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Sunday, April 29, 2012

Are Our Institutions Relics of the Past?

Do we populate structures that are relics of the past? What will future social and organizational mappings look like? How does one map the Kingdom of God—supposedly a reality that will be fully realized on earth eventually. There is no doubt that our current structures testify to the fact that we harbor relics of the mind.

The “strong leader” is clearly such a relic. The concept is well defined—it is the line of kids playing the game “follow the leader”—all following in tow behind a strong leader. Or it is the person at the top of the organizational hierarchy propagating directives and orders. Or it is the President firmly in charge as the Commander-in-Chief.

This might be called—probably in great unfairness to the insect—the “Ant Theory of Human Behavior.” It clearly does not sync with the real nature or aspirations of humanity, nor of humanity's breadth and depth, nor of the current reality of talent contribution. A realistic view of human organizations should start with legitimate authority most correctly seen as following divine authority.

In Matthew 13:33 we read: “Jesus also used this illustration: 'The Kingdom is like the yeast a woman used in making bread. Even though she put only a little yeast in three measures of flour it permeated every part of the dough'” (Source).  That is, heaven influences the world as yeast influences bread—it is not hierarchical or representative but broadly democratic. There is no aristocracy of talent, rather there is a democracy of talent with everyone being contributors. Here, the mapping of structure, rather than being hierarchical, is—for want of a better description—loaf structured. A slice of bread does not reveal hierarchy, rather it reveals universal contribution. (As salt of the earth, everyone can make a significant contribution to the enterprise of humanity.) In a loaf of bread, there is no Zeus figure ruling from above. Yeast simply does not influence in this way.

A loaf of bread clearly provides the organizational structure for the future. It will be more successful than other structures for it validates the real nature of man. Virtually everyone yearns to exercise leadership in this sense—to exercise democratic influence in their environment. This is a form of control that does not depend upon egotism or pride. Rather, it is gentle control, humble control. It is power that best reflects the current leadings of the spirit and the organizational structure of the future.

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Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Self-Same Road of Tragedy and Redemption

What has been, or is, the most tragic thing about your life? What has been, or is, the most redeeming? (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, p.387).

In yesterday's blog, I wrote of the insightful moment when Huckleberry Finn saw that his true interest lay in helping free Jim. This would not only prove to be a redemptive moment for Jim, but also most directly for Huck. After conflicted consideration, he resolved that his love for Jim was more important than the inhibitions of custom and culture. In this moment he replaced a spirit of fear and conformity with a spirit of courage, freedom, and service. The snapshot of Huck coming to this fresh insight represents the essential crossroad that sooner or later will face each of us (though the insight comes by grace, not through self-control of perception).

In undergraduate school I was hounded by repressive conformity. Picture me in speech class under this condition. I had lost all the spontaneous animation I once had as a child. Fear imprisoned me. It was only later that I learned to concentrate on one thing alone when before the class—helping each person understand each point of my presentation. When I took the focus off myself and focused on helping others understand, my eye contact improved and my speeches began to flow.

Both the most tragic and redeeming thing about life lies in perception. Perception can bind us in ropes or can release us for service. Jesus spent much of his time trying to free the captives—trying to empower others by changing their perception from self-centeredness to love. For example, he said that you are the salt of the earth—in other words, make an effective contribution to the tone of society through love. The famous parable of the Good Samaritan makes a similar point.

Monotheism is essentially the result of knocking down false gods until only one is left. We can perceive that redemption lies in a zillion things before finally arriving at the conclusion made by Candide and CunĂ©gonde—we need to love each other and make our garden grow. Concluding that God is love is the result of trial and error leading finally to perception of ultimate reality and the immediate and undeniable experience of positive self-awareness. (In part to say that Jesus had no sin implies that he alone did not need to learn this by trial and error.) There is no substitute in any form of contrived self-confidence to compare to the undeniable and deep sense of self-worth arising from the exercise of loving service under the leadership of the Holy Spirit.

A parent may ask, which do I most want to instill in my children—a sense of self-confidence or a sense of self-worth? Surely a wise parent will answer the latter; for self-confidence is a derivative of success while self-worth is a derivative of love. Self-confidence is often short-term, shallow, and fickle; whereas self-worth is timeless. Self-confidence is subject to phoniness and from its demands can arise neurosis, whereas self-worth is genuine and sure and brings peace. Self-worth is fertile soil from which grow resolute conviction and ethical behavior. The art of parenting rests on discernment of the better course, namely, that of instilling self-worth.

For human beings, perception is often a single road that leads through tragedy towards redemption. Learning what true freedom is all about comes after much trial and error and repeated failures. For many of us effectiveness is a promise that will only be realized when, like Huckleberry Finn, we decide at last to generously return in some small measure the love we have so generously received.

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Friday, April 27, 2012

Conscience Crunch

If keeping a vow meant you would have to sin, would you keep it? Why or why not? How can this passage help you to keep your vows in perspective? (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, P.379).

(From Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, Chapter 31):
So I got a piece of paper and a pencil, all glad and excited, and set down and wrote:

Miss Watson your runaway nigger Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send. HUCK FINN

I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn't do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking- thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me, all the time; in the day, and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a floating along, talking, and singing, and laughing. But somehow I couldn't seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I'd see him standing my watch on top of his'n, stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him agin in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had smallpox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he's got now; and then I happened to look around, and see that paper.

