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!

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

How grace is supposed to work for you, me, King David, General David Petraeus & every "screw-up" we like to gossip about

In the small church I grew up in, every now and then a “sinner” would come along seeking to get right with God. Gripped by the Holy Spirit’s conviction, they’d make their way to the altar, ask Jesus into their heart, slap a pack of cigarettes down swearing to never smoke again, and shouts of “Glory!” would fill the sanctuary.

They’d come to church for awhile, struggling to understand what they’d actually committed to, but not getting a lot of practical help. Someone might give them a King James Bible and encourage them to “Just pray through, brother!” but little else.

Later, they’d start missing Sunday service and generally not be seen much. Finally, someone would report, “I saw him last Thursday standing outside the midtown bar smoking. Sure as anything he’s backslid.”

The church folk would hear the news, shake their heads, and mumble “Tsk, tsk, tsk. For shame.” And then go on their smug self-righteous ways.

And of course gossip about said backslider incessantly to anyone who would listen.

Talk about slandering someone!

Big names bite the dust

It seems that nearly every week we learn of yet another noteworthy Christian who has failed in some way. Or, as we like to put it, “fallen from grace.”

The metaphorical bullet that felled him or her could be anything such as poor leadership, spurious theology, too much facial hair, questionable financial accounting, immorality, bad fashion sense, broken marriage, arrogance, and on and on.

If the person happened to have authored books that were once “Christian bestsellers,” all of their books are pulled from store shelves and their publishing contracts cancelled. If they are musicians, their music is shunned and silenced.

We hear the news, shake our heads, and mumble “Tsk, tsk, tsk. For shame.” And then go on our smug self-righteous ways telling anyone who will listen that we knew all along something was just not right with him or her.

David was a no good, terrible, horrible, very bad man on occasion

Um, I don’t think we quite get it.

Isn’t there something in the Bible that says all have sinned? Not just a few. Not just them. But all. This includes me and you.

Imagine David, the mighty warrior king, Psalmist, giant slayer, and musician, if he were alive now. His books and CDs would definitely be in every Christian’s home! Certainly he would have a very busy speaking schedule and headline major Christian conferences around the world.

And then that whole crazy thing with Bathsheba, Uriah, and a bastard baby happens.

How much more messy can you get than adultery, conspiracy to murder, and an illegitimate baby who later dies? Can’t you just see the relentless headlines and salacious news reports? “Heeeeere’s Nathan!”

Immediately David would be anathema in every church across the country. His books would be banned and his music trashed. No more Psalms in the Bible!

Giant killer? Who cares! Now he’s a has been.

Talk about your fodder for incessant juicy gossip and character assassination!

Oh how the mighty have fallen and so now we don’t look so bad with our “petty” sins. Or as Jerry Bridges calls them, our respectable sins.

At least we’re not as bad as you-know-who, wink wink, nudge nudge.

God sees us better than others do

If anyone fell from grace and deserved to be tossed aside, certainly it was David.

But that’s not what the Bible says. This is not how God sees him.

The Bible reports that David was a man “after God’s own heart,” and Jesus is even referred to as the “son of David”!

God blatantly associates himself with a known sinner! Gah!

The Bible is full of “big name believers” who flopped or committed big no-no’s or had serious character flaws -- kind of like all of us -- but were still loved by God and did powerful things for him.

Their value and worth was not measured by their few or many failures, but rather by their in-between-the-faults faithfulness. Kind of like all of us.

You know, like that allegedly Japanese proverb that’s actually a Proverb (24:16) from the Bible that counsels “fall down seven times and get up eight.” Again and again.

Of course, it’s tough to get up when everyone around keeps taking shots at you. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I’m sure you’ve seen the lists that get circulated on social media. They point out that Moses murdered a man and went on the lam, Noah got drunk, Elijah was suicidal, Rahab was immoral, Jonah tried to run from his duty, Lot committed incest with his daughters, Paul killed Christians, and John the Baptist would be an embarrassment to “civil” Christians today!

While certain failings are to be avoided and not lauded, clearly God has a much different perspective on our sins and he has done his best to communicate this way of seeing to us.

Discipline, yes if needed, but then let it go

Paul chastises the Corinthian church in 1 Corinthians 5 for not disciplining blatant immorality being flaunted by believers. But then, after discipline was applied with repentance the result, Paul exhorts the same Corinthian church to welcome back the chastened and move on (2 Corinthians 2).

Paul’s admonishment is mostly directed to the failing of fellow believers and not the ones caught up in the sin. First the church members ignore the issue and then go too far in their discipline. What’s missing throughout is the tempering of grace and love.

Love doesn’t ignore issues and grace is quick to restore the repentant.

We are not called to judge one another, but to love one another. We are not called to shun one another, but to forbear with one another. We are not called to shame and slander one another, but to come along side and lift up one another.

The goal is always quick restoration and never endless condemnation.

Consider the guidelines gleaned from what Paul lays out in this one short passage of Romans 12:9-21:
  • Be devoted to one another in brotherly love.
  • Honor one another above yourselves.
  • Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.
  • Live in harmony with one another.
  • Do not be proud.
  • Do not be conceited.
  • Do not repay anyone evil for evil.
  • Do not take revenge.

Is this how we treat our fellow believers we view as somehow fallen or backslidden?

