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Monday, December 31, 2012

I Wish You Joy

As 2012 becomes 2013, I thought I'd dust off some international good wishes...

"Salud, amor, y pesetas, y tiempo para gastarlas" - health, love, and money, and the time to enjoy them, from Spain.

"Hals und beinbruch!" - may you break your neck and legs, from Germany...thorough people, the Germans..."break a leg" wasn't enough, so they threw in the neck, as well.
Maybe we'd best stop with that one.

Personally, I wish you good health, happiness in all of your relationships, and financial prosperity.

I hope that you have the opportunity to exercise compassion.

I hope you have the chance to get involved in your community.

I hope that you are called to stand for your principles.

And I hope that, as long as they don't include world domination, that all of your dreams come true!

Entertaining For The Faith

I recently saw a "Christian" movie that, while theologically correct, approached its core values with such wooden reverence that it begged a question that seems vital:

Are Christian movies and books being made for the edification and entertainment of the faithful, or are they in the evangelical service of the Great Commission?

There's nothing wrong with playing to the committed Christian audience, and indeed even the faith of the most ardent Christian can need bolstering.

But there is a potential beyond that, which is only rarely being tapped - the movie aimed specifically at the non-Christian, which extends a hand of welcome and hope, without being judgemental.

Examples do exist in film, but they aren't quite what one might expect. "Blood Diamond" has a lovely exposition of God's unconditional love for us, mirrored in the feelings of one of the characters for his son.

"The Hurt Locker" is billed as being about the statement that 'war is a drug', but its shrewd heart models "greater love hath no man, than he who is willing to lay down his life for his fellows".

Both of these movies would presuppose a knowledge of the New Testament to be effective evangelical tools, but that's not bad; there are a lot of churchgoers whose faith only goes as far as Christmas Trees and Easter Eggs.

The trick is to follow up the movie message with one that firmly anchors the viewer's mind on the scriptural message.

Any ideas, out there?

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Year The Mayans Didn't Expect

According to the Mayans, we shouldn't be looking forward to celebrating the arrival of 2013.

But of course, there aren't any Mayans around to celebrate it with us. That is probably significant.

But 2013 is almost here, like it or not, and it's ours to do the best we can with it.

Part of the 'best' is not making Resolutions that we'll be able to keep for a few days before we decide to nibble them to death with exceptions. It's looking at what you've done in the past year, looking at what's working and why, and what's not working...and why.

For a lot of what we do, this kind of simple assessment is enough. Maybe you want to lose weight...look back to January 1 2012. What did you weigh? Are you close?

If you are, you're doing it mostly right. That is a very good thing. You can fine-tune the good to make it a bit better.

Conversely, if you've gained weight when you wanted to lose it, look at 'why'. Did you change from an active to a sedentary job? Quit smoking? Were you ill, and did you never get back into the exercise routine you had?

It's not about blame-fixing, and shifting responsibility by saying that external circumstances controlled you. They didn't control you, but they did influence you.

And it's important to recognize that, because the other side of the blame coin is taking all the responsibility yourself. You didn't control it all. If you take the wrong-end-of-the-telescope view that your weight gain was solely your lack of self-control, not only are you being inaccurate, you're being cruel. To yourself.

If your child was on the way to school with a science project and a bully waylaid her and destroyed her work...and her teacher gave her an 'F'...would you blame the child?

Not hardly.

Walk that middle road into 2013. You may not exit it a wealthy supermodel, but you'll have a passable chance of exiting it happy with the way things went. And with yourself.

Consistency, not newness, is the key to success in this life.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Week God Came Calling

Digging two graves in a 48-hour time period sucks.

And that's where I was this afternoon, after a second one of our dogs died. On Boxing Day, we lost Tulip, a fairly ancient Pit mix, who alternated between ferocious and clownish, and who once helped me through malarial chills by lying on top of me to keep me war,

This afternoon Trevor, our deerhound, died. Tulip's death had been expected; Trevor began to feel a bit off on Christmas Eve, shook off what seemed to be an allergic episode, and then suddenly fell into a coma last night. He died without regaining consciousness. He was somewhere between ten and twelve, by our estimate. (It's probable that he had a heart attack with atypical symptoms.)

He turned up one day in 2005, standing outside Tulip's run. Tulip got our attention by barking, and then kept Trev from running off until we could get there by inviting him to play at the fence. They kept up a good relationship from that point forward.

My wife thinks that Tulip didn't want to make the Long Journey alone; I tend to agree with her. Or perhaps Trev simply died of a broken heart.

Not the holiday week we'd expected.

But a holiday is just a date, if that's all we can think of. The whole point behind belief in God - from a Christian viewpoint, or any viewpoint, is that the sorrows we face are a transitory thing, and that somewhere beyond this "grey rain curtain" is a "new green country, under a swift sunrise". (Thanks, Gandalf!)

The world into which we're born will break our heart, if we let it,

So don't let it. Think, instead, on the beauty and love that we experience, and the notion that these things are a part of the Creator, and that they're not destroyed - as He is not destroyed.

Think of the thousands of anecdotal experiences of life after death, of encounters with angels, and of Heaven...and realize that if only one of those is true, the whole package is true.

In this case the exception is not the rule; the exception is the necessary and sufficient condition for truth.

As I dug Trevor's grave, I found comfort in that.

Necessary and sufficient comfort.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Breaking Hearts

We're losing another one. Trevor, a deerhound who turned up as a stray, slipped into a coma last night. He's about twelve, getting up there for that breed.

He was a friend of Tulip's. When Trev showed up, Tulip barked to get our attention, and then kept Trev engaged so he would wait for us to get him to safety.

They shared side by side runs for years, and always stayed best buddies.

I think Trev's dying of a broken heart.

I can understand that.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Goodbye, My Friend

Tulip died tonight, and was buried at midnight, under a starry sky and a full moon. He would have liked that.

He was a good dog. A mixture of foxhound and pit bull, he came to us through rather irregular means, after having been badly abused (his collar was stapled to his neck). I suppose he was eighteen months old when he arrived, and nearly sixteen when he died. Not bad.

He had a bit of a red-zone personality, but the most outstanding thing about him was clownishness. He'd jump onto the vanity in a bathroom, and admire himself in the mirror, tilting his head this way and that, while sitting in the sink.

He participated in the great canine wine-tasting party with a couple of his friends...I dropped a bag full of wine bottles, and while I was trying to clean up the broken glass the dogs drank the wine. Tulip's pal Hallie backed herself into a corner and couldn't figure out how to get out, and she stood there, barking madly. Tulip himself jumped onto my desk, knocked everything onto the floor, and fell asleep.

And then there was the lizard game. One day he found a very dead alligator lizard (about a foot long, with bright blue innards exposed), and brought it to me - a gift, I suppose. I tried to throw it over the back fence, but it fell short, and he brought it back. A new game!

I threw it again, harder...only it slipped out of my hand and went over the side-fence, into the neighbor's yard. More precisely, into the neighbour's pool. During a pool party.

Tulip was horrified by the loss of his toy, and he leaped onto the board fence. He couldn't get over it, but he could see into the yard, and he let loose with a despairing howl.

I've been told that having me for a neighbor can be surreal. If that's so... I had help!

From my dear friend Tulip, whom I will miss. A lot.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Don't Try This At Home

In the movies it's easy. Cut the red wire, or the blue one?

In real life the terrs have used a collapsing circuit, so if you cut either one, you're dead.

In real life, you'll never see a bomb, never hear one. You'll never experience the brilliant, pulsating light, the impossible noise - always much sharper than Hollywood would have you believe - the gut-punch of the pressure wave.

You won't feel the searing heat, or the wall of flying debris that changes your face and your life forever.

And you'll never hear, as your ears begin to recover, the piteous cries of those who were closer, and who were spared death, and condemned to life.

Not everyone is as lucky as you. For some people, from Mexico to Manila, from Tel Aviv to Tikrit, the prospect of sudden violent death at the hands of an explosive-planting terrorist is a fact of life.

And some individuals will go forth tomorrow to pit their skills against the bombmakers, to defuse the killing machines. Bombs, you see, aren't designed just to kill the unwary passerby...they're typically fitted with antihandling and antitampering devices that will detonate them to kill the bomb tech. It doesn't get much more personal than that. And bombs do not often travel alone...they're associated with secondary, and sometimes tertiary devices.

