Sunday, June 29, 2014

Sojourn. Hospice. Vigil. Joe. Emily Dickinson & Shakespeare.

Sunday, June 29

Spattered throughout scripture is the idea that, on this earth in this life, we are merely sojourners.

Travelers just passing though.

Even “aliens and strangers” moving about on this God-breathed world (1 Peter 2:11).

Or, put a little more bluntly by Jesus, we are well cared for “leaves of grass,” here today then withered and tossed on the fire tomorrow (Matthew 6:30).

The point being made is one that we often don’t truly get or even care about until, well, the end is nearer than we’d like.

That point is simply this: life is transient and temporal.

Every one of us will die. Some sooner than others. And all by various means and ways.

Because this reality has been thrust brusquely upon our family in the past few days, I’ve been contemplating, among other things, the idea of “hospice” as we’ve been practicing it.

The literal definition of hospice is intriguing:
hos•pice (hŏs-pĭs)
1. A shelter or lodging for travelers, pilgrims, foundlings, or the destitute, especially one maintained by a monastic order.

2. A program that provides palliative care and attends to the emotional and spiritual needs of terminally ill patients at an inpatient facility or at the patient's home.

[French, from Old French, from Latin hospitium, hospitality, from hospes, hospit-, host; see ghos-ti- in Indo-European roots.]

(The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition)
When the two proffered meanings are blended, as I believe they should be, the truth that surfaces is that, in a sense, we are all engaged in hospice, both as givers and receivers of care.

We are all earth-sojourners seeking hospice -- shelter, care, lodging -- day in and day out.

* * *

My mother-in-law, Ann Laub, a vital and head-strong woman that I’ve known only a few years, went to the hospital some days ago. Her complaint was an ankle gone awry. At 81 going on 82, it doesn’t take much to send a body into a deep hurt.

Sparing some of the finer details, she came out of the hospital after a couple of weeks straight into home hospice.

As you can guess, many other factors were at play. But still, it took all of us varying degrees of time and depth of pondering to move past “But it was only a sprained ankle!” to the hard reality that it is much more.

I think we are all still working it out in our heads and hearts. But the result is the same no matter what.

The weight of life is bearing down. And it hurts.

Now, three strong, lovely daughters (Cynthia, Debra, BethAnn), working as ministering angels, attend to Ann’s needs in rotating shifts. They are variegated images of their strong, lovely mother.

Walt, husband and father, attends also, sorting through all that’s happened and happening, working hard to make sense of it all while being there by her side. His is a difficult and arduous task despite appearances to the contrary. My heart breaks for him, and them.

Others of us, connected by blood or marriage, are here as best we can be. Alternately stepping in to help or moving out of the way as needed. It’s a kind of a dance with awkward steps we’re all trying to learn meaning toes get stepped on at times.

There is nothing about this that is not hard. And for each, it’s hard in different ways only each can understand and parse. None can tell another how to feel, how to think, how to go through this.

After all, a family is a unit made up of different individuals. Even shared experiences are colored and made infinitely personal in the hearts and minds and memories of each one.

That’s the way of life.

And life, as death, can be messy. All the hurts and hopes, mistakes and successes, good decisions and bad, trials and joys of life still crowd in at the end, demanding a place, seeking to be heard, wanting to be acknowledged, or perhaps forgotten. Definitely, forgiven.

As in life, at death tempers flare, love surges up, tears fall, hugs are given or shunned, misunderstandings erupt, and memory recalls lighter, brighter, happier times as laughter inexplicably bubbles up out of deep sorrow.

Amazingly, mysteriously, joy finds a way.

This is the awkward dance of life.

Today the dance has taken a turn as Ann’s breathing seems to be fading. Everyone has gathered.

* * *

After a few bumpy turns on the dance floor, things settle into a whispered vigil.

Dad works on his crossword from the morning paper. One washes dishes. Another updates the notes for the nurses. And someone else cleans. All are working hard in their own way.

Besides the labored breathing, there are the random exclamations. Ann is nearly simultaneously lucid and not. Deciphering her meanings is as complex as working out a difficult crossword.

How long this will go on is anyone’s guess. Right now, just about everything’s a guess.

Much of life is a guess. But there are certainties. God’s love and grace is assured to those who are his children.

Jesus taught that in giving shelter, clothing, a drink of water -- hospice -- to another fellow sojourner, it was as if we gave it to him (Matthew 25:35-45).

Service rendered in love to the helpless is a miracle of grace. Especially when the helpless and those serving are a little head-strong.

* * * 

Jesus comforted his disciples assuring them of their place in his kingdom and in heaven. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me,” he told them, and then explained that he was going ahead to make preparations.

“Where is it you are going?” they asked.

He told them they knew the place and pointed them in the right direction saying, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:1-11).

Paul writes in Romans that those who “confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:4-14).

But what if, some may fret, I’m coming to all of this late, near the end? Not to worry. Again, schooling his disciples, Jesus said, “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first” (Matthew 19:25-30).

Spiritual hospice is always available to the living, even when near the end of our journey.

Ann is ready even though some may not be.

* * *

In addition to ministering to Ann’s needs, the daughters also managed to prepare a simple supper. In response to an earlier more lucid request, a dear relative brought the key ingredient for crab cakes.

The freezer was raided for some side veggies. Sundry leftover sweets were gathered from the refrigerator. And the table was beautifully prepared with places for everyone but Ann.

Then the traveling RN, Joe Evans, came.

