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Thursday, May 31, 2012

God & Chance

It is in this light that I contemplate future trials. Under this cultural pressure the divisions that separate Muslims, Jews, and Christians will prove frivolous. The one thing that unites us is faith. We cannot and will not shake the abiding belief that each one of us has a purpose, and that humanity has a purpose, and indeed that the world and the cosmos have a purpose. And if there is action which helps fulfill this purpose, there is action that confounds it. We cannot believe that the creation exists by pure chance and accident. We cannot believe that life is simply a game won by those employing the most adept "spin doctor". We believe in right paths to affirm and wrong directions to eschew. While there is often joy and celebration in life, it nevertheless rests upon deadly serious and fundamental purposes. This unites us in a common faith. The challenges to our faith are great; we must stand firm and not yield to intimidation—however massive, impressive, or bullying the spinners of dead-end fantasies. (Overcoming Intimidation)

Since writing the above on May 11, I have continued thinking about how it is possible to accommodate purpose and chance in a unified view of God's creation. While it is true that people of faith adamantly believe in fundamental purpose, is it not possible to accommodate within this perspective lucky accidents and chance? The way that parents typically raise and nurture children plainly indicates that this is possible.

In the nurturing of children parents commonly work on a practical conviction that the richer the nurturing environment the better. One underlying belief is that while nurturing of children clearly relies on purposeful parental design and sometimes exhaustive planning, there is hope bordering on conviction that the richer the experiences provided for children, the more likely that serendipitous unplanned occurrences will occur. For example, on a vacation trip to Washington DC, the parents plan a visit to the Smithsonian. While at the Smithsonian due to limited time, a hastily turn left down an exhibition hall corridor and not right by pure chance introduces the child to life-changing encounters. In other words, despite purposeful and careful planning, there is the hope, even expectation, that chance alone may decisively serve to enrich the experiences garnered by the child.

Thus it seems plausible to me that while purposely creating the universe, God yet allowed – even expected – that fortuitous accidental alterations could occur during creation.

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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Love Letters

If you could get a personal letter in return, who would you like to send a letter to: The President? The Pope? A deceased loved one? What would the essence of your letter be? (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, page 640).

This question is difficult due to the possible array of questions. My first inclination is to think of a lot of “hard” questions – whether they be about religion, politics, economics, or history. Sometimes I think that I would like to write to mankind's greatest friends. At other times I think it would be interesting to get personal perspectives of mankind's greatest enemies. For example, I would like to receive a letter from Hitler in which he candidly addressed questions from the Serendipity Bible. That is, I would not want his views on the Second World War so much as his views on human nature, and the nature of God. I would like to hear him discuss the Golden Rule and his view of its wisdom or stupidity. I would like to get his understandings of the disciplines of love contrasting them with the disciplines of hate, and why one is more realistic and preferable than another. In short, I would like to get a better understanding of how a twisted mind views the essence and principles of things inherent in everyday life. I would want to make clearer the workings of our agreement or disagreement about bedrock principles and the extent to which any type of mutual accommodation is possible or hopeless. Of course, at base I would be searching for a way to reach the unreachable; or at a minimum to better perceive areas in my own makeup fraught with danger.

Naturally, I would also like to send and receive letters from loved ones. I definitely feel I owe a letter to my father who died in 1971 when I was in my 20s. At the time, I was young and felt far superior to my father. Of course, time has changed all that! I now yearn for a thimbleful of his character. I would also like to send and receive a letter from a dear friend who killed two of his children before committing suicide. I would like to better understand the visage and abyss of pain. I would like to write my college chaplain now deceased. He was a man with the courage to live the disciplines of love. I have a very selfish question for him – what does he really think of me, of my Christian witness?

Many no doubt will think in my letters I have blown a great opportunity to find out and clarify many explosive issues, getting the straight low-down about matters that have great political and religious significance – what was the real intent of the Second Amendment? Or what did Jesus really think about homosexuality? Or what did St. Paul really think about the role of women for all time? By now you know I am fairly comfortable in all these matters. I trust that in time the disciplines of love will clarify all things. I think in this light even the likes of Hitler can help inform mankind. To think that he has no relevance to any one of us personally in my view greatly overestimates our own superiority. And as for my wasting letters by writing to my father and friends, I can only say that some priorities are more exigent than others.

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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Quiet Intensity


In the midst of a problem, where is your focus? On the problem? On the Lord? On yourself? What are some good ways to fix your eyes on the Lord? What kind of music and/or body language might help? (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, page 638).

On first approaching this question, the tendency might be to say that the best thing to do is to focus on the problem itself. Certainly it is a beautiful thing when in a moment of time we see someone in peace and tranquility intensely focusing on a problem. But of course this observation carries with it an important qualifier – intensely focusing on a problem in peace and tranquility. An important precedent to successful problem solving is a sense of grounding allowing the quiet focusing on facts. The ordeals of Galileo come to mind. The discovery of the nature of our solar system was distinct and set apart from another phase – that of dealing with authority. In the first instance one can say that Galileo had his eyes fixed on the Lord, in the second phase he had his eyes on man. No doubt he would have never made his discovery in the first place if man's authority had taken precedence in his mind over facts. The nature of God's authority is beneficent while the nature of man's is often self-serving. The Lord frees us to understand his world, while man's authority at times would encroach on that freedom. We can look to the exquisite beauty of music to sense the eternal and encourage us to do the right thing – not just the politically correct thing. It is important that our body language telegraph to the world a sense of grounding that like beautiful music encourages doing the right thing.

