Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Brief Review: The Colson Way: His life, his heroes, his impact

It’s hot outside. The Philly area, where we landed just over three weeks ago, is experiencing its fourth heat wave of the summer. The third occurred just as we were unloading our rental truck, making the back end like a sauna. Not that it’s any consolation, but Cleveland, where we moved from, is hot today as well.

All that to say simply that this is my first post-Cleveland blog post. Which is really neither here nor there, as they say. Still, it seems worthwhile to point out.

But the purpose of this post is not to share about our move. Rather, it’s to offer a brief review of the new book from Thomas Nelson, The Colson Way: Loving Your Neighbor and Living with Faith in a Hostile World by Owen Strachan.

The Colson referred to in the title is of course Chuck Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship and former Special Counsel to President Richard Nixon of Watergate fame. 2015 marks the 40th anniversary of Colson’s release from prison and the start of his prodigious ministry endeavors.

The book comes with high praise in the form of endorsements from a variety of notables, including Presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee. Eric Metataxas, author of Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, penned the foreword.

The book is generally well-written and a pretty smooth read. The primary target audience, as mentioned several times in the book, is Christian millennials. Still, anyone interested in the life of Chuck Colson will probably be comfortable reading the book as it’s primarily a biography.

Oddly though, not once in any description of the book, on the cover or online, is there any reference to the fact that this book is a biography of Colson. The books is classified as “Christian life / General.” The closest mention I could find that hints that this is indeed a biography is in the endorsement blurb by Sean McDowell who calls it an “eye-opening look at one of the most significant Christian leaders of the twentieth century.”

Actually, the book isn’t simply a biography. It’s sort of three books in one:
  • Colson Biography: The heftiest bulk of the book focuses on the life of Colson. For those unfamiliar or only vaguely familiar with the amazing life of Chuck Colson, this is an excellent resource to learn about this very important evangelical leader.
     
  • Influencer Profiles: Included at key points are profiles or mini-biographies of key influencers in Colson’s life. Several, such as William Wilberforce, R.C. Sproul, Carl F.H. Henry, and Francis Schaeffer, are people who have had a big impact on all of evangelical Christianity, not just on Colson. A couple, such as Rocky Scruton, either had a more direct influence on Colson or are mentioned to illustrate a character trait of Colson.
     
  • Expository commentary: The second largest chunk of the book is the author’s commentary, offering insights into the challenges facing modern millennial and other Christians. These bits are cast as “lessons learned” from Colson’s experiences. Throughout most of the book, they run only a few paragraphs and, at times, seem as if they were tacked in as after-thoughts. The last couple of chapters are almost entirely commentary with snippets of biography or profile interlaced. The commentary comes the closest to actually delivering on the promise of the book’s title.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a bad book. Just a tad confusing and a little frustrating. As I’ve said, it’s well-written and an interesting read. But if you’re coming to the book with your expectations set by the title and the marketing descriptions of the book, like me, you may also experience a bit of confusion as you’re reading.

Nowhere is there a clear, definitive declaration or descriptive lists of what “The Colson Way” is. It’s subtly implied through his story.

Likewise, there is no clear, definitive declaration or descriptive lists telling us how to love our neighbor and live in hostile world. Rather, again, this is subtly implied through the commentaries and profiles.

At little less subtlety would have been a positive thing.

While others may be fine with this blending throughout the book, I found it slightly annoying. Fortunately the good writing and fascinating subject kept me going. Hopefully, being forewarned will allow you to enjoy the book even more than I did. Reading it will not be a waste of your time.

The points I believe Strachan is trying to make can be found in two brief quotes from the final chapter:
  • “We are one body working to fulfill the Great Commission by making disciples through the plain and simple preaching of the good news of Jesus Christ.”
  • “Not all of us will stand before kings, but our faith, too, must be exercised not only in the privacy of our homes, but in public, in our workplace, schools, governments, playgrounds, and everywhere God would have us go.”
Chuck Colson, in his own way, exemplified these truths brilliantly, no matter what the cost.

BTW: As I wrote this review, it went from 91 and swelteringly sunny to 84 and overcast with rain. I think the fourth heat wave may be broken.

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NOTE: To comply with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: I selected this book to review and received it free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

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Do you know much about Chuck Colson? Watergate? Prison Fellowship? Have your read any of Chuck Colson’s books? If so, which were favorites? Why? Would you be put off if a book did not deliver what its title promises, even if the book is well-written and seemed worthwhile to read? Why or why not? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Random thoughts on “Go Set A Watchman”

Harper Lee’s “new” novel, Go Set A Watchman, was released a couple of days ago. Early reviews indicate the book is problematic at best, a mess at worst.

It’s been claimed this is an early draft of To Kill A Mockingbird or possibly a sequel. Some claim it’s a great literary gem, others are not so sure insisting it’s little more than a lightly edited rough manuscript.

Whatever your view -- and if you’re a fan of Mockingbird you probably have a view and most likely a very strong one -- Watchman is going to have an impact.

At least one journalist even raises concern for all those who have been named Atticus after the lead character. But no word on those named Finch.

Whether the overall impact of Watchman is good or bad on the literary world remains to be seen. But a few pros and cons come to mind now.

The good

Publishers Weekly reported today that for some book retailers, the one-day sales of Watchman are “historic.” Even Canadian bookstores are doing a boffo business with the book.

These brisk sales have yielded a few immediate positives:
  • E.L. James’ “Grey” has been knocked off the top of bestseller lists. This is definitely a plus! Now if we could just make the whole series go away.
  •  Bookstores in general are drawing customers in to buy copies of the book. Anything (well, almost anything) that can get people into bookstores is a good thing.
  • People who read Mockingbird in school and liked it, but haven’t picked up a book in years, are buying copies of Watchman. Bringing readers back to reading is never a waste of effort!
But once the buzz fades like cicadas dying at the end of summer, what then?

