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Saturday, June 30, 2012

Dimensions of Disagreement

Ever lock horns in a never-ending dispute? What was it like? (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, page 735).

Let us say for a week I have a contractor doing work at my house. Perhaps it's a bit unusual, but every day we have lunch together in the yard. He brings his own meal, but I supply the iced tea and napkins. Over lunch the subject of politics comes up and we are both opinionated and have viewpoints that are at polar opposites. Therefore, we get into heated debates—yet our disagreements over politics has no effect on our overall good relations. We even come to have admiration, goodwill, and increasing trust in one another for mutually showing honesty and spunk and for staunchly defending strongly held convictions. The key reason for our good relationship despite disagreement is that we have nothing critical at stake in our discussions. We are merely affirming our points of view and do not expect our discussions to have any practical consequences whatever.

Notice how quickly the picture would change if the subject were an area where each one of us has critical, contesting stakes. Instead of politics, say we are at polar opposites about the work the contractor is performing at my house. We hotly disagree over the adequacy and quality of work or materials. Here, surely, the practice of our having daily contentious lunch sessions together would be short-lived. Rather than witness a growing trust arising from our disagreements, distrust would soon fester and ultimatums and accusations would be flying.

Thus, locking horns in a dispute can occur on different levels depending upon whether the stakes are critical or not—and this makes for a decisive difference.

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Friday, June 29, 2012

Sacrificial Friendship

Is friendship a two-way street? Can I choose to be someone's friend, even in they choose not to return the friendship? To answer this question I first refer to Jesus on the cross when he forgave those who crucified him. He remained their friend even though they were not only unfriendly, but even were his enemy. Without question, then, it is clear what the disciplines of love require. We are not only to act in the best interest of others, we are to do so with a willing heart even when faced with coldness. Since love is genuine and not merely pro forma or phony, we must remain in a prayerful attitude requesting of God enabling power to transform the perceptually induced tit-for-tat reflex of coldness into a redeeming response of sincere helpfulness. We are to meet slights and even hatred with forgiveness and love which, by faith, we know is redemptive. This is without question one of the hardest of all the disciplines to exercise.
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Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Steady Drone of Suffering

How would you intercede for a person...close to hitting rock-bottom? Where would you turn for help? (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, page 726).

First, what kinds of things would not be helpful to say for someone close to hitting rock-bottom? Hurtful things would include: you're all alone in this world – nobody cares for you or loves you – you have no purpose in life and never will, just vegetate in boredom and pain and wait to die. Almost equally as useless (perhaps even worse) is to validate the sufferer's sense of loneliness and pain by being singularly cheerful and unrealistically optimistic: just put on a happy face and all will be rosy and well. I know a man presently within an assisted living facility. He is totally blind. The staff of the facility is uncaring and only marginally helpful. The prospects are that he will be in the situation until he dies with day after day of dullness, boredom, and pain. If asked what I can say or suggest to encourage this person, only one helpful thing in the end seems possible. Only one thing seems not Pollyannaish. I would remind him that our Savior underwent great suffering. And that he loves us deeply. And that he can help us bear suffering and find purpose wherever we are. I would remind him of the words of the song that inspired my mother during times of hardship, and which I keep in reserve in case of need; for surely none of us knows how bleak the future can become for us – everyone is vulnerable to outrageous fortune. No one can say for certain that the experiences of Job may not come to resemble their own. The hymn realistically sensitive to the plight of the suffering is “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”

What a Friend We Have in Jesus”
Text: Joseph M. Scriven, 1820-1886
Music: Charles C. Converse, 1832-1918

1. What a friend we have in Jesus,
all our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry
everything to God in prayer!
O what peace we often forfeit,
O what needless pain we bear,
all because we do not carry
everything to God in prayer.

2. Have we trials and temptations?
Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged;
take it to the Lord in prayer.
Can we find a friend so faithful
who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our every weakness;
take it to the Lord in prayer.

3. Are we weak and heavy laden,
cumbered with a load of care?
Precious Savior, still our refuge;
take it to the Lord in prayer.
Do thy friends despise, forsake thee?
Take it to the Lord in prayer!
In his arms he'll take and shield thee;
thou wilt find a solace there.

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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Personal Space

When someone demands from you an assurance that they are right, how do you react? (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, page 726).

When we think of the evil that characterized the Nazi belief system, certainly one of the most sinister aspects of it was the insistence that everyone must conform and exactly agree to set opinions and beliefs. That is, the Nazis's not only were totally confident in what they believed, and what you should believe, they also were totally confident in what you must believe. I have seen this attitude displayed in my country in various ways – whether it be in politics, religion, or almost anything else. I have seen the firebrand preacher condemning his audience to the fire and brimstone of Hell unless they assented to exact and idiosyncratic statements of doctrine. I have seen political ideologues browbeating those insubordinate enough to have their own opinions. I have seen issues stripped of all complexity and one viewpoint crammed down the throats of others. As with the Nazis, such unconstrained aggression is ultimately based on hatred – even self-hatred displayed in perverse form. At the core of civility is the understanding that respect for others is inconsistent with certitude in knowing what others must believe. Respect for others implies sufficient spaciousness for personal integrity of opinion and belief.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

How I Would Describe God

Today, what roles would you use to describe God to a non-Christian friend? (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, page 725).

