have imagined or even hoped.

These are some of the radical, life-changing decisions I’ve made in my life, ones that have shaped who I have become. But every day we make smaller, yet very significant decisions that influence our attitudes as well as our actions. 

A friend of mine used to say, “You can’t stop birds from flying over your head – but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.” We’re bombarded daily with negativity, when it’s the news – as my pastor recently called it, “Bad Morning America”; poisonous messages on social media; inconsiderate texts and emails; or just hostile people in the supermarket checkout line. Unexpected problems threaten to ruin our day.

We can decide to let these diverse messages manipulate our minds, making us just as miserable as many of the folks we encounter. Or we can decide instead to do as the apostle Paul exhorted. For instance, in Romans 12:2 he wrote, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” One paraphrase puts it this way: “Don’t let the world shape you into its mold.”

Elsewhere the apostle instructed his followers, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about these things” (Philippians 4:8). Some of us are “glass half full” thinkers: others are more inclined toward “glass half empty.” But even the most positive thinker, if not careful, can become sucked into the darkening gloom that seeks to envelop us. 

Ultimately, we’re the deciders of what we let affect our thinking. As Proverbs 23:7 tells us, "For as he thinks in his heart, so is he." The decision, big or small, is ours. And to large measure, what we will be is determined by what we decide.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Pen Mightier Than a Sword? Um, What’s a Pen?

As a writer, pens have been as important for my “toolbox” as hammers for a carpenter, wrenches for a plumber, brushes for a painter, or a scalpel for a surgeon. Despite technological advances, pens remain for me welcomed companions.

I learned to type in high school. Then in journalism school we were taught to compose stories with fingers on the keys. At this very moment, sitting at a computer, my thoughts coalesce much more easily once my fingertips connect with the keyboard. Nevertheless, keyboards haven’t entirely replaced pens for my writing. 

Since tape recorders aren’t always dependable, whenever I interview someone for an article or a book, I resort to pen and notepad. More than one pen, because most don’t come with “low on ink” alerts.

So when I see or hear news reports about schools no longer teaching cursive writing, it’s sad. Just think of the things we are losing: "pen" pals; meaning for the saying, "The pen is mightier than the sword"; authors with "pen names." But what we're losing most is the capacity for thoughtful expression, presented in our unique form and style, known as penmanship.

With computers, smartphones and tablets we quickly click off our communications. Sometimes too quickly. We blurt (through fingertips) what’s on our minds, hit “Send,” and at the speed of cyberspace, it’s off to the intended audience. Sometimes with unintended consequences. If we’d paused to consider what we were transmitting and its potential impact, we might have waited. Speed and convenience aren’t ideal determinants for effective communication. 

But what’s best about handwriting is its personal touch and distinctiveness. Someone else could sit at my computer and write you an email on my behalf, and you might not be the wiser. Same with texts from my iPhone. But if I take the time and energy to sit, pen in hand, and write a personal note or (gasp!) a full letter, you could probably tell it was from me. It’s unlikely anyone would forge my writing to send you a thank-you note.

There’s one more reason I mourn when I hear about kids no longer being taught cursive writing. Some of the most important documents of mankind were written by hand: The Magna Carta. Our U.S. Constitution. Can you imagine, years from now, students – and politicians – unable to read the Constitution because they can’t read in cursive? Maybe that’s already happening.

The Bible in its original Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic languages was written and painstakingly copied by hand, then translated into English in the same way. The Ten Commandments were handwritten too – by the hand of God.

Handwriting was used to demonstrate legitimacy of the scriptural documents. In a letter to believers in the Greek city of Thessalonica, the apostle Paul noted, “I, Paul, write these greetings in my own hand, which is the distinguishing mark in all my letters This is how I write” (2 Thessalonians 3:17). To the church in the city of Colossae, he penned these words: “I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand. Remember my chains. Grace be with you” (Colossians 4:18).

