Category: His Words

Blogposts by Len Woods

Hail to botched vaccinations…and clergy!

LesPaul52, Flickr, Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/1G2QyEi
Lespaul52, Flickr, Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/1G2QyEi

In 2015 if you get distracted—even briefly—you miss a lot.

Already this month, I have missed Older Peoples Day! (Though I’m secretly relieved no one sent me a card.) Just this week, World Teacher Day escaped my notice, along with National Vodka Day.

Always one to revel in a special occasion, I did some advance checking and found out Conflict Resolution Day is just ahead (October 15), and National Chocolate Day is the 28th. (I say chocolate should be celebrated the way Walmart celebrates Christmas—year-round.)

In my research I noticed certain causes get more attention. School Lunches and Customer Service get a whole week—don’t ask me why. (In China, if you’re a rat, sheep, goat or dragon, you get your own year!)

Who decides this stuff? Did I miss a special election?

FYI, October is Eczema Awareness Month and—gulp!—National Vaccine Injury Month (Hmmm, let’s think about….you can get a shot and get injured…or not get a shot and get the flu. Decisions, decisions.)

And, of course, this is also Clergy Appreciation Month.

Being a minister—in America at least—is not the most dangerous occupation. And there are others professions equally as stressful.

For example, I substitute taught at a junior high school a couple days back in the 80s and still have some nervous tics from the experience. (Which is why on my first day in the Oval Office I will sign an executive order to give teachers—and military personnel, police and firefighters too—a 100% pay raise.)

Every job is challenging in its own unique way—I get that. But since this is the month that some VP at Hallmark said, “Sales are dipping…how ’bout we honor the religious workers!” (and since I know a little bit about that particular world), here’s my salute…

  • Props this month to all you pastors who enter hospital rooms and nursing homes to offer a word of encouragement, to pray over broken bodies and scared hearts. Thanks for making the effort to save toxic marriages, for going after lost sheep, for constantly calling us back to eternal realities. God sees.
  • Bravo to you preachers who courageously proclaim biblical truth (even in the face of the unnerving promise that as a teacher of God’s Word, you will stand before God and face a stricter judgment). Thanks for the faithful study, fierce wrestling, and earnest prayer you invest in preparing sermons for our skittish, distracted, and not-always-so-receptive hearts.
  • Special grace to church staffers everywhere who receive criticism weekly about the music or the missions emphasis or the youth group—how it is too “this” or not enough “that.” (Forgive us for all the times we church members act like the impossible-to-please husband who told his wife he wanted two eggs for breakfast—one scrambled and one fried—and when she brought him his plate, he reamed her out for scrambling the wrong egg.)
  • Thanks to you ministers who press on—even when we parishioners not-so-subtly let it be known we: wish your messages were deeper (and also shorter and more entertaining); want you to be better with people (but also more project-oriented); would like to see you out in the community more (even though we always want to be able to find you at your office).
  • Prayers up for you pastors who are dog-bone tired, who feel like you have poured out more than you ever had to start with. Your tank has been dry for awhile. You’re not sure you can go another day. I’ve been where you are. My heart aches for you. Grace to you. May strength and peace be yours—and may you somehow experience those rivers of living water Christ talks about.
  • The CallFinally, special blessings on the wives and kids of pastors, who live in a fishbowl and often take flak and get hit by shrapnel. You get a backstage view of the inner-workings of church-world, which isn’t always pretty and sometimes isn’t much different from the world at large. May you have the discerning grace needed to separate a good God from the actions of his imperfect followers.

I am fortunate to be part of a church family that is led by as good and gifted a pastoral staff as you can find anywhere.

So, this October…to the team at The Bridge Community Church in Ruston, LA…thanks for all you do. I appreciate you more than you know. You are beloved. You are much in my prayers.

(Hey, if we can call attention this month to injurious vaccinations, unwanted skin diseases, and nasty school lunches, then surely our faithful clergy are worth a shout out, right?)

 

 

A better reaction to the people in your way

Lou Bueno, Flickr Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/1CkSIgz
Lou Bueno, Flickr Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/1CkSIgz

I have a friend who sends me voice memos…via text message.

(I didn’t even know this was technologically possible. I guess before we know it, we’ll be able to actually see the faces of people we’re talking to on our phones?)

My friend is smart, hilarious, and he has a big heart for people. So, naturally I smile whenever I see a new audio text from him on my phone.