One of the many care workers available at a moment’s notice, Joe was a wonder. Calmly, with humor and sweetness, he spoke softly, answering myriad questions while at the same time tending to Ann’s needs.

Every concern was gently and thoroughly addressed. Every person was acknowledged. Every expended effort by the family was praised.

Finally, after repacking his bag, he asked to pray with the family around Ann’s bed. Grateful, we circled, held hands, and were humbled as Joe prayed with sincerity, and tears.

Joe understood that this was hard.

* * *

Something I’ve learned about the concept of family is that the meaning and the members shift over time for many reasons, some joyful and some painful.

Death, romance, marriage, birth, adoption, divorce, re-marriage, betrayal, distance, friendships, feuds, and more all impact the family unit. Add to that the connections and severings between and among extended family units.

It can get very complicated at times.

What I’ve also learned is that families are resilient, in their parts and on the whole, and there is always room for new members. It always takes a bit of adjustment on everyone’s part, but the love always grows to embrace the new additions, no matter how they come in or how long they stay. It continues even when some turn their backs and walk away.

Which leads to the most important thing I can say about my family: In all its permutations, I love my family. Whether immediate or extended, here or departed, each part and each person is special and valuable and dear to me. I have been blessed with a great family and a great heritage.

The Emily & Shakespeare dolls,
and a Starbucks gift card from Ann
This most recent permutation of my family, where I have been adopted by virtue of marriage to BethAnn, has been and is a joy. The Laubs have taken me in and extended living hospice to me. They have made me one of them and because of that I am in awe.

Ann has been a key part of that acceptance.

One of the best Christmas gifts I’ve ever received is an Emily Dickinson doll. Ann had noticed a joking reference I’d made to the doll on Facebook. Seeing the doll when I opened the box cracked me up, which was exactly the reaction she was going for. Of course, later, so Emily wouldn’t be lonely, she got me the Will Shakespeare doll. Both are proudly displayed in our home.

* * *

The day is nearly done. The sun has set. Ann is still sojourning with us and we continue to provide her hospice. We will miss her, but in this experience we will gain a new appreciation of her and of each other.

And this comes to mind:
“I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed-- in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true:

'Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?' The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:50-58).
Hospice is the work of the Lord.

* * * 

We’re all tired. The daughters are exhausted. Tonight we’ll sleep, maybe.


“[D]o not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:34).

Yes, today was enough for today.

What are your experiences with losing a loved one or providing hospice? What helped? What didn't help? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

UPDATE: Ann passed quietly on Tuesday, July 1, around 4:30PM surrounded by ALL four of her children (which was a special blessing), her husband of 55 years, a grandson, and a son-in-law.There was a brief memorial service on Monday, July 7th at 1:00 PM at The First Presbyterian Church in Springfield, 710 Bethlehem Pike, Flourtown, PA 19031 (

The family asks that donations in Ann Laub’s name be given to the Abington Hospice Fund Development, 1200 Old York Road, Abington, PA 19001.

NOTE: It was two years ago on July 2 that the family lost Bill Jack, husband of Debra, just a month after their daughter, Lindsey, was married. The photo of them below was taken during a breakfast for the wedding party. We're all wondering what Bill and Ann are talking about together right now.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

According to real live "experts," I’m genetically programmed to sleep in. Science is on my side!

 (Originally posted July 11, 2009;
posted here with minor edits)
I am not a morning person.

Never have been. Never will be.

Please stop trying to make me one.

Otherwise I just may not be a peaceful person anymore. I’ll definitely be cranky.

Oh, sure, I can make it to a 7:00 AM meeting on occasion, if I absolutely have to; I just set my dual alarm on nag and nag some more. But don’t expect me to actively participate in the meeting. My brain doesn’t kick in until later in the day. I’ll be lucky to show up dressed decently.

Thanks to dear old Benny Franklin, me and my ilk have been ostracized and derided for decades.

You know, Ben,  that smart aleck kite-flyer who coined that inane phrase, “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” 

What the heck does that even mean? This from the guy who wore wet shirts on hot sunny days to keep cool. Please!

Ever since this daffy motto appeared in Poor Richard’s, those of us who are more nocturnally inclined have been discriminated against. We’re called sleepy heads, lazy, pillow pushers, outcasts, bums, and worse.

Where’s our on-the-job accommodation?

But now things are going to be different. Science is on our side! Being an anti-morning person, aka night owl, is in our genes!

Check it out and click the link: If you have a hard time crawling out of bed in the morning, it could be that your body is biologically programmed to start the day later.

We truly are allergic to morning. It’s not our fault!!!

“Experts say a spectrum of natural sleeping and waking rhythms exists, ranging from extreme morning people to extreme ‘night owls.

See that?

Experts” are endorsing our anti-early inclinations.

It has nothing to do with lazy!

We’ve been trying to tell you all along, you snooty, self-righteous, early morning, chirpy, pre-sunrise arise and shiners.

Seriously. Have you ever been at a truly productive early morning meeting? There is no such thing. It is as mythical as unicorns.

And as far as getting to work “promptly” at 7:00 or 8:00 AM – why? What happens in most companies for the first couple of hours or so? Everyone’s getting coffee, hunting down pastries, warming pastries, making oatmeal, getting more coffee, eating cereal, paying an extended visit to the bathroom, chatting, and, well, you know the drill.

No one’s working until at least 10:00 AM.

And then it’s time to start thinking about lunch.