It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

"All right, then, I'll go to hell"- and tore it up.

It was awful thoughts, and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head; and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn't. And for a starter, I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.

One of my all-time favorite passages in American literature occurs when Huckleberry Finn struggles with his conscience—when he must act based on a decision to conform to the laws, expectations, customs, and mores of his enveloping society or whether to act in the best interest of his slave friend, Jim. It is a weighty matter to spurn the panoply of power represented by the prevailing culture; one is surely arrogant to discount the beliefs, opinions, and convictions of so many. But even so, there yet remains a quiet and simple conviction residing somewhere deep within the heart of man that one should respect the inner voice sometimes strikingly at odds with culture.

In some ways I lately can identity with Huck Finn. I am a Christian and have heard many times that Christ is the only way. If you don't believe in Christ, you will go to hell. He is the only path up the mountain to God and salvation. Christianity is thus seen as tightly exclusionary and highly legalistic. This seems to belie the Lord's prayer with its emphasis on the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man.

Many Christians view Islam as especially suspect. One cannot gainsay the fact that Muslims do not view Christ as the Son of God. Nevertheless, to better appreciate their beliefs and to become acquainted with believers on a personal basis, I have been attending Friday mosque services. Once during lunch following a service, a believer said that I was really a Muslim at heart. I found this comment remarkable, for privately I had been thinking—after witnessing their many loving kindnesses—that they were really Christians at heart—consistently behaving in accord with the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man.

The opening question that I quoted preceding today's blog raises an important and longstanding distinction between the will of God and the will of man. Those faithful to God have not infrequently found themselves at odds with the society or state that they find themselves in. It is my firm belief that in the end we are to obey God rather than man. Such a view has always put man in a perilous position. We never can take the laws, opinions, and convictions of a society lightly. They are established by experience, tradition, and belief. Decision points where there is conflict between societal mores and individual conscience are hazardous. This is sometimes shown when horrible things are commited in the name of God. That is why in these moments of decision, we often find ourselves in an uneasy twilight zone—in an area fraught with hazards and vulnerabilities.

But thankfully many societies have incorporated in their systems room for the “conscientious objector.” That is (not just in terms of military service) there are attempts to allow leeway for the exercise of conscience even when that runs counter to culture. This does not mean that opposition to prevailing views is cost-free. Sometimes the price is very high. Nevertheless, society puts on record that it declines to put itself in the place of God. The state despite all its power and magnificence, retains humility before the sometimes confounding inner voice of conscience. Let us be thankful for such accommodation, and for the likes of Huckleberry Finn.

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Thursday, April 26, 2012

Critique of Criticism

On a scale of 1-10, what marks would you give yourself in handling criticism? What marks would others give you? What would you like to differently about this, if anything? (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, p. 374).

In criticism context matters. We are entering what will be a hotly contested political race for President. We know only too well what to expect—many months of shrill, unfair, and meanspirited highly public and bombastic boilerplate criticism from both sides. Sometimes it's said that politicians must have thick skins. Not really, for the context of the race makes it clear that excessiveness is pro forma and routine. There is a genuine sense in which criticism in this context is widely awaited and severe withdrawal symptoms would occur should complete tranquility occur.

Now, let us consider a fantasy. During the campaign, somehow a miracle occurs and both candidates and their immediate families join a secret fishing trip together on a secluded lake nestled among snow-capped mountains. It is certain that the public will never know about the outing shared by the candidates and their families. In this situation a very different context exists. My thinking is that meanspirited attacks here would be inappropriate and would seriously get under the skin of either candidate. As the context of the public campaign assumes unfairness, strife, and ill-will, the context of the fishing trip assumes camaraderie and all-around goodwill. Here meanspirited attacks would certainly arouse feelings of betrayal, disgust, and anger.

Thus, no one should ever feel they could never be a politician due to incessant public criticism and attacks. One simply has to appreciate the unique context of politics and understand it has little in common with those occasions when a fellow team member, family member, or close associate levels personal criticism at us in a more or less intimate setting. In this context, like our candidates on the fishing trip, criticism certainly stings.

It is well-disposed criticism that deserves further thought. Criticism offered from an attitude of goodwill, love, and helpfulness; while not entirely pleasant, assures us that the critic is not judgmentally arrogant or treacherous. He is not intending to exclude us, but to include us. One good technique I once learned in a speech class is that when finding you must critique another, always mention positives and negatives—not just the negatives. And in response to criticism of this sort, be generous as well. Look upon the critic not as an enemy but as a friend. Assume that he is offering up criticism using the his best judgment—using his best lights for guidance. Sincerely appreciate his concern and courage to speak out, offering him a compliment if it seems right. For, after all, a critic of this sort is paying you a high compliment by being honest and forthright.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Phoenix Renewal

In your life, when has God used one of your weaknesses or failures to help someone else? (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, p.373).

The above question points to a truth that is undeniable – weaknesses and failures frequently have redemptive value. They are often redemptive both to oneself and to others. We can see that one value of novels and other fiction is that in them are dysfunctional characters whose very flaws give us greater insight into our own lives. Let us consider some of the factors involved in redemptive weakness and failure.

First, failures or weaknesses can have tremendous influence over where we find ourselves. For example, if I were totally successful I might find myself in Hollywood as a movie star. But let us say that does not happen and I find myself in my humble hometown far removed from glitter or fortune. Place plays a huge role in the people I meet, the things I do, and the life I lead. For example, since I did not end up in Hollywood, I married a hometown girl; I found a job locally and daily interacted with neighbors, co-workers and customers. It is obvious that the nexus of life I construct—the people I meet and greet (even the family I help create)—is decisively influenced by locale. If I “bloom where I'm planted” I can have far-reaching positive impact on others—friends, family, co-workers, even strangers. Thus because of weaknesses or failures, important fresh opportunities abound—even if (in an extreme case) my weaknesses were to eventually land me in a penal institution.

After experiencing a weakness or failure, we can learn humility. It is a great advantage to overcome false pride, and pride based on ignorance. Likewise, it can be a tremendous boon to come face-to-face with reality. Reassessment of talents based on our true strengths often becomes possible only after flights of fancy have nose-dived and crashed to the ground.

Weaknesses and failures can testify to unusually big dreams and strong ambitions. Even if dreams do not materialize exactly as planned (and are in this sense a failure), they can nevertheless have positive impact. Many people go to school and get an education based on dreams that will never be realized. Nevertheless because of those dreams they will have achieved learning, perspectives, and experiences they would never have otherwise achieved. In this sense, the failure represented by unfulfilled dreams can result in long-term, substantial success.

A significant benefit of having failures and weaknesses is that it is an entrĂ©e to enhanced accessibility. Since virtually everyone is only too well aware of their own weaknesses and failures, it is vastly reassuring to find someone willing to acknowledge his own. We then immediately feel profoundly relieved and experience a sense of freedom. To see someone “bent but not defeated” gives us encouragement and brings about almost reflexive feelings of friendship and goodwill. We finally have found someone who shares our own often repressed and embarrassing experiences. This can help us to fully accept our own failures and perhaps for the first time cultivate an attitude that allows us to learn from them and fully overcome them.

In sum, failures and weaknesses ironically present us with great opportunities. They have within them the seeds of redemption for ourselves and others.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

But the Most Important Question Is....

Is there some place where you need to stand up for your rights? How will you do this in a helpful way? (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, p.349).

The overwhelmingly most important of the two questions above is the second one: “How will you do this in a helpful way?”

The following list is long and includes many dicey questions. The question comes up repeatedly: “How will you do this in a helpful way?” In my lifetime the person that immediately comes to mind on a national level who asked this question and came up with effective answers was Martin Luther King, Jr. I feel that I also saw good judgment on the part of my father and mother. Foremost on their minds was the question: “How can I be helpful not only to myself and my interests, but also helpful in furthering the interests of others.” They never “circled the wagons” and became judgmental. They drew a large circle that included both themselves and others. They appreciated human imperfection as a universal that in no way excluded themselves. They recognized that people typically, sometimes tragically, operate from their best lights while having only limited control over perception. Thus, they treated everyone with the dignity and respect they would appreciate. They understood that a judgmental and superior attitude would not only be ineffective, but also would be insidiously harmful to themselves. So the sine qua non question is the followup question: “How will you do this in a helpful way?”

Here are some questions to consider in this light:

Is there an area where you need to offer criticism (or a compliment)? How will you do this in a helpful way?

Is there an area where you need to offer help? How will you do this in a helpful way?

Is there an area where you need to call attention to a person of their (or your) limitations or short-comings? How will you do this in a helpful way?

Do you need to tell someone that they are "driving you up the wall"? How will you do this in a helpful way?

Is there an area where you need to speak truth to power (or weakness)? How will you do this in a helpful way?

Is there an area where you need to tell someone that you (rather than they) are following the preferred course? How will you do this in a helpful way?

Is there an area where you need to delineate limitations facing the group? How will you do this in a helpful way?

Is there an area where you must recommend or demand action (or inaction)? How will you do this in a helpful way?

Are there areas where you must simply agree to disagree? How we you do this in a helpful way?

Is there an area where you must recommend something unpopular (or support the popular)? How will you do this in a helpful way?

Is there an area where you must tell someone you cannot assist them (or desire to assist them)? How you do this in a helpful way?

Is there an area where you need to express the feeling of being let down by others? How you do this in a helpful way?

Is there an area where you must earnestly compete with others (or decline to compete)? How will you do this in a helpful way?

Do you wish to tell someone you admire them (or just the opposite)? How will you do this in a helpful way?

Is there an area where you must tell someone “No”? How will you do you the do this in a helpful way?

Is there an area were you must tell someone you (we) simply can't afford it? How will you do this in a helpful way?

Is there an area where you must decline to assent because you feel doing so would not be good for you or the person? How will you do this in a helpful way?

Is there an area where you must decline involvement? How will do you do this in a helpful way?

Is there an area where you think you (or others) should give up pursuing a long-sought ambition or dream? How will do you do this in a helpful way?

Is there a time when you need to discuss your own (or others') mortality? How will you do this in a helpful way?

Is there an area where you need to confront others (or yourself)) regarding an addiction? How will you do you do this in a helpful way?

What if you feel you must confront someone (or face up yourself) regarding a moral weakness? How will you do this in a helpful way?

What if you feel you need to tell someone that they simply lack talent in a certain area (or face up to your own lack of talent)? How will you do this in a helpful way?

What if you must tell someone (or admit yourself) that you are not the “person for the job”? How will you do you do this in a helpful way?

What if you must tell someone that they are successful (or unsuccessful) regarding a purchase decision? How will do you do this in a helpful way?

What if you must tell someone you cannot meet an earlier promise (or remind them that they have not met theirs)? How will you do this a helpful way?

What if you need to ask someone to expedite a matter? How will you do this in a helpful way?

What if you need to tell someone that they are not doing a good job? How will you do this in a helpful way?

What if you need to tell someone that they are too young or too old for a particular task? How will do you do this in a helpful way?

What if you feel the need to tell someone that they have offended you in some way? How will you do this in a helpful way?

What if you need to tell someone they are late (or too early) again? How will you do this in a helpful way?

What if you need to tell someone that the job they did for you was unsatisfactory; that they made mistakes; that they are illogical or unreasonable; that after great effort they have arrived at wrong conclusions (all their efforts were in vain); that they are superficial or off the mark? How will you address this in a helpful way?

What if you need to express a long resentment; what if you feel the need to tell someone you think they let you down; what if you feel the need to tell someone they are being selfish? Or greedy? Or unwise (or wise)? Or immature? Or silly? Or hypocritical? How will you do you do this in a helpful way?

What if you need to tell someone you think they are racially, religiously, politically, sexually, or ideologically prejudiced in a hurtful way? How will you do this in a helpful way?

What if you feel the need to tell someone you think they are flat-out wrong (or flat-out right)? How will you do this in a helpful way?

What if you need to tell someone you think they are selfishly operating in their own best interest at your (or others') expense? How will you do this in a helpful way?

What if you think someone is a crook; what if you think someone is acting immaturely; what if you think someone is wrong in their politic, economic, or religious conclusions and beliefs? How will you do this in a helpful way?

Clearly the demands of doing things in a helpful way substitutes a judgmental and exclusionary attitude with an inclusive one. This is the first essential step to being helpful.

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Essentials for Educational Success

Complete this sentence: “In school I learned that the secret of success is __________.” What does your composite essay say about success? (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, p.342-3).

Sometimes it helps in discussing a topic—like scholastic success—to address its opposite—here, scholastic mediocrity and even failure. There are several contributors to mediocrity. First, the student sees no great value in education. Second a failing student lacks self-confidence that he is up to the task, and more troubling, may have a profound sense of unworthiness. A failing student does not see education as an exciting adventure but rather intolerably boring. Because of the factors just mentioned, the failing students exercises no persistence in learning essential fundamentals. Let us turn the focus off the student and towards the instructors, teachers, or coaches. We must look full-on at an unpleasant fact; if the instructor doesn't like a student and evaluates him as least-favorite, then this significantly impacts a student's ability to succeed. A related consideration, in most any subject area there are “schools of thought.” Instructors have biases regarding them (not to mention educationally unrelated prejudices). There are in almost all fields accepted norms. If a student criticizes them or propounds other options, despite nods to academic freedom, professors can react negatively—in human nature objectivity and subjectivity are inescapably blended. The last consideration in academic failure is intelligence. I put it last because it is so difficult to define. Intelligence is also a blend of objectivity and subjectivity—of logic, insight, and creativity all related to perception and greatly influenced by experience. Mother told me that when I was a toddler, I once asked for a banana. She reached in the refrigerator and brought out a brown one. I said, “But mother, I want one with daylight on it.” Obviously a toddler doesn't have the IQ of an adult. So what about my comment did mother find memorable? Was it plain stupid, silly, insightful, creative, or intelligent? Intelligence is hard to define and identify, so its relationship to academic success is uncertain.

Really, what applies to formal education applies to learning almost any task—say that of learning to ride a bike. To succeed the student must (1) find great value in bike riding, (2) have almost a blind self-confidence coupled with a reliable sense of worthiness, (3) see the task as an exciting adventure, (4) maintain persistence in learning, (5) have a coach that likes the student and enjoys doing training, (5) does not repel the coach with criticism perceived as unfair or bizarre, (6) displays required intelligence—whatever that is. Whether on a street corner learning to ride a bike or matriculating at Harvard, these characteristics serve one well.

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Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Courage Called For

Courage doesn't always roar.” (The Upper Room, Wednesday, April 18, 2012; from devotion submitted by Lisa Stackpole).

There are two kinds of courage: pretentious courage and humble courage. Showy courage is like that seen in the movie Braveheart. We see well-built young men covered in grit and grime fiercely wielding swords. Ironically, often this is not the most challenging form of courage. Humble acts of peace also need courage. They require low-profile courage. As is so often the case, when I think on these things I think of my father. He was a man who felt his limitations – a great attribute. He had the quiet but resolute courage to fulfill his mission—to humbly do what he perceived as God's will and mission for him despite his limitations. That's the kind of courage that I love. It's the kind of courage that frankly, when I see it, can bring me to tears.

The other day Kathy and I went to visit a woman in a nursing home. Hidden away in its corridors, she showed quiet courage. I've seen similar low-profile courage at work when people in humble positions daily accomplish remarkable feats.

Why is it as a nation do we tend to associate courage with military action rather than peaceful humanitarian service? Why is courage so often self-promoting and self-centered? I think of the courage of my mother who had the humble courage of creativity. Creativity requires courage (actually much more of it) than sanctioned vandalism or dull complacency.

I am almost persuaded that quiet low-profile courage is the genuine article and that bravado courage worn on the sleeve is inherently suspect.