Jesu, Joy Of Man's Desiring (Vocal)

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Monday, May 28, 2012

The Primary Role of a Christian

Tim Tebow
The primary role of a Christian is to like Christ function as a redeeming force in daily life. Safely it can be said that many times during a single day Christians are presented with a choice, either to affirm life and love or not to do so. To affirm life is to worship God through doing one's best to staunch and redeem drifts towards death and decay (emptiness, false pride, selfishness, and hypocrisy). To strive humbly for truth and goodwill is a positive contribution that gives meaning and purpose to the life of the Christian athlete while helping to sustain healthy interactions and developments in the world. Christ is the redeemer because he died for sinners, but he also lived for sinners contributing during his time on earth guideposts for living eternity now. Christians with intimations from the Holy Spirit are to willingly and lightly constitute a living sacrifice serendipitously redeeming the daylight of promise from seemingly inevitable dark entropic forces. 

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Sunday, May 27, 2012

Creative Destruction

Do you like tearing down or taking apart more than setting up and putting together? (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, page 632).

When I was a teenager in Bowling Green a chore that I enjoyed doing was cutting the grass. There was a field in back of the house that had tallgrass growing wildly on it. One of the things I enjoyed doing was encroaching on this field with the heavy-duty lawnmower. This action joined the pleasures of tearing down (cutting down the tallgrass) with those of setting up (creating a beautifully mowed lawn in its place). Often these diverse and distinct pleasures appear in tandem. In my college years I enjoyed doing term papers that critiqued past research while hopefully contributing to fresh insight – once again joining aspects of tearing down with those of setting up. In my work now with computers it is often necessary to analyze (breaking a problem down into its constituent parts) before coming up with creative solutions (building something new). Thus it becomes clear why problem solving is so enjoyable – it offers a double whammy. The mastery inherent in breaking down (analysis) combines with the synthetic mastery inherent in creation – both providing triumphant pleasures to the mind and spirit. I often feel sorry for those who mistakenly assume that work is devoid of pleasure when in fact the very opposite is true – pleasure is the driving force that spearheads the will to work. It is in this sense that work is a necessary though light burden.

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Saturday, May 26, 2012

Alarming Symbolic Significance

Sigmund Freud

"Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar."
  • This quote is often attributed to Sigmund Freud to show that even ... a famous psychoanalyst can admit that not everything has a profound meaning; However, no variation of this quote ever appears in his writings. It was probably falsely attributed by a journalist, long after Freud's death.
  • Actually, the quote is "Sometimes a pipe is just a pipe." The story goes that Freud was lecturing on oral fixation and one of his cheekier students asked about his ever-present pipe and Freud replied, sometimes a pipe is just a pipe. (
While it is silly, even stupid, to find profound meaning in everything, I nevertheless feel that the more dangerous course is to find profound meaning in nothing. While everything cannot be a preternatural sign and wonder, neither should we feel that it is common sense to strip everything of symbolic value. In fact, I think the common tendency today is to err on the side of literalism. For example, a current plague on the health of many Americans is obesity; yet it is surely an inadequate analysis of the issue to assume that obesity indicates excessive food consumption and nothing more. To find the source of every addiction as wiring constructs in the brain does not touch the full dimensions of what in some sense is a spiritual matter. Rank materialism when applied to everything results in seriously incomplete and flawed analysis – as in the circular conclusion drawn that the current economic crisis is due to economics. Surely it would behoove us when navigating through life to realize that each of us takes on symbolic significance. We are vastly more than the sum of our material parts. To view otherwise and to conclude that "a cigar is just a cigar – a man is just a man" is itself of alarming symbolic significance.

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Friday, May 25, 2012

Stepping Out in Faith

What's the difference between "stepping out in faith" and risk-taking? (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, p. 604).

The life and death of Jesus clearly shows that "stepping out in faith" can often carry great risk. In fact, it is difficult to imagine the role of Christ played by a totally risk-averse person. He was "counter-cultural" and thus met serious flak from the keepers of culture. He said that he did not come to end law but to fulfill it. That is, his purpose was to fulfill the spirit of the law and not just the letter of the law. The practical result of focusing on spirit and not letter is that one is subject to the self-righteous wrath of those obtaining greatest worth from living self-righteously and legalistically. This makes one vulnerable to the aggressive reactions arising from active and determined ill will. Wrath hath no fury like that of offended sanctimony.

So what distinguishes one who is "stepping out in faith" from flagrant indulgence in risky behavior? The answer lies in purpose. Risky behavior engaged in for its own sake is ultimately based on selfishness. "Stepping out in faith" serves God and others first and self only secondarily and in a long-term (sometimes very long-term) perspective. Thus, risky behavior is often characterized by impatience, immediacy, and, half-baked objectives; while faith behavior is characterized by patience, vision, and confident trust in long-term fruition. The first is characterized by a nervous instability while the second by a confident steadiness. While faith behavior often comes with great risks in the short-term, the believer trusts that long-term risks are nil. The calm assurance of steadfast faith provides stark contrast to the neuroticisms of the moment that often characterize the play-out of current events.

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Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Chosen Path

What event in your life has swelled in importance over the years? Does it now seem as if everyone was there? (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, p.596).