When the bomb techs win, a bomb rendered safe tells a story of where its components came from, how it was made...and often are marked with the 'signature' of the maker, in the materials and methods used. Evidence that can close the law's noose, and make one more small corner of the world a little safer.

And then they get to do it again.

When they lose, they most probably die. The bomb suit isn't designed to save the life of a tech working on a device of any size...it may keep the body parts in the same place, but that's about it. It provides a bit of protection on the approach, the Long Walk up.

Today, Boxing Day, you may be on your way to the mall to find bargains, or to exchange gifts for which you don't have a use, or a desire.

You'll contend with crowds of other shoppers, mostly ill-tempered.

There are worse things.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas Presence

They can't deny it. Oh, they can deny the day, and the year, and even the time of year.

But Jesus Christ was born. About 2000 years ago. Several contemporary accounts, written by men who are regarded as true commentators, place Him on this earth, at about that time, in that place.

He started alone, and at the time of His death had twelve close friends, and several tens of followers.

With these, He changed a world. His message of love and hope took hold, spreading across the Middle East and Europe, traveling east to India and Asia, and eventually coming to dominate the Americas.

People chose to accept death, in the process of delivering that message. They were crucified and stoned, filled with arrows and devoured by lions. This didn't happen in the flush of enthusiasm, with His commanding presence looming large over their lives...rather, it often happened decades after He'd gone.

All this points to one thing...He is Real.

So is His message.

He was born among farm animals, and because of that...

...you will not die.

Merry Christmas!

That Special Season

I feel sorry for Christmas. Everyone wants it to be something that suits their needs...

A symbol of corporate greed and consumerism...

...a transmogrified pagan winter holiday...

...a foreshadowing of Christ's bloody death...

...,a rallying cry for socialism...

Ach, you get the picture, eh?

This year I'm going to try to just let it BE. I'm going to try not to let any meaningful thoughts come to mind. At all.

I'll try to sing along with Charlie Brown and not feel guilty,
laugh with Shrek and not patronize,
pray during a televised Midnight Mass and not feel superior.

It may even work.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Flee For Your Love

I guess this may be the last entry for this blog...if the Mayans are right.

12-21-12 is the World's Last Day. 'Bye.

Oh. Still here? Me too. (But where are the Mayans?)

It's curious that so many people put at least semi-serious stock into the possibility that the Mayans may have been right, and that their cosmological model accurately predicted the demise of...well, everything.

And if it had been the Fulani, or the Ainu, or the Huk, we would have equally pricked up our ears and taken notice.

For everyone, except us. It's the assumption that somehow these folks know better, know something that's hidden to us,  because they're not like us.

Why is that? Why would we discount the words of, say, the Greeks, Romans, or for that matter the Israelites, and then pay attention to peoples with whom we share virtually no common background?

Is it that mystery is seductive, and the mere fact that we can't really ask a Mayan what was meant makes our hearts give credence?

Or does familiarity breed contempt, and we assume that 'we' can't really do anything right?

The latter argument's pretty plausible. A lot of 'us' don't want to be us. Many, many people would give a lot to be able to prove that they have Native American blood, or that some great-grandparent was a slave, preferably working for Thomas Jefferson?

We've been conditioned to feel guilty, and, literally, to begin to hate ourselves. So, if we can escape into the arms of a minority group (particularly one whom our forebears oppressed)...

We can learn to love ourselves, this synthetic new 'we', once more.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Where Have All The Christians Gone?

It's so nice to meet a Christian.

It's also very rare.

Two thousand years ago, a dozen of His followers changed a world. Today, a couple billion of them would be hard-pressed to change a flat tire. (Yes, I include myself in the latter group.)

The problem is really one of the ease of lip servie - we can claim allegiance, sing songs and make impassioned statements about how we'll embrace the Cross, and follow Our Lord to His death, without even trying to do what He's asked us to do.

We deride Peter for denying Jesus...and we'd probably be part of the mocking crowd. I mean, we mock Jesus every day.

"A Christian Isn't Perfect - Just Forgiven." It's a nice bumper sticker, and very convenient to hide behind when we find Christ tiresome. We just confess with the mouth that He's Lord, right? Then we can gossip with the mouth, covet with the mouth, actively deny forgiveness with the mouth...and it's cool because we've got a free pass!

We've got Jesus fooled!

Forgiveness is probably the worst. Jesus was pretty explicit about it - before going to worship, a man was to find his brother and forgive him. Whatever offense he cherished in his heart, as fuel for righteous anger...he was to let it go.

Do we do that? I don't. I've only met a couple of people who do. Most carry their unforgiveness with them like melting ice-cream cones, running sticky down their hands. Not very inspiring.

And in this Christmas season, we'll be coveting away like mad - even to the point of coveting the experiences of our neighbors who seem happier than we do, when the house fills with relatives and chaos comes to call.

We cry at Crusades, feeling in our hearts the sorrow of having to think of Jesus' progress down the Via Dolorosa. But so many of those tears are like the phylactaries and breast-beating of the Sanhedrin. They are designed for the people sitting around us, and they response they elicit from our companions are our reward.

Billy Graham liked to talk about a lost and dying world.

We, as Christians, have not helped. We have talked about the Good News, and have lived as hypocrites, rejecting the joy and freedom Christ would give us in return for the filth we cling to.

We are not the solution. We are the problem.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Baby, It's Cold Outside

When we moved to New Mexico, I thought I was moving to a desert full of scorpions and snakes and roadrunners under a sky perpetually screaming with savage dry heat. I thought I was moving to heaven.

Oh. It's a high desert, is it?


Yes, snow, virtually every winter, and sometimes it stays for a few days. It any event, it does get cold, with that kind of thin, penetrating cold that cuts through clothing with fiendish glee.

Clothing...hmmm. My legs were burned several years ago. I usually wear shorts. (Didn't this bozo think more than fifteen seconds ahead in his entire life?)

Well, okay. We're not moving any time soon, and my legs - and the rest of me - have had to make our peace with the cold.

The funny thing is, it wasn't that hard. I realized that if I go outside with an attitude of "it's cold, I'm going to suffer!" I hunch up, draw my elbows in, and feel cold. It's miserable.

When I just step out the door with my arms loose, and focus on the brilliant stars in the night sky (or the views of the mountains by day), and make and effort to breathe deeply, drawing the crisp air fully into my lungs...I don't feel the cold.

As much.

And I enjoy the process a whole lot more.

Why Are We Surprised?

Twenty children murdered in a New England school. It's a big deal - a shock to the national psyche.

But I wonder if the wrong question is being asked - "Who could do such a thing?"

The answer's heartbreaking. Lots of people. Except that they're sane, more or less, and do it for political reasons. And we even negotiate with some of them.

The Taliban routinely murder kids who interact with Allied forces - like, playing soccer with Western soldiers. They also kill kids who go to school.

In the 2009 film, "The Hurt Locker", there is the depiction of a child who sells DVDs to Americans, and who is later killed, and his body turned into a bomb. A movie, yes, but these things really happened.

Chechen rebels took over 1000 hostages at a school, both students and teachers - and eventually 332 were killed.

In 1974 three members of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine took 115 hostages at a school in Ma'alot, Israel. When Israelis security forces stormed the school the terrorists killed 25 hostages, including 22 children.

And if you want chilling, read Chris Hunter's "Extreme Risk". As a young officer in the British Army, he was stationed as part of the Bosnia peacekeeping operation. One day he decided to give his men a day off, swimming at a lake near a small town.

The town was deserted, except for one elderly woman. It had been a Muslim town, and days before Croatian Christian forces had come...and killed nearly everyone there. Men, women, and children. When she heard that Lt. Hunter's men were swimming in the lake, she almost fainted.

Some young mothers had heard of the impeding arrival of the killers, and, knowing they had no chance to flee, had taken their children in their arms, tied car batteries around there necks, and waded into the lake.

Where Lt. Hunter's men were now swimming.

Are you still with me?


Sunday, December 16, 2012


Diligence is good, but sometimes, you have to know when to stop, and go do something else.

I have two day jobs, writing and welding, and there are distinct signs, for both, when something in me says, enough for now - go vary your work!

