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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Not By Letter, But By Spirit

As a Christian I am uneasy about claims to exclusivity regarding the validity of my religion and the invalidity of all others.  Perhaps some here will mention that even the devil can quote scripture, but I will begin the discussion of my point of view in this matter quoting from John: And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father (14:13 NIV).  To me this scripture clearly should not be taken on a stupid level—that level being that simply the mention of “Christ” in a prayer guarantees the results I want even if I ask it in the spirit of the antichrist.  Clearly Jesus had to mean by “ask in my name” that one ask in the spirit of Christ.   Even a more restrictive passage must mean fundamentally the same: Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6 NIV).  This cannot mean “no one comes to the Father except through me” no matter how they perceive Christ—knowing the vulnerabilities and vagaries of the human mind, Christ even can be seen as a racist.  Our perception of reality must be like Jesus’s perception—based essentially on this: Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40 NIV). This week in Saint Petersburg a collection of many faiths gathered at a Christian church to discuss how to apply the disciplines of love practically in Pinellas County.  The group had done their homework.  Facts and figures had been complied regarding graduation rates and reading levels, for example.  Members of the group were actively taking ownership of problems in the community.  From my point of view, they were doing God’s work in the spirit of Christ whether Christian, Muslim, or Buddhist.  Certainly they were following in the spirit of the way if compared to a meeting of a hate group; no matter what banner it unfurled—even a Christian one.

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Stanley’s Inner Strength

Stanley Admonishing Me at Quaker Lake

When was the last time someone “read you the riot act”?  What had you done wrong?  How did it feel to be soundly rebuked?  Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, p.1720.

For the answer to this question I like to picture the typical reaction of several dogs to being rebuked.  One dog will typically put his tail between his legs.  Another will lash out in anger.  While a third, like my dog Stanley, forgives me for my anger and goes on happily about his business.  My earnest desire is to follow the example of Stanley.

When rebuked the first response on my part should be one of forgiveness.  This is essential for (whether in the right or wrong) I will reflexively want to assume the stance of righteous indignation.  This is a bad response for if I am really in the wrong this shields me from beneficial correction; and if I am in the right a “holier than thou” attitude will totally confound my ability to be in anyway persuasive.  I love Stanley most of all for his ability to carry on happily while under attack.  Somehow this gives me great confidence in knowing that his self-image is sturdy and is not dependent upon being constantly reinforced by my unrelieved approval.  His maintenance of cheerfulness even while attacked (again, no matter how justified or unjustified) profoundly reassures me of his inner strength while giving me permission to honestly express myself not fearful that he will crushed on the one hand, or unduly influenced on the other.  This, and on many other points, Stanley outshines me in moral fiber and inherent integrity.

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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Role of Defiance in Breaking Addictions

Before a lifestyle change about six weeks ago, I was addicted to overeating.  On a typical evening some hours after supper, I would sit before the TV and eat a whole box of high caloric crackers or bag of chips.  An apparent motive for this behavior was that it “felt good.”  I was getting pleasure from the experience of eating food.  But, a more challenging question is: what was the implicit reason supporting the explicit one?  The consumption of food in excessive and unhealthy amounts must be seen as a symbolic act.  The basic question is, not what did the practice feel like as much as what did it mean?  What was basically driving the behavior?  On this most fundamental level, eating badly symbolized blatant rebellion—I could willfully act against all common sense and my doctor’s advice and warnings to boot.  I could take charge and not accept things as they are.  The key to a healthy lifestyle change is the redrafting of meaning—becoming defiantly in charge in a different way.  Both stances are underwritten by blatant “highs” based on defiance—one thrills to defiance of facts and warnings, the other thrills to defiance of delusions and falsehood.  Both are strong affirmations of personal will and thus bring pleasure.  It is life changing when it can be seen that we are not reluctantly caving in to facts and reality, but deliberately embracing them—not weakly accepting truth, but defiantly doing so.  The end of addiction occurs when we stop rebelling against reality and start rebelling against delusion and phoniness—when positive lifestyle changes can bring the thrill of defiance as surely as negative ones. 

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Sunday, February 26, 2012

Is God a Thug?

The attributes of God ascribed though the centuries and the attributes of the world as we know it indicates that God is a thug.  If God is all powerful then he’s a thug for allowing all types of natural tragedies. For example, if God is all powerful he’s a thug for allowing tsunamis to kill thousands.  If God is all powerful then he’s a thug for allowing a young child to die of cancer.  If God is all powerful then he’s a thug for allowing evil to have its will in a million ways today and throughout much of history. This includes every type of crime foisted on innocents by the perpetrators of evil.  The inescapable conclusion—if God is all powerful, then to stand by and allow any and all of these things inescapably means he’s a thug.

The only relief from this stark understanding is to factor in another attribute of God—that of being all knowing.  “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD.  “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8,9 NIV).  In other words, as far as the action or inaction of God is concerned, from the point of view of man much is destined to remain a mystery.

To illustrate this we can look at how man typically constructs a canal—as straight as humanly possible.  This can be contrasted with natural rivers which are often meandering and indirect.  Man seeks the most direct way, God characteristically does not.  This can also be seen in the way that wisdom is typically attained through arduous learning and experience (often after much hardship and suffering).  We can be resentful that wisdom comes at so great a cost—why couldn’t we just be born with it?  In his wisdom God assigns a more circuitous and perplexing route.