Often his messages are quirky—like the time he did a spot-on impersonation of Jeff Bridges’s courtroom speech from True Grit. (Until he fessed up, I was utterly convinced it was an audio clip from the movie.)

Other times his messages are encouraging—like when he gave me feedback on something I’d written. Ten minutes passed and he sent me a second message—this one longer and gushier. (His affirmation made me want to keep writing deep into the night.)

Every once in a while, though, his words are challenging. Yesterday his voice mail/text went something like this:

“Okay, here’s an idea you could maybe get started with your blog,” he began. “What if we all made it a practice to pray for the people around us? I mean, literally in close proximity to us.

“You’re at a stop light, say, and a bearded guy in a black Mustang convertible is in front of you. He’s got all these tattoos, and you don’t know anything about the guy—his background or what he’s facing—just that he’s in your way (maybe keeping you from turning right on red). What if you just started praying for him? That God would show up in his life and help him and meet his needs?

“Or you’re in the check-out line and it’s long. But instead of getting frustrated, you make the choice to look around and notice the people, who for reasons only God knows, happen to be at the grocery store with you at that same time.

“All of a sudden you’re praying silently for that weary-looking mom who’s trying to ride herd on two little hellion kids, or the cashier who might have a really hard life.

“This would do a couple things. First, it would change our attitudes. Instead of seeing people as obstacles in our way, we’d see them as precious and unique. Second, people would be getting prayed for all over the place. And God knows we can all use that.

“So,” he concluded, “There’s your opportunity to change the world. Run with it.”

My friend is right. If enough people of faith embraced this practice, it really could, really would change the world.

I’m taking the challenge. I’m going to begin to cultivate the simple habit of mentioning people to God—whoever he puts in my path—as I go about my day. Not just my family and friends—I already do that. But all the strangers along the way—and especially in my way.

What if we ran with my friend’s idea and started a movement of “guerrilla praying”?

Can you imagine?

 

 

 

Wanting “clarity” when what you really need is “trust”

Garmin2“Real men don’t get lost.”

This was one of those rules—like “real men don’t hit girls,” “real men don’t eat quiche,” “real men don’t cry”—that got pounded into me (and most of my friends) from an early age.

Older guys will remember some of the corollaries to the “don’t get lost” decree.

  • If you do manage to lose your way, don’t—for God’s sake—stop and ask directions!  (Do that and you’ll earn a one-way ticket to Wussyville.) No, what you have to do is…
  •  Figure out exactly where you are AND where you are trying to go (preferably without unfolding a giant map that announces to the watching world: Here is a directionally-challenged loser!).
  • Choose a route. 
  • Put the pedal to the metal and make up for all that lost time.

Of course, all this was before the days of GPS and Garmin. Now, if you’re driving and you get lost for more than five minutes, there are only three explanations: either your Google Maps app is defective, or you are, or both.

But what do you do when you lose your way in life?

How do you navigate when there’s no audible, authoritative voice telling you exactly when and where to turn next?

It’s been a year since I felt the unmistakable leading of God to leave vocational ministry. At age 55 the experience was like pulling off a clearly-marked highway and finding myself in a strange maze of unfamiliar thoroughfares (probably like out-of-towners feel when they get off I-20 at exit 85 in Ruston, LA, and encounter all those one-way streets—Why am I the only one going south here? Where do I turn? What sadist designed this system?)

When God said, “Take this exit,” I did. That’s when his directions promptly stopped, and those other voices got loud. “Real men don’t get lost,” they chided. “Real men always have a plan!” they snarled.

Here was my problem:

How can you make a “travel plan” when you have zero clarity about where you’re supposed to go next?

I swallowed my pride and began pleading for divine guidance. “God, speak up! Tell me what to do. Give me some guidance, please.” But when I would open my eyes there were no signs or epiphanies…not even a burning gardenia bush. Several months passed. I received no clear revelations.

When friends began asking how they could help, I invariably said: “Pray that Cindi and I will have clarity—to know what to do—and the courage to do it.”

I repeated this for months, always thinking to myself, what a noble, humble, God-honoring request. Until a week or two ago.

I remember the moment distinctly. I was pulled over at the intersection of Doubt Lane and Anxiety Avenue, scratching (and shaking) my head. And right as I was praying my little prayer for clarity, would you believe Mother Teresa zoomed up alongside me. (FYI, she drives a red Mini Cooper.)

