Friday, September 30, 2011

Hidden Things

We all carry it within us; supreme strength, the fullness of wisdom, unquenchable joy. It is never thwarted and cannot be destroyed. But it is hidden deep, which is what makes life a problem – Huston Smith

How does one lose touch of one’s strength, wisdom, and joy?

Is it the sands of time, simply pouring down that glass funnel grain by grain that drains us imperceptibly as we slug our way through life’s daily drill? Is it inattention, carelessness, erosion, or corrosion?

Do we lose touch, or do we simply fail to plumb the depths of our souls to reach and tap the resources that are there, hidden beneath our feet (pun nearly intended)?

Whichever the case, the character traits we most desire are there. They are available to each and every one of us. We can bear the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, happiness; or we can bear the fruit of hamartia (human hubris, or sin): sloth, lust, anger, pride, envy, gluttony, or greed.

When looking to see which fruit we will bear, it is helpful to note that the fruit we get depends on the tree we plant. No fig farmer plants fig trees with hopes of growing almonds. Likewise, no one sowing discord should expect to be rewarded with peace.

The Bible teaches us that we were created in the image of God. I don’t worry about whether or not God created us in six literal days, six figurative days, or over the course of millions of years.

God is eternal, so I don’t think God was in an all-fired rush to finish the project in less than a week; and considering how we turned out, if God had rushed us into production, perhaps it would have been wiser to have taken a bit more time in the design phase of the operation.

God doesn’t make mistakes, so I am satisfied knowing that we are here and that our purpose in life is to reflect the glory of God and to bear fruit fit for the King (by which I mean YHWH, not Elvis).

Now, getting back to our topic (hidden strengths, wisdom, and joy), it seems that our goal ought to be one of finding those characteristics deep within that enrich our lives and fortify our ties with one another. How do we find them? How do we regain them if once we have lost them? Can we regain them? Can we find them? Are they there, or have they gone away, lost, broken, and forever destroyed?

I truly believe they are there, just as surely as our body has muscles. They may atrophy from lack of use, and yet if one goes about exercising, muscle mass can be restored to the degree one’s body is able to do it (all things being equal). The key to building physical strength is a proper diet, drinking plenty of fluids, exercising, and getting adequate rest for repairs and restoration.

Likewise, the key to recovering one’s inner strength, making wise decisions, and finding greater joy in life is to know those treasures are there. They simply need to be fed, exercised, and nurtured in a community of compassion and caring.

If life is such a routine that you’re unaware of the presence of supreme strength, wisdom, or joy, it is possible that you have come to a plateau; having leveled off you are no longer challenged by things that come your way. It is also possible that you haven’t actually hit the plateau, but have simply stopped climbing – perhaps “given up” on ever finding peace, joy, or the thrill of accomplishment.

It is at that point one would do well to consider engaging in a stretching exercise. What would you like to do, but don’t think you have the ability to accomplish – at least not without some help?

I do not think it is an accident that people live in communities (husband/wife, families, neighbors, and nations). We were made that way – to cheer one another on, to lift one another up, and to be more than we can be when we’re alone. So find someone who may share your passion for that “thing” and see if you can’t work together to accomplish it.

See if it doesn’t make you stronger, more confident, and (perhaps) more joyful in this, our world. Peace, friends.

Sunday, September 25, 2011


One of the deep secrets of life is that all that is really worth doing is what we do for others – LEWIS CAROL

I am a big fan of good customer service. When I go into the credit union where Barb and I do our banking, we know the clerks and the clerks know us. We’ve only been customers there for a short time, and yet they know us by name. I am amazed by that, as I have always been horrible with names. I know many people, and I know lots of names, and yet I struggle in putting the two together; so I am always impressed with those who’ve developed the skills to do so with ease.

The folks in the credit union help us take care of business, and they do so in style and with a smile, and I like that.