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Saturday, April 21, 2012

When Having Pizza Is Not all Celebration

How do you react when you don't get your fair share of something: Suffer in silence? Pout? How have a fit? Demand your rights? Other? (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, p.349).

Frankly, I don't have a scholar's understanding of the complexities of game theory. But I do understand the “sliver rule.” This is something almost everyone understands only too well—as when they sit down at a crowded table and there is only one pizza to serve everybody. Usually everyone at least gets a sliver. The real question is—is that all? Usually there is enough for some to get seconds, even thirds. But others are stuck with a sliver. This is the reality of it. And it is so despite attempts to mythologize abundance. While we all can imagine abundance as an escape from stark reality—and perhaps there's some validity to these imaginings in the very long-run (that can run into millenniums)—in the short run a large sector of people must adjust to being unappreciated by society's winners. While the winners always find justice on their side, the losers too are saved from bitterness by rationalization. Typically economic losers find a vital consolation in the long-term perspective of religion and its preference for immaterial over material values. To say that religion “is the opiate of the masses” is a crass dismissal of love's importance in providing the human necessity of meaning and with it some semblance of equality and happiness.

Whether one perceives much of life as zero-sum depends upon one's capacity to fantasize psychologically acceptable theories to the contrary. Unfortunately, enduring realities show such theories to be a major source of “the opiate of the privileged.”

Compassionate societies give up fantasy and find ways to augment the resources available to the ill-fed, ill-housed, ill-educated, ill-nourished, ill-treated, and fundamentally unappreciated. But such action depends upon the disinclination to worship at the alters of false phantasmagorical gods.  These gods erected from prejudicial political and economic theories are based ultimately on self-serving rationalizations and greed.    

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Friday, April 20, 2012

Crossing the Road

Jesus heals blind man
At today's services at the mosque, Imam Wilmore Sadiki gave a lecture in which he discussed a book. I don't recall all the religious leaders that were in the title of the book. I think it included Moses, Jesus, and Mohammad, as well as Eastern spiritual leaders. In any case, the title said that these spiritual leaders “crossed the road.” The imam explained that the author meant by this that these leaders crossed the road to reach people on an individual basis. That is, their focus was on communicating directly with each person. This is an insightful observation. The leaders that I am most familiar with are in the Bible, namely Moses and Jesus. When Moses addressed Pharaoh, his focus was not on the status of Pharaoh. Rather, he addressed him man to man. It is a common observation that Jesus often addressed outsiders – he addressed the poor, tax collectors, even Roman soldiers. He did not address any of these based on their class or status. What he looked to was the individual's moral and spiritual condition.

On my father's tombstone are the following words: “Grateful within the family of man, he prayed for individuals' care.” My father was a true Christian in this regard. In his prayers he was not a respecter of power, position, country, religion, or organization. He looked past all this and focused on the person and the challenges faced both physically and spiritually. I am much in debt to my father and to Christianity for this point of view. The person matters more than whether he is rich or poor, of high position or low. He is simply a human individual faced with the vicissitudes, uncertainties, problems, challenges, spiritual highs and depths that all humanity faces. Indeed, in this sense “all men are created equal.”

I think many feel this way. They are weary of showing allegiance and acquiescence to superficialities and thereby placing their focus and attention on anything other than the person within.

Living in America, “the most powerful nation on earth,” ever since I was born, there has been a great perhaps unavoidable tendency to view the country label that I wear of great, even of last importance. The label so readily displayed is often the source of much false pride.

We are called upon to have the decency, the humility, the empathy, to view others on an individual basis stripping away all other trappings. This then is our sacred responsibility: to humbly see all people as equal in terms of personhood. Nothing else in human terms matters so much as this. At any point by being spiritually obedient and aware, we can fully express God's intention for us. In this way, and only this way, is our self-confidence reliably set. It is not based on status or rank or anything else that is superficial and subject to decay and a sense of meaninglessness, but only on eternal principles including respect, honesty, and love.

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Thursday, April 19, 2012


In your life do you feel more like (a) I've got the enemy trapped but not destroyed? (b) The enemy has me trapped? (c) Battles abound, but I'm not alone? (d) I'm overwhelmed by the battles I still have to face? (e) The enemy doesn't dare utter one word against me? 2. In each instance, who (or what) is your enemy? (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition p.342).

It is obvious from the National Rifle Association's popularity and the support that it continually receives, a lot of people feel strongly about the ability to carry guns for protection. One can say that nearly always on their minds, or certainly in the back of their minds, is the idea that they may need to use a gun in self-defense. They have a sense that enemies are real and pose reliable threats. While this is so for some, it is interesting that many others, perhaps a majority, go about their lives without this feeling of impending threat. For these people, constantly lurking threats are not even in the back of their minds. In short, while a large group of people feel they have real or potential enemies, another larger group feels no sufficient alarm in this regard; and while admitting that terrible things are possible, they refuse to have their outlook determined by remote possibilities however grotesque.

I feel this way myself. I rack my brain trying to visualize mayhem perpetrated by an enemy at home or while on the street. Perhaps this does not speak well of me; perhaps anyone worth their salt and anyone with strong convictions in this world will surely have enemies of some sort. I think of Jesus who while certainly a good man had enemies aplenty; enemies that eventually crucified him. He had ideas, opinions, and convictions that ran counter to many in his society. So since I regularly surmise that I have no enemies, perhaps this is not a good sign. Yet, I believe it is really the case that while some people have an ingrained sense of threat, others confronted by much the same reality do not. Is it farfetched to believe that it is possible, even likely, that one can live a life in accord with the rest of humanity? The remarkable fact is many people (really the majority) navigate throughout out life without deadly enemies.