For welding, I get a tense, almost itchy feeling, like it's almost impossible to sit still. (The welding's for airplane parts, which are made of the thinnest material possible, and so it can be pretty delicate work.) My respiration will quicken, and I have a distinct urge to step away, throw back my goggles, and stretch out my arms.

When that happens I'll complete what's immediately before me, and do something else - prepare a new part, go do some paperwork, or some organization - I usually hit the wall at about 90 minutes, and need 15 minutes to refocus.

In writing, two things can happen. The process can become very labored, and I'll be searching for words, and for where to go next. When that happens it becomes like trying to keep a conversation alive that should have already ended.

The other sign is loquacity - I'll get onto a roll that becomes completely tangential to what I really want to say, and that will eventually have to be edited out. This is harder to recognize, sine it feels like I'm being really productive.

What about you? What are your warning signs that say, enough?

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Where You Were

I think that a lot of us will remember where we were yesterday, when we heard the news about the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

These killings are something so far outside our experience as to be stunning, in the worst possible way.

Where do we turn, to understand, to compare?

How about the Bible? What about King Herod, having the babies killed, for fear of the Baby Jesus?

You can argue that Herod's decision was political, but don't bother. To kill, or order the killing of the most innocent among us is to set oneslef so far apart, so bereft of humanity, that there is no road back.

It's no comfort at all, and yet it us. Because even if we haven't seen this before, God has.

And He understands.

Friday, December 14, 2012

A Major Decision

What should I major in?

Most kids on their way to college, or already students, will at some time or another ask this question.

What it really asks is "What do I want my life to mean?"

As a parent, you've got a very privileged place in the decision-making loop. You know your child better than they know themselves; you've seen their personalities and interests change from the cradle to the cap and gown that end high school.

But with this knowledge comes the ability to do incalculable harm. Knowledge is power, and power corrupts. Corruption can take several forms, from the "I know what's best for my child" to "I'm paying the bills, and as long as that's the case you WILL study engineering".

The balance between being passively disinterested, to being smotheringly dominant, to being a wise and honest counselor, is not easy to achieve. But here are some suggestions:
  • Remember that your child is not you. No matter how much he seems a "chip off the ol' block", he isn't. He is an individual, with a unique point of view
  • You can't relive your life through someone else. The life you have is your own, whatever decisions - good or bad - brought you to Now. A child is not a do-over. If you coerce your child into what you should have done, could have done, you won't see your lost future validated - instead you have the potential for making a person you're supposed to love very unhappy
  • You don't know best. How many life decisions did you really screw up? Enough said. You may know a lot, but the chances that you always know better are quite low.
  • Your child's education is not an investment vehicle. She's not a walking, talking 401k. If you are supporting your child through college, no one forced you. You can set time limits, and monetary limits, and you don't have to finance frat parties - but just remember that she's your child, not your employee...or worse.
  • Ask questions! You can ask guiding questions, when she shows an interest in something. Ask what she finds interesting, ask her to explain something. If she thinks she wants to bne a physicist, ask her what a working physicist might do (not how much they make, nor what the chances of getting a job really are). Questions sharpen the focus.
  • Put down the cold-water bucket. Even if his choice seems stupid (like medieval history), resist the urge to say so. A happy teacher of Chaucer in a Midwestern community college is far better off than a software designer in California who is terrified of falling behind in knowledge of the technology.
  • Encourage, realistically! Anyone can accomplish anything, but a "c" student isn't going to get into medical school. Be enthusiastic, be encouraging, but don't support what are clearly pipe dreams. Just make sure that they are indeed pipe dreams, and that you're not exercising your own prejudices.
You can do so much good, in supporting your child's college decisions. All you really need to do is to keep your ego out of the way.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

A Fifth of The First, Please

The most important things you ever say are the ones that never leave your mouth.

In the 'liberal West', we've been conditioned to the right to free speech, formally codified in the United States' Bill of Rights. The normal interpretation of the First Amendment is that we are free to say whatever we like, whenever we like, with a few very distinct exceptions (like shouting "Fire! in a public place).

It's a very important part of what made this country great, and was created so that political dissent could never be stifled (not that there haven't been attempts, like the Alien and Sedition Act!).

The unspoken assumption behind this right is the presence of a degree of civility, such that the speech that's protected will have a place in both public and private discourse and intercourse.

It worked pretty well...until a few decades ago. Civility became a "drag", and a "hang-up". "Expressing yourself" became the highest good, and a true expression of your feelings was equivalent to absolute truth.

Think about that. Feelings, that can change with the speed of a swallow chasing mosquitoes, are suddenly elevated to natural law.

This is pretty awful, but worse follows - that these feelings should be expressed. Not to tell people "how you feel" will give you mental constipation.

An apt metaphor, and one that can be brought to mind when someone "expresses himself" and verbally craps all over you.

Words are a powerful weapon - and like arrows or bullets, they can't be recalled, once sent out.

And, like a projectile tearing through flesh, words can tear through a person's soul, and irrevocably change a life. Whether the intent to harm was there or not - once the words are there, the damage they do can never be repaired. It can be plastered over, but a hurtful sentence, once delivered, can change a relationship forever.

Say your husband tells you, "You never were much of a cook."

Maybe he was just frustrated at work, and didn't enjoy dinner tonight. Maybe he truly wants to help you improve your cooking, and has the sensitivity of an ox.

Will you ever feel the same way about cooking again? Will you ever be able to accept a compliment about your culinary skill, without feeling you're being patronized?

The Freedom of Speech is great.

But perhaps the Right to Remain Silent is even better.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

What Was My Name Again?

You have a name. So do I. I hope you like yours, because you're pretty well stuck with it.

Last week my wife drove a new Chevrolet, the Cruze. This model replaces the Cobalt, which is a metal and a lovely deep shade of blue.

But what's a Cruze?

Some names are pretty straightforward, and place-names are among the most popular. You can take your Yukon to the Yukon, drive a Sonoma through California's wine country, or hope the shocks in your Sorrento are up to the cobbled streets of that Italian town.

The power of the animal kingdom has always had a draw. The quickness of the Mustang, the Gazelle, and the Impala are invoked, as well as the aggressiveness of the Viper and Cobra. The good-natured Pinto, alas, tended to immolate its drivers.

We might also metaphorically raise our eyes, and behold the Cirrus and the Stratus...or even higher, the Galaxie and the Nova (which was a tough sell in Spanish-speaking countries, as its name translates as "won't go").

Then there are the names which are somewhat hard to understand. The Edsel was named after Henry Ford's son...but with its clunky looks and toilet-seat shaped radiator grille, one wonders just what the boy had done to offend old Henry.

Perhaps a lack of originality is better. Was the Chrysler 300 the company's 300th design? No matter, because the 200 just came out. Perhaps they're counting backwards, though...

Or maybe they're past caring. The same problem and challenge plagues aviation, and has resulted in some memorable names (the Spitfire) and some howlers (Boeing's embarrassing new Dreamliner). But the prize for indifference has to go to England's Blackburn company, which in the 1930s produced a biplane of surpassing ugliness. In a shrug of the corporate shoulders, the called it the Blackburn Blackburn.

And, finally, some names find their own level. The General Dynamics F-16 received, with much fanfare, the stupefyingly silly name, "Fighting Falcon".

Everyone knows it's really the Viper.

But for a while, after a string of crashes in the 1980s, it had a different name.

The General Dynamics Lawn Dart.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Read The Instructions

Recently, my wife and I were watching a movie on TV, when we heard the line, "It's too bad new families don't come with an owner's manual".

I said, "That's not true."

"Did we?" Barbara asked, rhetorically.

I held up a Bible. "Gotcha."


"Bet you didn't expect to hear that from me."

"No, not really." If I'm recognized for anything religious, it's my loathing of Bible study.

But the point here really isn't Bible study, i.e., the line-by-line and word-by-word "unpacking" of meanings and hidden meanings and meanings within meanings. It isn't really religious at all.

The Bible is a very good read, and nothing if not an epic. It has a degree of internal consistency that would be tough for a single author to maintain, let alone the many that actually did produce it over hundreds of year. It has memorable characters, interwoven plots, and literary devices like foreshadowing are skilfully used.

Even for the non-religious (or irreligious), the Bible's worth a look.

And, like any good epic, it says a lot about its characters, but more about the people who are reading it.

