Friday, July 29, 2016

Can you see me now? Laying aside the walkie-talkie defensiveness

Everything is claimed to be a conversation these days. The TV news, our posts on social media, commercials, YouTube videos, podcasts. Oddly, no matter how sincerely these are claimed to be interactive, they’re truly not. At least not in the sense of true conversation.

So much of what we deem conversation is more like telling each other stuff using walkie-talkies. Only one talks at a time. Over. And then the other says what’s on their mind. Over. And neither seems to really hear what the other is saying. Over. And once we say all we want to say -- over and out!

Rather than conversation we lob slogans and epithets at each other from behind our walls of defensiveness and self-righteousness.

The word’s broader meaning -- conversation -- embraces the concepts of discussion, talk, chat, gossip, tête-à-tête, heart-to-heart, exchange, dialogue. Not only is real conversation not one way, it is not one thing. It even extends beyond mere words.

Two people in love can speak a few words, and then with glances and body language, communicate massive amounts of intimate information between them.

How? They are tuned in, focused, sensitive to each other. Curious to know about each other and to be known by each other.

Jesus was tuned in. We like to assume since he was the Son of God, he possessed some extra-terrestrial-like mind-reading capability, and that’s what gave him the edge for knowing the thoughts of those around him.


But Jesus was also fully human and fully righteous. He engaged with people in, probably, the most pure sense of the word engagement. He truly saw people, truly heard them, truly knew them -- unlike anyone else could. There were no filters.

So when Jesus engaged with the woman at the well, his knowing about her marital situation was no parlor trick or mind game. He knew her and understood her need better than she did. And he engaged her in caring, back-and-forth, deep conversation.

He was respectful of her humanity and her intelligence. He did not speak down to her or blunt his words. She appreciated his honesty and responded in kind.

Okay, sure, there was an element of the supernatural at work here. But the overall conversation still serves as a model for all of us when we engage each other (and we have the mind of Christ!). Throughout the encounter, Jesus was sincere, loving, kind, direct, honest, insightful, and not in the least dismissive or superior in his tone.

Keep in mind, the Samaritan woman was persona non grata! Unclean! Not a Jew. Or, as we might put it, not “our kind.” Not “in our camp.” Not a member of our church, our political party, our club. Not what or who we generally find acceptable. Not like us.

No one needed supernatural insight to discern a lot of basic information about the woman. Like Jesus, they just needed to look at her. And it’s in truly seeing a person that real conversation with them can take place.

In other words, instead of asking another, “Can you hear me now?” we should put down the walkie-talkie defensiveness, look at them, and make it clear, “I can see you now.”

Then the real conversation can begin.

It can be really hard to hear each other when it comes to trying to discuss intensely held beliefs, opinions, or ideas. This is especially apparent now during the Presidential election storm. How are you, mindful of your Christian witness, managing what you share and how you comment on what others share? Are you always successful in listening to their side? Are you able to remain open to challenging new ideas? Are you willing at all to reconsider your own position? In everything you share with others, are you bringing glory to God and honor to Christ? Do you speak as prompted and led by the Holy Spirit? Please share your insights and experiences in the comments!

Thursday, July 28, 2016

A cutting edge treasure

As a kid there were a few things I wanted. Badly.

Back then catalogs were still common and we had a variety stored in the coat closet. Near Christmas or my birthday, I would take the most recent into my room and circle what I wanted.

Initially nearly everything I marked was in the toy section. Slot car sets. The latest plastic armaments. As I got older, my wishing moved up to stereos, a guitar, and even clothes.

Still, there were those perennial bigger longings. Like moving to a house in the country where I could have a horse. Getting a car of my own, hopefully a convertible.

Being a Boy Scout, there was also the desire -- and practical need -- for such things as hatchets, compasses, and the like.

One year for my birthday, dad surprised me with the exact official Scout knife I desired. I was so excited. Until I heard the conditions that came with it.

I couldn’t take possession of the knife until I’d earned certain merit badges. I was crestfallen, but at the same time determined to do what I needed to do.

It took a few months, but I met his conditions and won the knife. I treasured it. For at least a few weeks.

I appreciated having it, wearing it proudly on my belt at campouts. It was cool. But when it came to doing what needed to be done to keep it sharp and rust-free, well, the words “neglect” and “lazy” may be appropriate.

So what happened? I really desired that knife. Why didn’t I treasure it once I received it?

Because my true heart was revealed. The point to having the knife was to be cool among my Scout friends, especially those who already had knives.

But once possessed, there were many other things I didn’t have that also seemed to offer an aura of coolness.

I still have that knife and I do treasure it. It was put to good use. But no matter how hard I tried, I could never keep it sharp. At least not as sharp as my dad could.