It can be seen that power—even infinite power—has its inherent and inescapable limitations due to the principle of counterproductivity active within creation. (An excessive application of power can have diminishing returns and ultimately do more harm than good.)  God must deal with this paradox of power and his wisdom in doing so extends well beyond human understanding.  Our God, unlike Zeus, does not eradicate every problem with a bolt from the blue.  It takes wisdom to exercise power and infinite wisdom to exercise infinite power.  Thus, the appropriate stance of humanity before the wisdom of God is humility and worship.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

So Easily Intimidated

John Mitchell
This afternoon on Amazon Prime I watched the movie All the President’s Men.  The movie brought back memories of John Mitchell, H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and of course Richard Nixon.  All of these men struck me at the time as being intimidating; in fact I wrote a poem about them called the “Chromium Men.”  I’m sure I would have found them daunting, most definitely in the President’s Oval Office and, more tellingly, even if I had encountered them as locals holding forth in conversation around some potbellied stove in a remote country store.  It is with chagrin that I admit being easily intimidated by people with an air of authority—people who in their own bones are deeply convinced of their own preeminence.  This trait alone often carries them far when enabled by people like me.  Some people when I am in their presence seem to convey that there is a pecking order and that I am hopeless further down in that order than they; and I, rather than challenging it, acquiesce and become complicit in their conviction.  Perhaps it comes from perceiving that the task of donning equality in their presence would be futile and even somehow dangerous (the President’s men did, after all, resort to “dirty tricks” and worse).  That such acquiescence is bad for everybody and possible outcomes is undeniable.  In days of analogue clocks we used to say that even a stopped clock is right twice a day; in other words anyone can be right now and then and anyone can be wrong despite the certitude of their ego.  Perhaps in his early days, if John Mitchell had encountered people with the guts to demur from his ingrained conviction of natural superiority, he may have become more humble and in due time not wiped out and dishonored himself and his associates.  The recent death of Whitney Houston (she was definitely not chromium, but certainly golden) and the circumstances surrounding it serve to remind us that everyone is equally human despite our own complicity in manufacturing the fiction of unassailability.  The responsibility is almost a moral one to telegraph to the self-enchanted that an air of authority, like everything else in excess, can lead to self-destruction.

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Friday, February 24, 2012

Islands in the Sea

Are you more likely to err on the side of doing what you shouldn’t or not doing what you should?  Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, p.1712.

Sometimes I visualize the wrongs I have committed as islands in the sea.  The expanse of the sea, however, represents all those things I should have done but didn’t.  There is no room in this picture for self-righteousness of any sort.  Law abiding society can often be very harsh and self-righteous in its treatment of law breakers while being totally indulgent of those blind to exigent moral imperatives. [Moral imperative: something that must happen because it is the right thing. Example: Tackling the issue of poverty is a moral imperative. (Macmillan Dictionary)].  In fact, in the latter case the attitude typically is that there is nothing to forgive.  I do not argue here for making the perceptually purblind in the presence of moral imperatives criminals, I just plead for more humility and grace on the part of those addicted to selective morality.  Jesus said it is difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom of God (Luke 18 NIV).  “Rich” is not only a condition of wealth but also a state of mind in which we insist on being in the driver’s seat—the presiding judge of who is worthy and who is not.  In such a position, we inherently are impervious to self-evaluation and shame.  Sometimes it seems we pride ourselves in being brand new clothes and consequently are a little on the stiff side.  Much suppleness can be gained from a good washing in the rough and tumble of life.

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Thursday, February 23, 2012

Honest Commitments

When did your dad promise a fishing trip, a ballgame or a graduation present and then fail to deliver?  How did that make you feel?  Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, p.1709.

The basic question is: How does one lovingly decline to disingenuously or profligately promise—to make empty promises?  The answer is in the question itself for one can never make empty promises when true, humble love is the engine of a relationship.  The ultimate source of insincere promises is self-love.  An empty promise is designed to bolster one’s own popularity and standing rather than to meet the most basic needs and desires of others.  Ironically, a sense of reliable security and foundational love is generated more from an honest acknowledgement of limitations than from a prideful inability to admit them. Telling others whatever in the short-term pleases them (or as the Bible says tickles their ears) when in fact uncertainly or infeasibility actually prevails will in the long run create resentment and cynicism, and even worse, bring into question the genuineness of one’s love and commitment.  As relationships with others should not include empty promises, neither should self-dialogue include them.  Making empty promises to oneself will in the long run undermine one’s self-concept.  A track record of realized commitments underwrites tenable self-confidence while a record of failed unrealistic commitments undercuts it. So, how should we respond when there is immense pressure to over-promise?  We should acknowledge the strong desires and wishes of others without pandering to them with empty promises.  One can say, for example, to a child who wants to go to Disney World when the family budget will not allow it: “We can’t afford it son, and I’m sorry, for I know how much a visit would mean to you.  Space Mountain would be totally awesome.  Maybe someday we can go depending on how good business is, but we just can’t now.”  How preferable this is to caving in to pressure and making a flippant promise to go in the summer, then reneging on that promise.  The first shows love of the son, the second shows a selfish desire to be popular and liked at the cost of respect, honesty, and even familial love itself. 