The event in my life that has swelled in importance over the years occurred in 1976 when at 31 I decided to rent an apartment in Saint Petersburg, FL. I rented Apartment F-2 in the Lakeside Apartment Colony. The address was 1726 - 6th Street South. The apartment complex was across the street from Bartlett Park. I remember clearly that John and Margaret McGraw, the apartment managers, left me seated on the couch in the living room of the apartment to make up my mind whether or not to sign a lease. There have been several times in my life when I've felt especially close to God. This moment of privacy was one of them. I became convinced that the Holy Spirit was urging me to rent this specific apartment immediately.

Renting the apartment has made all the difference in my life. My experiences there could not be duplicated anywhere else. I eventually bought a house about a mile away in which I still live today. In the apartment I met a terrific friend that later introduced me to the pain and mystery of tragedy. I developed an extended family and met children that have grown up to call me Dad (we still communicate often). While at Lakeside Apartments I started attending a church in the neighborhood. This led to my acceptance (and that of my children) into the church family. Years later the church closed and a young friend and I started attending our present church. This led to my meeting of Kathy in Sunday school. After a few years we married. Moving into the apartment contributed to my work and education. The University of South Florida was in walking distance which made attendance there convenient. I work for the City of Saint Petersburg. In 1980 I got placement there initially through CETA—a program I entered after a mental breakdown that possibly was in part brought on by the stresses of living in a challenged neighborhood. Overall, the apartment rental in 1976 has led down avenues that have greatly enriched my life. The experience has decisively contributed to broadening my sympathies.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Situational Trust

For what reasons might someone be suspicious of you and withhold their trust? How do you win over those who are suspicious of you? (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, pp. 595-6).

Situation Ethics: [Joseph] Fletcher [who wrote in the 1960s] believed that there are no absolute laws other than the law of Agapē love and all the other laws were laid down in order to achieve the greatest amount of this love. This means that all the other laws are only guidelines to how to achieve this love, and thus they may be broken if the other course of action would result in more love (Wikipedia).

I begin a discussion of today's questions regarding trust with a reference to “Situational Ethics” because the withholding or giving of trust most essentially involves the concept of situational appropriateness. Situational trust simply means that we seldom extend trust absolutely regardless of the situation—rather, we ask a “coping” question—can I trust the person in question to cope well in this situation (and not some other, or in some absolute sense). That is, our trust in another is implicitly qualified by the situation. I may trust my doctor absolutely as a physician, but extend him no trust whatever in some area outside of his expertise. Likewise, a parent may have great trust in their teenage son or daughter in some areas, but extend them little trust to drive responsibly under conditions of peer pressure. The son or daughter may in turn trust their parents in many situations, but never to be cool in front of their teenage friends. The examples could go on and on—all demonstrating that trust is extended in terms of situational ability.

Thus, in answer to the question “for what reasons might someone be suspicious of you and withhold their trust” we must look at the perceived ability to cope given a specific situation. To increase trust, one must either increase their ability in the given situation, or else change the situation to one in which they hold greater ability. Perceived competence in a given area is necessary to win over the trust of others. In this sense, trust is always extended or withheld as situational trust.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Concrete Gratitude

That loaf of bread: How many hands contributed to its getting to the grocery store? Your last hotel stay: How many workers were involved in making it so pleasant? Why doesn't the little guy ever hear, "What a great sandwich" or "What a good night's sleep”? (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition p.582).

Over the years I have heard grace said at the dinner table many times. Often the thanksgiving is of a general nature: "Thank you for this food, bless it to our bodies and us to Thy service. Amen...” A prayer by my uncle Calhoun Geiger stands out in my memory as offering sharp contrast. His family and ours were at an evening meal – a feast – prepared by my mother in Bradenton, Florida. We sat at the dining room table – a room with windows on two sides. The afternoon sun shone on the trees outdoors. Dad asked Uncle Calhoun to say grace. In his quiet, thankful way he began to pray. But there was to be something very different about this meal's grace. It briefly but indelibly painted the scene of workers in a field toiling to raise and harvest crops. Uncle Calhoun was grateful for their efforts and sacrifices. It struck me as a prayer filled with realism. God's bounty frequently does not fall as manna from heaven. Toil and sweat and sacrifice are often involved. It was refreshing to see in this "thanks be to God" a glimpse of the very practical means of deliverance – dirty and calloused hands.

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Monday, May 21, 2012

Today in Sunday School

A foul mood is spreading across our society and the world these days. Dialogue seems to have been replaced by name-calling that is little related to truth. Broadcasters fill the air with divisive labels designed to wound. Sometimes we see the same malice in the arena of faith and religion. This kind of talk reduces difficult issues to slogans and stops us from seeing others as worthwhile individuals. However, each of us has the choice and ability to move beyond labels and categories. (F. Richard Garland, “Labels and Categories” The Upper Room May 16, 2012).

Taxonomy: The science of finding, describing, classifying and naming organisms (Wiktionary).

We are faced with a dilemma – the powerful tool of categorization can greatly assist in promoting understanding; however, it can also function to close off thought. It can be based on careful, painstaking objectivity; or it can be based on fast and loose subjective prejudices. It can arise from knowledge, or it can arise from ignorance. Today's Sunday school lesson focused on the fast and loose variety of labeling and categorization. This variety 1) brings a cheap and unearned sense of closure, 2) functions to allay deep-seated anxieties with a Band-Aid (leaving one prone to defensiveness), 3) places one in a family of like-minded true believers, 4) sets up a factotum authority custom-designed to reinforce prejudices based often on ill-will and arrogance, 5) and offers perverse and evil grace. Unlike classification buttressed by objective evidence established through a careful process that can be replicated, we are here asked to kowtow to self-appointed, volatile and infallible authority. The obvious question is: how can we extract ourselves from this vicious process? The answer lies in Scripture: (Deuteronomy 30:19 -NIV) This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live. However tempted to take the broad and easy path – essentially based on selfishness and sloth; we must remember at base vigilante, rogue characterization embodies death itself.