Three descriptions of God immediately come to mind: omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience. But the question remains, what characteristic of God means the most to me? Hands down the answer is omniscience. But the God I worship does not just "contain" knowledge, he shares it. If I were to use one phrase that best describes what God means to me, it would be that he is the Source of all Enlightenment. He is the one from which intellectual insights and spiritual inspiration derive. His light of understanding gives meaning to every aspect of life. He places all the world, including me, in a meaningful context. And that context is not based on hatred, but embodies love. In fact, enlightenment is love as God is love. Enlightenment without love cannot exist. Contexts of meaning can exist (and can be based on hatred itself), but this is not enlightenment which is positive and actualizes the disciplines of love. So for me, in a phrase, God is the Source of all Enlightenment; and in one word, he is Light.

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Monday, June 25, 2012

Hope and Belief

Where on the continuum between suicidal despair and resurrection hope are you? (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, page 723).

A critical difference between despair and hope is not one of feelings but resides in the practical implications for action. Despair implies that no action will be successful and that the only satisfying actions in any sense pleasurable or psychologically rewarding will be self-destructive ones. Whereas hope implies the opposite. Hope is the engine from which positive, constructive action arises. I think many of the faithful over the centuries initially have made a deliberate and very practical bargain – even if Christ's resurrection is a myth, practically speaking it is worthwhile and valuable as a working hypothesis to assume its truth. Once this assumption is made, daily reinforcement of its wisdom confirms and validates the decision to believe. Thus we find that belief in life eternal arises from a conviction that we should make the most of our present one. Through the mysteries of perception, tentative belief is transformed into confirmed faith. We discover that by aiming for a practically productive life on earth, a full bore belief in heaven and life eternal is thrown in.

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Sunday, June 24, 2012

Fecund Knowledge

Improbable (Impossible) Hotbeds of Fecund Knowledge
To what source do you attribute most of your knowledge? What is common to the rest of humanity? What is unique to you? (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, page 721).

What is the most direct and essential source of knowledge? That has to be and can only be the core value of integrity and honesty as it relates most fundamentally to one's perception of experience, reality, and truth. We can run into a 1000 forces that would confound this simple relationship. I can substantiate this based on my experience at school and work. For example at school I've heard it said that professors must "publish or perish." Of course this applied to students as well. We were obligated to come up with term papers that gave new insights to some issue – say a literary issue. We were to do all this – exhaustively study the original work of literature as well as related critiques and come up with fresh revelations about it – due upon a date certain regardless of the inner workings and leadings of the mind. I would look at a work of literature after having read and studied it, and frankly conclude in all honesty that I was not moved to any new or fresh conclusions and insights but, nevertheless, was compelled to fake it in order to meet an artificial deadline. In other words I was driven to manufacture issues and pump up similitudes of insights to meet some publish or perish date. So one of the key lessons learned at school was how to be intellectually dishonest. This basically fraudulent exercise can be replicated at work. Goals and objectives committees can have artificial deadlines set to come up with ten-year plans – plans that everyone knows full well will have virtually no chance of equating with actualized reality, but nevertheless the plans must "sound good" and give the semblance of buttoned-down planning and control.

Knowledge based on original insight and inspiration that has some chance of furthering the human enterprise comes about much like the spirit: The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:8 NIV). Spiritual inspiration shares much in common with intellectual insight.This is one reason in our time why we have seen significant advancements made not at formal institutions but by free spirits tinkering in the garage comfortably accommodating the facile functioning of creative minds. Inspiration, like true love, will always have aspects of mystery. It is not readily susceptible to timetable deadlines and demand performances. Knowledge to be truly productive and intimately entwined must pass into the hidden circuits of the brain where honest conviction, integrity, and experience help transmute thoughts and images into creative, reliable insights at the brain's own given pace, in its own given way. We must frankly admit that institutional architecture designed to convey respectable predictability and authoritative staidness does not always accommodate nor encourage nor generate this singularly fecund type of knowledge.

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Saturday, June 23, 2012

Discerning Humility

Christmas card with Caspar Milquetoast
 by H. T. Webster
In what area of your life do you desire more wisdom? Where would you like more boldness? (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, page 703).

If this question had asked about increasing one's power, the answer would have been such things as the power to know the future, or the power of to get inside people's heads and see things exactly from their perspective, and after gaining such knowledge, the power to gain access to people's levers of perception to change them to conform to my opinions and beliefs. But, thanks be to God, such highways to perdition are hopefully forever closed to attainment due to the cantankerous integrity of the human will.

In the effort to discern where I need greater wisdom, the related question is – where do I chronically lack insight or understanding? Phrased in this way, indicators for improvements become clear. All my life I have had tendencies of introversion. I have, quite wrongfully, flattered myself in assuming that my reticence equated with humility. From this point of view, I was able to rationalize that extroversion and its cousins (which were outside my abilities anyway) equated with arrogance. Thus, being shy, I quietly flattered myself as being humble and superior when compared to the arrogance of the more vocal and outgoing. It was, if truth be told, a painful instance of sour grapes.

I have come to view true humility as the simple yet decisive inclination to do God's will. And God's will when translated into human lives does not always look and sound the same. God's will for me today may look entirely different from God's will for me tomorrow, or for his will for others at some given time. My sitting quietly in the back row can conform to God's will for me as surely as Eddie Murphy's stage performance before thousands can conform to God's will for him. In short, humility, true abject humility, can appear in strikingly different forms. Moses was humble in tending the flocks of his father-in-law, and he was equally humble in telling Pharaoh to go fly a kite. While I'm sure that Pharaoh must have found Moses inconceivably and infuriatingly arrogant, Moses from a different point of view was the most humble of men abjectly doing the will of God. Thus a conundrum confronts us. It takes wisdom to discern the difference between milquetoast behavior that can in fact derive from arrogance, and seeming arrogance that can in fact derive from humble obedience to God and conscience. This is an area of my life where I (particularly as a retiring soul) need greater wisdom. From this point of view boldness is not an end in itself, but simply a mode of expression that can derive from arrogance or humility – whichever the case may be.