Later, all those “early birds” who got the proverbial worm (yuck!) are suffering from sugar crashes at 3:00 PM and dawdling as they eye the clock, yawning and straining for 5:00 PM to come.

Then they’re done and gone.

Us later-in-the-day starters tend to hit the ground running, and then keep going late into the evening. Why? Because we are happy to follow our natural, in-born rhythms rather than conforming to a senseless and exhausting 8AM-to-5PM routine.

But let’s go back to Ben for a minute.

Do you really believe that if Ben Franklin were alive now, surrounded by useable electricity, cable TV, iPods, smartphones, the Internet, thousands of e-books, and a never-sleeping-always-accessible planet, that he’d be in bed early?

No way! The guy’s mind was way too active.

When he quill-penned that misguided platitude it’s not like he had a lot of choice but to go to bed when the sun went down and get up when the sun rose. That’s pretty much what everyone did back then in the semi-dark ages.

I've got a feeling he was smirking when he wrote it, too.

I guarantee that if Ben F. were alive now he would be searching for whatever it took to never sleep. He’d be up all night chugging Red Bull.

And yet society mindlessly tries to shame us night owls to change who we are by implying that our proclivity to late-night endeavors is somehow evil and less than normal.

That's the same kind of line extroverts use on introverts.

Shame on all you late-night-o-phobes! Where’s your tolerance for those who are different from you?

States Dr. Nancy Collop, Medical Director of the Johns Hopkins Sleep Disorders Center, “’It's very difficult for a night owl to become a morning person.”

All hail genetics! We bow to thee. This is how we are fearfully and wonderfully made.

Given that the world is a 24/7 wonder, it’s senseless that those of us who are not morning people continue to be castigated, chastised, and chastened. It’s time to get over it already. It takes all kinds to make the sleepless world go ‘round.

We sleep in and stay up and rock the late night.

Frankly, I think anyone who “naturally” wakes up before 9:00 AM is the real freak of nature. What’s wrong with you anyway? Maybe you just need a more comfortable pillow. Or a better bed. Or a sleeping pill.

And people who “love” getting up at 5:00 AM – I’m pretty sure you need therapy. Seriously. Look into that.

And don’t even get me started about those “bubbly” early morning people who bounce around like crazed, giddy bunnies greeting everyone with a frightful toothy smile. Anyone who is extremely cheerful and perky before noon is definitely not right in the head.

Frankly, perky is weird any time of the day.

Anyway, heed my warning!

If you insist that people like me, who clearly do not do their best work in the morning, attend a 7:00 AM meeting and then we snap your head off, don’t blame us. We don’t want to be there in the first place; and you really didn’t need to call that meeting so early.

Go back to bed already!

You really look like you could use a lot more sleep.

Getting up early is  not healthy. Did you know early risers are more susceptible to heart attacks? If that’s not true, it should be.

And me? Don’t underestimate my ability to sleep in. And don’t ever call me on the phone before 10:00 AM. That’s just rude, dude.
I think it’s time for a nap.

Are you a morning person or a night owl? Have you ever been in a really productive early morning meeting? If you are a morning person, how often do you nap? Why can’t we all just get along and sleep in? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

How to take your brain on vacation without drilling holes in your head

Ah, summertime.

Time to kick back with a tall glass of iced tea, go out back to sit in the fresh bright air, and actually read a book.

Just for the fun of reading.

Or maybe you’re planning to do your reading on a beach. Or, perhaps, on that flight as it takes you to a more distant beach.

Wherever, whether near or far, reading a book is a perfect way to give your brain a nice vacation from the rat race.

And you don’t even have to drill holes in your head!

Unlike a couple of characters did in the new book from prolific author Ted Dekker.

A story sandwich

Hacker opens with Nyah Parks, assisted by her friend Pixel, attempting a ridiculously risky on-site hack at the ominous megalithic data farm, BlakBox. Things go quickly awry and she realizes she’s in far deeper than she could have anticipated. BlakBox is, of course, more than an innocent IT company.

Nyah is a 17-year-old precocious, Q-doodling, tech-savvy, hacking genius who goes through hell and back over three days.Or, at least, somewhere and back.

Her motives for the hack are pure. She merely wants to expose the company’s vulnerabilities and get hired as a consultant, something she’s done before. She needs a cool $250K to get her mother into a special medical program. She already has $101,243.12 which isn’t bad for a 17-year-old.

Two years prior, her family was in a severe auto accident that killed her dad and brother, and left her mother severely incapacitated with head injuries. Nyah survived bearing a scar on her head and survivor’s guilt, among other things, gnawing at her heart.

Just before being nabbed by BlakBox, Nyah texts an SOS to an FBI friend who comes to her rescue.

Nyah’s run-in with BlakBox and subsequent evasion of the FBI sandwiches the heart of the story.

Cornered, with BlakBox and the FBI looking for her -- each for very different reasons -- Nyah seeks out an old friend, 20-year-old Austin Hartt. Austin is another computer geek genius.

He is a reclusive former millionaire suffering from terminal brain cancer. He and Nyah were close until he cut-off contact months earlier. She learns he’s been on a very weird quest to hack his own brain as he searches for a cure.

Austin explains how he once had a sort of near-death out-of-body experience where he encountered a character called Outlaw. He’s now obsessed with breaking through layers of reality to renew contact with the shadowy character.

Austin’s obsession is fueled by cases of others with various life-threatening ailments who had similar experiences as his, but with a different result -- they were cured. For some unclear reason, Austin wasn’t.

