Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Doing our duty to clean up the doody

As kids, we would be disciplined for being a “potty mouth” if we used a bad word. As parents, we are quick to discipline our children if they label a playmate as “stupid.”

But as adults? Oh boy, take cover!

It’s a presidential election year. How can you tell? Just sniff the air and smell the doody! Boy, howdy.

Suddenly what was rude and wrong for us as kids becomes both our duty and right as grown-ups, so we think.

Growing up to be dirty

As a child at Sunnyside Elementary, there were always “dirty” jokes floating around on the playground. Most often these jokes included the words pee-pee and poop. At the mere mouthing of the words, we would giggle helplessly. We didn’t know any better.

If an adult overheard us – especially if we ever repeated the jokes within earshot of our parents – kapow! The hammer, metaphorically, came down.

We were told that this kind of talk was not nice. Basically, we were taught that nice people didn’t talk naughty. Real ladies and gentlemen – aka, big boys and big girls – didn’t use such language. Gutter language was not something we were to aspire to.

Later, I learned that when I grew up and became an adult I would be free to engage in “sophisticated” and “adult” humor, as long as mom never found out. I also learned that “sophisticated” wasn’t about being refined or civil – quite the opposite.

So, basically, as children we’re taught to be more mature and grown-up in our behavior and talk, while as adults we’re “free” to revert to childish potty-mouthing and name calling.

In fact, as adults, we perversely view using foul language and engaging in obscene humor as being cool, classy, and oh so with it. Now, being nice is considered prudish and that’s somehow a bad thing.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Putting away the pee-pee talk

Part of the process of growing up is to mature. Becoming mature means growing in wisdom through experience, while letting go of childish thinking and behavior.

The Apostle Paul put it like this: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me” (1 Corinthians 13:11, NIV).

Ironically, for many, adulthood means indulging in childish behavior on steroids. The jokes get coarser, the attacks on others get barbier, and we feel free to fling invective at each other like wild animals flinging their feces.

Sadly, this becomes increasingly true during presidential election years as we express our God-given freedom.  This is especially evident with hate-mongering being passed off as satire and humor.

Freedom without responsibility is chaos.

Paul stated it nicely in 1 Corinthians 10:23-24: “‘Everything is permissible’ – but not everything is beneficial. ‘Everything is permissible’ – but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others” (NIV).

In other words, just because we can doesn’t mean we should. You know, the ends do not justify the means, and that sort of thing.

Mean-spirited humor is all about shutting up the “other side” and getting our own way. It doesn’t care about the good of the other one whit.

Vulgar and obscene language also tends to be abusive and self-serving. We hurt ourselves and others when we use hateful, vile, ugly, and dehumanizing “adult” language.

Doing so is nothing less than an attack on the image of God in which we are all created.

Bending culture with better behavior

True maturity is marked by restraint and wisdom. Proverbs 17:27 explains that, “A man of knowledge uses words with restraint, and a man of understanding is even-tempered” (NIV).

As followers of Christ, we must set the adult example for the rest of the childish world. Paul provides guidance through this command:
“Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God's holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a man is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God” (Ephesians 5:1-5, NIV).
Unlike those who don’t know any better, we are not to allow our faith, worldview, and behavior to be shaped by the likes of Jon Stewart, Bart Simpson, and other elements of our sinful culture.

Instead of wrestling in the sewers with those who disagree with us, we are to be salt and light influencing our culture to be better.

After all, sticks and stones may break our bones, but words can deeply wound us.


Thursday, February 23, 2012

Filling the blank page when your head is empty! Tips for refreshing parched creativity.

Weeks ago you agreed to write an article for an organization’s newsletter or to speak to a local civic group on “anything you want.” Or, even worse, you were given a class writing assignment. You had lots of time and certainly could come up with something since the topic was wide open.

Now, your deadline is a few days or hours away and you’ve got nothing! Your mind is a giant tabula rasa, a frozen white tundra of nothingness. What are you going to do?


Then, once you’ve exhausted yourself screaming, calm down and get a bit more productive. Here are simple techniques to light up your cold gray matter with some hot ideas.