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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

By Proxy

“By Proxy” defined: The ability to do or be something without actually physically doing it. (Source:

Certainly one of the niftiest inventions of man is the concept and actuality of doing or being “by proxy.”  Especially this is true in matters that have unpleasant aspects.  An enumeration of examples include the slaughtering and butchering of animals; the casualties and cruel necessities of military action; the maintenance of an uninterrupted flow of sewage; dirty deals made in politics and business with benefits flowing to constituents and customers; laying off or firing of workers; embalmers at their somber trade; the harvest of crops by migrant labor; drug lords who remain insulated while having underlings do the dirty work; a whole array of dangerous, low esteem, and shunned chores of all kinds.  All these tasks can be accomplished not by physically performing them personally, but by proxy.  As perhaps an unfair example, I imagine a Victorian scene at the occasion of an aristocratic tea replete with immaculate silver service and daintily lifted tea cups.  While the attendees preen themselves in respectability and make much display of accomplished manners signifying unassailable superiority, the toiling masses in the grime of poverty and unrelieved bondage labor in anonymity to make the occasion possible.  The undergirding work was done by proxy and the beneficiaries are remotely and safely detached from the realities of production.  The “by proxy” device functions to insulate us from many painful undergirding’s of the “good life.”  It is worth contemplating what changes there would be in society and in history itself if the masked enabler “by proxy” did not exist.  The essential service it provides is the sustenance of unsurpassed respectability and nonchalance even as rude realities are carefully concealed.

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Leaving Well Enough Alone

If you could live to be 100, but could retain either the body or the mind of a 30-year-old, which would you choose?  Why?  (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, p.1685.

When I look back to when I was thirty, I see much anxiety and not a little unhappiness.  This came from deep-seated fears that I would not be able to measure up in my career or in my personal life.  The world offered many challenges, and I was filled with self-doubt.  Now that I’m sixty-eight, these dark fears have cleared and as I inexorably approach death ironically I see sunny skies.  The anxieties, the “nervousness” of being young and restless has greatly diminished.  I find my current level of contentment, self-confidence, and self-acceptance producing a much preferable state of mind.  Thus at 100, I would far prefer having my current mind within the body of a 30-year-old.  An interesting question is even if doable, would this be wise; to what extent was my “nervousness” a product of the hormones and neural circuits of a 30-year-old?  In short, would retaining the body of necessity entail retaining an unsettled mental state?  If I had the body of 30, would I simply discount what I have attained and up the ante with new ambitions and mountains to climb that in my present configuration I do not contemplate or even conceive?  Would my former anxieties and unhappiness thus return with a vengeance?  Sometimes when I get up in the morning feeling arthritis in my bones, I think I would be willing to chance it anyway.  

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Monday, February 20, 2012

The Specter of Materialism

It is not only the rich that can worship possession of material things.  In some ways it is a greater threat to the poor who see riches from afar and think that the solution of all their problems is money and the things it can buy.  A hot set of wheels for many in poverty is the epitome of foundational happiness.  It represents the shortcut to self-esteem; never mind that one is a school dropout.  Education, after all, is not an end in itself, but only the means to get rich.  The product of education thus is not priceless intangibles embodied in qualities of thought and judgment; it is rather simply one means to a materialistic end.  If that end becomes blocked, then lawlessness will do just as well.  Of course this mentality can have its mirror image in the successful college graduate who likewise only viewed higher education as a highway to wealth.  Both share the same one-dimensional view and both can have a very damaging impact upon the health and welfare of a society.  When ultimate hope is founded in the possession of material riches, the land bereft of higher purposes becomes impoverished and lost in a wilderness of nihilism.  The saving miracles that are products of belief and character then must await a fresh enlightenment.

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Legitimate Authority Empowers

Yesterday in Sunday school we discussed what is essential for authority to be perceived as legitimate.  The perception of authority is strongly tied to emotions.  That is, we feel emotionally rebellious if we perceive that an authority over us is illegitimate. What makes for feelings of legitimacy in power?  The one essential is that we perceive the authority figure over us is seeking to empower us—in this way seeking to share power.  For example, a boss that rides his employees violates this principle.  On the other hand, a boss that affirms it says such things as the following:  “You need to complete this task sometime this week.”  This shares power for it is empowering the employee to have some say over his own schedule (“I will get to it on Wednesday when it best fits into my schedule.”)  An example of the contrary is authority at an assisted living facility that says (in so many words) to a resident “You will eat (or shower, or whatever else) whenever I damn well please and not until.”  This hoards power and is viewed as inconsiderate and illegitimate.  It says to the resident “I really don’t care about you at all.  I only care about myself—and this at your expense.”  (A fundamental technique of torture interrogation is to exercise absolute control over the detainee.)  Legitimate authority always seeks to share and empower others.  One major factor that the U.S. Government maintains an air of legitimacy to its citizenry is the empowerment embodied in the Bill of Rights.  It makes it clear that a fundamental purpose of the government is to secure, share, and protect the power of its citizens. An oft used phrase that encapsulates this is “servant leadership.”  The servant leader is one who serves up and shares power with those under him.  This is viewed not as a gift, but a right—a very profound thing in itself.  (The follower in this case makes it clear that by choice he accedes to the leadership of another.)  Even though we may not be able to adequately detail the “whys” of this equation of power, we know that it is fundamentally essential to a perception of legitimacy and feelings of contentment and happiness.      

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Saturday, February 18, 2012

At the Communion Table: A Puzzle Solved

When did you last experience suddenly understanding something that once confused and puzzled you?  Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, p.1619.