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Friday, June 22, 2012

Prayer and Faith in Times of Crisis

How do you respond to a crisis? a. with fear b. with faith c. with worry d. with prayer. e with action f. with inaction; (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, page 703).

Of course the ideal response in meeting a crisis is effective action and stamina. It is not always obvious the surest and straightest path to get there. Fear is typically our first response to crisis, followed with a moment when we are frozen in fear—this period of inaction brings on a sense of guilt from which we escape through impulsive, often ineffective action. When the crisis proves intractable, we enter the chronic "worry mode". In short, prayer becomes an afterthought and faith a stranger. So, in the nature of things, we put the cart before the horse. Prayer and faith are fundamental for they help us define the meaning of the crisis and help us delimit its nature within a context of fundamental goals and long-term essential values. Thusly anchored, we are sufficiently grounded to engage in confident, effective, and assured action. The difficulty arises when the crisis is social and not personal and when myopic, divisive objectives confound the search for common shared values. This puts us into an argumentative mode, not a prayerful one. Yet prayer and faith with their emphasis on the long-term provide the only reliable answer – perhaps only after the crisis becomes a greater one and finally threatens utter ruin. Then, as a last resort, we may be sufficiently humbled to search for shared essential values though faith and prayer. We, in the end, may find it more effective to worship God and not ourselves.

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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Trivializing the God Hypothesis

In your life, where do you see the "fickle finger of fate" or the "holy hand of God"? How do you know the difference? (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, page 702).

There is a strong predilection based on my everyday life to think that everything must have a cause. All throughout the day my manipulation of things within the environment that impinge upon me reinforce this predilection. I put water on the stove, turn on the burner, and eventually the water boils. I feel dirty, so take a shower and feel clean. Thus most everything that I observe in my daily life has this cause-effect relationship. I am hungry, so I eat and am full. I can presume also that on a biochemical level beyond my knowledge or understanding also cause and effect relationships are going on following a meal. Therefore I have a very strong predilection to assume that most everything has a cause. This strong belief has lent itself to assumptions of cause-and-effect when it is really no more than an association of one event with another. This leads to false conclusions about cause-and-effect and, in extreme cases, the belief in superstition and magic. It also is possible to rely on the God hypothesis – any occurrence for which I have no ready explanation I can attribute to the acts of God. As a believer myself it can appear threatening to my faith to mention God, magic, and superstition in the same paragraph. Is my faith no more than an attributing to God phenomena not otherwise readily explainable? This of course would make for a shrinking God since as more and more causes are eventually discovered in the natural world the need for God becomes less and less.

The reason that my faith is not shaken by the latest explanations of cause-and-effect is that I believe humanity has a purpose set by God. It is not interesting to me to speculate on whether God was the ultimate cause of my dropping a glass of water and breaking it this morning. This trivializes God. Foundationally religion is about fully vetting the nature and disciplines of love. There is a deep conviction that eternal principles of love do not reside merely within the glands of Homo sapiens, but in the divinity of the Godhead. I share with many others the firm conviction that it is unwise and dangerously arrogant (whatever the facts of the case) to fancy otherwise. My belief is that if humanity were totally to disappear from the universe, God and the principles and disciplines of love would continue to reign eternally.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Try a Little Kindness

Where in your life are you working on: (a) Obeying authority? (b) Mutual respect? (c) Sharing (not showing) your wealth? (d) Being the host with the most? (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, page 697.)

Two recent little incidents remind me again about how far a little respect and goodwill can carry you and others in life. In the first instance, Kathy and I were at Walmart in the busy somewhat crowded lobby area. We were in a hurry and I went some distance to the side area to get a shopping cart. As I was coming back into the main entrance area, I had to skirt a woman also headed back to get a cart. I felt the urge to give her my cart and simply go back and get another for myself. But I was in a hurry and did not do so. I could see that she recognized (almost against her will) my impoliteness. Afterwards, I regretted not making this simple and easily done gesture of kindness. The second instance occurred Tuesday at a filling station. I was headed into the store to hand over my credit card to the clerk before filling my tank. A tall, somewhat burly man was headed out as I was headed in. I stopped, turned around, and opened the door for the man. He was genuinely appreciative, and later outside at the pumps, he wished me well as he was getting gas for his own vehicle.

I wonder how many more years it will take me to learn that a little kindness and respect go a long ways towards lightening the load other people must carry while coincidentally giving me a sense of fundamental worthiness and decency. It reminds me of when I used to take my children (adopted from the streets) to Sunday school. Even though this happened many years ago, I can remember now and picture clearly how they were treated with love, respect, and courtesy. The adult class served coffee in the back of their meeting room. The boys liked to go in when the class was not in session and get a cup. Andy Hines, the teacher of the class, would often be standing in the back of the class and would serve the boys coffee – treating them as if they really mattered. If he only knew (perhaps that's the point, perhaps he did know) how much this meant to me and the boys. Lord, I pray that I will consistently and with insight and vision finally apply even the most simple and clear lessons that I have repeatedly seen demonstrated since childhood, but apparently have not sufficiently learned.