In order to literally hack his brain to facilitate his neural-spiritual journey, Austin has gone so far as to drill holes in his skull, with the help of a bribed medical technician, through which he connects his brain to his computer while he floats in a sensory deprivation chamber.

Austin explains to Nyah why he’s doing what’s he’s doing and what he’s discovered so far. He then convinces her to experiment with him, traveling inward, yet outward, through the immaterial into spiritual realms, searching for Outlaw and answers.

Nyah agrees seeing a chance for finding a cure for her mother. She cuts off her hair, shaves her scalp, lets Austin drill holes in her head, and they “trip” in side-by-side deprivation tanks. The bulk of the book centers on their experiences.

Eventually, the story returns to the drama with BlakBox and the FBI. It ends with the loss of several characters in the story but with Nyah reaching a level of peace and self-awareness that had been elusive for her.

She faces an open-ended future with new hope.

A little of this, a little of that

Hacker is the third in the YA (young adult) series of “The Outlaw Chronicles” that Dekker first released only in e-book format in 2012. To satisfy his fans who want print books, in 2013 Dekker inked a special deal with Worthy Publishing which released the three titles in January, March, and June of this year.

If you haven’t read the other titles in the “series,” or, even if you’ve not read any of Dekker’s 30 or so books, don’t worry. You won’t be lost. Hacker is a self-contained story with a reasonably satisfying conclusion.

Combine a portion of “The Matrix” with some “Inception,” season with a dash of “Altered States” and “Sneakers,” maybe a tiny hint of “Tron,” and a pinch of “24,” then drain off all the foul language and other naughty bits, and you’ve got a sense of what Hacker is and is not.

While Dekker is an author who is a self-professed Christian, this book is not explicitly a Christian story. And it’s not just for the YA audience. As another recent wildly popular YA novel featuring a young couple in an entirely different situation has shown, grown-ups are free to read YA books without shame.

The story moves at a fairly quick pace. However, the middle stretch detailing Austin’s and Nyah’s out-of-body trips left me a little impatient to get back to what was happening outside Austin’s hideaway with BlakBox and the FBI. For a long stretch that part of the story disappears.

Overall, fans of Dekker will be thrilled and newbies to his books will likely be interested in reading more.

Dekker is more than just dark

Dekker is an interesting figure. Given his Christian background -- I was surprised to learn that we both graduated from Evangel University, he about ten years or so after me -- he’s not your typical Christian author.

He doesn’t hide his heritage either.

Nearly every online and cover bio references that he is an MK (missionary kid), as well as mentioning his claims of seeing a “fair share of true-life horror.” This from living in a country populated by cannibals who killed and ate missionaries who worked with his parents. He characterizes this time saying, “You were at threat of losing your life at any moment.”

The darkness of his experience feeds into his books.

But, as he insisted in at least one interview, redemption is also a strong theme in his stories. Hacker is an example.

Dekker is a good writer. He knows how to craft a decent sentence and shape a good story arc.

While his plots are reasonably sophisticated, Hacker and his other books should be accessible to most readers. This is obvious given that he already has thousands, if not millions, of loyal fans.

Slightly twisted theology

My one mild concern with the book, given that Dekker is viewed as a Christian writer and many will be looking for relevant themes twined into his stories, is that he leans a little toward a semi-Gnosticism or Docetism in Hacker.

There is a strong push against the value of knowledge. Added to this is an elevating of the spiritual while practically demonizing the material.

In other words, mystery trumps knowledge and the immaterial is good while the material created world is bad.

For Christians, knowledge, coupled with wisdom, is desirable for living a godly life. And everything that God created, which is very real, is good even though in a fallen state.

Neither is to be rejected or subsumed, but viewed within biblical parameters.

Dekker’s storyline and characters, particularly Austin, strongly imply that to achieve connection to a higher spiritual power requires letting completely go of knowledge and the material.

Or, I could just be reading too much into it. You can decide for yourself when you read the book.

Hacker is a clean, quick moving book, perfect for reading on the beach or a flight or wherever you prefer to read.

Don't be afraid to dive in, drill down, and enjoy the trip.

Additional resources:

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

Are you a Dekker fan? What do you think of his books? Do some dip too far into the horror genre? Do you think he’s really a Christian writer? Sound off and share your thoughts in the comments!

Monday, June 9, 2014

Keep this in mind when writing anything (#PoetryMonday*)

Ideas take form through words.

Words are powerful.

Power influences.

Influence changes behavior.

Behavior reveals character.

Character is defined by passion.

Passion follows from thought.

Thought generates ideas.

Ideas take form through words.

Words are powerful...


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

 This is a repost from June 3, 2011. 

Okay, so technically this may not be poetry. But poetry is a flexible and fluid concept, so maybe it is. At any rate, how we use words, in speech or in writing, is serious business. Words do matter.

Agree? Disagree? Neutral? Share your reactions and thoughts in the comments!

This poem is included in this collection:

Friday, June 6, 2014

Crackers! Therefore Aliens. (#FlashFictionFriday*)

(For the kids.)

At night, look up.

Somewhere out there, past the stars, past the comets and satellites, past all you can see, at the edge of where your imagination can touch, there exists a distant small planet called Spreadlandium.

There, a cheerful alien race busy themselves, day in and day out, crafting delicious and wonderful edible spreads.

And they have all manner of the most irresistible spreads you can imagine.