Frankly, I’m a little concerned.

The bad

It seems that the primary driving force behind the release of Watchman is simply economics (aka profit).

The estate of the still living Harper Lee as well as the publisher look to make a bundle off the book, at least initially. And now there are rumors that there is a third or even a fourth manuscript floating around out there somewhere just waiting to break into the light of day.

Of course, without the reputation of Mockingbird, the success of publishing Watchman would be nil. It would most likely be a bomb of a book. In fact, I’m anticipating dozens of copies ending up in thrift shops for pennies before Christmas. I'll not be looking to buy a copy before then.

There’s been endless controversy surrounding the discovery and subsequent publication of Watchman. It’s not even clear if Lee even wanted it published. And, given the reports of it being a “draft” manuscript, one wonders if it really should have been. Most successful authors would be loathe to have a rough, imperfect draft of one of their bestselling books published, especially if it had been substantially changed through the various rewrites.

So, here are the concerns that grow from these observations:
  • When money overshadows all literary concerns, what gets published will inevitably be less and less readable.
  • Unpublished raw, flawed drafts of manuscripts by well-known authors may now become fair game for publishing, even though they really should not see print, harming the reputations of good writers.
  • Under force of pressure from publishers, successful authors may lose control over their unpublished manuscripts that are languishing in the files of their agents or publishers who just want to make money. Or, authors themselves looking to turn a fast buck could release their slush piles of less than good manuscripts, ultimately diluting their reputation and hurting future sales of their better books.
  • Those buying Watchman expecting something akin to Mockingbird may be so put off that they never take a chance on another “sequel” from a beloved author. In other words, old and new readers drawn in by the hype may be lost to the reality.
  • Bookstores gaining a surge of business now may see sales wane more once sales for Watchman have died down and the reviews become less and less flattering. This could discourage new business by disappointing readers.
But I could be wrong.

The unknown

Added to these concerns teachers of literature are hand-wringing over how now to teach Mockingbird since Watchman apparently characterizes Atticus as a racist.

Ultimately, only time will tell how all this fretting shakes out. My hope is that when the fog of hype clears away the positives will outweigh the negatives.

I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

In the meantime, since I haven’t yet, I guess I should finally take the time to read Mockingbird. (Let the shaming begin!)

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Have you read
“Go Set A Watchman”? What did you think of it? Other than To Kill A Mockingbird”, do you have a favorite book? Would you want to read an unedited early draft of it? If the storyline was significantly different in an early draft of your favorite book, would it make you mad? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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NOTE: I apologize for not posting more frequently lately! The reason is that we have been preparing to move to the Philadelphia area at the end of this month and have been busy packing, etc. Hopefully we’ll be settled enough by mid-August or so and I’ll be able to carve out the time needed to get back to posting more frequently.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The word workmanship implies such things as quality, excellence, craftsmanship: Remembering Dad

Walter Ray Clark January 2, 1922 - July 29, 1992


There are two verses that have come to mind as I've thought about my Dad. The first is Ephesians 2:10: "For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do."

The word workmanship implies such things as quality, excellence, craftsmanship -- work that's done with love and care, and that endures. These are qualities that God has lavished on us all. And, since we are called to imitate our heavenly Father, these are qualities we need to exhibit in our own lives, in all we do.

There are few men I've known who exhibited these qualities as well as my Dad did. Not only was he an excellent example of God's workmanship, but my Dad's workmanship will stand forever as a memorial to his devotion to his family, his friends, his God.

The second verse is John 15:13: "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." There are many ways to lay down one's life for others. By this I mean putting aside your own concerns to focus on the needs of others. Every day of his life my Dad would do just that. He was always willing to help anyone in any kind of need any way he could.

My father was a man of immense character. And, he was also a bit of a character. The impact he has had on others--many others--is evidenced by your presence here today. We have all, in different ways, been touched profoundly by the workmanship he exhibited in all he did, and by his willingness to lay aside his life to focus on our need. He was never stingy about sharing joy and love with all he met.

As I've said several times in the past few days, while I'm saddened by my father's death, I rejoice even more. I rejoice because my Dad really isn't dead. He's home with the Lord. Of that I'm absolutely certain. And I rejoice, too, because he lives on in all of us. He's in our hearts and memories.

I rejoice most, though, because he's my Dad. I loved him very much, and I know he loved me. I've always been proud of him, and I know he was proud of me. He taught me by what he said and how he lived what being a Christian man means. Because Walter Clark is my Dad, I will be forever grateful.



(Originally written July, 1992,
http://www.stephenrclark.com/bio/parents.htm)



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I miss my Dad. But I am glad for the wonderful memories. What about you? Please share about your dad in the comments!


Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Reading books for fun and profit!

(Originally posted January 30, 2014;
reposted here with minor edits)

It’s [six months into] a new year and you’re already falling behind on that resolution you made to read more books.

You started strong. You pulled up one of several “best books” lists, picked what seemed a good choice from the many “literary classics,” got a copy, and dove in. Then, in the first few pages, things started going sour and your bookmark’s not moved in days.

You are not alone.

First, kudos to you for at least wanting to read a book or a few. That is a noble and good desire.

Second, don’t beat yourself up if you’re struggling to accomplish your goal. The problem isn’t necessarily you; it could be the book you’ve chosen, or perhaps some toxic residue from “required reading” demands from school.

I’m here to help you get back on track.

Don’t read what bores you!

Life's too short not to read books. And it's too short to read books that you find boring.

A lot of people don't read because they had to read stuff in school that was, well, awful. I feel you! Even though I am an admitted bookaholic, that doesn’t mean I fall in love with every one I pick up.