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Monday, June 18, 2012

That One Final Effort of Love As Amended

Lhasa Apso
First, I begin by including a blog entry from last week. It reads:

No one wants to feel guilty, and sometimes we go to great lengths to avoid this feeling. It is awesome to contemplate what has transpired in human history on a societal as well as an individual basis due in part if not in whole to this driving motivation. We can at times find ourselves in a situation where we simply must act – feeling that even if in the end we are not successful, we will have done the very best that we can, and thus by making such an effort can live with ourselves. How many times has this one last best effort been the decisive one that has changed the course of events? Often the fuel for this drive to do one's best is love. Nowhere is the efficacy of love more clearly demonstrated than in these situations where tragedy is at times averted by sheer effort, determination, faith, and luck (presuming chance had anything to do with it).

Today we received great news. An e-mail arrived at work from our coworker, Joe. Several weeks ago he and his wife Jenna traveled to the North Carolina mountains for a vacation. They took with them their pets, including Shadow – a small black dog. Somehow the dog got lost in the mountains and Joe and wife had to return home to St. Petersburg without her. This past weekend in one last great effort to do their best to find her, they returned to North Carolina. They searched again without success and were preparing to leave for home when they got a call from someone who had seen their posted flyer. The caller said that a little black dog had been on their back porch for four days. Joe and Jenna immediately traveled the 3 miles and 400 foot incline to the caller's residence. There on the porch was Shadow – smaller now, having lost much weight in her ordeal. On hearing the good news that Shadow had been found, we rejoiced in St. Petersburg as well.

Essentially such commitment to the promptings of the heart and mind underwrites courageous integrity. In the end of his series Ascent of Man, J. Bronowksi relates that in filming the first episode of the series that took place in the valley of the Omo in East Africa, a small plane with the cameraman and the sound recordist aboard crashed. No one was injured, but they had to wait several days for another plane. When it arrived, Bronowksi asked the cameraman if he had rather not someone else film shots that had to be taken from the air. But the cameraman replied, “I've thought of that. I'm going to be afraid when I go up tomorrow, but I'm going to do the filming. It's what I have to do.” Then, in the last words of the series Bronowksi said:

We are all afraid—for our confidence, for the future, for the world. That is the nature of the human imagination. Yet every man, every civilization, has gone forward because of its engagement with what it has set itself to do. The personal commitment of a man to his skill, the intellectual commitment and the emotional commitment working together as one, has made the Ascent of Man. (The Ascent of Man, Volume 13-DVD).

This commitment is a form of disciplined love, and on it rest the survival and ascent of civilization. Jenna and Joe in their actions showed us the core value foundational to the human enterprise. This evening I would like to retell their story with a few decisive amendments.

Jenna and Joe traveled on vacation to the Great Smokies in North Carolina. There, they lost their dog Shadow and had to return to Saint Petersburg without her. Several weeks later they planned to return to the mountains in a last-ditch effort to find her. This would require taking several days off work. When Joe approached his supervisor to request several days off to find his dog, the supervisor said that a special project was scheduled for that weekend and its importance allowed him to get approval for double-time pay, plus a bonus if all went well. Surely the search for a dog did not matter as much. But Joe insisted that he must go find Shadow. The Department manager heard of the threat to his pet project and called Joe into his office. He told Joe that he had been observing his good work on the job, found him exceptionally skilled and loyal, and was contemplating arrangeing an early promotion for Joe; but that the project for this weekend was a crucial test. It would reveal if he were the responsible and committed type that deserved promotion. Surely the search for a dog did not matter as much. But Joe insisted he must go find Shadow. Joe's father-in-law got wind of the pending promotion and had a little talk with Joe. He told him that he was proud to have him as a son-in-law, that he knew he was the type of young man who would operate in the best interest of his daughter. Surely he would postpone going to North Carolina and take advantage of this great opportunity to further his career. But Joe insisted that he must go find Shadow. Finally a wealthy close friend approached Joe. He told Joe that he must look reality in the face. His dog was most likely dead by now, and the lost dog was nothing in comparison to the offer he was willing to make. If Joe would be willing to give up his foolish idea of returning to the mountains to engage in a hopeless search, the friend would purchase an exquisite white Lhasa Apso for him. This purebred would be a much more appropriate dog with which to grace his family. With this, Joe began to reconsider what was in his best interest, and that of Jenna's. Surely he had to see things realistically. So in the end he relented. He decided that he and Jenna need not go find Shadow. He would stay in Saint Petersburg, get double-time pay and a bonus, secure his future with promise of a promotion, please his father-in-law, and end up with a young, fresh, high-status breed for a pet. Thus, in the end, he forgot all about Shadow. Surely we must conclude that not only did Joe and Jenna come out winners along with the those who generously offered persuasion, but in the end good sense triumphed over foolishness. Now at last we can feel deeply reassured and happy about the long-term prospects for humanity.

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Sunday, June 17, 2012

Malignant and Benign Certitude

What importance do you place on setting goals and achieving them? Are you accountable? (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, page 683).

Did the fascists set goals and achieve some of them? Were they, in a sense, accountable? While the answer is obviously that they were and did, somehow we feel an undertow of unease. Likewise, gangs and organized crime can set goals and be accountable within certain set illegal and unethical parameters.

Setting goals implies some measure of certitude. Certitude is oft times dangerous and has been the source of much cruelty and fanaticism whether in business, politics, or religion. The undeniable fact that it can appear in religion is especially troublesome for a basic tenet of the faithful is that only God is omniscient. Even while asserting that human knowledge is inherently limited and flawed in comparison to that of God's, it is not unusual for the faithful to assume severely dogmatic, rigid, and self-righteous stances.