My dad grew up on a farm in Kentucky. For him and his peers, having a knife in your pocket was a must. Even as an adult he owned several and always carried one.

I’ve got them now. They’re all still sharp! Dad had a knack with the whetstone I could never get the hang of.

Do I treasure the knives? Yes! But in reality, the knives are merely symbols of what I truly treasure.

My dad was my treasure. Then I had him with me. Today I have memories of him. An avalanche of which can be let loose merely seeing one of his knives.

As an adult there are a few things I want. Badly. I’d love to have dad back, and mourn each time I realize he’s gone.

But at least I have a treasure trove of memories that I tend regularly, that can’t rust, be moth-eaten, or stolen.

What are you treasuring?

What are some of your timeless treasures? Either memories or mementos? Please share your reactions and memories in the comments!
*FYI: The knife pictured above is not my knife, but very similar. I still have mine but it is currently in storage.

And be sure to check out my new book. Click on the image below to learn more!

Friday, July 22, 2016

Church Communication Director Under FBI Scrutiny After Hiring Russian Hacker*

STONEGROUND, PA — Stanley Claiborne, new communications director at the Harper Valley Providential Church (HVPC), was visited in his home today by FBI agents. According to unconfirmed reports he and the church are under investigation.

Apparently Claiborne hired teenage Russian hacker, Sergei Nominov, who had recently emigrated with his family to the U.S. The Nominovs had just started attending HVPC when Claiborne learned of Nominov’s technical skills.

Claiborne enlisted Nominov to help reclaim Facebook Pages, Twitter profiles, and other social media accounts set up in the church’s name. These accounts were reportedly created by well-meaning members and former members of the church. But no one knew, it has been claimed, who was responsible or had any of the login information.

Claiborne, hired by the church six months ago, believed he’d exhausted all other options. Reached by phone, he said, “I’ve asked everyone in the church at least seventy times seven. No one’s talking. I’ve tried contacting Facebook and Twitter but get only canned email responses. You know what it’s like dealing with them!” exclaimed a clearly exasperated Claiborne.

“The Facebook page was created five years ago. Five years!,” Claiborne continued, “Everyone keeps ‘Liking’ it but we can’t access it! We can’t change anything on the page. We can’t even create a new one using our church name in the URL. And don’t get me started about Twitter. There are three different accounts! How can we be effective in our communication efforts with such a mess? It’s chaos!”

When asked why he enlisted Nominov, Claiborne explained, “What else could I do? Contacting Facebook and Twitter was useless. No one in the church claims to know anything. And my prayers about all this seemed to just bounce against the ceiling. When I discovered that Sergei had done some hacking, I felt like he was a godsend!”

As for Nominov, he was more than happy to help, believing that his talent is one of his better spiritual gifts. “Am thrilled to help church anyway I can,” he explained cheerfully. “Stan is great guy.”

Before he could say more his parents whisked him away, waving at reporters, giving thumbs up, and shouting in heavy Russian accents, “No more talk! We love U.S.A.! God bless America!”

When asked for details an FBI agent would neither confirm nor deny that any investigation was actually taking place, then returned back inside Claiborne’s house closing the curtains in the front window.

At this time Claiborne is no longer answering his phone. The only response from an unidentified church representative when queried was, “We don’t have a clue.”

*This is humor and fictional. All the characters are most likely fictitious and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead or soon to be dead will probably neither be confirmed nor denied. Nor can it be confirmed that anything like this has ever been experienced by the author of this blog. However, perhaps you can relate to this story? Please feel free to share your experience and thoughts in the comments, which may or may no be shared with the FBI or any other similar investigative body. God bless America!

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Time, time, time, see what’s becoming of me & you

Have you ever thought about what a blessing it is that time exists?

Many don’t view time as a blessing, but rather as a curse. We’re often so busy that we feel pressed by time we don’t have. The hours zip by and still there’s more to do!

Time can also move too slowly when we are eagerly anticipating something good, like the birth of a child or the overdue visit of a special friend.

Alternately, we’re eager to have time move fast when enduring something painful.

Dorothy L. Sayers said, “God is not subject to time.” She’s right. The Bible tells us that “But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:8, ESV).

Some speculate that God perceives all time – past, present, and future – as the same. His gift to us was the passage of time as expressed in the constant of day turning to night turning back to day. This is a good thing for us.

We express the positive aspect of time often by saying how time heals all wounds endured.

While not as often said, it can also heal woundings we inflict. Can you imagine the horror of everything we’ve ever done being constantly present with us?

Being totally honest, we know that if this were the case, all of us would be always sitting in a cesspool of sin, pain, and shame. There would be no getting away from any wrong done.

Toss in every bad thing done by others that has ever knocked the wind out of us and it would be a pretty miserable existence.