Probably not as often as we should.

A dish of gossip with a big side of slander: Unclean! Unclean!

Oh, and just in case you don’t think you’ve ever slandered someone or sought revenge, let’s examine this a little more closely.

These and their cousins -- defamation and character assassination -- are often passively-aggressively administered. Frequently this is done in confidential whispers under the guise of being concerned, and justified by being at least slightly based in “truth”, as we warn others to be careful of those we deem damaged or damaging.

For example, say someone once lied to you in a specific situation. Or maybe you just assumed they lied. Maybe even wrongly assumed they lied.

Now you feel it’s your duty to protect others from this culprit, so you give a head’s up to those they may encounter indicating there may be an integrity issue. You convince yourself you’re just erring on the side of caution while you are actually tarnishing their reputation.

This is a form of slander. And it’s also a form of revenge, a repaying evil for evil (or rather, paying it forward).

The perceived or real offense you are reacting to could be any number of things, could be old, could be new; we can be very creative when we want to be offended.

If you confronted the offending party and they reconciled with you over the issue, then it’s done. You need to shut up about it. Continuing to bring it up to others is simply revengeful and slanderous.

If it’s something you’ve never talked with them about or they aren’t even aware of your being offended or whatever, then the first thing you need to do is talk to them and shut up as far as telling others. Talking about it to others is simply revengeful and slanderous.

When the prophet Nathan learned from the Lord what David had done, he didn’t go around Jerusalem spreading slander, gossip, innuendo, or rumor. No! He went directly to David and confronted him. David acknowledged his sin, dealt with the consequences, and sought God’s forgiveness (see Psalm 51).

We are not called to be tabloid Christians!

God’s grace is stickier than we think

Not long ago General David H. Petraeus was a highly regarded military man. In fact, some referred to him admiringly as “King David.” Some thought he could one day, like General Eisenhower before him, become president. But Petraeus fell for his Bathsheba, the journalist and biographer, Paula Broadwell.

Headlines declared that he has gone from “hero to zero” and has suffered a stunning “fall from grace.”

Yes, what Petraeus did was wrong and the consequences ripple out. But, like the biblical King David before him -- and just like us -- Petraeus has not been severed from grace. At least not God’s grace.

Paul, the killer of Christians and grateful recipient of God’s lavish grace offers these truths:
  • All grace is available to us to empower us forward in good works: “And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work” (2 Corinthians 9:8, NIV).
  • There is forgiveness and redemption through grace:  “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace” (Ephesians 1:7, NIV).
  • We are inseparable from God’s love which is an expression of His grace: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39, NIV).

All this to say, as believers, there’s no such thing as “falling from grace.” And we have no business trying to get in between God’s grace and another struggling believer.

All we need is love until we don’t but we really always do & grace, too

1 Corinthians 13:1-8  -- the LOVE chapter -- is a favorite passage to be read at weddings or printed on wedding invitations.

But after the wedding, when the marriage hits rough spots, these verses seldom are brought up. Instead, accusations are layered over accusations, often fabricating or exaggerating perceived failings to justify what at least one person wants -- out.

If a marriage needs one thing more than love, it’s grace.

Every relationship needs this! Not just marriages.

Love and grace are combined in this instruction from 1 Peter 4:8-10: “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.... Each one should ... serve others, faithfully administering God's grace in its various forms” (NIV).

As much as we covet grace, love, and forgiveness for ourselves, we must freely extend these to others. Even when they’ve hurt us.

There is no other acceptable option.

So, the next time you catch yourself or your chums being all catty and tut-tutting over someone else’s perceived failings and faults, stop. Imagine how you would feel in their shoes and what state you would be in without God’s grace active in your pathetic life.

Or, better, imagine your life plastered all over the tabloids and talk shows!

As Paul sums up nicely, we are called to be grateful grace-filled grace-givers, not gadabout gossips:
“Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.  And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity (Colossians 3:12-14, NIV).

And that’s how grace is supposed to work. For everyone.



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How much time each week do you spend gossiping about others? How much time to you spend dwelling on your own faults and past failings? How much room do you make in your life for receiving God’s grace and for extending grace to others? Share your reactions and thoughts in the comments!

Monday, May 11, 2015

Bird Brained (#PoetryMonday *)

1.

God is a magician.

I watched birds in a tree while waiting for you.
There were four of them.

One flew away and turned into a dozen,
Like leaves blowing free of bare branches.

Three remained huddled in the cold.
Chirping pods on an empty tree.

Some sort of strange math or magic I guess.

I'm not good at math.
But I love real magic.


And then you appeared!

 

2.

If I were a bird, I think,
I would always seek out the top of the tree
The highest point from which to see
Everything.
               Although,
Perhaps,
If, instead, my human brain
Were reduced to a bird's
My thinking would alter.
And instead of seeking the place where I would be exposed
To the eyes of the invisible hawk circling somewhere up there
My feathered thoughts and smaller wisdom would drive me
To seek lower branches deeper in the tree,
Protected. Somewhat.
But always seen by God.






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* It's PoMo! To learn about PoMo (POetry MOnday), click here and then scroll down. 

I like to watch birds. They are fascinating.
What about you? When you look at birds, what do you think about? Do you see any biblical allusions in this poem? Please share your thoughts in the comments section.