If you picked a title from the “greatest literary classics” lists your old -- uh, I mean former -- high school English teacher gave you, that may be where you went wrong.

While there are many great books that are great reads, not all are for everyone. And since you’re reading because you want to, feel free to select and stick with books that you want to read!

What a concept, right?

I’m an English major. I’ve always loved books and words. From the very first moment I realized I could read I’ve had a book by my side. As a teenager, I actually carried a “pocket” sized book (aka “mass market paperback”) in the hip pocket of my jeans. Whenever I had a spare moment, I would read.

Today, I’ve got the Amazon Kindle app on my phone, so always have a book available to read while I’m stuck waiting in a doctor’s office or anywhere else.

The point is that I am a reader. There are few books I don’t like at least a little. And I’ll read just about anything.

Still, in the past few months I've tried to read a couple of those “literary classics” that I’ve always felt like, as an English major, I should have read. I made it about half way through each before I just couldn’t go on. The books were just not my cup of tea.

I left my bookmark where I stopped and put them both back on my bookshelf. And then I got another book.

If a particular book is just not doing it for you, then stop reading it!

Don’t torture yourself. Don’t beat yourself up. Don’t assume you’re not smart enough or whatever. Just as you don’t become BFFs with every single person you meet, and just as some people are just darn annoying, you’ll have the same experiences with certain books.

At the same time, just as you don’t give up on people, a bad experience with a couple of books is no justification for giving up on reading altogether. That’s simply not good logic.

Read because it’s good for you!

Reading has a plethora of benefits. Here are six to consider:
  • Reading can make you more informed and smarter. Is there a topic you’re clueless about? It’s been said that anyone who takes the time to read at least three books on a topic can be considered a subject matter expert. Why? Because you’ll know more than the vast majority of people who’ve read only one or no books on the same topic. But not only does reading provide information, studies have shown that good stories can actually change your brain in positive ways. So, if you want to get smart, read books!
  • Reading will take you places you would never get to go otherwise. In the delightful movie, “Miracle on 34th Street,” there’s a scene where Edmund Gwenn (Santa) is teaching Natalie Wood (Susan) to be creative and playful. He explains how to tap into her imagination, saying, “...to me the imagination is a place all by itself; a separate country. You've heard of the French or the British nation. Well, this is the imagi-nation. It’s a wonderful place. How would you like to make snowballs in the summertime? Or drive a big bus right down 5th Avenue? How would you like to have a ship all to yourself that makes daily trips to China and Australia? How would you like to be the Statue of Liberty in the morning, and in the afternoon fly south with a flock of geese? It's very simple. Of course, it takes practice.” Getting lost in a good book will fuel your imagination and take you on wonderful flights of fancy!
  • Reading can help you understand others better. A recent study determined that reading literary fiction “better equips people to sense and understand others' mental states.” The challenge is to find a work of literary fiction that will hold your interest enough to draw you in. Such books do exist and are worth the effort to read them.
  • Reading widely will expand your vocabulary. The more you read in different genres, the wider variety of words you will be exposed to. While you may not know the specific meanings of some words, you’ll likely get their sense from the context in which they are used. And, with online dictionaries, it’s a simple matter to look up meanings instantly. Even if you don’t end up using all the new words you learn, you’ll at least understand them when they’re used in discussions around you.
  • Reading can improve your own writing and communication. One of the great “best kept secrets” of people who read a lot is how well they can write and speak. Whether what you write are work memos, church newsletters, or professional articles, the more you read the better you will write. In fact, those who want to become professional writers are often encouraged to transcribe passages from their favorite authors and books. Why? Because it allows them to gain a better feel for the writer’s style and rhythm. This, in turn, helps them discover their own voice in their writing.
  • Reading can happen anywhere. There are few places you can’t read. Now with e-readers, you can even read in the dark! People read books on planes, trains, buses, wherever they find themselves with time on their hands. Reading is a boredom killing skill!
I’m sure you can come up with even more reasons to read. In fact, make a list of your positive reasons for reading to use as motivation!

Choose the right book to read!

Just as everyone has different styles of clothing and kinds of foods they like, the same goes for tastes in books. Not sure what you like? Then feel free to sample everything!

Okay, if that seems too intimidating, here are some suggestions on discovering your favorite books and authors.
  • What TV shows and/or movies do you like? Looking at stories or topics that already interest you is a good way to zero in on books that may be good reads. In fact, many people enjoy the books some movies are based on better than the movies.
  • Do you have a friend, acquaintance, relative with similar tastes? Maybe they like the same TV shows you do. The same movies. The same fashion styles. And they're a reader? Then, there's a chance you will like the books they like. Ask them what they're reading and if you can borrow some of their books to try.
  • What subjects in school did you enjoy the most? If your favorite subjects were shop and sports, then perhaps check out some books on engineering and, well, sports! Did you like history? Then consider biographies of great past leaders, historical fiction, and the like.
  • What's happening at work? Regardless of what kind of work you do, there are many excellent business books that are fun to read and will make you sharp on the job. Check with your colleagues for suggestions.
  • Review book reviews. A great way to preview a book is to read a review. You’ll find professional reviews in newspapers such as the New York Times. And there are also reader reviews posted on Amazon.com and similar websites.
  • Check out the bestsellers listings. While not always a perfect indicator, a book that hangs around in bestselling lists for weeks, months, or years may be worth considering.
These are only a few of the many resources available to help you discover books just right for you. Don’t forget to ask your friends what they’re reading, too!

Sample free or cheap books!