For much of my life I have puzzled over what’s the best approach to Holy Communion.  While at the communion altar, I have thought at one time or another that I should think of the last supper, that I should think of Christians all over the world and throughout history who have taken communion, that I should think of members of my own family, that I should think of my sins and failures committed and forgiven, that I should think of the fellowship within the church congregation I am now a part of, that I should muster my forces for the days ahead.  I knew we frequently referred to communion as a celebration—but as to exactly what I should celebrate was a mystery.  Suddenly last communion service it became very clear to me what should be on my mind, what attitude I should take.  Pure and simple, my thoughts and prayers should express gratitude: gratitude for Jesus revealing for all time that God is love, and showing in practical terms the nature and extent of that love; gratitude that Christ’s love constitutes the essential, fundamental truth for my life, for the world, and for the heavens above; gratitude that I can affirm and live daily within this truth, confidently resting within the arms of redemption protected there from eviscerating nihilism; gratitude for Christ’s death and resurrection, for the blessings of a divine mission and doable tasks, for the gifts of belief and faith, for redemption from death in all its confusing, stultifying, and terrifying forms, for the freedom that only comes with salvation triumphing over the fear and the power of dark principalities and powers found both within and without the human heart.  Communion is an invitation to eternal life and thus the ultimate occasion for gratitude and tears arising from springs of blessedness and peace.  

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Friday, February 17, 2012

Sophistication Redefined

What did you, or do you, refuse to eat or drink?  Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, p.1594).

What I refuse to drink: alcoholic beverages.  Next questions, when—where—how—and why?

During my young adult years, I tried alcoholic beverages perhaps five times.  When I turned 21, a friend and I went to the University Restaurant in Tampa and had a beer or two.  Once I got a bottle of Colt 45 at a convenience store and drank it.  A young lady and I had cocktails at Tampa International Airport—I had a Tom Collins.  Once in Gainesville I had a bottle of beer in a restaurant.  Finally, in the early 70’s a friend and I bought a bottle of whisky at a liquor store near campus and drank some of it in my room.  On all these occasions I was making a symbolic statement that I was free of the restrictions of my teen years at home.  I wanted to feel sophisticated and identify with a cosmopolitan lifestyle.  But having tried it, I felt the effects of alcohol and generally found even mild intoxication was unpleasant and wrong and ran counter to the purposes for which God created me.  I came to realize that clear thinking and acting was what God intended for me.  It seemed a sacrilege to the Almighty to cloud the gift of perception—in its form and extent a unique gift to humanity.  It became clear to me that I had no meaningful inhibitions—that my freedoms were better served by a natural high.  (I also tried cannabis several times with precisely similar results—the positive promise was simply never realized.)  So for many years now, I have been a teetotaler.  This has insured my role as a rebel—not a rebel from my growing up home years, but a rebel to the phony sophistication of alcohol.  The negative impact of alcohol on our society is incalculable.  Ironically, our society’s use of alcohol does not in the long run remove inhibitions, but only serves to reinforce them.  It does not serve to make us sophisticated, but only serves to demean us.  Of course propaganda to the contrary is unrelenting—there are big bucks in the alcohol trade.  The constant barrage of blatant falsehood only serves to condition us for accepting lies and untruth.  My hope is that one day prohibition will return—not as a law, but as a steadfast choice.  My hope is that sophistication will be truly defined and ultimately consummated in clarity of thought and action from which arise true fun and happiness.

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Playing God

If you could be king or queen for a day, what new law would you enact?  (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, p.1572).

Perhaps legislators deeply involved in legislative affairs could immediately come up with practical laws they would like enacted based upon their in-depth appreciation of the intricacies of current affairs.  Not being tied down by the necessities of practicality, I can think of many laws I would like enacted.  They include a law banning positional prejudice in the payment of wages (thus raising the wages of the likes of clerks and migrant workers); a law banning substances that ruin lives though addiction (thus banning alcoholic beverages and tobacco); a law banning guns (they would be legal only for law enforcement officers); a law demanding the immediate release of all people wrongly convicted who are incarcerated or on death row (thus necessitating a law requiring the production and use of totally reliable polygraphs); a law banning the use of military action unless earnest and full attempts at negotiations and other compliance measures have failed;  a law allowing military action only after death and other casualty count estimates—especially of the innocent—are graphically predicted; a law requiring all those who will be parents to undergo a six-week indoctrination of the proper way to raise children with love and discipline; a law banning excessive compensation that corrupts and ruins the health and welfare of the fortunate;  a law establishing the Golden Rule as the bedrock of all other rules; a law establishing conception as the beginning of life—and other laws requiring the recognition of simple facts; a law requiring honesty and truthfulness in all substantive matters;  a law requiring males to sign notarized legal and binding commitments to women and any resulting children before having even casual sexual intercourse—thus recognizing causality and responsibility;  a law requiring all those dealing in deadly street drugs to write a weekly report on the misery, including birth defects, to which they have personally contributed; a law requiring the religiously faithful to affirm that the foundation of their beliefs is in fact faith (not provable fact) and a law requiring atheists to do the same; a law endorsing freedom of religion while mandating the recognition of a set of principles outlining the inadequacies of one-dimensional materialism and selfishness—requiring, in other words, the simple recognition on the part of individuals of a social compact from which by birth in society they are party to; a law detailing the benefits of a work ethic as an expression of creativity and love.  (As with all legislation, any one of the aforementioned laws could be averted by a simple revision of human nature.)  I look forward to all these laws being enacted in the near future for I am sure they portend neither any difficulties nor controversy.

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Thursday, February 16, 2012

My Best Idea

What was the best idea or invention you ever came up with?  How did it turn out?  Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, p. 1557.