Want to shag an employee's wife? Read about David and Bathsheba.

Jealous of your annoying "golden boy" younger brother? ("Why can't you be more like him?") Read about Joseph and his brothers.

Whatever you can think of, it's there. And as a potential owner's manual for a marriage, or a life, well, you could do worse.

Yes, I know that there are things with which you may not agree. The Bible's not particularly easy on homosexuality, for one thing. It also has some definite ideas about a woman's role.

Very true. But it is the "property" of the author, as it were...you write a book, you have the right to say what you want.

And please note that I said, "you could do worse".

I'm just not at all sure you could do better.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Weepy Preachers

I really don't understand some preachers.

Most nights, I have trouble sleeping, and when I'm awake but too tired to write or read, I watch Christian television. On the whole, it's good, solid stuff, albeit with a slight anti-Catholic bias.

But some of these guys...they can't get through a sentence without bursting into tears.

I understand that the message they are delivering is loaded with emotion, and that some of them feel that their surrender to Christ has saved them from a long spell of hot weather. Really, I get it.

But these guys are professionals. Their job is execute the Great Commission, and to provide support for the existing Christian community. It's not to wallow in the emotion of their own experiences (or to wallow in the experiences of others).

At its heart the Christian experience is nothing if not emotional, but in the part of their job that covers the Great Commission, that sort of display is simply not appropriate.

To be harsh, it makes Christianity look weak. One might say that these guys (most of the emoters are male) are showing that a real man can wear his heart, or more properly the Heart of Christ, on his sleeve, and that it's therefore a display of strength.

I think not, because the people we hope to reach are typically not involved in Christ to anywhere near that degree. They're looking for some form of proof, for a reason to believe.

A weepy pastor just looks like a crybaby. I'm sorry, but that's how I see it. I mean, would you want to join an organization that promises to lower your self-control to the point where you'll break down in public?

To be fair, there are those who find these open displays of feeling attractive, who find that they touch a wellspring of emotion, unreleased within their own breast.

But I think there are far more, especially among Americans, who find it silly and distasteful. I know, for I was one.

The whole point of Christianity is the Good News. It's the hope that we have been redeemed to eternal life. That's the hook, to get them in the church doors.

And when the hook is set, and they know that the price for Heaven is to face the Hell within you...why then, it's time to weep.

But not for long. Because how can you be weeping while you dance for joy?

Saturday, December 8, 2012

And God Rolled His Eyes...

Recently a TV preacher made the breathless announcement that gold melts at 1948 degrees Fahrenheit, and that the Jews got their own state in 1948 after the "refiner's fire" of the Holocaust, and that anyone who is into prophecy should pay attention.

The object, of course, is to "prove" the imminence of the Second Coming.

This is embarrassing. To start with, there are a number of ways to measure temperature...the Fahrenheit scale is only one of them, and one that's not particularly useful except out of habit.

Second, to imply that there was anything positive about the Holocaust is a few miles past insulting. It takes a multitude of individual human tragedies - the catastrophes that destroyed six million individual lives - and lumps them together into a tool that can be used to prove a point.

Third, Jesus Himself said that God alone knew the hour of Jesus' return. That implies that any attempts to "decode" the Bible or current events to predict it are simply inappropriate. The Return is God's business. Until it happens, our business is the Great Commission.

After all, what are we going to do - get our tickets early so we'll get a good seat?

This is the sort of thing that makes Christians laughingstocks in society. That's not too harsh a word. A lot of people find Christianity somewhat hokey, because of exactly this sort of thing.

It's not that our faith is something that's only dead serious. It's not that we can't wonder about what's happening, and is it really the beginning of the End. It isn't even that we can't try to identify predicted events as they seem to happen.

But it is our responsibility to treat God with the respect He deserves. And that means not second-guessing Him, assuming He's turned the Bible into a Word-Search, or that He's planted clues like Easter Eggs, so that we really could predict an event He's made unpredictable.

And it's our responsibility not to embarrass Him. Even though He loves us anyway.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Pearl Harbor And Your Marriage

Today is the 71st anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. A tactical victory for Japan, it launched that island nation into a war that saw its cities burned to ash, and in two cases, radioactive slag...all within less than four years.

The main touchstone for the raid was the fact that it was delivered without a formal declaration of war - a 'sneak attack'. That alone (and it was unintended on the Japanese side) raised the level of righteous anger in the United States to a flood. Admiral Yamamoto Isoruku, the reluctant architect of the plan, remarked the "all we have done is awaken a sleeping giant, and fill him with a terrible resolve".

Prescient words, and within seventeen months Yamamoto himself was dead.

It's interesting that the 'sneak attack' label has lasted through the decades, with such negative coloration.

Because it's often exactly what we do to our spouses.

Consider the following scenario...your husband or wife is away at work, or playing golf, or shopping, and you find something, or think of something, that's either an error of omission or comission.

Maybe the garbage wasn't taken out, or the fish fed...or maybe it's a receipt you found for a new $300 putter.

And you wait for the sound of the car in the driveway, rehearsing in your mind what you're going to say.

The guilty party comes through the door, with a greeting. And you wait for the right moment, when your statement will have the maximum impact.

And then you let them have it, when their guard is down and you're most likely to win your point.

All couples fight like this, at some point in their marriage. And even if the point's a valid one, the end result will be bitterness, and mistrust.

Mistrust, because home is supposed to be safe. You're not supposed to "win" at home.

What to do, instead? The solution's blessedly simple, if we choose to use it.

"Honey, do you have a minute? There's something I'd like to talk to you about."

It's fair warning, and a soft transition into a situation that has to be resolved.

Because marriage is not a conflict that has to be won.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Simian Sacraments

There are a lot of goofy religions in the world. Taking pride of place is (drum roll) Evolution.

For most Darwinists, evolution is an article of faith. They believe with an almost Pentecostal passion that man must be descended from some sort of monkey. The thought that they might be wrong sets them into a head-butting fury.

And most of them are simply hopeless when it comes to defending their position. They can't offer a cogent explanation of exactly what it is they do believe, let alone defeat even the most basic arguments against evolution.

On the face of it, looking at evolution from Darwin's time, it looks reasonable. The beginning of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of Rationalism seemed to require God's dismissal, so what would be better than to show by induction that Man had to be descended from 'lesser' primates?

Reasonable, perhaps, but when you look closely at what evolution requires to work in a robust and internally consistent manner, it breaks down like a poorly-maintained Yugo.

First, and very first, life had to start somewhere. So, let's start with a "primordial soup" of organic molecules. We need to kick-start life, though, so let's throw in a lightning bolt. Or a cosmic ray.

This has been done in the laboratory. Scientists turned organic molucules into different organic molecules. Yee-ha.

Well, say the Big Heads, this process has to happen very many times to really get anywhere. And, of course, all of the changes would have to be beneficial.

All of them. And in the proper order. And there could be no changes allowed that would retard evolution.

Statistically, this is less likely than my being mistaken for Sandra Bullock. But for the evolutionists, it is an article of faith. This statistically impossible daisy chain is never questioned.

Not questioned, but sometimes modified. It's been seriously suggested that life on Earth was introduced by aliens. (And where did they come from?)

We have to have literally billions of changes in the root DNA to go from the Ooze to the Us. Carl Sagan thought cosmic ray mutation was responsible.

But, you might ask, aren't most mutations detrimental, and don't many of them result in sterility?

Yes, Sagan said, but in this case everything worked perfectly. The changes were neutral or beneficial, and the species-killing mutations never happened.

If we sweep that under the rug, and fast-forward to Man and Monkeys, we also run into some problems. Sure, the DNA is almost identical...but so is the DNA of a Chihuahua and a Great Dane. A Great Dane is not a Chihuahua. Period.

Also, there is absolutely no sign that any of the primates have developed an organized society, much less any sort of spiritual outlook. We communicate with each other, and try to communicate with animals...but it doesn't go the other way.They don't try to meet us. No animal does.

We are, for better or worse, unique. We came from somewhere, and the only reasonable assumption is that we were designed.

And design needs a designer. Not a Monkey's Uncle.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Let Me Introduce You To Your Spouse

The other day my wife shocked me. (She does that from time to time, but on this occasion she used words, not jumper cables...)

She said that while she did not doubt that I love her, she didn't know whether or not I'd mourn her, if she died.