They have fruity spreads, nutty spreads, tangy spreads, spicy spreads, exotic and aromatic spreads, berry spreads, veggie spreads, meaty spreads, spreads of all colors, flavors, and textures.

They are wizards at making jam-ish and jelly-like ooey gooey spectacular tasting spreads out of nearly anything edible.

Their vast arsenal of nuttery buttery spreads is out of this and every other world!

These aliens are called J’ly Jambeyns. At least that’s the closest Earth-English translation currently available.

If you meet the J’ly Jambeyns they will not harm you. In fact, they are more than happy to share with you samples of their many delicious spreads. As many samples as you care to try.

But, while these joyful creatures are gifted in the making of magical spreads, they have nothing upon which to spread their spreads that is tasty and satisfying.

Sadly, they don’t know how to bake. They have no clue what to do. There is no idea of bread in their heads.

Because they have nothing on which to spread their spreads, they enjoy their own spreads using spoon-like dippers. Or with the juicier spreads, they suck them up through straws.

They even use their fingerish appendages, dipping them in assorted jars and special bowls full of the most succulent spreads, then lick their fingerish appendages clean while smacking their lipless mouthy openings.

While the spreads are always tasty, nothing on which they spread them ever is. Especially not their fingerish appendages.

And this made them sad.

So they sent out a search party in a saucer-shaped spaceship to find something flat and tasty for their spreads.

For years and days and months and weeks, exploring through galaxies one planetoid-ish rock at a time, the J’ly Jambeyns searched. But sadly always came up empty handed. Or, in their case, empty hand-ish-like-thingy, since they don’t have hands like ours.

But they searched on, boosters blasting their saucer shaped craft, a pinball full of life and longing, crisscrossing space and time, searching, tasting, and searching some more.

Through the galaxies they zipped and zoomed, landing here and there, butterflies of hope and curiosity, putting spreads on, well, all sorts of flat stuffs.

They would taste test whatever crispy crunchy flat things they found -- brown leavish things, crunchy stony things, plate-like buggish things, and other flat things they never spoke of again once they spat them out (Yuck!) and rinsed their mouths with a cleansing minty spread.

But still, they searched on, spreading and tasting, spreading and tasting.

Ever the more carefully.

Ever the more hopeful.

And then...

One day, the J’ly Jambeyns came to earth. They landed in a small town, in a big back yard, behind a grassy knoll, near little Suzy.

Suzy was sitting outside on a sunny summer day leaning against a tree reading her new book.

She was enjoying a cold glass of milk with a plate of peanut butter and grape-jelly-laden saltine crackers her mother had made for her as a snack.

As she was munching and humming and reading and watching the buzzing bees tickle the flowers, there came a different, much deeper buzzing from somewhere above her head.

Suzy looked up just as the saucer flashed by and curved behind the near distant hill, out of sight.

There was a thump thump thump thumpety bump bump bump shhhssshhsshh and then silence followed by a metallic gear-grinding sound which was the saucer door opening.

Then mumbly jumbly voices giggled, sang, and quizzed in the air right into Suzy's ear. She could not make out what the voices were saying but knew they were coming closer.

Up from behind the rise oddly shaped things began to grow silhouetted against the bright sun-soaked sky.

Suzy squinted as these things became taller, bouncing up and down, and then realized they were creatures ambling up over the hill toward her.

They were odd little creatures who were also the source of the giggling voices that were jibbering joyfully in a language she did not recognize.

She sat motionless as the creatures approached.

The creatures saw her and froze.

Their eyes, bouncing and squinting on stalks above their heads like wind-bobbled sunflowers, ogled her and then spotted her peanut butter and jelly crackers, including the half-eaten one Suzy held in her motionless hand.

Their bumbulating eyes opened wide and round as softballs.

Simultaneously, the creatures let out an excited, “Oooooooooo deeeee wooop deedoo! Sup sup?”

Then they all held their breath as they nudged their leader.

A brave brightly dressed J’ly Jambeyn approached Suzy smiling. Although she didn’t know that it was smiling. What she thought was its mouth looked liked a squiggly line, which was how Jam J’ly Jambeyns smiled.

She wasn’t afraid. Just really, really curious about them. As were they about her.

The J’ly Jambeyn leader came close to Suzy, extending a tentacle arm thingy at the end of which was a very prettily and delicately decorated open container of a most aromatic spread, the scent of which was already tantalizing Suzy’s button nose and making her mouth water.

It smelled incredibly amazing and looked intensely delicious.

As one tentacle arm thing held out the jar of spread, with the other, one fingerish appendage extended, the leader J’ly Jambeyn pointed at Suzy’s crackers and made a series of sounds that seemed to be a question.

Suzy guessed it wanted to trade from the way it was gesturing at her plate.

“Okay!” she said and smiled and passed the plate of crackers to the J’ly Jambeyn with one hand while accepting the gift of spread with her other.

The J’ly Jambeyn excitedly began sharing the plate of crackers with its companions.

First, they tasted the crackers with the peanut butter and grape jelly.
“Mmmm ummmm hmmmm munch munch,” they all mumbled as they tasted cautiously.

Next, they scraped off the peanut butter and grape jelly and put their own nuttery and jelly-like spread on one of the cleaned crackers, passing it around for each to sample in delicate, judicious nibbles.

Then they put other spreads on the other crackers and passed them around for more delicate sampling.

“Ooooooooo! Ahhhhhhh! Mmmm, mmm, mmm, mmm. Munch! Munch! MUNCH! Whatta! WHATTA!” they all sang out together.