A reevaluation of the scope and purview of love has had for me the greatest impact on my life.  For many years I was largely blind to a broader point of view.  I had seen love primarily as it applied to relationships between humans and to a certain extent between man and animals; for example I could love my brother or I could love my dog.  Then, of a sudden, I saw that love applied as well to inanimate processes.  The fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control) had broad and encompassing application.  It colored not only human relationships (perhaps it began there), but extended to all sorts of activities.  For some I guess this is obvious for we can say “I love my work,” “I love my hobbies,”  “I love politics.”  But for me such usage of the term “love” was purely shorthand for “liking” or “inclination.”  This understanding fell far short of seeing love as a pervasive governor of activities.  This latter insight has greatly extended the meaningfulness of my existence by seeing that I can affirm love in nearly everything I do; and not only me, but everyone else.  This serves to give great dignity to most any field of labor or activity.  A slovenly done job is a great affront to love.  Assiduous care and attention in doing one’s job is an expression of love.  Yeats said “Sing whatever is well made” and I think in a sense he was appreciating the wide impact of a loving attitude.  From this point of view, every beneficial good or service pays meaningful tribute to the Creator.  How we treat others, and how we engage in myriad processes signals our reverence for the Almighty.  Products of love can include the yields of agriculture, industry, science, and engineering.  Love can bestow its gracious light upon a laboratory experiment or upon the act of flipping hamburgers at McDonalds.  And as love may have originally begun as an expression of animate relationships, the reinforcement and extension of love can flow in reverse—from a loving husbandry of process to a spillover into relationships.  Thus, a creative and loving society will be imbued with light and this will be evident in all it is and does.  In the end we can see that a healthy society is a loving society filled with a sense of sanctity and purpose.

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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A Good Speech

What makes a speech or a sermon interesting to you?  (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, p. 1540).

The following list is my response to this question:

Cogency: forceful and convincing to the intellect and reason (Encarta Dictionary)

Compelling: attracting strong interest and [undivided] attention (Encarta Dictionary)

Apt imagery: the figurative language, especially metaphors and similes, used in poetry, plays, and other literary works; a set of mental pictures produced by the memory or imagination or conjured up by a stimulus  (Encarta Dictionary)

Apt stories and illustrations

Ernest communication rather than attempts to impress (the absence of artificiality or disruptive contrivances)

Worthy ends:  appeals to my best rather than my worst.

A sense of integrity & diligence:  the speaker is genuine and doing his honest best—the speaker believes in what he says and how he says it.

Humility:  the sense that the speaker is governed by the facts rather than trying to control or misrepresent them.

Freshness: in sermons, for example, in which the speaker is dealing with the “old, old, and familiar stories of the Bible”, there is nevertheless a sense that this retelling is helpfully dealing with various aspects of the stories.

Application:  the sense that the speech can apply and is relevant to me.

The time fits the message:  the speech is not too short or too long—it is not over packed nor under packed; there are no obvious “fillers” nor of essential things left out or inadequately dealt with.

The tone of the message is appropriate for the subject and the occasion.

This list, while certainly not complete, does identify major things I look for in a good speech.

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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Front Porch of Language

Today Alison, who mentioned zeal the other day (see blog) warned me sharply about using the word “diet” for the weight losing process I am in.  When I used the term (such as mentioning the “diet I am on” or “my weight loss program’”) she winced and said “Do not say ‘diet’ for a diet [or program] is only temporary.  Say something like ‘my new lifestyle.’”  How subtly we can set ourselves up for failure by the language we use and the assumptions that underlie it.  Certainly if I view eating more wisely as something temporary and just for a special time, the assumption is that I will break out with my old eating habits the first chance I get.  Thank you Alison for this important insight and I promise to keep it in mind and take it to heart.  Alison is in the “quit smoking” class my wife attends (I sit in as a guest).  She has another approach to addiction I think important.  She starkly pictures the conditions that can await smokers.  Partly this is from experience with the deteriorating health and eventual deaths of members of her own family.  It is extremely important not to paint or haze over with mental disguises and dishonesty the direction our present actions are inexorably taking us.  I will always be grateful to Dr. Brady for warning me that if I did not lose weight he would be visiting me on my back in the hospital.  Language can help us face the truth or assist us in avoiding it.  Language is the porch we sit on and from it view reality or, with much less integrity, a wonderland of wishful thinking, arrogant conceits, and fond misinformation.

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Sunday, February 12, 2012

Today in Sunday School

We had several interesting readings today but the devotional that most caught my attention was one entitled “Whose Rules?” (Upper Room, 2/8/12).  It began with a scripture from Judges 21:25 (NRSV).  In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.  The lesson concerned rules and their creation and the conflict that they can cause.  It is an awesome and overwhelmingly important fact that people can make their own rules “right in their own eyes” with great determination, bravado, and a resoluteness directly leading to action.  This fact has immense impact on human society.  The greatest difficultly is that the rules we may choose to make can have no relation at all to reality or to important principles such as love and justice.  Obviously, rule creation can be an act that gives an emotional high like other creativity.  This practice gives a tremendous sense of effectiveness.  Who can say that we are an inferior nation or a powerless person?  Just look at the rules made.  We are assertive; we self-confidently know what we’re about; we’ve got it all together.  Such a sense of confidence and rectitude leads directly to all sorts of tragedies.  We can defiantly make our own rules regarding drugs only to find later that reality does not exempt us from obdurate chemical changes in the brain resulting in additive slavery.  Making rules in a social institution such as a legislative body, we can give the illusion of decisive action when in fact we have not addressed reality at all.  The insidious pride generated from rule making is antithetical to the humility actually required to determine “what is so regardless of what we may say about it.”  Truth, it turns out, has a power unimpressed by our delusions no matter how passionately held, how pompously propagated, or with what accompanying grandeur in signification and display.

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Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Mark of Realism

As Valentine’s Day approaches, I ask myself why I first saw Kathy as “right” for me.  It is said a girl’s loving relationship with her father is important when she herself seeks a mate.  If it is a strong, healthy relationship; this bodes well for the future.  I feel strongly that my relationship with my mother greatly influenced my choice of a mate.  For me to be “mothered” never meant being subservient to someone who was domineering or primarily self-serving.  To be mothered, instead, came to mean a loving relationship in which mutual respect and consideration reliably obtained.  Today Kathy and I were at an ice show at Busch Gardens.  While waiting for the show to begin, a very talkative lady in the seat behind me displayed the qualities that would drive me nuts if I had to live with them on a daily basis.  She set forth discussing a hundred topics and in her mind she was the undisputed expert in all matters.  Her judgments and conclusions were unwaveringly right and conclusive.  Her self-confidence was entire and impenetrable by any self-doubt.  The longer I live, the more I have come to appreciate the value and usefulness of a little self-doubt.  Far from being the mark of inferiority as I once thought, a measure of tentativeness is a winsome quality suggesting a realistic humility when faced with the many uncertainties and unknowns of life.  To carry on as if these do not exist is in my mind not a strength but a flaw that usually hurts others more than oneself.  It was Kathy’s tentativeness even while solidly grounded in Christian values that attracted me to Kathy at the outset and continues to do so today.  Her self-confidence is not blind but reality based.  I would never presume to have her “pegged” but nevertheless celebrate her winsome humility.

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Friday, February 10, 2012

Ripe for Harvest

Do you not say, 'Four months more and then the harvest'? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. (John 4:35 NIV).

Jesus says the above after the Samaritan woman remarks “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming.  When he comes he will explain everything to us.”  Shortly afterwards she said to the Samaritan people:  “…Could this be the Messiah?” They came out of the town and made their way towards him (Verses 25, 29,30).  It is clear that one reason Jesus said “They are ripe for harvest” is that the people had been put into an open and receptive frame of mind.  They had been taught to expect a Messiah in the first place.  In this one sense at least, the harvest was ripe.

I think of Martin Luther King, Jr. who was the prophetic minister to the nation during the civil rights movement.  An essential reason he was able to convict the consciences of many whites living in a segregated society was that the ground had been laid for many years through weekly sermons in myriad pulpits regarding the love of God, the personhood of Jesus, and the cogency of the Golden Rule.  Add to that the familiar story of Moses and the wrongful slavery of the Jewish people, and it is clear that the harvest if not ripe was in many ways prepared and simply awaited a man of conviction to appeal to deeply held if latent convictions and beliefs.

We are now in a political season and it often sounds as if the public is ripe for harvest—but a strange harvest indeed.  For the public, rather than pictured as population with much fruit and gifts to bring to the table, is pictured as inherently barren waiting for the many promises and largess of a politician.  It is a crop to be exploited for deep-seated resentment and fears rather than to be tapped for the many years of loving investments made by relatives, friends, and institutions in the wellbeing of individuals; this towards the end of a bountiful fruition manifested within enriched and passionate lives.  Politics too often is simply a matter of appealing to our worst rather than our best—to seeing us as takers rather than givers, as hoarders of bitter fruit rather than participants in abundant living, as graspers at straws rather than as resolute givers of life.  I look for a transformative leader and by this I mean a leader who like MLK has the ability to appeal to our best no matter what the personal cost. 

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Thursday, February 9, 2012

Personal Gethsemanes

Personal Gethsemanes are characterized by a sense of foreboding that excruciatingly painful, tough times are ahead.  Nevertheless, the divine presence is palpable accompanied by the sense this is God’s will and entails his purpose for one’s life—that he will be with one throughout and that after long tribulation will come victory.  This occurs when one is alone; when God is having a private time with his servant.  It becomes an unforgettable set piece and portends the future in general rather than specific terms.  My personal Gethsemane occurred on the University of South Florida campus in 1965.  It was towards dusk in the parking lot of the humanities building.  I was walking across the lot and was stopped dead in my tracks. I found myself alone.  I sensed the presence of God and the love of God.  It was like a father sorrowfully warning me that unspecified tough days were ahead, sad days; but he would be there with me throughout the journey and that joy would await on the other side.  In the following years I was frequently in over my head.  I was jailed for opposing the Vietnam War; I endured tough times at universities and felt somewhat alienated; I intentionally moved into a neighborhood that was full of unacceptable tragedies;  I underwent repeated episodes of mental illness;  I felt stymied in my career and sensed the inexorable passing of time.  Yet joy has come to characterize my life.  After drinking from the proffered cup, in many ways I have experienced victory and have been given a gift of peace.  I feel that God had a job for me to do, and that I did not shirk from it.  One could approach his later years with a lesser sense of faithfulness in pursuing assigned tasks.

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Wednesday, February 8, 2012

No Other Gods Before Me

If you could change one thing about modern Christianity what would it be?  (Serendipity Bible, 10th Anniversary Edition, p.1414).

I think back to the Civil Rights days when Martin Luther King, Jr. with a prophetic voice pointed the way to brotherhood and righteousness.  His message was sourced deeply in Christ’s teachings of the Golden Rule, of love and respect for our neighbor and a plea to put away the acids of hatred that were most dangerous and destructive to those that harbored it.  King also turned to economic justice—to the message that a market economy can allocate wealth unjustly.  It became apparent almost at once that with this message King stopped preaching, as the saying goes, and commenced meddling.  The fight against racial oppression would prove to be a picnic when compared with the fight over the sacredness and sanctity of private property—no matter how egregious and flagrant the manifestations of economic discrimination based upon positional prejudice.  If the Civil Rights movement was the “good war,” the fight for economic justice is eternally destined to be the war that breeds elemental dissention and deep-seated anxieties.  How ideally would I like modern day Christianity to deal with the conundrum of achieving economic justice?  The reliable Golden Rule becomes problematic as the economic advances of one seem to be made at the expense of the other.  There becomes a strong bias in favor of the status quo.  Few want to experience the unease generated when the rectitude of the market is seriously called into question.  Human resource departments all over the country regularly refer to the labor market to determine a fair and acceptable wage.  How else could it be done?  Minimum wage laws seek to establish a floor, but generally detailed regulations as a way to increase income for the marginally paid seems impractical.  My hope is that modern Christianity will in faith pray for revelations of the mind and heart on how best to creatively craft economic systems so that the low, inadequately paid can find relief.  Surely, an essential condition will be the worship of God rather than any economic system.

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Monday, February 6, 2012

Some Sort of Violence

What do you do when someone says something you do not want to hear? (Serendipity Bible, 10th Anniversary Edition, p.1407).

Typically I deny it and fight (with more or less success) to prove them wrong.  Once I had a Shakespeare professor give me a “C” on a major paper—one that would determine my grade in the course.  I emphatically told him, “I will not make a “C” in this course.”  He suggested that I rewrite the paper to more effectively prove my point.  I rewrote the paper—not satisfactorily proving my point to his liking, but I did earn a “B” in the course.

When I chose a place to live in Saint Petersburg in 1976, through the leading of the spirit I chose a challenged area on the Southside.  I was confronted by realities I found unacceptable.  I worked to correct them in the ways I felt inspired and led to do and found the experience rewarding beyond expectations. 

Coming out of a mental hospital I was determined to get a job (for which I was desperate) and to live a normal life.  I was not to be defeated and not to acquiesce to dependency.  Through effort and divine intervention, I secured an entry level job.

Employed by the City of Saint Petersburg, I held a low paying job that was very limited in advancement potential.  I enriched the job and informally redefined it.  Eventually I was promoted accordingly.

Not being a brilliant student with offers of scholarships, I nevertheless earned three master’s degrees.

All these experiences bring home to me the essential violence, for lack of a better word, that is involved in saying “No!” to certain realities and fighting to change them.  As is often the case I think of the phrase of William Butler Yeats:

You that Mitchel's prayer have heard,
'Send war in our time, O Lord!'
Know that when all words are said
And a man is fighting mad,
Something drops from eyes long blind,
He completes his partial mind,
For an instant stands at ease,
Laughs aloud, his heart at peace.
Even the wisest man grows tense
With some sort of violence
Before he can accomplish fate,
Know his work or choose his mate.

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Sunday, February 5, 2012

Heaven’s Nostalgia

In heaven, who or what on earth would you miss most? (Serendipity Bible, 10th Anniversary Edition, p.1374).

I will begin by asking “What earthly characteristics would be least missed in heaven?”  Consider this from Revelation:

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.  I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” 21:1-4 (NIV).

Consider the implications:  in heaven the brokenness of earth will have been left behind.  Certainly I will miss this aspect of earth the least.  We will have our existence in the midst of God’s holy light—in unadulterated love.  Adulterated love is tragically a main component of earth as we know it.  When we find a pure heart here, we know that we are witnessing a rare and precious jewel.  But in heaven we will not miss these jewels for they are characteristic there rather than exceptional.

Yet on earth we have many products of love.  There can be beauty and integrity in many creations of man.  These creations were born from the disciplines of love and become the products of generosity, skill, and sacrifice.  I will miss these most; partly because they were created from courage in the midst of adversity—whether beautiful music, art, architecture, industrial processes, government arrangements, family nurturing, scientific objectivity, economic entrepreneurship, creative insight, quiet philanthropy, or ennobling labor and its ingenious products—all enlisted for the betterment of life.  These are a tribute to and foreshadowing of the productivity of heaven.  In heaven I will have nostalgia for these things and plead with God to let me indulge such memories by helping further productions of love on earth.         

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Saturday, February 4, 2012

Fleshing Out Trust

If you were an absentee landlord and had to find trustworthy tenants, what would you seek? (Serendipity Bible, 10th Anniversary Edition, p.1373).

In a sense we are all absentee landlords in those we must trust.  Trust implies that the person is to some extent outside our control, otherwise there would be no need of trust.  The other implication is that what the person does (or doesn’t do) will have impact upon us.  Some of the factors that can put one outside our control is our own limited skill or knowledge.  That is, because of my lack of skill or knowledge regarding brain surgery, if I needed it I would hopefully find a surgeon in whom I had trust.  Trust in such a case can be essential for it serves to give me a willingness to undergo surgery in the first place.

Now it is possible that someone I trust (say as a tenant) is not someone I would trust in other activities (say as a brain surgeon).  In other words, a consideration of trust also entails an understanding of a limited field of that trust.  As adults we probably never truly give trust in a carte blanche sense simply because we know that even the most skilled and knowledgeable in one area can be inept and even downright fools in another.

