Monthly Archives: February 2013

Dear Abby and Little Ministrations

MC900231246Posted in Dear Abby’s column on January 22, 2013:

“Dear Abby: I am at an age when I have lost many family members. NOT ONCE has the doctor sent a condolence card or letter to any family member. On the other hand, I have also lost many pets. Each time, the veterinarian sent a card or note, personally signed and often with the signatures of the entire office staff. I do not believe medical doctors care less for their patients than veterinary doctors care for family pets, but that vets have made sending condolences part of their office protocol. Medical doctors might well consider adding that protocol to their practices.”

Yikes! Our country is going to the dogs. (And legions of indifferent cats.) Now I have one more reason to envy my dog: he has better healthcare than me. Perhaps I should consider scheduling my next colonoscopy with my dog’s veterinarian. But I digress. Do people love animals more than each other? Well, there are probably many folk who prefer the company of quadrupeds over humans. Certainly my dog is much easier to get along with than some of the people I’ve encountered over the years. (He’s also more ethical, but not much.)

Anyhow, I wonder if the social graces we extend to one another as human beings are falling by the wayside in our culture. Small gestures of kindness don’t get much glory these days. We tend to look at the life of Christ, as well as the astounding accomplishments of other champions of the faith, and we feel guilty because we are not doing grand things for the Kingdom of Heaven. (We are not Mother Teresa.) And yet something as simple as sending a card of condolence can mean more to a grieving person than a lifetime of Sunday sermons. The little ministrations are not so little. In fact, they are grand.

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Cruising for Adventure: The Carnival Triumph Fiasco

MC900022973Awash in raw sewage (as opposed to cooked?) and reeking of a foul odor, the Carnival cruise ship Triumph made the news recently when a fire shut down the ship’s power system. (It brings new meaning to the term poop deck.) The Triumph, with thousands of passengers and crew aboard, languished adrift in the Gulf of Mexico for several days. Eventually the ship was towed to port. Hoping to get first-hand accounts of misery on the ship, hordes of journalists descended on disembarking passengers.

CNN interviewed two young women who had won their cruise vacation in a contest. The young women said they had been very afraid when the fire broke out and the passengers were instructed to don their life vests and head to their lifeboat stations. The young women, while laughing and giggling about their ordeal, said that the crew got the fire extinguished and then the experience turned into an ordeal of no air conditioning, waiting in long lines for food, no showers, and boredom. (Oh the irony of vacationers taking a cruise because they don’t like camping.) The journalist asked the girls if they would be taking any more trips. One of the girls said she was leaving in a few days on a church mission trip to help the poor overseas. The girls gave a shout out to the Lord and their church.

The same CNN journalist then asked a middle-age woman if she had been afraid on the ship. The woman said that some of the passengers formed a prayer group which helped her remain unafraid. The reporter then interviewed a family about their experience on the ship. The mom and dad, as well as the children, expressed a renewed appreciation for the simple things that make life comfortable. The reporter did find one group of ladies who said the crew was great throughout the ordeal but the cruise line’s response to make things right with a refund, ground transportation, hotel accommodations, and credits for a future cruise were insufficient.

At times the profession of journalism appears unable or unwilling to differentiate between inconvenient discomfort and tragedy. Maybe I would feel different had I been aboard the Triumph turned port-o-potty. Nevertheless, was the Triumph a story worthy of media coverage? Yes, but it sure seemed like the media tried to make the story bigger than reality. (Now if Kim Kardashian had been aboard the Triumph; THAT would have been a big story.)

Adventures don’t always come our way in neatly packaged and comfortable experiences. But even messy adventures can make us better people, or highlight our flaws.

Mayhem in the Heart: The Chris Dorner lesson

MP900385401The sickening spasm of violence attributed to former police officer Chris Dorner is extremely disturbing, in part, because Dorner’s writings, along with accounts of his friends, reveal the mind of a person who could be our next door neighbor. It is more reassuring when mass-murderers are inarticulate and clearly loony. Granted, we may never know for sure if Dorner was mentally ill. But his tragic story should sober us as a society. Why? Because reports on Dorner’s life indicate he was a man who often thought he was victimized by others. Teachers, administrators, and colleagues all, in his mind, treated him unjustly. In other words, it was always someone else’s fault for the problems in his life. You know the type: the person who never examines their own responsibility and veracity.

Dorner’s tragic tale reminds me of Jeremiah 17:9: “The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?”

This verse is an uncomfortable reminder that we are all capable of evil, even the most sane among us. We don’t like to think we are capable of snapping and going over the edge. But you see, Dorner’s problems may have had little to do with his childhood development or the functionality of neurotransmitters in his brain. It is possible that he simply fed and nourished the wickedness in his heart until it prodded him to evil action.