Once you have an idea of what you’d like to try, there are several low-cost and even free options for trying out a few titles before committing fully to a book, an author, or a series.
  • Thrift stores. Many Goodwill, Salvation Army, and other thrift stores have book sections. Some are nothing more than bins full of random books. Some will have semi-organized shelves that make it easier to browse. But all are cheap sources of great books. If you pick up a title for a few cents and don’t like it, it’s not that big of a loss and you can always re-donate it.
  • Used book stores. Sadly, we’ve lost Borders, Waldenbooks, and a lot of independent bookstores where you could find new books. But, in their place we’ve got Half-Price Books and other used book stores cropping up. While you’ll pay more than at a thrift store, the advantage is being able to browse organized and neat shelves, and having knowledgeable salespeople on hand to answer your questions. These are also good places to unload those books that you didn’t like and make a little money.
  • Church book shelf. Many churches, even small ones, will have a bookshelf or even a small room dedicated to books that are available to attendees. Some books may be free to take or borrow. Those that are for sale are often heavily discounted.
  • See what's free on Amazon.com. If you have a PC or tablet or smart phone, you have access to dozens of free e-books, both new and classic. Amazon offers a free Kindle reader application that you can use on virtually any platform. On Amazon, there are always free, public domain classics available. And every day, publishers of new books offer a variety of titles for free. Plus, there are hundreds of titles available for as little as 99 cents. Not everything available is particularly worth reading, but when a title is free it’s easy to just delete it.
  • Visit your local public library. While the number of bookstores are dwindling, the number of libraries tends to hold steady. Odds are there’s a branch near you. Once you get a library card, there’s virtually no book you can’t try out. And, like a good bookstore, libraries are manned with knowledgeable staff people who can help you in your search for that perfect book.

Given the number of free and affordable sources for books, whether brick-and-mortar or online, there’s little excuse for you not to be able to find a good book that you’ll enjoy.

Give each book and author a fair chance!

Once you’ve selected one or several books to try, give each a fair chance to grow on you.

While writers are told we need to grab readers from the very first sentence of a book, that’s a pretty high hurdle to get over. While writing a truly grabby first sentence is something to strive for, even the best of writers, when they're sharing a complex, nuanced story that spans days, weeks, years, can’t do it. It may take several pages to truly hook the reader.

Give the author a break and give their book a chance.

Commit to read at least 10% of a book before giving up on it. If it's 100 pages long, then read at least 10 pages. If it’s 300 pages long, read at least 30 pages.

If you’ve done your best to give a book a go but it just isn't drawing you in, let it go without guilt.

Also consider that your own mood and circumstance can impact your appreciation of a book. What doesn’t appeal to you today may months or years from now. Don’t hesitate to give a book a second chance.

There are thousands of writers, each with unique styles. There are many genres and sub-genres and sub-sub genres. There are millions of potential plot twists for fiction. There are millions of ideas to fill the pages of non-fiction books. Keep at it and eventually you'll find something that appeals to you and satisfies you.

And you’ll be a better person for it!



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Do you hate reading books? Why? Do you love reading books? What are some of your favorite memories of reading? Do you have other tips for encouraging reading? Share them in the comments!

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Doing Memorial Day right-ish: Yet one more thing to divide us? No, please.

Monday is Memorial Day. On that we can agree (maybe*). But that may be the end of the agreement based on some articles and social media posts I’ve seen.

For example, one person lamented, “...wish more people understood the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day. They are not the same.” Included was this powerful image:


Raleigh Duttweiler, the wife of a Marine, wrote a thoughtful article, “To My Civilian Friends on Memorial Day” that many have have shared. It includes a reminder and admonition:


There are other social media posts pointing toward the same issue, some subtle, some not.

So what’s the deal? Well, technically speaking...

According to the Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs, from their “Veterans Day Frequently Asked Questions” here’s the difference between Veterans Day and Memorial Day:
“Many people confuse Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Memorial Day is a day for remembering and honoring military personnel who died in the service of their country, particularly those who died in battle or as a result of wounds sustained in battle. While those who died are also remembered, Veterans Day is the day set aside to thank and honor ALL those who served honorably in the military - in wartime or peacetime. In fact, Veterans Day is largely intended to thank LIVING veterans for their service, to acknowledge that their contributions to our national security are appreciated, and to underscore the fact that all those who served - not only those who died - have sacrificed and done their duty.”
Good to know.

A day for the dead, a day for the living

So, to keep it simple and straightforward, and to be technically accurate, Memorial Day is to honor the dead, Veterans Day is to honor the living.

But it can get a little muddy when someone asks, “But what about those who survived their military service but are now deceased?”

The answer, buried in the FAQ answer above, is that they are, technically, supposed to only be “remembered” on Veterans Day, the day for celebrating, primarily, the living.

So, technically, they’re in a kind of remembrance limbo. Or given somewhat of a brush off. More or less.

And then someone asks, “So, on Memorial Day we aren’t supposed to acknowledge those in the military who are still alive at all?”

Well, again, technically, no.

Although that seems a little rude. And certainly patriotic Americans don’t want to be seen as being rude to their military!

So many technicalities. So many minefields.

So, ultimately, what are we to do?

I wrote a “remembrance” blog post that I posted Friday titled “Remembering Memorial Days.

I’m sure some are pooh-poohing it as not being “technically” correct in that I didn’t overtly mention anything about honoring those who fell while in service. But I did reference them! Just in a very subtle way.

Did you read the full post? Carefully? You missed it? Okay, maybe I was a little too subtle.

Mostly the post was about my childhood memories of celebrating Memorial Days over the years, from the perspective of a child. There were picnics with friends and family, always the Indy 500, as well as acknowledging those who served and died.

Near the end, I wrote, “As dark fell we passed out the sparklers, lit them, and streaked the night writing our lives large in big glowing loops, as dads and uncles lolled in post-picnic languor reverently murmuring among themselves, remembering bombs bursting in air, bullets whizzing everywhere, missing them. Just missing them.”