The dilemma that confronts humanity is that certitude while extremely dangerous is also extremely necessary. Say there is a child in a burning building. While the wise and judicious stand aside in the shadows wringing their hands wondering whether to take decisive action to save the child, the hero with assurance and certitude (and not too much thought) dashes in and retrieves the child from the flames. Because of this bias for action, typically we prefer political candidates and other would-be leaders to have some measure of certitude—to be self-confident and assured; someone capable of strong action and not hobbled by too much thought. But I have carefully chosen my illustration by using a benevolent doer with a compassionate and empathetic nature. Humanity is not always so fortunate in identifying those within whom to entrust action and power. Within the right hands the view that "the ends justify the means" is benign. Within cynical hands the view is pernicious and vicious. Certitude when combined with cynicism and circular justification is perhaps the most destructive and poisonous mindset that undercuts human progress. Then goal setting and accountability become structures that mock genuine helpfulness.

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Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Most Satisfying Project

July 20, 1969
Neil Armstrong takes first step on the moon
What is the most satisfying project you have completed? What was so special about finishing? (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, page 683).

The most significant projects are often viewable as milestones. In my lifetime perhaps the most satisfying national project accomplished was landing a manned spacecraft on the moon. This signalled that in the future humanity would be open to further serious high-tech space exploration. In my personal life the most significant project also entailed a look forward. It would not be all joy in accomplishing it, however, for it presented real challenges. Nevertheless, it was clear that if I did not move forward with this project, it would represent a significant failure in my life. It would mean that I had encountered a clear and beckoning pathway to further maturity and happiness and had failed to accept the challenge. But it was also clear there would be severe stresses involved as the project progressed. It is bizarrely true that we can come to embrace our failures and unhappiness. I would have to face some ingrained behaviors and long-held defenses.

Some years ago in my 60s, I fell in love with Kathy, the ideal woman for me. She was gracious, kind, and considerate. We extensively shared religious convictions and an overall outlook towards life. Being single and lonely, there had been a droning chord of unhappiness in my life. Due to this plight, I had established cherished defenses. The most significant of these was to hold fast to relics representing past stages of my life. For example, a back bedroom functioned solely as a cluttered storehouse for old books and college papers. They surrounded the walls, covered the floor, and filled the closet. Somehow I thought that by holding close the past, I could prevent the passage of time. For me, ironically, the fountain of youth had become a littered stack of dusty, dry bones. To move forward it became clear that much of this mess had to go. It took about a month to clear the room. A lot of "little funerals" were duly observed before interring the relics in the trash. Yet, in the end, it was a very satisfying experience for it accepted reality and looked forward to a promising future. It represented liberation and the successful meeting of an urgent maturity milestone.

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Friday, June 15, 2012

Not Buying the Brooklyn Bridge

How does a Christian distinguish between what is God's will and the words of a false prophet or misguided person? (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, page 683).

Matthew 22:37-40 (NIV)
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Matthew 22:37–40 spells out essential Christianity by which attitude and action are verifiable – it is the reality check to all claims of divine inspiration. There are several types of enticements that do not meet this test. One is romantic mysticism in which one worships with pseudo-religious infatuation charismatic persons. This is driven by a profound need for a feeling of significance. By touching the cloak of the religious mystic the need for limitless significance is superficially satisfied. By subject sycophancy one creates a surrogate God. Another enticement tightens the perimeter of the second Commandment to love one's neighbor. One's neighbor is limited to only those within one's clan. Hence familiar abominations are heard such as “my country right or wrong”or “God bless (my country only).” This enticement hugely stokes our ego at the expense of the gospel truth. A third enticement is that created through extensive propaganda. Propaganda represents huge sums invested to have us love entities and ourselves more than God or our neighbor. We are literally encouraged to love a trinket or a leader with all our heart, soul, and mind; and to adorn ourselves with these and not righteousness. In this sense, today's ministers of culture function as marketing executives. In the end, even though we have Matthew 22:37-40, discerning the truth is not all cut and dry. The Holy Spirit abides still to lead us.

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Thursday, June 14, 2012

Stratified Stability

Do you usually do things one at a time... Or do you like to juggle two or more things...? (Serendipity Bible 10th anniversary edition, page 681).

The answer to this question crucially depends on how much time is in "time". For example, "time" can mean the current instance, the current day, this week, or month, or the current year, or the next five years. Clearly the longer the time period, the more essential it is to answer that preference lies in multitasking. However if one is speaking about the current moment, then one can greatly prefer the opportunity to focus on one thing. I derive great pleasure from this sense of focusing – of being lost in thought and action on one issue.

No doubt the greater efficiencies deriving from division of labor in part come from allowing people to focus on one thing at a time. We sometimes complain about division of labor and have some remorse over the loss of Renaissance man. Perhaps we should more rightly exalt in the freedoms that specialization has brought to us. It is unlikely specialization would be so pervasive if it did not bring great satisfactions and pleasures along with it. Genesis, while not giving us definitive scientific answers about creation, certainly got it right on some levels. God broke down creation into seven days (including a day of rest).  He too liked to specialize, to focus, to concentrate on specific chores. Periods of what J. Bronowski called stratified stability (of stasis) is simply another way to introduce specialization and focus into the creation process.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Grounded Steadiness

Rock of Gibraltar
Which gives you more difficulty: External criticism or internal fears? Why? (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, page 681).