Christ sees exactly how deep our wickedness goes. That is partly why Jesus says “first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.” Jesus is telling us to examine ourselves FIRST. An honest self-examined life helps us avoid falling into that tragic pit where we perceive all negative events as the fault of someone else. If we enter that dreadful pit, well, there is no telling how twisted our thoughts and actions can become. The imperative of Christ that we examine our hearts is not a guarantee that we won’t encounter actual injustice now and then; it just helps us refrain from feeding the beast of wickedness in our heart. Proper self-examination nourishes our mental and spiritual health and helps us get along with others as far as it depends on us.

An Unusual Valentine

MP900440970Valentine’s Day is just around the corner. I need to get some flowers for the sunshine lady of my life. (Is it odd to get flowers for an Australian Shepherd?) I should probably get something nice for my wife, as well. When Valentine’s Day rolls around, mushy stories of romance abound. In the weeks before Valentine’s Day, we also get treated to nonstop jewelry commercials on television. Thinking back to my childhood, I recall how our school teacher organized the exchange of little Valentine cards that students placed in each others’ storage cubicles. On Valentine’s Day we would pull out our Valentine cards and count them up to determine our place in the classroom social hierarchy. (With the help of a good psychiatrist, I’m no longer bitter about that.)

Don’t get me wrong, I am indeed a romantic at heart. But I’d like to share with you an unconventional romance. It is the Bible story of Hosea. Hosea was told by God to marry a prostitute. Yep, it does seem like a strange thing for God to do. Anyhow, Hosea obeyed God and married Gomer, the daughter of Diblaim. And surprise! Things didn’t go well. Gomer conceived and gave birth to children in the midst of plying her craft of prostitution. The implication is that some of the children she conceived were not Hosea’s. (Duh!) God then instructs Hosea to take Gomer back and love her again, even though she was sleeping with another man. Here’s the astonishing thing: Hosea takes Gomer back and loves her and tenderly takes care of her. Not only that, he accepts the children who were not his own. Wow!

I do not believe this story is a fictional representation. It is my humble opinion that the marriage of Hosea and Gomer was a real marriage. God uses their uncomfortable story to demonstrate how his people cheated on him by worshipping other gods. But, just like Hosea took back his cheating wife, God took back his cheating people. This story applies to Christians today. We casually cheat on God by falling in love with modern idols such as money, careers, status, sexuality, food and drink, sports, technology, entertainment or whatever. Sometimes we try to worship our favorite idols and God at the same time, which is even worse.

Here is what Hosea taught me: I used to think of sins and idols with a sense of detachment. That is, I thought most of the sins and idols we dabble with in Christendom are not viewed by God as very egregious in the grand scheme of things. But Hosea’s story showed me how much it personally hurts God when we drift away and pursue other lovers. Still, God loves us so much that he takes us back even after we cheat on him. He does not always remove the consequences of our betrayals, but he bends down to loves us and cares for us, thought we don’t deserve it. That’s a great romance!

Kingdom of Heaven California Style

MC900156825 (1)Having lived in California all my life, it is easy to forget about our peculiarities here in the land of odd. Just recently, I was reminded of our strangeness by the following newspaper headline: “Painted gnomes bring smiles in Oakland.” The gnome article in the San Francisco Chronicle states: “The gnomes are colorful hand-painted figures on 6-inch brown wooden boards, often screwed to the base of utility poles. Some are waving. Some wear kilts. A rare few are accompanied by mushrooms.” These little gnomes are popping up all over the city of Oakland. Far be it from me to pooh-pooh whimsical expressions of urban art. On the other hand, California abounds with unhealthy expressions of strangeness as demonstrated by an article I saw in the newspaper about a naked woman who injured her fiancé when she ran over him with a car. (I wonder if that little tidbit will make into the wedding toast or onto Pinterest.)

Yep, California can be strange. It also has a plethora of ethnic diversity. California is like a mission field right here in the U.S.A. (Perhaps that is why California is the number one importer of clergy.)California attracts free spirits, nonconformists, entrepreneurs, fortune seekers, job seekers, sun seekers, fun seekers, fame seekers, creative types, a fair number of “normal” people, and folks simply looking for something different in life. We have all types of people, from surfers to loggers. They come like moths to the flame. Of course, the old adage applies quite appropriately to California: “Wherever you go, there you are.” If a person had problems before arriving in California, they will still have problems after.

Still, California is an enchanting and beautiful place despite our idiosyncrasies. Unfortunately, a 2009 Pew Research study placed California in the bottom 12 states for people who say religion is very important in their lives. That means millions of Californians have embraced lifestyles without God, lifestyles that apparently offer some measure of satisfaction. I see a lot of Californians hopping from new idea to new idea, which is not always a bad thing. But Hebrews 13:8-9 is especially poignant for Californians:

“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. So do not be attracted by strange, new ideas. Your strength comes from God’s grace . . .”

The author of Hebrews was likely speaking  primarily to Christians, but if my fellow Californians could just cut through the fads and get a little taste of God’s grace expressed in Christ, the Kingdom of Heaven would import some odd but beautiful souls from the Golden State.