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Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Most Friendly Theater for Meaning

For all who live fairly humble, nondescript lives, why should we think our life still counts for something? (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, p.575).

This is a question that my dog Stanley never agonized over. He was a terrier and had much spunk and energy. As far as I know he never once experienced angst over questions of being. This I think goes as well for all animals – other than man. (On the other hand, I have seen abused animals – such as dogs – appear sadly and chronically intimidated.) So today's question is peculiarly a human question. Only man as a rule seems ready to doubt his value – his self-worth – based upon humble external circumstances. I think there is a little of the messiah complex in each of us – in some secret, hidden space deep within, we would like to save humanity in some wide, sweeping way. It is not simply the immature that can shed a tear when viewing Superman saving the day and thus fulfilling his heroic role. Since we can have such free-flowing messianic fantasies, we irrationally undergo self-condemnation when confronted with the limitations of ourselves and the restrictions of reality. To put it baldly, if I cannot be Superman, then my life doesn't really count for anything. I have in time come to appreciate man's drive for meaning – a need for meaning that is ironically most deeply satisfied not by broad sweeping contributions, but by very specific in-depth relationships. A sense of fulfillment that comes not by excelling in the impossible, but by effectively accomplishing the doable. The most friendly theater for meaning proves to be the humble and nondescript.

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Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Need for Work & Fun

Can you live "one day at a time"? Does the past drag you down, or the future worry you? If expectations and obligations set your agenda, what do you have to give up to truly experience the present moment? (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, p. 573).

When I was a kid I much enjoyed the story about the grasshopper and the ants. I even had a phonograph record with a catchy tune relating the wisdom of the ants who stored up food for the winter compared to the shortsighted action of the grasshopper who did not. All my life I have much identified with the ants and their recognized need to prepare for the future. Of course, at this time of my life the future is largely here. There is a sense in which the rest of my life will depend upon the resources I have already stored up. For me economically this is largely represented by a pension and social security. Since there is no need for me to get further formal education in preparing for the future, I now much more resemble the grasshopper in enjoying the intellectual feast of the present. Time has now shifted my perception to align more with that of the grasshopper. I want to enjoy each day to the fullest and to appreciate the precious sense in which my time left on earth is relatively short, hence the value of every moment. I think the wisdom of the grasshopper and ants story is that the ants (with their preoccupation with the future and the need to work) and the grasshopper (with his appreciation of fun) both have their place in the story of life.

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Friday, May 18, 2012

The Real Source of a Winning Attitude

Are you active in any sports or other competition? Do you win more than you lose? Would you keep playing if you always lost? (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, p.572).

Loving parents strive to instill a winning attitude and spirit in their children. It is inconceivable that a loving parent would wish to instill the opposite – a losing attitude. That is almost the definition of love – to make a loved one not only feel like but be a winner. We want to build up the ones we love, not tear them down. Lucky is the person who has been so raised in childhood that he develops this spirit. It is highly important that one be so constituted that they refuse to let themselves be defined by the occasional failure or setback. Optimally, a failure or setback is simply a stimulus to move forward. This stance relies on a deep indelible belief that failure is not in any way characteristic of me. From whence does this belief arise.

It is completely possible for parents to raise their children in a constructive way without also teaching that cutthroat competition is necessary to establish a winning spirit. It would be lunacy for parents to decide that constant and strident competition between siblings would result in a positive, flourishing atmosphere. In fact we come upon a striking conclusion – a winning spirit does not depend upon competition at all, but upon being the undeserving recipient of generosity and kindness. It is surely shortsighted and wrong-headed for people so luckily raised to conclude that they alone are responsible through wars of competition for developing a triumphant winning spirit. In fact they owe their winning attitude to the very opposite – an atmosphere of love and generosity in which they were made to feel special just for who they are quite apart from any concept of just deserts. The believe that competition is the source of a winning attitude is ill-founded.

Competition in biology, ecology and sociology is a contest between organisms, animals, individuals, groups, etc. for territory, a niche, or a location of resources, for resources and goods, for prestige, recognition and awards, for mates and group or social status, for leadership; it is the opposite of cooperation. It arises whenever at least two parties strive for a goal which cannot be shared or which is desired individually but not in sharing and cooperation. Competition occurs naturally between living organisms which co-exist in the same environment. For example, animals compete over water supplies, food, mates, and other biological resources. Humans compete usually for food and mates, though when these needs are met deep rivalries often arise over the pursuit of wealth, prestige, and fame. Competition is also a major tenet in market economy and business is often associated with competition as most companies are in competition with at least one other firm over the same group of customers, and also competition inside a company is usually stimulated for meeting and reaching higher quality of services or products that the company produce or develop.

Cooperation or co-operation is the process of working or acting together. In its simplest form it involves things working in harmony, side by side, while in its more complicated forms, it can involve something as complex as the inner workings of a human being or even the social patterns of a nation. It is the alternative to working separately in competition. Cooperation can also be accomplished by computers, which can handle shared resources simultaneously, while sharing processor time.

Winner: Champion, the victor in a challenge or contest.

Loser: A person who fails to win.