Play: Stress shuts out ideas. A great stress zapper is play! My home office is sprinkled with toys that make noise. Playing with them briefly siphons off a great deal of stress and helps clear the headwebs. Find something to play with.

Humor: If you’re not reading the comics every day (or at least on Sunday), it’s no wonder you’re dull-headed! Get out the funnies and have a good laugh while you’re playing with your toys. I’ve got collections of the Far Side, Calvin and Hobbes, Dilbert, New Yorker cartoons, and more that I’ll flip through for inspiration. It works.

Clip File: Clip and save those newspaper and magazine articles that grab you (or print them off the Internet). Don’t worry about organizing the clippings; just save them. Going through a hodgepodge of clippings creates a whole new context for each. You’ll see ideas and concepts connect and clash in unexpected ways as you browse.

I’ve got a half-dozen of those expandable brown folder thingies and a box full of articles, ads, quotes, postcards, photos, and other odds and ends collected over the years. Browsing them is a great way to kick-start ideas.

Read: Read your clip file. Read a book. Read the cereal box. Go through books you’ve read and look at passages you underlined. Read bits and pieces from a magazine covering a topic you have no real interest in. If you’re dry on ideas, reading is one of the best ways to get your brain refreshed and functioning.

Listen: Put on your favorite music, close your eyes, and really listen to it. Borrow a teen’s iPod and try to listen to their music. Turn on the radio and tune into a talk show. Enjoy an audio book. Step outside on your back porch and just listen. It’s amazing what you’ll hear when you tune into the background “noise.”

Now write: Write whatever comes and keep writing for at least 15 minutes without stopping. Then read what you’ve written. Somewhere in there will be the key idea that will unlock that paper, article, or talk. All you’ll need to do is flesh it out. Odds are the ideas will flow almost faster than you can capture them. If they don’t, start over.

(Taken from  All Writing Is Not Equal: How To Write Anything Better.)

How do you get your creative juices flowing? Have you ever experienced writer's block? How long did it last? How did you overcome it?

Vitriolic is as vitriolic does

So, Adele flips off the cameras because she was cut off while thanking people for an award she received. Tweets exclaim that anything but the iPhone sucks and if you don’t have one you’re a loser. Facebook friends decry one another's political views as idiotic, racist, stupid, insane, and so on. An employee shoots his boss during a performance review. Politicians slam their opposing parties as demonic, vile, Nazis, liars, Commies, crazies, and much worse. And we curse and yell at anyone in traffic around us who is doing something we don’t like.

Oy! Talk about behaving badly. Yes we are.

There’s something wrong with us when our automatic reaction is flipping the bird, pulling a gun, or slinging insults when we don’t get our own way or others disagree with us.

It amazes and saddens me to see Facebook friends who I know to be smart and usually kind people, throw insulting invectives, too often obscenity-laced, at others who disagree with their view on things, whether it’s politics, religion, fashion, food, music, or whatever.

It’s sickening and disheartening. I’m tired of it.

Defined by our own words

We are what we speak. Or do. Or write. Or think. Jesus said it plainly in Matthew 12:33-37:
“Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”
Okay, so Jesus insulted the Pharisees by calling them snakes. Before you think this justifies your bad behavior, let’s look more carefully at what’s going on:
  • First, he was Jesus and he had a clear view of people’s hearts, unlike us. While we can guess what’s going on inside a person, Jesus knew (and knows).
  • Second, in the context of the passage, the Pharisees were questioning Jesus’ authority to do what he did in front of their eyes – heal a man.
  • Third, Jesus wasn’t hiding behind Facebook; he was standing right in front of them and was commenting on their behavior in that moment.
  • Fourth, Jesus didn’t sink to their level, but rose above it through his deeds and words. He set the standard for right behavior.
  • Fifth, Jesus put the onus of the issue back on the Pharisees (and us) stating that the kind of person we are will be evident by the life we live and the words we speak now and in the future (he wasn’t referring to the past).
If we are saying evil things about others, by this standard, it’s because we are evil. If we are being disrespectful of others' views, we are not respectable.