Instead, thankfully the reality is that when we screw up and sin, we can run to God’s grace and find forgiveness. Every time.

But not only is there forgiveness, but once the moment of sin is forgiven, it’s gone. He removes it from us as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12). Every day, God’s mercies are fresh and new and waiting to be lavished on us (Lamentations 3:22-23).

We can look back and reflect, but we don’t need to live in the past. Nor should we. We learn from it, confess, repent, and move on.

Paul sums it up best saying, “... one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14, ESV).

Just as we, mercifully, cannot reclaim the past, we cannot extend ourselves into the future. In fact, Jesus cautioned against focusing too far beyond the present moment: “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:34, ESV).

There’s a popular and horrible lie that is phrased in a variety of ways, but essentially says that past behavior predicts future performance. No!

Paul counters that lie saying, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (2 Corinthians 5:17, ESV).

What matters is where we stand now and who we are becoming over time.

Hebrews 3:13 instructs, “But exhort [encourage] one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” (ESV).

German poet and philosopher Johann Friedrich von Schiller declared, “He who neglects the present moment throws away all he has.”

Be encouraged! God’s mercies are new every morning. Every moment is a time for a new start.

George Eliot was right when he said, “It’s never too late to be what you might have been.” God would agree.

Grace wins.

Do you get stuck sometimes allowing the past to play over and over in your head and sapping your motivation? Do you often point out to others their old mistakes? How do you silence the voices of the past in your life? In the lives of others? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The plague of plagiarism & strong-willed misguided would-be leaders
Click the image to read the original story.

When you’re a reader, the ideas garnered essentially become part of your thought process and even your worldview.

Later, when writing something and trying to trace every thread to a potential source is impossible. But, as a writer with integrity, you do the best you can and give credit where credit is due as you become aware of who you are emulating.

But intentionally copying and pasting from another source is much, much different. And it’s almost always detectable, especially with the Internet.

But ma, all the other kids are doing it!

A few years ago, as I was editing a book about health related issues, my “spidey sense” went off. I honestly cannot explain why my suspicions were aroused, but they were. I had a gut feeling that the author was plagiarizing.

So, I copied a random few sentences from the chapter I was editing and pasted them into the Google search box. I was stunned when they were a word for word match to an online article.

I started going through each chapter, again selecting chunks randomly. Nearly every search led me to different websites where, word for word, they matched. When there wasn’t an exact match, there was always a very close approximation.

When I confronted the author, her explanation was that she had written the articles for the various websites so, therefore, it wasn’t plagiarism, which is not the case. As I continued to press the issue with the author, it became clear to me she knew what she was doing.

I turned the issue over to my boss and asked to be taken off the project.

I’ve worked at a few universities. A couple offered courses targeted to working adults. Inevitably more than one of these adults would turn in papers that were clearly plagiarized. In each instance, when confronted by their professors, these adult students claimed ignorance. It was mind-boggling.

Their defense? Everyone does it!

What’s good for My Little Pony is good for My Little (First?) Lady

Plagiarism hit the news in a big way this week when it was determined that Melania Trump had “borrowed” a couple of large chunks of text from an old Michelle Obama speech. As with anything that happens associated with those named Trump, opinions are split and intense on both sides.

Plagiarism is a topic few talk about and fewer understand.
Click above to see the story.
For example, the author I mentioned earlier claimed that since she had written the articles she was lifting chunks from, there was no foul. The problem comes when the terms of her writing those articles are examined.

If, as is true in most situations, she created content for the sites as a “work for hire,” once she turned the text over, she can no longer claim ownership. To use the text, she would need to get permission from the websites and cite each instance in her book. She hadn’t done this.

Many people believe that everything on the Internet is fair game. Nothing could be further from the truth. The only difference between what’s in a printed book and what’s on the Internet relates to accessibility. Because it’s easier to copy and paste from the Internet doesn’t make what you’re copying any less protected by copyright.

As for Melania Trump’s speech, what happened could have been intentional or it could have been an accident.

More than once I’ve copied something off the Internet and pasted it into a file intending to use it as the germ of a blog post. Later, opening the file, if I’ve failed to also include the URL to the source, I’m sometimes not sure if it’s a note I wrote or something I copied. In either case, I’ll err on the side of caution and either toss it or completely rewrite the idea into my own words.

Something like this may have happened in the creation of Melania’s speech. Either she or someone helping her thought Michelle’s words were a good model of what she wanted to say, copied the words intending to rewrite them, and then forgot.

But this is no excuse.

I didn’t mean to intentionally do it accidentally on purpose!

Given the nature of the speech, knowing how thoroughly it would be examined and in very fine detail, there should have been more vetting of the final product.

All someone had to do is, as I did, copy and paste the speech into Google and the problem would have been spotted immediately.