My protestations died a-borning, because I realized that it was the me that she saw, and of whose existence she was convinved as the result of ten years of marriage. A few words would not change that.

I felt, helplessly, "You don't know me!"


Even though the ideal of courtship holds that we'll know our spouse better in a few love-drancehed hours than we'll ever know anyone, it's simply not true. Our beloved is a human being, interesting sometimes, boring sometimes. Someone who mirrors our heart, yet the next moment is as foreign as a Mongolian warlord.

Early in a relationship, we want to know the person we're with, so we study them (except stuff which we'd prefer not to know, which we are very good at ignoring...until later). But after we've shared a bathroom for a year, after we know that he'll forget to take out the trash, or that she'll almost never bake a pie, we leave school.

Study is replaced by assumptions, or predictions based on past behavior. The real person sharing the bed is replaced by a cardboard cutout, that is on;y allowed to think what we let 'it' think.

Our marriages are THE most important relationships we'll have in this life. So, how do we stay in the present, with the person we love?
  1. Listen! When you have a conversation, actually take the time to listen to what your spouse is saying. Don't be busy phrasing your reply; let that wait till he's finished. Sure, the converastion will take longer, but did you get married to get things done more quickly?
  2. Observe! What's important to him? What draws his attention?What does he read? Don't be flippant here, or dismissive. Maybe he reads comic book, maybe he reads "Playboy" (I hope not!). Try to understand what speaks to him.
  3. Share! Watch movies together, and let him choose. Yes, that means you may need to spend a couple of hours on a pleasant weekend with Arnold, Sylvester, or Clint. But here's the good part...you don't have to watch the movie. Watch your husband. Where does he sit forward, paying more attention? What do those scenes mean? Do they speak to loyalty, or laughter?
  4. Ask! Ask your spouse what's important, and how he feels about things. When you were courting he was probably only too happy to tell you...and after the honeymoon you probably couldn't pry it out with threats of torture. It will take time, and it's important.
Getting to know a real person to replace the animated shell that inhabited your heart and mind is not going to be quick, or easy. It may not even be fun, because you might have to face some values that have changed, or traits that you ignored before.

No matter. Now is where you are.

Even if it's a bit scary, try to remember that a few years or decades ago, you made a decision to be here, with this person. And you're still here.

It wasn't all that bad a choice.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Once In Royal David's City

If you had visited Bethlehem in the 1960 or 70s, you would have found a poor but charming town, largely Christian but welcoming of all faiths, and acutely conscious as the origin for the most momentous Life in history.

If you had visited in the 80s or 90s, you would have found a poor but charming town, and (SNAP!)...oh, yes, that was a bullet, but he's not a very good shot...what was I saying? Yes, put on the body armor, by all means...yes, this is the origin for the most momentous Life in history.

Today, if you visit Bethlehem, you will visit a town ruled by Hamas, which gained political power in Israel through armed conflict with the Fatah organization (whose members you would also not be likely to invite to your Sunday brunch). Hamas has used suicide bombing and indiscriminate rocket attacks to get its point across, and avows that the Holocaust didn't happen (but gleefully says that if they have anything to say about things, it will!).

There is now a wall around Bethlehem. Perhaps it's a good thing.

Often you'll hear people saying how good things were in the past, how the moral values of the young have really gone downhill, how their music's too loud (I mean, they listen to that Michael Buble guy!), and how their hair is too...something.

But when you look at Bethlehem, you can't really avoid that the problem isn't with the young. It's with us.

It's we of 1970s and 80s voting age who elected leaders who have allowed organizations like Hamas to flourish. We grew up under the shadow of Viet Nam, and under the 'care' of Benjamin Spock. Those chickens have come home to roost, with a vengeance.

We elected leaders who looked attractive, who had good punch lines but whose moral compass was seriously adrift.

We didn't keep up with the news, thinking you couldn't tell the players without a scorecard.

Having the right to elect the leadership of the most powerful nation on Earth, we had the obligation to find the scorecard, and learn how to use it.

Instead we watched while our country emasculated itself, morally and then practically, in the cause of Globalism.

And remember, when you decide not to visit Bethlehem, that you helped build that wall.

(A disclaimer...I do feel that the Israelis and Palestinians have to learn to live in peace, and that the majority of Jews and Palestinians would love to just be able to live on the same block, and tune out the rhetoric. I'm as opposed to Hamas as I would be to a revitalized Stern Gang or Irgun rising within Israel. Enough bullets have gone downrange.)

Monday, December 3, 2012


We all have stories, the events, traditions, and occasions that make up our lives. And part of having these stories is a desire to share them, to hold our places in the world by letting others know, "Hey, I'm here, and I did something of note, something of value!"

This is what society's all about, really; it's the provision of a forum by which our stories can be exchanged, giving us a frame of reference as to where we belong, and identify those whom we will have as friends, people whose stories resonate with our own.

But what if there's no one to listen?

Recently I met a chap who had lived a long, active life, but whose activities, in recent years, were curtailed by his wife's illness. Life moved on, and left him becalmed.

We share the same interest in antique airplane resotration, and I accepted an invitation to his shop, a large, well-equipped Aladdin's Cave of aeronautical treasures.

As he showed me around, he talked about what he had done, who he had known, where he had gone. He gave life and context to the metal and wood in his shop, and created a world of the past, evanescent and lovely as a soap bubble.

When the visit was over, I realized something - he had asked me no questions about the work and airplanes and people I'd known. Not one.

It was an interesting feeling - my ego wanted to jump up and down and say, "I want to talk TOO!", but there was a deeper lesson there that was worth learning, and to learn it I had to drop something large and heavy on my ego, to get it to shut up, at least for a while.

And the lesson did come out of the mist, and took form. It's a pretty simple one.

The best stories we will ever tell are the ones in which we don't say a word.

The world's filled with talkers. But listeners, good listeners, are a terribly rare breed, because to be able to listen effectively, you have to be able to put your ego in a box, and keep it there.

Not just make it wait its turn. It's not a matter of waiting for someone else to finish and shut up so you can jump in and talk - it's a matter of just listening, and making that the purpose of your being there.

It's not an easy thing to do, but it's one of the most liberating - to realize that you can lay down your own tales, be secure in your knowledge of their worth, and give others the audience they crave, and truly need.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Late Blooms

Dating after 40. There are few three-word combinations that contain such stark dread.

It's something that a large segment of our population has to face. With about half of all first marriages ending in divorce, even if you don't end up as a 'later dater', someone you know will.

The truth is, though, that it's not all bad. It's just different, and on the positive side, there are some later-life events you won't necessarily have to face alone if you have a significant other. Like, colonoscopies...you and your date could schedule yours for the same time, make it a bonding experience.

No? Well, it was a thought.

Anyway, here are a few of the factors that tend to change the rules, and how to make them work to your advantage.
  • Changed expectations - when you're twenty, you probably felt that the right person would change your life forever, sweep your heart away to a place of perpetual happiness. That this isn't true is far and away the major underlying cause of divorce. Now, twenty years on, you know that life doesn't get drastically better through any 'external'. You know, at some level, that it's up to you, and that finding the right heart companion isn't the be-all-end-all to joy. And when you release this expectation...you make it possible for a relationship to carry you far further up the mountain of happiness!
  • Physical changes - in a word, hormones. Men reach the peak of hormonal intensity around the age of 20, and begin a sharp drop soon thereafter. Since a twenty-year-old male is interested in pretty much just one thing, this carries the good news and hope that 'aging's speed bump' can actually allow what's truly interesting in a man's personality to come through. For women, 'baby hunger' diminishes as the end of fertility approaches, and men can begin to lay aside the fear that, at least on some level, they're primarily being seen as a provider and sperm donor.
  • Spiritual maturity - relationships hopefully include God, and getting past the impetuousness of youth can bring a person to a place where a stable relationship with the Almighty can begin to form. Our kinship with God is always a work-in-progress, and the more miles we've walked with God increases the chance that we can find someone of a similar heart, so that you can walk the future years together.
It would be easy to get 'jokey' about this subject, but that only obscures the issue - that it's not that daunting, and that there are some opportunities in a relationship that mature and come available, with maturity.

Of course, these changes are not measured on a rigid yardstick, and some of them tend to drag people kicking and screaming into their own future.