Actually, I happened to be reading an anecdote about John Kavanaugh, the brilliant ethicist. He was in a full-blown, midlife career crisis. Struggling with what he should do with the rest of his life, he went to India to work for a time with Mother Teresa. Upon his arrival, he asked her to pray for him. “Pray that I might have clarity,” he pleaded.

“No,” the tiny nun firmly refused. “I will not do that.” Then she added,

“Clarity is the last thing you are clinging to and must let go of.”

When Kavanaugh protested, “But you always seem to have clarity!” Mother Teresa laughed incredulously, “I have never had clarity; what I have always had is trust…. I will pray that you trust God.”

Can you believe it? I’m parked on the side of the road, clueless, confused, crying out for clarity…when suddenly I find myself on the painful end of a drive-by rebuke—by Mother Teresa of all people!

I’m left with two truths, neither of them very pretty or comfortable:

  1. Given the choice between independence and dependence, between the bright highway of clarity and the dark gravel road of faith, between seeing and trusting, it seems I’m inclined to choose the former 100 out of 100 times.
  2. Even though I don’t yet see where this road I’m on is headed, I know I’m called to keep driving and listening, trusting that my often-silent Navigator will bring me to where I need to be.

To adapt the words of E. L. Doctorow, a life with God “is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

What happens when you edit your life?

keep-calm-and-get-busy-editingWriting is a gracious profession.

This is because no one is forced to blog or compose poetry or “freestyle” a novel in front of a live audience.

Writers write in private. Then we gather up all our laborious scribblings, cull the really embarrassing stuff, cobble the leftovers into a shaky first draft, and sheepishly show that only to a couple of trusted writing cohorts. Nobody who understands the writing process expects much from a rough draft.

“Only God gets things right the first time,” author Stephen King once said. Thus the oft-quoted mantra: Write recklessly, knowing you can always come back and edit ruthlessly.

How can you not love such a system? As a writer, it takes all the pressure off.

It also has me wishing real life had a “rough draft mode.”

Imagine if you could do a “rough draft” first year of marriage—then come back, and Control-X all the dumb things you said, erase countless bad scenes, and switch around a few events to make everything better—no harm, no foul, no one the wiser? Who wouldn’t want to sign up for such a plan?

Or imagine, during those tense days of a business start-up, if you didn’t have Dread riding around on your shoulder like a buzzard, whispering, “The stakes here are HUGE…you can’t afford to make even one wrong decision!”?

As you can tell, I am currently enamored with the wonder of editing. This is because after spending the fall and winter writing the first draft of a novel, I have been tweaking and rewriting since February.

Here’s what I have learned: Editing is where your analytical left brain takes the efforts of your creative right brain out into a dark alley and works them over. If writing is the “good cop” of grace, editing is the “bad cop” of truth. Editing is that unsympathetic, tough-as-nails teacher you initially want to punch, but ultimately want to kiss on the mouth.

During this editing process I’ve been reminded that life, unlike writing, does not have a “rough draft mode.” Once you write all over a day, it’s done. It’s out there. And don’t even think about going off to a secluded cabin somewhere where nobody can see your flaws while you try to figure everything out first. (Actually you can do that, but in time you will become known as the Unabomber.)

The truth is we live in plain view of others. We screw up in very public ways. Our personal stories get embarrassingly messy, sometimes for long stretches.

However, trying to whip my manuscript into shape has reminded me we can make mid-course corrections. We can edit our lives. It isn’t exactly the same as improving a novel, but there are some parallels. Here are four:

Editing starts with evaluation.

When you show up for your annual medical checkup, the doctor doesn’t immediately grab his scalpel and start cutting. He asks all kinds of intrusive questions. Then he pokes and prods. In short, he/she examines you.

It’s the same with editing a novel–or a life. Before cutting or changing anything, you have to stand back and assess. You strip your story–or life–down to its skivvies and make it lie still on a cold steel table. Then you ask it a hundred unflinching questions. 

When I evaluated my novel in this unsentimental way, the glaring stuff jumped out at me: Yikes, these two chapters are like watching paint dry. Or My main character keeps saying dumb things.

Under scrutiny, the biggest flaws are obvious. If you just stop and pay attention, they will announce themselves, loudly and proudly. So what then?

Delete the junk and the fluff.

When you see irredeemable things or filler that doesn’t really serve any purpose, you chop. Ruthlessly. You clear away the clutter, because less is almost always more.

Delete

I had one whole chapter in my book that was exhibit A of my mom’s observation about some people “having diarrhea of the mouth, and constipation of ideas.” Not that the scene was poorly written. It just didn’t serve my story. In fact, it detracted from it.