Fodder for the fireplace

When we insult another person or group, we are being insensitive, intolerant, insolent, rude, and contemptuous. We are demeaning them. And we're not doing much for ourselves, either. We’re being a bad tree bearing bad fruit.

What happens to bad trees?  “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 7:19, NIV).

Ouch! In other words, our cutting others down will result in our being cut down and burnt up.

So how can we be good trees and bear good fruit and avoid the fire?


Live a life of love in the Spirit, grow in the knowledge of God, and be strengthened in the Lord (see Colossians 1:5-14).

James puts it this way:
“My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.  Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such ‘wisdom’ does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness” (James 3:12-18, NIV).
Republican, Democrat, Independent, Tea Party, black, white, Asian, moderate, left, right, centrist, Christian, atheist, agnostic, on Facebook or Twitter, on TV or in the cafe, open mic or closed mic, in private or public; whomever, wherever, and whenever, vitriolic talk and the thinking behind it needs to be replaced with kindness, graciousness, and civility. Especially among those who are Christ followers.

We can disagree, but let’s do it without damaging one another or ourselves. To borrow an old adage, when you flip the finger at others, you’ve got three and a thumb flipping back at you!

Boorishness is unbecoming. Let’s be nice, not belittling. Then we'll be better.


Wednesday, February 8, 2012

In grace, do no harm

There’s a concept in healthcare that says, “First, do no harm.” It’s is attributed to the Hippocratic Oath. Taken by healthcare practitioners, the Oath is a promise to act ethically when providing care to patients. Doctors vow to do no harm in their practice of medicine.

As Christ’s followers, this should also be our vow as we live in community with our fellow believers.

Sin hurts. It brings consequences that can endure over time. It leaves scars. Even when grace is applied, the impact of sin can go on. But it should lessen over time as we act as ministers of grace to one another.

This means when someone sins, even if their sin hurts us, we “do no harm” by not keeping their sin alive through gossip, slander, or exaggeration.

While sin is punishable, it’s not our job to administer any kind of sentence. That’s something that’s exclusively reserved for God. Correction and accountability are acceptable, but these involve the cooperation of the sinner and are done in love with care.

As for us, as Paul makes clear in Romans 3, “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” and we all deserve to be put to death. We are in no way qualified to execute punishment on others.

Instead, just as we covet God’s grace and forgiveness for ourselves, we must covet the same for others.

Sadly, there are those who feel it’s their duty to keep alive and even overstate the past and perceived sins of others. Like little Satans, they run around reminding any who will listen how awful was the sin-thing that so-and-so did.

They are unforgiving of the offense, real or imagined, and so seek to cause harm to the perceived offender well past the point of the offense, and even in the face of repentance.

Passed on from generation to generation

Those who do this kind of harm self-righteously point to passages such as Numbers 14:18 that says, “Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.”

As they point to this latter half of this passage, they miss the key component that “he” refers to God, not them. They also ignore the first half that states, “The LORD is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion.”

This is further echoed and clarified in Psalm 103:8-12:
“The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us,” (NIV).
And then there’s Luke 1:50 that states, “His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation” (NIV).

And for good measure, let’s throw in Romans 12:14-21 (NIV):
“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Fortunately for us, 1 John 1:9 declares, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (NIV).

And Paul reminds us in Colossians 3:13, to “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (NIV).

The unforgiving aren’t guiltless

Every day we as Christians are challenged in our faith. Our past failings come to mind and we cringe and cry inside. We look back and think, “If only…” There are many decisions and actions we wish we could re-do. But we can’t.

And it makes no difference if these failures occurred before or after we became Christians.

The last thing we need is someone who claims to be a believer in Christ pointing at our failures and proclaiming, “Unclean!” as if we were a terminally ill spiritual leper.

Those who behave thus call into question the legitimacy of their own faith and put themselves in peril. At the same time they can cripple the efforts of the forgiven to push forward in grace. The result is to inhibit the Kingdom work for which the “failed” have been called and gifted.