Suzy thought the “Whatta!” sounded like a lot of people shouting, “Hurrah!”

For the first time ever in eons and eons the J’ly Jambeyns had found something tasty on which to enjoy their delicious spreads.

They immediately knew that these whatever-they-were would work as edible transports for every kind of delicious spread they had every concocted or could ever imagine concocting.

They were amazed and joyful, deliriously ecstatic. And then quizzical and questioning.

All at once and all together they wondered where they could get more of these whatever-they-were spread transports.

As one, they turned to Suzy who was slurpishly sampling the gift spread with her fingers.

The brave brightly dressed leader J’ly Jambeyn held out the last cracker, pointed to it, and said, “Mmmmfff thhhhfft oooo oooo oooo?”

Suzy looked at them as she thoughtfully licked her fingers clean of the most amazing jelly-like spread she had ever tasted, trying to understand what the J’ly Jambeyns were saying as they all now pointed and repeated, “Mmmmfff thhhhfft oooo oooo oooo?”

All at once the most stupendous thing occurred.

Instead of “Mmmmfff thhhhfft oooo oooo oooo?” Suzy heard as clearly as the birds chirping in the green-blazed trees “Where can we get more of these crispy spread supporters, whatever-they-are? They are very truly tasty and worthy of our delicious spreads. We would eagerly with much joy like to acquire many billions of them.”

“You mean crackers,” replied Suzy. “You can buy them at the grocery store. But I’m not sure they have billions. I think you’d have to go to the big bakery for that many.”

All the J’ly Jambeyns eyes bobbled up and down wide open as each realized they could understand Suzy. It was a complete and delicious surprise to them.

Somehow, the tasty treats they shared freely with each other had given them the ability to talk to each other. They could communicate! And communicate they did.

The J’ly Jambeyns were so excited they all started singing and dancing and clapping their tentacles in overwhelming frabjous joy.

While Suzy could understand every gleeful word they sang, to anyone else passing within earshot, it would have sounded like nothing more than a bunch of children giggling in a sing-song kind of boisterous silly giggling.

Suddenly they stopped and quieted and stared at Suzy again.

In unison, they sang out enthrallingly, “We love crackers! Take us to the grocery store and then to the big bakery please! We will give you many containers of delicious spreads in trade for many, many of your delicious crackers!”

Suzy said, “Okay. I’ll take you!”

With that, Suzy and the leader J’ly Jambeyn, hand in tentacle hand-ish thingy, headed off toward the grocery store, followed by the rest of the J’ly Jambeyn crew.

The J’ly Jambeyns had never been as happy as they were that day. They made up on the spot and began singing rhapsodic songs about their delicious epic discovery of crackers.

As they all paraded joyfully down the street toward the store with Suzy, neighbors standing in their yards stared, stunned, pointing, mouths open in amazement.

Meanwhile, a caravan of large black official looking cars with darkened windows sped toward the raucous scene and the oblivious, unsuspecting Suzy and the alien panoply.
Flash fiction is nothing more or less than a very, very short short story.  
This one is a tad longer than others I’ve shared at just over 1600 words. As I was working on it, it dawned on me that all children’s stories are, in a sense, flash fiction! Interesting.
Anyway, this could probably use some work. And based on what little I know about writing children's stories, it’s probably too long for a children’s book. But, here it is just for fun for you!

So, what do you think happens next? Are the cars a welcoming committee? From the government and intending to take the aliens captive? Maybe corporate moguls hoping to cash in on the alien’s talents? Or perhaps they are executives from the History Channel looking for source material for another alien special. Let me know what you think in the comments!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Of baseball & board games, kings & politics, melons & cucumbers, and Torchie the bully*

When I was a kid, I used to love to play baseball with the guys from my church.

On summer Sunday afternoons, we’d meet up at one of our small-town parks, each bringing what we had -- bats, balls, gloves -- to share as needed.

One park had no diamonds but did have open grassy areas. Bases were often shirts, rocks, or some other found detritus.

The rules were loose. Keeping score was random. The point was to have fun.

Still, we knew we were playing baseball because we had three bases and home, were using baseballs and baseball bats, and agreed that four balls was a walk while three strikes was an out.

Balls could be foul, but usually if you hit you ran. If tapped or the ball was caught, you were out. Otherwise, you were safe wherever you landed.

One Sunday we met up at one of the “real” diamonds out at the county park on the edge of town. There, another group of guys asked if they could join in and play “us” against “them.”

We were game and said sure.

And then something happened.

While “we” were, as usual, casual about the rules, “they” were not.

In fact, nearly every pitch led to a discussion about some technicality of play. The fun was slowly drained away by increasingly heated discussions of the rules.

While “we” wanted to play ball, “they” wanted to win. Or so it seemed.

Heretics, Pharisees, and baseball

In the eyes of our competitors that summer day, we were baseball “heretics.” While to us, they were the “Pharisees” of the diamond. It was not a pretty sight.

When playing ball with our known chums we shared an understood set of “beliefs” and “expectations” about baseball and what we were about.

The other “outsider” team also had their own understood set of “beliefs” and “expectations” about baseball.

Neither side was necessarily wrong, but both sides failed to clearly communicate our “beliefs” and “expectations” from which we could have developed an agreed-to set of ground rules that would have kept everyone happy.

We were all playing baseball and agreed to some generic basics, but the trouble came on the finer points.