While the bombs and bullets “missed” them, implied is the fact that many others weren’t missed. Others died and did not come back to enjoy what we were enjoying. And now those who died are missed as we reflect, each in our own way, on their sacrifice, and are “Just missing them.”

As children, we didn’t appreciate the full meaning behind Memorial Day then, but came to more fully appreciate it over time, which was another subtle point I was trying to evoke.

Everyone reflects & remembers in their own way

Yes, I understand the desire to keep the two holidays “pure” in their definitions and purpose. That’s fine. Although I'm not sure I agree that the only “ultimate” sacrifice is to die on a battlefield.

Many who have served sacrificed a lot during their service, and many are still sacrificing aspects of their lives as a result of their service. Saying only one form of sacrifice is “ultimate” seems to also wrongly diminish others. But we can agree to disagree.

My point is this:

Perhaps we can agree to not be too picky about how we all choose to pause, think, remember, honor, and recognize those who died serving, who have served, and who are serving in the military.

While I can empathize with Raleigh Duttweiler that “tagging every veteran you know on Facebook and wishing them a ‘Happy Memorial Day’” may not be the most appropriate way to honor the holiday, it’s also not totally a bad thing.

Celebrate with conversations about how, what & who we remember

Go ahead and gently nudge your friends who “do it wrong” by engaging them in a conversation about why they celebrate this day or that day, what it means to them, who among their family and friends have served or are serving, and, by the way, are they aware of the specific history and meaning of the day.

If they get it, meaning the finer details of Memorial Day versus Veterans Day, or any other military-related holiday, fine.

But, if they don’t get it, fine.

There is no need to guilt each other out. We don’t need “one more thing” to be divided over or annoyed about.

Nor do we need to take the focus off of what is really important: That people are thinking about, appreciative of, and thankful for those who have served is what really matters.

As I ended my previous blog post,
“For [your service, past and present] we -- proud sons and daughters, nieces and nephews, grandkids, wives -- were thankful. Are thankful. We salute you. Then and now, never forgotten. Always missed. We remember.”
Let’s all remember together, respectfully, reverently, tolerantly, each in our own personal way.




Related links:


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How about you? What are some of your favorite Memorial Day memories? Any special traditions you and your family observed each year? Any special plans for this year? Do you think Memorial Day means the same thing to people today? Share your thoughts in the comments?

Friday, May 22, 2015

Remembering Memorial Days

Of course, The Race. The 500. Indy!

We put playing cards on the spokes of our Huffys and Schwinns with clothespins and took on the names of our favorite drivers -- the first or last, whichever was more interesting -- Andretti, Parnelli, Foyt, Unser, Graham, Bettenhausen.

Bettenhausen was the most exotic and cool sounding, while he was with us. Better than Clark I thought.

More cards! More noise! More speed! Downhill! Watch out for the cars!

The hill seemed steep and long but grown up is revealed to be amazingly the opposite. Still, it gave us the speed we needed then to fuel our imaginations.

Sometimes we’d head up to Hartford City and the church camp at Lake Placid. Also known as Lake Polluted. Beware the water moccasins! while searching for turtles that became doomed fuzz-covered pets.

We picnicked, played games, praised God in the hot steel-clad tabernacle with the butt-smoothed splinter-laced plain-plank pews -- sit still! -- rowed boats around the scum-sheened lake, played sloppy softball, and then pie!

Blueberry and apple. Blueberry was my favorite. I loved pie. I love pie. Mom’s pie. Homemade-from-scratch-crust filled with fresh-bought brand-name-filling in a can.

Omigosh! Holiday blue-sky heaven. Oh, and a brownie on the side, please.

And the endless hometown parade through the tiny downtown.

We lined up on Grand Avenue near the National Guard Armory, dressed in our Scout’s best with neckerchiefs and everything else straight as an arrow, riding in straw-strewn open wagon-trailers or truck beds, with or without a theme, waving, laughing, holding high proudly the red-white-blue-stars-n-stripes, saluting every Vet in the crowd.

There were Vets everywhere, even in our living rooms.

Grills exploded with the aroma of hamburgers and hot dogs and a rare well-done steak.

No froufrou food for us.

All American mayo-drenched potato salad a-moldering in the heat. White bread buns. Chips with ridges. Dill pickles. Deviled eggs. Coleslaw. Tart salt-and-vinegar soaked cucumbers and onions. Sun-yellow mustard. Blood-red catsup. Green J-E-L-L-O with shredded veggies in it, a total yuck.

Salad or dessert? A never-solved mystery.

The best was the plate of sliced tomatoes, salted and peppered, slightly chilled, fresh from my grandmother’s garden. Oh man.

She swatted my hand from the plate preventing me from taking them all. I wanted them all. Still do. Sometimes when I visited her between picnics she’d give me a whole plate just for me. Ha!

Ah, summertime, you taste sweet just like those red-fresh tomatoes.

Wherever we were, at Memorial Park, the holy-roller campground, or our own backyards, we listened to The Race on our plastic AM transistor radios with a single monaural earpiece, periodically shouting the results in real time to those nearby.

Lap 17! Parnelli leads! Wait, there’s been a crash. Oh no. We’d stand still holding our breath until we knew none were hurt badly. Phew!

We were mobile broadcasters running amok in the heat among the families, playing tag and pretending to be on The Track roaring round and round and round.

White! Yellow! Green! Checkered! Give me the milk, man!

As dark fell we passed out the sparklers, lit them, and streaked the night writing our lives large in big glowing loops, as dads and uncles lolled in post-picnic languor reverently murmuring among themselves, remembering bombs bursting in air, bullets whizzing everywhere, missing them. Just missing them.