[Definitions from: Wikipedia]

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Thursday, May 17, 2012

When Losing is Winning

... Is surrender ever honorable? Is resistance always noble? In what way do you need to surrender? To keep fighting? How do you know when to do what? (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, p.573).

These are perhaps the most persistence and important questions that we face. We are in a dilemma – if we too readily accept reality as unchangeable, progress would never be made. On the other hand, we must stand ready to accept reality when it cannot be changed. The better part of wisdom is knowing when to fight a certain battle and when to surrender in that battle so that greater and more important goals can be defined and won – so that new horizons can be set and new efforts enlisted. A large part of our sense of meaning and our self-esteem comes from working towards and fulfilling unrealized goals from whence come a sense of hope – surely an essential form of deep and abiding human pleasure. But coming to grips with reality is another source of pleasure. For example, identifying natural laws that cannot be changed paradoxically empowers us since we are better able to cope and even exploit nature. So in a real sense, even when we are confronted with the inevitable and the unsurmountable, we come out winners. To come face-to-face with limitations opens up vast horizons and new possibilities. Knowing one's limitations makes one appreciably stronger.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Handy Tool of Lying

Who or what makes a lie okay? Conversely, do you always have to tell everybody anything they ask? Can you protect yourself by letting people be misled? What examples come to mind.... (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, p.530).

When I was an undergraduate I read a small book Science and Human Values by J. Bronowski. The book has three chapters: 1) The Creative Mind; 2) The Habit of Truth; 3) The Sense of Human Dignity. I have to admit I have forgotten most of the book. But the chapter headings, especially that of chapter 2, stand out in my memory. Clearly, the habit of truth is an essential contributor to the progress of humanity in discerning facts and identifying “that which is so, regardless of what we may say about it.” Inevitably, credibility and trust are fatally damaged by the discovery of self-serving and expedient lies. This alone should make us very reluctant to develop a habit of lying.

But it is likewise clear that lying is sometimes justifiable. Like Huck Finn protecting Jim from the hands of the slave hunters, sometimes lying is the only decent thing to do. A great difficulty arises, however. For once we learn that lying can get us out of tight spots, there is a great temptation to rely on the practice habitually. Once we have found that lying is a handy and useful tool, we develop a bias to use it.

So when we lie, it should clearly be an exception and not the rule. A lie must only be told when it confirms a greater truth – as in the greater truth of Huck's friendship and loyalty to Jim contrasted with the slave hunters' evil intent. But even so, we should be aware of the human weakness that so readily can rationalize away any felt moral difficulties. Lying and rationalization are very best friends and in combination easily become addictive.

It is a plain fact that lying is not only verbal, but also behavioral. I can lie in my demeanor and phony body language and facial expressions. I also can lie through indirection and the imposition of an essentially insincere tone. How often, I wonder, has malevolence been cloaked in seeming compassion? There can even be conventions of lying as in the common assumption that resumes habitually stretch the truth and that speeches purportedly given by the speaker are actually ghost written. All of this more sophisticated lying simply suggests that when a parent skewers a six-year-old for a verbal untruth, that parent should humbly consider the complete spectrum of their own behavior.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Towards Effective Criticism

Do you get defensive easily? When do you take off your armor? What is your prized defense mechanism? (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, p. 526).

I become defensive and get easily offended when I sense the following transaction in process—I, viewed as an immature child, am the subject of scolding by an all-wise and all-knowing parent. And it seems this transaction is often in play when I am the subject of criticism. I then burn in resentment. Criticism that I can handle well always comes prefaced by qualifiers. For example, the person criticizing my behavior can say one of the following: “It's easy to draw that conclusion, but....” “A lot of people make that mistake, but....” “I've often done the same, but....” “I can see how you would draw that conclusion, but....” The effect of these statements is to ameliorate the offensive suggestion that my error was really due to gross immaturity and intentional irresponsibility – that the transaction in process is that of a perfect superior correcting a flawed inferior.

My prized defense mechanism when I know I have made a blunder is to take the offensive; that is, "The best defense is a good offense." If I take the initiative in revealing a blunder, then that shows I have perception and judgment – no one had to point out my blunder for me; it gives me a sense of being in control and independence – I am not being controlled by others; I have mastery over the tone of revelation – a positive one, not a negative tone of reprimand – I can use self-deprecating humor and a measure of winsome humility; despite the blunder, I nevertheless have insight and self-knowledge. In short, it is a far better situation to proactively confess one's own mistakes and not to have them subjected to the adverse scrutiny of others.

This has implications for my behavior as well when it's my turn to point out the foibles of others. I can use one of the qualifiers mentioned above – implying equality and not superiority. I stand ready to appreciate the self-deprecating humor of others when they admit one of their mistakes. This often invites reflection on my part that (along with many others) I have done similar things—or worse; and it arouses my appreciation that I am being given a model of how admission of blunders is done gracefully, humbly, and even humorously. Perhaps I can avoid like mistakes in the future, or at least upon doing them approached them in like manner. It is a joyful and encouraging situation when one is witness to others' self-knowledge. Whenever possible it is far preferable to allow room for self-criticism and self-knowledge and not to eagerly engage in unsolicited judgment and criticism. Inevitably such negative criticism suggests a stance of superiority and a measure of false pride, lack of sensitivity, and self-righteousness. The most effective criticism is almost always self-criticism. The most admirable skill is the adept ability to help this happen.

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Sunday, May 13, 2012

Nice Fighters

Urijah Faber

Can you succeed by being nice in a "dog-eat-dog" world? Do you have to be violent to be safe? Explain. (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, p.519).