To Christ followers in Galatia, Paul wrote, “See what large letters I use as I write to you in my own hand!” (Galatians 6:11). And consider how much the written Word was cherished even in the early Church: “Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11). No printing presses back then.

The Old Testament gives examples of Israelite leaders remembering God’s decrees and faithfulness as they read time-honored, handwritten prophecies passed down through the generations. This sometimes prompted them to lead their headstrong people to repentance.

We even find examples of prophets who consumed the words of God. For example, the prophet Jeremiah wrote, “When your words came, I ate them; they were my joy and my heart’s delight, for I bear your name, O Lord God Almighty” (Jeremiah 15:16). 

This isn’t telling us to physically consume the pages of our Bibles, but we should internalize the truths God has given us through His Word. And just think: its original writings weren’t delivered via email, Word document, text or smartphone app. The Lord cared enough to make sure they were written to us personally, by hand.

“Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:20-21).

So, seems to me it’s not a good idea to curse cursive writing. If anything, in these depersonalized times, the more personal we can be, the better.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Listening – and Other ‘Lost Arts’

Have you ever thought about the “lost arts” of our society? Take for example, letter writing. When was the last time you received a handwritten letter from someone? Or even a personalized note that didn’t come via email or text? 

Along the same vein, another lost art is cursive writing – you know, the ability to create words and sentences  in flowing script. Someone has quipped that some of the newly elected members of Congress probably can’t read the U.S. Constitution, “because it’s written in cursive.” We hear so much debate about the Left and the Right, but we’ve forgotten how to write.

Have you ever tried climbing
the Listening LADDER?
You can probably think of other lost arts, but one that comes to my mind is listening. Partly because I don’t do it nearly as diligently as I should. (As my wife could easily confirm.) But even more because it’s increasingly evident that fewer and fewer people have any interest in listening. They only want to be heard by others.

The problem is, people to whom they are directing their complaints, protests and general whining aren’t listening either. They may “hear” words being spoken, because hearing is a physical activity. But to listen requires mental exertion – willingness not only to receive sounds but also to pay heed to what they mean.

So what does it take to truly listen, as opposed to simply hearing what people say? Years ago as an adjunct professor in business communications for a couple of colleges, one of my handouts was the “LADDER Concept for Active Listening.” It was a useful tool back then, and given the times and tensions we’re in, it could be even more useful today. Here it is:

·       Look at the person
·       Ask for clarification
·       Don’t interrupt just because you think you have something to say.
·       Don’t change the subject.
·       Express what you feel.
·       Respond and give feedback.

Each of the six principles of this LADDER acronym is pretty much self-explanatory, but I think if we each resolved to observe and practice them consistently, we – and our world – would be much better off. The Bible agrees, because it says a lot about the art of listening, and what happens when it’s lost.

Perhaps one of the most direct admonitions in the Scriptures comes from James 1:19, which says, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” The tendency today is for people to be quick to tell others what they think and express when and why they’re mad. But not nearly as eager or adept at listening to what others have to tell us.

As someone astutely observed, God gave us two ears (for hearing), two eyes (for seeing) – and only one mouth (for speaking). Perhaps there’s good reason for that ratio.

In another passage, the apostle Paul wrote to those he was discipling, “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice”  (Philippians 4:9). Seems he assumed they were actually listening to him, observing his actions and giving serious consideration to those things.

As I’ve written on other occasions, the book of Proverbs tells us much about communications, speaking and listening. But I always return to my favorite verse because it says so much in just a handful of words: “When there are many words, transgression is not avoidable, but he who restrains his lips is wise” (Proverbs 10:19). When we refrain from speaking – as well as getting ready to speak – it’s amazing how much easier it is to listen.

It certainly won’t help to pass legislation requiring people to practice the LADDER Concept for Active Listening, but as Paul wrote, there’s nothing stopping us from serving as good examples for others to learn from and observe. I won’t make it a resolution, because chances are 10 minutes from now I’ll break it. But I do plan to make climbing this “ladder” a goal, one to work on and strive to do better every day. Want to join me?