It’s not unlike what happens when people from different families get together to play Monopoly or some other board game. It’s amazing to learn the variety of “rules” each insists exists yet are not to be found printed on the inside of the box lid.

The simple reality is that the more people from different backgrounds involved in a game, the more clearly the rules being followed need to be stated.

Field guides for believers

Christianity can often feel like that fun-drained summer baseball game or Monopoly with the neighbors.

The problem isn’t with Christianity, God, faith, or the Bible, but rather what happens when one group of believers comes together to “play” with another group of believers.

Francis A. Schaeffer stated that, “Though genuine Christians may, and in fact do, disagree over certain points of Christian thinking, there are absolute limits beyond which a Christian cannot go and still stand in the historic stream of Christianity.”

He agrees that there is room for variation of expression within these absolute limits, explaining “we should picture a circle within which there is freedom to move.”

Still, there are biblical boundaries that need to be observed.

As author Justin S. Holcomb points out, “If you do not follow the rules, you cannot say you are playing the game anymore.”

As a Boy Scout I always carried a field guide on camping trips that helped me identify local flora and fauna.

If I was uncertain, a quick check of the guide would verify if the plant I’d just rubbed up against was poison ivy or something harmless. Most often the result was I needed to apply calamine lotion!

Justin S. Holcomb has provided two useful references that, together, can serve as field guides to help avoid theological and doctrinal poison ivy: Know the Creeds and Councils and Know the Heretics.

Discerning true heresies

When it comes to heretics, anyone who is familiar with the New Testament will have probably heard, at minimum, references to Judaizers and the Gnostics. These are the first two tackled in Know the Hereticss.

Other chapters take on Marcion, Docetists, Mani, Sabellius, Arius, Appolinarius, Pelagius, Eutyches, Nestorious, and Socinus. Within each chapter, there are mentions of additional heretics, showing their relation to the one being discussed.

As Holcomb points out, “Traditionally, a heretic is someone who has compromised an essential doctrine and lost sight of who God really is, usually by oversimplification.”

The sobering reality is that many if not all of the heretics referenced were at least initially very devout, godly men. Their motives were often rooted in right desires but they strayed from central biblical truths and generally accepted doctrines, or what is known as the “rule of faith.”

As Holcomb states, there, “is often a fine balance between allowing free exploration of who God is and reasserting what we can know for sure, and in the cases presented in this book, the exploration went so far as to distort our understanding of God as he has revealed himself to us.”

This is why it is important to understand heresies and those behind them. Paul warns in Galatians 1:9. “As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed” (ESV).

At the same time, it’s important to keep in mind as Holcomb points out, “the early church did not consider every potential wrong belief to be heretical. Rather, only those beliefs that contradicted the essential elements of the faith were to be labeled heresy, not disagreements on nonessential doctrines.”

We must guard against seriously wrong doctrine while remembering that there is freedom to move within the circle of absolutes.

Councils for the defense

As the Gospel spread, followers of Jesus were birthed across countries, continents, and cultures. The boundaries of those countries and cultures changed over the centuries and pushed against the boundaries of right belief. These realities required clarification and refinement of belief, but always to ensure expressions of the day were totally biblical and within the circle of orthodoxy.

To keep heresies at bay, councils were called, from which creeds, confessions, and catechisms were created. Know the Creeds and Councils addresses several of these in chronological order, reaching from AD 140 up to recent times.

Covered are the Apostle’s Creed, Nicene Creed, Councils of Ephesus, Council of Chalcedon, Athanasian Creed, Councils of Constantinople, Councils of Carthage and Orange, Council of Trent, Heidelberg Catechism, Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, Westminster Confession of Faith, Second Vatican Council, Lausanne Covenant, and the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.

Holcomb does an excellent job providing definitions of the four C’s (councils, creeds, confessions, and catechisms).

He explains that “creeds are the boundaries of the faith that separate orthodoxy from heresy, while the confessions color in the picture, tying theology to everyday life in all sorts of ways.”

A catechism is defined as “a book or document giving a brief summary of the basic principles of Christianity in Q&A form.”

While the councils “brought together leaders from all over the world to hammer out issues, such as responses to heretical teachings, that were too difficult for individual pastors or bishops to handle alone.”

As Holcomb concludes, “Learning how Christians throughout history have wrestled with the tough questions of our faith gives us a valuable perspective that deepens our understanding of the Christian faith, increases our dependence on God’s revelation in Jesus Christ and the Holy Scriptures, fuels our worship of God, increases our love for each other, and motivates mission to the world.”

Getting to know the Know Series

These two titles mark what appears to be the beginning of the “Know Series” from Zondervan, which implies there will be other titles to come.

Both compact books are intended to provide “accessible overviews” while admitting to not being comprehensive. Each provides similarly structured chapters outlining the basics of their topics and showing how they are relevant for us today.

These books are aimed, as the author states, at “those of us who do not have the time or energy to devote to historical studies,” and they hit that target dead center.

The books are truly complementary with some sections shared verbatim in each. You can choose to read the books cover-to-cover, or use them as a reference to zero in on specific topics of interest.

Each chapter in both volumes concludes with discussion questions and suggested further readings.

The publisher suggests both books could be used in Sunday school or small groups.

When using either or both books in a group, the leader will probably want to be steeped in the topic prior to leading discussion and be prepared to address the more controversial issues that could crop up.

Batter up!

That baseball game years ago could have been a lot more fun had both teams spent a few minutes getting to know each other and clarifying the rules that would govern our game.