It's remarkable the extent to which the people I most admire as being solid and steady have learned to manage if not to master the difficult areas of external criticism and internal fears. Once I asked a prominent person that I greatly admired a bareknuckle question – “Are you a racist?” He thought for a moment and said with a light chuckle "Some people may think I am." I consider how less assured persons would have responded to this question – with agitation, self-righteous indignation and anger. Perhaps I was testing the man; if so he passed with flying colors. He knew who he was – his essential nature – and was not and could not be affected by the prejudicial judgment of others. Could he in some sense be damaged by the negative opinion of others? No doubt he could. We all can under some circumstances. But there is a certain ease gained in realizing that only God sees the heart. The judgment of all others is of necessity in some sense filtered through the prejudices and inclinations of fallible human beings. When one is content to let God be the judge of the heart, then agitation over external criticism and internal anxieties and fears is greatly ameliorated. It is practically efficacious to come to fear God and not man, all the time keeping in mind that we are commanded to love one another.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

That One Final Effort of Love

Great Smoky Mountains
No one wants to feel guilty, and sometimes we go to great lengths to avoid this feeling. It is awesome to contemplate what has transpired in human history on a societal as well as an individual basis due in part if not in whole to this driving motivation. We can at times find ourselves in a situation where we simply must act – feeling that even if in the end we are not successful, we will have done the very best that we can, and thus by making such an effort can live with ourselves. How many times has this one last best effort been the decisive one that has changed the course of events? Often the fuel for this drive to do one's best is love. Nowhere is the efficacy of love more clearly demonstrated than in these situations where tragedy is at times averted by sheer effort, determination, faith, and luck (presuming chance had anything to do with it).

Today we received great news. An e-mail arrived at work from our coworker, Joe. Several weeks ago he and his wife Jenna traveled to the North Carolina mountains for a vacation. They took with them their pets, including Shadow – a small black dog. Somehow the dog got lost in the mountains and Joe and wife had to return home to St. Petersburg without her. This past weekend in one last great effort to do their best to find her, they returned to North Carolina. They searched again without success and were preparing to leave for home when they got a call from someone who had seen their posted flyer. The caller said that a little black dog had been on their back porch for four days. Joe and Jenna immediately traveled the 3 miles and 400 foot incline to the caller's residence. There on the porch was Shadow – smaller now, having lost much weight in her ordeal. On hearing the good news that Shadow had been found, we rejoiced in St. Petersburg as well.

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Monday, June 11, 2012

The Implication of Things

William Blake - Auguries of Innocence

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

What actually does the world suggest? What we infer (thus, what we see as an implication) tells a great deal about us. Once as a paranoid schizophrenic, I perceived the world as threatening and preoccupied with me. While I was certain I saw the world truly, actually I was projecting my own deranged hopes and fears upon the world. In short, what the world implied to me was totally dependent upon my state of mind. Obviously some minds are more attuned to reality than others. The opening lines of William Blake's “Auguries of Innocence” combine our current inferences about nature with a religious reflexive awe. As one atom can tell us much about our universe, and as one cell can tell us much about life; so too can one present moment encompass the absolute. We extrapolate not only the facts, but extensively place them within a matrix of persistent and resonant meaning. This arises not so much by willful and deliberate design as by inherent haunting music firing autonomously throughout the frontal lobes.  

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Sunday, June 10, 2012

Spiritual Freedom

In your life, what has taken many years to get right? How do you account for the delay? (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, page 667).

It has taken many years for me to feel at home in the world – a sense of peace founded upon the assurance of personal validity – that my imperfections and limitations do not demand guilt and shame – that I can say my piece in a context of peace. Even though I live in a society that affirms essential equality, I never believed it. Others were always more equal than me. I still feel this in a sense, but now I appreciate that all people are limited by their strengths and weaknesses no matter who they are or what they have achieved or not achieved. What I have to offer is not unadulterated wisdom or unrelieved accuracy and correctness or limitless insight. What I have to offer is always flawed except in one sense – it is my best take on the matter offered to the best of my ability in the best lights that I am given. And while this is not sufficient to master every difficulty, it is all I have to offer and I have been given assurance that my heavenly Father desires that I offer it. He delights in me not because of my perfection, but because of my spunk in the midst of imperfection. It boils down to this simple realization – the divine Source of all things spiritual delights in his imperfect children achieveing a generous measure of spiritual abundance and freedom – in their power through love to transform smoldering imperfection into the blue flame of perfection.

Lyrics including 4th verse to Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee

1. Joyful, joyful, we adore thee, 
God of glory, Lord of love; 
hearts unfold like flowers before thee, 
opening to the sun above.  
Melt the clouds of sin and sadness; 
drive the dark of doubt away.  
Giver of immortal gladness, 
fill us with the light of day!

2. All thy works with joy surround thee, 
earth and heaven reflect thy rays, 
stars and angels sing around thee, 
center of unbroken praise.  
Field and forest, vale and mountain, 
flowery meadow, flashing sea, 
chanting bird and flowing fountain, 
call us to rejoice in thee.

3. Thou art giving and forgiving, 
ever blessing, ever blest, 
well-spring of the joy of living, 
ocean depth of happy rest!  
Thou our Father, Christ our brother, 
all who live in love are thine; 
teach us how to love each other, 
lift us to the joy divine.

4. Mortals, join the mighty chorus 
which the morning stars began; 
love divine is reigning o'er us, 
binding all within its span.  
Ever singing, march we onward, 
victors in the midst of strife; 
joyful music leads us sunward, 
in the triumph song of life.