Why, yes, I was talking about the 'testesterone drop' that men go through. However did you know?

These are flowers that bloom late, and grow in their time. But what a bouquet they can become, if nurtured.

Perhaps even a wedding bouquet.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Skinned Alive For Spiritual Growth

Just finished watching Charles Stanley's "In Touch" TV program. He was talking about the role of adversity in our lives, and he exercised the thesis that God either sends or allows adversity to help us grow, and to bring us closer to Him. He illustrated the talk with many examples from Paul's Epistles, to make the point that adversity can be a bridge, rather than an obstacle.

It's a good thought, but I was struck by a possibly unfair thought - this is a message for the suburban church.

A Christian with a strong and resilient faith can certainly face many of the 'usual' and 'expected' trials of modern life with the acceptance that they are sent or allowed for our own good. Loss of a job can lead one to be more sympathetic to the unemployed, and can lead one to develop new skills that lead to undreamed-of work and ministry.

Same thing with illness. Even something as horrific as the more deadly cancers can be seen as an opportunity for spiritual growth, I think because they also form part of the common experience of our world. We know people who have had cancer, and there's a significant chance that we will have it one day.

But what of situations that are so ghastly, so far out of sync with what we hope and expect the world to be that they seem to be the work of the Devil?

The Taliban, skinning people alive and sending the videos to Al-Jazeera.

The inevitable Christmas-Tree fires that result in children having third-degree burns that kill them slowly.

And even World War Two, the "Good War"...a rose-tinted euphemism that blithely sweeps away the ruined lives, the shattered hopes that were the price demanded for the free, and often frivolous world in which we live today. There is no Good War, save in its outcome. All battle is slaughter, and glory is as distant as the Moons of Mars.

These few examples embrace pain and fear that are unimaginable to anyone who hasn't been there, and to claim any edification from these is, from a non-initiate, the height of effrontery.

And to think of a God who would deliver up a child to the flames, or a teenage soldier to the knives of tormenters, is terrifying.

I don't have any answers, but what has helped me is seeing God as being there, arms outstretched, to catch and make whole again my shattered remains. A God who hates these situations with the strength that only Divine wrath can achieve, Who is determined to somehow bring something of value from a world in which He alloiwed free will, and thus the suffering we face.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Why Bother?

I was recently asked, "What do you get out of it? You live with constant, largely uncontrollable pain, you're spitting up blood, you can't walk more than a few steps without wincing and often buckling to your knees, and barring a miracle, it's not going to get better."

"So, what makes it worthwhile? Why are you smiling?"

All true. Good question, really. Why not just give up, curl up in a fetal position, and wait for death? Or at least go to the hospital and let them tranq me into insensibility?

Aside from my wife, my dogs, and my work, there are three main things that make it worthwhile.

  • This has been a learning experience. I've been forced to look at the circumstances of others, and see that in comparison to some, I've been, and continue to be, immoderately blessed. I can get around, with a cane, a wheelchair, or on my hands and knees. I can see and hear, and my mind's sharp. I live in a house, and sleep in comfort and warmth. I can't eat much, but when I can eat, the food's there. So many people lack some or all of these...so I'm vomiting blood, and have to crawl to the shop to weld? So what? I think many people on this planet would trade places with me, in a second.
  • It's an exercise in savoring every bite. When the landscape's a bit rough, one can try to appreciate the now. The taste of a spoon of rice, the sound of the dogs howling along with a distant siren, the sight of the moon rising. These things were so easy to overlook, but if you look at them from the right perspective, they're precious.
  • It's a challenge. Getting through the really bad minutes to the...well, not good, but less really bad minutes is not a trivial exercise. It's a path of tears, and fear. But it wouldn't be a challenge if it were easy, and it wouldn't be a victory if there was nothing to overcome. At the end of the day I'm still - metaphorically - standing. And while it's true that I'm not expressing that "bullshit optimism" during the worst minutes, I tend to bounce back pretty quickly.  That bounceback is the measure of the victory.
I've deliberately omitted faith. It plays a large role, but I'd like to make the lessons accessible to anyone. A strong faith helps - a lot.

In the end, I don't know whether all of the above is true and valid, or whether it's just self-aggrandizing self-delusion, and the effort isn't worth the result. It is to me, so I guess that means something.

I'll be here, and working in hope and gratitude, for as long as I'm graced with breath.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Christ Died For Your Wallet

Heard a preacher - don't know who - on television the other night.

"Christ died for your financial prosperity."

Unfortunately, I am not taking it out of context, and it's verbatim. The guy really said it, and he really meant it.

"Prosperity theology" is one of the most common threads in modern Christianity, and it's no wonder - most people would love to be rich, would love to feel that being rich isn't a bad thing, and that God will help them get rich.

That's all very nice, and a careful reading of the Bible doesn't really contradict it. At least, not too many times. I mean, Jesus did say that it's easier for a camel to pass through the Eye of the Needle than for a rich man to enter heaven, but:

  • rich people are smarter and can perform at a higher level, so what's hard for you now will be easy when you're rich
  • there were a lot of rich people in the Bible that God seemed to like so we don't really need to put too much stock in this one comment
  • the Eye of the Needle is a gate in Jerusalem's wall, not the eye of a sewing needle, so camels passed through it all the time
Besides, Jesus was rich! Carpenters made good money. His friends were rich - one of them had two boats, one for fishing, one for fun.

And...now watch this...poor people are cursed by God!

I've heard all of this stuff come from people who are doing well enough to maintain a TV presence, and that presumably means that this is a large part of the Christian message for a significant number of people.

The saddest thing about it is the reduction of the Almighty to something approaching an ATM...swipe your card and key in the password (worship and pray the way the book you got for a Love Gift of $59.95 said to), and God will dispense cash.

One day you, too, will be up on the screen, giving a testimonial as to how a check for $10,000 arrived from a suddenly dead uncle the day after you sent $1000 to Reverend P. Ross Perity.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I think their hamster got so far off the wheel that it'll need a GPS to get back. I think God's about love, and most especially love for those who've had life's breaks go the wrong way.

I don't think God has anything against rich people, but I think he does expect more from them...more help for the poor, more help for the church.

And I think we ignore words directly ascribed to Christ at our own peril.

Our own mortal peril.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Smarter Than The Smart Guys

Recently I saw an interview with a very prominent clergyman. He was recounting his refusal to take part in a prayer service shortly after 9/11. He had been asked not to make reference to Christianity as the one true religion, and this he would not do.

The Founding Fathers, it seems, made an oversight in not making Christianity the American Religion, either de facto or officially.

The United States was founded by Christians. It gained independence under the guidance of Christians. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were written to provide a framework in which the citizens' God-given rights would be preserved.

 And the Union was preserved under Christian leadership. (OK, the South did feel that God was on their side, too.)

But the United States is not, and was never intended to be a Christian nation. The First Amendment to the Constitution specifically says that no religion will be 'respected'; that is, given preferential treatment. And it goes further, to say that the free exercise of religion won't be infringed.

What this means to us, practically, is pretty clear - we won't have an official state religion, and, contrary to what certain preachers would like to believe, there's no legal way to turn the United States into a theocracy without some radical legal surgery.

It also means that the Ten Commandments have no place in our courthouses, and organized prayer, led by teachers or administrators, has no place in our public schools.

I'm tempted to wish it were otherwise, except that I know that I'm viewing the situation from a point of bias. I'm a Christian, and it would make me feel good to see the trappings of my religion honored in the public institutions my tax dollars support.

But if I shift perspective, say to Iran, comfort flees. Iran was something close to a theocracy under Ayatollah Khomeini, and the existence of a state religion made things distinctly uncomfortable for non-Muslims. In the years since the 1979 Khomeini revolution, Iran has varied from horrible to juts merely awful.

We're Christians, we say. We wouldn't be like that. I'd like to think so, but the Founding Fathers apparently didn't agree. They knew that their tenure in this life would be limited, so they left us with a set of guiding principles that are specific enough to prevent too much misinterpretation, but broad enough to grow with the nation's physical borders, population, and even technology.

What "freedom of religion" should mean to us is that we're expected to worship as we see fit, and we're to help others use their God-given right to worship as they see fit.

The Founding Fathers were smart men. They invented a country whose record of basic decency has never been matched, let alone surpassed, in the history of the world.