There are also numerous online services dedicated to helping you ferret out unintended plagiarism in your writing. I’m sure the Trump campaign can more than afford their price. Although there are rumors they might not.

Obviously no checking was done which leads us to ask why not. How did the copied words get into the final speech and stay there?

I can think of three scenarios:
  1.  Sheer incompetence. If there were professional speechwriters and communications people working with Melania, not taking the time to verify the final text of the speech was simply sloppy. Whether the text was borrowed or merely assembled from generically available public domain thoughts, you check, recheck, and have many different eyes review the text. The goal is to avoid even the appearance of plagiarism and ensure originality. The stakes are very high.
  2. Melania acted alone. This is a possibility, given how headstrong the Trumps seem to be. A CEO I worked for gave notoriously bad off-the-cuff speeches. I and others convinced him to let me work with him on the more important talks. Finally, he agreed. For an upcoming event, I worked with him over several weeks to create and polish a really good speech. Only moments before he was to give the speech, he disappeared into the bathroom. I knew what that meant; what we’d developed was flushed. Sure enough, he had scribbled a few notes and proceeded to deliver his usual disaster. But he was the CEO, so I kept my mouth shut and applauded at the end along with everyone else. What else could I do? Besides, it’s not like he was running for President or anything.
  3. Intentional sabotage. Given the many faux pas that have been plaguing Trump’s campaign and convention antics of late, one has to wonder if the people the Trump Campaign is hiring aren't intentionally secretly trying to sabotage the campaign. It’s a possibility. Or, referring back to #1, perhaps the only people the Trump campaign can hire are those no one else wants. We may never know.

Oh, I guess there is one more possibility: Donald did it on purpose merely to stir up attention.

He clearly believes even bad press is good publicity, and none of his supporters seem to care one whit that his integrity is non-existent.

However it happened, accidentally or otherwise, it’s still plagiarism.

The correct response? Own up to it, admit it, apologize for it, and put people and processes in place to make sure it never happens again. Unless, of course, that was the plan all along. In that case, just deny, deny, deny, and lie1.

1. Trump: The Art of the Deal, Donald J. Trump and Tony Schwartz (Ballantine Books).

Additional reading:

What do you think? Was it an accident? Intentional? An attempt to sabotage? A ploy to generate publicity? Feel free to share your thoughts -- nicely -- in the comments!

Media raves about newly released religious thriller by Former Local Man!
Click on the image above to view a larger version.
“ORELAND, Penn. - July 2016  --  Veteran award-winning writer, Stephen R. Clark, has just released an exciting new religious thriller titled The Hungering Dark: Awakening. The book was the 2015 Grand Prize winner of the First Look contest sponsored by WestBow Press, a division of Thomas Nelson and Zondervan (both owned by HarperCollins).”

Wow. You’ve got to appreciate hometown newspaper coverage of a “former local man.” And I do. Thank you, Courier-Times!

Yep, the book is out and available at several online retailers. Here are a few
You should also be able to special order it from your local bookstore. And if you ask for it at your favorite local library, they should also be able to acquire a copy or two. Your bookstore and library will need the following information:

Paperback  •  ISBN-13: 978-1-5127-4515-3  •  ISBN-10: 1512745154
Hardcover  •  ISBN-13: 978-1-5127-4516-0  •  ISBN-10: 1512745162
Ebook  •  ISBN-13: 978-1-5127-4514-6  •  ASIN: B01IAA36FM

If you read the book -- and I hope you do -- please share your thoughts. Comment here on this post or on my Facebook page. Or write a review at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

At the least, please tell your friends, relatives, and neighbors about the book!

Oh, and keep the light on!

Does this sound like a book you would like to read? Why or why not? Have you already ordered a copy? Have you had a chance to read it? If you have read my book, please let me know what you think of it! Please share your thoughts -- for better or for worse -- in the comments.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Between prose & poetry: New Castle musings | Coveting (#Poetry Monday*)

On a borrowed bike in an unfamiliar part of town
I turned a corner just as the sun turned off.
In the sudden darkness nothing was familiar.
My sense of direction and locus was lost
replaced by icy panic filling my veins. My heart beat fast,
my feet pedaled faster as blindly, feverishly I tried one street
after another. I turned and turned and turned and
by happenstance found the street where I’d started from.
The street where the house of my Dad’s work acquaintances lived.
Where we had come for dinner. Where they had one, or was it two,
kids around my age, and a bike I coveted and wanted to try out.
Our car was parked on the street in front. My heart settling,
coming closer, familiar chatting voices became clear.
They were all calmly waiting for me on the porch.
All I longed for from that moment was the visit to end
so I could truly be home, tucked into the familiar
and secure sheets of my own bed in my own room
once more. But I still wanted that bike.

* Its PoMo! To learn about PoMo (POetry MOnday), click here. We learned the 10 Commandments in Sunday school and knew what coveting was. Or at least we had the information describing what coveting was. Still, when you're young, wanting what someone else had seems to be the norm. Seeing what our friends had, trying their stuff out, was how you built your own birthday and Christmas wishlists. But Mom! Billy has one and it's so cool! I have to have one, too! Was this similar to your experience? Do you have kids now? How do you help them understand the dangers of coveting? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

Note: I put the graphic and poetry quote at the bottom to preserve the line length of the poem. You may need to open your browser to the full width of your screen to ensure there are no line breaks.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Get lit!: Curing the world’s heart of darkness by starting with our own

Yet another shocking terror attack bleeds out from our TVs and social media newsfeeds and our hearts break. We shake our lowered heads, stifling tears, stuffing fears, mumbling to one another, “I just don’t know. I just don’t know.”

From the incessantly breaking news, the numbers from Nice tick up, just as they always do when these things happen. 20. 50. 80. Maybe more. We can barely breathe.

Facebook chatter erupts with laments about how violent the world “out there” has become. How dark some days are. How evil those evil terrorists doing evil must be.

We debate the best means to keep the evil “out there” from coming here.

But then the ever-seeing eye of the news shifts to our shores. A mass shooting in Florida, or is it California? A sniper on an apparent random serial killing spree in Arizona. Police killing unarmed men in Minnesota, Louisiana, and Michigan. People shooting at police in Texas and Baltimore.

The “out there” keeps creeping closer to our own doors.

In Philly, it seems nearly every week there’s another report of some innocent human being killed in a hit and run on the streets. Either that or a shooting. Or was that in Cleveland, or perhaps Chicago?

We mourn, we lament, we blame and point our fingers toward the violence “out there.” All those evil people. “Why do they have to be so ugly and violent?,” we wonder out loud to our friends. “Why do they hate us?”

Then the always-roving lens of the news shifts yet again.

Road rage is the focus now. On the evening blues, we learn that more than 50% of traffic fatalities result from road rage with more than 80% of all drivers admitting to aggressive driving. If 80% are willing to admit to this, then we know the remaining 20% of us are merely keeping mum.

We tailgate, cut-off, pass on the right, make obscene gestures to, get apoplectic at, and honk in impatient anger at those “other” cars “out there.” The ones in our way, the ones annoying us. We rage and fume at them all.

Anger is the new addiction.

Pumping up the angry and then venting it is our nation’s pastime. It’s cheap, readily available, and there are innumerable ways to steam up and blow out. We laugh self-righteously at others doing it. We boil when we’re doing it.

In our angry-red heads we think we’re merely aiming our rage toward the “out there” where all that scary anonymous evil exists.

The reality is, the “out there” is not necessarily anonymous, especially as it gets closer and closer to us. Like that road rage thing.

And then there’s Facebook, Twitter, and the comments sections of online news. The violence is rampant. Words, we too often forget, can be spirit-killing weapons as formidable as guns aimed at flesh and blood.

Still, in between our own rantings, we wonder what can be done. How can we stop the madness?

How can just one little angry person battle against a world full of evil and darkness?

I suggest we start by acknowledging, “[Our] heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick...” (Jeremiah 17:9, ESV). That’s my heart, your heart, every heart.

It should be glaringly obvious that we live in a broken world. Things are not as they were meant to be. It all started so Edenic, and then sin happened, and now this, where we are today.

The cure is Christ. Yes, just as the graffiti says, Jesus is the answer. He is the answer to healing our own heart of darkness, bringing light into our soul and life that makes us a “light unto the world.”

There’s only one way to be lit from the inside, and that’s to admit that the evil isn’t just “out there” but also in our own heart, confess Jesus as Lord, believe in Him, and be saved so the light can be inside us.

We’ve all heard the stories about how a single little candle can light up a huge dark room. The same is true with each of us. Especially as we who believe in THE Light of the World combine our energies to amplify the light against the world’s darkness.

We need to stoke up the light instead of pumping up the anger.

We are called take our stand “in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom [we] shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life” (Philippians 2:15-16, ESV).

The world is a dark and terrible place, but it wasn’t always and won’t always be this way. In the meantime, as followers of Christ, we need to let our little lights shine, engaging in purposeful acts of kindness, sharing the love of Jesus in every way we can.

Why? Because we know, light wins.

What specific, tangible ways can you think of for shining more light into the world? What have you done? What have you seen others do? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

Friday, July 8, 2016

The bloody persistence of evil, muses begging for their lives & being plowshares

When something emotional is happening on a TV show or in a movie, I’m pretty good at manning-up and stifling any tears attempting to leak out. Usually.

But then I watched the videos of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile dying. Right there on our nice, big, HDTV screen in the safety and comfort of our living room.

Two men, created in the image of God, in the United States of America, died. Shot.

And then there was the news conference with Sterling’s former partner and mother of his son, Quinyetta McMillan, and his now dad-less 15-year-old son, Cameron Sterling, standing by her side. Sobbing.

Cameron tried to stifle and cover his sobs. He couldn’t. He lost it. He sobbed harder and harder. My heart broke. My eyes teared. Even later as I talked to my wife about it, I started choking up.

And then, Dallas.

The bloody persistence of evil

Jesus, shushing his disciples who were complaining about the “waste” of expensive ointment a woman of the street was anointing his feet with, self-righteously claiming the money could have been given to the poor, said, “For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me” (Matthew 26:11, ESV).

Every so often during a casual discussion about poverty or some other persistent evil in the world, I’ll hear someone say with a dismissive sigh, “Well, like Jesus said, we’ll always have the poor around.” What they really mean, but probably would deflect admitting, is, “What’s the point of even trying to fix [the problem]? No matter what we do it’s always going to be there!”

In other words, they’re completely misunderstanding and misapplying the words of Jesus.

You could take His statement and insert any number of words, replacing “poor” and it would work. For example, Jesus could have said, “For you will always have violence with you...” Or, “For you will always have the politically ambitious with you...” Or, “For you will always have terrorism with you....”

His point in the context of the statement wasn’t that the poor, or any persistent evil in the world, should just be ignored. Rather, at that specific moment, the woman was focusing on Him and the neglected duty of the host of the event. What she was doing and the expense involved were appropriate for that time and place.

Later, the poor, who would still be around, still needed to be taken care of. Other persistent evils would still be around and would still need to be resisted. In fact, after His death and resurrection, and the subsequent empowerment of the Holy Spirit, His followers then and now could be far more effective in dealing with the persistent evils plaguing our world.

We should be resisting them. Not ignoring, validating, or participating in them.

We need more plowshares

Peacemakers -- and we need the peacemakers -- like to quote Isaiah 2:4 as an anti-war anthem:
He shall judge between the nations,
    and shall decide disputes for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
    and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
    neither shall they learn war anymore
The same imagery is found in Micah 4:3.

The imagery in these passages isn’t just referring to the need to lay down arms. That’s the negative action. It’s also pointing to a positive action. The imagery of plowshares and pruning hooks, farming implements, calls us back to the beginning and to the garden.

In the beginning, we were made to be in relationship with God and each other, and placed in the Garden of Eden to care for the earth.

We were made to be productive and fruitful (plowshares), not to be hateful and destructive (swords).

Certainly the Fall changed everything. God’s image in us is marred. We have persistent evil in the world, such as poverty and violence.

But we also have more.

Created precious in His image

As a child who grew up going to church, I was taught a little song intended to teach us the value of human beings. You’ve likely heard it: “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.”

Kids are adorable and easily viewed as precious. Then we all grow up and become adults. The cuteness wears off and for some reason the preciousness is devalued. Why?

I keep going back to a quote by Francis Schaeffer:
“All men bear the image of god. They have value, not because they are redeemed, but because they are God's creation in God's image. Modern man, who has rejected this, has no clue as to who he is, and because of this he can find no real value for himself or for other men. Hence, he downgrades the value of other men and produces the horrible thing we face today — a sick culture in which men treat men as inhuman, as machines. As Christians, however, we know the value of men.”
Whenever I post this quote on a social media platform, it gets lots of “Likes.” I’m not sure those liking the quote are fully clear on what Schaeffer is saying, or why I’m posting it.

The point is that, red or yellow, black or white, all men and women matter and are precious in His sight. All have value simply because of God’s image in them, and deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. This is true no matter what. Their ethnicity, religious views, political leanings, or skin color makes no difference. They bear the image of God and have value.

Going further, it makes no difference if they are a prostitute, business person, drug dealer, cop, poor, rich, high school dropout, or educated. It makes no difference if they have a tarnished record or have never been arrested, if they are liberal or conservative, if they support Trump or support Hillary.

All men, all people, all human beings, all the time bear the image of God and have value.

We’re also all broken. Very, very broken.

And, sometimes, because it’s the bigger elephant on the news and in our streets, we need to focus a little more pointedly on the truth that black lives matter*.

When all our muses are begging for their lives

I’m tired of the empty argument that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” The simple truth is that the fewer weapons there were, the less killing would occur. Guns tend to empower violence.

It’s also ironic to me that those militantly adamant about owning guns for “protection” claim they would never shoot another person. So, are they protecting themselves against lions, tigers, bears? What?

Truly, choosing to own a gun for protection is little more than deciding you are willing to commit premeditated death-dealing. Killing is killing whether in self-defense or not.

Given what’s going on in our country right now, paranoid NRA-inflamed arguments over rights isn’t what we need more of. Not even close. Especially if we are people of The Gospel.

I came across a poem a man named Danez Smith wrote and posted on BuzzFeed. These stanzas I’ve lifted from the longer poem are stunningly telling:
being black feels like a lot right now.
they shot a man then they shot
the people mourning the man.
i’d be lying if i said i wasn’t scared. every word
i say translate to farewell.
it doesn’t feel like a time to write
when all my muses are begging
for their lives
Six years ago I was pulled over by a cop who drew his gun on me. He had been directing traffic into a mall over the holidays. I thought he’d waved me in. He claimed I intentionally tried to hit him.

As the encounter unfolded, I realized that if I basically didn’t just shut up, he might shoot me or at the least arrest me. Three years later, in an eerily similar situation, he did shoot someone. The officer was black as was the man he shot.

This happened to me once. For many black men, it’s an oft-repeated experience. I can’t even imagine living under such a weight of endless suspicion. It should not be so for anyone.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven

It’s time to lay down arms. To lay down rights. To lay down incendiary arguments and alarmist politics.

Suspects weren’t killed. Cops weren’t killed. Rather, human beings created in the image of God, precious in His sight, were killed.

Instead of defaming victim’s memories over past indiscretions, it’s time to mourn with the families left behind. Instead of working so hard to find minutiae that we believe justifies the killing of a human being created in God’s image, it’s time to die to ourselves and lay down our lives for those who are hurting.

We need to care for the wives who have been widowed. The children who have been brutally robbed of fathers. The friends and relatives who have been denied the joy of the deceased’s ongoing presence in their lives.

It’s time to weep and beat our verbal swords into plowshares. It’s time to be healing salt and light in this sin-darkened world.

Jesus taught that those poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers will be blessed. That turning cheeks was better than taking up arms. That vengeance was not ours to execute.

We need more plowshares. There are way too many swords already. Enough.

This post may seem a bit disjointed. If so, I apologize. I certainly don’t feel that it’s all that eloquent. Writing is as much a way for the writer to sort through their own feelings and thoughts as it is to influence others. Strong emotion tends to blur the brain. And then there are those tears that well up, making it hard to see the page. I hope you get the points I’m trying to make. And I hope against hope we can find ways to care about each other more and about our right to bear arms less. How do you feel and think about all that’s going on in our country? Are you feeling hopeful or hopeless? Please share your thoughts, kindly, in the comments.

*Note: I want to clarify that there is a difference between the sentiment (concept, idea, philosophy, however you wish to view it) of black lives matter and the "official" organization called Black Lives Matter. I am not referencing the organization.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Holiness is the wrong answer to sin

Often, our response to sin, as Christians, is to resolve to not do that again. Or, stay away from that place or that food or that drink or whatever it is that trips us up.

We set our jaws and clench our fists, and add “don’ts” to our lists of bad things to avoid. We determine even harder to be more holy. To be pure. To be sinless.

We’re sure we can if we just do the right things and avoid the wrong things. It’s just a matter of more power of the will applied to the won’ts, don’ts, and shouldn’ts.

But it never works.

Putting holiness over sin is like putting a band aid on a cancer. It doesn’t address the issue.

Grace is the answer to sin.

Before we can become holy we must bathe in the free grace of God. It’s grace and grace alone that heals the pain and shame and brokenness of sin.

Holiness is the product of grace.

Grace frees us from sin and empowers us to walk in the other direction, away from sin and toward holiness.

Sure, there are choices we still need to make and stuff we need to avoid. But the ability to make the right choices and the strength to avoid the bad stuff and do the good stuff isn’t in us without grace.

Holiness without grace is legalism. Legalism only tightens the chains; it can’t set us free.

Grace wins.

Agree? Disagree? State your case one way or the other and share your insights in the comments, graciously.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Burying friends & numbering our days (Guest post)

This is a guest post by a dear old friend (more about him below).
Actually, it’s an email that I asked if I could share.
My friend graciously agreed. I think you’ll
be moved by what he has to say.

Kith & Kin,

You may recall me saying in a previous email that I was going to start writing ahead of time so things could be edited into a more coherent mess. Be warned, this ain’t one of those times.

Last weekend the Chaplain sent out a good message that had several points in it. One was his comment at the bottom, “May we learn to ‘number our days’ so we will be ready to meet the Lord with confidence.”

This has been true in my life more times than most would believe. I cleaned the table I am using for a desk two weeks ago and found a ton of things I had thought of writing about, several things I had planned to ship out, including cards for Jonathon and Bob, both sitting there for six months or so, and numerous other stashed things that were waiting to go to someone, but I hadn’t gotten around to sending yet.

I know in the past I have written about making time for the important things in life; your friends and family. I set a poor example at times. I promised myself that on my day off on July 4th I would get all the overdue correspondence off this desk. I also promised myself that if I am to be damned, I would let it be for the things I have done as opposed to the things which I should have done but didn’t.

I hate getting old. I told my brother some time back I was going to die young and leave a good looking corpse to which he replied, “Kinda waited too long for that didn’t you?” He may be right. It seems the older I get the more Brothers I lose. I don’t have many friends, fewer Brothers, but I do have a number of acquaintances. I may explain the difference later. Brothers are hard to come by.

Olendus was a good friend, perhaps not quite a Brother but close. He DJ'd a morning radio show every other Sunday morning and I tuned in religiously, which was only right as it was old gospel music. He had been heavy on my mind for a month or so but I avoided calling him until he missed his radio show a couple weeks in a row. By this time we hadn’t spoken in several months. When I called I couldn’t reach him, so I did what I do. I made a few calls to my friends and Brothers to track him down.

When I found him he was already buried. It seems that things in his life had taken a turn for the worse and he eventually ended his problems permanently. I failed him. What if I had called sooner. Maybe nothing would have changed. Maybe he would be back on the radio. Maybe all he needed was someone to talk with. I guess it will be some time before I get to ask him. He was neither the first or last of people I knew who have been on my mind and passed before I acted.

Bill B. was another, I failed him as well. We spoke after his last check-up, he was doing great. We planned to get together the next time I was up his way. Just three hours. He had just retired and seemed the picture of health, until that heart attack. I met with five other friends of his about a week later. I got back to town and felt honored to be one of those who carried his casket. I failed him as well.

Mr. B was another. I slid through the town he lived in and kept on sliding. I had stopped several months before and he had a hard time remembering me. It wasn't that I didn't care but I was several hours behind and figured I would be back through in a few more months. The older I get the more people I know seem to die.

Wednesday late a call was made to Bob’s house, his sister had left a message on our phone to call ASAP. Bob lived alone, was retired, a veteran of Viet Nam, served with the honor expected of a Southerner, though he is a Yankee. He never married, took care of his mother until she passed some years back. He was an uncle to my boys, a brother to my wife, and in many ways a friend and Brother to me.

When I call a Yankee a Brother, you can bet he stands way above the crowd. Bob was the kind of guy I would go hunting with. Ask those who know me well, I trust few people with my life. He was one of those precious few. Yes, my life has been a bit hectic the last couple of years, but his card is still sitting on my desk. Gathering dust.

It is believed he died Monday but wasn’t found until Wednesday because he missed a routine phone call. No foul play, just age and a hard life took its toll. His funeral is tomorrow, 500 miles away. Due to things beyond my control, I will not be able to make it.

I don’t know the state of Bob’s soul. Yes, we had spoken of such things in the past. He had his views, I had mine. We spoke openly of this but not often. He didn’t throw his views in my face, I didn’t fault him for his. We did not argue, just talked. We all see “Christians” who aren’t really Christ-like and often they stifle any draw to Christ and God for others. That was one of his irritants, irritates me as well, though I am sure I irritate others. Still his card sits on my desk waiting for Monday to be written. Not much point in that now. It gathers dust as I gather failures.

You are not guaranteed tomorrow or the next ten minutes. Neither are those you care about. I recommend that, today, while you and they yet breathe, take a few minutes to get the dust off that card you’ve been holding for later and get it in the mail. I am sure this happens to everyone, but this is not the kind of hell you need running around in your head. Worse is it is preventable.

Stone (aka Randy)

A little background: Randy Jones and I met more than 30 years ago when I was living in Findlay, Ohio where we attended the same church. He literally came roaring into my life on a Harley. At least I think it was a Harley. Anyway, we became unlikely friends. For different reasons, we both moved away from Findlay and failed to keep in touch. Life happens, as they say. Then on March 21, 2013, I received a message through my business website asking “Are you the same Stephen R. Clark that lived in Findlay, Ohio back in the early 1980's?” It was from Randy!

I was thrilled to hear from my old friend and we’ve remained in touch since then, mostly due to his regularly sharing encouraging emails with his friends, many who are guys he calls Brother. I’m glad, honored, and humbled I’m one. Randy is one of those rare good guys where good means good in the very best sense of the word. He’s a wise man, a loyal friend, a guy who loves bikes and guns (he showed me how to shoot a couple of black powder guns once), and he’s a pretty good writer, although he’ll deny that last bit. I thought you’d appreciate his most recent and very poignant insights. Feel free to share your thoughts on his in the comments. In the meantime, as Randy likes to say, “Until the last dog dies.” It’s a guy thing.