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Saturday, June 9, 2012

A Joyful Lady - U.S. City Directories, 1821-1989 (Beta)
The 1936 City Directory for Jacksonville indicates that Victoria I Peake was employed as an elevator operator at Rhodes-Futch-Collins Furniture Company. I found this bit of information today while on This confirms what mother told me—as a young woman she worked there in that position.

This brings to mind a strong characteristic of my mother—her word was reliable. I could always believe and depend upon what she said. How did she come to represent this in my mind? First and foremost, it meant that she was humble—she didn't hold forth claiming universal expertise in all matters. She didn't boast or envy others, and likewise, she didn't over-promise. She felt no driving necessity to do so. She was comfortable with who she was, and this characteristic helped make her a sincere, joyful lady. 

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Thursday, June 7, 2012

Inherent Entitlements

The poor can feel entitled to welfare payments. The privileged can feel entitled to every cent of their property. In my view the fast and easy presumption of entitlement hardens the heart. It too often encourages false pride and selfishness and destroys a sense of generosity and indebtedness. Is there anything to which each person is entitled? Take the newborn baby who has not as yet "earned" anything. To what is that baby entitled? Or take the serial killer, to what is he entitled. This is another way of asking are there any inherent entitlements due everyone?

The answer to this question is not subject to proof. It will inevitably arise from conviction and belief. Certainly my point of view is influence by the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. One way of looking at this document is to see it as a listing of limitations. Personal actions (and those of any institution) are strictly limited to accommodate the rights and freedoms of others. Inherent entitlements are the indebtedness owed by all to all. From my experience and belief those entitlements are dignity and respect. This is evidence in the courtroom when someone on trial for the most heinous crimes is demonstrably treated with dignity and respect. And after conviction, should that be the outcome, the criminal is due and given dignity and respect during incarceration. When incarcerated in the 1960s, I saw this indebtedness exercised first hand. It was shown by the penal institution to all inmates. Thus, ironically, I was never more proud of my country than when imprisoned by it. In a sense prisons are a test that come to symbolize the seriousness with which the scope of these ultimate entitlements of dignity and respect are taken by a country. That is why abuses to incarcerated war combatants while understandable are fundamentally disturbing, discordant, and unacceptable. To say that everyone is entitled to dignity and respect carries with it implications that are open to endless public discussion and debate. Nevertheless, it is important and useful to identify and stay grounded in these bedrock values.

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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Pen is Mightier than the Sword

"The pen is mightier than the sword" – when has that proved true for you? Do you fight better with words or with your fists? In fighting with the words, do you tend to pout? Tease? Provoke? Ridicule? Do you get your best zingers by thinking quickly on your feet, or by composing your words on paper? (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, page 666).

The statement "The pen is mightier than the sword" raises the question "To what extent are words backed up by the sword?" Obviously, it is difficult to say with certitude that words alone are effective if they are always backed up by the sword – the underlying threat of violence or physical force in one form or another. Another difficulty is discerning where words leave off and ideas begin. For example, the word "liberty" is powerful. But to what extent does the power come from the idea or concept of liberty and not from the word itself (a symbol taking on the forceful attributes of the underlying concept)? Since it is difficult to differentiate and pristinely isolate the idea from the word, perhaps one could just as well say "Ideas are mightier than the sword." But words deal not only with intellectual concepts, but reveal emotion and attitude. So in dealing with this question we need to add another saying "Attitude is mightier than the sword."

We can amplify the original statement as follows: the pen (or words or ideas or attitudes) are mightier than the sword (the exercise or threat of violence or physical force in one form or another). The question asked was: "when has that proved true for you?" The first response of many might well be that words are the only tool they've ever had – never having significant authority or power with which to threaten others. This is a disingenuous response for it is in the nature of man to harbor power. For example, some of the most significant exercises of power ever made were made by martyrs. We hold the inclinational power to say "yes" or "no" in thought and disposition if not in action. This power is what some parents find so exasperating about their strong-willed three-year-olds.

Words, ideas, and attitudes greatly influence our perception and thus have great power. The exercise of this power is characteristically beyond control of the will. Much going on within and beneath the mantles of thought and emotion are autonomous and have no easy levers of control. None of us dare assume we are immune to being played up on like an instrument – much like Iago played upon Othello. I am greatly affected by the attitude displayed in others. When someone has a good attitude, I find it almost impossible not to like them and tailor my reactions accordingly. If someone expresses an idea that arouses deep inner emotion within me, my "cool objectivity" flies out the window. The sword simply lacks the power to control perception as readily as words, ideas, and attitudes. In the short-term the sword can control actions. But brute reliance on force is a candle burning at both ends. Brute force is ghastly and haunted by its own inexorable mortality.

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Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Thinking the Unthinkable

If you knew the world would end in six months, how would you spend your time? (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, page 659).

I would first like to expand this question so that it's not only me who knows the world will end in six months, but that everyone on earth knows it. And they know it with complete certainty. This necessitates some huge impending catastrophic event – say, a fast approaching cloud of space debris. The key element here is total and complete credibility – there is absolutely no question raised by anyone that any other possibility exists.