Until we can make a case for being smarter, it might be best to run the country according to the instructions.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Defusing The Holiday Dinner-Table Bomb

It seems that the American holiday tradition includes showcasing dysfunctionality in families. In a movie, or on television, it can be funny, though it's often the uncomfortable kind of humor that we laugh at, and not with.

In real life, it can be funny in retrospect - epic battles at the Thanksgiving table can be grist for the conversational mill of family reunions for years to come.

But while it's happening, watching what's supposed to be a festive event spin out of control is painful, and ultimately profoundly sad. It's the irrevocable ruination of a day that can't be brought back - and even if the fight's stopped and apologies tendered, it's never the same. Something is lost, and even if you schedule another 'make-up' dinner for next week - it doesn't come back.

What to do? I believe - I hope - that if you've read this far you'd like to avoid the fights, and create a holiday that's memorable for being peaceful and enjoyable. While you clearly can't control everyone's behavior, youcan control your own, and that can go a long way to spreading oil on those choppy waters.

Here are some suggestions -
  • Don't respond - most arguments start with baiting. Someone will try to get your goat, try to draw you out about something - anything! Try seeing yourself as a rock on the seashore, with waves breaking around you. The water comes in, and it goes out, but you remain, solid and serene. Even if the baiting intensifies, and I'll bet it will, The Rock is unmoved, and the unfortunate person who's trying to make you a target will, hopefully, move on to other pursuits.
  • Filter what you say - in any group of people, there will be a diversity of opinions on almost any significant topic. Before you throw a comment out there, give it some thought, and see if it passes this test...are you making it to a person you know will disagree, to get a rise out of them? We all do it, and it's called...see above..."baiting".Beyond that, if it's controversial, do you really have to air the subject? Chances are that your gathering will not have an immediate effect on, say, abortion, so why bring it up? (Please park the "you've got to be involved" thought at the door - we're talking about conversation at a single event)
  • Change courses - when you hear others' conversations heading south, jump in to pull one of the participants away - to the next room, outside, whatever. You may feel this is being something of a busybody, but it's not. You're protecting the interest everyone has in a peaceful event - and that's your interest, too.
  • Be firm - if you're the host, or have the host's permission, be firm in breaking up an incipient conflict. If you've got an unrepentant "bad boy", telling him to leave the room, or the house until he can control his mouth may be the only recourse. It's bad if the situation gets to this point, since a "please leave" will tend to hang in the air for awhile and chill the mood, but once a troublemaker is removed, folks will be quick to relax - quicker than you think.
  • Avoid dead time - idle hands are the Devil's tools, and idle time is what the Devil uses to create discord. Keep things moving, with planned and scheduled activities. It's also not a bad thing to maintain some sort of agenda for dinner-table conversation, things you can introduce that are both interesting and nonconfrontational.
  • Don't mourn - if, in spite of your best efforts, things get derailed, set an example by putting it behind you as quickly as you can. This involves attitude, choice of words, tone of voice...everything. Someone has to create a holiday miracle - be the miracle.
You may be thinking, "fine, great, but this won't work with MY family". Maybe not. But will making the effort make it worse? Probably not, so what do you have to lose?

You may also be wondering why you should be the one to carry the burden. The short answer is why NOT you? You're there, you have a vested interest in making the experience pleasant, and unless you secretly enjoy conflict, you're acting in your own interest. Besides, if you set an example, others will follow.

Give it a try. And good luck!

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Wrong Tool

The Great Commission is sometimes maddeningly unspecific. I mean, why can't we be told how to win souls, along with being told that it's what we need to do?

I wrote earlier that the right tool for the audience to which I was a sometime minister was that the Apostles were willing to die for their faith, and that they were, as far as we know, intelligent men who would not accept martyrdom for what they knew was a lie.

But along with what works, it's probably good to recount what didn't work. The list is longer.
  • Jesus is my best friend - this, mentioned to an unbeliever in almost any form, will usually bring back a smart-alecky comeback about invisible friends
  • God loves you - a lot of people look at the trouble in the world, now and historically, and say, "that's not believable." It immediately sets up a block which can be overcome, but takes time - which your listener may not grant you
  • You don't have much time - this may have worked for Billy Graham, but many people are well-read enough to know that end-time predictions have been going on for over a hundred years in the US. They don't feel a sense of urgency
  • If you're not a Christian, you're going to hell - most people who believe in Heaven don't believe this...they believe that pretty much everyone is going to Heaven, with a few exceptions, like Hitler. Additionally, many people have friends of different faiths, and when you try to tell them that their Buddhist buddy is going to Hell, you put your listener in the position where he feels he has to defend his friend. You won't win that fight.
  • The Bible says so, and the Bible is right - most of the people you talk with don't believe that the Bible is inerrant.
The most important thing to remember is that you're offering hope, and you should do nothing that will make someone fight against that hope.

Because fight against it they will. Sometimes, to the death.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Right Tool

Evangelism isn't easy. Mind you, I don't suppose it was meant to be a walkover, because along with bringing the convert to Christ, it sharpens the faith of the evangelist, and a sword is sharped on a whetstone.

I'm an untutored fisherman. I came to the Christian faith through a fairly roundabout path; never went to bible college, never went to Sunday School, and when I tried Bible Study I came close to losing my faith.

Additionally, I'm not by nature a very emotional person, and describing an impassioned salvation of my soul would be inaccurate, and for me, impossible.

So the toolbox was pretty empty, but I wanted to give people I met the Good News.  What to do?
  1. First, I looked at what impressed me most about Christianity, in terms of making me believe that it's true. This doesn't mean, "what made me a Christian", for the excellent reason that I don't know...I just realized one day, hey, I believe this stuff!
  2. Second, I looked at my potential audience. I was working on a PhD at the time, in a technical foeld, and talked with a lot of students about a lot of things while we worked together in the lab, doing menial work. So the audience was mostly 20-25 years old, college-educated, mainly male, mainly white. There were a few older fellows from China, Korea, and India.
  3. Third, I looked at the support system to which I could direct a convert or potential convert...since this was Southern California, the Catholic Church loomed large, and I tailored what I said to follow a largely Catholic message.
The main arguments against Christianity were:
  • The Resurrection didn't really happen; Jesus either wasn't killed on the Cross, or his body was merely stolen and the Resurrection story fabricated to create a legend and gain influence by starting a new religion
  • Jesus never really lived, and the whole thing's a myth
Other arguments really didn't hold water, and eventually devolved into these two.

The "Jesus never lived" argument was easy to demolish, since He was mentioned by a couple of contemporary sources. Josephus, for instance, from whom we have the description of the siege of Masada, speaks of Him.

The second argument's harder, since there are no non-Biblical accounts of the Resurrection. Telling someone who doesn't believe (yet!) that "the Bible says it, so it's true!" is remarkably ineffective in that it creates a circular argument.

But we don have "something". We have the rapid rise of a new religion that would come to be called Christianity in the hundred years after Jesus' crucifixion.

And we have the people who walked with Jesus; the Apostles. We know who they were, where they went, how they died; in some cases we have fairly well-documented tombs.

How they died. With the exception of John of Patmos, the Apostles were martyred.

And there's the answer. The Apostles were in a position to know, if anyone did, whether the Resurrection was true, or whether Jesus' body was merely stolen. If it was the latter, then their deaths were in the service of a known lie, and not even a madman will accept a hideous death to promote a cause he knows is false. And these were not madmen; no one's ever claimed they were.

Here was the key that worked for my audience. A rational argument that comes as close as one can to "proving" the central tenet of Christianity, that Jesus died and rose from the dead.

Everything else could build from there.

What tool do you use, or have you used, to attract people to Christianity? What worked, and what didn't?

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Welcome To The Jungle

Did you survive Black Friday?

Did you find everything you wanted?

Are their people on your Christmas list who will be disappointed, no matter what you give them...and will subtly let you know?

Did you vow, last year, to avoid the lunacy of Black Friday and the whole "let's overspend this Christmas!" mentality...and then break the vow?

Welcome to the rest of the human race.

Society runs on two pillars - laws and traditions. We need the laws to make sure things run smoothly. We need traditions to make sure that we understand the meaning for our world...to let us know why things are worth running at all.

The tradition of Black Friday grew out of the reality that we have a prosperous society. Gift exchange is an ancient way to express love, affection, and good wishes; in a society in which most members have disposable income, spending a significant amount says to the recipient, "Hey, you're important to me!" This is generally understood, at least subconsciously, by both giver and recipient.

(When was the last time you god an "it's the thought that counts" gift from someone you knew could afford more. Were you just a bit disappointed? Honestly, now.)

Black Friday itself just recognizes the fact that most people have one 'extra day' to shop between Thanksgiving and Christmas. If retailers can get people into the stores and spending money for Black Friday, they assume - correctly - that shoppers will be likely to come back more often, and they'll make more money.

The "Black Friday" label, and the whole " great sales and early door openings" thing comes from a need to somehow distinguish special days. We do this with the Superbowl, and college basketball's March Madness.

Taken in context, and viewed with a sympathetic eye, Black Friday and the whole "commercial consumerist" tradition is just a to-be-expected manifestation of the things that we kind of like in our society...the ability to live without worrying about where our next meal's coming from.

And if you think that overspending and finding oneself in debt come January is unusual, just look at the feasts, the "potlatch" that Native American tribes in the Pacific Northwest used to throw. They'd put out huge spreads of food, and give livestock and slaves, and after it was over the coffers of an individual - or tribe - would be exhausted. That made a true potlatch a pretty rare event.

You can swim against the tide allou want, and refuse to take part in this dirty greedy grubby custom, but the fact is, you're being a Don Quixote, in the worst sense. The real evils in our society are not found here. These are only windmills - they are not giants.

Now have fun, and go feel good about it!

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Sky Is Falling!

There seems to be a trend, at least in certain corners of the Christian world, not to be thankful. Some preachers are pulling news items together to make the world seem like a place that's far worse than it really is.

The explanation given by most of these people is that we're in the Last Days, and we should be aware of the signposts that indicate the "soon return of Christ".

Well, yes. It would be useful to know when everything we know is going to end, but much of what's being used to "prove" the thesis is either inaccurate, or taken completely out of context. The end result isn't a service to God; it's something that ul;timately is designed to show the cleverness of the presenter. And, in the most unfortunate cases, to frighten the viewer into sending money, in the hope that it will increase the chances of being 'saved'.

The end result is that the world we live in made "blacker than black", and that makes it more than a bit difficult to be grateful for the good things that are in our lives now. These exhortations focus minds on the negative, and that comes suspiciously close to "leading the little ones astray". I mean, we're supposed to enter Heaven as children, and according to Jesus the penalties for hurting kids are pretty severe. A millstone isn't a very good swimming accessory.

To be specific, here are three examples:
  1. A very prominent television evangelist recently stated that the situation for Christians in the United States in 2012 is exactly like that of the Jews in Hitler's Germany. Oh, really? Are Christians being barred from certain professions? Are their money and property being confiscated, and are government-sponsored thugs roaming our cities, wrecking Crhistian homes, burninjg churches, and murdering the odd Christian? The answer is no. Nothing like that exists now, or is on the horizon. While the gentleman responsible for these remarks might say he's realloy relating a "word of prophetic knoiwledge", even this is far-fetched, because the constitutional safeguards with which this nation was formed still exist.
  2. Several prominent preachers have pointed to recent natural disasters, and have claimed that the Earth is suffering the birth pangs that will send forth the Kingdom. Again...no. Any recent increase in, say, earthquakes is balanced by years in which the "big ones" were not happening. Add to that the fact that the keeping of accurate seismic records is far less than a century old, and the only rational conclusion to which we can come is that any recent variation in the number and severity of earthquakes is not statistically significant.
  3. Greece has joined the European Union, and the Holy Roman Emprie is thereby reconstituted...which is a precondition for the Second Coming. Nice try, but Ireland was not a part of the original Holy Roman Empire
I can certainly understand a desire to see the Second Coming. But trying to predict it by putting out flawed and inaccurate data will simply
  • Diminish the ability of believers to enjoy life today
  • Give the humanists ammunition that they will most assuredly use to make Christians look but silly and irrelevant
The first is a disservice to fellow Christians.

The second is a disservice to God

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Give Thanks Because We Can

Thanksgiving is an easy target.

From a traditional gathering to give thanks to the Almighty for the harvest, it's become a secular holiday that celebrates family, set to a ritualized schedule of televised parades and football games, accompanied by overeating.

And lately, it's the deep breath before the plunge into the madness of Black Friday. A day of rest before seasoned shoppers rise in the predawn dark to get the best deals on everything from toys to home theater systems.

So, ready...aim...FIRE! The true meaning of the holiday is lost, subsumed in a wave of commercialism and self-indulgence. Like Christmas, Thanksgiving is a symbol of Western greed and frivolous excess. It's a slap in the face to the rest of the world, where a full meal is by itself a cause for delirious joy.

But why don't you wait a moment before pulling the trigger.

It's true that modern Thaksgiving is a product of its time, and it's heavily hung with the trappings of a prosperous consumerist society. But what else could it be? We're not a nation of yeomen farmers, and haven't been for nigh on a century and a half. We're not subject to intermittent and inevitable famine, nor to the whims of a lunatic dictator who may choose to wipe out a tribal group because he put the wrong shoes on the wrong feet that morning.

So what is wrong with acknowledging the fact that the vast majority of the citizens of the United States lead comfortable lives, largely free from want and fear?

What is wrong with foregathering with friends and family to partake in traditional entertainments, cheering for the team with which we identify, and marveling at the balloons and floats in their triumphal procession through New York?

True, there is heartbreak and misery throughourt the world, but are we doing our God a service by smearing ash over the symbols of our good fortune? Are we going to increase out holiness through mea culpas and breastbeating?

Thanksgiving's all about symbols, and is it really any better to hate our good fortune than to appreciate it, and take a day to specifically enjoy it?

Neither will alleviate the pain of a hurting world, but if we take a day to appreciate what we have, aren't we more likely to return to The World with a more generous and energetic heart?

Generosity and effective outreach grow better in a soil watered wityh joy, rather than with tears.

So, go...enjoy the parades and the games and the food and the traditional family arguments around the dinner table.

And then, when the leftovers are finished, step out and do your bit to help the rest of the world. Do it in a spirit of joy and gratitude.

And wear steel toed-shoes for your Black Friday expedition.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Devil's Secret Name

Restoring a romantic atmosphere to your marriage is one of the greatest gifts you can give your spouse - and yourself. Romance lifts you up. It gives you a glimpse of the love the Almighty has for us, and makes almost anything seem possible.

So...don't wait! Start now! Because tomorrow could be too late.

I thought about this post for a long time before deciding to publish it. We all want to think that it's never too late, as long as we're still breathing. But in matters of the heart, honestly, I think that sometimes it is.

The expression that's gained currency in today's world is 'moving on'. Ugh. What a horrible way of putting it. Sounds like Donald Trup deciding to pass on a merger.

I don't have a nickname for 'Too Late'. It doesn't need one.

It seeps in, like a damp fog infiltrating a bedroom through poorly-sealed windows.

Many would equate 'Too Late' with romatic interest finding another object. "I don't feel that way about my wife any more, but when I talk to the gal in the next cubicle my heart seems to skip a beat..."

Believe it or not, this is the better part of Too Late. This is a brink from which one can return, and with effort (and usually help from a counselor) rediscover those feelings for a spouse. The desire for romance is still there - it's just starved, for one reason or another. (Please, please don't look at this as condining extramartial relationships!)

The lowest circle of 'Too Late' is when you stop being able to see yourself in a romantic relationship at all. We all function, to some degree, as theatergoers in the moviehouse of our life-to-come, seeing the potential of our life and the role we can play, and then finding a way to make it true.

But when we can't see something that was once alive in a daily reality, we're in big, big trouble. Vision and a forward-looking imagination are the ladder that helps us climb over walls, but take away that ladder, and you're left staring at the bricks.

Staring at the bricks, and ultimately wondering why you're even there. The insidious evil of Too Late is that it spreads. You'll find yourself wondering what love even means, and then what friendship means. You'll wonder why anyone even bothers.

You'll see others who are making their dreams true in their lives, and you'll go from wishing you were like that, to 'knowing' you can never be like that, to thinking that the poor people are simply delusional.

Too Late will kill you, because it is the devil's secret name.