The forgiven aren’t guilty

What these passages make clear are these points, among others:
  1. Those guilty of sin will be punished if they remain guilty. We are all guilty of sin.
  2. Only God is in a position to administer punishment. We are not God’s avengers.
  3. Confession removes guilt because Jesus died for our sins. We all have access to mercy through grace.
  4. Those who are forgiven are to be forgiving. We are obligated as followers of Christ to emulate the Father, just as did Christ.
Our responsibility as Christians is not to beat up our brothers and sisters with their less than perfect pasts. Instead, we are to come along side, sharing each other’s burdens, covering sins with love and forgiveness, giving witness through our behavior of the grace that Jesus offers everyone who comes to Him.

Instead of stabbing one another in the back, we are to protect one another’s back. I’ve got yours; do you have mine?


Thursday, February 2, 2012

The elements of clear writing: Helping the medicine go down

In one of the closing episodes of the series “Monk,” Adrian Monk, who is a brilliant detective with OCD, has been poisoned. As a result, he’s been given medication in the form of a capsule that contains red, yellow, and blue grains.

Adrian opens the capsule and empties the contents onto a clean cloth, then using a knife he sorts them into three groups. He takes his medicine, one color at a time.

Good writing, in a nutshell, is clear, concise, complete, and – this is important – clever. Good writing gets your message delivered. Period.

A challenge to being clear is making the complex uncomplicated. This is especially challenging when a memo, article, or speech needs to address several elements among which are many possible connections and inter-relations.

While breaking pills apart isn’t a good way to take your medicine – there’s a reason the grains are in the capsule – this is actually a good example of how to make something complex more easily graspable.

Break it down to make it clear

Most messages are made up of several elements. The most common are who, what, where, why, when, and how. Outlining your message before you begin writing it so you can get a clear handle on the various elements and their connections is a good way to break them out for your own purposes.

Use whatever method works best for you. Perhaps writing individual elements on 3x5 cards and tacking them to your bulletin board or mapping your message on a white board works best for you.

Essentially, you’re breaking apart the capsule and separating the colors. This allows you to see through to the heart of your message.

Keep to the essentials to make it concise

Weigh the elements and determine what the true essentials of your message are. In the capsule analogy, there are three colors. Within these color groups are several grains which can represent the finer details.

Determine the primary “color groups” or overarching themes of your message. Within these groups, list the “grains” or details, and then sift them down to the essentials. Eliminate items that are actually superfluous and combine those that are similar.

Structure the essential elements of your message in a logical progression. Present them in a way that shows how they build on one another.

Wrap it all in context to make it complete

In the pill analogy, the capsule holding the grains is the context. Context ties up loose ends and holds the message together.

In a change message, context will explain where you are, where you’re going, and why this needs to happen. Often change messages are merely announcements of what’s going to be new with no rationale as to why this is happening, and worse, with no clear statement of what’s being changed from. Without including context, change messages are met with resistance.

In a re-branding message, context provides the historical connection. It acknowledges the value of the past, connects the past to the present, and then points to the future.

Context and background provide the foundation on which you can build your message.

Write it well to make it clever

Now that you’re ready to put it all together, write it to resonate and connect with your audience. Avoid ambiguity and jargon, but use language and sentence structure that emulates the way your audience thinks and talks.

Incorporate relevant analogies that echo their worldview and experience. Help your audience see, hear, taste, touch, feel, and smell the message through relevant language and idiom.

Don’t be afraid to toss in a touch of humor. But be sure it’s humor that won’t offend or confuse. Keep it simple.
If you know your audience well, your writing ear will be tuned into their frequency and your message will come together just right.

Make it pretty to make it sweet

Once you’ve crafted the message, work with a designer to add graphics, photos, and other elements to make your message even more clear. Formatting will also have a big impact on the clarity of your message.

Break apart the paragraphs, add subheads, and use other touches (sparingly) to help your reader follow the path of your message’s logic.

But a caution regarding graphics and formatting: Pretty colors can never fix a poorly written message. Back to the pill analogy, if the grains in the capsule are the right colors but the wrong medicine, the patient’s going to be in big trouble once it’s swallowed.

But good design can be the sugar that helps the medicine of a well-crafted message get delivered, making a positive difference just as the doctor ordered.