On the other hand, our other bank has a different feel to it. The cashiers smile, but it always strikes me as a pose. I am sure they want to be friendly, but it feels like they’re following a script they got out of a seminar. The people at the bank stand behind their bullet-proof windows smiling, and we exchange inane pleasantries each can barely hear through the baffles of the Plexiglas. In the end, when you’re done, you leave feeling like you’ve just had a chat with a walking, talking ATM. They get the job done, and they do so with respiration and a pulse, but to what purpose?

That’s not to say they are feigning friendliness, but rather that it simply feels artificial and strained. It’s not bad; it just isn’t particularly warm or pleasant.

I don’t think you can teach “warm and pleasant.” I think you either are or you aren’t.

Ironically, I don’t care whether a person I am dealing with is warm and pleasant or cold and aloof. I want the people I deal with to be genuine. Maybe a “study” somewhere has said that customers desire friendly agents when they go into a bank or store (and it would be strange to think someone would prefer the cold fish over the cuddly teddy bear), but what I want is a real person.

Real people are hard to find.

Most people live behind layers of protections – facades shielding them from the slings and arrows of life. Human beings learn over time that in order to get what they want they must give or be what others expect, and so their souls are bent, twisted, shifted, and squeezed until their essence is all but unrecognizable from what God ever intended them to be.

One of the challenges in life is learning to accept one another at face value. There is no reason for you to be other than who you are. If you’re working, I do expect you to know how to do your job properly; but if you’re having a bad day, I don’t want you to fake a smile. I don’t necessarily want to be your therapist if you’re hurting or grieving when all I want to do is buy a gallon of milk or pair of socks, but I do want to be enough aware of your pain to put your present need ahead of my superficial desire for “service with a smile.”

Many people don’t care what’s happening to you in your life; perhaps that is true of most people; I don’t know. I cannot answer for the majority. I can only speak for myself and for what I like and for what I want, and what I have found is that as long as I focus on being someone (or something) other than myself, I am living a lie – and that’s just not good, right, or healthy.

The Bible says, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” That is both radical and frightening, because it requires a level of transparency and honesty the world has rejected from time immemorial.

The challenge for us is to dare to peel away the Botox, Plexi, and Kevlar behind which we hide until the glory of God that dwells within is allowed to shine forth brightly, freely, and purely – even on a gloomy day. It’s a risk worth taking, and it’s our joyous service in this, our world.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Bring Honor and Glory

He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how. – Friedrich Nietzsche

Back in the day when I had the luxury of time, I would ponder such weighty questions as: “Why we are here”, “What is the point”, or “Does anything matter?”

Those inquiries seemed weighty at the time, but I suspect the questions appeared to have heft simply because the gray matter meditating on them was pretty light and fluffy in contrast to them.

This brain hasn’t become any more firm, but some could reasonably argue it has become more dense. Be that as it may, I have found over the course of my life that such questions are better left to theologians and philosophers, as my time is more wisely spent simply living in the knowledge that life does exist and, the “why” is less important than the “that”.

If one bothers to read the Westminster Shorter Catechism, she may learn there that a person’s chief end is “… to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” That is actually as much “why” as one needs. Our job, if I rightly understand the WSC, is to do all we can to bring all glory, laud, and honor to God through our manner of living and being.

That’s easier said than done, of course. First of all, not everything I do brings honor and glory to God. Sometimes I have a bad attitude; sometimes I live carelessly and behave thoughtlessly. I can use the old excuse (tried and true) that I am, after all, only human; but I also know that having been created in the image of God, falling short is a taint on that image – being “less” than human, not “only” human. So I have to acknowledge those short-comings.

Secondly, there are times my intentions are good and noble, but the execution leaves a bit to be desired. A friend or loved one has surgery, or is in crisis and I have every intention of calling, or sending a card, or doing something that might indicate my concern; and yet times passes and the call’s not made, the card’s not bought (let alone sent), and the status of my concern isn’t communicated with anything more concrete than a vague intention stuck or buried somewhere between the frontal lobe and derriere.