This question requires that two things be explored – first, what it meant by "nice", and, second, the nature of the world. To what extent is the world “dog-eat-dog?”

I think one reason that we like war movies is that war in many ways is allegorical for life. I would like to raise my son to be nice. That is, I want him to learn consideration, empathy, and compassion. But, nevertheless, I would not fully restrict him from watching war movies. This is because in my view it is well to see displayed raw courage in battle. Learning to fight begins with oneself. When tempted to be lax in self-discipline, we need to fight this tendency towards shiftlessness and spinelessness. When we encounter the inevitable difficulties involved in daily living, we need to be ardent fighters to overcome adversity. So, being a fighter begins with oneself. But it doesn't end there. I like to think as a teen my son would have the stamina to resist the pressures of conformity that run counter to good judgment. A "nice" person—when that means never risking the disapproval of others or ruffling the feathers of friends—is a path that will sooner or later lead to disaster. So in addition to fighting unattractive inner traits, we also must learn to resist unwise influence and conformity. In short, a nice person as I have defined it (considerate, empathetic, and compassionate) nevertheless must be a fighter—not excluding the possibility that they must sometimes offend and occasionally flat-out arouse disgust in their companions. Being nice in these circumstances entails putting the best interest of yourself and of your contrary friends ahead of conformism and phony congeniality. It calls for strength and the will to fight.

The next thing to consider is the nature of the world. In actuality to what extent is it starkly "dog-eat-dog?" This phrase means that people habitually act selfishly with no thought of others. Of course, we can readily identify such situations. For example, a drug dealer naturally wants to carry a weapon. This is especially so if the dealer has a reputation for being "nice". For even if the dealer is truly nice in many ways, on the drug scene niceness can be readily construed by others in the trade as being weak and even cowardly – someone that invites being walked over, even killed. Outside of these situations which often skirt the law, we typically find that dog-eat-dog behavior is markedly counterproductive. For example, if I find a business has an ethos of consummate self-centeredness, dishonesty, and selfishness, I will readily bypassed them and give my business to their more customer considerate competition.

Being nice (considerate, empathetic, and compassionate) means that one seeks to establish warm relationships with others. This can be distinguished from a "civil" relationship that is coldly counterfeit. If I approach someone and they treat me "civilly" and not warmly as a friend, I implicitly can sense an aloofness—evidence that they have judged me and hold me as inferior to themselves. So being nice and civil are two strikingly different forms of behavior.

While being nice often comes with some cost, it can also be redemptive and rewarding in the long run. When undergirded by a fighter's strength, it builds self-respect immediately and, over time, respect in others.

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Persistence, Creativity, and Hope

Is the security of your country in "silver and gold"? Stones and timber? Undercover dealings? Where does real security lie? (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, p.518).

Essential qualities required for the well-being of any country or, for that matter, completion of any tasks however large or small are persistence and creativity. Since it is so common for first attempts to be less than ideally successful, persistence in the face of difficulties is simply a necessity. “To persist” defined: 1) To be obstinately repetitious, insistent, or tenacious. 2)To hold firmly and steadfastly to a purpose, state, or undertaking despite obstacles, warnings, or setbacks. (American Heritage Dictionary). Persistence ensures that one patiently stays on the scene long enough to realize success. But repetition alone may not suffice. Hence, the need for creativity.

Creativity: Ability to produce something new through imaginative skill, whether a new solution to a problem, a new method or device, or a new artistic object or form. The term generally refers to a richness of ideas and originality of thinking. Psychological studies of highly creative people have shown that many have a strong interest in apparent disorder, contradiction, and imbalance, which seem to be perceived as challenges. Such individuals may possess an exceptionally deep, broad, and flexible awareness of themselves. Studies also show that intelligence has little correlation with creativity; thus, a highly intelligent person may not be very creative. (Britannica Concise Encyclopedia).

The related traits of persistence and creativity when combined provide the essential means leading to effectiveness. Both traits are naturally allied with hope which concurrently reinforces each of them. Without persistence, creativity, and hope no other assets alone – whether intelligence or wealth – are sufficient guarantors of success.

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Friday, May 11, 2012

Overcoming Intimidation

When I review my life I find many failures and a good number of successes. But of course my biggest regrets lie with the failures. When I analyze the circumstances of failure I find one common thread – mind-blowing intimidation. I have come to view submission to intimidation as no less than a major sin. Intimidation paralyzes action and thought. Intimidation can arise from people, situations, or complex subjects. As I mentioned the other day, I have lately watched Cosmos with Carl Sagan as presenter. Today I watched episode nine which was on the life-cycle of stars. This surely is an intimidating subject for anyone (ridiculously so for laymen). But as a human being I am to do more than freeze under a duress of fear precipitated by complex subjects. I am to keep an open mind and understand to the best of my ability. This ability obviously will be less for me than for many others. But I feel it is a sin for me to turn away from the subject out of fear and discouragement. I am to understand to the extent that I can, to keep an open mind, and to entertain new concepts and ideas. I must avoid intimidation and the resultant mind paralysis. What goes for the birth of stars goes for all other subjects. And not only subjects, but people (and the status they represent), and situations however dicey. My role as a human being is always to use my mind and the leadings of the inner voice to remain steady and to do what is right. I have come to feel that "fight or flight" is not an acceptable option for me. Perhaps it has something to do with my time of life. To fly now so I can live to fight another day is really not much of an option for someone in the latter part of life. I must stand, say, and do what's right. I must of necessity overcome the sin of submission to intimidation.