I can only speak for myself, but if I were to choose to live among a group of people, I would prefer living among people who do not feel constantly threatened by their fellow human beings.

Today in the news was a story about the Secret Service assigned to protect President Obama. Let's consider the obvious fact that the president (and this could be one of any party) is constantly under threat by all sorts of potential enemies. So, I do not claim for a moment that we live in a totally benign world. Every day I see on the news and read in the paper of grotesque crimes committed against innocent people in the community, yet I do not feel motivated to carry a gun or even to have one. Perhaps this could be called unrealistic. A person can justify carrying a gun based on the simple fact that criminals are present. My position on this is that it really is not my place to discern and execute this kind of ultimate justice. To me this is a state function, a function which I am not qualified to fill. Hence I feel content to leave law enforcement up to others—to the servants of the state and the sworn officers within the state. Obviously, if there were no state law enforcement it would be a Wild West. Then, clearly, everyone would need to carry a gun. But since this is not the case, and since my judgment especially under stress and high emotion cannot be relied upon to deliver a measured sense of justice, I am better off not having a gun. But this is a view based on reasoning. It does not explain my emotional contentment to remain unarmed.

Perhaps in the end I'm afraid of guns, especially guns in my hands. I know myself only too well (and other people's not well enough) to feel confident about carrying a lethal weapon. I've heard it said that if guns were outlawed, only outlaws would have guns. But despite this saying—and I have to admit probably in the last analysis we are faced with an unprovable matter—I prefer to rely on the state for law enforcement and the due process of determining justice and not on myself. I refuse to let a minority of lawbreakers undermine my beliefs and convictions about the proper role of the state and its law enforcement officers or of my role as an average unsworn citizen. I am certain about that. It continues to amaze me that there are people who blithely assume that they have complete control over themselves in the use of a lethal weapon—that they have absolute trust in themselves to decide justice on an instant. To me that signifies feelings of rectitude and self-righteousness buttressed by mental and emotional misgiving and fear—bringing to mind the words of FDR in his first inaugural address when he spoke about the nation's economic catastrophe: So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror... ” (Source).

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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

New Sights

What is the last sight you would like to see before you die? (Serendipity Bible 10th anniversary edition, p.326).

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. (Revelation 21:4 (NIV))

When I think of this question, I first asked not what place I would prefer breathing my last, but rather what emotional or intellectual state I would prefer experiencing at the final moment. The emotional and intellectual state I would choose is hope and happiness. The place of death frankly doesn't matter. For I could be happy and hopeful at home; I could be happy and hopeful at the site of our wedding at North Beach; I could be happy at the entrance to the St. Petersburg Pier where when I was having a mental episode I felt very close to God. I could be happy I think both emotionally and intellectually firmly placed within my Sunday school class, or at work in the office, or at viewing a sunset, or being surrounded by relatives and friends, or being alone. Chances are if I live to an old age, I will be feeble and frail. In this case I might be housed in a high-care facility, perhaps even a hospital lying on my back with tubes attached to my arms while I gaze at the ceiling as a television babbles in the corner. In this latter case especially, I hope to see a vision—a vision of sacredness, of light, of the face of Jesus, or the face of God—welcoming me home. In this context I would be in the same state of mind as elicited in reading the latter part of Revelations where the new Jerusalem descends bringing with it no more pain, sorrow, or death. It is an emotional and mental state that brings about hope and expectation. So I suppose this is really what I want in the end. I hope to see the faces of friends, the kind and loving faces of relatives. But if this doesn't work out, I could rest content with a personal vision of the New Jerusalem. I hope to experience an epiphany—a filling up with a sense of purpose that has an inertial force of continuance and hope that leads to the actualization of essential love projecting into eternal life. 

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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Gadfly Periles

Would it frighten or delight you to be a prophet? Why? (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, p.306).

"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you....” (Luke 13:34 NIV)

Socrates receives hemlock

The Trial of Socrates refers to the trial and the subsequent execution of the classical Athenian philosopher Socrates in 399 BC. Socrates was tried on the basis of two notoriously ambiguous charges: corrupting the youth and impiety (in Greek, asebeia) (source).

It is clearly evident both from personal experience and from the experiences of others that there exists tremendous pressures to conform. When I was a young man in Miami, one summer I decided that I could use a little extra spending money. I looked in the classified section of the newspaper and answered one of the ads. It was an ambiguous ad and promised great opportunity without being too explicit. When I arrived on time at the designated place, there was a room full of potential applicants and the group was soon addressed by several ardent speakers in front. It turned out the task involved was selling encyclopedias. I will never forget the tone of the meeting. There was a tremendous effort to make everyone feel obligated to join the team and actively sell encyclopedias throughout the city using extreme pressure directed at potential customers, really to the point of being unethical. Since then, I have seen repeated in many forms pressures to conform operating on various levels in diverse situations. Not infrequently it is found in a business environment where the pressure to conform is immense. There will be some idea,“movement” or trend that becomes predominant in the organization. And to not conform to that force, whatever form it takes, jeopardizes one's standing and place within the organization.