I murdered all those “darling” paragraphs. Excruciating, but I had to do it because when you settle for “okay” you have zero chance to get to “great.”

Sometimes the best and quickest way to fix problems (in your novel or your life) is to cut stuff out. That time-sucking hobby which generates more frustration than fun? Whack it.

Invite honest feedback.

“You need some ‘beta readers,” the experts told me. “People who understand the elements of a good story,” they said. “People who will look critically at what you’ve written and gently tell you the truth,” they said.

They might as well have asked me to walk through downtown Ruston butt nekkid during the Peach Festival. This was terrifying to me! You want me to ask other people to show me all the places and ways I screwed up?! Give them permission to tell me where my efforts suck?! Invite criticism?!

I gulped, swallowed, and said, “okay.” Then I unveiled my story to about 20 friends.

Smartest thing I ever did! Because I picked sharp, trustworthy folks, I experienced lots of gracious truth, and some extremely practical help. When about ten readers cited the same “problem” in my story, guess what? They helped me see a flaw I never would have noticed on my own.

I’m convinced “inviting feedback” isn’t just good for would-be novelists. It’s also the way to edit our lives and make them better.

What wise, trusted friends have you given permission to “read your life” and speak into it when they see rough places? Have you encouraged them—begged them—to tell you the truth about your blind spots? Your life will get better if you do. It won’t if you don’t.

Take constructive criticism to heart.

In the next few days, I will sit down with all the valuable feedback I’ve received from my beta readers. And I will go back through my manuscript sentence-by-sentence, page-by-page, one more time.

I will thoughtfully weigh every suggestion. I will ask, “Is this recommended change just a matter of personal preference, or is it required for literary excellence?”

You see, it’s not enough just to receive good advice, or even to listen to constructive criticism. For a story (or a life) to improve, you have to implement the wise counsel you are blessed to get.

Life doesn’t have a “rough draft mode” where we get to work out most of the kinks out of the view of others. But through rigorous evaluation, lots of ruthless deleting, humbly inviting feedback, and taking constructive criticism to heart, we can edit the stories we are telling with our lives into something far better.

How writing a novel is like going to divinity school

DiplomaWhen I finally decided (after years of procrastination) to sit down and tackle one of the top items on my bucket list—writing a novel—I had no idea that immersing myself in fiction would give me a better view of truth. Here are four surprising things I learned:

I learned about creation.

Christian theology states that God created all things, but that he made people “in His image” (Genesis 1-2). This phrase means a lot of things, but at a most basic level it means the Creator created us with the capacity to create. In other words, we reflect and resemble our Maker when we make things.

I told someone the other day that writing this novel was maybe the most “god-like” thing I’ve ever done. In effect I created “a world” that didn’t exist…until I imagined it and typed it into being.

Now, because I’m not God, I didn’t bat 1.000 in my creative efforts–not even close. Lots of days I wrote mostly dreck, and when I stood back and honestly inspected the fruit of my labor, I had no choice but to pronounce, “It is…sucky!” But there were other times—for example, the day I brought into being a character named Ollie—that I was able to assess, smile with joy, and say from the heart, “It is …good!”

It’s worth saying here that creativity doesn’t only apply to artsy endeavors like singing, painting, sculpting, or writing. Remember when all those dorky, chain-smoking engineers in Apollo 13 had to quickly design an emergency air filter out of a couple of socks and canisters, some duct tape, spare hoses, and a bungee cord? That was artistry at its finest!

My point is, we think of Shakespeare or Rembrandt as “creative types,” and rightly so. But they were no more innovative and ingenious than MacGyver. Everyone is creative—just in different ways.

I learned about the mysterious interplay between an “in-control” God and strong-willed (often “out-of-control”) humans.

When I began, seasoned writers inquired: Are you going to be a “plotter” (i.e., a writer who carefully plots out and outlines your story in advance)? Or will you be a “pantser” (i.e., a writer who just writes “by the seat of your pants”)?

I decided to be a plotter. And in that, I got to experience the fascinating dynamic of a story that is both predetermined and filled with surprises. As the author and creator, I pretty much “fixed” the story arc and conclusion. Yet within those “set” limits, my characters had lots of freedom. They were given agency to make choices. And with that they “helped” me fashion my world. They were junior partners, important helpers in the work of creation.

I learned about grace.