We are likely facing the makings of intimidating circumstances at home and abroad. I'm especially concerned with the United States and its proven tendency to acquiesce to various addictions – one principally being greed. In the name of entitlement on the one hand and of free enterprise on the other we relinquish our ethical moorings. All sorts and varieties of indisputable authorities are presented to show how greed is the only option. Our patriotism, indeed our religion, is called into question if we hesitate or disagree.

It is in this light that I contemplate future trials. Under this cultural pressure the divisions that separate Muslims, Jews, and Christians will prove frivolous. The one thing that unites us is faith. We cannot and will not shake the abiding belief that each one of us has a purpose, and that humanity has a purpose, and indeed that the world and the cosmos have a purpose. And if there is action which helps fulfill this purpose, there is action that confounds it. We cannot believe that the creation exists by pure chance and accident. We cannot believe that life is simply a game won by those employing the most adept "spin doctor". We believe in right paths to affirm and wrong directions to eschew. While there is often joy and celebration in life, it nevertheless rests upon deadly serious and fundamental purposes. This unites us in a common faith. The challenges to our faith are great; we must stand firm and not yield to intimidation—however massive, impressive, or bullying the spinners of dead-end fantasies.

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Question for the Wisest Person in the World

Carnac the Magnificent
What one question would you ask the wisest person in the world? (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, p.509).

On considering this question I have made several false starts. For example, I have asked what are the best ways to happiness or what are the surest ways to happiness? These questions won't do for obvious reasons for happiness can derive from ignorant and destructive ends. I have finally decided that the one question I would ask the wisest person in the world is "What are the best ways to nurture abundant life?” This question has wide applicability. It can refer to the best ways to raise children, or the best ways to grow throughout one's adult years, or it can refer to the best ways to craft a society so that it will flourish. It is a loaded question for the meaning of "abundant life" is reliant upon one's value system. Thus, by asking this question, we will learn a lot about the value structures of the wisest person in the world. Of course, in part I anticipate answers. I assume that a society experiencing "abundant life" is flourishing not only materialistically but also spiritually – that it has found the best ways to structure the economy, the best ways to explore and adapt to nature, the best ways to nurture productivity and happiness for all of its citizens, the best ways to educate, the best ways to ensure public health, the best ways to structure institutions, the best ways to nurture children and adults, the best ways to manage resources, the best ways to motivate and inspire, the best ways to overcome the destructive and addictive tendencies inherent in human nature. I would assume that such a society could devote its resources largely to creative and productive ends. In other words, in answer to this question the wisest person in the world could be constrained to respond in a lengthy treatise that could greatly enlighten the world. This response no doubt would be highly controversial, endlessly disputed and debated. This would be due in large part to the surfeit of persons humbly considering themselves to be “the wisest person in the world.”

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Thursday, May 10, 2012

Cleansing Outings

Do you feel a need to the "cleansed" in any way? How will you go about this? (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, p.502).

The felt need for "cleansing" is a deep and abiding need in humanity. Much is done from this motivation. What is essentially involved in "cleansing"? Let us first look at a few examples of typical behaviors done to realize a sense "cleansing".

Just this week Kathy and I have started bicycle riding to the Bay. For me this is a chance to make a statement – when I come home in the evening from work I will no longer be a couch potato. On arriving home rather than looking at four walls, I will get out, get some exercise, feel the wind in my face, and enjoy the beauty of our neighborhood. Almost as important as the experience itself is the mental attitude involved. It is a "take charge" attitude. It is the sense that I can make a difference beginning with my own life. It's a refreshing sense of control in which I have the power to "turn over a new leaf." Most fundamentally it is also realization that I have some control over my perception. The way I see things and the experiences I have are at least partially up to me.

This sense of assertion, affirmation, and control can be found in shopping, going on vacation, getting married, moving on to another agenda item, and going to church on Sunday. Even though in church emphasis is placed on God's capacity to cleanse, nevertheless the fact that I am there listening to music and an inspirational message testifies to the fact that I have some control over the theater of perception—some control over fresh starts and reboots. "Recharging my batteries" is not simply passive but also dependent upon my actions.

In this light the Christian concepts – but certainly not only limited to Christianity – of confession, a sense of forgiveness, a sense of renewal is a giant step away from passivity and towards self-assertion. Cleansing and redemption are never minor matters in the mind of man. They encompass the everyday as well as milestones of courage and change. They celebrate fresh perspectives and that man has some measure of control in at least the essential initial steps towards this end.

But what causes us to wake up and realize the need for change? We may find it the result of fatigue, boredom, a sense of guilt, disgust with ourselves, or divine intervention through the grace of God that leads us to see the need for change. When a political candidate comes to symbolize a sea-change in perception, it is not unusual for the candidate to receive enthusiastic support almost as a transcendental savior. Of course, from experience, we know our support is surely overblown, but the deep human affinity for fresh starts, new perspectives, and new beginnings destine us to irrational commitment. Power is called the ultimate aphrodisiac. The intrinsic mental rewards received from a sense of taking charge, of taking control, has profound implications in a wide spectrum of human activities.

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Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Cosmic Kinships

During the past several days I have watched episodes in the series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage with Carl Sagan as a contributing writer and as the sole presenter [Wikipedia article on the series]. I am enjoying the series tremendously and have great admiration for the brilliance and articulateness of Carl Sagan. As I watch the series I cannot help but feel that it is more than his brilliance that differentiates us. His sharp distinction between science and religion reflects a perspective that I simply do not share. Probably this has most to do with our diverse upbringings.