For that, we -- proud sons and daughters, nieces and nephews, grandkids, wives -- were thankful. Are thankful.

We salute you. Then and now, never forgotten. Always missed.

We remember.


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How about you? What are some of your favorite Memorial Day memories? Any special traditions you and your family observed each year? Any special plans for this year? Do you think Memorial Day means the same thing to people today? Share your thoughts in the comments? 

BTW: The soldier in the graphic is my dad, Walter R. Clark, whom I remember and miss.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Dilemma (#WeekendUpdate #Haiku)




DILEMMA

There is so much to write, so much more to read,
one must be put aside to do the other.


-- Stephen R. Clark

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Yes, I know this does not fit the typical expected structure for what is usually encountered when a poem is labeled a haiku, But, I have been reading The Poetry Home Repair Manual by Ted Kooser and he, who was a former U.S. Poet Laureate and is a Pultizer winner said a haiku does not have to look like a typical haiku. Or words to that effect. So am I going to argue with such a well-credentialed very-much-published poet or am I going to experiment with the form?You figure it out, and then feel free to offer an opinion in the comments.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Lifted up (#FlashFictionFriday*)

It had been a hot day.

Now, finally dark, he lay in the cool grass staring up at a cloudless star-spotted sky, wondering.

Saturday’s were often marked by science fiction movies. Today, The Day the Earth Stood Still had shown. A favorite.

He’s ready should a shooting star be something more sentient.

“Klaatu barada nikto.”

He folds the phrase over and over in his head, hoping with his heart for the opportunity to use it.

Just this week Life magazine had a story with illustrations about UFOs others claimed to have seen. They were popping out of the skies everywhere, but here.

He’d hammered together a crude rectangular box rigged with wires, colored lights powered with dry cell batteries his dad brought from work. Making the final connection, he turned the lights on and off.

A signal. Beckoning to whatever, whomever was up there. Out there.

Hello!

At least that’s how he hoped it would come across. An invitation to land here on this cooling midsummer night in this Midwestern town in the middle of nothing exceptional in this grassy half-acre of green darkness punctuated by one small boy-shaped longing.

Hello?

His cousin claimed to have seen a UFO once. He said he was with a girl sitting by the pond near his house. The silver saucer hovered over the pond creating a reflection on the calm surface.

“What did you do”? the boy asked.

“I ran,” the cousin replied.

“What about the girl?”

“I left her there.”

That’s as much of the story as the cousin would tell. The boy didn’t totally buy it. He could imagine running away from a girl, but not from a floating alien saucer only feet away.

“Come down,” his mind reached out as he flicked his crude signaling device on and off in random sequences.

It was late. Coming outside after dark was a rarity, but his parents let him go now and then. As long as he stayed in the yard.

“What’s he doing out there?” his dad queried out loud, watching the late news.

“I don’t know,” answered his mother. “He took out that contraption he made with those batteries you brought him. We’ll call him in in a few minutes.”

The dark sentinel trees rose up on one side. A hill topped by houses with windows lit like questioning eyes rose up on the other.

Above him, stars and stars and more stars.

There! A comet! Or a meteor! Or, just maybe, them!

He’d recently read a book where a boy had been taken to Mars and was befriended by small, round furry creatures. How cool, he thought. Me!

He felt the grass growing damp around him and knew he’d have to go in soon.

A light! A very bright light shone all around him!

A force lifted him, higher and higher! It was happening.

They had come for him.

The next morning, he awoke in his own bed, amazed he was back so soon.

“Klaatu barada nikto,” he whispered.




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* It’s flash fiction Friday! (To learn more about FFF, click here and scroll down.) 
Flash fiction is nothing more or less than a very, very short short story. This one is 500 words. What do you think? Have you ever imagined going into space? Do you believe in UFOs? Have you seen one? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Hallelujah end-times flashback

(Originally posted November 22, 2009;
reposted here with minor edits
& new commentary)  

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I wrote the following post after a visit to my hometown church around Thanksgiving in 2009. After it appeared, a couple of Facebook friends from there unfriended me; I’m convinced they didn’t read the whole post. Later, I even removed the post. I’m not sure exactly why because it was truthful and not unkind. Anyway, it’s come to mind a couple of times recently, I dug out the copy I’d retained, and here it is. Before you react, please read the entire post, carefully.

It feels even more relevant now, given the recent studies showing the fall off in church attendance in the U.S. And in face of justifiable criticisms that what’s heard in churches isn’t always helpful. While many, many churches -- pastors and congregations -- are doing much better providing practical teaching and discipleship, some still are missing the point. It’s to those that this is addressed. If the attendance is dramatically down in your church, I wouldn’t be too quick to blame it on the devil. Instead of scaring the hell out of people, you may be scaring or boring them out of church.

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 This is the Tweet I sent out earlier today:

I think it’s only fair that I add some context.

I grew up in a small Assemblies of God church in New Castle, Indiana located on 18th and E. Over the years we had several pastors and a number of evangelists and others preach there. The church was populated by my aunts, uncles, cousins, and others who, though not related by blood, made up a wonderful, warm extended family. Our lives revolved around the church, and we were there for services and other events frequently throughout the week.

The church relocated to a new building in the 1980s on South Memorial Drive. When I visit, the number of those I know who still attend there have dwindled as many have died and others of us have moved away.

As soon as I was old enough, I taught Sunday school, was an officer in our youth group, and participated in many other aspects of church life. I loved being in church. I loved hearing the Gospel.

But it took me years to realize that, despite having sat through hundreds of sermons and Sunday school classes, I actually learned very little about Scripture or how to truly live a biblical, grace-filled Christian life.

Get the hell out!