Lots of writers—especially this one—struggle because even as the right side of the brain is trying to break free and make something interesting and beautiful, the left side is scowling and pointing out every mistake and flaw. The effect can be paralyzing. Afraid you might write the wrong word, you get tentative. Pretty soon you’re not writing any words at all.

“Every great work began with a terrible first draft,” some veteran novelists told me. “Get comfortable with that. Resign yourself to that. And start telling your story anyway. It won’t be perfect; it is a work in progress. So, stop editing yourself and correcting yourself every other word and write. Write recklessly, knowing you can always come later and rewrite ruthlessly. Flaws can be addressed. Mistakes can be corrected. Omissions can be fixed.”

In a word, what they (and the writing process) were whispering to me was “grace.”

I learned about love.

My story, like every story, has a cast of characters. They are diverse, yet alike in that they are all quirky and flawed. They make foolish choices. They use bad words. Sometimes I wanted to pat them on the back. The next chapter I wanted to kick them in the caboose.

But here’s the thing. I love, deeply, every one of the characters I created—even the guy who is abrasive and annoying. My heart goes out to them all, and I find myself pulling for each of them. With the writing done, I miss hanging out with them on a daily basis.

If that’s how I feel about my make-believe characters, how much more does the Author of the ultimate Story feel about the real-life characters He created?

I never imagined writing a novel would be so eye-opening.

Maybe it takes a little fiction sometimes to help us see the truth?

 

 

Why you need to become a “best-selling novelist”

novelsFor years I kept saying, “One day I want to write a novel.”

Okay, that’s not entirely true. What I actually said—though rarely out loud—is, “One day I want to write a best-selling novel.”

It was only last summer, after a couple decades of such daydreaming that I finally had this epiphany:

An unwritten novel has ZERO chance of being published, much less becoming a best-seller. (Feel free to quote me on that.)

I decided I’d better get cracking. So I did. And all that cracking, all those months, and 92,000 words later, I can report: Writing a novel was one of the great experiences of my life.

Now…is my story any good? I have no idea. Will it ever be published? I couldn’t tell you.

But what I can say is that the process itself was amazing. It was eye-opening (and crazy-making). It was exhilarating (and exasperating). It was life-giving (and lonely). It was unbelievably hard… and utterly worth it.

I’m now convinced everyone ought to try it, at least once. You should do it—even if you hated English composition class with a white-hot hatred. Write a novel, or at least a “novella” (French for little tiny baby novel) for at least four reasons:

Write a novel because the world needs more stories.

Back when I used to preach on a regular basis, I noticed an interesting thing. When I would stand and pontificate, spouting all sorts of “profound” principles and propositions and points, people would glaze over. (Even nod off.) But then, even in the middle of the lamest, most boring message ever, if I said something like, “I met this Hungarian ventriloquist once who was 7 feet tall and he—” every head in the room would snap to attention.

Fact is, we are wired for stories, and we can never get enough of them. I suspect this is because good stories remind us that we are part of the biggest, wildest Story of all.

Write a novel because it’s cathartic.

There’s a reason writers confess, “All writing is autobiographical.”

This will sound weird, but my make-believe characters helped me identify some of my real-life demons, and they encouraged me to deal with my baggage. My “fictional friends” occasionally functioned as proxies or stand-ins. They’d step forward and boldly say or do things I might never feel comfortable saying or doing (or even writing about in a secret journal). In my writing experience, imagined events and conversations blended with actual memories and raised all sorts of important questions.

Go ahead and call me a head-case (you wouldn’t be telling me anything I don’t already know), but there were multiple times in the writing process when deep emotion came welling up to the surface of my life—joy, fear, anger, grief.  Be assured…not all my buried “secrets” made it into my final manuscript, but it was good to wrestle with that junk—and a lot cheaper than therapy.

Write a novel for the experience of solitude.

There is something unnerving about being alone with your thoughts. Believe me, I get that. This is the reason most folks opt to stay busy.

I can only tell you that sitting down in a quiet, empty room with my laptop (a pad and paper would have worked just as well) made me ponder and reflect and ruminate and question and dream—all important activities that none of us do nearly enough. I suspect this kind of time apart may actually help keep us from coming apart.

Write a novel because when you do, you reflect the image of God.

Writing, of course, is not the only way to reflect the reality that we are made in the image of God. Any creative act—singing a song, planting a garden, painting a landscape, retrofitting your Ford truck to run on old fast food grease—does that. But the Christian worldview does say that God used words to bring this world into existence from nothing. How cool to think that we can do a comparable thing!