I grew up in a Christian home. My father was a Methodist minister. My mother was a homemaker and a devout Christian. My parents were humble in spirit. They were the least judgmental people I've ever known. Though they were religious, they were clearly not bigots. In all my years at home and in later years when I would return home for visits, I never heard either one of them say one bad word about science. In fact, like everyone else I knew, they embraced scientific developments and innovations. (Like other parents, they would have been proud to say their offspring excelled in science.) Whether it was radio, television, plastics, appliances of all sorts, automobiles, space exploration, or medicine; my parents welcomed them all. They were glad to see advancement of knowledge. In short, while being devoted Christians, they appreciated and used the works of science without one hint of any conflict between the two. My father preached about Jesus every week. But more importantly, he and mother lived their faith. It's fair to say that they respected science for its explorations of nature, while respecting the Bible for giving insight into human nature. The program Cosmos seems to pit good against evil—and it is clear that science is all good and religion is all evil. Science is staunchly insulated from the foibles of human nature. Religion is infested with them. This is an unfairness which would have shocked me had I heard it coming from my father in a reverse judgment upon science. It seems to me remarkable that professing disciples of enlightenment should so readily see themselves as beyond undesirable human prejudices and passions while finding those evils replete in religion. Would that human nature and the categories of experience were so tidily arranged. It is my view that religion and science can learn from one another in the pursuit of reality and excellence. Both religious and scientific abstractions point to facts. Both can help us appreciate the multifarious dimensions of experience – those that ground us and those that inspire.

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This Little Light of Mine

Young Woman with a Water Pitcher
What title would you give your "job" in God's kingdom? How did you find your line of work? (Serendipity Bible 10th anniversary edition, page 497).

Last Sunday morning in church Stacy sang a rousing rendition of "This Little Light of Mine." When I consider the question for today, I think of this song and how so many people really fundamentally share the same job in God's kingdom. We are to refract the light of God however imperfectly through human vessels. We are to hone our talents and to use them to the best of our ability. I would note that this approach takes us out of the business of judging others. We have not been placed here to hold court and dispose of others. We are here primarily to do our best and to concentrate on what contribution we can make. This I I think approaches the gist of what it means to be the salt of the earth and a light not hid under a bushel.

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Sunday, May 6, 2012

Gifts I Would Bestow

Which of these gifts would you give your best friend – fame, wealth, or long life? Which would you like most? (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, p. 495).

I suppose that all the gifts mentioned are relative. For example "fame" is to be known and highly regarded. In some measure, however modest, this is something that I would wish for everyone. Likewise "wealth" can mean simply having all of your needs met whether in regards to food, clothing, shelter, or health needs – in short, to basically be free of want so that your attention and energies can turn away from the sheer struggle to survive. And finally "long life" is a wish for longevity and for good health. So in this sense I would wish all these for my best friend.

There are more requirements for happiness. Principally these include security, justice, mercy, a degree of love and intimacy, and friendship itself.

But true happiness also depends upon freedom! There are two chief areas of freedom: 1) freedom to have an inquiring mind. That is, one is free to roam the realm of ideas unshackled by any authority other than by one's best judgment buttressed by facts and endorsed by one's inner light ; 2) freedom from addictions – the major ones traditionally sometimes described as the seven deadly sins (wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony). Thus, true freedom necessitates the freedoms of thought and soul as well as the other items mentioned. All these I would wish for my best friend and for myself as well.

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Saturday, May 5, 2012

Respectability vs. Usefulness

What status symbol are you most tempted to pursue? Why is it appealing? (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, pp. 493-4).

The status symbols I hold dear include:
  1. A “respectable” job that telegraphs a measure of achievement—especially one that suggests some level of mental achievement.
  2. A “respectable” income level—safely middle class.
  3. A “respectable” car—fairly new (not a beat up clunker trailing smoke).
  4. A “respectable” measure of educational achievement (somewhat more than “average”).
  5. A “respectable” appearance—clean, bathed, presentable clothes, something suggestive of middle class; good dental appearance.
  6. A “respectable” level of independence—someone who occasionally can think outside the box and be “respectfully” creative.
  7. A “respectable” marriage status for someone my age—married.
  8. A “respectable” reputation for being acceptably articulate, level-headed, with broad sympathies—someone with good judgment.
  9. A “respectable” level of social skills—can mingle acceptably with diverse groups ultimately derived from a feeling of innate equality with others.
  10. A “respectable” winsomeness—not self-righteous, judgmental or having weird religious, political, or social beliefs—religious, but not too religious; interested in politics, but not a fanatic; having confident opinions in many areas, but not to the level of being strident or blatantly opinionated thus being incapable of listening to others.
Since all the above status symbols include “respectability” the obvious question is “Can I be of any use?” Since I am so concerned about what other people think, is there any chance whatever that I can make any significant difference? I suppose I have to narrow the field and ask, “respectable” to whom? Hopefully, extremists, supremacists, hate groups, thugs, snobs, fanatics, racists, the self-righteous, and the rapacious will find me unrespectable and disgustingly unacceptable. Preoccupation over respectability is not necessarily a bad thing so long as one does not fall into the trap of thinking that universal acceptability is desirable or even possible—the harboring of a deep-seated emotional need that one be universally liked and loved. Such a yearning is really what dooms one from achieving usefulness. One has to choose sides favoring the forces of light. As dangerous and filled with peril as moral discernment can be, at some minimal level it is simply necessary.

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