The sermons tended to be tinged with legalism and messages that boiled down to “turn or burn.” Many were shaped to try to scare the hell out of us.

We were told to live holy lives which meant avoiding profanity and alcohol, not disobeying parents, and so on down the list of “don’ts.” Being tripped up by any item on the list meant being in risk of going to hell.

The silly saying, “I don’t drink, I don’t chew, and I don’t go with girls (or guys) who do,” was, in a sense, a guide for living our best life now.

Often the sermons were end-times themed with the exhortation to look at the signs around us as evidence that the end was near. Wars, earthquakes, and sin were abounding. Obviously, the world was going to hell in a hand-basket and we’d better be alert. It was getting darker and more evil all the time. Were we ready? Repent or be damned!

The problem with this kind of message, while based on truth, is that it doesn’t provide the specific equipping to live a viable Christian life. It was all fear and emotion followed by an altar call where we were to repent of generic sins so that when the trumpet sounded we would fly away with all the other saints.

We weren’t really getting the full Gospel.

More than once as a child I would wake up in the middle of the night gripped with the fear that I had, indeed, been left behind. Maybe I’d told a lie or disobeyed mom or had a bad thought. How could I know if I was still good with God? I would creep down the hallway to the door of my parents’ bedroom. Their snoring was reassurance since I was certain they would never be left behind! (I wrote a poem about this experience.)

Seeing the signs

As I was listening to today’s message, the ghost of all those messages past came back to haunt my memory. I could have preached it almost word-for-word without looking at the pastor’s notes. I’d heard it all before a hundred times from dozens of ministers.

It opened with a typical end-times text, Matthew 16:1-3:
“The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven. He replied, ‘When evening comes, you say, “It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,” and in the morning, “Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.” You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.

Three broad categories of signs were identified and we were subjected to an emotional rehash of the worst of the latest news with the observation that nothing as bad as what we’re seeing or reading about today has happened in years past.

I don’t completely agree with that assessment.

Horrible stuff has gone on since biblical times; we’re just more aware of it because of the pervasiveness of real-time information over the Internet and 24/7 cable news.

The primary point being made was found in Matthew 24:12, “Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold.…” The word “most” was emphasized. In other words, we were being prodded to ask ourselves, “Could I be one of the ‘most?’”

We also had a quick look at the 10 virgins where the point was made that five made it and five didn’t. Then, citing Matthew 24:40-41 -- “Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left."

From this it was deduced that one of every two people in the sanctuary would be left behind.

What?

I agree things are bad and there’s a lot of darkness in the world. I agree that the end is probably near; at least I certainly hope so; Maranatha!

But for the time being, we’re still here.

You’re chances are 50-50 & it’s not looking good

We’re still here and preaching is supposed to open up the Scriptures in new ways to encourage holy living. Conviction is okay. But it is not okay to, at least implicitly, condemn 50 percent of a congregation to hell through faulty logic.

Since when is faith a 50-50 crap-shoot?

The Scripture I referenced in my Tweet is 2 Timothy 3:16-17, NIV:
“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
Yes, there’s room for correcting and rebuking. But the teaching, training, and equipping parts can’t be ignored!

Much of what I grew up hearing focused primarily on rebuking and correcting and then stopped. There was little to no teaching, training, or equipping. Without those last three elements, confusion, failure, and guilt are the result.

That’s kind of what happened today, except it wasn’t even clear what was being rebuked or corrected. Rather than being a sermon, it was more like a fear-inducing editorial.

Please understand the minister is a good guy whom I respect and love. He’s a very good man I’ve known for years. When I went through some really hard times, he was encouraging and faithful to hold me up in prayer; he came alongside me in my pain. I believe that his intentions are good. And I’ve heard him preach some really good sermons. Sadly, this was not one. I’ve got a feeling he could use a nice long sabbatical.

Faith is not about feeling fearful

Today’s sermon is what I would characterize as typical end-times emotional fear-mongering aimed at driving people to the altar.

But to what end? To repent? Repent of what? Nothing was specified.

And once everyone left the altar and went home, then what? Go home and cower in fear? Hope for the best?

How does fear and emotion equip people for good works? How does hearing that one out of two people in the room will go to hell train me or anyone in righteousness?

Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone, after hearing this message, left thinking, “I’m probably one of those going to hell, so I may as well live like it!”

In closing the sermon, Matthew 24:12 was again quoted from the King James Version, “And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold.”

The implication that there was a point at which one could “wax cold” enough as to be lost; disconnected from God. 

How cold is too cold? How much waxy build-up on the heart tips you into hell? Is this something that just happens?

“No one knows!” was the answer offered!

And that’s what I grew up with; a lot of guilt and condemnation usually served up with a heaping side of legalism.

Looking at the upside of believing

What could have made this a good sermon is found in Matthew 24:13: “…but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.”

Hallelujah!

There’s the better un-dark heart of the message!

Riff off that verse and go into both the “hope” and the “how to” of salvation. Don’t tell me to bow my head and close my eyes in fear and guilt and make me want to go home and cower behind closed curtains.

Give me something that causes me to lift up my head and open my eyes to the goodness and amazing grace of God.

Give me something hopeful and meaty that I can take into my week and joyfully share with others that will woo them to want to know more of the Gospel.

Give me something that can equip me to steadfastly live out my faith now.

Give me something that opens my eyes and heart to God’s Word in a fresh, new way.

Give me something that will help me shine in the encroaching darkness.

Give me something that shows me how to stand firm so that in the end I and the others in the room with me will be saved.

After all, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:17, NIV).

Yes, the end approaches. But fear not! If you’ve confessed Christ as your savior, God’s got your back.




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Did you grow up in church? What kind of sermons did you hear? Are you still going to church? If not, why not? Share your thoughts, experiences, and reactions in the comments!