I know two things: (1) You have at least one whopping good story in you. For God’s sake, and for ours…will you please tell it? (2) The novel you don’t write will never, ever become a best-seller.

Decent people saying indecent words

Warning@&*$%!

Suddenly, I am obsessed with cursing.

In large part this is because I recently completed a novel that has some “language” in it. A couple of my characters—despite my stern instructions that “this is not that kind of book!”—insisted on using some colorful expletives on several different occasions.

My agent warned me that this might very well be the “kiss of death” for my story, at least for many (maybe even all) of the publishers I’ve worked with in the past. For a lot of them, bad words are a deal breaker, period, end of sentence, case closed, next case. (I think this is why Rhett Butler waited to say “damn” until just before the credits roll at the end of Gone With the Wind… if he’d said such an awful thing when he first met Scarlett O’Hara, the movie would have been cancelled 15 minutes in.)

I debated removing the offensive words and substituting euphemisms like “shoot!”… “doggone!” …“boohiney!” (or possibly even the extremely edgy “heckfire”). But when my characters–decent, likable people all–tried that language on for size, something got lost in the translation. It felt painfully inauthentic.

In the end, I kept the bad words. They aren’t gratuitous and they feel true to the characters and the situations in which they find themselves. The apostle Paul said once we should always use words to give grace to others. In the scene in my book with the most shocking language, I think the swear words do that. In a surprising, roundabout kind of way, they actually help give grace. (We will soon see if any publishers feel the same way.)

Meanwhile, I can’t stop thinking about the topic of swearing and all the ways we approach the subject.

I grew up in a Baptist home where cursing was taboo. My sisters and I got reprimanded if we even said mild four-letter-words like “suck” or “crap.” Anything worse and we got a bar of Ivory soap rammed in our mouths and scraped between our teeth.

I had a roommate once who, to avoid taking the Lord’s name in vain, would instead yell, “Buddha!” whenever frustrated. Clever.

Another friend confesses that when she got spitting mad back in 5th or 6th grade, she would combine just about every bad word she knew…for maximum effect (and, I’m sure, maximum pleasure): “Shitdamnbuttasshell!” she would blurt out. (This is known as “getting your money’s worth.”)

It was this sort of out-of-control foul talk (and especially the writing of obscene words on school walls) that prompted officials at my all-boy junior high to convene an emergency assembly. The entire sixth grade filed into the gym where a chalkboard on wheels was positioned at midcourt. We sat riveted, hearts racing, as our P.E. coach announced he was going to talk to us about cursing. (We were so quiet, I’m sure we could have heard the lunch ladies in the next building mumbling bad words under their breath.)

One at a time Coach wrote on the blackboard the seven swear words most commonly-used at St. Tammany Junior High. Then he proceeded to define them. His talk went like this (I’m not making this up):

[Scribbling] “This here is a normal, everyday, bodily function. And you know what you do with it? You flush it down the toilet—you don’t write it on the bathroom wall!”

[Squeaky chalk sounds] “This is the female anatomy. So unless you boys happen to be female, shut up about it.”

[Scribble…scribble…scribble] “These are words for the male anatomy. We’ve all got one, right? So shut up about it.”

[Clicking of chalk against the blackboard] “This here is a female dog. Don’t believe me? Look it up in the dictionary.” (Which of course we did later, multiple times, along with every other bad word we could think of)

[More almost illegible scrawling] “This is a person who is illegitimate—because of nothing they did.” (my friends and I cut confused eyes at one another–a further definition would have been helpful)

[Awkward writing near the bottom of the board] “This is taking our Lord’s name in vain. God have MERCY on the person who does that!

[Extremely nervous scribble out to the side, and clearing of throat…the queen-mother of all curse words written by an adult man grown-up authority figure in public right before our eyes!] “Uh, let’s just say, if it wasn’t for this, you wouldn’t be here right now.”

Voila! In less than five minutes, he gave us moral training, plus a mini-sermon, with a little sex-ed thrown in on the side.

I never cussed again (okay, for at least the next two hours).

My point is this: Now that we have defined and clarified and demystified all those naughty words, can we all move on with our lives?

I’m going to try my best to choose and use only words that give grace.

I hope you’ll do the same, but if not… “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a dadgum dang.”