We all wanted to play baseball, had very good ideas as to what that meant, and all of our ideas were within the realm of “baseball orthodoxy.”

It’s just that my team wanted to play from a different place in the circle than did the other team.

Our cultures clashed even though our beliefs were solid.

The truth is that we managed to get through the game, working out issues as they arose. It wasn’t always as much fun, was a lot more work, but we managed to play some decent ball.

Too often, though, when it comes to doctrine among fellow believers, it can get touchy.

As Holcomb says, “We must remember that the entirety of what we think Christians should believe is not identical to what a person must believe to be saved.”

As hard as it may be to accept, as Christians, while there are absolute boundaries which must not be yielded, there are many details surrounding our expressions of faith that we can legitimately agree to disagree on.

As Holcomb points out, “The current climate of the church shows that Christians need to relearn the ability to care about right doctrine and have earnest doctrinal disagreements without shouting ‘heresy!’ when we disagree.”

He has done an excellent job providing us two essential resources to aid us in that relearning.

*Just for fun:

About the references in the title, baseball & board games is obvious. Here are the others, which are examples of the cool information you’ll discover in these books:

  • Kings & politics: While in modern day USA, we push hard against the mixing of politics and religion, as Holcomb points out, older cultures had different attitudes. Kings got involved with the church and, sadly, even church leaders were forced to maneuver politically.
  • Melons & cucumbers: One of the tasks Mani of the Manichaeans set for his followers was to eat melons and cucumbers, among other foods, “to free pieces of God that were trapped in the plants.”
  • Torchie the bully: Not only was Nestorius a heretic, he was a firebrand terribly intolerant of other heresies competing with his own. At one point, he “proceeded to burn down a chapel belonging to members of the Arian heresy.” The resulting fire spread to a large part of the city, earning him the nickname of “Torchie.”
Additional online resources:

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

Do you believe it’s important to understand heresy? Why or why not? What about understanding the creeds and councils? What can be done to build better unity and cooperation among Christians, even with varying doctrines? What role does Francis A.Schaeffer’s “The Mark of the Christian” play in visible Christian unity? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Who? Who are you? Tell me...NOW!

 (Originally posted June 27, 2011;
posted here with minor edits)
I’ve worked with more than one organization to help them develop advertising, promotion, communications, and PR efforts. In every situation, their burning desire was to “just get something out there.”

The feeling was that if they could just get an ad in the local paper, an article in the local business magazine, a commercial on the local radio station, or a nice story on TV, everything would be okay.

When I asked them what they wanted their ad or article to say, their response was, “Just get the name of the organization out there! You know, and our URL! And phone number! We just need to get our name out! Now!”

Talk about your Jack Bauer style of advertising!

But since they did't have a gun pointed at my knees, I always pushed back and did a little CSI-type of discovery. This is where I became a source of annoyance asking them questions such as these:
  • What differentiates you from all of your competitors?
  • What makes you special and unique?
  • What is your story; the story that repeatedly drew your most loyal customers back?
  • Who are your typical customers? The leading users of your products or services?
  • Who are your customer cheerleaders?
Jack Bauer would have jut shot me and moved on.

But we needed to go through the process of self-discovery to yield the unique story that would drive the key messages setting them apart and above everyone else.

So do you.

So does anyone who wants to promote themselves, their business, their school, their charity, their whatever!
  • For example, is your organization a college or university in an area where there are dozens of colleges and universities? Why should someone choose you over all the others?
  • Or, if you are a church wanting to engage your community where there’s a church on every corner? What does you church offer that the others don’t?
  • Or, if you’re a … [fill in the blank] ... you get the idea.
Doing the basic detective work and engaging in a process of self-discovery will give you the tools to create a story from which you can build compelling communications that will yield profitable outcomes.

Not engaging in this process will only lead to useless ads and news releases no one will look at or read. Not even Jack Bauer.

Unless you’re a Nike or a Coca-Cola, you’re going to need more than your company name and contact information to generate interest and attract customers.

Take a good look at who you are, your origins, who you’re best customers are now, and clarify what you want to accomplish in the marketplace. Then, build your story and start telling it to the world.

With an effective story, your business or organization may just survive longer than 24 hours and live another day.

When was the last time you really took a close look at who you are as a business or organization? Have you ever asked your customers how they think of you? How do effectively get your name out?

Monday, June 2, 2014

Sometimes, it's hard to keep breathing... (#PoetryMonday*)

"How can I, your servant,
talk with you my lord?
My strength is gone
and I can hardly breathe."
-- Daniel 10:17, NIV

"It was hard for me to breathe last night,"
she says at least three times
as if the nurses' responses
are inadequate,
as if thier responses will find a way
to fill her lungs with painless air,
as if their responses will lift her
up and carry her over the cancer,
over the chemo,
over all the drugs,
over the pain,
dropping her on the other side
of hope and healthy,
where it won't be hard for her to breathe,
and she is still breathing.


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

 This is a repost from July 5, 2011. 

From time to time in 2010-11, because of a non-life threatening issue with anemia, I had to get iron infusions. Many of the other patients were there much more frequently for much more serious issues getting chemo and other treatments. They were dealing with life and death.  

The subject of the above reflection was a young woman sitting across the room from me; from her chatting with the nurses I learned that she's dealing with some sort of cancer, recently had a child, and was also being treated for pain. My anemia was merely an annoyance and minor inconvenience compared to what this woman and other patients are battling and enduring.

This poem is included in this collection: