Thursday, August 27, 2009

I serve at the pleasure of ….. me!

I am an avid fan of The West Wing and own the series on DVD. I’m up to Season 2 (of 7) for about the fourth or fifth time. Among the things I love about the series is how it shows the development and value of relationships, and how personalities bump against each other within the context of doing the business of the nation. It’s a high pressure, fast moving environment packed with brilliant, driven A-type extraverts. Conflict and disagreements are givens.

Who do you serve?

A phrase that crops up regularly is, “I serve at the pleasure of the President.” What does this mean? It does not mean that these are “yes” people who merely execute like automatons whatever they are told to do without question. Not on your life! They have strong opinions, varying viewpoints, and hold nothing back. The President (played by Martin Sheen) encourages and invites his staff to share honestly and openly as he weighs decisions. He wants to hear all sides and he is open to criticism (respectfully given, of course). He weighs, values, and considers all opinions.

Then, he, the President, decides. The decisions are hard and the way to go not always clear or easy. But, he is the leader of the nation and knows there comes a time when he must do the hard stuff of taking action. This means he occasionally does things others aren’t happy with.

It’s at these times that you’ll hear the phrase, “I serve at the pleasure of the President.” Even those who strongly disagree with the President’s final choice now set aside differences and turn toward doing their jobs faithfully and with excellence. They respect and trust their leader and each other, and work together to achieve a positive result in line with the President’s direction.

It's a pleasure to serve

Within the context of the Christian walk, in those battles between the spirit and the flesh, conflict and disagreement are givens. And, of course, this flows over into life as expressed through our various personalities.

According to a personality assessment that classifies people as animals, I’m a beaver (2nd highest was golden retriever). One of the weaknesses of the beaver type is “critical of self and others.”

Yes, I am! That’s me to a T. The two inner voices I have to constantly tamp down are criticism and cynicism. To paraphrase Paul, I am chief among critics and cynics. I am truly and naturally gifted in these areas! Sadly, they don’t produce much fruit.

When these two get loud inside me, I try to counter them by thinking about who I am supposed to be serving in that moment. Of course, I’m always supposed to be “serving at the pleasure of Christ.” But what pleases Him in various contexts?

At work, it might be expressed as, “I serve at the pleasure of my employer (or manager, or co-workers).” In relationships as, “I serve at the pleasure of my friend (or spouse, or relatives).” In home groups as, “I serve at the pleasure of others in the group.” And in church, in any leadership or ministry role, “I serve at the pleasure of the head of this expression of the Body of Christ, the Pastor.”

Dying to self to serve Him and others

I am independent and headstrong. But I am trying to always be aware that there is a time for respectfully sharing differing viewpoints, and then there is a time to shut up and do what needs to be done and support those who I am serving, as well as those I’m working alongside of.

Alas, too often, when these two voices get loud inside me, they spill out through my words and actions. What’s left behind in their wake is scorched earth and ashes, metaphorically speaking. I think you know what I mean. When this happens, I am serving at the pleasure of myself to the joy of Satan.

Paul wrote, “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and [voice] you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 15:5-6).

If you hear me being critical and cynical, you have my permission to call me on it and get in my face a little bit (lovingly, of course). Criticism and cynicism are two voices that defeat unity. I don’t want to be guilty of that. Especially not within the Kingdom.

At whose pleasure do you serve? Are their inner voices you need to tamp down that are interfering with your having a servant’s heart? You pray for me, and I’ll pray for you. Then, let’s stand and work together.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Ode to the Typographical Error

The typographical error is a slippery thing and sly
You can hunt 'til you are dizzy, but it somehow will get by.
'Til the forms are off the presses, it is strange how still it keeps.
It shrinks down in a corner and it never stirs or peeps.
That typographical error, too small for human eyes.
'Til the ink is on the paper, when it grows to mountain size.
The boss, she stares with horror, then she pulls her hair and groans.
The copy-reader drops his head upon his hands and moans.
The remainder of the document may be clean as clean can be,
But the typographical error is the only thing that's seen.

This is not original and exists in many forms on the Web; it is what I've been dealing with for the last week or so as I and others have worked to purge typos from very important documents. We are very nearly done.


Friday, August 7, 2009

Two true Cleveland stories: Coffee & extra chickens

Extra Chickens

He looked quite normal, almost ordinary. Kempt, clean white T-shirt, jeans, sneakers, and a backpack. We passed as I was returning from the AT&T Store. "Got any extra chickens?" The question was aimed somewhere between me and the next person on the street. "I'm really excited about this. I'll buy all your extra chickens. Got any extra chickens?" I smiled, nodded slightly, and walked on without answering. I have no extra chickens.


The young woman's voice is loud, loud with life and uncertainty, tinged with a touch of Jersey, as she pontificates on the culture of coffee. The guy working with her has a voice as blank as vanilla, sounding a little bit dumb and nasal, he tries to interject what knowledge and experience he has, talking fast, hoping that at least some of the words in the story tripping from his lips will stick and impress. She talks him down every time without knowing she is and still he listens and looks on worshipfully as she unspools her coffee knowledge in a single unbroken, unending string ignoring everyone but herself. He works, listening, brewing bold.