If our purpose in life is to bring honor and glory to God, I have learned that one needs to grow up – to mature – and to convert intentions into action, and to transform selfish, thoughtless, and careless living into careful, thoughtful, and shared life with others.

What does that mean? What does that look like? How does one do it?

First of all, it requires us to be aware that we are not alone. There is no “I” without there also being a “we”. The things we say and do impact others whether we intend them to or not.

Sadly, there is no simple test to determine whether the things we do are helpful or unhelpful, loving or unloving. We can only know by speaking to one another and talking with one another and asking what impact our decisions and actions are having so that we can discern, together, a “better way” (as the Bible puts it).

This, in a word, is called humility. Humility says there is a God, and that I’m not him. Humility isn’t being put down or humiliated, but being right sized in one’s attitudes and actions.

“I cannot do all things, but I can do some things” is the attitude of a humble mind.

I cannot call someone every day, but I can certainly call someone (or send a note, text message, or email) when he or she comes to mind. I cannot stop a loved one from making mistakes or getting hurt, but I can be there to help pick up the pieces when they fall or fail. I cannot reverse Wall Street’s greed or undo political corruption, but I can be honest in my own dealings with persons and institutions, and challenge injustice when I see it.

To live is to be connected; to be alive is to work on improving those connections; and to bring glory to God is to do whatever puts a smile on God’s face. The “how” is a joy to discover in this, our world.

Monday, September 12, 2011


The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be either good or evil. Hannah Arendt

Some years ago – more than a century ago – there was a major outbreak of Yellow Fever in the city of Memphis. More than 5,100 people died of the mosquito-borne disease (somewhat akin to Ebola). The city lost its charter as people fled in a great exodus; but not everyone left town.

We read in Wikipedia: “When the 1878 epidemic struck, a number of priests and nuns (both Protestant and Catholic), doctors—and even a bordello owner, Annie Cook—stayed behind to tend to the sick and dying, despite the high risk of contracting the disease, which often resulted in a painful death. The Episcopal nuns' superior, Sister Constance, three other Episcopal nuns, and two Episcopal priests are known throughout the Anglican Communion as "Constance and Her Companions" or, informally, the "Martyrs of Memphis". Added to the Episcopal Church's Lesser Feasts and Fasts in 1981, their feast day (September 9) commemorates their sacrifices.”

As we remember the awful events of 9/11, it seems appropriate to remember that not all religious fanatics are created equal. I read a poster online that says, “Science flies you to the moon, Religion flies you into buildings.”

After 9/11, it is hard not to be put off by religious fanatics, to think of them solely as being evil, and to live in fear of them – or terror; but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Fanatics are enthusiasts – people dedicated to a cause. That cause does NOT have to be a desire to kill, maim, or harm others. Some sports fans are certainly violent hooligans, but they are the exception to the rule; the vast majority of fans are folks who simply enjoy a particular sport to a great degree, and who bear witness to their enthusiasm by purchasing game tickets, sports memorabilia, team gear, and the like.

If one wants to identify all religious fanatics with the likes of the Taliban or their ilk, one certainly may, but the truth is that the honest-to-goodness religious fanatics are people like you and me – folks who go through life striving to be good, decent, and productive members of society.

We do not ask much of one another, except to be honest. We do not think of ourselves as heroes or religious superstars. We rise up in the morning, do what needs to be done, have a bit of fun if possible, unwind as best we can, and then get some rest so we can get up and do it all over again the next day.

We don’t think of ourselves as fanatics because we aren’t overly invested in winning or losing. We don’t consider the things we do to be all that sacrificial. It’s no sacrifice to phone a friend to see how they’re doing. It’s not all that burdensome to take a meal to someone who’s sick. It’s not all that spectacular to politely share the road with well-mannered and crazies alike.

None of that looks fanatical – or fantastical – and yet it is. The very things we take for granted, like courtesy, paying our bills, yielding the right of way (even when we don’t legally have to) are the consequence of yielding to One to whom we will one day give account for the decisions we’ve made and the lives we’ve led.

To “bear witness” is to be a martyr. One doesn’t have to die to bear witness; on the contrary, one has to live. Our lives bear witness to what we believe. The Martyrs of Memphis made it clear that they considered it supremely important to bring comfort to others despite the mortal danger it put them in.

We live in a day and an age where suffering is more often than not a consequence of decisions made for the sake of greed and corruption. The worst thing we can do is run away in the hopes of finding a better, safer place to call home, or to sit silently on the sidelines hoping things will improve through magic.

The world only improves when life’s fanatics roll up their sleeves to tackle life’s problems head on with love and courage. So be good in this, our world.

Saturday, September 3, 2011


Image Source:

Change is inevitable; but improvement is optional (Anonymous).

You will often hear it said that people don’t like change, and on the face of it, it is easy to find examples to prove the point.

Whose skin doesn’t crawl when they see a banner scrawled across a beloved product: New and Improved? We grumble and grouse, “But I liked it the way it was!”

We complain, but in reality most people appreciate change when it represents a genuine improvement over what is or what was.

When facing the heat of summer or winter’s icy blast, I am glad we have cars and trucks with modern luxuries-cum-necessities such as air conditioning and anti-lock brakes. I like it when I go to the doctor with an ache or pain and they have a magic bullet that can heal something that might have been incurable a decade or two ago.

I like the fact that we no longer have rivers that catch fire, and that while we still have too much trash littering our highways and byways, that the amount of litter on the roadside seems to be less despite the population of our nation having doubled since my birth.

I like going into a restaurant and not having to ask for a seat in the non-smoking section. In fact, I am sure laws that make smoking more and more inconvenient are doing far more to reduce smoke-related illnesses than the Surgeon General warning labels in all their iterations over the past few decades.

Those are all good things. Those are changes most can appreciate, and if one change is falling short, one can continue to improve the quality of life for Self and for Neighbor by asking the simple question: What more can I do?

The issue of change, and specifically how one responds to change, has less to do with the nature of change, as such, but with how we perceive it. If one feels a change is being imposed, our instinct is to rebel or to fight it, but do we need to?

One may assert that change is painful and that change imposed by someone else is unjust or unfair, but I would have to ask whether it is change that is causing the pain, or if the problem really isn’t one’s resistance to what’s happening that’s causing the irritation.

Sometimes we need help to make the changes necessary for an improved life. The psalmist says, “Incline my heart to your decrees and not to unjust gain. Turn my eyes from watching what is worthless; give me life in your ways” (Psalm 119:36-37).

He asks God to “incline his heart” because (I suspect) his nature is DIS-inclined to do what is right. His inclination is towards “unjust gain.” That’s what he really wants. His heart is ego-driven; it is all “me-me-me.” To improve his connection with God, he acknowledges his need for help. “Incline my heart” is an imperative – a “make me!”

We don’t have to fight change. We can embrace it. Why should it matter whether change is being directed or ordered from a friend, colleague, spouse, child, parent, superior, official, or a complete stranger? If the path I am on or the choices I am making are taking me down the road that leads to rack or ruin, it is a kindness when someone points it out.

A man I know has a Japanese character tattooed on the back of his head. I asked him what it is and he said, “It is a Kanji symbol for ‘Change’ because I need to change my life, and the only way I’m going to do that is if I keep it forever on the back of my mind.”

I don’t know if I want to change enough to get anything printed on the back of my head, but I appreciate the sentiment. Change doesn’t have to be painful or awkward, nor does it have to be imposed. On the contrary, it is something we can seek.

By looking for ways to change, we can eliminate the heartache of imposition. We can choose to become the people God wants us to be: inclined to do good wherever we are, and no matter what. That would be a good thing for us here in this, our world. After all, what more can we do?