Debbie Downer on Facebook

Debbie DownerRemember Debbie Downer? The Saturday Night Live sourpuss a few years back who had the amazing ability to suck the life out of a room with her gloomy pronouncements?

I’m friends with “Debbie” on Facebook!

Not the make-believe character and not the comedienne Ratchel Dratch who played her, but an actual acquaintance who posts at least a dozen depressing stories every day.

If there’s a breaking news flash about a murdered child, a puppy-torturing psychopath, a new disease outbreak, or–I don’t know–terrorist cells secretly getting jobs in fast food restaurants, my friend is all about getting the word out there pronto. (Presumed mission statement? To balance out all the foolishness in peoples’ Facebook feeds with a big ole dose of fear!)

To be honest, it’s not like I’m never guilty of this practice. (I actually heard a psychologist say once that those same quirks and habits that drive us nuts in others are often issues in our own lives…our friends merely serving as human mirrors. Ouch.)

And to be fair, my friend is only mimicking the media. Scan the headlines on just about any news aggregate website (e.g., the wildly popular Drudge Report) and you’ll instantly see that the vast majority of linked stories are grim. Looming financial disasters. People dying in shocking and weird ways. Unspeakable criminal acts. Robots taking all our jobs, blah, blah, blah.

This is way beyond a debate over “Is the glass half empty…or half full?” This is about the glass containing both Ebola and smallpox—and you may as well make peace with the fact that you will be getting at least one, if not both of those diseases by next weekend. But don’t go overreacting, because at about the same moment you are being turned away at the local ER—because Russian hackers have stolen both your identity and all your assets—a meteor the size of Mercury is going to hit Brookhaven, MS.

drudge

I don’t get it. Why do these kinds of stories go viral? Why are we drawn to such fearful news? (I need a psychologist to help me understand that.) A daily dose of this kind of hopelessness would make even Tony Robbins curl up in the fetal position.

Am I suggesting we’d be better off to act like the proverbial ostrich…and blissfully ignore ugly realities?

No. (Although, come to think of it, how many ostriches do you know on Zoloft?)

What I am saying is that we’d be better off to pay more attention to the good things.

In short, I am advocating hope.

Hope. The mere word can make our hearts beat faster…or even swing an election. And the substance? It’s what keeps us going through the most godawful situations. No wonder one of the most beloved lines in cinematic history (by Andy Dufresne, the main character in the classic movie The Shawshank Redemption) is: “Hope is a good thing; maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies.”

A clarification is in order: We moderns often use the verb hope when what we really mean is “wish.” For example, “I really hope they call out my numbers in tonight’s Powerball drawing.” This Western version of “hope” is more like holding your breath while you stroke your lucky rabbit’s foot.

Contrast that with the Hebrew verb hope. It means “to wait confidently and expectantly.” Spiritually speaking, this kind of hope is far, far more than keeping your fingers crossed…it’s a first cousin to faith. It’s waiting eagerly for something better. Really, it’s resting in the trustworthiness, the track record, the promises of One who is good and strong and just.

Like my Facebook friend, I see an alarming amount of bad stuff in the world. But when I flip the words of Andy Dufresne, I get this: “Hopelessness is a bad thing; maybe the worst of things. And no bad thing ever brings about life.”

So, we can fret over freaky weather, superbugs, the imminent collapse of the stock market, and dirty bombs. And don’t even get me started on all those drones monitoring our every move. Or…

We can be hopeful. Hope-full. Full of hope.

I’m with Andy Dufresne: Hope is a good thing.

And here’s my hope: Even if I can’t make you believe all this, maybe I can convince myself?

How to make your kids proud (without winning the Nobel Prize)

Nobel PrizeA couple weeks ago, I got to spend time with some younger friends who have kids in the 4-9 year-old range. It was fun—and sweet—to see adorable kids adoring their parents. It reminded me of what Proverbs 17:6 says: “Parents are the pride of their children.”

The experience also took me back to 1999. My boys were 9 and 6. That was the year I was spectacular and amazing. Walter and Jack were absolutely convinced I could do anything. Talk about heady days…

I remember, for example, my oldest thumbing through a book catalog one night and asking, “Hey, Dad, are your books in here?”

“Hmm,” I replied. “I’m not sure. Probably not.”

After a pause, he said very matter-of-factly (and also with a hint of shock and dismay), “Well, I don’t know why not. They’ve got a bunch in here by C. S. Lewis!”

True story.