What “true” stories can you share? Share them in the comments!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

What's the buzz?: Bugged by purpose driven lawyers

A few years ago, I had this image posted at and people could purchase it on T-shirts, mugs, and such. Then the "purpose driven" lawyers came along and threatened CafePress with litigation and doom if they did not scrub the site of all such images. It seems the term "purpose driven" is a registered trademark.

Now, I'm all for protecting a trademark; I have a few and have taken steps to prevent others from using my TM'd names when they were being implemented as labels on competing products or services, or in similar venues (like the names of a newspaper, website, or blog).

If someone wants to lampoon me and in the process use one of my TM'd names, more power to them. I really can't and shouldn't try to shut them down, even if I'm bugged by what they're doing. After all, this is America and not Iran and we should know how to maintain a sense of humor and laugh at ourselves a little. (I have a feeling I may regret putting this idea out there.)

Frankly, I wasn't impressed with CafePress caving so easily. My image is satire/parody and is legal; even the Wittenburg Door took my side at the time. But, CafePress wouldn't listen, the "purpose driven" lawyers wouldn't reconsider, and the image was blocked. It was a sad day.

So, what do you think? Is the image truly a violation of trademark rights? Or is it fair use as satire/parody? I'm no lawyer so maybe I've got it wrong. Educate me if that's the case.

But, weigh in soon before those humorless lawyers come buzzing around again!


Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Hello. My name is Stephen. I’m a bookaholic: Saying good-bye to John Updike

I have a problem. I love books. I mean I really, really love books.

For me, going into a bookstore is almost as dangerous as it is for a gambling addict to go into a casino. Maybe worse. I can walk in fully intending to buy only one specific book, and walk out with, well, a lot. Or, go online to order one and all of these other “suggestions” start popping up! Oooooo, the rush!

I own a lot of books, and I keep buying more. I can’t stop, I don’t want to, and you can’t make me.

Some of the books I own I’ve not read yet, but I will get around to reading them, eventually, maybe. Many are for reference which means I dip into them now and then for tidbits of information. The others nag me to open them and run my eyes over their lovely pages, letting the words penetrate my heart and mind. “Read me! Mark me up!” they cry out! (Yes, I like to underline and write in my books, and they like it when I do. Librarians, not so much.)

My love affair with books started very early. My parents were avid readers. What they read, like Reader’s Digest condensed stuff, held little interest for me, but they set an example. Mom especially as she would stay up all hours reading, eager to get to the end of one story after another. I loved being read to; Dr. Seuss and Charlotte’s Web were favorites. While I can’t recall exactly how old I was or what grade I was in, I can remember the moment when I knew I could actually read on my own; no more training wheels.

It was recess at Sunnyside Elementary in New Castle, Indiana. One side of the asphalt playground wrapped around the kindergarten room where books were always displayed face-out in the windows. As I walked by on that day one book trapped my attention. It was a kid’s book that I don’t believe is in print any longer. The title was Even Stephen.

Okay, sure, that’s my name and I should have been able to recognize it. But this was different. It was like a jolt of electricity zotted into my brain and I knew that I was reading the title, not just recognizing it. There was a new intimate comprehension of words that hadn’t been there before. From that moment on I was hooked.

I love the feel of books. I love the smell of a book, new or old. Mmmmmm, yes.... Oh, sorry.

Every trip to the school’s library became an adventure, although I hated that they forced us to choose books only from our “age appropriate” section (a practice that later contributed to my leaving libraries behind).

At recess, instead of running around “getting exercise” I’d sit leaning against the building and read, that is until the teachers monitoring the playground took my book away and made me go play! Aargh! First they work so hard to teach me how to read and then they deny me the privilege. Very frustrating. I think it left an emotional scar or two and probably explains why I don’t care for sports.

I went through reading phases, absorbing one category at a time. I would read only science fiction for months, then suddenly switch to detective/mystery/spy novels, or maybe war stories, or mythology, and of course all of Henry Gregor Felson’s car classics. Delicious!

Disappearing into an other world of a good novel is still way better than drugs; but then I never did drugs so I’m not sure how it compares; I just know that I like the I-can’t-hear-you-I’m-engrossed-in-a-good-book experience a lot. When pocket books were the rage and cheap I always had one in the hip pocket of my jeans. Any “down time” was an opportunity to read and fade away to another place and time. I liked poetry, too.

As my reading tastes became more sophisticated, I tossed Rod McKuen and Kahlil Gibran aside picking up real poetry, and was swept away by e. e. cummings, W. H. Auden, Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, and more. In fiction, I moved on to John Steinbeck, John Knowles, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Cheever, Kurt Vonnegut, Ayn Rand.

Then, finally, in college, I discovered John Updike. I was smitten.