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Splash into God!

(Originally posted June 12, 2012;
reposted here with minor edits)

As we were traveling to and from Philadelphia for a wedding a few years ago, we zipped by a church VBS sign that caught my attention. It was hand-stenciled on plywood with the headline, “Splash Into God!”

The phrase sloshed around in my head for the next several hundred miles as I wondered what it meant to splash into God. It seemed a rather irreverent proposition and I couldn’t imagine God being happy with people splashing into him.

Nor could I imagine the kids participating in this program learning anything of real value about God, how he is involved in their lives, and how all things hold together in him through Christ.

The theme seemed to cute too offer substantive insight. it implied a smaller, more fun god than the real God is there.

But I could be wrong.

Your God is too small, again

In 1961, J.B. Philips issued an excellent little book titled, Your God is too Small. It was required reading in my college Bible classes. In the introduction, Phillips explains,
“The trouble with many people today is that they have not found a God big enough for modern needs. While their experience of life has grown in a score of directions, and their mental horizons have been expanded to the point of bewilderment by world events and by scientific discoveries, their ideas of God have remained largely static. It is obviously impossible for an adult to worship the conception of God that exists in the mind of a child of Sunday-school age, unless he is prepared to deny his own experience of life. If, by a great effort of will, he does do this he will always be secretly afraid lest some new truth may expose the juvenility of his faith. And it will always be by such an effort that he either worships or serves a God who is really too small to command his adult loyalty and co-operation.”
Phillips was addressing the problem of his day in which many people attended Sunday school or church and had some idea about who and what God was and is and is to come. These ideas, he rightfully lamented, while noble, were too small.

In other words, however God was viewed by people, they believed he was in need of help to truly be a god.

Today, this sentiment is still valid although for different reasons. Where God has not been totally written off, he has most certainly been squished and trivialized to the point of being irrelevant.

Just a “splash” of God is all we need – if he even exists – everything else we can accomplish without him.

Even to those who lay claim to faith and relationship with the Almighty, he’s often viewed as anything but mighty.

Honey, I shrunk the God!

Christianity as practiced in our churches, evangelical and otherwise, is to blame for shrinking God down. In order to make him relevant and accessible to successive generations, we have contextualized God into our culture to the point of making him irrelevant and pointless.

The God many Boomers grew up with often tended to be big, noisy, scary, distant, punishing; not exactly an attractive image for Seekers. While there are elements of God’s character that evoke these “negatives,” He was and is much more.

Still, God seemed a bit too thunderous and needed new marketing. We wanted a cool, with it, happening God.

So the church in all its permutations got busy making God over into a friendlier, kinder, gentler, warmer, fuzzier, grandpapa-fied deity.

We emphasized his love, forgiveness, graciousness, patience, and other more “positive” characteristics, putting a more attractional face on God and faith. It was like saying, “God loves you and he always has candy in his pockets for you dear.”

The problem with this is that we have made him into a sort of magic-genie-pet you can hold on your lap; rub him, feel him purr, and get your wishes. He’s the god who gives everyone a trophy and a free pass to heaven.

In this cute and loveable form, while he seems very approachable, who would call on him for help in the midst of life’s storms? Why would you lean on him for real moral support? How is his “candy” going to help you as you grapple with all the challenges of a messy life on earth? He’s too frail and fragile and, well, not God-like!

We’ve made God into a god who is a nice but inadequate idea, rather than Someone you can and would want to know and believe in.

So Vacation Bible School offers a romp in the kiddie pool with an adorable old useless go.

The God who is really there and has a pretty awesome personality

It’s easy to get caught up in extended theological discussions of God’s attributes, but we’ll not do that right now. Here are two links where you can find more on the topic of God’s attributes:
For now, let’s just hit some highlights which are pretty mind-boggling and reveal a God that is truly Supreme.

God is a person in the sense that he has a personality and expresses himself personally, connecting with us, his created persons. As with any person the personality of God is multi-faceted and complex, more complex than any other being in the universe.
  • He is triune, meaning that he exists as God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
       
  • He is the Creator and Sustainer of all things.
      
  • He is omnipresent, meaning that he exists here, there, and everywhere to infinity and beyond, simultaneously.
       
  • He is omniscient meaning that he knows the known knowns, the known unknowns, the unknown unknowns, and everything else.
        
  • He is omnipotent meaning that there is no one or no thing, real or imagined, that is more powerful in any way than him.
        
  • He is sovereign, just, righteous, wrathful, beneficent, jealous, loving, and, while approachable and knowable, he is also infinite and incomprehensible.
The bottom line is that God is more than adequate to be the Supreme Being and the One to protect you, care for you, provide for you, and help you make sense of this crazy world.

He is not your pool buddy, splash mate, magic lamp, or fuzzy purring pet. He is beyond awesome, in the truest sense of the word, and worthy to be worshipped, loved, and trusted.

The huggable yet transcendent God

The reality of who God is can be found in and between Genesis 1 (“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”) and Revelation 21 ("Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”).

There’s nothing wrong with thinking about God in endearing ways. But we must never let any sense of coziness with God become an idol that blurs who he really is.

Here are a few more aspects to consider…

Being flippant in our attitude and talk about God puts us at risk of reducing him to the equivalent of a spiritual stuffed toy. This does both God and ourselves an eternal disservice.

God is more than a pool party theme. He is “the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To him who is thirsty [God] will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life” (Revelation 21:6).

Stay thirsty, my friend. Don’t merely splash into God, get to know who he really is and be blessed beyond belief.

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How do you think about God? Is your God big enough to truly meet your needs? Does he need your help to accomplish your goals?  Is he something you want to splash into or Someone on whom you can depend? Please share your thoughts in the comments!