Just a few nights later, we were watching Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? A contestant was struggling with a relatively simple question. He asked to poll the studio audience. Without thinking, I made some snide comment like, “C’mon! Don’t waste your lifeline on THAT! That’s SO easy.”

With all seriousness my son turned and—almost like he was reminding me of a great unspoken truth—said, “It’s easy for YOU, Dad. But then, you’re a whole lot smarter than almost everybody else.”

He actually said that.

Several nights later in the kitchen, he inquired, “Hey, Dad, what’s the Nobel Prize?”

How do you explain that to a nine-year-old? Mr. Dynamite himself trying to undo a boatload of lifelong guilt. I settled on something like: “It’s an award they give out every year to a few people who do extraordinary things.”

“Like what kind of things.”

Cindi piped up, “Different categories. Literature, science. Stuff like that.”

Walter took that in, and then with complete sincerity looked at me and asked, “Are YOU ever going to win a Nobel Prize?”

I almost spewed my mouthful of iced tea across the room. This is funny stuff. Kids say the darndest things and all that. But I maintained my composure and replied, “I doubt it.”

He was incredulous, almost coming out of his Nikes. “But Dad, YOU won a Gold Medallion Award!! Not too many people win those, right?!”

What could I say? To my son, it was appallingly unjust that his father would be passed over for a Nobel Prize in favor of some guy at MIT with four PhDs who is close to curing cancer. Ah, but he was only learning what I have come to know so well: The world is an inequitable place.

It was about this same time the Saints were looking to hire a head coach after firing “Iron” Mike Ditka. My youngest, a sports savant (who could have paid his Montessori tuition if only he’d charged for his prognostication advice), earnestly pleaded with me to throw my hat in the ring. He saw what no one else did: I could (and would) have made people forget the immortal Vince Lombardi.

Another night, I was doing our nightly bedtime ritual—reading, telling stories, praying together. Nearly comatose, I leaned over to kiss my son goodnight. As I did, he burst out laughing. Through his convulsions he managed to say, “Dad, your breath is TERRIBLE!”

I remember thinking at the time How amazing! My son is guffawing at my halitosis. These are belly laughs of joy, not snickers of contempt. In a blink of time, this same scenario (minus the reading and kissing and all that) will result in a cluck of the tongue. Teenaged eyes will roll back into his cranium out of sight and he will later tell (in disdainful tones) all his surly friends at school about his poor “out-of-it” father who doesn’t value dental hygiene. They will all nod knowingly.* 

(*Solomon’s lesser-known proverb, “Parents are the humiliation of their teenagers” didn’t make the final cut of Holy Scripture, no doubt because it would have been too demoralizing a verse.)

But for a fleeting season at least, my bad breath was no big deal. Just a humorous punctuation mark to an otherwise normal day.

So, here’s my encouragement to all you parents of young kids. Inform the Nobel committee you don’t have time just now for their silly award. Enjoy being Superdad and Wondermom while you have those powers. Go wrestle and snuggle with your kiddos, your bad breath be damned.

Why we make coffee and jokes and babies

Lynne Hand, Flickr, Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/1IHISEo
Lynne Hand, Flickr, Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/1IHISEo

I’m going to guess that this morning you made the alarm clock stop beeping, made coffee, made the bed (though I wouldn’t bet my life on that), made yourself look presentable and then you either have made or will make your way to work so that you can make hay while the sun shines.

You did all this (and maybe a lot more) because you, my friend, are a maker.

God, the ultimate Maker, made us humans in His image. We are chips off the eternal Block…meaning, among other things, it is our essential nature to make things.

We make phone calls, make plans, make decisions and make mistakes (often then making excuses before we make mid-course corrections). We make faces, make light, make jokes, and make merry. We make out, make love, and make babies. We make messes and trouble constantly, thereby making others miserable (or sad or angry or wary). If we are humble, we make ourselves make amends. If we are wise, we make time to try to make sense of where we find ourselves.

Sometimes, sadly, we make enemies and make war. Yet, as terrible as that is, we also have it within us to make the effort to make up.

Here’s the beautiful truth: We are makers. God designed us with this incredible, god-like capacity to create. And God made this once-in-a-lifetime day as a kind of work space or laboratory for us to do our thing.

So, what will you make today? A meal? A memory? Art? A new friend? An old friend laugh? Peace with your past? Progress toward a goal? Your home available? An effort to reach out and listen and help?

You and I are makers. And when we make up our minds to (a) use our God-given abilities and (b) seize the opportunities before us, we make the best of all things…a difference.