[Fair Warning: If you are an Uber-conservative up-tight Christian, you should probably avoid Updike. You have been warned.]

My first exposure was to his short story “A&P” in an English Lit. class. I was entranced and even wrote a poem based on a classroom discussion of the story. I recently discovered echoes of the story in the song “Queen of the Supermarket” on Bruce Springsteen’s album, Working on a Dream.

I headed to my favorite bookstore at Battlefield Mall in Springfield, Missouri and the first two novels I read were The Centaur and Of the Farm. Of all of Updike’s books (I have them all, many in hard cover first editions) my favorite is Couples. And of course, the Rabbit books, especially Rabbit, Run.

With Updike, his writing shines on the page as if the very words are imbued with diamonds. Just like in this opening from Toward the End of Time:
“First snow: it came this year late in November. Gloria and I awoke to see a fragile white inch on the oak branches outside the bathroom windows, and on the curving driveway below, and on the circle of lawn the driveway encloses—the leaves still unraked, the grass still green. I looked into myself for a trace of childhood exhilaration at the sight and found none, just a quickened awareness of being behind in my chores and an unfocused dread of time itself, time that churns the seasons and that had brought me this new offering, this heavy new radiant day like a fresh meal brightly served to a patient with a dwindling appetite.”

Even if you aren’t sold on the story line, the writing enthralls. I pray earnestly daily that I would be gifted to write even a third as well as he did. Or better.

Over the years other writers that I came to love have passed; most notably James Dickey and John Cheever. I knew it would eventually happen with Updike as well. While the little note about the author that appeared on the back pages of each of his books remained essentially the same (John Updike was born in 1932, in Shillington, Pennsylvania. He graduated from Harvard College in 1954…), his photo morphed as age made its creeping claim as it does to us all.

Another thing I liked about Updike’s books is that he always included a note about the type used with a little description of the typeface. I’ve heard he often had a hand in how his books were designed inside and out. He loved books and book making.

It amazes me that since that electrical moment on the playground distant decades ago, that beyond merely learning how to read books, I’ve had a hand in creating them, from writing to editing to designing. No bestsellers yet, but some pretty good books. It is both humbling and satisfying. I used to type out Updike’s stories, working to get inside his voice as I worked on finding mine. He’s had a hand in shaping me in more ways than one.

On Tuesday, January 27th, I was walking by the vending area at Chancellor University in Cleveland. A flat-screen TV mounted on the wall is always tuned to one of the news channels with the sound off. I noticed John Updike’s face on the screen in one of those little sidebars previewing upcoming stories. A sad chill spilled into my heart as I grasped why he was pictured. He’d died. America had lost one of its great voices.

I felt like crying. It was like losing an old friend. I needed to tell someone so tracked down the English profs, people who I knew would appreciate the news and my sadness, and we lamented briefly together. One even shared about his encounter with Updike. It helped to talk out the unexpected grief. I continued talking later with my cats and they purred empathy back.

And so today, the posthumous collection of stories by Updike, titled The Maples Stories, arrived from Amazon; I had pre-ordered it months ago. It’s now on top of the stack of books next to my bed, queued up for reading.

For years now whenever I’m in a bookstore I’ve always looked to see if there was something new from Updike that I’d missed hearing about. It’s sad knowing there won’t be from now on. But, there will always be new books by someone.

Solomon lamented, “of making many books there is no end.” Sorry Solomon, but there is if you’re the one making them. Still, there are always new writers and new books, just maybe not quite as good as Updike’s. I will be saying good-bye to him for a long time, and will keep buying new books from new writers.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, there are books clamoring for my attention.


The stack of books pictured are a combination of just a few of my recent book purchases, books that I’m currently reading (or, “reading in”) that are stacked beside my chair or bed, and those I’ve pulled out intending to read soon. I’ve got a few hundred more on shelves in my home office. Here are the titles of those pictured:

The Maples Stories - John UpdikeGrant Writing - Tremore & SmithFrom the Very Big Desk of... - Charles BarsottiThe Still Life Sketching Bible - David PoxonPublication Manual of the APA (6th Edition) The 3 Colors of Ministry - Christian Schwarz
The Writing Life
- Annie DillardSerendipity Bible for Groups, NIVThe Birds, Our Teachers - John Stott Travels with Charley - John Steinbeck Given: Poems- Wendell Berry The New Rules of Marketing and PR - David Meerman Scott Cleveland Trivia Quiz BookFear and Trembling - Soren KierkegaardTwitter Tips, Tricks, and Tweets - Paul McFedriesThe Twitter Book - O'Reilly & MilsteinNIV Study Bible: Updated EditionMy Father's Tears and Other Stories - John UpdikeCleveland on Foot - Patience HoskinsThe Long Tail - Chris Anderson Managing Up - Rosanne BadowskiOperating Instructions - Anne LamottBoundaries - Cloud & TownsendEndpoint and Other Poems - John UpdikeThe Rise of Evangelicalism - Mark Noll