When asked “Would it frighten or delight” me to be a prophet, I am first confronted with the non-conformist aspects involved and the great challenges presented by the tidal waves of coercive pressures to conform, to go along to get along. As in the business environment, in the larger social environment the costs of being a gadfly are real (gadfly: one “who upsets the status quo by posing upsetting or novel questions, or attempts to stimulate innovation by proving an irritant” [Wiktionary]). So, whether it is Isaiah, Jesus, Socrates, or a whistleblower in a company, filling the role of a prophet takes tremendous courage and conviction.

It fundamentally raises the question: whose team are you on? Are you on the team of prophets, whistleblowers, and martyrs who join the cause of simple truth, or have you joined the often awesome teams that yield to the pressures of current enthusiasms however misguided?

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Monday, April 16, 2012

On Spiritual Validation

This morning on the radio I heard a program discussing religion and politics. It made the interesting observation that those who want bigger government and those who want smaller government both claim support from the Scriptures. I suppose both say that human freedom relies on their point of view. I suppose that both say compassion resides with their point of view. Those for a bigger government claim there is a responsibility of the commonweal to support and help those who are in need. Those who want smaller government say they want to show compassion for those who are independent, and they want to rely more on volunteer and charity organizations to help the needy. This was interesting to me for during the past several days I have asked how does one discern God's will? Both sides of this issue say they get their support from the Bible.

I want to analyze a little more what goes inside one's head when they feel led by the spirit. In my case, critics could say that I use the will of God as an excuse to confirm what I would have done anyway without any spiritual help. For example, I have recently and regularly attended a mosque. Sometimes sitting on the floor in an attitude of prayer and waiting for the service to begin, I have thought to myself—does God support what I am doing since I am a Christian? I can imagine God looking down on me with approval because he understands that what I am doing comes from the disciplines of love as I perceive them. I have been earnestly trying to overcome a prejudice. I have seen many news reports and commentaries that tend to paint Muslims as being extremist throughout. But from my experience at the mosque here in St. Petersburg, this clearly is not the case. So despite the Muslim belief that Christ was merely a prophet and that works in the last analysis contend with grace in importance, I feel certain that God wants me there. I even feel certain that Jesus, his only son sitting at his right hand, also supports my actions to worship his heavenly father as I do and as the Muslims do. So it could be said that I am looking to God for support for something that I really want to do willfully on my own. Yes, because I feel it so strongly, I remain certain that I am in divine will.

So when I hear two different political points of view claiming divine leadings, I can appreciate that both sides strongly feel, believe, and have adamant faith that their leanings are true. Perhaps while not logically consistent, I believe it possible that both are right for both are necessary in the big picture.

Finally, a note about tonight's blog. I composed it using some software that I just received today. That software is Dragon NaturallySpeaking. I simply speak into a microphone and the words magically appear on the screen. I must admit it does a great job; better than the software I tried six years ago by the same company. Obviously, the software engineers have made great improvements. One helpful new feature is that now one can choose their accent region—for me, southern.

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Saturday, April 14, 2012

Street Fortitude

- by meitantei -

Two common sayings are: “You gotta do...what you gotta do” and “The way it the way it is.” Both of these statements seem simply reflexive on the surface. But considering the situations where they occur, it is clear that they also show very important attributes of the human spirit. I have heard “the way it is” saying used when it is necessary to fully accept less than ideal conditions. While much preferring something else, we signal that we are resolutely committed to coping with the realities presented. We will do whatever is necessary to grapple with the situation, and even though we may not prefer it or greatly like it, we are OK with it and will measure success on realistic terms. The “you gotta do” phrase is a call to arms. We will brace ourselves and be willing to muster any courage or endurance necessary. It's a saying that might be said before stepping into a cold shower on a winter morning when the water heater doesn't work. While these two sayings on the surface seem repetitive, they in fact give us a glimpse about why humanity has met and mastered many adverse circumstances over the millenniums.

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Friday, April 13, 2012


When confronted by opponents are you more likely to “fight” or “flee”?  Why?  What does that say about you?  (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, p.260).

Closely related to how one responds to the challenges presented by others is the way one responds to any challenge, say those presented by a difficult task.  Does one then choose to “fight” or “flee”?  Here “fight” could include determination, persistence, courage, and patience whereas “flee” could include being easily discouraged, running away from the situation, being easily intimidated by a challenge, and being easily frustrated.  I at once think of Winston Churchill during World War II days.  As he chose to fight Nazism on the battlefield, he equally chose to meet every problem of whatever type with staunch determination.  As he did not run away from Hitler, neither did he run away from everyday coincidental tests.  He had the tenacity of a bull dog in the face of any challenge.  One of his brief exchanges epitomizes this gumption—Nancy Astor: “Sir, if you were my husband, I would give you poison.”  Churchill: “If I were your husband I would take it” (Source).  Let’s face it; we love an individual who is not a shrinking violet.  It tells us that a person is comfortable with who they are and confident that they can hold their own in any challenge.  They let others have whatever opinion they like; they are self-assured enough to understand that they do not have to accept whatever judgment others may render about them.  Some years ago there were a lot of classes on “being assertive.”  That is, say in the face of a bully, one can stand up to the pressure because the bully has no control over one’s self-concept or self-respect.  It is not necessary to neither stoop to their level nor allow them to determine the manner of your response.  For example the bully may insult your leadership abilities, but you do not have to accept his evaluation of what leadership is all about much less accept his view of you.  Being assertive is seen to be a good and healthy state of mind and action. In the end one’s response to challenges arises from the essence of who you are, not determined by others or the awesomeness of the task.