With this in mind the impact upon the congregate human psyche is awesome to contemplate. Much in our economy, for example, presumes continuance. I guard my credit score because I assume that sometime in the future I might need it. An institution is willing to extend me credit because it presumes continuance. All of our schools and educational facilities presume long-term continuance. Our system of justice and criminal law assumes long-term continuance – without it a minor infraction will have the same practical result in terms of jail time as a capital offense. No sentence will be longer than six months. In the story of the grasshopper and ants, the ants work to store up food for the winter. If there is no winter to store up for, will we all become pleasure-seeking grasshoppers? And what would become of ancient rivalries such as the Arab-Israeli conflict?

Clearly, the basic question is - will such an inevitable catastrophe function to ennoble humanity or debase it? Will the disciplines of love and light (patience, kindness, goodness, self-control, carefulness, generosity, lawfulness, virtue, focus on the eternal) predominate or with the disciplines of hate and darkness (impatience, meanness, carelessness, selfishness, lawlessness, reductionism, shortsightedness)? When the unthinkable becomes thinkable and perception thereby profoundly changed, will the better angels of our nature outnumber the demons? Will we live up or live down to the inexorable approach of the last moment? I suppose the best place to start in answering such questions is to look to our own homes and our own hearts. But in the end I greatly fear some likely consequences – rioting, looting, violence. Doomsday could well tear us apart and not bring us together. There will be great temptation to focus on the moment and not the eternal – which, unlike the approaching catastrophe, is not guaranteed except by faith.

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Monday, June 4, 2012

Synoptic Fellowship

Is success oftentimes a danger to our relationship with God? (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, page 646).

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the Kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these....
Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” Matthew 19:14, 24-26 (NIV).

This morning is June 4. We are now into summer. I am much more likely to have a sense of gratitude in spring rather than summer. After the cold, dormant season of winter, I am grateful for the warmer days and fresh new life of spring. After a time my sense of gratitude seems to inevitably flag and wilt under the heat and stresses of summer. This reminds me of Jesus's comment about children in their springtime of life. Children have yet to amass the freight of a jaundiced attitude brought on by tired familiarity and complicated by stultifying status accretion or the lack thereof. Wonder has yet to be replaced by cynicism or despair, or contrarily by solidified ideology and stultifying entitlements supposedly earned entirely through our own efforts. As the rich can lack a generous spirit, so can others who are wealthy in many ways other than money. And the zinger is that the lack of wealth is certainly no guarantor of righteousness. It is difficult for the self-righteous, envious, and resentful (however rich or poor) to enter the kingdom of God. Sometimes I think we need a fifth season – a season filled with wonderment and anticipation like spring yet conditioned by the full light and greater heat of summer. It should also include some joy of the harvests of autumn and even a glimpse of death inherent in winter. The season since it would be synoptic would be called synopsis. Synopsis is in fact alive and well existing within the fellowship of believers.

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Sunday, June 3, 2012

Warren W. Willis Camp

Warren W. Willis United Methodist Camp

Saturday Kathy and I traveled to Leesburg, FL to attend consecration of Barnett Lodge at Warren W. Willis United Methodist Camp. My nephew, Mike, is director of the camp. My brother Bob traveled from Georgia to attend the consecration. The service included a sermon by Florida UMC Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker and music by the band that will lead the music during all the youth camp sessions this summer. About 300 people attended the consecration from all over Florida. After the service we enjoyed lunch in the cafeteria.

The Camp at Leesburg has a special place in the lives of both Bob and me. In the 60's as a young man Bob received the call to preach in the chapel there. He went to the chapel alone after midnight and God told him plainly that he should preach the gospel and that the Lord would lead him each step of the way. Since Bob had a young family at the time in Ellenton and was working for Florida Power Corp., the call required many challenges and changes. In preparation for the ministry he attended Fl Southern College and followed by studies at Emory, concurrently pastoring churches to pay his way. In Atlanta he met Martin Luther King, Jr. and his father—saying the senior King reminded him of our father. Saturday we stood in the chapel at Leesburg where Bob remembered his calling as well as his later preaching (along with his wife, Linda—also a minister) in the chapel during youth gatherings.

For me Leesburg also has special meaning. First and foremost, it represents the considerable practical investment made in my life by the Methodist Church and my family. Over the years, one of their primary objectives was that I live in the will of God. I suppose, in this sense, one can shorten it to the simple desire of many that I be a “good guy”. The church and my parents exercised great art and skill in this undertaking for the challenge was great. Obviously, they had to work with fairly intractable material. But beyond that, the Christian faith allows for specificity—but not too much of it. The challenge that confronts is how to teach principles without becoming legalistic, how to implant ethical boundaries without staunching freedom of the spirit, how to communicate that while the answers to many questions have already been answered by our faith, that yet one must creatively consult the Holy Spirit to meet each challenge with fresh perspectives and vital approaches. At the camp is the Path of Silence—a small isolated path that winds through the undergrowth near the lake. It eventually terminates at a clearing—a small meditation area opening onto the lake. An oak tree there has a limb that bends down and across the opening where a cross stands. I have been down that path alone as a child, teen, young adult, adult, and senior citizen. It represents to me the duality of my faith—it arises from the past yet yearns to meet the challenges of the future, all within the present will of God—it joins together set current reality with eternal purposes and divine assurances.

When we attended the services Saturday Kathy required a wheelchair supplied by the camp. (She recently had a bicycle accident in Saint Petersburg and cracked her knee.) Sitting in the wheelchair she had to extend and keep straight her right leg—meaning that her leg had to rest awkwardly and painfully against the foot rest. By reflex those standing by set out immediately to find some cloths to fold and put under her leg to cushion it against the foot rest. Such reflexive considerate action symbolizes to me one of the key missions of the Warren W. Willis United Methodist Camp.

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