Now on consideration of an absentee landlord-->tenant relationship in particular, we can immediately list reliability, stability, responsibility, and cleanliness as traits bestowing confidence and trust on the part of the landlord.  But even here, one is tempted to insert the word “acceptable” before each quality.  This is true because though one wants cleanliness, one does not want a fanatic that ruins one’s floors by applying a caustic chemical; and while one wants responsibility, one does not want an unskilled tenant to play electrician out of a false sense of duty.  Some performances are essential in the landlord-->tenant relationship as in the payment of rent and the respect of property.  In matters of trust, performance always counts most in sustaining the relationship under the long-term duress of reality.

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Friday, February 3, 2012

A Carefully Cultivated Hollowness

When you see something wrong, are you more likely to act without thinking or think without acting? (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, p.1372).

My first response to this question is in the line of self-justification.  In too many areas of society we are carefully taught to tolerate wrongdoing and to turn a blind eye towards it.  It seems especially in my own country this is so.  Even though I personally hate and detest the suffering, addictions, and insensitivity alcoholic beverages inflict, I am grossly intolerant if I should ever mention this in a polite, indulgent society.  In other words, I have steady, daily practice in thinking without acting all in the name of tolerance and liberty.  I opt for the bland response rather than one based on conviction.

The second thing this brings to mind is my own failure to be intolerant of wrongdoing when my own self-interest is at stake.  Once I was an employee of an air conditioning company.  Some new owners of the company were stunningly unethical.  One afternoon in the alley behind our shop I discovered that one of our vans had its back windows smashed and was obviously the victim of burglary.  I immediately went inside and told the owners.  They looked at one another, smiled, and said it was staged in order to collect insurance.  I regret to say I did not report this, or at least did not immediately leave the company in disgust.  I knew which side my bread was buttered on and this allowed for the shameful tolerance of wrongdoing.  This attitude is pervasive on a larger scale.  Since I am a democrat, I tolerate indefensible beliefs and lawmaking regarding abortion in order to affirm the remaining areas in which I am in agreement with the party.  Obviously my “larger considerations” mean nothing to thousands of murdered children.

Certainly, the time is long overdue for me to err on the side of action—to act without thinking when thinking is in reality quite the opposite.  Rather than vividly imaging the realities of alcohol, tobacco, insurance fraud, and abortion; I intentionally turn my mind’s eye away and carefully cultivate a phony blandness.  This has not been my sole response to evil.  But it occurs frequently enough to render all feelings of prideful rectitude sourced within the cultivated province of a carefully selective memory.  This brings to mind the words of T.S. Eliot:

    We are the hollow men
    We are the stuffed men
    Leaning together
    Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
    Our dried voices, when
    We whisper together
    Are quiet and meaningless
    As wind in dry grass
    Or rats' feet over broken glass
    In our dry cellar
    Shape without form, shade without colour,
    Paralysed force, gesture without motion….

    (from: “The Hollow Men”)

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Thursday, February 2, 2012

Ultimate Ambitions

What did your parents want you to be when you grew up?  What about you?  What are some secret expectations you have for your children? (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, p.1370)

My parents never suggested a line of work for me.  They made it clear that “what” I did as an adult was much less important than “how” and “why” I did it.  On these latter aspects, they were very clear.  I was to be “sweet” in spirit.  “Sweet” from their point of view did not mean weak, ineffectual, or effeminate.  A sweet spirit to them meant a spirit that was lacking in chronic anger, resentment, or self-centeredness.  That is, my vocation first and foremost was dependent upon the quality of my relationships with others.  The rank, station, or preeminence (or lack thereof) I would one day achieve was unimportant to them.  The content of my character and my loving, sympathetic relationship with others were always the paramount considerations.  Now that I have children of my own, I cannot think of a greater legacy.  Social prominence or the lack thereof pales in importance to their being kind and considerate in their relationships.  I suppose the ultimate test would be “What if they ran into a ‘Hitler’?  How then would I want them to be kind and considerate?  While being intolerant of the evil-doers actions, I would want them to respond with sadness and wonder at the forces resulting in such stark grotesqueness.  Even then I would want them to approach the flagrant manifestation of evil without a trace of self-righteousness and with prayers for even the most arrogant and cruel to find redemption.   

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Wednesday, February 1, 2012

I Am the Best

Tuesday evening my son George and I initiated a new agreement.  George owns a car detailing business and we have agreed for a monthly fee, he will detail my Mazda CX9 on each Tuesday of every week.  I took my car to his home for the first installment of our agreement.  I watched him work on my car with passion for more than two hours.  He has a van stocked full of equipment and supplies.  During that time I heard him repeat to himself several times while working “I am the best.”  By the time he was done, I had to admit I had never seen anyone detail my car with such zeal, thoroughness, and skill.  In my reference to his statement about being the best, he said, “I simply am.  I’m not arrogant or conceited, but I’m simply the best.”

To me this was a liberating concept.  Too often as a second string guy, I have been shackled by the notion that first string guys are not only good, but that they are taken by their own goodness—that they are bound to be somewhat arrogant and conceited.  It seldom occurs to me that they could face a simple fact—that they are the best—with humility and grace. Of course they will be proud of their excellence as anyone would be, but this pride can be a good kind of pride, not destructive and overweening.  Really, when one looks at it, my tendency to have begrudging envy and resentment at first string players is seeded in my own arrogance and conceit.  My prayer is that I will be able to celebrate excellence even when it is not at my own hands; that I will be able to muster as much humility and grace in my lesser attempts as those at the top of their game—even when that game is one in which I am destined to play second or third string.  Someday it will fully and finally sink into my brain that others are often more deserving than myself—and that it is my proper role to face reality with humility, grace, and even joy at the towering achievement of others.

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