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Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Irony of Humility

[Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.] Numbers 12:3 (NIV).

“Humble” can mean relatively low in rank and without pretensionsEncarta Dictionary. Certainly Moses was not low in rank among his people, and for someone who communicated directly with God it may be a little difficult to view him as without pretensions.  As a verb “humble” means: to make somebody feel less important – to make somebody feel less proud or convinced of his or her own importance (ibid).  Now when we consider that Moses told others that the source of his authority was “I am” and that he stood up to Pharaoh, not an unimportant person, it can become difficult to understand the nature of Moses’ humility.  Other definitions of “humble” include modest – modest and unassuming in attitude and behavior in addition to being respectful – feeling or showing respect and deference toward other people (ibid).  One can only guess that Pharaoh did not find Moses humble when he had the temerity to demand “Let my people go.”  But this observation applies not only in viewing Moses.  One could likewise consider Martin Luther King, Jr. and wonder how someone could be considered humble who was willing to confront established authority and the accepted mores of society and to speak out so forcefully before power.  Yet I think it is readily possible to view him as humble in the sense that he was willing to subject himself to ridicule and abuse—to venom and hatred—and even controversy within his own ranks to serve what he found to be the will of God.  So, it becomes essential to identify from whose point of view Moses and MLK were humble—surely not from their opponents.  But their willingness to subject themselves to abuses for the service of a higher cause marks them as humble.  In this sense, they could be relied upon to be humble before God, even in the face of the contrary opinion before man.

My son George is building a business in car detailing.  Today I spoke with someone in the same business who has headed his own company for many years.  I asked him if he would mind if George gave him a call to discuss the in’s and out’s and essentials of building and maintaining a successful business.  He graciously replied that he would be willing to talk with George at any time. I plan to give George his card and recommend that he call him.  In my own mind, this will be a critical test.  Will George (the rising entrepreneur of a new business) be willing to humble himself before the seasoned advice of experience?  In this sense, a successful business is founded upon humility—the willingness to listen and seek advice.  Likewise Kenny (the seasoned veteran) is humble in his willingness to share his observations.

This leads to an observation regarding the irony of humility—it often can be viewed judgmentally as pride.  Simply because one fills a high-profile position is no automatic indicator of his humility or lack of it.  The person of low rank can be a hundred times more arrogant than the exalted.  If we find someone arrogant, we should first ask is it not really we who are arrogant and complacently established in exploitive ways.  We need to recognize a fundamental truth—that strength and humility are not incompatible.  If we were to ask, how dare one suggest an action, humility on our part will first require that we strive to put ourselves in his shoes and to even search out the will and viewpoint of God in place of our own.  If we can’t do this, then perhaps we are the ones needing a little humility.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A Debt Owed Everyone

Courbert Self Portrait
Growing up, who did you want to be like?  Did this person inspire you or make you feel jealous?  (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, p.246).

The persons I wanted to be like growing up usually were people I wanted to be better friends with but felt somehow I did not measure up.  When I was in elementary school, there was a guy my age named Johnny Courier.  I admired him greatly and was jealous of him.  It’s difficult to say exactly why.  Perhaps he had more social graces than me, was more popular than me; above all, I thought he was closer to the train engineer than me.  In middle school I had three or four good friends, like Steve Martin and James Bell.  We saw and treated each other as equals.  In high school I was jealous of Lynn Revel.  Again, he had social graces and a sense of wit that I did not have.  In high school I was also jealous of some girls who displayed immense social skills—Yvonne Albritton immediately comes to mind.  In college, of course, I was jealous of brilliant, straight “A” students.  I felt slighted as professors dismissed some of my contributions while favorably acknowledging theirs.  The Green twins come to mind.  But by far the man I most wanted to be like in college was my Wesleyan chaplain, Allan J. Burry.  He was young, say in this early thirties, and had everything—intelligence, wit, social skills, and an outgoing personality.  He could communicate effectively with anyone—faculty, staff, or students.  I definitely felt he was on my side and filled with immense goodwill towards me, but I was certain that he saw my limitations and hang-ups and this caused me to keep some distance.  This has typically been the case with those I most admire—assured of my inferiority, I have out of self-defense kept my distance.  Perhaps the latest person I have felt this way about was my Sunday school teacher while at Trinity United Methodist Church here in Saint Petersburg.  His name is Andy Hines, and at the time was a high official in a large corporation—at one time the CEO.  I admired him for his success, but even more so for his social skills and fantastic speaking ability.  He could humbly but effectively, seemingly “off the cuff”, engage your attention for the duration of class, frequently using the chalk board to make a point.  Now that I have grown older, I have learned an essential lesson—all humans have limitations, sometimes even highly admirable people have profound ones.  No one is an exception in this regard.  This understanding of the universality of the human condition has served to make me more compassionate and much less jealous.  In a sense, when we put people on a pedestal we are doing them a great disservice.  Out of service to our own delusions, hang-ups, feelings of inferiority, and selfishness, we sever the link of simple humanity.  My earnest desire for the rest of my life is fulfill the obligations of divine love—to give everyone simple appreciation for their talents and strengths, but also to appreciate their susceptibilities to ill health, fate, addictions, and limited experiences and understandings.

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